Their labor is all the more praiseworthy in that they will not see the fruits of their sacrifices; but they can be certain that their labor will not be wasted. Nothing in this world is ever lost; tiny drops of water form the ocean. — Mikhail Bakunin
There’s no doubt that the latest Star Wars film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, provides an uncanny reflection of our own times. The movie was released at the tail-end of a year that saw the death of countless poets, the demise of popular democracy across multiple countries, and the increasingly visible reconfiguration of a nationalist tendency throughout the global north. Looking towards next year, with the coming elections in both Germany and France, it should be clear that 2016 was not just one unjust, anomalous year — rather, its the first bad year in a new cycle defined by injustice.
Likewise, Rogue One allows a preview into a world defined by a long cycle of injustice, where popular forces have been beat back for decades under the iron grip of authoritarianism. This long wave of loss is feelable throughout the film — the dirty surroundings that define the home-bases and the avenues of rebellious factions, the constant necessity to hide oneself and not cause attention, the constant worry of each and every character of having been fed yet another half-truth wrapped in deception.
Indeed, the heroes of this film are not cheery space-pirates, fresh and naive farm-boys, or galactic princesses. The heroes of Rogue One are, as Antje told me the other day, the losers, the down-and-out, the poor of faith and everything else. They’re monks whose temple has been pillaged and who’ve lost their faith; they’re people who lost everything as children and know little more than crime; they’re reprogrammed droids who wear a platting incongruent with their identity; accented people who’ve sacrificed their peace-of-heart for a fading hope. If we didn’t know already how the following episodes would end, these characters would be little more than sad jokes. Their uphill battle that is met with disillusionment, hostility, and hopelessness by members of their own resistance at each and every turn is a reflection of much of the same hopelessness that defines our times.
But through the course of a struggle that transforms an unbounded dread into a vulnerable hope the audience of Rogue One learns that history is not only malleable and open to intervention, but that if we are to make an impact on our world capable of upending the tyranny that currently defines our unfixed future, we must transform ourselves and the ways we resist. To be sure, Rogue One is at once a criticism of the resistances that have come to define our times and a proposition for how to move forward.
The Ballad of Saw Gerrera
The character of Saw Gerrera is one of the more pivotal in the film. An old and isolated guerrilla leader, Gerrera symbolizes the most radical tendencies of the Left today and bears the image of yesteryear’s rag-tag revolutionaries that faded with the new time.
Senator Mon Mothma laments in her briefing of Jyn Erso that Gerrera’s radicalism has often times been a hindrance of the Rebel alliance to which he once belonged. Gerrera, a founding member of the alliance, had departed from its ranks for its dedication to more peaceful avenues of negotiation with the Empire.
In this separation of forces, we see Gerrera’s departure from the alliance stands as a criticism against it’s seeming cooperation with the Empire. That is, in attempting to gain space through the avenues provided by the Empire, Gerrera sees a fruitless and futile endeavor. Like yesteryear’s Partisans, Gerrera understands there’s nothing to gain in playing a more centrist route and moves to the position of vanguard fighter.
In so doing however, Gerrera fights a long and protracted underground war against the Empire (his mountain hideaway brings to mind Pancho Villa’s long retreat through the Sierra Madre from pursuing American soldiers). This long war has left him isolated and incapable of bringing about any visible or decisive victory against the Empire. His attacks do little more than rob time from the hands of the Empire, while also putting the lives of bystanders at hazard. On the front against the Empire, he is alone. The vanguard has detached itself from the multitude it claims to represent, thus finding itself surrounded with no outside support and caught in a cycle of action and re-action leaving Gerrera and his fighters fatigued, damaged, and paranoid.
While Gerrera is most visibly a reminder of Che-like figures, Gerrera is today the many Left cells and organizations that exist across the global north. Like Gerrera, these forces see the coming age of barbarism and have made no room for debate on how to fight against Right-wing authoritarianism. Many of these organizations have memberships that number in the hundreds or even thousands, but many more have memberships that number in the dozens. And while their analysis may be far more genuine and realistic, there is an inability to populate these organizations.
The reasons are many. For starters, their radical actions are largely de-legitimatized. Actions are always symbolic whether they are meant to be or not, and people have to be able to have the literacy to read them. In the most basic sense, most people can read an action — like stopping a freeway or amassing on the streets — and compare it to the demand it wishes to propel (without which, the action is largely unreadable to most people and there is no marker for success or failure). If the action fails to bear the fruit it claims it will, people will not believe in the utility of the action deployed. Agents and actors may deploy an action repeatedly (in the same way a boxer throws punches repeatedly, as few boxing matches end with a single punch), and if this repeated endeavor ultimately gets the goods, then these forces will win popular support.
