The Importance of Solidarity

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how kids these days (i.e. the millennials) are self-absorbed and need to learn to empathize with others, an accusation that has also been levied against the rich (albeit with more scientific backing). However I want to argue that a critical politics based on social solidarity is what we (meaning those of us on the political Left) are really after, and what many of the calls for “empathy” lack.

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Social solidarity means social cohesion based on interdependence, which, in our current, globalized societies, is a global interdependence. This idea is encapsulated by the phrase, “Workers of the world, unite!” — a call for solidarity amongst the vast majority of people that must sell their labour to survive (including those who are struggling with unemployment). While we all have different bosses, and work under very different conditions, our fates are bound together: a gain or loss in the standards of living and rights for one group affects all others, especially if those changes occur at the bottom of the ladder. Because we have very little power as individuals, the success and failure of these struggles is dependent on our ability to stick together and support one another, while still being conscious of the differences in power and privilege that divide us. The 8 hour work day, weekends, paid parental leave, pensions, public health care, universal suffrage, desegregation policies, employment equity, and other important historical gains won by labour unions and mass movements around the world are proof positive of the importance of social solidarity.

Social solidarity relies on critical thought and political action. While empathy usually leads us to nod our head in understanding, and sometimes prompts us to blindly accept what we’ve been told about the situation because we happen to connect to an individual or group emotionally, a critical politics pushes us to ask questions about where those feelings and experiences come from. A lot of human beings can empathize with anything, including an IKEA lamp, if it’s presented to them in the right light, but a critical politics based on social solidarity is what drives us to do something with those feelings.

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By Stephanie McMillan

Before I go any further, I should point out that I’m not trying to downplay the importance of interpersonal connections, or make a “reason over emotion” kind of argument (as if it were actually possible to divide the two). Empathy can certainly help enhance our sense of social solidarity, but what makes the latter especially useful is that it isn’t dependent on the former. You can stand by someone and support them even if you’re totally unable to understand, on an emotional or experiential level, what they’ve been through or how they’re feeling, and that’s a powerful (and I would say necessary) thing if we’re actually going to change our lives for the better.

Wisconsin

Not convinced yet? Here are a few other perks:

  1. It encourages us to think of politics as more than just a career choice, or a subject that ought to be left to the “experts.” Politics is not just something that happens in parliament; it also happens in the streets, in the lessons we teach to our children, in the relationships, organizations, and objects we build, in the things we read, watch, and play, and in our most mundane conversations.

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    “I think the two-party system is working just fine. Besides, buying a third one would be a bookkeeping nightmare.”
  2. It connects us to a rich history of struggle. There is so much more to learn from the past than what we’ve been taught in school, and some of the most thrilling, inspiring, and heart-wrenching tales come from the parts we never hear about. Listen to the story of the POUM and its demise during the Spanish Civil War, read about Rosa Luxembourg and the German Revolution, learn about the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo whose children were “disappeared” during the Argentinian Dirty War, or watch a documentary about the Brookside Strike.spanish_civil_war_poster
  3. Based on this history you will learn to see how different forms of injustice and discrimination, such as (neo)colonialism, classism, racism, sexism, and ableism, as well the abuse of our natural environment, are interconnected. This means that even if you don’t have much (or even any) experience with a particular form of oppression, you can still appreciate how each of our respective struggles are intertwined and, ultimately, interdependent.
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  4. It’s all about the big picture. While empathy tends to highlight the individual, a politics based on social solidarity focuses on the system as a whole. It recognizes that people are, more often than not, constrained to play a particular role within that system, and that punishing a person for the part they’ve played may be much less effective than challenging the system itself. This does not mean that we fail to hold people responsible for their actions–only that we think carefully about when and why we’re doing so, and consider whether it contributes to the broader changes that need to be made. For example, will blaming union members for striking solve the problems that led them to strike in the first place? What changes when we try to identify with their position, instead of the position of the people that have been inconvenienced by the strike, or their employers? While the media will often try to direct our empathy towards one group rather than another, we should always consider the political motives and assumptions that underlie these attempts to manipulate our emotions, and assume that there is more to the story than we’re being told, no matter how “right” it feels. Empathy may lead you to help someone in need, which is wonderful, but a critical politics will give you a clear and consistent reason for doing so.
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  5. We can do away with universalizing conceptions of “human nature” and morality. Empathy is a nice, feel-good concept, but by assuming that everyone has it, or needs it, or ought to have it, we unintentionally discriminate against those people that have difficulty identifying and matching emotions in others. Just because someone has trouble empathizing doesn’t mean they’re a bad person, and vice versa. You may be able to empathize with mens’ rights activists (MRAs), but if doing so means you also adopt their hatred of women, and particularly feminists, no one is better off because of it. There will always be limits to our empathy, but so long as our actions express a commitment to improving our collective well-being, that shouldn’t matter.

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Empathy is a good start, and something worth cultivating when we can. But it’s not enough on its own to get all of us up that hill. For that, we need a plan.

The Importance of Solidarity

Neoliberalism, capitalism, and the “doomsayers”

The following is a copy of an email I wrote in response to an article my uncle passed along to my mother and I, titled “Doomsaying math whizzes just don’t understand capitalism.” I spent all afternoon writing a reply, so I figured I might as well post it, cause, seriously, this thing took me forever.

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The more time I spend in academia the more I feel that the really important debates are the ones that happen informally amongst friends, family, acquaintances, etc., at least for students like myself, so I’m always happy to take a break from paper-writing to talk about pressing issues. Unsurprisingly, I have a number of thoughts on this article. The first relates to the vested interests of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, the “independent non-partisan public policy think tank” that the author represents. This article suggests that the institute has a number of ties to the Conservative party, and its list of corporate donors is also quite impressive.

