I have really stupid ideas sometimes.
Mostly, the part of my brain that values sense and being respected by my peers crushes those ideas dead before they escape and wreak havoc on the world at large. Today, we’ll be witnessing what happens when those defense mechanisms fail and that stupidity ends up on paper, slips through the underworked proofreading part of my brain, and gets thrown haphazardly into the permanence of the Internet.
And so, here is my stupid and overthought theory on why the much-maligned Star Wars prequels are secretly about class warfare and corporate power. It is the dumbest thing on which I have ever expended actual time and effort.
Frankly, if you’re still reading at this point, you deserve it.
Oh, and I’m going to preface this whole thing by saying that it is entirely possible and perhaps likely that George Lucas had no idea whatsoever that he was inserting these themes into the film.
The sad tale of this stupid idea corrupting my overbearing self-importance and pseudointellectualism begins with me watching Star Wars: Episode One — The Phantom Menace not too long ago, which is a thing I do sometimes and you can thank you very kindly shut up.
About the most frequent criticism leveled at the prequels — well, after the crappy dialogue and wooden acting and CGI abuse and Jar-Jar Binks and midichlorians and you know what, let’s just call it the seventeenth most frequent criticism — is that it concocts a necessarily complex and far-reaching villainous plot that ultimately makes no sense because nothing is explained. Palpatine uses the events of the prequels to rise to power and become The Emperor. Ultimately, it’s never explained what his plan is — only that everything happened according to it. But it frequently looks more like Lucas coming up with plot material and then arbitrarily making it all a part of that evil scheme somehow without explaining why.
My impossible task today is to make the whole thing approximate a very scary amount of sense.
I’ll begin by taking you back to all of your most favorite repressed memories — Star Wars: Episode One — The Phantom Menace.
One issue a lot of people seem to have with this one is the smallness of its scale relative to the other films. It tries to seem huge, but when you push the epic John Williams score from your mind, it’s hard not to find the politics- and business-infused opening crawl a little bit silly. In one sentence, you’re mentioning a trade dispute; in the next, you’re saying that superpowered warriors with glowing energy swords have been sent to resolve it.
The centerpiece of the plot is the villainous Trade Federation, which has blockaded the innocent planet of Naboo because of a trade dispute. The evil Sith are secretly pulling the strings. This is literally all we are told of this situation.
And while the exact details are never explained, a more concrete universe emerges in the subtext. And it is this:
At the time of Star Wars — Episode One, the Galactic Republic is a total economic anarchy.
There are a number of senses in which this appears to be true. Mainly, throughout the Star Wars prequels — particularly the second installment — and also throughout the EU, including Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which I understand is considered to be as canon as the films, we see that the Galactic Republic, despite apparently being considered a beacon of civilization, has itself a pretty severe poverty problem. Like, Third World severe.
We see that Coruscant has an underworld where people live in abject poverty — crime and drug abuse abound, violence is everywhere, murders are generally not investigated or prosecuted unless there’s a high-profile victim, and there’s next to no way out short of incredible luck for those born into it.
See also Naboo, where many of the planet’s citizens are pushed to the brink of starvation after what could not be more than a few weeks of Trade Federation occupation. Recall that the Federation is blockading its ability to trade with other worlds. The implication is that Naboo itself, an entire planet, has a civilian populace that is utterly unable to sustain itself — this despite the fact that it also appears to have a highly privileged upper class. That upper class, by the way, has, over the years, disenfranchised an entire race, the Gungans, who live simple lives out in the wilderness and loathe their human counterparts for the way they’ve treated them.
The main evidence of this, however, is the Trade Federation itself. Let’s start with the fact that it is a private corporation…and it has a standing army. That army is fully capable of occupying an entire planet that is also a represented member of the galaxy’s most powerful governing body. Yeah.
But wait! Let’s talk about that governing body. In the scene when Queen Amidala of Naboo beseeches the Republic for its help in overthrowing the occupation, viewers get a thousand clues about the economically anarchic state this universe inhabits. The one the film makes most important is actually the least of these revelations: that the Republic is controlled by bureaucrats, who effectively stop it from taking any action on important issues (though that’s another piece that fits perfectly into the overall puzzle I’m putting together here).
No. We learn at least two far more significant things. Firstly, what the Trade Federation is doing — occupying an entire planet and imprisoning its citizenry in protest against economic changes (and remember that this is the reason for their protest, as it will become significant later on) — can, under some circumstances, actually be legal in this universe. A committee needs to be sent there to ensure that it is progressing legally.
