Star Wars as Civil War


It should come as no surprise that, in addition to gaming (board, video, and card), enjoying comics and comic book movies, and about everything else that is nerdy, I enjoy speculative fiction (and fantasy) and that includes the high fantasy in space that is Star Wars.  The past six months or so have been a good time to be a Star Wars fan as the takeover by Disney has allowed us to speculate as to what they will do with the franchise, enjoy the news that they are continuing the saga, and encourage some debate as to whether the prequels were a low that Disney can only go up from, or should we fear much greater depths than we have already experienced.  Well, we know what fear leads to.

Through this excitement and anticipation for Episode VII in 2015, I am currently working on a chapter for an edited volume that serves as an introduction to the study of Civil Wars through Star Wars.  While the Episodes I-III offer some lessons for interstate conflict and cooperation, Episodes IV-VI are ripe for analysis on intrastate conflict.  I wanted to discuss a few brief examples on mobilization and recruitment as they play out in Star Wars.

Mobilization and Recruitment

Convincing people to risk their lives is a difficult task.  Convincing people to take up arms or to take other actions that another actor is actively seeking to discourage through the use of repression and accommodation is even more difficult.  Scholars in political science have explored mobilization quite a bit and two of the larger categories that motivate people to take up arms are grievances and greed.

Grievances help to motivate actors to engage in rebellion by being the costs of the status quo.  The typical areas where scholars point out grievances are economic and political disparity.  More demanding for civil war theory, simple poverty alone is not enough to encourage actors to engage in a war against the state; often, economic deprivation needs to be structural and those who are would-be rebels see no real hope for their lot in life to change.  Political deprivation works a similar way where people systematically do not have access to make policy decisions on behalf of the state.  Such access does not necessarily have to be democratic, but just that they feel they have access to have their grievances heard and potentially addressed. For grievance scholars, absolute metrics of impoverishment are not the strongest predictors of civil war, but relative measures (such as relative wealth via the GINI coefficient) is a better predictor as it can show what can be gained through revolution; if everyone is poor within a society, then war may not make anyone better off and it may be difficult to finance.

However, as Lichbach (1994) astutely points out, even in areas of deprivation, there is a collective action problem that strongly represents a prisoner’s dilemma: The costs for active participation in revolution are high and the benefits are usually public goods.  If a person chooses to help the revolution, they risk their own life.  If the revolution succeeds and they participate, they risk dying, but gain the benefits of revolution if they live.  If the revolution succeeds and they do not participate, they benefit and risk nothing.  If the revolution fails and they participate, they gain nothing and risk their lives.  If the revolution fails and they do not participate, they risk nothing and gain nothing. Like with any standard prisoner’s dilemma, the optimal solution is to defect.

So, the solution to overcome the “peasant’s”, “rebel’s”, or “prisoner’s” dilemma from the group perspective is to offer selective benefits for participation, an easy way to do this is to pay people. This gives rise to the greed explanation for civil war as actor’s may engage in violent contests with the state if there are economic incentives to do so.  Rebel groups may be financed through resource extraction, taxation and territorial control, or through external funding and all of these can lead to making a business over warring. Actors within the group may also be motivated by these very economic incentives.

In Star Wars, we see a clear dynamic of political and economic repression.  The Empire did away with democratic governance as the existing Senate by Episode IV is a symbolic institution; Grand Moff Tarkin informs us that “the Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I have just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away forever.”  The Empire is also indiscriminately using violence to punish potential sympathizers with the Death Star by blowing up Alderaan (Indiscriminate violence has a varied track record as to effectiveness).  Economic disparity is also present in fringe planets like Tatooine.

From Wookieepedia

However, political and economic repression is not enough for people to take up the fight against the Empire.  While it may motivate some actors, perhaps Luke Skywalker is an example of an actor that will pay personal costs to provide a public good, Han Solo clearly is not impressed with such lofty ideals.  Solo only gets hooked into the rebellion with selective incentives through direct monetary payments.  A debt over his head not withstanding, Solo aids Skywalker’s and Kenobi’s escape with a lucrative payment scheme (so much money that Skywalker is convinced that they could buy their own ship for the amount offered) and only decides to engage in a jailbreak of Princess Leia Organa after Luke promises him more monetary incentives:

Luke: Rich, powerful. Listen, if you were to rescue her, the reward would be…
Han Solo: What?
Luke: Well, more wealth than you can imagine!
Han Solo: I don’t know, I can imagine quite a bit.

Solo’s reward for his active participation in the rebellion becomes a continued sticking point in his interpersonal relationships:

Han Solo: It is for me, sister. Look, I ain’t in this for your revolution, and I’m not in it for you, Princess. I expect to be well paid. I’m in it for the money.
Princess Leia: You needn’t worry about your reward. If money is all that you love, then that’s what you’ll receive.

While Organa attempts to guilt Solo and enact social costs on his non-participation in providing a collective good, she initially seems to fail.  We know that the social costs do work to some degree as Solo does come back to aid the revolution in the trenches of the Death Star.

Despite Princess Leia’s suggestion, it seems likely that Solo was not the only one who is interested in selective incentives to fight the empire.  It is clear that the Empire is also buying people off (Cloud City with Lando Calrissian) and even enlists bounty hunters in Episode V to do the same thing.

It is worth noting that greed alone is unlikely to fuel a successful revolution.  If your group is only fighting for profit and not for other public goods, you are more likely to devolve into a gang or cartel akin to Jabba’s group.. Lichbach offers this about groups that only offer monetary reward for participation without resorting to broader public appeals in terms of nationalism or ideology: “To be effective, selective incentives must be tied to ideological appeals. Selective incentives without political ideology are counterproductive. Like everything else, they have a diminishing marginal utility…This principle explains why unorganized peasant upheavals and rural banditry almost always degenerate: participants are too easily attracted to selective incentives” (1994; p. 416).  Early on, Solo could have easily worked for the Empire if the reward was high enough.  Eventually, he does buy into the greater cause of the rebels.

Another area I am exploring at the moment is whether or not the civil war in Star Wars is purely ideological.  Political science scholars do have some expectations that ideological wars are different from ethnic wars, but scholars debate about if this is an empirical reality. Regardless, it seems clear that the civil war in Star Wars is ideological, but that very well may not be the case. The higher echelons of the Empire are clearly xenophobic as non-humans do not really have access to power.


The above meeting of the military officers in the Death Star is not an visual accident; humans staff the important positions within the hierarchy.  Thus, political deprivation around ethnic lines are clearly present within the Empire.  Does this make onset and recruitment more likely for the rebellion? Does victory look different for the Empire and the Rebellion given the current lack of power-sharing?  Political Science theory does offer some, though conflicting, insight into these and other questions.

About Michael A. Allen

Michael is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at Boise State University with a focus in International Relations, Comparative Politics, and Methodology (quantitative and formal). His work includes issues related to military basing abroad, asymmetric relations, cooperation, and conflict. He received his Ph.D from Binghamton University in 2011.

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