So this is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause.
-Padme Amidala, Revenge of the Sith
George Lucas answered that question with a bit of Roman and German history, plus his own personal political philosophy. I also thoroughly believe that George Lucas wanted us to ponder this question ourselves and relate it to our daily lives, which quite a few people have certainly done, with gusto, in regards to the recent elections, if my Google Search for the above quote is any indication.
I'd like to revisit that question, using much of the same inspiration that George Lucas had, and show you how we can come to a very different conclusion than he did. I want to revisit how democracies die, and more than that, I want to look at the broader implications of the histories from which George Lucas drew his inspiration, and use that to expand the setting beyond the narrow scope Star Wars has.
How do Democracies Die?
Preamble: Some Definitions
First, I want to define some terms here, terms which Star Wars definitely abuses, and that we often take for granted or abuse ourselves when discussing these things.
Sovereign state: A state which controls a region inside which a government can enforce laws of its choosing. The United States of America is a sovereign state, in that England can't decide what our taxation levels are or dictate whether or not we're allowed to have capital punishment, etc. Scotland, on the other hand, is not a sovereign state, as the United Kingdom can tell Scotland what to do, or who it's at war with, whether or not it's part of the EU, etc.
Nation: A large body of people unified by shared ancestry, culture, language, etc. Jews are a nation. So are the Dutch, or the French, or Russians, etc. The modern world is really big into nationalism, which means that a single nation should be self-governing and thus have its own state. There are nation-states, and when we talk about things like "Black Nationalism" what that really means is this idea that African-Americans are a group with shared ancestry, culture and language distinct from that of other Americans, and thus should be self-governing. "Nation" does not mean "state," though we often treat it as synonymous.
Empire: A group of states and nations rules by a single powerful group or individual. This might have an "emperor," but it could just as easily be ruled by, say, parliament (for example, the British Empire). You'll occasionally see people describing the USA as "an empire" which makes no sense if they mean an autocracy, but they usually mean it in the sense that the US controls external states. For example, if the USA were to essentially appoint foreign presidents and demand that they change their laws or foreign affairs to suit US interests (say, in Iraq or Afghanistan), then the US might be a de facto Empire. I say this not because I believe that the US is an empire, but to hammer home the fact that an empire doesn't have to be autocratic, which are two different things.
Autocracy: A government in which power is held by a single individual
Democracy: A government in which power is held by the whole of the citizenry
When we say things like "The Roman republic died and became an empire", what we really mean is how democracy (used loosely) fell and autocracy rose in its place. The Roman Republic was already an empire, in that it ruled over other nations, and it ruled over states that were no longer sovereign.
This is an important distinction for discussing the "fall of the Galactic Republic" because it means that the Galactic Republic was also probably already an empire, at least in the sense that it had a multitude of nations under its sovereignty. That might be stretching the definition of an empire: after all, if an alien nation has representation in the galactic senate, then you can't really say that the republic is overriding their sovereignty, rather everyone has shared soveriegnty If that's the case, then the switch legitimately happened when the Emperor seized the sovereignty of the nations under his dominion. But what if that had already begun long before an Emperor climbed upon his throne?
How Democracies Die: an Instructional Video
The above video is probably the best summation I've found on the sweeping rules for politics, and it's one I'll revisit when building out the Empire and the Alliance, but what I want you to note foremost is the last bit explaining how democracies fall into dictatorships. Allow me to reiterate for those who don't want to watch the video, and to set up some points.
First, a democracy's power is its people. The wealth you gain, the wealth you need, comes from the virtuous circle of a well-educated, independent populace. If you threw all of your computer programmers and rocket scientists and doctors into slave labor camps, the wealth they'd generate digging coal out of the ground is far less than the wealth you'd generate just by letting them do what they were going to do and taxing them. It's a fools bargain. Moreover, you want a certain standard of living: plentiful food, good educational opportunities for your kids, a chance to travel the world, etc. The chances of you getting that by rising up and revolting against your democracy are pretty thin and your chances of getting that while sticking within the system are decent (at least, better than they would be with open revolt or seizing power).
