Monday, January 28, 2013

Solidarity (part one).

Activists at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit

A myth exists. It is the myth that we are first and foremost individuals with nothing fundamental in common with each other. It is sometimes expressed by the idea that we all enter and leave this world alone.

Firstly it should be obvious that the mechanics of birth are such that we enter this world sharing our blood, our oxygen and our waste with a woman, our mother. Aloneness at this point is a concept we cannot even fathom. Only when we are much older will we even feel any separation between ourselves and anything else in the world. We are born attached not alone.

There is an even deeper flaw in using the statement that we all enter this world and leave it alone to argue for individualism. Note that the statement claims we ALL do it. Whatever we are saying here about life and death we are saying it is universal. Kings, peasant girls, mad poets, pragmatic thieves, surgeons and carpet layers, across all cultures and all times share these experiences. Pick anyone, and like you they were born and will die. How is that a measure of aloneness?

We can see our birth and death as shared experiences which provide a basis for solidarity with every other person. Solidarity is the very opposite of individualism. Solidarity is what you get when you invest in being in the “same boat” as other people. There is no definition that makes more sense of this word to me than this metaphor. Four people in the same boat as each other bail out the water to keep it afloat. Four people in four different boats can sensibly watch the others sink and save themselves.

The practice of making solidarity is the practice of making one boat of our separate crafts. Conceptually we must understand each of our separate boats as belonging to the same archetype – each of our individual lives is “a life” like that of others. Practically we tie our boats to each other; we make our survival and success dependant on bringing others along.

Our shared experiences of birth and death don’t argue for a universal human solidarity conclusively. The sole boat for all humanity is not the only possible recognition of our “real interests”. There are also justifications for the separate boats that we could occupy such as our race, our class, and our gender. They too have strong shared experiences to justify them. We also have unique experiences which can justify our individuality. There are as many possible boats as we could imagine.

Ultimately universal human solidarity only makes sense as the deliberate investment in common interests by choice, not nature. A universal human solidarity therefore buys into the one boat theory of humanity even though other theories are also sound. Such solidarity chooses the one boat solution over other more individual and also viable solutions.

Or is that true? Are there in fact events like global warming that can blow any counter-arguments against our universal solidarity out of the water. Is universal human solidarity, at least situationally, the only sensible boat to believe in? I don't think so. I think it remains a choice to invest in a truly universal solidarity. Pragmatics only get us so far. I feel I can't deny that individual solutions exist. I might change my mind when the temperature rises further though.

For myself the choice to believe in a universal human solidarity has been strongly motivated for as long as I can remember. I have always wanted to live accordingly. The point for me of smaller solidarities (amongst my friends and family, or amongst those standing with me in the dole queue or my co-workers) is that they are sites to begin from. I might nod to the demands of the 99% in the occupy movement but I ultimately want to be a part of the 100%. Anything less seems to forgo a part of my own humanity. To give up on another person is to give up on that part of me.

I’m not saying my attitude is rational or that I’ve ever lived up to a standard of human solidarity or even known how to. I’m just saying that when I break solidarity with other people I feel it as a loss. That’s true if the break is due to structures and systems beyond my effect, if it’s due to me being selfish for no great reason or if it’s due to the other person abandoning solidarity first. Even when the break feels right its still a loss. It still feels wrong too.

I think my desire to possess a universal human solidarity is a great filter to view my political and spiritual questing through. I’m surprised I haven’t put it up front in that way before. I’m surprised I haven’t made that goal of my searching explicit. In my next post I want to do a bit of a tour of the theologies and philosophies I’ve looked at to do that, with limited success.

I also want to flesh out how I see a universal human solidarity bearing practically on diverse ethical questions. It’s struck me recently that when I argue about decisions grounded in all sorts of values, the value of solidarity rarely gets named. I’d like to pay it some direct attention.

(Image from

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