Or, Sometimes The Choice Isn’t Between Good And Evil, But Bad And Worse. Welcome to the Imperium.
By BoLS Lounge emeritus YorkNecromancer
And it’s the May edition of another TL;DR article from me. I’m sorry. I tried to keep the word count down, but it didn’t quite work. As always, if there’s too much here, just skip to the last paragraph for the summary.
When I was little – really little – I once had a friend tell me you could drown in a puddle. I don’t remember his name or his face, but I still remember that conversation, and the fact I didn’t believe him. We were discussing all sorts of things, and we got onto the subject of films we liked. I was at primary school, back in Stevenage, and if you’ve ever suffered the misfortune of living in Stevenage, you too will know all sorts of Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. Like how the air there always smells faintly of spoiled meat and broken hope, and how failure can be a adjective, a noun and a career path all at the same time. If England can be said to have an anus, Stevenage is the salty nut of condensed faecal matter clinging to its hairs.
As a result, even my four year old self knew to lose himself in fantasy rather than admit the horror of that reality.
Stories in films though, already had a problem. Something I had noticed something about everything I had seen, and which was already beginning to bore me.
“Have you ever noticed,” I asked, “the baddie never wins? It’s always the goodie.”
“Not always.” He said. That was when he told me about ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.
“Darth Vader wins in that.”
Well, this same wobbly-headed idiot had told me you could drown in a puddle, so obviously I didn’t believe him. Imagine my surprise, all those years later, sat in front of the Christmas tree and watching Han Solo tortured, and frozen in carbonite, then seeing Luke Skywalker’s hand hacked away like it was nothing…
And it just ended.
Darth Vader had won. I couldn’t believe it. For the first time – ever – the baddie had won. I couldn’t believe it. It was amazing. Oh, sure, on a surface level, I was horrified (quite aside from the gut wrenching nightmare of what had happened to Solo), but on another, deeper level, I was thrilled by the shock of the new.
Sometimes the goodies can lose.
It wasn’t until 40K that I discovered that it was okay to have goodies who aren’t good. Or maybe not even half good. It wasn’t until 40K that I discovered that it was actually okay for the goodies to be baddies.
And not just baddies. The worst kind of baddies.
The Only Human It’s Perfectly Okay To Kill.
We love violent media, but there’s always an inherent problem to all of it, which is this: violence is never the answer.
Well, so I’m told.
Told by our parents and teachers and pretty much everyone, we learn very quickly that Violence Is Wrong. But the thing is, we’re kind of in love with violence. Our media is violent. The games we play are violent. We love the idea of enacting violence, but there’s always the problem that if a hero kills someone, that makes them evil; a hero simply isn’t allowed to kill. It’s why no-one kills a Disney villain.
They always die, but no-one ever kills them, because That Would Be Wrong.
That’s just one of the ways storyteller have found to get round our little cultural taboo, but there are others. The one we’re interested in?
Well. Turns out, there are some things a lantern-jawed hero can always kill without the slightest moral consequence. A group of three core things it’s always perfectly okay to kill. If you’re fighting these things in a game, you never have to sweat; you still get to go to Heaven and no-one will question you. The things?
Well. Not all humans. Just one very specific group.
See, you can’t save a zombie – better to put that person out of their misery. You’re doing them a mercy, really.
Even if they have been cured of their flesh hunger and just want to get back with their boyfriend no matter what the small-minded locals think.
Robots can’t even feel (well, except for those Hyperion Claptraps, but even there, it’s played for laughs).
Which leaves us with the only humans it’s perfectly okay to kill.
As Charlie Brooker once put it, fascists are about as close as you can get to a human demon. And rightly so. The legacy of Adolf and his brownshirted bully boys is a sordid, disgusting one. In the West, we’ve spent the seventy years since demonising fascists so much that people don’t seem to understand them. We’ve made them Other. Made it so that they are simply Not Like Us. Made it so that no matter what, we think we’d never do what they did, never be like them. After all, how could we?
Of course, refusing to examine oneself is the shortest distance to becoming an a**hole.
