Imperium of Man (from Warhammer 40 000) is often seen as a fascist, totalitarian state with absolutely no redeeming qualities other than “keeps humanity alive” – a hideous amalgman of Nazi Germany, Soviet Union, North Korea, European Union, Imperial Japan, Roman Empire, Byzantine era of Roman Empire and George Orwell’s 1984. It is genocidal, xenophobic, amoral, militaristic, theocratic, paranoid, dystopian, totalitarian, oligarchical, bureocratic police state. But is that so? Shortest answer is “depends on the author”. Some will go “grimdark to the floor”, while others (such as Sandy Mitchell) will show humane side of Imperium. So who is correct?
Most likely answer is: they all are.
Imperium is a huge entity. Empire from Star Wars has maybe a million systems; Federation from Star Trek some ten thousand at most. Population is between 5 and 500 trillion for Empire, and between 2 and 4 trillion for Federation. Imperium meanwhile has population of at least 4 quadrillion. However, considering the presence of Hive Worlds, population may go up to 40 quadrillion.
Its size means that full-blown centralization, or even European-Union like setup, is impossible. Central government doesn’t even know which planets are in Imperium, meaning that worlds are free to govern themselves as long as they pay the taxes (tithe). This means that life quality depends mostly on local planetary government. Of these there are many types, but most numerous in terms of planets are Civilized Worlds – which are similar to modern-day Earth. Even Hive Worlds are generally not that unpleasant.
Overall, Imperium is a federation – or even a confederation – of several major organization and several million worlds, all of which pledge loyalty to the Emperor. Its basic organizational matrix is in fact nearly identical to that of Holy Roman Empire. Each world can govern itself as long as it pays tithes, sends psykers to Black Ships and does not cause trouble. This applies to all “normal” worlds (Forge Worlds and Fortress Worlds are under governance of Adeptus Mechanicum and Space Marines, respectively). Each of these worlds has its own laws, government, culture, social order. Out of all the worlds seen in Warhammer 40k works, no two are identical beyond their loyalty to Imperium and things which are implied by it. While each world also has an imperial governor, said governor’s duty consists almost exclusively of seeing that world fulfills its duties towards Imperium; other than that, world is free to govern itself. This means that governments range from a group of Mad Max survivalists, over feudal and democratic worlds, to full-blown totalitarian dictatorships. Even the worship of Emperor changes to an extent that any real-world monotheistic religion would see as heretical. And worlds which do share form of government still differ in exact specifics, in culture and other things.
Individual worlds have so much autonomy that there is no reason to leave Imperium other than sheer greed. What duties towards Imperium they do have are paid back in terms of security (Imperial Guard and Imperial Navy) and commerce (Adeptus Astra Telepathica, Merchant Marine) which Imperium provides. Worlds declaring independence lose the right to FTL and trade, which means that they usually peacefully surrender.
Ideology and morals
Imperium has moral standards. Unlike moralistic grandstanding of Federation of Planets, or on the other end of spectrum various omnicidal-for-lulz-maniacs, Imperium is concerned primarily with survival. Thus there are no atrocities for the sake of atrocities, as that would be a waste of resources; only time that significant atrocities happen are when they are necessary to stave off something even worse. Exterminatus is not thrown around willy-nilly: Inquisitiors are strictly controlled, and every event of Exterminatus is investigated by a special Ordo of Inquisition.
In general, Imperium is remarkably egalitarian and meritocratic – even compared to modern-world standards. Anyone can achieve almost any position, provided that they have a combination of right qualities and luck.
Imperium is highly xenophobic, but that as well is actually reasonable. Almost every alien species Imperium has encountered was either a) genocidal or b) imperialistic towards humans. Most prominent species that humans share galaxy with are Orcs (genocidal), Necrons (omnicidal) and Dark Eldar (sadistic/genocidal). As for the rest, there are Eldar and Tau – neither of which are genocidal towards humans as matter of policy, but both of which would be more than willing to exterminate humanity to advance their own interests.
