Solidarity and Its Discontents

A blast from Hollywood’s golden past …

In a dry valley in the Italian countryside, the remaining members of Spartacus’ slave army sit in chains, surrounded by their Roman captors. At the front of the group sits Spartacus himself (Kirk Douglas) and next to him Antoninus (Tony Curtis), a slave entertainer and Spartacus’ favourite. The victorious Roman general, Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier) sends a disdainful eye over the survivors. His herald speaks:

“By command of His Most Merciful Excellency, your lives are to be spared.  Slaves you were and slaves you remain. But the terrible penalty of crucifixion has been set aside on the single condition that you identify the body or the living person of the slave called Spartacus.”

Cut to Spartacus, looking steely: he knows the jig is up and rises to his feet. But Antoninus rises with him and speaks first. “I’m Spartacus!” he shouts, as another slave stands: “I’m Spartacus!” And another: “I’m Spartacus!” And so on and so on, until the valley is alive with voices. “I’m Spartacus! I’m Spartacus! I’m Spartacus!”

Cheesy, yes; but stirring all the same. And Douglas’s flinty visog is a picture: mud-streaked and tear-stained, like an Easter Island moai after a downpour. We know the scene was personal – an allegory of the solidarity shown amongst writers and performers in the face of intimidation from the HUAC – and it would be nice to think that Douglas had certain US Senators in mind when he aimed those piercing eyes at Olivier. At any rate, it was a great day’s work.

Tomorrow (Tuesday, 20 December) is International Human Solidarity Day. Instituted in 2005 by the UN General Assembly, it is “a day to celebrate our unity in diversity … to remind governments to respect their commitments to international agreements … to raise public awareness of the importance of solidarity [and] to encourage debate on the ways to promote solidarity for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals including poverty eradication”. Fine aims all, though I note in passing that the permanent members of the Security Council still have a significant way to go before they can be deemed worthy of them, and that right now most people in Aleppo would probably settle for a lasting ceasefire and some bottled water. Still, the subject of solidarity is crucial to our current moment and it would be churlish not to say something in its favour.

The UN’s conception of solidarity – certainly as set out in the General Secretary’s statement for 2015 – would be hard to distinguish from empathy or altruism, virtues (or capacities) that few would seek to criticise. It’s very broad, in other words; and while there’s something to be said for broadness, I’d like to express a preference for a different conception of solidarity as an expression of collective will mandated by self-interest. No doubt there is something of this in the UN’s definition of solidarity – altruism, after all, is often reciprocal – but if there is it’s implicit, not explicit, and certainly not as instrumental and hard-headed as it will need to be if solidarity is to be utilised in the name of real political change. In short: we need to think of solidarity, not in a spirit of kumbaya, but as a tactic in the struggle for social and political justice.

The first rigorous attempt to define solidarity, which derives from the French word solidaire, meaning “interdependent or complete”, was made by Emile Durkheim in The Division of Labour in Society (1893). Durkheim distinguished between two kinds of solidarity – mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity – the first arising in small-scale societies characterised by shared beliefs, types of work, and so on, the second in more complex societies characterised by specialisation of work and relationships of interdependence. (The terms “mechanical” and “organic” in this connection always sound slightly backwards to me, but “organic” refers here to the interdependence of the society’s component parts, not to their “natural” character.) In this formulation, solidarity denotes the mores, laws, codes etc. that go to make a common life. It’s the glue that holds societies together. It follows that a healthy society is one that displays a high degree of solidarity.

For some, however, and for the left especially, the interdependence posited by Durkheim masked relationships of exploitation. In particular, it masked the exploitation of the working class by the ruling class, and it is from that battle for material resources that our modern notion of solidarity takes much of its historical texture. Faced with economic hardship, with foul conditions and subsistence wages, and herded into factories in dirty, crowded conurbations, the proletariat formed into unions and sought to turn their collectivisation against the owner-class. Solidarity became the tactic in the struggle against the bourgeoisie, one that in the Marxist version of class struggle would resolve the contradiction between the forces of production and their relations in labour’s favour, replacing private appropriation of the surplus with its socialisation. What we call the labour movement is unthinkable without the concept of solidarity. Solidarity is the soul of socialism, in both its reformist and revolutionary iterations.

Of course, no account of the twentieth-century left can afford to elide the gargantuan crimes committed under the banner of communism. But it is important to remember just how powerful this notion of solidarity was, and the massive improvements, in conditions and wages, that were achieved in its name. Indeed, its name became, itself, a sort of emblem of the struggle in general, a word-icon around which interests cohered, inculcating the very phenomenon it denoted. On the left it had an almost religious mystique, such that Ernest Hemingway named his great study of solidarity, For Whom the Bell Tolls, set amongst the International Brigades and Republican guerrillas in the Spanish Civil War, after John Donne’s Mediation XVII. There’s no reason to quote the relevant passage, and no reason not to, so here it is:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

Exquisite, that. And exquisite too is the way the concept of solidarity had the power to spread beyond “the Continent” (precisely as the International Brigades had done), dissolving all the false identities of race and nation in the cause of freedom. This was the basis of the radical left’s internationalism and, again, its reasoning was essentially hard-headed: only in the event that the revolution could be spread beyond national borders would it survive, capitalism having brought different nations into such a connection that economic independence was impossible. Just as the individual’s interests were represented in the collective, and vice versa, so the fate of the individual nation was tied to the emergence of an international (class) consciousness.

In the event, of course, globalisation took a rather different course. Moreover, the particular course it took was designed in part to destroy the version of solidarity outlined above. As David Harvey has argued across a number of books, neoliberalism was a political project in which the power of labour was identified as the enemy and systematically undermined through off-shoring, anti-union legislation, financialisation and all the other economic goodies we associate with the last four decades. Capital, not labour, has globalised itself, with the result that workers in the developed world have lost much of their hard-won security.

It was the belief of the politicians who carried this process forward – conservative politicians, on the whole – that once the demands of labour had been tamed other forms of solidarity (as they would never have dreamed of calling them) would re-emerge as dominant: hence the emphasis that was always put on family values, the church etc. But the world they ushered into being proved corrosive of those forms of solidarity, too. Marketisation and monetisation are not conducive to settled communities; nor is the neoliberal ideal of a free individual exercising free choice in a free market a necessarily sturdy presence. Anomie, alienation and atomisation tend to be the consequences of a system based on profit and growth and the relentless transformation of everything – leisure, knowledge, identity – into a commodity. That, and environmental degradation on a scale unknown in human history. (This, perhaps, is the clinching tragedy: that neoliberal capitalism, in helping to create this society from which solidarity is increasingly absent, is also driving the world to a point where solidarity is more necessary than ever.)

The good news is that there is now some pushback against neoliberalism. The bad news is that in all but a handful of cases the form the pushback takes is nativist demagoguery of the kind favoured by a certain orange billionaire. The right is on the march, again, and determined to present itself as the saviour of the ordinary worker left behind by globalisation.

At any rate, the challenge is clear, even if the solutions aren’t: progressives, the left, radicals, whatever, need to evolve, or re-evolve, a version of solidarity that can unite the interests of the individual with the interests of society, upon pain of increasing precarity, rule by nationalistic morons, and an uninhabitable planet. Easier said than done, I know, but something to be thinking about on International Human Solidarity Day 2016.

And so I wish you all a productive celebration thereof, and a solidarity-filled Christmas.

Oh, and happy 100th birthday, Kirk; you don’t look a day over 98.


First published in 3 Quarks Daily.