See, we tell ourselves that fascism is utterly despicable… But what we really mean is the results of fascism. Fascism itself is a tricky bugger, precisely because it’s not despicable
See, Germany under that funny little man with his funny little moustache didn’t entirely happen because people were forced into it. Fascism isn’t a beating; it’s an idea – or, more accurately, a set of ideas… And a lot of them are very, very seductive.
A Psychopathy Test For Countries.
The 40K I grew up with was not a game about epic heroism. It was about Obi-Wan Sherlock Clouseau, Lyyn El’Jonson and Prandium, the lunchtime planet. 40K was not a serious game. Oh, the grimdark was there, but it was closer to 2000AD and the grand English tradition of political satire. It was goofy and stupid and most of all? Clever. Much cleverer than any game about toy soldiers has any right to be.
See, I see people referring to the Imperium as ‘the good guys’ all the time. And that kind of worries me, because they are not, and never have been, good. I mean, we all know this. It’s a basic truth that 40K is basically a game of evil vs. evil. Still, there’s always those people who make excuses for the Ultramarines, or the Space Wolves or whoever their personal favourite faction is…
‘Oh, they’re different. They’re better than the others, because…’
And then there will be a string of reasons (of which, I’ll admit, some are good). However, I don’t think we can call any Imperial faction truly good. The Wehrmacht of World War II may have had some good men fighting in it… But they were still fighting for the worst governments and institutions imaginable.
The FBI has a questionnaire that it uses to analyse if you’re a psychopath or not. It asks about thirty simple questions. The thing is, we can do a similar thing with nations, thanks to a political researcher called Dr. Lawrence Britt. He looked at the characteristics of fascist nations, their similarities and shared values, and created a useful diagnostic tool for analysing a society and identifying if it was fascist or not. What I’m going to do is go down the list and look at each quality, seeing how it applies to the Imperium of Man.
The Fourteen Signs of Fascism
Okay everyone, here we go…
1. Powerful and Continuing Nationalism – Fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottos, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays.”
This one, I hope should be obvious to any and all – the Aquila is basically the herpes of the 41st Millenium. THEY’RE ON BLOODY EVERYTHING. Everything from shoulderpads to chest plates, to generators, to bullet casings to foreheads. EVERYTHING. And that’s before we get to things like specific Chapter iconography – Chapters put their logos on everything that doesn’t have an Aquila… Sometimes even on things that do.
2. Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights – Because of fear of enemies and the need for security, the people in fascist regimes are persuaded that human rights can be ignored in certain cases because of “need.” The people tend to look the other way or even approve of torture, summary executions, assassinations, long incarcerations of prisoners, etc.
‘Hi, my name’s YorkNecromancer and I’ll be your Inquisitor today. If you’ll just take off your clothes and lie down on the couch, we can progress right to the flaying and re-programming into a murder servitor, okay?’
I think we can all agree that, for all their awesome (and it is considerable), the Inquisition is f**king nuts. These are people who will literally burn entire worlds of their population… All to save the greater portion of humanity. The old Grey Knights even had rules to replicate it in Apocalypse’s first edition!
Now yes, sometimes, you could argue that might be justifiable; after all, a daemonic incursion is nothing to sniff at. Sometimes, worlds must be burned. But I think we can all agree that there are numerous canonical descriptions in books of worlds being purged because of things as small as clerical errors.
If a planet can be scoured of all life because someone forgot to carry the one, then I feel justified in stating that the Imperium is not a society which places a high value on human life.
That’s before we even get to the disproportion punishments meted out to Imperial Citizens as a matter of daily life.
pictured: the consequences of a late library book.
Arco-flagellation; being made into a Servitor (because failing your basic training means you must have pre-frontal lobotomy); shot for lack of discipline; burned at the stake as a possible witch and so on…
Now, I imagine many people (fans of the Imperium) are busily coming up with ‘Yeah, but…’ justifications in their head. I know this, because that’s exactly what I’m doing too. There’s always a reason isn’t there? We have to keep people safe from Chaos
No, but we really do.
And that world couldn’t be saved.
