Notes Towards a Theory of Solidarity

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A few weeks ago, when many UK university staff were on strike against a major attack on their pension rights, I was invited to speak at the teach-out organised by the   UCU (University and Colleges Union) branch at Goldsmiths, University of London.

I gave a 20-minute talk from notes that I’d made the previous day. The talk provoked a really interesting discussion, and I promised a couple of people that I would make the notes available once I had had time to write them up. Well, I’ve written them up and they’ve become quite long, but that’s not all that surprising. This is still just notes – it’s not supposed to be a worked-out argument. But here it is in case anyone finds it useful.

 

Notes towards a theory of solidarity 

If we need a theory of anything today, it’s a theory of solidarity.

 After 40 years of neoliberalism, we have a pretty clear sense of how it works, of how bourgeois ideology works, of the consequences of alienation and the progressive narrowing of our imaginative horizons under advanced capitalism. Now, as neoliberal hegemony crumbles, and in some quarters we  begin to feel our collective potential asserting itself once again, we need more than anything a clear sense of what might make possible effective forms of collective action and shared freedom. 

The English word ‘solidarity’ certainly shares a root with the English word ‘solid’ (the Latin ‘solidus’), but it does not derive directly from it. ‘Solidarity’ is an anglicisation of of the French ‘solidarité’, that is first recored in the 19th century, during the first great epoch of socialist politics. ‘Solidarity’ derived from ‘solidaire’, the English equivalent of which is the obscure legal adjective ‘solidary’. ‘Solidaire’ and ‘solidary’ both refer to the idea of goods, or property or debts or risks being held in common. 

Relations of solidarity are always expressions of shared interests. 

‘Expressions of shared interests’ can take many forms. It is important to note that they don’t                                              only take the form of defending an existing state of affairs (a wage level, a hospital, etc.). They can also mean the expression of a shared sense of possibility, a shared desire for a different possible world ( or just a different possible hospital, or wage level, or a different form of family life, or whatever). 

Solidarity is always about the shared, the common, the ‘molar’ 

The ‘molar, for Deleuze & Guattari, is the scale at which any aggregation of elements acquires a certain level of stability, at which objects or subjects emerge as coherent, individuated entities are individuated, if only partially. It’s where things hang together. A collection of particles acquires ‘molarity’ to the extent that it forms a stable object (a rock, a hair, a star, a body,  a table, whatever). A group that is capable of acting with any degree of unity, purpose, direction and coherence possesses a certain degree of molarity.

The molar is differentiated from the ‘molecular’, which is the scale at which entities disaggregate into mobile components. There is a tendency in D&G’s rhetoric to seem to privilege the molecular over the molar. This is because they see themselves as working against a philosophical and ideological tradition that has historically privileged the molar, and because the ultimate expression of the fetishisation of pure molarity for its own sake would be fascism (ein reich, ein volk, ein führer). But it is wrong to think that molarity as such is bad or that the molecular as such is good. Capitalism is constantly subjecting molar aggregates to disaggregating pressures (for example, disrupting an indigenous village in order to seek out oil or gas deposits). That doesn’t mean its good. Any form of effective politics requires some degree of molar organisation. The trick is not to impose molarity in such a way as to suppress difference and creative potential.

 

Does that mean that solidarity is  necessarily about unity and identity (is it always about ‘solidity’)?

No, in fact it never is, fundamentally. In fact molarity-as-solidity is only ever a kind of optical illusion. A piece of granite looks solid because the molecules that make it up are organised and move together in a particular way. They are self-organised and co-ordinated – but they are not actually one continuous substance. 

(Maybe ‘illusion’ is the wrong word here. Reality is all about which scale you look at things on. )

Relations of solidarity are always fundamentally horizontal in character

 That is to say, they are not dependent upon each member of the group or collective having a private relationship with some central point of identification (a leader, an identity, a political ideal, or whatever) – rather members of the group have actual relations with each other. This might sound obvious, but it is worth thinking about. 

