What Star Wars can tell us about rebel movements

Mark Hamill at the premiere of “The Last Jedi”
Photo by Christopher Jue/Getty Images for Disney
This post is part of Mischiefs of Faction, an independent political science blog featuring reflections on the party system.

People all over the world have been awaiting the release of the latest chapter in the Star Wars series, The Last Jedi. This includes political scientists, who over the years have focused their penetrating gaze on the politics of the Star Wars universe. Some have argued that the absence of a strong minority party in the Galactic Senate and the significant influence of the Jedi order — an unaccountable, self-governing sect of warrior monks — paved the way for the downfall of the Old Republic. Others have presented strategic and operational assessments of imperial war efforts and even put forth cost-benefit analyses of the Death Star as a tool for the Galactic Empire to deter future rebellions.

Less attention has been paid to the inner workings of the Rebel Alliance — a collection of distinct rebel organizations that emerged during the Clone Wars and in reaction to the rise of the Empire, and that established a joint command to coordinate opposition activities.

To a student of relations between rebel groups, the most striking feature of the anti-imperial rebellion is a “dog that didn’t bark”: inter-rebel relations seem to proceed smoothly, without the dynamics of bitter (and often violent) inter-rebel competition that characterize insurgent movements in the galaxy where we all reside.

On planet Earth, rebel groups do form alliances to confront their formidable foe (the government), but these cooperative arrangements are typically turbulent and prone to breakdown. This is because in multi-party civil wars, rebels find themselves engaged in “dual contests,” battling government forces while jostling for position with rebel rivals. Inter-rebel competition sometimes takes the form of outbidding, whereby rebel groups ratchet up the intensity and brutality of their attacks to bolster their credentials as the most committed and capable champions of the rebel cause, and thus maximize shares of recruits, popular support, and external aid.

This escalation of violence can also help disgruntled rebels spoil ongoing peace processes between the government and other rebel groups, as the occurrence of rebel attacks in critical stages of negotiations may sow distrust among government leaders toward their rebel counterparts and even trigger a resumption of the war.

This is bad news not only for the innocent civilian victims of outbidding and spoiler violence. As Peter Krause shows, inter-rebel competition tends to weaken the rebel movement as a whole and thus benefits the government. Rebel groups’ competition may even give rise to outright inter-rebel war. This “fratricidal” violence can in turn prompt insurgent flipping, whereby the rebel group faring worse turns for protection to the government and in exchange helps it stamp out the rebellion.

Surprisingly, it is not necessarily rebel groups with conflicting worldviews and ideologies that clash with one another. Instead, as I argue in a forthcoming article, rebel groups that share an ethnic constituency and agenda (e.g., Sunni insurgents opposing the Alawite regime in Syria) are especially at risk of infighting because they tend to see each other as direct competitors for the same pool of resources. Co-ethnic rebels may thus attack each out of both greed and fear: The victor would end up getting rid of a dangerous rival and expanding its recruitment pool and territorial control at the latter’s expense.

To be sure, the Star Wars saga does have its share of intrigue and backstabbing among friends (think of Lando Calrissian turning over Han Solo and company to Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back). But competition within the Rebellion is noticeably absent (at least as far as the cinematographic material is concerned; I am not very familiar with the expanded universe).

One exception is the tense relation depicted in Rogue One between the Alliance and the rebel faction led by Saw Gerrera, whom Alliance leaders consider an extremist due to his willingness to resort to terrorism in the struggle against the Empire. But this too is a far cry from the crippling power struggles that actual rebel groups engage in: The Alliance-Gerrera dispute seems to be about the moral appropriateness and strategic utility of targeting civilians, rather than asserting control of the opposition movement, and there is no indication that it seriously undermined the fight against the common enemy.

Interestingly, the Sith Order — the dark-side counterpart of the Jedi — displays internal dynamics closer to those of real-world rebel movements. In particular, the need to keep in check the Sith’s propensity to internecine struggle led them to institute the “rule of two” — “always two there are, a master and an apprentice, no more, no less”, as Yoda put it. The rule notwithstanding, Darth Plagueis (Palpatine’s master) and Palpatine/Darth Sidious fell victim to their respective apprentices.

Emperor Palpatine met his shocking downfall at the hands of his apprentice, Darth Vader.
Screenshot via YouTube

Following the destruction of the New Republic with the Starkiller Base attack in The Force Awakens, Episode VIII will take place in an unusual geopolitical setting, where the Resistance — essentially a militia loosely affiliated with the Republic — is pitted against the First Order, a rebel group formed by surviving imperial hardliners.

A similar (highly unlikely) scenario would emerge in Syria today if somehow the Assad regime were knocked out of the fight and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah continued the war against ISIS and other insurgent groups on its own. It remains to be seen whether the Resistance or the First Order will be able to take advantage of the power vacuum and become the new galactic government. But if Star Wars history is any guide, focusing on the Sith is the best bet for those interested in gaining insights on how armed non-state actors facing a common enemy interact with one another.

Constantino Pischedda is an assistant professor of international relations in the department of political science at the University of Miami.

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