By Cat Nadel
The Star Wars TV series Andor is a rich source of lessons for organisers and campaigners. This article hones in on leadership development, as portrayed in the journey of the lead character Cassian Andor. Please note this article includes SPOILERS.
Why are we talking about Star Wars on a social change website?
Stories are our best teaching tool, and despite the odds, Disney has given social movements a powerful story that we can use to teach politics, strategy and tactics.
The popularity of Andor and Star Wars gives us an opportunity to talk to our friends and family about the systems of oppression that we all live under, what revolutionary organising looks like and why it is necessary.
It’s also an opportunity to examine our own practice through the lens of popular culture. Successful movements need to tell powerful stories, and it’s worth studying and understanding the stories that move people, especially when they are as explicitly political as Andor. For those of us in the business of building popular support for dismantling oppressive systems to improve all of our lives, we should pay attention when popular culture starts spreading those very ideas.
Andor and the politics of Star Wars
From showrunner Tony Gilroy, director of Rogue One, Andor is the most political entry to the Star Wars universe since Disney acquired the franchise in 2012.
The Star Wars universe has always been political. In the original trilogy, The Galactic Empire is deliberately evocative of the Third Reich, with its authoritarian structure, colonial objectives and fascist dress code. The Rebels, on the other hand, engage in asymmetric guerrilla warfare mostly in the jungle, reminiscent of the Viet Cong, something which creator George Lucas has confirmed was no accident. However as the franchise has grown in popularity and certainly since it has been acquired by Disney, Star Wars instalments have become increasingly less political.
This all changes with Andor. Set five years before the events of Rogue One and A New Hope, where the Rebel Alliance is just beginning to form and the empire is expanding its presence in the galaxy. The central plot follows the young Cassian Andor, played by Diago Luna, on his journey of radicalisation from petty thief to becoming the accomplished Rebel protagonist we meet in the 2016 film, Rogue One.
Unlike many of the other sweeping intergalactic sagas in the series, Andor doesn’t focus on Jedis – the noble space wizards of the galaxy and their heroic struggle to find balance between the light and dark (good and evil) sides of the force. Instead it is told from the perspective of ordinary people and explores their experience of living under complex and oppressive systems. It follows the ordinary people of the galaxy as they find and exploit the cracks in the systems and sow the seeds of revolution. This is what makes it such an interesting study for contemporary organisers.
Throughout the series we’ll watch Andor grapple with the legacy of colonial mining on his home planet, see his friends and family suffer under increased surveillance and violence as the Empire searches for him on Ferrix and learn with him about the banal and brutal operation of the empire as he attempts to steal from it and later becomes incarcerated in the Empire’s prison system. We’ll also meet a cast of other characters living within these systems, from a wealthy politician attempting to covertly direct money to the rebel cause to a toxic girl-boss police officer, rising the ranks of the Empire as she does a chillingly good job of suppressing revolution.
I’m not the first person to comment on how overtly anti-fascist and anti-imperialist this show is. Youtube commentator Sage Hyden of Just Write has pointed out that the show has four three-episode arcs, each of which interrogates a different pillar that holds up these systems. The first three focus on capitalism, colonialism and the prison industrial complex.
What Andor can teach us about revolutionary leadership development
Though it is set in a galaxy far far away, the oppressive systems that plague Andor are the same systems we struggle against here on Earth: capitalism, colonialism and the prison industrial complex.
For those of us devoting time and energy to these struggles, Andor contains lessons on how to build the leadership and collective power we need to challenge these systems.
The central question driving the plot of Andor is “what motivates someone to join a rebellion and become a leader?” Recruiting and developing leaders is not just the bread and butter of organisers, it is the source of power that determines whether or not our movements succeed.
When we meet Cassian Andor he already hates the Empire. He has every reason to. They destroyed and displaced him from his homeland, have caused him to live on the edge of poverty and killed his adopted father. However we know from the way he lives his life, that being against the Empire isn’t enough to devote his life to challenging it. When Luthen (Stellan Skarsgård) first tries to recruit Andor to the rebellion, Andor rejects his call to action, saying “No, it is better to live. To eat. Do what you want.” than to sacrifice himself for a cause he doesn’t believe can win.
So even if someone shows up with lived experience and alignment to the cause, what must happen to move them from passive agreement to active leadership?
Andor’s journey to leadership is non-linear, personal and occasionally unpredictable. Everyone has their own motivations, leadership style and contributions to make to the collective. While every leader will have their own story, Andor’s story is illustrative. It shows the experiences someone must go through and the barriers that must be overcome for them to fully commit themselves to a movement.
Step 1: Recruitment
The first step is always being asked. Andor is first recruited by Luthen Rael, a rebel leader who disguises himself as an antique trader. Under the guise of a business deal and in the midst of an attack from the local police force, Luthen convinces Andor to escape with him and participate in a rebel mission on Aldhani.