The liberal tradition (that still dominates political thinking in the West) ultimately believes that all groups are just aggregations of individuals bound together only by each of them having a direct relationship to some central point of identification (the leader, the sovereign, the flag), or by each of them having privately entered into a ‘contract’ with ‘society’. They think that if you kill the leader, the group will always dissolve. 

(All of the above is a big part of what my last book is about)

This is why, for example the Blairites and the centrist commentariat were convened that Corbynism was nothing but a personality cult – indeed many of them are still convinced of this, believing, essentially, that the 41% of the electorate that voted Labour last June are all just personally impressed by the mysterious charisma of Jeremy Corbyn (they believe that if Corbyn dies, support for his programme and the Labour left will entirely disintegrate listen to this for a clear expression of that view). What they cannot imagine is that support for Corbyn is a secondary effect of millions of people first having recognised in each other  a group who shares their interests and with whom they can have productive collaborative relationships. 

Relations of solidarity are never based on the assumption of a shared or unitary identity.

 They work across differences without trying to suppress them, and they make those differences productive. 

A classic example from the annals for British radicalism would be the Grunwick dispute of 1976-8. Seeing mostly white male postal workers act in support of a workforce made up mainly of brown-skinned women was terrifying for the ruling class. The strike was defeated by them – but they knew that it had to be or they were done for. It was a moment that lives in memory because it was a point at which anti-racism, feminism and class struggle converged. 

Should we use the language of ‘intersectionality’ here?I think it would be accurate to say the patriarchy, capitalism and racism certainly did all intersect in the specific experience of the strikers.  But would it make sense to say that the struggle in their favour was ‘intersectional’? Up to a point. But it is also important to understand that the term ‘intersectional’ was specifically coined in order to discuss, in the context of legal theory, ways in which multiple forms of oppression can intersect with each other and interact in their affects on the same singular person. Crenshaw didn’t use the term to refer to forms of opposition to racism, sexism etc. This is why the phrase ‘intersectional’ as a way of describing types of radical politics always slightly bothers me. Oppressions can be ‘intersectional’. I’m not sure that opposition to those oppressions can be usefully described as such. 

The whole point about the struggle against racism, misogyny and class exploitation at Grunwick was that those weren’t merely three separate struggles that ‘intersected’.  They didn’t merely ‘intersect’. In fact the struggle  was a point at which any possible distinction between them became increasingly blurry as it intensified. 

Struggles of that nature don’t just collate a number of conceptually distinct struggles against conceptually distinct forms of oppression – they work across difference and make difference p to  in order productive in order to maximise the opportunities for all those engaged int eh struggle to realise their creative potential and their collective freedom.  ‘Solidarity’ is a good name for what such struggles produce and what they depend on. 

 

Such struggles are never primarily about shared identities but about shared interests. It didn’t matter that the white male postal workers and the Asian women working at Grunwick were never going to share a social identity. What mattered was that they shared some common interests. Any attempt to force them to accept a singular identity (be it as ‘workers’ or anything else) was always going to fail. It was their shared interests that were important. 

Relations of solidarity are always about mutual becoming.

They are about interests being expressed in such a way that they have the potential to exceed any horizon of calculation or any identitiarian limits. 

But what do we mean by ‘interests’ here? This is a big issue. Alex Williams and I will get into it in our forthcoming book. For now I would say that interests represent not just materially calculable rights or possessions, but potentials. Interests are not just about what we have but about what we could become. 

Is it in my interests as a homeowner to support a policy designed to keep inflating house prices? Only to the extent that my being in the world and my potential to do things that I might want to do is entirely uninhibited by the fact that so many other people, including my children (but by no means limited to them) can’t afford a place to live near me. Free social housing for all would make my life better and make me able to do all kinds of things I can’t currently do (like, for example, run my club nights somewhere near home -which is impossible in most parts of London because all public space has been colonised by rent-seeking speculative private housing developments). 