Something has to change this. The system itself must be sufficiently undermined that by following the system, you no longer believe you can get the things you want. Furthermore, the situation needs to change sufficiently that you believe you can make more money by undermining the democracy you have. If, suddenly, slave labor camps become more profitable than taxation, then why not?
It’s nice to think that a government that Goes Too Far will eventually cause the citizens to rise in righteous wrath and throw the rascals out. It’s also convenient when all the defenders of the Evil Empire wear uniforms (except for the occasional Secret Police spy). Unfortunately, we know from centuries of experience that it doesn’t really work this way. The worst tyrannies imaginable have been enthusiastically supported by people no worse than you or me
-GURPS Space "Why People Support Rotten Empires"
The truth is, nobody just becomes a dictator. People work with the dictator to make it happen. Soldiers side with the rising dictator, politicians step out of the way, people willingly join the new secret police and spread the word about how great Dear Leader is. But they have to do this for a reason. GURPS Space discusses this on page 197, but we need to dive deeper if we want to understand why people would let their democracy go and embrace autocracy in its place.
Star Wars doesn't address any of this. In Star Wars, you have a perfectly fine democracy, then there's a war, and an evil Sith uses his space magic to trick everyone and becomes Galactic Space Emperor. Then, inexplicably, he's able to dissolve the senate, has loads of fanatical soldiers willing to die in droves against our plucky heroes, and so on, without any explanation why. The galactic war might have been terrible, but surely they've had wars before without going all fascist on everyone instantly. I personally think George Lucas' vision comes from a rather unfortunate meme about how "hypnotic" Adolf Hitler was, as though he was able to "trick" the German people into supporting him.
The real picture is more complicated.
The Fall of the Roman Republic: A Case Study
|Death of Julius Caesar|
Rome had a very rocky history, and went through a period of nearly non-stop warfare, a sort of a bloody tournament where (especially at the end of the Punic Wars), it staggered out, suddenly king of the hill, and owner of a vast empire and an enormous influx of slave labor. What killed the Roman Republic, if I can oversimplify, wasn't an existential threat (though those definitely popped up), but the overwhelming stress of wealth and success.
The Roman system had been built on the idea of shared land. It even drew its military ranks from landed farmers, a requirement by law. To be a legionnaire, you had to own a farm and to bring your own equipment. Yes, there was an aristocracy (the Patrician class) and an oppressed lower class (the Plebians), but largely, they worked together (see the Secession of the Plebs) and conquered lands were shared among all Romans. In theory.
In fact, what really happened was that legionnaires would often go bankrupt during these increasingly long wars and Patricians would buy up their land, and collect the land that was being conquered. Soon, the Patrician class had huge tracts of land... and slaves to work it. The contract between aristocrat and commoner broke down, because the aristocrat no longer needed the commoner. Thus, we reached a situation where our "keys to power" begin to narrow. This also meant that the Romans had less and less men they could call upon to serve in their armies... but then Gaius Marius passed a reform that revoked the land-owning requirement. Suddenly, anyone could join, and the general himself would pay you. That made you loyal to your general, who would make promises about land grants or all the loot you could steal once he sacked a city. This is a dangerous combination, so dangerous that by the time of Julius Caesar, the first triumverate consisted of himself (an influential and charismatic politician), Crassus (a spectacularly wealthy Roman who once said "You can't really call yourself rich unless you can afford an army") and Pompey the Great, a mighty and popular general. The three of them together had sufficient power to effectively run roughshod over the entire Roman government. That's how far things had fallen by then.
So we have the ingredients for our fall in that the keys to power have narrowed. You no longer need the power of your whole people, because you've found a resource more valuable than your people: Slaves and conquered land. But what undermined the system?
Rome regularly faced invasion, and quite a few were terrifying enough to keep Romans up at night, such as the Cimbrian War which seemed to come out of nowhere (something, by the way, that could easily happen in a huge galaxy full of hyperdrive-capable ships: a whole section of ignored, backwater worlds could band together and "suddenly" start invading from the Rim, catching everyone off guard). But what really tore Rome apart was political violence.
