Popular history casts the Fourth Sith Empire as a 30-year historical aberration triggered by Sheev Palpatine’s conspiracy to undermine Ruusanian Republic institutions. The following analysis is an antidote to that perspective. While Palpatine remains a pivotal figure, his actions were shaped by the political, economic and cultural forces of the Late Ruusanian Republic, which continued to govern the Empire after its official foundation. We cannot define the Fourth Empire as a body that “took over” the Republic, as much as identify it as a radical reformation of the Republic, undertaken by influential demographic groups and institutions. The Republic enthusiastically became the Empire, “to thunderous applause,” as Padme Amidala observed, and probably would have done so even without Palpatine’s participation. Sheev Palpatine can be thought of as a conduit through which the forces of reformation passed, a focus for its organization, and an influence of his own, but was not the Empire’s creator.
The Sith: The Politics of Crisis
That Sithism lies outside mainstream, acceptable political discourse is the consensus of responsible social scientists, but a survey of history reveals aberrant pulses of Sith supremacy. Pessimists characterize this as a cycle, but historians should not accept this as inevitable. Material conditions change, never duplicating those of the past, and material forces, not ephemeral cycles, drive history. This makes it essential that historians and laypeople alike study the Sith phenomenon, and stand on guard against new manifestations. We should not assume that it is inevitable, but counter it with just, robust economic policies, and remedies for social inequality that cut across species-demographic divides.
Each iteration of Sithism casts itself as a primeval, perennial political philosophy, but Sithism is protean, and the term “Sith” exists in multiple contexts. The first Sith Empire was a settler state; religious minorities settled on Moraband (called Korriban by settlers) and appropriated the name of its indigenous species. After exploiting Moraband’s rich material and psychic resources, the First Empire engaged in colonial expansion, which halted when its competitor, the Old Republic, clashed with it for control of resource-rich worlds. In this era, Sithism was simply an ideology of colonist-aristocrat supremacy, pragmatically enforced throughout the First Empire’s worlds. By contrast, the Second and Third Sith Empires promoted an ideology centered on political absolutism, where the bodies and “life forces” of subjects were the personal property of the Emperor, bound by religious obligations and the transfer of tributary capital.
Colonial and imperialist conceptions of the Sith philosophy were each in turn co-opted by the Republic’s various manifestations, as the Republic administered these systems more efficiently, through evolving capitalist institutions. To naive analysts, this dialectical process appeared to reach its “end of history” with the Ruusan Reformation, which dispensed with the Jedi aristocracy and centralized military. With the means of production firmly in the hands of capitalist combines, the old political formations were no longer necessary.
Subsequently, Sithism was shaped by Ruusanian political needs. It became a crisis formation, ready to take the stage when Republic capitalism faltered. While various Sith societies laid claim to ancient doctrines, they were neither feudal nor absolutist in character, but aimed to seize the political opportunities that arose when the galactic bourgeoisie required violence to enforce faltering relations.
The one commonality among all forms of Sithism might be political and economic incompetence. Sith regimes were founded in times of crisis, and although the First, Second and Third Empires pretended to longevity, their functional rule was limited. The Fourth Empire continued that trend in its most accelerated form, in response to the acute problems of late Ruusanian capitalism. In all examples of Sith regimes, the propaganda of ruthless pragmatism and efficiency stood far from the reality of petty conflicts, spiraling debt, and eroding infrastructure.
Naboo: A Settler Culture
Sheev Palpatine’s birthplace of Naboo was an economic and ideological microcosm of both the late Republic in crisis, and his own interpretation of Sithism. Naboo was a settler state, where humans displaced the native Gungans from coastal settlements, but nevertheless relied on their industrial and aquacultural labor. (Liberal Jedi analysts would genteelly refer to this arrangement as a “symbiont circle.”) Naboo’s colonial aristocracy evolved into elected offices, but the same families continued to hold power, as former hereditary nobles founded political academies and invested in business. Instead of promoting a diverse political culture, Naboo’s democracy reinforced the legitimacy of elite families, who were now said to have earned primacy through education and experience.
Palpatine was born to Naboo’s political class, with all its opportunities and ideological assumptions. On his world, an educated human elite deserved its supremacy, and nonhumans were either immigrant workers and travelers, or Gungans, whose labor was essential, but whose vital presence was hidden by human-supremacist and capitalist traditions, except during interspecies crises—whereupon the Gungans’ alienation from the Naboo fueled speciesist perspectives.
The parallels between Naboo culture and Palpatine’s Empire are too pervasive to ignore. Through COMPNOR, Palpatine presided over the development of an elite, all-human, political-military class, assigned the veneer of merit through rigorous training and internal competition. Nonhumans were relegated to the political periphery, and composed the Empire’s army of labor, except for a minority of highly talented individuals who were given prestigious positions to reinforce the message that regardless of greater demographic inequalities, there remained a tenuous justification for nonhumans to remain loyal. The career of Mitth’raw’nuruodo is the most commonly cited example of this trend, though the “model minority species” prototype was probably Tchajah Binz, Naboo’s first Gungan Senator.
