When the final installment of the Star Wars series, Revenge of the Sith, brings us the pivotal moment of the entire saga–the change of the “good” Anakin Skywalker into the “bad” Darth Vader–it aims to draw parallels between our personal and political decisions.
In a 2002 Time magazine interview, George Lucas explained the personal level through a type of pop-Buddhism: “He turns into Darth Vader because he gets attached to things. He can’t let go of his mother; he can’t let go of his girlfriend. He can’t let go of things. It makes you greedy. And when you’re greedy, you are on the path to the dark side, because you fear you’re going to lose things.”
But more resonant than how Anakin turned into Darth Vader is the parallel political question: How did the Republic turn into the Empire, or, more precisely, how does a democracy become a dictatorship? Lucas explained that it isn’t that the Empire conquered the Republic, but that the Republic became the Empire. “One day, Princess Leia and her friends woke up and said, ‘This isn’t the Republic anymore, it’s the Empire. We are the bad guys.’ ” The contemporary connotations of this reference to Ancient Rome suggest the Star Wars transformation from Republic to Empire should be read against the background of Hardt and Negri’s Empire (from Nation State to the Global Empire).
The political connotations of the Star Wars universe are multiple and inconsistent. Therein resides the “mythic” power of that universe–a universe that includes a Reaganesque vision of the Free World versus the Evil Empire; the retreat of the Nation States, which can be given a rightist, nationalist Buchanan-Le Pen twist; the contradiction of persons of a noble status (Princesses, Jedi knights, etc.) defending the “democratic” republic; and finally, its key insight that “we are the bad guys,” that the Empire emerges through the very way we, the “good guys,” fight the enemy out there. (In today’s “war on terror,” the real danger is what this war is turning us into.) Such inconsistencies are what make the Star Wars series a political myth proper, which is not so much a narrative with a determinate political meaning, but rather an empty container of multiple, inconsistent and even mutually exclusive meanings. The question “But what does this political myth really mean?” is the wrong question, because its “meaning” is precisely to serve as this vessel of multiple meanings.
[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on May 21st, 2005. (full text).]