Of course we get into some complex conceptual territory here, especially as regards the differences between, say, interests, desires and demands. In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari say that capitalism can tolerate any number of expressions of interest, but cannot tolerate one true expression of desire’. To understand this claim it’s important to understand that D&G do not understand ‘desire’ in the Freudo-Lacanian (or anglo-Buddhist) vein. They don’t think that desire = lack. What they mean by ‘desire’ is actually always some kind of expression of creative potential, which is always about the maximisation of productive relations between bodies (‘bodies’ here could mean human bodies, or bits of human bodies, or trees or rocks, or microbes, or planets, computers, or whatever). 

Maybe we could say that what they mean by ‘desire’ is what you get when interests are expressed to their fullest, past a certain threshold. 

Maybe we can say that ‘interests’ are always in some sense ‘virtual’ – that is to say, they are objectively real, but they exist in the same way that mathematical concepts exist. At the point were they come to be concretely and explicit articulated in political discourse, they become demands (as understood by Laclau). 

Are these interests or desires  or demands always class interests or desires or demands?  

Often but not always. Part of what was expressed by the solidarity shown during the Grunwick dispute was a set of shared class interests, shared by workers in the face of a system of capitalist exploitation. 

But that wasn’t the whole story. A crucial thing that we have learned from the great liberation struggles against patriarchy, heteronormativity, white supremacy, etc is that people can have interests and share interests that cannot be reduced to class interests and class relations. 

For example, women qua women have objective material interests that do not need to be expressed through a politics of identity (they can be, but they don’t need to be). 

It is very important to note that the women’s movement has historically been at its most successful when it has mobilised women in the defence and expression of these interests rather than in the name of a singular imagined identity, or around issues of recognition, representation, etc. 

That’s not to say that the latter are illegitimate issues to organise around. It’s just notable that organising them around has not tended to be very successful. 

But how does that observation relate to the case of Grunwick, or any situation in which men show solidarity with women? 

Here is an important observation. Patriarchy oppresses men. It oppresses them differently and much less than it oppresses women. Both of these things can be true at the same time. 

Men who realise this can be motivated to support feminist struggles not merely because it is a good thing to do but because it is ultimately in their interests as men to oppose the system of power relations that traps then in stultifying, toxic, often lethal modes of masculinity. A radical politics of solidarity is based on such observations. 

This tells us something about the specific utility and the limitations of concepts like ‘male privilege’. There’s no question this is a useful descriptive term, naming something that we all know to be real. 

But we get into real problems whenever people work on the assumption that ‘male privilege’ as such is the problem. Male privilege is a key symptom of the problem. But it isn’t the fundamental problem. The problem is the underlying system of power relations:   patriarchy (if that’s what we want to call it). This system has very negative effects on men, even while it also offers them certain kinds of privilege as compensation for those negative effects, while pushing women into subordinate positions altogether. 

The same can be said of white supremacy, heteronormativity, etc. Historically, the production of whiteness has been all about limiting the things that white people are allowed to be or do if they are to retain their privilege, at the same time as it has fundamentally subjected non-white people to far worse forms of oppression.

 For example  – the whole complex of public schools, military culture and imperial ideology was assembled in Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century as much as anything with the express intent of preventing British colonial administrators from ‘going native’, because Indian civilisation had such an attractive force for people coming from the dreary culture of industrial-revolution-era protestant Britain. Yes, yes this was basically the culture of Mughal imperial aristocracy (not exactly a bastion of progressive values) proving attractive to British aristo aesthetes influenced by Romanticism. But the point still stands. Whiteness sucks for white people -even if, at the same time, it sucks much much more for non-white people, and it affords privileges to white people even while it limits their creative capacities. 

