Change you can believe in. Or is it a trap?

So our little geekfest-in-a-teacup has provoked, among other things, some additional contributions by members of The Duck focusing on additional ways that the Empire’s command structure and Imperial strategy towards the Rebel Alliance doesn’t make a lot of sense. The Imperial troops are feckless, letting the rebels escape on occasions when they should have been able to stop them easily. Opportunities to wipe out the rebels are missed through various kinds of incompetence, tactical or bureaucratic or otherwise. The Empire as a whole is riddled with inconsistencies and incoherences, clashes between divisions, competing goals, unclear budgeting priorities. And so on.

To all of that I say, along with my main Mon Calamari, Admiral Akbar: IT’S A TRAP. Really. The whole damn thing is a trap, not just specific instances of deception like the one that his most famous exclamation seems to refer to. Yes, it’s a trap that the shield generator is still working and the Death Star is operational when the rebel fleet jumps into the Endor system, but more to the point, the entire interstellar-galactic-political situation is a giant trap for the unwary, and by “the unwary” here I mean not just the various denizens of the Star Wars universe who are focusing on the wrong thing if they think that the main game in town is Empire-vs.Rebel Alliance, but also and perhaps even more profoundly the analysts who keep mistakenly treating anything that the Empire does as animated by the strategic goal of securing political rule and defeating insurgents. All of that is a sideshow, because the actual story here has nothing do with political rule; the contest is and always has been Sith vs. Jedi, which is more of a theological contest despite what misguided strategic analysts who don’t respect the conditional autonomy of constitutive ideas might think about it.

So, let’s review a little basic Star Wars history (and I am going to give the grade-school textbook version here, not the C-canon version). Once upon a time there were Sith engaged in an epic battle with Jedi, but the Jedi prevailed, set up their Temple on Coruscant, and proceeded to be the guardians of peace and justice throughout the galaxy for a thousand generations, including their cooperation with the Old Republic. The Jedi order is based on the notion that the Force has two aspects, the Dark and the Light, and that only the Light has merit: they are, pretty directly, Manichaean dualists. Meanwhile the Sith bided their time, adopting the Rule Of Two — always two there are, a master and an apprentice, no more, no less — and managed to survive in the shadows, waiting. Palpatine, a.k.a. Darth Sidious, after killing his master Darth Plageous, becomes basically the single most powerful Sith Lord ever, with a command of the Dark Side of the Force to make anyone quail in terror. But even this isn’t enough against an entire galaxy that thinks of the Jedi Order as a good thing, so he launches a cunning plan to utterly destroy the Jedi by corrupting the Jedi Order (getting them involved in the Clone Wars as generals) and then turning the galaxy against them (declaring them traitors, blaming the war on them) and then killing off most of them (issuing Order 66, Vader’s rampage in the Temple). Vader then proceeds to hunt down and destroy the rest of the Jedi that he can find, and only misses Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda because they go into deep-cover hiding and lie very low for almost two decades.

You will note that I did not mention as integral to the Sith plan anything like “take over galaxy,” “consolidate Imperial rule and overthrow Old Republic,” or “produce massive loyalty to the Sith among the general public.” That’s because all of that is totally irrelevant to the actual goals of Vader and especially Sidious, or, perhaps better, all of that is nothing but a means to an end. The end of the Sith plan is not, NOT, political. It is not about ruling the galaxy. (At least it’s not for Sidious; it might be for Vader, who seems to be a bit more committed to an ideological vision of a New Order in which stability is enforced with an iron fist and the squabbling of the Senate is put to rest…making him, perhaps, a dogmatic Schmittian fascist? Hmm). it is about wiping out the Jedi Order, and doing so thoroughly enough that it won’t ever be able to recover. That would be the “revenge of the Sith” indeed.

Now, remember that the entire Clone Wars was Sidious’ manipulation of events so as to eventually corrupt and discredit the Jedi. This makes the Clone Wars a distraction from the actual story, and sets a trap for anyone who gets bewitched by weapons porn and battle porn too easily — or who is already dispositionally predisposed to treat ideas and ideologies as masks for “what is really going on.” Clearly the Imperial command by the time of Episode IV falls into that trap category, regarding the Force and the Jedi as a quaint old religion…and thus demonstrating Sidious’ success: Jedi Order out, Jedi so thoroughly discredited that military commanders who once would have been serving alongside Jedi in epic battles think it’s a load of hogwash and “sorcerer’s tricks.” Han Solo doesn’t believe in the Force. The Rebel Alliance is trying to wage a guerrilla insurgency against an Empire whose leaders can literally kill people with their minds. And lots of IR-minded commentators think that the story here is about troop deployments, principal-agent problems, and the effectiveness of not of aerial bombing campaigns against disgruntled rebels. It seems that Sidious has succeeded even more than he might have realized, since he’s managed to delude most of us into watching the magician’s assistant instead of keeping our eyes on the ball.

Or maybe it’s not Sidious’ doing, but ours. Maybe we should blame our general incapacity to take seriously the variety of ideas and cultural materials out of which people — I mean actual people, not the strategic-instrumental ideals who populate most realist and rationalist IR theories, and animate most discussions of grand strategy — produce the actual goals that they actually pursue in a world that is vastly more complicated than any purified strategic simulation of it. As a field, IR and strategic studies in particular may have fallen into a nefarious trap by deluding itself into thinking, collectively, that there has to be some “real” (read: material-instrumental) purpose underlying pious pronouncements about ideas and ideologies and norms and the rest of it. The devaluing of one category of reasons in favor of another in an ex ante, categorical way (“yes, that’s what they said, but what they really meant was something else because no one actually means what they say if it’s about ideas and cultural values; what they really mean is about material interests and benefits”) strikes me as short-sighted at best and downright insulting at worst. As though the world were completely made up of nothing but strategic calculations of material benefit. And this is a methodological mistake too, since properly understood these models are ideal-typical, and are not supposed to actually represent anything in the world but are supposed instead to serve as explanatory instruments for what goes on in the world a lot of which involves case-specific deviations from the model. The trap closes even more tightly when we forget this, and confuse our models with the world, forgetting that our models are themselves derived from sets of cultural values…and might, as the Sidious example shows us, have been manipulated to achieve outcomes of which we are simply unaware.

All of which means: the rebellion is a sideshow. Sidious may even have let the rebellion flourish so as to flush out Force-sensitives who are pulled to act against the Empire for reasons they themselves can’t clearly articulate; as soon as they reveal themselves, they can be captured or crushed. It’s only us, caught in a trap in which we discount ideas and theologies in favor of material-strategic interests, who think that this is the main stage. The drive to expose something else as ideological false consciousness so that you can reveal the real material-strategic situation might itself be the most pernicious form of this syndrome, because it allows us to conveniently ignore the terrifying possibility that not all conflicts can be brought to heel through the judicious application of instrumental reason because not all conflicts are actually distributional. The fact is that there is no reasonable settlement that Sidious could be made to accept, and no material goal involving political rule that would constitute “enough.” Only the theological goal of wiping out the Jedi matters, and there’s no compromising with that.

And the political question that is thereby opened is: are our enemies, our foes, Darth Sidious? If so, we do ourselves a disservice by ignoring their ideology, and pretending that fighting them is a material-strategic issue. If not, we miss a whole host of opportunities for settlements other than extermination. Star Wars doesn’t answer this question, but it can be read as showing us the dangers of not taking ideas seriously, whether we’re in that universe or in our own.