However, neither Gerrera or much of today’s radical Left have produced any tangible difference. While I can say I am happy that at least there is a Gerrera or a radical Left doing something, that something does not cripple the Empire. So what does?
While this vanguard may seem inept, it has a role. Without absolving it of criticisms, we must understand this vanguard force, this component within a broader configuration of opposition and counter-power.
The Orchestra of Counter-Forces
While Gerrera had abandoned the more centrist component of the resistance — the actual Rebel alliance — we must keep in mind that this alliance was still against the Empire and had far more popular support than did Gerrera. This popular component of resistance no doubt allowed for a great many infrastructures of dissent (to quote Alan Sears) to be established. It had not only developed expansive networks of resistance across the galaxy, but it had developed counter-infrastructures like bases and the like.
If Gerrera were to be the detached, underground component, the Alliance would then be the half-underground, half-open organizational form that is fighting on multiple fronts. While Gerrera is committed to a more overt frontal assault, the resistance engages within the senate, and without. It is extra-parliamentary and parliamentary. Cassian Andors and his operations are of a more covert nature than Gerrera’s but nonetheless subversive. While the resistance may indeed operate on multiple planes, it’s this ability to capture popular support that makes it functional. Simply put, it is its mass structure and character that makes it successful. The strength of the Alliance derives from its mass — in difference to Gerrera’s crippled forces. It has successfully been able to create a complex organizational structure that includes a multiplicity of voices and unites them in a diversity of attacks towards a unified end.
This orchestra of forces is not without its conflict. To be sure, when Jyn Erso presents her findings to the council on Yavin 4, discord is the immediate result. Before the precipice of history, division always follows. The discovery of the Death Star’s creation forces the hand of the Rebellion to act, and walking away is the easiest response. However, division — as much in the movie as in reality — is sure to bring about failure. This is not to say that discord should be erased under the banner of supreme unity, but rather unity can mean discord — and it should mean the ability to say “no.”
In his essay on disobedience, Erich Fromm posits that freedom stems from the ability of individuals to disobey. Looking back at the history of human development, every advance in freedom came with the ability to say no. That is, the freedoms we know (however limited they may be) is “only because there were men [sic] who dared to say no to the powers that be in the name of their conscience or their faith.” This is not unlike the famous Zapatista declaration of “Basta!” Fromm further observes that “in order to disobey, one must have the courage to be alone, to err, and to sin.” Following this thought still further, it brings to mind Foucault’s democratic proposition of parhessia, wherein we, as agents of democracy, must say what is right, even if it may kill us. Democracy demands the ability to dissent, and where dissent is not allowed, one can hardly call that democracy. In this way, Fromm recognizes that disobedience, rather than obedience, is the virtue of democracy.
Throughout the film, Cassian Andors, as a rank-and-file representative of the Alliance, struggles with his relationship to the Rebellion. Our first introduction to Andors produces unease as he kills his own informant in order to steal away information that the Death Star is being constructed. Later, he is ordered to assassinate Galen Erso, an order he does not carryout. When being lambasted by Galen’s daughter, Jyn, for attempting to murder her father, Cassian rebukes her inability to see beyond isolated actions and her inability to understand the struggle that relationships naturally entail.
All of this leads to the greatest act of disobedience by Cassian when, as the Alliance struggles to remain united, Cassian and his rag-tag team of D-Day fighters (my friend Roger made it clear that their appearance is a complete nod-of-the-head to American D-Day invaders) decide to dissent against the decision of the Alliance to not pursue the plans of the Death Star.
Disobeying, the team now hailed as their ad-hoc call-sign “Rogue One” reclaims the mantle of popular power. The Alliance is presented with a choice — pursue these dissidents and crush them, or correct their own action and move with them. Had it done the former, the Alliance would have repeated the experiment of Soviet Russia. However, in having corrected its line of action, to include dissent, to support dissent, even at the cost of failure — it has taken up the mantle of democracy and popular power.
No doubt, this decision was a strategic question. The Alliance could have let Rogue One meet its failure and disavowed their action. However, this would have occurred alongside the dissolution of the Alliance (and thus the dissolution of resistance) which prior to Cassian’s dissent, was incapable of acting at the precipice of history as the Death Star marked the end of non-violent, democratic means. It signaled the end of negotiations by part of the Empire. The Death Star thus signals to the Alliance: militaristic warfare or submission. All other avenues had been exhausted. In backing Rogue One, the Alliance recaptures the spirit of popular power.
While Saw functions as a sort of isolated, vanguard fighting force, and the Alliance operates as an orchestra of multitudinous forces across multiple sites, there is still the role of unconnected individuals.
