As a libertarian (the left-wing breed, not right) I’m intrigued by the politics of Star Wars. Many have noted that Star Wars is libertarian, especially the classic trilogy of episodes 4-6 (and now the spin-off Rogue One). The Rebel Alliance believe in a small limited government, and are freedom fighters against the fascist Empire. The prequel trilogy of episodes 1-3 are also libertarian in showing how that Empire came to be. Senator Palpatine (the future emperor) manufactures a war against the Trade Federation in order to scare people into giving up their freedoms. It works: the Republic hands power over to the Emperor “for their own protection” and “the common good”.
It isn’t quite that simple, however, because in the prequel trilogy it’s the Sith who come across as libertarian, and the Jedi quite the opposite. In theory, the Jedi Order use the Force to defend the weak and preserve peace in the galaxy, in line with their ethical code of self-sacrifice and service. In theory, the Sith are kraterocratic (their agenda is galactic domination), and believe that passion instead of meditative calm is the way to channel the Force — the passion of anger, fear, aggression, and hate. But in the pre-Empire days things are rather complicated. As David Houghton puts it:
“While they might be merry old samurai hippies in the original trilogy, the organized, prolific, altogether more militarized Jedi of the prequel period are a hardcore conservative faction, incredibly rigid in their doctrine, code and methods. They are ubiquitous, unchallenged, and if anything, slightly too powerful. They have restrictions on sexuality, a strict religious code, make free use of mind control for [yes] the greater good, and enforce stoicism to the point of detachment. They demand utter devotion, are run by an oligarchy, and almost entirely cut themselves off from the outside world. Sound a bit cultish? It is. The Sith, on the other hand, are staunch libertarians. They accept no oversight or control from the state, practice a self-centred philosophy, and value personal freedom over social responsibility.”
If the Jedi aren’t villains, they’re hardly better than the Sith. Mace Windu is a dogmatic hardliner, and Yoda is clueless and ineffectual. And if the Sith are malevolent, they are enlightened and superior in other ways. Libertarianism comes easy to those not in power, and is discarded by those who obtain it.
That’s why the prequels could have been great films — if George Lucas had only seen what was right in front of him. But he ignored his own groundwork and gave us unworthy Jedi heroes, cartoon Sith villains, and a complete betrayal of the character of Darth Vader. Anakin Skywalker should not have been a bitter sulking teenager who was basically tricked into choosing the dark side. He was born to be the first truly “moderate” Jedi, seeking the Balance which the Jedi Order claims to seek while in truth purposing to eradicate the Sith and oppose the dark side altogether. Anakin’s turn to the dark side, by rights, should have been a mature one that we could approve. As Houghton says:
“While the hardline of the Sith is philosophically no better than the hardline of the Jedi, by that same note, it is no worse. Anakin understandably makes a very human decision, and goes for the option that looks to help his real, personal situation. It’s a move we can sympathize with, and rather beautifully, one that parallels philosophically with the Sith’s libertarian ways. All of this would make Darth Vader stronger, not weaker. [Instead, the prequels] turn the biggest, most interesting, most enigmatic bad guy in the galaxy into a sniveling, mopey teenager, blighted by angsty, adolescent grumbles and mistakes.”
Vader didn’t get the backstory he deserved because Lucas can’t tell a story; he can only serve up special effects. Had he exploited the libertarian ambiguity, blurred the lines between the Force’s light and dark sides — and hired a director who could make this all come together — the prequels, for my money, would have likely superseded the classic trilogy. It’s hard to predict how the libertarian theme will play out in the new trilogy. In The Force Awakens, the Jedi are gone, and the First Order seems to carry on the unambiguous fascism of the old Empire, even if they are technically rebels against the New Republic. With Luke back, things will surely get interesting.