And if you can come up with those rationalisations, then you’ve kind of understood how fascist governments work in the real world: they teach people how to justify inflicting horror on the innocent, because the enemy? He’s always worse. He always has to be stopped, no matter the cost, because the alternative is unthinkable. And good, unthinking citizens should never be thinking in the first place.
3. Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause – The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial , ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc.
Suffer not the witch to live!
‘But psykers are a legit threat. They form portals to the Immaterium which allow…’
I know. I have been playing this game for a while now. But consider what that fear of psykers permits. An enemy who could be anyone; anyone, anywhere… A close family member, a loved one, anyone. That kind of high-end paranoia is just so easy to exploit, because it justifies everything else the Imperium does. Consider that the Inquisition has an entire wing that exists literally to do nothing but kill psykers. Not control them; not teach them to control their powers; just kill them.
And that’s before we get to the fact we can blame literally anything on the Eldar. Before we acknowledge that almost any world could be a secret Necron stasis tomb. Before we justify cutting food rations because we need more bullets to fight Tyranids.
Coming up with those rationalisations again? Throne knows I am.
‘The Tyranids ARE a legit threat! We need those bullets!’
True. Seriously, in my head right now I have at least seventeen different justifications and rationalisations for why those food rations gotta go. Let the people eat gym mats, I don’t wanna get eaten by a Trygon!
But again, and this is the point, it neatly illustrates the way fascism works: you can justify literally anything because to the fascist mind, the threat is always there. Always. And yes, the Imperium’s threats are a LOT more immediate than any that exist in the real world. Unlike us, the Imperium is actually justified in a lot of what it says.
Even so, it’s worth remembering: using fear of those enemies to manipulate a population? Classic fascist governmental strategy.
4. Supremacy of the Military – Even when there are widespread domestic problems, the military is given a disproportionate amount of government funding, and the domestic agenda is neglected. Soldiers and military service are glamorized.
Pictured: don’t hate the player, son.
The Astartes are obviously the most extreme example of this. Remember how they kneel before you in the ‘Space Marine’ computer game? They literally worship you because you’re the bestest best soldier who ever lived.
Not to mention the war bling.
Seriously, the higher up the ranks you go, the more literal gold you get on your armour. The Imperium doesn’t do camouflage. Well, that’s not true. Its heroes don’t. Camo is for the weak. It’s for those without glory. The Imperium is all about its armies.
I mean, as of 2015, even its mechanics have a militarised, playable force!
5. Rampant Sexism – The governments of fascist nations tend to be almost exclusively male-dominated. Under fascist regimes, traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Divorce, abortion and homosexuality are suppressed and the state is represented as the ultimate guardian of the family institution.
6. Controlled Mass Media – Sometimes the media is directly controlled by the government, but in other cases, the media is indirectly controlled by government regulation, or sympathetic media spokespeople and executives. Censorship, especially in war time, is very common.
This one’s a bit tricky, what with the background not really ever discussing Imperial mass media. It stands to reason that there would/should be television shows on Imperial worlds, as well as an internet equivalent on things like Forge Worlds.
However, given that there is a host of information on the Inquisition, and how they like to control/redact/destroy information to keep the populace ‘safe’ and controlled, it seems plausible that freedom of the press, as well as the right to free speech? Not something the Imperium will be big on.
7. Obsession with National Security – Fear is used as a motivational tool by the government over the masses.
Pictured: a public servant who wants you to know that your concerns are both valid and being listened to
So yeah, fear is pretty much the key way the Imperium controls its people, on literally every world under Imperial control. I mean, the second stage of standard initial protocol for an Inquisitorial interrogation consists of simply explaining the protocol for the next seven stages. This alone apparently breaks most prisoners. If, indeed, the first hasn’t already.
And what is the first? First-stage interrogation consists simply of being asked questions by the Inquisitor personally, rather than through an agent. Their (well-earned) reputation precedes them enough to break many subjects right there.
The Inquisition is a scary, scary organisation. Oh sure, there are some good people there. Sure there are. My Dark Heresy players’ characters for one. Well, all apart from Eddie’s.