In fact, aliens which are not an obvious threat are tolerated and traded with – and some may even live on Imperial worlds. But too close of contact is discouraged, as heterogenous population always provides more potential for internal strife as well as greater number of potential infiltration vectors for those xenos which are hostile (this fact is borne out of real world history as well). Even seemingly innocent and inconsequential alien influence can and does lead to downfall of entire worlds.
Above, however, does not mean that there are no authoritharian / totalitarian elements within workings of the Imperium. Imperium itself is under constant attack – by Tyranids, Orks, Chaos, and so on. In fact, the only reason it survives is that all these threats also attack each other. Its size also means that its very existence protects smaller entities (e.g. Tau) from major threats. Its fall would thus take the rest of the galaxy with it.
These however are not enforced. Inquisition might be authoritharian, but it only purges heretics: it does not go around changing planetary governance structures to be in line with its ideals (unlike some supposedly democratic countries in our own world). What laws are enforced are those that had been proven necessary to safeguard against horrors from outer space.
Guilliman’s return means that Imperium is becoming both more centralized and more humane. Centralization would be a problem, except it is Guilliman pulling the strings, and him being immortal, succession is much less of a problem.
In the end, Imperium is the best possible system of governance considering the reality they live in. Any state which tried being a liberal paradise would not survive for long in such conditions. Imperium, not the Tau, is the United Federation of Planets of the setting.
Is Imperium fascist
Ignoring whether Imperium is evil in general (as shown above, it is not), there is a question of whether it fits ideals of a fascist government, as follows:
- There is a dictator
- The economy is completely controlled by the government
- Society is regulated by the government
- Anyone who disagrees with the government is forcibly suppressed
Pint by pint:
There is a dictator? Not really. Emperor is an inactive corpse, and even resurrected Guilliman has to struggle with Administratium and other elements of Imperial government. And sheer size of the Imperium coupled with unreliable communications means that local government has extensive autonomy by default.
Economy controlled by the government? Imperium has some influence in this area, but probably less than most modern states. It also does not directly control most of the planets which make up Imperium. Instead, planets pay a tithe – a feudal term which means literally “tenth”. If it truly is feudal tithe, it would mean that Imperium has lower tax rate than US Federal government (federal income tax ranges from 10% to 37%).
Society controlled by the government? Imperium does enforce some social dogmas required for collective security, such as one religion, hatred of xenos and heretics, and surrender of psykers. But this is no more than what modern-day democratic governments do; less, in fact, as evidenced by COVID-19 crisis and general political discourse. Other than that, each planet is governed differently.
Anyone who disagrees with government is forcibly suppressed? This is definitely the case if governor suports heresy or attempts a rebellion. But these are conditions (terrorism and rebellion) to which all functional governments would have a violent response to. Other than that, Imperium is no more authoritharian than modern-day states.
Overall, if Imperium is truly fascist, vast majority of modern-day liberal democracies are worse than fascist.
Postscriptum: The Tau
So how does Tau Empire compare to Imperium? After all, at least some fans see Tau as being “peaceful and xenophile” (which, in the setting, is actually a bad thing). But in reality, Tau are not similar to Federation of Planets; rather, they are the Dominion of the setting. Just like Dominion, Tau control their troops – except their mind control is much more effective. They also tend to have a “join us or die” approach, and there is little to no difference between Tau-settled worlds. While Imperium is a coalition, Tau are a collective spread over multiple worlds. Their worlds all have same culture, same organization, and no autonomy.
Tau as originally described allowed member species to keep their autonomy. Even those species violently subjugated were allowed to keep their autonomy. But later depictions shifted them to a mix of Communism, Crusades, Jihad and
Borg more Communism. Rather than just joining them, conquered species were supposed to wholly adapt Tau culture. Tau expressed contempt for all religion while believing that all species should submit to Tau, and humans under Tau rule are brought up to hate the human society (basically, Tau are Progressives). As such, they are in fact much worse than Imperium of Man is.