Andor – Resistance and Rebellion (a review)

Andor is a stunning Star Wars series about revolutionaries defying an empire. Simon Hannah reviews this new show - the first part is spoiler free, the second half has spoilers but deals with the show in more depth

 

The Republic has fallen. The Galactic Empire has been in charge for over 10 years. Planet after planet is falling under the control of imperial order. Imperial security and troops are everywhere. All attempts to opposition are crushed. There is no resistance, only whispers and fear…

Andor is the latest Star Wars series on Disney+, and it has been getting rave reviews. Honestly, I had kind of given up on Star Wars. The movies were declining in quality, and the TV shows ranged from quite forgettable to just bad. Who wanted to see a show about someone who wasn’t even the main character from Rogue One? However, this show is incredibly well made, with brilliant cinematography and a compelling story line. It takes its time—for instance, the first three episodes move slowly as it builds its world and characters—but the depth of the story and the emotional resonance of the characters make it worthwhile. I want to focus on the politics of the show, which is the politics of revolution.

This is not a Star Wars show with Jedi, Sith, or Darth Vader, or any of the traditional Star Wars features like the Force. You barely see a white-armoured Storm Trooper until halfway through the show. That hasn’t pleased some fans, who think it is deviating from the spirit of the Star Wars universe, but in many ways it makes it a much better show. It cannot fall back on old characters, Jedi magic, or someone going on about destiny. There are only ordinary beings fighting and striving to change things (or enforce the existing order) in circumstances that they did not create.

The main character is Cassian Andor, whom we last saw in Rogue One as part of a team of Rebel intelligence operatives stealing the plans for the Death Star. But that is a story four years down the line from this show. At this point, he is a down-at-heel fuel operative, a thief, a scam artist, and an accidental murderer. He is not particularly political; he hates the Empire, but his strategy is to avoid, evade, and hide. How can anyone hope to take on something so powerful? He is drawn into a world of a burgeoning network of rebels who are loose, unorganised, and only capable of sporadic actions. But there is a desperation growing across the galaxy, a sense that something is about to erupt. The casual violence and systematic terror of the Empire can only last so long. One of the repeated phrases in the show bears the hall marks of this new attitude; “I would rather die trying to take them down than giving them what they want…”

Show runner Tony Gilroy gave some context to the show: “I’m no academic.” I’m not even a college graduate, but I have been a reader of history for 30 to 40 years, I’m a news consumer, and I’m a freaking old white guy who listens to history podcasts all the time. I’m really obsessed with all that stuff. The history of revolution is just fascinating; from the Roman revolutions all the way through, everybody’s got them. “They’re all different; they’re all the same.” Importantly, Gilroy has created one of the most diverse shows in the Star Wars franchise and defended it against alt-right trolls complaining about diversity being too “woke.”

Andor gives a very real feeling of the malevolent growth of tyranny alongside the quantum of resistance—the small acts building up to something potentially substantial. It is worth saying on a Marxist website, of course, that the rebellion is not socialist; this is a fight between fascism and democracy. But Andor spends a lot of time on Ferrix with working-class scrap metal workers, and their response to the growing power of imperial rule is a key part of the show. One of the rebels, Nemik, was even pitched as a kind of Trotsky character, though the showrunner described Trotsky as the “naive revolutionary” type.

Andor is well worth watching, even if you aren’t particularly a Star Wars fan. It is a very well-made, compelling story with complex characters that has something to say about the nature of imperialism and rebellion. It is far more mature and developed than almost anything else that Disney has put out since they took over the franchise. As the lead actor, Diego Luna, said of the show:

“We are stressing that change and revolution happen when regular people decide to do something. It’s just regular people trying to survive in the darkest time in this galaxy, and finding out that can’t take it any more. It’s about a system that is choking society.

——

Spoilers from here on in! Don’t blame us if you read on…

What makes a rebellion?

“We have chosen a side. We are fighting against the dark. We are making something of our lives.”

The core of the show is the way that different people come together with different motivations to defy the fascist rule of the empire. The show is Andor’s character arc from an ordinary person to a leading member of the rebellion, but it is the rest of the characters that reveal the complexity of the politics of the show. From the prisoners on Narkina 5, to the breakers on Ferrix, to Senator Mon Motha working within the Imperial polity on Coruscant, Senator Mon Motha is fighting a losing battle against the Empire’s growing power.