We’re all a little worried about Eddie’s character.
’What’s that Eddie? A once-bound daemonhost holding a Greater Daemon of Malal? Sure, why not? Doesn’t seem game-breaking to me.’
Taken as a whole, though (and the thing about institutions is you have to take them as a whole, no matter what #NotAllDaemonhosts might tell you) the Inquisition is pretty much a collection of rapid religious extremists at best, and barely-suppressed psychopaths at worst (read: in general). These are not leaders who govern by the respectful consent of the people so much as at the barrel of a gun.
8. Religion and Government are Intertwined – Governments in fascist nations tend to use the most common religion in the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion. Religious rhetoric and terminology is common from government leaders, even when the major tenets of the religion are diametrically opposed to the government’s policies or actions.
The name ‘God-Emperor of Mankind’ contains a small clue as to the nature of the Imperium’s systems of governance. The fact that he himself is/was an atheist is a (deliberately) cosmic irony, but it doesn’t mean squat in terms of the institutions he created. The Imperium has the leader of the Ecclesiarchy – the chief priest of the God-Emperor’s cult – sat as a High Lord of Terra.
The Space Pope of the Imperium helps to run their government. That’s as intertwined as it gets.
And, of course, religion is a key component of the social control the High Lords exercise. Everything from giving their soldiers hope (‘Just recite the Litany of True Aim!’) to justifying war (‘This planet is full of witches. You all have to die now.’) to providing deadly, deadly soldiers (from the relatively-charming Adepta Sororitas to the not-charming-at-all lunatics of the Death Cults).
And that’s before we even mention that the Astartes are all literally ascetic monks! Monks! Religion inveigles its way into every aspect of Imperial life; every aspect supports every other, and all in the Emperor’s name.
9. Corporate Power is Protected – The industrial and business aristocracy of a fascist nation often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite.
The AdMech don’t worship the Emperor. They worship the Machine God, who they promise looks just like the Emperor if you squint hard enough. Planets are burned because of a single witch, but a mechanised robot factory churning out Imperator Titans? Ah, let those guys believe what they want as long as we get the kewl toys.
10. Labor Power is Suppressed – Because the organizing power of labor is the only real threat to a fascist government, labor unions are either eliminated entirely, or are severely suppressed.
Obviously, there are too many systems of governance amongst the various planets of the Imperium to make broad statements about the power of labour unions. If you live on a death-world, you’re probably too busy trying to dodge the Dantarian Rectal Detroyers to be concerned about your worker’s rights.
However, it’s worth remembering that Space Marines (the noblest and most good of all humans. Yes, even including the Flesh Tearers, I suppose. Maybe. Whatever.) have chapters with literal serfs; the people of their homeworlds are kept as functional slaves.
For all his great nobility, I can’t imagine Marneus Calgar is delicate when it comes to strike-breaking.
11. Disdain for Intellectuals and the Arts – Fascist nations tend to promote and tolerate open hostility to higher education, and academia. It is not uncommon for professors and other academics to be censored or even arrested. Free expression in the arts and letters is openly attacked.
“Blessed is the mind too small for doubt.”
Tell me you didn’t just immediately think of that saying.
Bonus points if you did so in the voice of the Librarian from ‘Dawn of War’.
YOU ARE THINKING IN MY VOICE NOW.
12. Obsession with Crime and Punishment – Under fascist regimes, the police are given almost limitless power to enforce laws. The people are often willing to overlook police abuses and even forego civil liberties in the name of patriotism. There is often a national police force with virtually unlimited power in fascist nations.
The symbol of the Adeptus Arbites is a winged fist.
A. Winged. Fist.
A good rule for life is that any group who have chosen a fist for a symbol is not a group who are worried about making the public think they’re soft and cuddly. Especially when you consider on whom they are based…
’999, which emergency service do you require?’
13. Rampant Cronyism and Corruption – Fascist regimes almost always are governed by groups of friends and associates who appoint each other to government positions and use governmental power and authority to protect their friends from accountability. It is not uncommon in fascist regimes for national resources and even treasures to be appropriated or even outright stolen by government leaders.
