Spoiler alert: I assume that by now anyone who might be interested in this post has had a chance to see Solo. But if you haven’t … well, caveat emptor.
Pop quiz: What’s missing in Solo?
Okay, there’s a long list: the opening crawl. R2-D2.
More importantly: the Emperor. Darth Vader. And 90 percent of the Stormtrooper presence of other movies.
That last item is the most telling indicator of the Galactic Empire’s glaring open secret — its extreme weakness. From a political science perspective, the movie Solo fills in a lot of holes in how we understand the Galactic Empire — the approximately 22-year regime between the dictator Sheev Palpatine’s consolidation of power as Emperor at the end of Episode III and his death at the hands of his second-in-command at the end of Episode VI.
What we learn from Solo is that the Galactic Empire is a very, very weak state. It’s so weak that it’s not much of a state at all. Don’t believe the Empire’s propagandists.
Let’s take a step back. What’s a state? How do we know whether a state is weak or strong? Political scientists use the term “state” as a more formal way to describe what we often call “countries.” In the contemporary world, according to the early-20th-century sociologist Max Weber, states are supposed to monopolize the legitimate use of force in a defined territory. They’re also supposed to maintain a bureaucracy that taxes people and/or raises revenue from other sources such as oil, and spends that money to provide public goods: everything from public security to regulation of commerce to schools and courts.
The Galactic Empire fails every step of the way. Most glaringly, it fails to monopolize the use of force or to provide security. When Solo introduces Dryden Vos, the presumed head of the criminal syndicate Crimson Dawn, he is elegantly stabbing to death a regional governor — identified in the movie’s companion book as Diles Anevi, the governor of a large territory known as the Expansion Region. The inability to protect politicians from assassination by criminal gangs is a hallmark of weak states, from Pakistan to Mexico. The Empire’s loss of a politician as high-ranking as Anevi is particularly egregious.
There are many other signs of the Empire’s spotty performance on security. Han Solo enlists in the Navy on his home planet of Corellia, a Core World that appears to be firmly under Imperial control. Yet three years later, he defects on the swamp planet Mimban, where the infantry, drowning in mud, is little swayed by their commanding officers’ exhortations to self-sacrifice. The military, in disarray, is easily infiltrated by the huckster Tobias Beckett and his gang, who pass themselves off as a captain and infantry.
Darth Maul’s career trajectory is perhaps the most telling. Like Darth Sidious (a.k.a. the Emperor), Darth Maul began as a member of the quasi-religious secret society of anti-republican conspirators known as the Sith. So why did he choose to become the secret head of a criminal gang after recovering from losing his legs in battle, rather than rejoin his former master to serve the newly installed Empire? Presumably, the perks — money, power — were better with Crimson Dawn. That should worry the Emperor.
The Empire is something of a Wild West. Two gangs are each able to derail the Empire’s train shipment of coaxium on the snowy, mountainous planet of Vandor. Many planets are entirely dominated by the Pyke and Crimson Dawn syndicates (among others), while off limits to the military police (ahem, Stormtroopers). Indeed, the Empire’s territorial control is so spotty that it arguably cannot even claim to be a state in the modern sense at all.
But what about the Death Stars, you ask? What about those scary blue lightning bolt things the Emperor can shoot from his hands? Darth Vader’s Force-enhanced neck grip? Surely those are signs of a strong state, right?
Not really. Putting aside the question of whether Death Stars are all they’re cracked up to be — given their vulnerability to the scheming of Galen Erso and Ewoks — military technology does not by itself make a state strong. Nor do brutal magic tricks. Strong states maintain control through a strategic mix of co-optation rather than repression. They socialize citizens to perceive their rule as legitimate. They do so in part by providing public goods, from economic growth to justice systems.
In successful authoritarian and democratic regimes, from China to Canada, the military’s power is implicit but rarely seen or felt in citizens’ daily lives. By contrast, states and dictators that rely on brutality for loyalty and compliance tend to be weak and personalistic, and to have a fairly short half-life — think of the Dominican Republic under Trujillo, or Uganda under Idi Amin.
The Empire has a remarkably limited toolkit for obtaining compliance, one composed of many sticks and few carrots. Blowing up villages and planets is both expensive and ultimately ineffective, because it fuels the resistance. Meanwhile, the Galactic Empire fails to provide citizens on most planets with even the basic public goods that help to legitimize states, including courts and security from criminals. This is a recipe for trouble.
Given the Empire’s weakness, it is no surprise that Palpatine’s dictatorship lasts only 22 years, in contrast to the 1,000-year reign of the Republic that Palpatine toppled. Personalistic dictatorships have two critical flaws: They fail to provide a peaceful mechanism to choose a new supreme leader, and they provide dissidents little hope for change within the system. Combined with its spotty military control, the Empire is probably doomed from the outset. The Emperor and Darth Vader live, and in the end die, by the lightsaber.