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One for All

To avert global catastrophe, we urgently need to resurrect the ancient ideal of solidarity.

As you’ve probably heard, UN scientists recently warned that we have eleven years to avert climate disaster. We face a civilizational crisis that can only be solved by unprecedented action on an unprecedented scale. To avert this crisis, we must begin to see our fates as linked and make good on that insight. The culture of the atomized individual has brought us to the brink. Our obsession with wealth and power has turned out to be the path to destruction, of our habitat and ourselves. If we want to find a way forward, we must adopt a fundamentally different vision of human enterprise and shared endeavor. 

Fortunately, one such model is hiding in plain sight, a framework that must play a central role if we are going to equitably address the biggest existential threat we have ever faced. It dates all the way back to ancient Rome, but in contemporary political discourse, it doesn’t surface all that much beyond certain left-leaning activist circles where people often end their emails with the sign off “in solidarity.” The idea of solidarity describes the ways in which we are bound together and how we can act, in concert, to change our circumstances. 

Not that it’s all that easy to spot and harness the idea of solidarity in the wild. Indeed, our culture is currently awash in semblances of solidarity that, even when well-intentioned or laudable, fall short of the real thing. Consider common appeals to allyship and altruism; such locutions convey a sort of optional quality, a moralistic tone, and unreliable trendiness. They are invitations to be a good and generous person, rather than the necessary expressions of our interdependence. They’re thus woefully unequal to the task of sparking concerted mass action on the scale we now urgently need. 

Meanwhile, high-profile aspiring leaders, such as billionaires Howard Schultz and Mike Bloomberg, prefer to speak of “empathy” and “helping others.” While again laudable as a personal quality, empathy tends to fall apart entirely as a precept for democratic political mobilization. Simply put, there’s a profound disparity of social power embedded within its practice. As employed by the Schultzes and Bloombergs of the world, it signals a constellation of feelings that members of our power elite are able to beneficently lavish on the less affluent and more oppressed. (And of course these same powerful political actors tend to express nothing but contempt out of the other side of their compassionate mouths for anyone trying to alleviate poverty by taxing their fortunes.)

People of means have long preferred charity—and its institutionalized counterpart, philanthropy—to solidarity. Under the virtuous-sounding guise of charity, the rich and powerful can bestow kindness from on high, without feeling implicated in or responsible for the systems that produce poverty and oppression in the first place. As Anand Giridharadas reveals in his bracing 2018 bookWinners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, philanthropy is structured so as to leave the distinction between the giver and the receiver intact. In this deeply retrograde dynamic, donors and patrons reap uncritical plaudits for their generosity without prodding the discourse toward any serious discussion of the sort of change that might produce a fairer society in which billionaire philanthropists no longer exist. (Billionaire Robert F. Smith’s recent commitment of approximately $40 million to pay off the student loans of Morehouse College’s 2019 graduating class was a touching random act of kindness, but that money could have been invested in grassroots organizing and lobbying to fight for free higher education as a right, not a gift.) Solidarity, in contrast to charity and philanthropy, isn’t one-sided. It is a form of reciprocity rooted in the acknowledgment that our lives are intertwined.

One important proviso here is that intertwined does not mean indistinguishable—because solidarity also entails the core recognition that we are not all exactly alike. In complex ways, solidarity is related to, but distinct from, identity. In his 2006 essay, “In Search of Solidarity,” Chris Hayes wrote that solidarity takes two forms, “mundane” and “sublime.” The mundane brand—which relates to what is often called identity politics—unites like to like, affirming sameness. That move can be empowering and divisive, depending on the specific case and context. But in solidarity’s more sublime register, a group or individual gazes outward, reaching past similarity toward something more capacious. A solidarity aiming at transformational change—the horizon toward which solidarity must now, of necessity, be directed—demands we not just recognize and sympathize with the plight of others but also join them as equals, reaching across differences without erasing them. Solidarity in its sublime form shatters the boundaries of identity, connecting us to others even when we are not the same.

