Thoughts on Solidarity

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #3 in September 2006]

Depending on who you’re talking to, forms and expressions of solidarity include the general strike, the hunger strike, the die-in, and the march; the human billboard, the mask, the wheat-pasted poster and the stencil; the refusal to testify before a grand jury; flowers at the site of disasters, the giving of blood, the writing of checks. The word has seeped into our political vocabulary in the wake of ‘the unspeakable’: the tsunami of 2004, hurricane Katrina, and the attacks on the World Trade Center. Sometimes solidarity is embodied in a mass; sometimes in an individual figure (Rachel Corrie, the man some people have called Wang Weilin who stood in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989 [1], the political suicides of Lee Kyung-hae and Jan Palach [2].) Acts of solidarity are not immune from a larger political and signifying context. They are not inherently noble or good. Solidarity can manifest as a substitution, a desire to become something- else [3]. Solidarity can be lonely, anonymous, unrecognized, as in Chris Marker’s story about the funeral of the old rank-and-file communist worker in “Grin without a Cat.”

A search for ‘solidarity’ on yields first a disquisition on Solidarnosc, the anticommunist labor movement that emerged in Poland in the late stages of the Cold War. This is supplemented by more workings of ‘Solidarity’ as a proper name. One has to visit the wiki dictionary for the ‘received wisdom’ of the meaning of ‘solidarity,’ lower-case……

1. A willingness to give psychological and material support when another person is in a difficult position or needs affection And only after that, a line that indicates something about the word’s politico-historical roots 2. A band of unity between individuals united around a common goal or against a common enemy. The unifying principle that defines the labor movement.

The political valences of ‘solidarity’ have multiplied and proliferated since the word first entered the modernist vocabulary in the 19th century, as a development from the French concept of ‘fraternite.’ ‘Solidarnosc’ sundered the concept from its previously leftist, anarchosyndicalist context, when ‘labor’ and ‘left’ were inextricably linked.

Today, many lament this break [4], and the corruptions of a word whose utopian connotations have been usurped or reduced: ‘solidarity’ no longer carries moral freight, but has been reduced to ‘simple group cohesion’ and feelings of belonging [5].

The idea of an embrace so big it could encompass, if not all, the vast majority of humanity ‘solidarity forever,’ the Internationale has been overtaken by everything from corporate solidarity, the Aryan brotherhood, and advertising’s manipulations of our longings to feel connected. Oliver Stone’s ‘World Trade Center’ is one of the latest iterations of the maudlin refrain, ‘we are all human beings’ emerging from US popular culture which, upon closer examination, betrays a whole series of exclusions, beginning with immigrants, foreign nationals, Afghanis and Iraqis, and animals other than human.

What is at stake in re-claiming ‘solidarity’ from these dilutions and ‘deviations’?

The familiar examples still serve to excite, and inspire many of us: the Russian anarchists of Land and Liberty disappearing into the countryside, to ‘become one’ with the peasants; Black and white students of sncc traveling to the South to register Black voters in the sixties. There is usually a breach of identity, of space a leap to an identification, even if only a temporary or provisional one.

The presumption of the ‘we,’ or the ‘I-forall,’ continues to animate, from ‘Attica is all of us,’ to ‘We are all people with aids’; to the thirteen- year-old boy who said to a reporter or rescue worker in southern Lebanon, ‘I am Hezbollah!’ the multiple, identical signs, each proclaiming “I am a man” in the crowds of Black men marching in the mid-1960s.

We are also familiar with the reverse-the negative, flip-side of solidarity: Pastor Martin Niemoller’s often repeated quote, “first (they came) for the Communists – I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist” and Angela Davis’ re-working: “they come for me in the morning, they will come for you in the afternoon” [6].

Invocations of “solidarity” have shifted because the meaning of ‘work’ has shifted, irrevocably with the globalization of cheap labor, the struggle between increasingly borderless economies and the violent re-inscriptions of those borders, the proliferation of information and service economies, and new formations of reserve armies of labor, particularly in prisons. Ideas about ‘class struggle’ have been challenged and forever altered by movements against colonialism, struggles for women’s and queer liberation, communities struggling for economic and environmental justice. The failure of democracy in socialist movements and the absorption of numerous avant-gardes by resilient capital have produced wide skepticism about centralism and vanguardism in movements of the ‘left.’

The post-modern ‘break’ has produced theoretical works that grapple with these shifts. In The Inoperative Community, Jean Luc Nancy argues for a concept of ‘singularities’ where each (person, being) is infinitely different from every other one, yet endlessly interconnected, interdependent, inter-penetrable. Badiou and Agamben argue against a universalist humanist ethics that always re-inscribes the divide between ‘self’ and ‘other,’ where there is always an abject in need of rescue, always a bottomless need for ‘generosity’ from those who alone become more elevated by the gesture of ‘helping’ and ‘saving.’

Many of the post-cold war, globally conscious movements for justice, land, sovereignty, and rights invoke the idea of new solidarities new because these are recent alliances between groups previously demarcated by their difference from one another [7]; multiple because these bonds are not just between many subjects and identities, but the overlapping points, connections, and spaces between them: concentrations of affinities, networks of mutual aid, in a struggle against a complex web of relations, not just one ‘common enemy.’

The point is not to collapse into, to become the other (small farmers in India, unemployed workers in Argentina, PWAs in South Africa, indigenous peoples in Bolivia, anarchists in the metropoles) but to speak and work across differences, in respect of these infinite singularities not to try to revive obsolete relations of labor, or familiar, fixed identities, but to coalesce our desires, to identify with and embody one another in performative political actions that engender new connections, while re-articulating and repositioning ‘old’ ones [7].

Postscript: another story
A few years ago, at New York City’s Gay Pride Parade, a small ‘radical queer’ contingent burst into a chant of “End the occupation! Anal penetration!” Was this simply shorthand for: ‘Our liberation as queers is impossible to imagine without the end of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza’? or: ‘Our solidarity with you (Palestinians) is linked to, or contingent upon, your recognition of US?’ or, just a campy reach for a rhyme? The raucous incoherence of the two lines which don’t even share a grammatical construction, whose biggest commonality is their rhyming throws into relief two incommensurables against one another: a description of a sex act next to a political demand. Here’s an acknowledgement of the gap between two (or more) different communities/populations, sets of urgencies, and political styles; a desire for the them to coexist, to rub up against each other, to inform one another, but remain distinct.


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