It's easy to imagine the aristocracy as the bad guy in this story, and they definitely were. Again and again someone would stand up for Plebian rights, or rights for the Italian Allies, or whatever, and the Patrician class would beat them down, often literally. The first man to be elected Dicator for Life was a man who served the Patrician class and purged (ie murdered) those who supported Plebian rights, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, but he stepped down. He felt his only purpose was to preserve democracy and the constitution. He saw himself as a strong-man "just doing what needed to be done."
So, Julius Caesar? Who was he then? He was an advocate for the plebians. He was what we would call a demagogue. He was a successful general who beat back the dreaded Gauls, who won victory after victory, spoke for the little man, and whom the Senate (the Patricians) intended to arrest. He was the rebel, and he won, and when he did, when he marched on Rome and seized the role of dictator, he did just what Sulla had and pushed through a bunch of (what he felt were) necessary reforms, but this time, reforms for the people, reforms that took power from the aristocracy. And for that, they killed him.
The result was a mass uprising against the Senate. When his adopted son, Gaius Octavius, rode in and waged war on the Senate, the people supported him and flocked to his banner, because he was avenging a martyr, a great man who had died in their service. When he became Emperor, renaming himself Augustus Caesar, of course they supported it and even deified him. He was going to fix everything for them.
Of course, he didn't. Demagogues rarely do. But it paints a very different picture from Star Wars, doesn't it?
The Fall of the Wiemar Republic: A Case Study
Before I jump into this well-worn topic, I want to discuss something I think most documentaries completely leave off: German nationalism and its roots. The idea that the Nazi party was German nationalism run amok is pretty ingrained into the popular consciousness, but we don't really stop and think about what that means. The idea, as noted above, is that the "German people" are absolutely a thing, and that they should be allowed to govern themselves, which doesn't sound so bad, if you think about it, because it isn't.
Germany was a very young country by this point. The German Unification finished in 1871, and before that date, it had been a divided bunch of principalities. We didn't speak of Germany, but of Bavaria and Bohemia, and the Ruritanian romance was set in a fantasy-version of these little tiny kingdoms. Until Wilhelm I of Prussia united it, there was no Germany to speak of.
Except, there sort of was. The people of these various principalities shared language (not perfectly, you understand, but they could speak to one another) and culture, and there's a reason Wilhelm wanted those countries and not, say, deep into Eastern Europe or chunks of France. Germany, as an idea, had already begun to form. France and England and Poland and various other countries already were nations, but Germany was just coming around to this idea of having its own national identity.
Then World War 1 happened. Even before that, European powers had been frightened by the growing might of the German people, and a lot of that fear drove the treaty of Versailles. Propaganda of the day had the German people as the "huns of Europe". The idea here was that there shouldn't be a German people, that the very idea was a threat to international order and the very idea should be quashed. Not everyone shared this, of course. Woodrow Wilson wanted more lenient terms for the treaty and thought that Germany should be given a chance to join the growing community of the West, and he wasn't alone in this, but the French especially, horrified by the war, wanted Germany punished.
And punished Germany was. The Wiemar Republic was imposed on the German people by external powers, but they did their best to pay the enormous reparations (as well as to reassure people that Germany was not a threat) they were required to pay, which resulted in fantastic strains on their economy, and Germany had to suffer the humiliation of France's occupation of the Rhineland all the way up until 1930. Two major strands of extremism rose up in response to this: extreme nationalism, which argued that Germany should not submit to the treaty, that Germany should be self-governing (or, more importantly, that the Wiemar Republic were puppets and that Germany wasn't self-governing and should be), and that Germany didn't have to apologize for being German, and Socialism, which argued wanted to overthrow the government for not doing enough to help the plight of the worker. Both attempted overthrows, with the Communists attempting to create their Soviet Republic of Bavaria, and Hitler with his Beer Hall Putsch. But, in the early part of this era, the Wiemar Republic actually, honorably, did the best it could, quietly attempting to renegotiate while inflating their currency to effectively reduce the crippling debt, and working with American banks to secure necessary loans. There was also something of a cultural renaissance, which meant that the German people, and culture, was starting to change. This was a good era (Germany's own roaring 20s), but the crushing debts, the plight of the every-man and the slow changing of the culture didn't set well with everyone.
