Troubling Solidarity

C.M. Lewis

Solidarity has a new life. Few speeches at a union convention go without some mention of solidarity; it is part of the lingua franca of the labor movement. But now that the rise of the Occupy movement and the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, among other forces, have popularized left-wing rhetoric for a broader audience, it’s worth examining: when we say “solidarity,” what do we mean?

The wider activist set has embraced the language of solidarity—nowadays, it can be heard even on mainstream news media broadcasts. Expressions of solidarity with causes, movements, individuals, and struggles have become commonplace. In organized labor, the language of solidarity has gained new urgency, corresponding with an increase in militant actions such as those we saw during the 2018 educators’ strike wave. In light of this increased militancy, questions of shared struggle and collective action, and how we express those values, have been brought to the fore.

Though the term “solidarity” is undergoing a resurgence, its meaning, and what those who utter it intend to invoke, can often prove confused or ineffectual. The Left can tend to assume that solidarity has a meaning that is both universally understood and intrinsically good. However, the meaning and purpose of solidarity is contested, and can be co-opted. Apps offer chances for monetized solidarity, right at our fingertips. Paid services like Calm offer “mindfulness” exercises to stand in solidarity with the Black community, and elite subscription services like The Jane Club issue “solidarity statements” while charging tiered memberships for community access. It stands on the precipice of becoming a stand-in for a “self-help” ethic or a nebulous gesture at “community,” vaguely connoting leftist principles while its meaning is debased.

Solidarity is connected to community—but if that’s all it is, why is it important? To whom do we owe our solidarity? What are the boundaries of our political community? What does it mean to be in solidarity with a person, community, or cause—and more importantly, what does it demand of us? When we fail to adequately theorize this, it troubles the foundations on which solidarity rests, rendering it a vacuous catch-all. Expressing solidarity becomes not unlike performative “thoughts and prayers”—a shallow and ultimately meaningless gesture that does little to disturb the order of things.

We need to interrogate our definition of solidarity to deepen our understanding beyond shallow invocations. Rather than a fleeting and performative gesture, we should conceive of solidarity as a shared rhetorical space and a common conception of the world, forming the foundation of a political community. It is an entry point to the possibility of collective action and struggle, and is how we define the social forces or classes that have meaning and power; how we view our mutual obligations to one another within that community. To be in solidarity requires that we change our relationships to one another.

So why do we have so much trouble understanding what solidarity means, and understanding the challenge that it offers? It’s not surprising that our conception of solidarity is thin, given the destructiveness of neoliberal capitalism to social cohesion. Margaret Thatcher triumphantly claimed “There is no such thing as society” as the neoliberal project marched to dominate the Western world. Neoliberalism has atomized us and gutted civil society. But in spite of the ravages of free-market ideology, individual and communal relationships remain; governmental and legal structures built upon those social foundations still hold sway. Society may be hollowed out by neoliberalism and the accompanying decline of civil society, but it still continues on.

The existence of social relationships in and of themselves means nothing politically; hence, the political importance of a common language and understanding of solidarity. Solidarity is one of the fundamental underpinnings of class politics and struggle, and is the means by which we inject politics into social (and class) relationships. The existence of a working class does not confer on its members any inherent meaning or power; but solidarity among the working class does: it becomes a class for itself, not just in itself. Solidarity is how existing social relationships are charged with a politicized understanding of what they mean and how they relate to the broader society as a whole.

Thought of that way, solidarity could be tied to E.P. Thompson’s famous reflection: “The working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time… It was present at its own making.” He further argued that class was “something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.” The existence of the relationships does not give them political meaning, but the presence of solidarity within them does.

The connection of solidarity to human relationships, and how it transforms those relationships, is key. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote powerfully on how solidarity transforms and creates an obligation to act in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

King identifies a solidarity threaded through Christian humanism: “a single garment of destiny,” echoed in other Christian theologies. But the key is how he connects that thread to the actions that led him to a jail cell: he could not simply stay in Atlanta. Denunciation from the pulpit to his congregation was not enough. To be in solidarity, he had to travel—and risk his safety—to act with those fighting injustice in Birmingham.

In doing so, King exemplified one of the most crucial and underappreciated aspects of a shared language of solidarity: that it leads to action, rather than solely existing in a rhetorical register. We are required to act for solidarity to be real. To continue in a theological vein, solidarity is an emphatic “Yes” to Cain’s rhetorical question to God: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We are beholden to and responsible for one another.

Yet, two sentences later, King’s letter identifies a tension in the idea of solidarity: that it must end; that there are limits. He finishes by noting, “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” In short, solidarity and the acts it demands exist within boundaries—in Thompson’s case, within one’s “class,” and in King’s case, within the territorial borders of the United States. King’s view of solidarity later developed along with his increasing opposition to the Vietnam War, envisioning a responsibility that transcended national borders.

We can understand solidarity to be the politicization of social relationships, and we can understand that solidarity transforms those relationships by creating bonds of mutuality—ones that demand action. But what are the political implications of different borders of a solidaristic community?

King reflected on nationalist solidarity in his later speech, “Beyond Vietnam.” In speaking out against the war, he explicitly identified the consequences of a “brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village,” and that the Christian solidarity he valued demanded that “[we] speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls ‘enemy,’ for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.” Although he began his social ministry with the aim, as he put it, of “saving the souls of America,” he grew to realize that solidarity demanded upholding a more universal vision of human dignity.