After he is recruited to help on a mission, Andor meets a group of rebels on Aldhani who are planning to rob the garrison to steal desperately needed money for the launch of a proper rebellion. Money is the sinews of war after all. The rebel platoon is made up of disparate people: an ex-stormtrooper alongside someone whose family was murdered by stormtroopers. Skeen is there because his brother was a farmer who killed himself because the Empire flooded his farmland (we later find out this wasn’t true). There is a young man, Karis Nemik, an idealist who is writing a manifesto to inspire others to rise up against the empire. However, when he finds out that Andor is just there for the money, he is shaken because he assumed everyone there was a convinced revolutionary. But then he comes back a couple of days later with a new article he is writing on the role of mercenaries in the uprising. Gilroy explained of the character, “We always wanted a Trotsky: the young, naïve radical.” “If you’re going to have Cassian [Andor] ingesting all of the possible forms of conversion to the Rebellion, we needed a dialectic character.” 

Mon Motha’s character also stands out. She is working in the heart of the empire, in the Senate. She is surrounded by spies; her staff and her driver are all changed. She doesn’t know who to trust—not even her husband. Her hushed whispers with close conspirators as she tries to build her networks in the belly of the beast are incredibly tense. Of course, as a senator, her life is one of huge luxury compared to the workers on Ferrix breaking up scrap metal, but the risks she takes are still immense. She knows that the wrong conversation with the wrong person will lead to her arrest, torture, and death. We see the power struggles to get money for the rebellion from her perspective as she is in the Senate trying to argue against draconian new laws like the Public Order Resentencing Directive. Each episode’s opening sequence is built around this idea of bringing together the different heroes who are part of the first rebellion. Someone noticed that the music wasn’t always the same, so they overlaid each intro into one audio track, revealing that the partial musical components from the intro sequence in fact make up a whole song. The notes are discordant on their own, but when played together, they create the sweeping arrangement of Andor’s song.

The empire – the banality of evil

One of the most compelling aspects of the series is showing the way the Empire functions on the ground and the men and women that make up this monstrous fascist force. It is as you suspected—everyone from the petty sadist police officer to the ambitious intelligence officer. But much of the imperial bureaucracy comes across as reminiscent of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil—not particularly political people but just doing their jobs, though their jobs are monstrous.

Any state is a complex formation that appears like a machine but is in fact just made up of people obeying certain rules. It goes without saying that Star Wars is, of course, a revolutionary story because the key battle is over the character of the galactic state: is it a democratic republic or a fascist empire? There is no reforming mechanism; there is only the smashing of one state and its replacement by another. We saw in the prequel movies how the Galactic Empire was born out of the failed Republic, with Senator Palpatine giving himself emergency dictatorial powers to “protect” the galaxy from a threat that he himself created. Those prequel movies weren’t great, however, and Andor, in many ways, totally shifts the tone of what the Empire is. These are not just cartoon villains with giant Death Stars (though the construction and the theft of the plans for the Death Star are basically Cassian Andor’s whole role in the resistance). These are petty bureaucrats, overzealous police officers, sadistic torturers playing with new “devices,” and jumped-up imperial fanatics who love power.

This video is worth watching on this topic

Prison industrial complex

In episodes 8–10, we see an incredible depiction of a futuristic prison complex. Andor is sent to a moon where the prisoners are forced to work on assembly lines with a floor that can be electrified at any time, used to control and punish for missing work targets. The prison sentences are arbitrary and extended at will; prisoners are “released” only to be sent to other camps. We find out that this is forced labour performed by prisoners to build parts for the Death Star. It recalls everything from the forced labour camps of the Nazi Death regime to the modern-day system of prison labour in the USA or China. In this three-episode arc, Andy Serkis plays Kino Loy, a capo—a prisoner drawn from the ranks to control the other prisoners.

The mass use of human labour to build when there is advanced technology available might seem confusing to some people—why have prisoners and not just use robots? The fact is, prisoners are cheap; they cost no wages, they are kept in cells, and they are fed the cheapest food. Complex machinery to build complex machinery costs a lot of money; prisoners are cheaper. They are also disposable. Andor says it himself: “We are cheaper than droids and easier to replace.” At that point, I had the distinct impression that the episode had been written by someone with a Marxist understanding of labour value and the problems associated with the over-accumulation of capital.

Our world today is covered in prisons, privatised or state run, often with inhuman conditions. They are not really intended to rehabilitate or help people. They are punishments, often for crimes that the social conditions of capitalism create. Under capitalism factories and prisons are often run in a similar way, the extreme regimentation of the human being, the disciplining of the body, the rigid and ruthless hierarchies.

During the prison break, Loy (Serkis) gives a powerful speech about working together to escape (see next section). Serkis was asked in an interview if he had given his character a mental back story since there is nothing in the show about his past. He explained that “he’s used to working on the factory floor and standing up for workers’ rights.” This is a man who cares for others. “And he just suddenly finds himself in a world where he has to keep his head down, not speak his truth, and just try and get through his sentence believing that he’s going to be freed.”