The person of the Emperor was essentially a magnification of the role of the Naboo monarch: an elected official given royal honors, esteemed as both chief parliamentarian and head of state. Indeed, Palpatine’s eventual dismissal of the Senate made it more closely resemble Naboo’s planetary government, where the reigning monarch issued executive orders with little restraint. As Queen, Padme Amidala herself had exercised these powers vigorously, and the Fourth Empire would operate in the same way, but on a galactic scale.
Late Ruusanian Capitalism: Too Grand to Fail
Over a thousand years ago, the Ruusan Reformation swept the Republic, eliminating the last vestiges of feudalism. This was the result of a vigorous dialectical process that not only manifested internally, as improved hyperspace travel made complex interstellar capital formations possible, but through open warfare. Many late Republic aristocrats had already been left behind by economic changes, or had joined with planetary capitalists. In conflict with the Second Sith Empire’s stolid nobility, the Republic demonstrated its superior productive forces. Despite the absolutist pose of Sith rule, industry remained dependent on aristocrat-controlled combines whose contributions were often influenced by internal conflicts and rulers’ failings. Sith Lord prestige depended on a mixture of personal military prowess and religious devotion, not practical administrative skills.
The Ruusan Reformation marked the Republic’s full commitment to capitalism, though this naturally manifested along practical cultural lines, not pure administrative fiat. This evolutionary process sometimes obscures its basic character. Popular histories may characterize the IG Banking Clan and Trade Federation as species-specific ventures, but this ignores their functional role in the Republic economy. The Trade Federation’s mission required cooperation of many species, and the Bank of Muunilinst would not have grown into an galactic institution without capital investment from thousands of worlds.
Although flavored by its component cultures, the newly-reformed Republic was a streamlined instrument for organizing productive forces under these institutions. The official military, seen as a venue for aristocratic prestige, was abolished, though this was hardly the end of military institutions. While Palpatine characterized the Judicial Forces and Jedi as floundering institutions which could “use a little backbone,” they were part of a far more complex military and police apparatus, with numerous specialized agencies. Beyond fitting the functions given them, they concealed the true extent of Republic military operations before the Clone Wars, and even today, the early Ruusanian era is falsely characterized as peaceful.
The second reality concealing the violence of the Republic’s capitalist evolution related to the astronomy of class. Simply put: Military and police violence happened far away from privileged notice.
Then as now, hyperspace travel governs the flow capital. Accordingly, the economic astronomy of the galaxy reached the familiar divisions of the administrative-hegemonic Core, the privileged Mid-Rim, and the Outer Rim majority. Republic capitalism in the Outer Rim was an economic-imperialist project, creating a debt-suffused zone obligated to transfer a larger proportion of the value of its labor to the Mid-Rim and Core. As a result, the Outer Rim’s worlds suffered chronic poverty, violence, and pollution.
These maneuvers unlocked enormous growth, but drove the crises which would undo it. Mass investment of capital could not both increase productive forces and maintain a constant rate of employment, and economic imperialism, creating debt, transferred that hindrance to the common worker, particularly in the Outer Rim. Rent-seeking ventures and droid labor could not compensate for depressed workforce participation, or labor’s declining ability to add value to capital investment. A growing segment of the population could no longer afford goods priced at rates that would maintain profits. Declining profits, out of pace with increased productivity, produced a series of economic shocks, whose effects penetrated the Mid-Rim.
This set the stage for reactionary cultural forces. In the Core, capital concentrated in ever-fewer hands, while the Mid-Rim and other intermediary classes suffered unprecedented economic insecurity. These middle-class groups blamed Outer Rim populations, especially those who benefited from capitalist development–especially when they moved closer to the Core. The true reasons for the growing crisis remained hidden to the average Republic citizen, who relied on naive, culture-centered explanations. Calls for “traditional values” increased, and were tinged with a certain degree of speciesism. The Confederacy of Independent Systems (CIS) formed.
The CIS had no coherent economic program beyond general deregulation. This was paired with a strong appeal to tradition, according to the notion that societies left alone by government could find moral-political purity. Using his moral authority as a former Jedi, CIS leader Dooku of Serenno encouraged member worlds’ to embrace conservative positions.
This mixture of social and political conservatism even spread to non-CIS worlds. For example, Mandalore had evolved into a secular planetary state, but after CIS influence, followers of (often reconstructed, rather than lineal) Mandalorian cultural traditions overthrew the government, establishing the unstable Death Watch regime with the help of Sith ideologue “Maul” Talzinson.
Despite separatist rhetoric, the CIS remained functionally incorporated into the Republic until the Clone Wars. The right to bear arms and organize local militias had always been part of the CIS’ platform, so its armaments were not considered unusual. The Republic did not characterize CIS attacks and provocations as mass rebellion until the Battle of Geonosis and even then, the conflict was never legally defined as a war. Hostilities eventually ceased not through military/police action, but through a settlement negotiated by industry and finance representatives serving both sides, and Palpatine’s future chief of staff, Anakin Skywalker. (While it is not disputed that Skywalker executed some executives for treason, this did not in of itself end the Clone Wars, as each representative was replaceable and of course, could not end the CIS’ mass movement through by themselves.) In the end, elements of the CIS program were incorporated into Palpatine’s Empire.