Oh, and the really important thing. The reason we know any of this is because the Trade Federation, a private corporation and business, has representation in the Galactic Republic. I’m not saying it has lobbyists who own the senators with campaign financing; no, it has actual representatives. The Trade Federation isn’t the only one either — in the second film, we meet former Galactic Republic members representing groups such as the Banking Clan and the Techno Union. Those sure don’t sound like planets to me. (Oh, and the second one of those also has a standing army.)
Now, just to recap, let’s add this all together: in the universe of the Star Wars prequels, corporations have standing armies and direct representation in government, and it is also perfectly legal for them to protest economic decisions they don’t like by blockading planets and stopping trade.
Let’s hone in on that last one there. Why is it that the Trade Federation chooses to blockade Naboo anyway? We’re told that it’s a trade dispute, but we’re not told what it is. So, what happened?
I submit to you the following: Palpatine happened.
Now, I’ll confess that I have even less direct evidence of this one. We see nothing in the film to suggest it. But when you consider what must have transpired between the events that we do see, and when we consider what actions would make sense given the motivations of certain characters, this fits too perfectly.
Firstly, what is the trade dispute? I don’t know. But I can guess the nature of it. Beyond the fact that the members of the Trade Federation are clear villains in the most traditional sense — that of the old-timey serials on which this franchise is ostensibly founded — anyone willing to blockade a planet and starve its civilian population to death probably isn’t a champion of the people overly concerned with their welfare. So, it seems pretty natural to assume that whatever got the Trade Federation all hot and bothered probably involved some kind of hit to their bottom line — workers’ rights, safety conditions, increased taxes, whatever. I’m not sure what else it might be.
And who do I think got those trade laws, whatever they are, passed? Palpatine. And while this is never directly shown or suggested in the films, it makes perfect sense.
Firstly, there’s the Trade Federation end of things. One of the first things we learn in the film is that the organization didn’t act entirely of its own accord. There’s someone else pulling the strings. It’s likely the Trade Federation isn’t his servant. I suspect what actually happened was that the figure behind the scenes approached the viceroy and his cohorts, who were angry and at a loss as to what to do over the Republic’s new trade laws, and promised them a well-laid plan to undo it, so long as they did everything he said.
Who is that figure behind the scenes? Darth Sidious, a Sith Lord. Gee, I wonder who he is?
And now, the Republic’s end of things. I’m not sure who would control the trade laws between Republic member worlds other than, you know, the Republic, which is why I’m assuming it’s the source of whatever situation is causing the trade dispute that starts this whole thing. Given that it’s a governing body, the natural assumption drawn from that is that the Republic passed reform.
So, why do I figure Palpatine passed that reform? Well, firstly, it puts him in an excellent position. He hopes to become the ruler of the galaxy. He wants to do that by forcing the current chancellor out and — democratically — taking his place. He then needs the people to support him enough to leave him in the position later to grant himself emergency powers and overstay his terms. The people need to love him. And what better way than to be their champion? We already know he’s a passionate opponent of the Trade Federation, openly leading the fight against it during debates.
And secondly, well…who else could have passed that reform? We know two things about the Republic: Bureaucrats stop it from getting anything done, and corporations are voting members. We can surmise based on this and what we see elsewhere that it is not directly answerable to the people, either. They elect their own rulers, sure, but Star Wars — Episode Two: Attack of the Clones establishes in a throwaway line of dialogue that those rulers are the ones who select the representatives. And of course, we have no way of knowing if those are rules that apply to all members, or if it’s simply the way Naboo does things.
So, how does anybody ever pass reform in an environment where bureaucrats halt legislation, corporations have financial and voting powers, and representatives hold on to their jobs simply by keeping in good standing with their planetary leaders?
Well, I don’t know. You’d pretty much need superpowers or something.
So, let us not forget that Palpatine is a Sith Lord and one of the most powerful Force users in the galaxy. Not to mention he’s an absolute master of deception — he spends roughly 20 years worth of movies, and probably much longer than that given the point in his career at which the prequels begin, staring mind-reading Jedi Knights directly in the face on a daily basis and never once having any of them figure out that he’s not only the greatest evil in the galaxy but the one that’s directly inhibiting their Force use. This guy is good. Um, at being evil, I mean.
So, another recap: the trade dispute almost certainly stems from legislation passed by the Republic because of the fact that it was the only entity that could reasonably have done so. That legislation is probably mild reform in favor of the common man, because the Trade Federation is almost openly uncaring where the little people are concerned. Palpatine almost certainly passed that legislation because, firstly, it directly benefits him and serves as a great launching pad for his future endeavors, and secondly, he was pretty much the only person even capable of doing so. And the Trade Federation blockades Naboo — how better to punish the government for taking a swipe at your bottom line than targeting the home planet of the guy who got it to do that?