Then came the Great Depression, which (long story short) really hammered the already struggling German economy. The people struggled and under the strain, the Nazi party and the Communist parties made huge gains in the election, but neither had a majority. Understand, then that people began to grow desperate. The extremism offered by both were seen as alternatives to a system that evidently wasn't working. Even so, Hitler demanded the chancellorship and the government, eventually, decided to give it to him, as they thought they could control Hitler. Instead, once Hitler had power he began to use it. Under the guise of cracking down on genuine extremism (it seems the communists really did start the Reichstag Fire), Hitler quietly jailed those who spoke out against him. Hitler also abandoned the Versailles treaty and thus the German economy rapidly recovered (because if you don't pay your debts, you have plenty of money!). The result was that people who strongly disagreed with Hitler found themselves quietly in prison (or worse) and those who were on the fence found their economic situation suddenly vastly superior. The net result was a surge of popularity for the dictator. Hitler even sold the argument that the Weimer Republic had been a puppet of a cabal of foreigners (including, of course, Jews and bankers, who were synonymous in this particular conspiracy theory), one that he would free them of with his "final solution."
The point here is that there was a reason for Hitler's rise, beyond "magical magnetism." Germany was poor and desperate and humiliated, the second of the reasons why a democracy falls: because "why not?" If it seems that it can't get worse, so why not go for a dictatorship? Maybe a dictator could improve things! Or so the logic seems to inevitably go. Most historians argue that the Versailles Treaty created the initial conditions for World War 2, which is another way of saying that the Versailles Treaty directly contributed to the rise of the Nazi party, which is not to say that they were inevitable, but once things got that bad a few strokes of luck and some clever manipulations were all they needed to put themselves over the top (it could as easily have been the communists who did this, and they tried, or the Weimar republic might have managed to hold on just a little longer). Not magic, then, but skill and luck paired with the weight of history and bad decisions made by foreign powers.
The History of the Empire
Some obvious parallels leap out from both histories. First, both democratic collapses had to do with the rise of populism. That is, the common man's needs weren't met and he was regularly humiliated by his elites. In the case of the Roman Republic, the Partrician class should have known better, but in the case of the Weimar Republic, blame for this lies at the foot of foreign powers (and the perception of elites who did not care). We also see a rapidly changing culture in both cases, where the children see a completely different world than their parents. This generation gap resulted in a push for "old time values", a return to a perceived golden age. And this was necessitated by an economic collapse and fear of foreign invasion. While the Roman aristocracy hadn't seen economic collapse, the common man certainly had, and they grew increasingly desperate.
And, of course, both gave rise to war, but two very different wars. The war in the Roman Empire was a genuinely internal war. That is, Romans waged war on Romans, just as in the Galactic Civil War, it's the Republic at war with itself. World War 2 was an entirely different beast, one of a power suddenly exerting itself after having long been held in economic chains. If, however, we view Germany as "part of the West," this idea of civil war makes a little more sense. Germany had been oppressed by "the elites" of the West, and when relief hadn't come fast enough and they had grown desperate, they seized power and waged war. That's not an entirely fair assessment, because Germany was always the underdog here. Nobody expected they could beat France as quickly as they did, or press England has hard as they did, and anyone whose played Axis and Allies knows how precarious Germany's position really was (which isn't helped by stupid decisions like the invasion of Russia).
I don't mean to act as an apologist for Nazi Germany and I hope no one sees it that way, but rather, I wish to highlight that when democracies collapse, it's seldom because there's a bad guy conspiring against the democracy. If someone came to you and whispered "Psst, hey, wanna overthrow the government?" most of you would tell the guy to buzz off. Why waste your life overthrowing a flawed-but-useful institution that gives you a voice? The problem comes when you have two sides that refuse to talk, or cannot talk, when one side attempts to strip the other of a voice. In general, democracy dies long before its institutions do, because when compromise and mutual understanding dies, so too does democracy.