There’s not really enough about the intricacies of daily life in the war porn that most Black Library books are comprised of to form a terribly useful picture of how things are run at the upper levels of Imperial society. Not to mention, once again, there’s too wide variety of planets to be able to make a clear commentary.
However, how many times have you read the phrase ‘planetary governor’ immediately preceded by the word ‘corrupt’? Honest to Throne, I think it’s pretty much part of the title I see it so often. And that’s before we even get to the Spyrers
These are from the long-forgotten and deeply awesome Specialist Game Necromunda. It was a game of gang warfare, and the Spyrers were a gang that was included in one of the expansions. They were unique because, unlike the other gangs, they had money. Real money. They were the children of the rich families that owned the planet, sent down into the underhive to literally hunt the poor for sport. And this was a cultural right-of-passage all families engaged in!
If that doesn’t say something about the attitudes of the Imperiums’ well-to-do, I don’t know what does.
14. Fraudulent Elections – Sometimes elections in fascist nations are a complete sham. Other times elections are manipulated by smear campaigns against or even assassination of opposition candidates, use of legislation to control voting numbers or political district boundaries, and manipulation of the media. Fascist nations also typically use their judiciaries to manipulate or control elections.
I cannot even imagine the Imperium ever having an election.
A fight to the death between two guys to see who gets to run things, sure. But an election?
It’s like trying to imagine a hamburger too big for God to eat.
Conclusion: What Was Actually Wrong With The ‘Star Wars’ prequels.
It wasn’t Jar-Jar Binks.
Don’t get me wrong, he was awful, but he wasn’t what was wrong with those terrible films. No, what was wrong with them was Anakin Skywalker’s character arc. George Lucas and the rest threw motivation after motivation at that character, all in a desperate attempt to justify his evil. His mum was murdered by Sand People! He was the slave of evil space Jews! He gets visions of the future where his wife dies and is obsessed with saving her! He’s a narcissistic psychopath! A boy-hungry autopederast converts him to Capital-E Evil! On and on and on…
They literally threw everything at Baby Vader except the only thing they needed to: if you form an Empire, you will finally be safe. You will also be a hero.
The simple truth that ‘Star Wars’ has always been afraid to acknowledge is this: Fascism is an inherently attractive philosophy… As long as you ignore the horrible results it produces. It promises answers to the problems of life (Others, not you). It promises that you will be valued (assuming you are not Other). It promises safety and security (unless you’re Other). For people on the inside? Fascism is wonderful.
It’s only us freaks who suffer, and who weeps for us? Not Vader, that’s for sure. He’s safe in his black armour, safe from ever having to touch a world that terrifies him, seduced by the promises of a hyper-masculine power fantasy that is as sweet as heroin and just as dangerous for the soul.
So what’s the point of all this? Honestly? The genius of 40K.
So many writers, artists, and creators present fascism, but they never get it right. They always show its consequences, always shows the end result, but never show how that result happened . But 40K’s different. Because everything in the future is so hilariously, absurdly awful, everything the Imperium does is justified. Everything. No matter how many are lost, tortured, disfigured, destroyed, mutilated or simply lost, all of it is justified because GRIMDARK. There is literally only one answer to the question ‘Is it better than Chaos?’, and that answer is ‘Sure.’ And isn’t that the perfect critique of fascism?
Literally the only way this nonsense belief makes any kind of sense is when you have a society that is attacked on all sides by robotic zombies from before recorded history; ninja clowns with weapons that turn your insides to soup; interdimensional torture priests and their steroidal bodyguard; four-armed psychic horrors from beyond deep space who want nothing more than to stick you with their prehensile wing-wong; religious lunatics who can make the ithyphallic gods they believe in actually appear; on and on and on… Every horrible thing imaginable is coming and it’s coming for you and there’s nowhere to run and…
And? A nightmare like this is the only place where fascism could ever be remotely justified.
That, my friends, is some master-level satire, and that is why 40K is still more interesting than any other game there has ever been. Despite the silliness of it, despite the shoulder pads and axes the size of doors, it actually has something worthwhile to say.