Of course, we all know how that ends. The Jedi Knights — and Anakin Skywalker specifically — save the day. The Trade Federation control ship is destroyed. Its leaders are shipped off to face trial. Naboo is free. And Palpatine becomes Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic.
Fast-forward ten years.
Now, we’re in Star Wars — Episode II: Attack of the Clones. The situation here is that a significant portion of the Republic has separated from it, and there now exists a threat of war between the two parties.
Palpatine has one primary goal here, and oddly, it’s not the war. A major theme of the prequels is the way that he uses large events to achieve — and potentially disguise — seemingly small ends that, in turn, lead to other large events. The war, here, is a tool for him to obtain two things — emergency powers, so he can stay in control indefinitely, and a skilled but programmable army that he can use to enforce that control later — oh, and also to kill the Jedi, the principal threat to that control, without even questioning the order.
So, he needs a war. How does he get it?
Another major criticism of the prequels emerges here — there is absolutely no context provided for this war. After all, while the Star Wars films have never been deep or overly complex about these things, the original trilogy at least gave us the Death Star blowing up Alderaaan as good, strong evidence of why there’s an active rebellion against this government.
Here? All they tell us is that some people separated from the Republic for some reason, and now, they’re on the verge of making war against it for some reason. What lazy writing, right? (I mean, it probably is, but still. I am reading far too deeply into all of this, I know.)
Well, dear reader, I suggest that the reason for the war is readily apparent given one observation: the membership of the Confederacy of Independent Systems.
So, we’ve got…let’s see here…the Trade Federation, the Banking Clan, the Techno Union, and assorted planets. But nearly all of the main figures we see represent corporations. And those who represent planets still seem to have pertinent corporate interests — for example, Geonosis, which we see is running a fairly significant operation manufacturing weapons.
That the Trade Federation is here is especially significant, in that we already, based on this logic, have an excellent idea of what it is they want for the galaxy — less, read: no, corporate restrictions, a free market bordering on complete anarchy. Okay, they also want revenge on the former Queen Amidala, but there’s no way they’re motivating their stockholders with that.
That half of their cohorts are also planet-sized corporations lends additional credence to this theory. They are not the exception in the CIS; they are the rule.
One Jedi calls Count Dooku, the former Jedi and secret Sith Lord manipulating the CIS, “a political idealist.” I wonder what his politics are?
At this point, I don’t consider it a stretch to say he’s probably whatever the Star Wars universe’s equivalent of an objectivist is.
So, we have Count Dooku, probably some objectivist equivalent, leading a group that has likely separated from the Republic due to the desire for a freer market.
But they wouldn’t just leave, of course. Things would have to have gotten more dramatic in order to prompt so potent a response as secession and war. How did they get more dramatic?
Palpatine came to power.
Remember my suspicion that he obtained his position by being a champion of the people, standing up for their wants and needs. Maybe he argued for workers’ rights, benefits, better pay, etc. We don’t know. But it would make sense for him to do so. It fits well into his overall goal for the war he’s stoking. And it’s also about the only way to explain how he got the transparently greedy Trade Federation so riled up.
The event that instigated the blockade of The Phantom Menace was likely a small one. Here, the time frame — ten years — is significant. It’s time enough for Palpatine to come to power and change things substantially.
And it fits. The politicians get a much better portrayal this time around, with future adoptive father of Princess Leia, Bail Organa, getting some prominent screen-time. There’s much less evidence of corruption and far more evidence of efficiency — sometimes to a fault, given how quickly Jar-Jar’s emergency powers proposition gets rushed through. We also see the Republic and the Jedi Order working together far more often and apparently to some significant effect. The fact that the Jedi Order is even open to the idea of going to war on the Republic’s behalf is proof enough of that.
Granted, there’s still poverty. We see some evidence of it in the aftermath of the speeder chase, as well as throughout the Star Wars: The Clone Wars TV show. But it takes time to eradicate.
My thinking is that, in those ten years, Palpatine took the Republic from a borderline economic anarchy into a society that’s still very laissez faire economically but represents far more upward mobility for the lower classes than there was before.
This makes some sense. He wouldn’t want the government to be too much of the people; after all, he’s planning to turn it into an iron-fisted dictatorship as soon as he gets the opportunity. You don’t want to give the people too strong a taste of that sweet freedom; otherwise, they’re more likely to resist when you take it away. But he still needs to look like he’s standing up for the people. This represents a convenient middle ground — being public in his efforts to reform things, but letting the system grind them to a halt here and there, or at least delay or compromise them.