A different definition of our community of solidarity—a different political community, with different obligations—is at the heart of Angela Nagle’s chauvinist social democracy. Nagle, who has found an audience on the ascending proto-fascist right (with patrons like Tucker Carlson), believes that those that matter are those that hold political citizenship within the nation-state. In this conception, our responsibilities end at territorial borders, with a circumscribed community (citizens) even within those borders. Those outside are at best outside the scope of our responsibility or consideration; at worst, Nagle’s vision renders them as a parasitic detriment to social democracy. There is little to differentiate her vision from those that chant “Build the Wall,” except that she wants Medicare for All for those on the “right” side of it.

The political implications of how we define our borders and understanding of solidarity are not restricted to the question of the nation-state, however. The labor movement offers an excellent view of how the boundaries of solidarity have deep political ramifications.

The same dynamic—one of shifting boundaries of community and solidarity—exists in an advanced state within organized labor. Although “solidarity” is invoked in expansive terms, it often meets hard, practical limits. Unions usually define the scope of their community of solidarity at the border of their national or international union; to some, a firefighter owes less (if anything) to a nurse than they do to another firefighter. Others may push those boundaries to embrace the broader organized movement; few define it in terms of class, and even fewer in terms of an international class. When Jimmy Hoffa invoked solidarity, he was not interested in the solidarity of the labor movement; he was interested in the aggressive and narrow solidarity of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters—often pitted against others.

The divide between rhetoric and action can be steep. Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, gave a speech to the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO speaking of solidarity in uncharacteristically expansive terms: “Workers are hurting. When I say workers, I’m not only talking about union members but all working people, regardless of if they carry a union card or one day hope to. Solidarity extends to anyone. Perhaps that promise has never been more important.”

Trumka’s rhetoric powerfully outlined the promise of a class solidarity, rather than the mere solidarity of union siblings. Such rhetoric is relatively rare within organized labor. Unfortunately, the rhetoric has not been matched by action: the AFL-CIO and affiliate unions still perceive their primary responsibility as the already-existing movement, or their membership.

The political problems posed by the gap between expansive rhetoric and narrow action are numerous. Although the public widely approves of unions, the often-parochial nature of the labor movement can make it an alienating place for those that seek to organize. Narrow definitions of solidarity and responsibility help rationalize widespread infighting. A recent letter issued by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 103, justified their decision to cross another union’s picket line while closing the letter “in solidarity.” Unions still raid one another, lobby against each other, and otherwise prioritize their narrow community of solidarity over a broader political community. This is not a new dynamic; historically, unions (prodded by leaders like Samuel Gompers) have frequently acted against universal social programs out of perceived self-interest, placing the interests of their membership, or segments of their membership, over a more expansive solidarity.

It would be easy to portray these moments as “failures” or “betrayals” of solidarity—and on some level, they are. But they’re better understood as a mixture of institutional constraints, internal and external pressures, and a weak notion of solidarity that allows for rationalizations that narrow gains outweigh broader obligations.

Some unionists, however, are pushing for more powerful visions of solidarity—ones that back rhetoric with action. Sarah Nelson and AFA-CWA threatened strikes in solidarity with Chicago teachers and support staff, a move that held no immediate material gain for the Association of Flight Attendants, but which placed greater pressure on Chicago Public Schools to settle in favor of education workers. Workers in Ann Arbor are taking job actions in solidarity with striking graduate assistants, who are launching the first education safety strike of the COVID-19 era. In an exciting development out of South Dakota, new South Dakota AFL-CIO President Kooper Caraway has explicitly crafted a vision of an expansive, working-class solidarity in a state with some of the lowest union density outside of the South.

In short, the parochialism of some elements of labor is not an inevitability—it is a choice. When we view our obligations towards our solidary communities more widely, our priorities and political horizons change.

The consequences of failing to interrogate our notions of solidarity and understand it as a contested terrain are grim. Trump inaugurated his presidency appealing to the solidarity of the white, Christian ethno-state: a frightening echo of the “Faith and Fatherland” and “Blud und Boden” fascism of the 1930s. He has continued to invoke it throughout his administration. Many forget that solidarity is valuable coin for the fascists, too. But when they define their community, their vision is, of course, far from a universal or emancipatory one.

Many were led to fascism by a weak understanding of solidarity and struggle: syndicalists, like Georges Sorel, believed in solidarity and the connection between struggle and progress. But they never theorized what that meant: instead, they fetishized struggle and unity itself, without a broader politics of emancipation or a purpose behind the struggle. Poorly understood syndicalist politics led some down the road to fascism in Ireland, Italy, and France, showing that solidarity itself—something they exhibited and believed in—is not an innately progressive concept, and can be turned to dark ends.

Solidarity alone is insufficient—nor is a perfect understanding or embodiment of solidarity a prefigurative requirement for true political action or liberation. Contra the spontaneity fetishized by some segments of the Left, and contra inward-looking prefigurative community building, we will not topple capitalism without an expansive view that understands that organization is the weapon that will shift the social order. Solidarity is in contact with the world; it is not made in a lab. It both drives change and is changed in turn by our efforts to make something new.

But even if solidarity itself is not enough, solidarity is not meaningless. Far from it. Solidarity is the mortar that binds organizers and organizations together; it is a crucial part of any emancipatory project. Although solidarity itself will not topple capitalism, we cannot topple capitalism without it.

It will not be without flaws. Ideology does not exist in a vacuum; we cannot immediately impose our desired politics on the world around us, and there is no “perfect” line or “pure” political position. Marx was clear on this: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Solidarity, as with any broader politics, will be interpreted, applied, and made real based upon circumstances that are in no small part out of our control.

Understanding that our solidarity will not be perfect does not excuse an attenuated understanding of what solidarity is or what it demands of us. When we invoke solidarity, we must understand exactly what we are invoking, and the awesome power behind it—to ensure that when we act, we act to make true solidarity manifest in the world. ♦

C.M. Lewis is an editor of the labor publication Strikewave and a union activist in Pennsylvania.

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