It can be a method of forming and affirming social and political relationships across difference, uniting people around not just common interests, but common economic interests. Solidarity isn’t a feeling or affect, a fuzzy sense of connection or unity; nor is it a preexisting bond within an established and stable group, a kind of tribalism. Unlike identity, solidarity is not something you have, it is something you do—a set of actions taken toward a common goal. Inasmuch as it is something experienced, it is not a given but must be generated; it must be made, not found. Solidarity both produces community and is rooted in it, and is thus simultaneously a means and an end. Solidarity is the practice of helping people realize that they—that is to say, we—are all in this together.

This central insight has profound implications not just for social movements, which must foster solidarity to push for change, but also for the broader questions of just how we conceive of and organize society. Especially in this precarious time, when we face numerous global crises, from capitalism run amok to climate change, the concept of solidarity is a crucial template for day-to-day organizing, and for fresh thinking about stubborn social problems. The Green New Deal is a prime example. Like the original New Deal, this economic and ecological game changer will only be won through struggle—the coalition required must be enormous and varied, uniting labor, youth, scientists, indigenous and frontline communities, and so on, with an understanding that the challenge we face is global in scope. A just transformation of our society on the necessary scale will not come about through philanthropy or identity politics. Solidarity will be key.

Plenty of books aimed at a popular audience explore democracy, liberalism, empathy, identity, and even fraternity, but solidarity has never been given a similar treatment. No wonder, then, that even those who would like to see more solidarity in the world often know little about the concept’s history.

Today, solidarity’s ancient roots are mostly forgotten, but its economic component was on full display from the beginning. And it’s now clearer than ever that this core material dimension must suffuse any serious invocation of the word.

The idea first emerged in the legal books of the ancient Roman Empire. When people held a debt in common, they were said to hold it “in solidum.” In other words, the state of being on the hook as a group was the basis of solidarity. If one individual faltered, the group had to step up—meaning that its members would be either bailing one another out or defaulting together. Thus, from its genesis, solidarity had a financial component that raised the stakes. In this original formulation, solidarity is a common identity underpinned by collective indebtedness and obligation, shared responsibility and shared risk, a state of interdependence and mutual aid. Terms like “bonds” and “trust” and “mutual funds” are now used by bankers to describe financial structures and agreements; solidarity turns such notions around to strengthen the ties among a community of debtors instead of affirming a contract with a creditor.

After its brief appearance in ancient Roman law, solidarity was mostly forgotten until the modern age. In the 1700s, a reorganization began taking place across Europe. The question emerged: What would hold society together without God or King? As monarchy and religious orthodoxy came into question, how were people to refashion society under new norms?

In France, the concepts of liberty, equality, and fraternity formed a trinity of values that would guide the revolution. But the conception of fraternity itself proved limited. It implied a blood kinship that was inadequate to the modern, pluralistic nation-state. The French politician Léon Bourgeois asked: Is solidarity “just a new word, a change of language? Or does this word express a truly new idea, and indicate an evolution in thought?” It seemed that the idea of solidarity, while it resembled fraternity, was something quite different. Fraternity was believed to be natural, innate. Solidarity, by contrast, had to be cultivated: It was the practice of creating social ties, actively inventing collective identity.

In the early 1800s, the term became central to the fledgling labor movement. Craftsmen from an array of industries, who once saw themselves as separate, as cobblers or bricklayers, began to see themselves as sharing a larger, common character: They were all workers. With industrialization, this shared identity could be fostered on the factory floor. But it was through acts of resistance, especially militant strikes, that this common bond became a source of leverage, a force that could change the conditions under which one toils.

As the labor movement began gaining traction—agitating along to the theme of the movement’s anthemSolidarity Forever”—the French sociologist Émile Durkheim also set out to discover what created solidarity and held societies together. Durkheim writes that solidarity is generated through a shared sense of the sacred. Every society, he observes, has a set of rituals around what its members consider sacred or profane. And these rituals—these sets of collective actions—knit us together. (The late–nineteenth-century American socialist Edward Bellamy, author of the classic utopian novel Looking Backward, built on the same set of social assumptions in advancing his idea of a spiritually infused brand of American nationalism—something he dubbed “the religion of solidarity.”)