Incidentally, there is no way of understanding the extraordinary force and global impact to black music in the twentieth century without understanding the ways in which whiteness has sucked for white people. Does that mean that white people are always guilty of ‘cultural appropriation’ when they try to deconstruct their own whiteness via black culture? Sometimes. Usually no – usually this would be a hopelessly simplistic account which can only analyse what is going on at the level of ‘privilege’ and therefore cannot understand what is going on at the level of deeper constitutive power relations, and cannot understand the ways in which culture can be a powerful vehicle for the production of solidarity. Case in point – rock’n’roll. It was never just a black form adopted by white people. It was a form made up mainly of a black form (rhythm’n’blues), interacting with a white form (honky-tonk) to produce a new assemblage. Did the black originators get the respect and payment they deserved? No. Did rock’n’roll contribute to the production of a new structure of feeling amongst white youth that provided part of the backdrop to the (limited, but real) political gains of the Civil Rights movements? Yes. 

Recent music history is full of comparable examples. The lineage soul-disco-house is the most important, providing multiple vectors of becoming through which whole populations have transformed what it meant to be black/white/male/female/gay/straight, while always promoting utopian relations of solidarity, in new and inventive forms. Affective alliances. 

The problem with the politics of ‘privilege-checking’ as it is often enacted is that it doesn’t encourage relations of solidarity and it doesn’t foreground shared interests and desired. Instead it demands of the privileged a sacrifice in the name of a moral order. Unsurprisingly, most of the privileged don’t want to make that sacrifice and don’t recognise that moral order. That’s why it doesn’t work as a tactic tending towards real social change. It’s only function is to make people feel better within the confines of the social space within which that moral order is locally and temporarily established. It has no hope of extending that moral order across the whole social space, and has generally given up the idea of transforming that wider space at all. 

This doesn’t mean that people on the wrong end of privilege-relations have no right to their anger, and it absolutely doesn’t mean that privilege should not be identified and worked-against. It does mean that simply working against it without posing a positive alternative is never going to get anywhere. The alternative is a politics of solidarity. 

Many people are alarmed by any such suggestion. They remember the many instances in which the appeal to unity has been the basis on which the continued subordination of women, people of colour, queers, people with disabilities, trans people, and many others has been legitimated within particular movements or organisations (the labour movement, the women’s movement, etc.). They would hear in any call for ‘solidarity’ a call for such people once again to accept the subordination of their desire, identities and interests to those of some greater unifying cause, in the name of some imagined future that will never arrive.

These fears are legitimate. Any radical politics of solidarity today would have to take them into account. 

This is why it is crucial to understand that ‘solidarity’ does not mean  ‘unity’ – at least not in the sense of uniformity or uni-directionality. Solidarity cannot be imposed from above. It cannot be dependent upon loyalty to a leader or a cause (or to anything, possibly – I’m not sure). This is the significance of recognising that solidarity emerges from horizontal social relations. 

Solidarity is joyful

It shouldn’t be thought of according to a logic of self-sacrifice. Acting in solidarity or expressing solidarity is often difficult, but difficult things can enhance our capacities and our creative and relational potential. And that’s what joy means, technically speaking.

Solidarity is never just unity

If it were then we wouldn’t need a word for it. Solidarity is always democratic and can only be institutionalised as democracy. Democracy does not just mean the tyranny of the majority. It means every group becoming a potent collectivity by expressing the creative potential of its inherent complexity. 

Solidarity can never be imposed from above – maybe it could once. This is the key insight of the politics of difference. It can’t be imposed and it can’t be organised in terms dictated by the most powerful. That doesn’t mean to say it can be dispensed with. The risk of identity politics is always that it throws out the baby of solidarity and collective struggle with the bathwater of homogeneity and hierarchy.

None of this should be taken as a basis for rejecting all forms of ‘identity politics’ or ‘political correctness’. ‘Political Correctness’ was always a right-wing myth, a term used to denigrate the legacy of the liberation movements. Being sensitive to language or attitudes that reproduce oppression, thinking about the complexities and exigencies of ‘allieship’, addressing our potential for ‘unconscious racism’ – all of these  remain important political tasks. But they are best thought about within a framework of solidarity, otherwise they can quickly degenerate into individualism, moralism and ressentiment (the anti-politics of resentment). The key question to ask in all of these contexts is (almost) always: what does effective solidarity look like and feel like?