The Lovesong of Galen and Jyn Erso
Jyn and Galen Erso (along with everyone else part of team Rogue One) are the most intriguing figures for times defined by individualism. A certain life-stylism has come to define hegemonic practices within much of the Left. Many of the Left work within academia, the NGO sector, or small-businesses and often criticize people who work in positions that more “pro-capital” or “pro-state” — as if any of the previously mentioned sectors are not themselves conduits of either the state or capital. Likewise, participation within the left often requires a steep learning curve as jargon, analysis, and practices themselves are often alienating to the initiated.
Galen Erso’s collaboration with the empire is no doubt forced. However, he flexes his power as a worker (despite his position of privilege) and conducts slow-downs across the span of Jyn’s life, buying the rebellion decades of time. Just as importantly, he builds the Death Star’s famed fatal flaw (much punned in Family Guy “as kinda an aesthetic choice by the architect”).
And yet, this act of resistance would have been useless had this information not been communicated, had it not been stitched together as part of a broader fabric-work of resistance.
In other words, this individual act of resistance would have been absolutely meaningless unless it was not included into the broader orchestra of forces. And the same could be said of every other individual working towards this end. Had it not been for Galen and his subversive work, the Death Star would have indeed been indestructible. Had there not been Saw’s fighting vanguard that was trusted by Galen, Bodhi Rook (the Imperial pilot!) would not have been able to pass the plans forward. Had Baze Malbus and Chirrut Imwe not stepped in to save Cassian and Jyn, they would have never made it to Saw’s hideout. And had Jyn, the “everyman,” continued to decide that it’s OK to live under the banner of the Empire so long as one does not look up to the skies, then Cassian’s mission would have ended there.
Each character was invited to step forward and work with a collective, not knowing what their role would be. Each life thereafter lost gained significance through the development of the Rebellion. None of the character’s knew they were going to die in this struggle. None of them knew that this set the stage for a new hope (pun intended). But they all acted, they all accepted the invitation to respond in rebellion together.
A Rebel Alliance in Our Galaxy?
Across the global north, new configurations of resistance are being developed. A certain “Trump Effect” is visible that has caused some on the left to temporarily put aside sectarianisms, to not only stand in protest together, but to think about coordinating our resistance together.
And yet there is great difficulty. The threat to dissolve our uneasy alliances is constantly there, and when dealing with heterogeneity of perspectives, I doubt those will disappear overnight — or ever. If we value heterogeneity, then the ability to dissent will constantly remain. The most radical will likely continue in self-isolation.
To quote a friend, the Left will be mass, or it will be nothing. While intellectuals like Jodi Dean call for a return to the communist party, it’s largely unimaginable and undesirable that the field on the left be flattened to a single actor. And that means working together across organizations. And that means working across viewpoints. And that means moving beyond a my-way-or-the-highway mentality. Of course — there will be lines that cannot be crossed, but that does not mean that working together will ever be easy. The historical moment demands we not only come together, but we find ways to stick together —and that togetherness must propel the interests of dissent in a constructive way.
Yet if we expect people to join an alliance, the left has to come up with a program it can win and actually deliver the goods. We can’t keep going back to the same old repertoire of words and actions and expect somehow, this time it’ll be different. Our strategies, our tactics, our slogans — all of this will be de-legitimized if we continue to lose. Hope is not enough. Victory is needed too.
Furthermore, the Left must be able to develop many roles for different kinds of persons with different kinds of capacities. Some people cannot simply abandon the position they are in, but they can still be subversive and contribute to the broader orchestra of rebellious forces. We need activists who fill the scene and we need organizers to be the architects and builders of moments and movements. But we also need everyday people who never dreamed themselves rebels, and their rebellion must be an incremental process — as was ours. The point is that that subversion must be connected in some way that further propels the objectives of the rebellion. And that’s why we have to come up with ways to integrate people where they’re at. Individual responses must be abandoned as individuals join into the ocean of forces.
Lastly, rebellion doesn’t feel good. It takes sacrifice. The moment we are in and the forces we must muster demands enormous sacrifices. While our own reproduction is no doubt necessary, expressions of ‘self-love’ have their limit — especially within a surrounding that wants many of us dead, deported, or without work. The ability to know one’s limits is unquestionably necessary: at a personal level, we all have to retreat sometime. However, that further speaks for the necessity for a broader organization to pick up that slack and fill the gaps.
Daniel Gutiérrez is an organizer and analyst caught in the web of academia, he daydreams about political structures, forms, and basketball. Scotch whiskey, he thinks, is alright, too.