I will start the exposition of Chancellor Palpatine’s sinister political genius which resulted in the overthrow of the Galactic Republic by writing about the events which took place in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. I will use Carl Schmitt’s writings on dictatorship, sovereignty and the state of exception, which are extremely fruitful for understanding such a multilayered fictional political persona as Chancellor Palpatine (first a Senator, then the Chancellor and in the end the Emperor). Episode I‘s opening sequence starts with the following text:
Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute. Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo.
While the congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict….
A seemingly insignificant dispute over the taxation of trade routs engulfs in a crisis as the Trade Federation starts a blockade and stops the shipping of goods to the planet of Naboo. It is significant that at the very beginning it is emphasized that the congress of the Republic “endlessly debates” the issue, without coming to a solution. This will be important later on in the film as well, when a full-scale invasion by the Trade Federation on Naboo happens and the congress still cannot come to a conclusion and do something about the obvious attack on Naboo’s sovereignty. Carl Schmitt, a German political theorist and jurist, singles out the belief in discussion, characterized by opennes, as the spiritual principle of parliamentarism.
Schmitt writes that the typical expression of such a mode of thought is “discussion in place of force.” In his opinion, as one of his interpreters writes, “’endless conversation’ that characterizes aestheticized politics of romanticism is then institutionalized by the parliament.” Schmitt’s understanding of “endless conversation” which characterizes the modern parliament, without the possibility of coming to a solution and a decision, mirrors the state of affairs in the congress of the Galactic Republic. There is a crisis, a blockade and later the invasion of Naboo, which cannot be solved by parliamentary means of endless debating. Darth Sidious (now Senator Palpatine), knows this all too well, and predicts that the crisis he himself has engineered, will not be solved unless the powers of the executive are broadened.
Darth Sidious creates the situation in which the state of exception emerges, and to solve the matter, he argues that the government ruled by the “weak” Chancellor Valorum should be replaced. Someone strong enough to diminish the power of bureaucrats and capable of enforcing a decision should come into power. Senator Palpatine explains to Queen Amidala that the Senate is corrupt and the bureaucrats are in fact ruling the Republic in place of the congress (a legislative body) and the Chancellor. This mirrors the 16th century European situation, when king’s mandates, his servants, “abolished the lawful state of the estates”, as Schmitt explains in his book Dictatorship.
When the invasion on Naboo by the Trade Federation (commanded to attack by Darth Sidious) happens, Queen Amidala arrives to Coruscant after many hardships, to speak before the congress. A few Senators demand the matter to be inspected, while the representatives of the Trade Federation vehemently deny that the invasion took place. Palpatine tells to Queen Amidala: Now enter the bureaucrats, and we see one of them whispering in Chancellor Valorum’s ear. He persuades her, to call for a vote of no confidence in Valorum, and we soon find out that Palpatine is one of the nominees for the seat of the Chancellor. He promises to end the corruption and save Naboo from its demise. This is in fact accomplished by the joined forces of Gungans, the officers from Naboo and the Jedi, but in the end, Palpatine got what he desired – he became a Chancellor. Thus, the first part of the grand game of chess he plays with the entire galaxy is completed.
In Episode II: Attack of the Clones, several thousand systems have joined the Separatist movement under the leadership of a former Jedi Count Dooku. Padme Amidala, now a Senator, has returned to Coruscant to vote on the issue of creating an army of the Republic. She is a leader of the fraction in the Senate which opposes the creation of the army. The act of creation of an army is seen, by its opponents, as a prelude to open war with the Separatists. It is clear that a political community, the Republic, no longer exists, in terms of dominion over the galaxy. There are several attempts to murder Padme, and the clues found after an assassination attempt involving a mysterious bounty hunter, lead Obi-Wan Kenobi to the planetary system of Kamino.
Obi-Wan learns that the clone army for the Republic is already created, and that the Jedi Sifo-Dyas supposedly made a deal with the prime minister of Kamino for the army to be created. Sifo-Dyas was dead at the time when he supposedly ordered the creation of an army, and soon we find out that Sith Lord, Darth Tyranus ordered the creation of the clone army. Darth Sidious’ plot is revealed in viewer’s eyes when we see that Sidious controls Count Dooku and that he commanded him to order the creation of an army for the Republic. Dooku assembles his own army of droids in alliance with The Commerce Guild and the Corporate Alliance. This plot information is well known by any Star Wars fan, yet I found it important to identify the origin of the Clone Wars; for most of the characters in the film, these facts are not known. Yoda says: The dark side clouds everything. Impossible to see, the future is.