Neither the work of a conspiracy nor an exercise in pure ideological aspiration, these combined conditions crafted the Empire from a Republic burdened with floundering capitalist institutions, renewed cultural conservatism, market deregulation, and the declining fortunes of an increasingly reactionary Mid-Rim human population. Just as the CIS was never a true rebel state, the Empire wasn’t a repudiation of the Republic, but its fullest manifestation.
Sheev Palpatine: The Conduit of Empire
Sheev Palpatine was born to privilege in Naboo’s “Lake Country”—actually the former littoral settlements of freshwater Gungan nations, which had been appropriated by the colonial aristocracy—to a prominent family of entrepreneurs, who had the typical ex-noble background of the planet’s top capitalists. Sheev’s father, Cosinga, was a mediocre businessman who benefited from generations of inherited wealth, and passed through Naboo’s political academies with the minimum respectable grades. From an early age, Sheev proved himself more ambitious, though not necessarily more intelligent. His academy grades were no better than his father’s, and balanced by an array of petty academic and honor code offenses. Cosigna’s influence prevented Sheev’s expulsion. And although the younger Palpatine took a more active hand in family holdings, he only replaced his father’s mediocre returns with alternating bursts of wealth and bankruptcies. The latter did not concern Sheev, however, because most of his family’s were legally insulated from the consequences of these adventures.
Sheev’s business dealings brought him into contact with financier Hego Damask II. Born into a Muun Banking Clan family, Damask was a Sith adherent who used the sect’s teachings to both enhance his business with noetic capital, and justify his exploitation of Outer Rim worlds. Damask introduced Palpatine to Sith teachings, but is often overestimated as an influence, as he was one of many Banking Clan, Techno-Union and Trade Federation executives who formed his social circle. These contacts and business dealings, along with a personal preference for urban over pastoral living, prompted the younger Palpatine’s relocation to Coruscant.
There, his personal habits fully expressed themselves. In business affairs and private interactions with politicians, he presented himself as a quiet, serious man who favored success over partisan attachments, but also dedicated himself to flamboyant pursuits. He and his father shared an interest in speeder racing, and sponsoring events and vehicles became an on and off business interest. This flashier side manifested in public political discourse, including his eventual election as Galactic Senator, which was marked with unprecedented spectacle in a ceremony of Palpatine’s invention. While he appeared in garish robes for public functions, his private wardrobe, and persona of “Darth Sidious,” projected simplicity and decisiveness. Popular legend holds that the Sidious persona and wardrobe were disguises, but historical research has shown that partners in the Trade Federation and elsewhere knew exactly who he was, and accepted this as the kind of eccentric behavior common among ultra-wealthy humans.
Palpatine’s sexuality remains a matter of speculation. Two relationships are definitely known, and may have been solemnized through marriage. (This remains unclear, as Palpatine had most of his personal records concealed or destroyed after becoming Emperor.) His most enduring known relationship was with Umbaran immigrant Sly Moore. Moore was considered First Spouse of the Republic and later, Queen Consort of the Empire, but she never appeared as more than one of several dignitaries behind him during official functions. Otherwise, little is known, as the Empire suppressed all reports of his personal life.
Palpatine’s devotion to Sith tenets seems to have been superficial at first, but grew as he found allies sympathetic to the ideology. He began to publicly entertain Sithian conspiratorial beliefs shortly before his ascension to Supreme Chancellor, but this was in line with his ambitions. He accused predecessor Finis Valorum of being beholden to “special interest groups:” code for nonhuman and social welfare advocates. This coded speech increased his appeal among arch-conservatives. After his rise to the center seat of the Senate, he became more outspoken about beliefs in many conspiracies, particularly among the Jedi. Beyond traditional Sith rivalries, the Jedi’s noetic resources lay beyond the control of other institutions. Once again, his actions had pragmatic functions. None of Palpatine’s conspiracy theories were his alone, but could be found among most reactionary supporters, where their repetition fueled continued support. Palpatine became powerful media figure, known for his unguarded, resolute appeal. His hold on the Republic’s media reached its apex after HoloNet deregulation, as his favored platforms received preferential broadcast. Despite the Empire’s policy of censorship, the HoloNet’s content did not change as significantly as many laypeople believe. The foundations had already been laid, long before Palpatine claimed the throne.
The Emperor was more the cipher of the Empire than its architect. Born into privilege, and the sum of easily traceable influences, Sheev Palpatine presented himself as a self-made, uninhibited individualist, but neither his platform nor actions were driven by autocratic fiat. He once said, “I am the Senate,” but the evidence calls for a reversal of this formula. His Sith promises to make the Galaxy great did not drown out the people, but plainly spoke the ambitions of a mass segment of the pettily privileged, and the representatives they elected, or at least permitted to hold office. The Empire’s heart was never a chamber in Coruscant or a tower on the Death Star, but beat in the hills of Naboo, among homeowners afraid of being displaced from the pedestal of history.
–Excerpted from Against All Empires: A Social History of the Galaxy, AP-5 and C-3PO, Editors