But these inchoate understandings of social belonging soon began to erode under the corrosive pressures of modern industrial life. Modernity made the individual sacred, producing a paradoxical effect that still hangs over us. We are held together by our recognition of individual rights—yet our individualism is overpowering our sense of community and starting to eat away at the fabric of society.

In the twentieth century, the term “solidarity became more frequently associated with efforts on behalf of one group to express a commitment to another. We see the term used increasingly in conjunction with international campaigns in support of communities that are resisting either oppressive governments, or the oppressive actions of their own governments upon others. The Central American Solidarity Movement emerged in the 1980s, and recruited citizens of the United States to support the people of Nicaragua and El Salvador, fighting together against U.S. interventions in Latin America. The International Solidarity Movement was created to support Palestinians in their fight for recognition and statehood. In these cases, solidarity was not an expression of empathy or benevolence, but the response required by an understanding of one’s own unacceptable complicity.

In Poland, where the term is often associated with the movement “Solidarnosc,” solidarity was upheld as the thread knitting together workers, community members, and the Church. It denoted a concerted effort to bridge the many segments of society to create a movement against Soviet control of the state and for worker-led socialism. As Józef Tischner, the movement chaplain, wrote, “Solidarity means to carry one another’s burden.” Unfortunately, in Poland’s effort to adopt this social ideal, the “international community” encouraged the movement’s leaders to pursue a neoliberal approach to economic development—and ultimately, that initiative undermined the transformative potential of the movement.

Whether in Poland or here in the United States, the neoliberal model promotes the market as the solution to our political ills, the path to efficiency, prosperity, and individual freedom. Under capitalism more generally, our daily rituals of buying and selling and trying to get ahead become the only practices that unite us. And this has meant that, instead of solidarity connecting us across difference, the language of exchange, of spending and investing, has increasingly become our common tongue. Whereas the revolutionary ideal of democracy sought a way to connect us as citizens, now the market ties us together as consumers—and simultaneously pushes us apart. Profit is sacred. Poverty is profane. Solidarity disappears.

That is, of course, precisely the point. Political and economic elites fear nothing more than the plebs of the world uniting to challenge their rule, which is what sublime solidarity aims to do. Marx and Engels movingly envisioned a form of class solidarity extending across borders and nationalities, yoking together strangers alienated and exploited by the same economic forces. Sadly, this exalted, transformative version of solidarity has only fitfully manifested and proved difficult to maintain, in large part because plutocrats and politicians have mastered a strategy of divide and conquer. 

The quote often attributed to robber baron Jay Gould—“I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half”—may never have been uttered by the man, but the basic sentiment holds. Fearing the power of solidarity, employers foment divisions among their workers, typically along racial, ethnic, and gendered lines. (In his excellent 2011 book Carbon Democracy, historian Timothy Mitchell describes how oil companies at the dawn of the twentieth century encouraged ethnic and racial conflict among their labor force in order to weaken it, creating “separate racial groups, with managers, skilled workers and unskilled workers housed and treated separately” in order to keep wages low and revenue high.) As Asad Haider argues in his 2018 study Mistaken Identity, racism’s primary function is to divide the exploited, producing hierarchies of privilege and redirecting anger away from employers, and the capitalist class more broadly, toward other social groups, who are seen as competitors and threats instead of potential comrades. 

Solidarity is the antidote to this sort of division; its practice permits otherwise isolated political actors to transcend their own limited personal experiences and build coalitions. But precisely because these coalitions are what the powerful fear most, they have taken extraordinary steps to make solidarity illegal. The limit-case of this strategy was 1947’s Taft-Hartley Act, which rolled back many of the basic collective-bargaining provisions secured during the heyday of the New Deal. Indeed, when the act was signed into law, Businessweek heralded it as nothing less than a “New Deal for America’s Employers.” Among its other provisions, the law prohibited jurisdictional and wildcat strikes as well as secondary boycotts or pickets—in other words, it drastically curtailed the right of workers to engage in solidarity action. “The law’s ban on secondary boycotts and strikes undermined local solidarity, especially in metropolitan settings where smaller, place-based locals had historically engaged in mutual strategic and political support,” historian Colin Gordon explains. Union members found themselves legally bound to fight only for themselves, which defies one of the foundational tenets of union membership: that an injury to one is an injury to all. Today, the Supreme Court is positioned to advance the right’s war on solidarity through further attacks on labor unions, following the recent Janus decision, which took aim at the ability of unions to collect dues. (Meanwhile, in the U.K., the Labour Party is pushing a proposal to allow sympathy strikes, so that domestic workers can agitate on behalf of workers abroad.)