The Sith operate in shadows, and deception is their main technique of governing others. Darth Sidious has brought this art to perfection. Politically speaking, his deception can be termed as political arcanum (‘secret’). Carl Schmitt writes, citing the authority of Roman historian Tacitus that “every scientific discipline – theology, jurisprudence, business, fine art, the art of war, or medicine – has its arcane. In all these disciplines we find certain tricks; they employ even cunning and betrayal in order to achieve their goal. But in the state certain events are always necessary that conjure the impression of freedom, simulacra or decorative occasions designed to pacify the population.” In this definition, all of Palpatine’s techniques of governing are enumerated; cunning, betrayal, conjuring of certain impressions and simulacra. Palpatine uses arcana techniques to the fullest extent – deception is his main tool for achieving domination.
Schmitt also writes that “in the arcana there is a distinction between arcana imperii and arcana dominationis [secrets of rulership], and the latter concerns the state as such – that is the actual and factual existing conditions of powers in normal times… On the other hand, the arcana dominationis are concerned with the security and defence of rulers in extraordinary events, rebellions and revolutions, and the means by which these events can be dealt with.” Palpatine turns the concept of arcana dominationis upside down. In the original Star Wars trilogy, he uses these techniques to fight against the Rebellion, but in the prequel trilogy, he creates “extraordinary events”, rebellions and revolutions – i.e. the Separatist cause – to gain political power.
Following the bounty hunter Jango Fett leads Obi-Wan Kenobi to the planetary system of Geonosis, where he finds out that Count Dooku and his allies are assembling an army and preparing for war with the Republic. Obi-Wan is captured, and in an important scene, Dooku reveals to Obi-Wan the truth – that the Republic is now under the control of a Sith lord. He asks Obi-Wan to join him, possibly in an attempt to gain an ally to destroy Darth Sidious and rule the galaxy in his stead. This is characteristic of the Sith in the Star Wars universe: there are two of them, always, no more and no less, and often the subordinated one plots to destroy his master and gain the power he holds. This also reveals the scope of Darth Sidious’ deception – even when the truth is brought to light, the one who receives it refuses to believe it.
Before his capture took place, Obi-Wan contacted the Republic and told the Jedi that the assembling of a Separatist army is taking place. The response of the Republic is quick; Mas Amedda says: This is a crisis. The Senate must vote the Chancellor emergency powers. He can then approve the creation of an army. Someone to propose this “radical amendment“ is no one but the beloved (by the fans throughout the galaxy) Jar Jar Binks. Palpatine is given emergency powers and in his speech he says: It is with great reluctance that I have agreed to this calling. I love democracy… I love the Republic. The power you give me I will lay down when this crisis has abated. And as my first act with this new authority I will create a grand army of the Republic to counter the increasing threats of the Separatists. When Mas Amedda says that “this is a crisis”, she in fact proclaims that the state of emergency has taken place. Normal order exists no more. Carl Schmitt, in his Political Theology, defines the sovereign as “the one who decides on exception”.
In this case, the one who decides on exception is the Senate – Mas Amedda proclaimed the state of emergency and Jar Jar proposed the amendment to delegate emergency powers to Palpatine. I do not believe that Palpatine is a sovereign at this moment; he becomes one only in Revenge of the Sith, when democracy is finally overthrown and he decides on hunting the remaining Jedi. For this moment, Palpatine is a dictator; to be more precise, this is commissary dictatorship, as defined by the French jurist Jean Bodin. According to him, the commissar has “no permanent character of duty” (Palpatine was supposed to lay down his powers when the crisis is no more) and he is “pernamently dependent on the commissioner“ (in this case the Senate). In other words, when we witness the onslaught between the Jedi and the droid army, the fight between Dooku and the Jedi, the Republic is still standing, legally. The Senate is still the sovereign power of the Republic, but in the second part of this essay we will see how democracy has ended as a result of an ultimate deception.
You can also read the second part of this essay Emperor Palpatine’s Political Rise.
Thank you for reading!
Carl Schmitt, Dictatorship, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2014
Carl Schmitt, Political Theology, The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1985
Carl Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2000