Either way, it’s clear that Palpatine has changed the galaxy substantially over those ten years — enough that he chased off the major corporations and got them ready to make war. And once he gets that war, it’s basically all over.
The best part of this whole thing is that it actually causes Palpatine’s plan to make…a lot of sense, to be honest.
Endgame: Take over the galaxy. In his first step, he becomes a senator on a Galactic Republic member world. It probably didn’t even matter which one; any would do, with the proper planning. That makes the first step comparatively easy, particularly for a Sith Lord and master deceiver.
Step Two: Become chancellor. He starts by playing this game very long-term. He sticks up for the people, supports agendas that favor them, and becomes very popular and well liked as a result. Now, it’s time to start playing the sides against each other. He brings forth legislation that will help the people, at the expense of the corporations. Those corporations are corrupt and have standing armies and representation; he can use that. Because he is, again, a Sith Lord and master deceiver, he’s able to get that legislation past the bureaucrats and lobbyists when pretty much no one else could have. The corporations are all up in arms about it — literally. As Darth Sidious, he approaches a particularly corrupt one, the Trade Federation, with a plan — a plan that involves having them blockade his own planet, the world he represents. Now, he can truly play both sides. The Trade Federation doesn’t know it, but every step of the way, he’s guiding them toward defeat. But he gives them victories — he needs to drive the queen to desperation. He ensures she gets to Coruscant, where she sees the mess that the Republic is. She’s a determined and morally courageous sort, so he knows she’ll take his advice when he suggests she call for a vote of no confidence in the current chancellor. He knows that just as much as he knows that he’s popular, and emerging as a public hero in the Trade Federation situation. His popularity will secure him a nomination as chancellor. Permanently resolving the Naboo situation will guarantee his election. So, he does just that. He guides the Trade Federation to defeat. However, he knows he’ll need the Trade Federation and its army later, so he secretly ensures that its leaders don’t face any real consequences as a result of their trial — as we’re told they didn’t in the second movie.
Step Three: Start a war. He’s already been laying the groundwork. We don’t know when he got his claws into Count Dooku, but given the relationship he later forms with Anakin, we can suspect it began long before Dooku turned Sith. Through Dooku, he gets access to the Jedi archives, orders and army, and erases all the evidence. Palpatine is also working out the details of the war’s outcome at this point. He knows he can’t let the CIS go on the offensive. If they beat the Republic, that will ruin his moves toward galactic domination. He could still do so through the CIS as Darth Sidious, but it would be more difficult. Such a transition of power would take a long time to negotiate, and he wouldn’t be able to simply emerge as the new leader without scaring everyone away. Likely, he would have to climb the ladder again. So, he knows he has to have an army at around the same time he’s fully angered the CIS.
To facilitate this end, he orders the army straight away, has it developed in secret, and begins the process of democratic reform. Corporations and planets with deeply rooted corporate interests begin to push back. Things get worse; they finally get motivated to leave. He uses Count Dooku to fan those flames — after all, secession and war are probably not good for corporations with interests across an entire galaxy, so they wouldn’t merely be content to separate and do their own thing. They would need the war to protect their own interests. Dooku begins to lead them — but passively, keeping the Republic from leaping but enticing them with the threat. Once the army shows up, it will be hard for the Republic to say no — the money’s been spent, and it’s arrived in the wake of a great threat. Palpatine knows this. He uses it.
After ten years, the pieces are in place. He’s changed the galaxy. The corporations are angry, and they’re fighting him on it. Dooku encourages them to go to war. Palpatine/Sidious works behind the scenes. He gets his army. He incorporates it into the Jedi Order. It’s perfectly positioned when the time comes to rid himself of that threat to his power.
All made possible, according to my insane theory, because of economic conflict.
I really wish I could explore this theory further, but it basically disappears after the second movie. Revenge of the Sith is essentially a Part 2 on Attack of the Clones; the latter creates the situation, and the former follows through on what it does to the characters. And the original trilogy keeps it simple and straightforward, mainly staying away from these gestures at complexity. Funny how such a simple movie can feel so much deeper and more lived-in than these sometimes overcomplicated prequels.
In any case, this has been another episode of Matt Reading Too Deeply Into Things. Tune in next week when I review literally anything, seriously.
…Oh my gosh, I actually just wrote seven Word pages hyperanalyzing the freaking Star Wars prequels what is my life.