The Andor Dilemma: Pop Culture’s Place in Leftist Strategy

The Andor Dilemma: Pop Culture’s Place in Leftist Strategy
Pexels, photo by Mike B

This is about the role of pop culture on the left, not how good Andor is. I mean, Andor is the best thing in the Star Wars universe. And it’s the most radical thing I’ve seen on TV maybe ever. But that's a low bar and others have covered that beat.

If you don’t spend your time monitoring and making sense of the left intelligentsia, you might have missed a recent Twitter debate about cultural products like Andor.

David Austin Walsh is raising a point here that’s widely shared on Left Twitter, which is effectively that Andor is a compelling pop-cultural introduction to leftist politics. It’s subversive in the sense that its story is explicitly anti-imperial, democratic, and revolutionary. And because Star Wars easily has the largest fandom outside of a mainstream religion, it will reach (and is reaching) a massive audience. Liberals love it. I’ve seen centrist military bros gushing about how much they love it. Even the right-wing National Review mustered a positive review.

But Malcolm Harris, a no-shit revolutionary whom I’ve had as a guest on the pod, has an important dissenting view.

The thread goes on for a long time, but I read Malcolm as making two arguments.

One, Andor’s success redounds to the benefit of Disney, a bloodsucking, lowest-common-denominator megacorporation. Disney represents nothing more than an extreme concentration of capital that profits off of screen-addled minds. It sucks blood because that’s the relationship of capital to labor. And when Andor wins, Disney wins. It’s an extension of the argument that “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.”

Two, leftists should not be preoccupied with brain-candy cultural products that are just oversimplified, intellectually thin versions of real revolutionary and anticolonial history. Talking about Andor is not political action, and if you’re already on the left, it conveys nothing new. Committed leftists should be either putting in work organizing or reading up on a vast intellectual canon much richer than anything you can find on TV.

I’m not rehashing this to proclaim David or Malcolm correct, but rather because it surfaces an unresolved question about where culture and cultural consumption fits in building power on behalf of a democratic movement (i.e., for the left).

In the pages of Jacobin, Dissent, and N+1 (all great zines), it’s not hard to find proponents of a revisionist view that portrays the old New Left as having forsaken critiques of capitalism and demands for material equality in pursuit of political rights and symbolic equality.

There’s a nugget of valid critique in there, but it’s an incorrect reading of the New Left. It is, however, a reasonable take on the Frankfurt School and its influence. Leftist intellectuals during the Cold War increasingly drifted away from their labor roots in favor of analyzing “discourse” and critiquing mass media.

Today, the prevailing vibe on the left is updating for this drift. The left once again centers economic democracy—labor unions and local organizing is the cool shit. There seems to be a broad consensus now that if you proceed with a politics that separates “the political” and “the economic,” what you end up with is elite capture; the thinnest version of democracy. This is what the Democratic Party has done, by design, since the 1970s.

But is power in the culture, or in the proletariat? A consensus over ends (economic democracy) masks a dissensus over ways and means. There is no real agreement about leftist strategy for building power.

In what you might unofficially consider the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) view, the left needs to be as anti-capitalist as electoral politics allows. Organizing ought to be focused on labor struggles. This is noble work, and responds to a real problem, but I still don't know if it's good strategy. Union density is recovering from record lows. We've yet to build worker power at modern-day points of production like semiconductor factories. And it's unlikely that a national security-anchored economy will ever give workers an adequate share of the national income.

The Working Families Party (WFP), by contrast, has adopted a culturally grounded strategy to building power for the left. WFP is self-consciously intersectional in its outlook, leaning into race and gender politics and prioritizing social justice. This too is noble work, and it happens to now involve building a campaign that attaches to, of all things, Bravo TV and the “Real Housewives” set. This is not something you’d ever see DSA do. WFP’s director of strategy and partnerships even went on Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Liveas part of this strategy.

Bravo TV is cosmopolitan. Reality TV garbage does cut across categories of race, gender, and class (I watch it sometimes). And you can’t say WFP isn’t materialist—their policy demands are focused on the working class, and they’re seeking economic democracy. Also, how can you ever have social justice without economic justice?

But the novelty of what WFP is doing is that it bucks the cool-left focus on labor in favor of trying to reach people through the culture. This seems on-brand for WFP, which also endorsed Cynthia Nixon (the Sex & the City star) for governor of New York in 2018 (so did NYC-DSA, though it did so with reservations).

There’s a plausible theory of change here that requires you view culture as inseparable from political economy. That’s how it worked in the 1930s, when a lot of the popular energy of the Popular Front—a pan-left antifascist coalition of liberals, socialists, communists, labor unions, feminists, peace groups, and civil rights activists)—was explicitly cultural. Michael Denning’s book The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century documented how Hollywood, musicians, and the literary left together created a zeitgeist favoring the politics of the Popular Front.

I was also reading Stuart Hall’s memoir recently and he had this to say about identity:

Identity is not a set of fixed attributes…but a constantly shifting process of positioning. We tend to think of identity as taking us back to our roots, the part of us which remains essentially the same across time. In fact identity is always a never-completed process of becoming—a process of shifting identifications.

This is how we should think about identity—as malleable and composed of a series of things we associate with. Some of the things we identify with will be the result of class position, of course, but that is not severable from culture, which can actually mediate class position. Growing up poor steered me toward certain cultural affects like hip-hop. My class position changed as I got older but hip-hop’s urban reportage and anti-oppression politics was my gateway to studying political sociology and authors like Mike Davis.

Your cultural affinities are the various intersections that shape and shove your life. They can be an on-ramp to politics because they can be both mechanisms for and sites of collective action.

I don’t know if WFP’s strategy will pay off, just like I don’t know whether Andor becomes a foothold for anyone’s political awakening. But I know you can’t be in freedom-fighter mode 24/7. I know that people steep in culture for a long time before they become politically active. And I know firsthand that leftist tastemakers are, ironically and with very few exceptions, elitist, exclusionary, and debilitatingly high brow.

But I also know that if a Disney TV show is the horizon of your political imagination, then you’ve got work to do.