The ingredients for the rise of our empire are, thus:
- An intractable political conflict between status-quo elites and an increasingly desperate population
- A recent war still bright in the memory of the populace
- Economic and social turmoil
- At least one controversial, charismatic and ambitious figure who is martyred in some way (Julius Caesar was murdered for his reforms and ambition, and Hilter was imprisoned for his Beer Hall Putsch, though I think his charisma is over-stated)
Some additional elements we could draw on for inspiration:
- An elitist monster (like Sulla)
- An charismatic elitist hero (like Cato the Younger or Cicero)
- The foreign powers of our World War 2 (who is Russia? Who is America?)
- A charismatic hero of the empire that, despite being a Nazi jerk, you can kind of agree with (Rommel)
- A beautiful femme fatale who becomes tangled with the Empire (Cleopatra)
The Actual History of the Empire, in brief
Let's try for a first draft: we'll revisit it later.
The Republic arose from careful concord between various regional powers in the galactic center. The agreement gave each equal say in a galactic senate that doubled as a sort of more powerful UN, but it meant that only those who ruled those worlds, the aristocracy (who was largely interconnected already) had a vote, but not the millions of people under them (though perhaps we could give them some sort of special say, a Tribune of the People elected from their ranks?). Think of it as a Federation, as defined by GURPS Space.
This growing interconnectedness and shared trade resulted in greater prosperity, but that prosperity began to slowly concentrate in the hands of the elite as robots rose up as a major industrial force. Where before farms and factories would employ people, now they began to increasingly replace them with automated robot labor. This itself wasn't controversial, not at first, but the increasing economic disparity was.
Then, a horrific invasion occurred! Some barbaric alien entity from outside of the galaxy surged in, leaving absolute destruction in its wake. Because of some internal political struggle (What internal political struggle?), the Republic was slow to respond and nearly an entire galactic arm was devastated as they quibbled. The denizens of this arm, having lost a huge swathe of their population, turned to cybernetics and military robots to fend off the invasion. This increased the relative power of robots throughout the region.
Finally, a charismatic general arose, codified the military in some new, centralized fashion, and took the war to the barbaric invasion and finally, at last, defeated them (but what happened to him afterwards?).
The increased power of the robots, the militarization of robots and the loss of human(oid) population in the technological galactic arm allowed a robot liberation movement to take off, and they founded the Cybernetic Union and declared independence. The Galactic Republic, more focused on its internal struggle (and perhaps the rise of this popular new general) allowed them to secede and even promised relief payments, paid for by an increased tax on the human population, in exchange for peace (and the ability to continue to exploit their own robot populations).
Faced with increased taxation as well as increased economic dislocation, the people began to protest, and the popular general took up the mantle of their grievances. He argued against the use of robots as well as noting the increasingly totalitarian and aggressive stance of the Cybernetic Union. Some of the elites agreed with him, but the majority did not, and he was arrested, tried and exucuted in the increasing political violence of the era. His heir (a literal son? An adopted heir? A symbolic successor), just as charismatic but with a completely different perspective and far less respect for the customs of the Republic (and more impressed with tales of heroism from bygone cultures and perhaps the space knights of yesteryear) rallied the people and the few elites that had sided with him, as well as the military that had served beneath the general that had slain the barbaric menace. They seized power in the election, and then immediately forestalled another assassination attempt with a round of assassinations and more extreme laws of their own.
This fractured the empire, with the elites retreating down another, older arm of the galaxy and forming alliances with previously outcast aliens to retake their former position of power, while the Republic, now ruled directly by the son of the famous general, our emperor, purged the realm of robots, "rebel sympathizers" and whatever conspiratorial elements that had worked against him, and then instantly declared war on the Cybernetic union.
Now the Empire finds itself embroiled in two wars, one civil and one external, while the economic changes proposed by the Emperor have resulted in a huge influx of wealth to his key supporters and largely improved the lives of the everyman, making them increasingly loyal to him, but he's enjoying the prestige and power his new position gives him, and becoming increasingly obsessed with secret conspiracies against him and the power of the lost space knights of yesteryear, while the former elites have been forced to moderate their tone, discussing "liberty" and "tolerance" that the Empire has been forced to abandon to favor the primarily human populace of the galactic core.