Judith Butler says that identity ‘is the lived scene of coalition’s difficulty’. 

This is crucial. She doesn’t say identity ‘is the lived scene of coalition’s impossibility’. 

The statement is crucial because it assumes, correctly, that coalition is essential to all successful politics.

 Individualist and crypto-essentialist forms of identity politics want to claim that because coalitions (between feminism and socialism, between white people and black people, etc.) are difficult, they are therefore impossible. Everything hangs on the difference between the two. Those coalitions are always difficult. A radical politics of identity recognises the difficulty, but also their necessity. The individualist anti-politics of certain kinds of identity-discourse simply wants to declare them impossible or always-already illegitimate. That is just the anti-political logic of liberalism carried to an extreme logical conclusion. 

The problem of Palestine

Palestine is an important limit-case when it comes to the question of what forms of solidarity can be meaningful across vast gulfs of space, time, power and privilege.  I always remember being told by a Palestinian nationalist that as, nice as it was to have the support of western leftists and liberals, it really meant nothing to the Palestinian struggle. Many of us in the ‘west’ have felt moved to show solidarity with the appalling injustices to which the Palestinian people have been subjected. and frustrated by the failure of the international legal regime to enforce any protection for them. How to resolve this issue I don’t know (I’m always reminded of campaigners from Latin America saying that the best way in which we could show solidarity with them would be to get rid of our neoliberal governments – we need to stop electing governments that ignore the UN whenever it suits them). One thought I have though – this comes out of discussions with friends as to whether we should observe the cultural boycott or not. My position is that we should, and that our decision to do so or not has nothing to do with our personal views as the to likely utility of the BDS strategy. We do it because, insofar as we are able to make any such judgements, the Palestinians in struggle have asked us to do so. We have no moral right to decide one way or another whether it’s a good idea (to assume an individual responsibility for this issue would be pure anti-political liberalism). Those in the struggle have asked us for this in solidarity. That’s why we do it. 

Is all solidarity as such good?

 Can there be bad solidarities? Yes and no to both questions. Certainly there can be coalitions of interest between groups sharing relative degrees of privilege, against those who are less privileged, in order to maintain a specific state of affairs that guarantees a particular social order. In fact this is the basic logic of hegemony in most social formations. 

But in all such situations, two features my be discerned. One is the tendency of the relations of alliance to be guaranteed more by vertical than by horizontal relations – that is more by loyalty to the leader, the country, the flag, than of  the people to each other (the logic of fascism). The other is the prevalence of what Alex has called negative solidarity. Alex coined this term a few years back, in this post  that was then discussed by the excellent Jason Read here. 

Jason and I are the only official representatives of the TOP (Transindividual Ontology and Politics) theoretical current, to which these notes may be considered a contribution. If you don’t know what that means never mind. Basically we’re both really really into trying to formulate philosophical positions that bear no traces of liberal individualism, but are also not authoritarian or conservative in their implications. 

Finally, an important note

Part of what I’m trying to present here is a conceptual framework within which there would be no trade-off between commitments to, say, class politics or anti-racism or feminism. It’s always a mistake to think that such commitments have to be balanced against each other in some way. There can be no fully-developed class consciousness that isn’t also feminist consciousness and anti-racist consciousness. Feminism that has no socialist dimension will always come up against certain limits that prevent it from addressing key problems affecting many women as women (this is basically the story of liberal feminism in the age of neoliberal hegemony). 

I think a radical concept of solidarity a very important way of holding together many of these issues and thinking them through together. Of course a radical concept of solidarity has to go along with a fully collective and liberatory concept of freedom. But that’s another story.