But it’s not only collective, organized manifestations of solidarity that are imperiled. Even private, spontaneous gestures of kindness must be squelched. Across Europe and in the United States, voluntary action to help migrants, including those on the brink of death, is forbidden. A French farmer was tried in 2017 for housing migrants (though the court later ruled that his action was legitimate on the basis of “fraternity”), while a Swedish journalist was dubbed a “human trafficker” and fined for helping a 15-year-old Syrian get to Sweden in 2014. In the United States, meanwhile, a government lawyer in Marfa, Texas, was arrested in February 2019 for giving a ride to three siblings, including an ill teenager, that she saw on the side of the road, and an Arizona activist faced 20 years in prison for providing clothing and shelter to those in need—“harboring certain aliens” in the dehumanizing language of the law. (His trial resulted in a hung jury.) Many Western societies now treat it as a crime to answer the call of one’s conscience—and have enacted draconian penalties for committing an act of solidarity. 


Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its original coinage within the ancient Roman credit systems, solidarity reemerged in eighteenth-century political discourse in conjunction with questions of debt. But this time around, the focus broadened beyond specific lending arrangements to ask: Who owes what to whom?

In 1900, a conference in France addressed the political ideal. Stephen Lukes, the British political theorist and biographer of Émile Durkheim, writes, “The Congress concluded with a resolution stating the meaning and implications of the notion of solidarité—the idea of justice as the repayment of a ‘social debt’ by the privileged to the underprivileged, assuming mutual interdependence and quasi-contractual obligations between all citizens and implying a programme of public education, social insurance, and labour and welfare legislation.” In 1895, Léon Bourgeois wrote, “Man is born a debtor to humanity.” From the moment we enter the world, Bourgeois notes, we are bound into webs of relationships—past and future. And solidarity, he argues, is the expression of the intrinsic debts we have to one another.

Solidarity was central to arguments justifying the creation of social safety nets, as well as to the idea that taxes are how we pay the social debts we are all born owing. And at the level of direct organizing, solidarity furnished the framework for the grassroots movements—which preached the need for solidarity and practiced it in deed—that successfully fought for such entitlements from below.

The modern welfare state was a massive breakthrough. Unfortunately, however, today’s social services are run more on the model of charity—invoked via a far less democratic and accountable social ideal of liberal beneficence—than radical solidarity. In the absence of any coherent social ethos of solidarity, the rich will always ask why they should have to “give” to undeserving others, and balk at having to pay their fair share. And then there is the problem of how the state operates once it is fully funded. Currently, the state is set up as a provider of services, a dispenser of welfare to recipients, as opposed to something that grants regular people any direct stake in its operations or ownership. In popular mythology, the government is portrayed as a monster, seizing private property through taxation, or as a smothering mother, the infamous nanny state.

These guiding tropes are all in play in the emerging debate over the Green New Deal. Solidarity, the building of bonds and diverse coalitions, will be essential to the struggle for a more ecologically sustainable and economically just world. At the same time, of course, the powerful forces heavily invested in the status quo will push back with all their might, pitting us against one another and buying off the relatively privileged, who may delusively believe they can weather the gathering storm alone. 

But solidarity should infuse not just the fight but our understanding of what we are fighting for. Where the original New Deal brought Americans the welfare state, including services such as Social Security and unemployment insurance, the Green New Deal could usher in the era of what we might call the solidarity state—a state that not only redistributes resources to “beneficiaries” but also democratizes control over how those resources are produced, allocated, and managed. A solidarity state demands both shared sacrifice and shared reward. 

And this is the enormous challenge ahead: The Green New Deal we need will not be charity granted from on high by enlightened rulers, but something won through a determined campaign of collective self-liberation. Like the debtors in Rome 2,000 years ago, we must bail one another out, this time as the sea levels continue rising around us. Either solidarity forever, or our time is up.