Crucially in recruiting Andor, Luthen acknowledges and appreciates his skills. He sees him as valuable and specifically asks him to join the mission. As organisers, we should take note of this. People mostly join causes because they are personally asked to. People stick around if they feel valuable to the cause. This is reinforced when they see their work make an impact and if they find community in the movement.
Andor does not find this immediately. He agrees to the mission because he is on the run and needs the money. He will participate as a mercenary but he is still unwilling to fully devote himself to the cause. But through his involvement he makes important connections and has a number of transformative experiences which will eventually give him the tools he needs to step into leadership.
Step 2: Political education and strategy development
During the mission on Aldhani, Andor meets Karis Nemik (Alex Lawther) who offers him a political education. Their discussions give him a way to understand what the empire is doing and a theory of power to challenge it.
How many of us entered the movements we are part of, angry and driven but lacking in analysis of how our enemies operate and what it will take to defeat them? Nemik takes the time to talk with Andor about ideas and to challenge him to think about what he thinks. When he can no longer teach him, he gives him a manifesto so he can continue learning on his own.
Andor is an intelligent character and resists joining the cause not because he doesn’t agree with it, but because he doesn’t believe the empire can be defeated. Nemik’s manifesto offers him a strategy. A pathway towards an eventual victory. But it will take more than words on a hard drive to convince him. We cannot expect people to join movements that have no hope of achieving their goals. Most of us need to have experiences of successfully exercising collective power to believe that winning is possible.
Step 3: Enabling the leadership of others
After the heist, Andor finds himself unjustly incarcerated in the Empire’s prison system. In order to escape he must convince the other inmates to join him in overpowering the guards. Critical to this strategy is recruiting shift leader, Kino Loy (Andy Serkis), to his cause. Only Kino has the trust and authority amongst the other inmates to inspire an organised uprising.
The most important part of leadership is supporting others to achieve common purpose. So this act of radicalising, recruiting and coaching someone else to lead (in what is probably – fight me – the best episode of TV ever made) is critical to Andor finally becoming a leader himself. Where the covert Aldhani mission only involved a small group of rebels, this mass uprising gives Andor his first experience of the power of the collective. This takes him some of the way towards believing in the ability of people to overthrow the empire and will take him closer to taking responsibility for the rebel cause.
Step 4: Taking responsibility
Even after Andor is part of a successful action on Aldhani and has been given the beginnings of an education from Nemik, he isn’t ready to join the rebellion, and the manifesto is forgotten until the final episodes. Andor comes back to it only after he has led a prison uprising, escaped and is returning home – only because other leaders, like Kino and his own mother, have sacrificed themselves for the cause. From beyond the grave his mother tells him:
He knows everything he needs to know and feels everything he needs to feel, and when the day comes and those two pull together, he will be an unstoppable force for good.
This is the essence of leadership development. We all already have deep knowledge and lived experience of the systems that hurt us, and joyful knowledge of the people and places we are fighting for. When we can acquire the tools to develop strategy and the skills to work with and motivate others – we can become an unstoppable force for good.
In the final episode, Andor will witness his community honour his mother for her revolutionary leadership, practise their culture and rise up against the occupying force. This experience of seeing collective power exercised, combined with a call to action from his own mother, will be the final trigger for him to take responsibility for the goals of the Rebellion.
Analysing the fictional character of Cassian Andor on his journey to leadership, reminds us that we are all the main characters of our own stories. Deciding to contribute to movements that are doing what it takes to challenge systems of oppression is no trivial choice. In order to step into leadership and genuinely learn how to build collective power, we must undergo a transformation. It might not be as cinematic as Andor’s but it is no less important, if we are serious about investing in the leadership of ordinary people to build a better world.
Training Opportunity: Lessons on movement building from Star Wars’ Andor
Cat Nadel is currently gathering expressions of interest for this workshop which will take place either online or in person in Naarm Melbourne, Australia. The workshop will use Andor as a launching pad to discuss how movements can tell powerful stories and organise effectively. It will draw on teachings from ‘This is An Uprising’ (Mark & Paul Engler) and contemporary social movement examples to examine the core principles organisers can use to trigger moments of uprising and transformation.
If you’re interested in participating in this workshop, express your interest.
About the Author and Trainer
Hi I’m Cat (she/they). I’m a social movement organiser and a big nerd and I’m looking for other people who exist at this intersection to discuss Andor with me! I have been organising in the climate and economic justice movements for the last ten years. I’m an experienced facilitator and trainer and have worked with Environment Victoria, the Community Organisng Fellowship and was part of the founding and leadership team at Tomorrow Movement. I’m based on Wurundjeri Country in Naarm/ Melbourne.
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- Leading Change: Leadership, Organization, and Social Movements
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- What makes a good leader for social change?
- Leadership and Leaderful Organizing: Research on Building Leaderful Movements in Europe
- Fiction - Science
- Fiction - Star Wars
- Lessons learned_Reviews_Reflections
- Organising - Community
- Popular culture
- Television Shows