Human dignity

In episode six, one of the rebels, Skeen, suggests that he and Cassian steal the credits they robbed from the imperial garrison. He reveals to Andor that he lied about his background; it wasn’t true that his brother died in the war. Skeen tempts him with the money; after all, Andor only cares about himself. They stole from the Empire; why not steal from the rebellion? As a mercenary, he is only interested in the money. “You’re just like me; we’re born in the hole, and all we know is climbing over someone else to get out.” In response, Andor shoots Skeen, his first act in which he is beginning to shift allegiances. He doesn’t care for the politics of the Rebellion yet, but he isn’t about to steal from them either. He was offered a wage to do a job, which is what he is going to take. He will steal from the Empire but not from the people who are fighting it.

Sleen’s comment about climbing matters because of what comes later. In episode 10, Cassian helps organise a prison break in which the prisoners, who have been trained to compete with each other and strip away any sense of solidarity, must work together to escape. Compare Skeen’s selfishness to the speech Kino Loy gives in episode 10 during the prison break:

“Wherever you are right now, get up, stop the work. Get out of your cells, take charge and start climbing. They don’t have enough guards and they know it. If we wait until they figure that out, it’ll be too late. We will never have a better chance than this and I would rather die trying to take them down than giving them what they want… There is one way out. Right now, the building is ours. You need to run, climb, kill! You need to help each other. You see someone who’s confused, someone who is lost, you get them moving and you keep them moving until we put this place behind us. There are 5,000 of us. If we can fight half as hard as we’ve been working, we will be home in no time. One way out! One way out! One way out!

The prisoners know that to escape, they must work together; they have to organise to collectively fight back. The rebellion is not built by selfish people intent on furthering their own ends at the expense of others; it is built by people who know that their futures and their own lives are best served by working together.

Revolutionary sacrifice

People who have watched the show are familiar by now with Luthen Rael’s speech to the double agent Lonni, who is working for him in the Imperial Security Bureau. The spy is trying to get out; he has a family; the net is closing in; and he is worried about being caught. He challenges Rael, asking, “What have you sacrificed?” To which Rael gives a powerful reply:

Calm. Kindness. Kinship. Love. I’ve given up all chances at inner peace. I’ve made my mind a sunless space. I share my dreams with ghosts. I wake up every day to an equation I wrote 15 years ago, from which there’s only one conclusion: I’m damned for what I do. My anger, my ego, my unwillingness to yield, my eagerness to fight they’ve set me on a path from which there’s no escape. I yearned to be a saviour against injustice without contemplating the cost, and by the time I looked down, there was no longer any ground beneath my feet.

What is my sacrifice? I’m condemned to use the tools of my enemy to defeat them. I burn my decency for someone else’s future. I burn my life to make a sunrise that I know I’ll never see. And the ego that started this fight will never have a mirror or an audience or the light of gratitude. So what do I sacrifice? Everything!

He implores Lonni to stay active in the rebellion so he can keep feeding back crucial information:

You’ll stay with me, Lonni. I need all the heroes I can get.

His speech on sacrifice is a complex one. Rael is talking about his own sacrifices, but throughout the show he is also willing to sacrifice others for the cause. Upon finding out that the Empire knows about an attack on an imperial power plant, he doesn’t warn the rebels involved; to do so would be to reveal his spy in the ISB. This is reminiscent of World War II, when the Allies cracked the Enigma code but then had to make choices over whether to act on the information. To do so too regularly would reveal that the code had been cracked, and then the Nazis would change the code and lose the advantage.

Rael’s speech could also be compared to Russian anarchist Sergei Nechayev’s (in)famous Revolutionary Catechism from 1869:

“The revolutionist is a person doomed. He has no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and no name. Everything in him is wholly absorbed in the single thought and the single passion for revolution. The revolutionist knows that in the very depths of his being, not only in words but also in deeds, he has broken all the bonds which tie him to the civil order and the civilized world with all its laws, moralities, and customs, and with all its generally accepted conventions. He is their implacable enemy, and if he continues to live with them it is only in order to destroy them more speedily.

https://www.marxists.org/subject/anarchism/nechayev/catechism.htm

Of course, socialist revolutionaries are actually embedded in civil society, in the living world. In most periods, revolutionaries do not disappear into the mountains or woods and live as exiles with doomed lives. It is about painstaking work to build up popular support for revolutionary ideas and politics, working alongside the masses wherever possible to organise them. But it would be remiss of socialists to ignore the fact that in a revolutionary struggle or in a clandestine war against a tyrannical force like a fascist government, there are periods of extreme isolation and personal sacrifice. Probably a better comparison would be to the US revolutionary James P. Cannon, who was sent to prison in 1942 for his anti-war activities:

“Everything is in order on our side. We neither laugh nor weep; we understand. We have understood from the beginning what might be the consequences of our undertaking. All people pay for their ideas what they think the ideas are worth. If some men are not prepared to pay with the sacrifice of one day’s liberty or the missing of one meal or a little inconvenience for the sake of their ideas, they are only saying thereby that they set no serious value upon them. But we think our ideas are the most important thing in this world, that they represent the whole future of mankind. That is why, if we have to pay even a high price for the sake of those ideas, we pay it without whimpering. We are Trotskyists, you remember, and that means we are political people of a different breed.

https://www.marxists.org/archive/cannon/works/1941/socialism/ch06.htm

Some might find the mortal ambiguity of some of the porto-rebel leaders a little disconcerting, but I think that is one of the key aspects of the show. Most of the villains aren’t simply outright monsters, though they are part of a machine that is doing monstrous things. Likewise, the rebels are not all saints who are totally morally pure. After all, as Obi Wan Kenobi says in Episode III, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

The politics of the Rebellion

There has been some debate about the character of Luthen Rael. He is clearly driven to fight the Empire but his own personal politics are unclear. Saw Gerrera even asks him outright at what point what he believes, he is a revolutionary with no clear ideology or system. Compared to Nemik Rael is an enigma. But he does advocate the view that the more oppressive things get the more people rise up, he is glad that there will be an Imperial backlash to growing rebel activity as it will ‘wake people up’.

Whilst there are revolutionaries throughout history who have held this kind of view it isn’t really born out as an effective strategy. It would have meant welcoming the growth of Hitler’s power throughout the 1930s because it created the conditions for resistance to it. But usually the opposite happens, people get scared, they begin to believe that there is nothing they can do against their oppressors. Nazi Germany after all wasn’t overthrown by a resistance movement it was the result of an invasion by Allied powers. It is also worth contrasting his speech where he says “I am condemned to use the tools of my enemy to defeat them” with the famous quote from Audre Lorde that “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House“. What is the strategic difference between those views?

Probably a more sympathetic reading of Luthen is simply that he knows that the rebellion will have to deal blows against the Empire and he knows there will be a backlash to that, that is just the natural rhythm or resistance and reprisals. Of course he is not a political leader answerable to an organisation or a democratic forum of any kind, he is just a personally motivated fighter against the Empire who, like the rebels on Aldhani who worked for him, were willing to do whatever it takes to win.

We get an insight into the political problems facing Rael (and by extension Mon Mothma) trying to build an actual Rebel Alliance in episode 8. Rael travels to meet Saw Guerra and convince him to join an operation, but Guerra rebuffs him pointing out the competing ideologies of the various opponents of the Empire “Separatist, neo-republicans, The Gorman Front, The Partisan Alliance, Sectorists, Galaxy cartoonists, human cultists. All lost.” At this point different rebellions are too scattered, too preoccupied with their own obsessions and shibboleths to be able to unite. Presumably the actual formation of the Rebel Alliance which destroys the Death Star in Episode IV A New Hope will be the subject of later seasons.

In episode 12, we see the initial planetary uprising on Ferrix as Andor’s mother Maarva is buried. She had previously said to Andor that she was tired of living under the Empire and that with her remaining time she wanted to join the rebellion. She tells Andor that the attack on the imperial base at Aldhani was inspiring and that people were starting to stand up against the Empire, though Andor cannot admit to being involved and tries to downplay it. At this point, he is still not a revolutionary; he is still just trying to be a survivor. But Maarva’s politics have cohered, and she is clear: she wants to fight.

There is a hologram projection of her at her funeral, where she speaks out against the growing power of the Empire and tells people to rise up. When an Imperial officer kicks over her droid and tries to stop the hologram, it incites a riot. Although most of the Ferrix mourners and crowded civilians are unarmed, the Empire starts to gun people down at will, though people fight back.

This is a decisive shift. No longer is the rebellion a clandestine military action by small groups of people; it is now becoming a mass force. Trotsky talks about this moment in the History of the Russian Revolution, how the masses lose their fear and are able to stand up to the violence of the state, though often at great personal cost.

Politically, the rebellion is a popular democratic uprising, a kind of galactic planetary liberation struggle against Imperial rule. But the way the show presents the forces involved is very interesting: several episodes are devoted to prisoners fighting back against forced labour, and it is also working class people on Ferrix who riot against the imperial troops. We do not see the fight on Ferrix from the perspective of a government or political leaders; it is the ordinary men and women who make up their society and workforce who are the ones represented, and they have the agency to resist. Mon Mothma, who is stuck on Coruscant, appears to be extremely isolated, attempting to “reform” the Empire from within. The look on her face as her parliamentary efforts to resist the growing power of the Empire fail, tells the story of all reformists raging against the tide. The message of the show is clear, if you want to overthrow a system, you need a revolution.


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Simon Hannah is a socialist, a union activist, and the author of A Party with Socialists in it: a history of the Labour Left, Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: the fight to stop the poll tax, and System Crash: an activist guide to making revolution.


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