The Scale of Imperial History
How much time are we talking about?
If we assume the initial barbaric invasion conquered nearly an entire arm of the Galaxy, 10 years might be a fair number, from first reports of invasion to them knocking on the door to the galactic core. Thereafter, it might take another 10 years to push them out. During the first 5 years, it's a joint effort between the Republic and the resistance in this galactic arm. Therafter, that resistance collapses into in-fighting as the Republic makes a decisive victory against the barbarian horde. This might seem like a long time, but it's consistent with Genghis Khan's defeat of the Western Xia and Jin dynasties in Japan, plus it gives us time for the barbaric menace to really mount, our heroic general to reform the military into a centralized power, and then to take the fight to them.
In the next 10 years after the war, out of the collapsed battlefields of the galactic arm, the Cybernetic Union begins to form and starts to sweep the territory. Alarmed, our general prepares to wage war on this great menace, especially as the free-robot movement gains ground in the galactic core, complete with violence, but the Senate instead concludes a treaty and alliance with the new Cybernetic Union.
What follows is a 5 of tumult and espionage as the Cybernetic Union foments chaos in the Galactic Core, but the Senate turns a blind eye as their resources aren't being harmed, until the General gathers sufficient allies to gain the power necessary to kick off a war against the Cybernetic Union, as well as make anti-robot reforms necessary to improve both the economic lot of the common man and to end the strife with the robots in their midst. Seeing him as xenophobic and militaristic, the Senate justified ending his life, but things do not go as planned.
What follows then is 5 years of civil war, as the general's son, with a loyal military behind him, wages war on senatorial forces and replaces them, finishing what is father started. The remnants of senatorial forces retreat down another galactic arm (say, the traditional home of humanity).
The war with both the former senatorial forces and the cybernetic union have been going for the past 10 years.
That gives us a total time scale of 50 years.
Imperial History: Who gives a sh*t?
Do we fulfill our various requirements? Let's check.
For Brent, he can wave away all that history and say "It's like Star Wars, right? But you've changed a couple of things." This is true. If he understands Star Wars, he understands the basic history here: It was a democratic republic (more or less) and now it's an Empire, but now it's at war with a hostile robot nation. He knows enough to jump straight in.
Things are different, of course, but we can learn that as we play. We can have our Mon Mothma spouting things about liberty and tolerance, but if you dig deeper, we can get into your cynical, action-like corruption, where it becomes clear that she intends to restore the aristocracy to its original power (ever wonder why the daughter of a Senator was called "Princess?" Now you know!). This ability to explore more deeply will please Willow, and the fact that you don't have to know it up front pleases Brent. This isn't to say that this information is secret: If your player reads up on all of this and knows it upfront, he's not "spoiled," but it's something that can be revealed by playing, rather than known up front to play at all. That's important!
Now, what do we have for a Desiree? Well, mostly we're tackling factions at this point, but our characters could adhere to the exiled aristocracy, or the few aristocrats who sided with the Empire. We could also belong to the aggrieved people and understand how they feel, or come to a decision as to how we feel about the villified robots. Do we side with the Cybernetic Union? Or do we recoil from their anti-human pogroms and their robotic gulags? And how do we find common ground between abused and mistreated robots and abused, mistreated humans? Plus, what happened to that barbaric, extragalactic menace? Is it still around?
What about Bjorn? The big thing that comes out of this are the various factions and how they wage war. How did our general reform the military (Obviously, he gave us our dreadnoughts and typhoon fighters, but why didn't he go with Starhawks? Why have those become emblematic of the rebellion)? How does the Cybernetic Union fight? How did the extragalactic menace fight, and will it be back (Yes, duh!)? This part of our history describes the present and the current conflict in which we can fight, and thus the modern weapons and toys he can play with.
We still have a few things left to do as well. First, we need to define some of these characters more thoroughly, but that will come. Second, we need to decide who these elites are, where they came from and why they were able to hold onto their power for as long as they did. Third, we're missing our Rommel character and our Cleopatra. Who are they and where do they fit into all of this? Currently, we have broad, vague outlines, and we need to pin them down, but we'll do that as we define the organizations more completely.