The MLI comes across to me as one of a large number of think tanks and non-profits that either lobby or “advise” the government on behalf of their corporate/private sponsors. They also act as extensions of traditional PR departments, attempting to sway public opinion about issues relevant to the industries whose interests they represent. The Center for Consumer Freedom is a good example of this, and is particularly effective because it purports to represent the interests of “consumers,” a practice known as astroturfing. Another frequent problem in these organizations, particularly amongst lobbyists, is the “revolving door” phenomenon, which the article about MLI mentions. This website also has a number of examples from the US. The revolving door is a particularly tricky and widespread form of corruption, since it’s not strictly illegal, though it certainly introduces some pretty serious conflicts of interest.

The interesting thing about neoliberal organizations like the MLI is that while they claim to fight government intervention in all its forms and criticize the gov. for being wasteful and inefficient, they will then turn around and support/defend some of the most egregious examples of government intervention and over-spending. For example in this article Brian Lee Crowley defends the Canadian government over the F-35 jet scandal.

In the article he argues that: “Many blanch when presented with the full bill for the military preparedness that is a sine qua non of sovereignty and the protection of national interests at home and abroad.” Basically Crowley and the MLI are fine with the Canadian government spending vast quantities of tax-payers’ money on military ventures and the criminal justice system, and in some cases argue that
governments aren’t doing enough. In this article for example the MLI state that “On this central question of the state’s duty to protect its citizens from crime, Canadians are not as well served as they should be.” This is based on the recognition that governments are necessary in order to keep a lid on the population, violently repress workers that attempt to organize (see for e.g. the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banana_massacre), and protect private property rights in the face of pronounced social and economic inequalities. Though some transnationals such as Monsanto are acquiring their own private armies in the form of mercenary groups like Blackwater, or military robotics companies like Boston Dynamics (which was recently purchased by Google), most businesses can’t afford to do this or would prefer not to if they can get the government to do it for them. Governments and their armies are also useful for pressuring other countries into opening themselves up to foreign investment, either through regime changes like the one that is being attempted in Venezuela, or through the lending policies of government-backed international organizations like the IMF. Wars fought by nations are also more likely to have public support and legitimacy than wars fought by private companies. Obviously military interventions and IMF regulations can and have hurt small local businesses, but this isn’t really a concern for transnationals.

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There’s also the question of the extent to which the deregulation of the financial industry directly contributed to the financial crisis of 2008 (the root causes of which have still not been resolved). Ironically the same neoliberals that were pushing for deregulation in the preceding decades were more than happy to take the government bailouts once the crisis hit, bailouts which came at a huge cost to ordinary people. What I’m trying to argue is that contemporary neoliberalism (which is much more radically laissez-faire now than it used to be), as an ideology, equates freedom with their vision of a “free market society” to support the interests of a ruling elite, arguing for government
control/intervention in economic affairs when it suits those interests and against it when it does not. As this article points out, ” the practical outcome of the neoliberal agenda over the past 20 years has not, in most cases, been to diminish the state’s institutional power or spending. Instead, it has redirected it elsewhere, and strengthened the power of the many Northern nation states to intervene in the economic affairs of other countries, notably the indebted countries of the South, the emerging economies of the former Soviet Union and the weaker partners of trade blocs such as the European Union. Indeed, as the World Bank’s World Development Report (WDR) makes clear, state spending relative to the economy as a whole has continued to grow in OECD countries, and now averages 50 per cent of GDP.”

So far none of this is directly related to what’s actually written in the article though. To start off, Crowley’s argument that the “doomsayers” he cites are wrong because our civilization hasn’t collapsed yet is flawed for a number of reasons. First, Al Gore, Nicholas Sterne, and the authors of The Limits to Growth aren’t suggesting that the apocalypse is inevitable, or that “human beings are…prisoners of some Newtonian clockwork universe.” The very fact that they’re advocating for change is testament to their belief that humans are innovative, active agents that are capable of exerting some control over their collective future. Strangely the links the author provides for The Limits of Growth and Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth actually support or corroborate many of their findings/predictions/extrapolations. Also most of the “worst case scenario” predictions are tied to a future date that has not yet arrived, so saying that “we’re still waiting” doesn’t necessarily prove them wrong, even assuming the specific date was actually that important, as compared to the general trends that are being identified.

In the case of the study by the “NASA mathematicians,” (none of whom are NASA employees, though they did receive some funding from NASA for the study), I question whether Crowley has even bothered to read the actual paper. If he had, he would know that the study makes no claims about the state of our current society (except to say that some of the scenarios they created more closely match our current reality than others, which is not the same as claiming that their model accurately represents reality) or the future of capitalism. Instead it suggests a general model for understanding historical examples of societal collapse. Their conclusions are as follow: “In sum, the results of our experiments, discussed in section 6, indicate that either one of the two features apparent in historical societal collapses |over-exploitation of natural resources and strong economic strati cation| can independently result in a complete collapse. Given economic strati cation, collapse is very difficult to avoid and requires major policy changes, including major reductions in inequality and population growth rates. Even in the absence of economic stratification, collapse can still occur if depletion per capita is too high. However, collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.” This is a general claim about historical trends based on a mathematical model; whether and how we apply this to our current situation is entirely up to us (although I tend to be a fan of learning from history). Here’s the study if you’re interested: http://www.sesync.org/sites/default/files/resources/motesharrei-rivas-kalnay.pdf

In contrast to these “doomsayers” Crowley suggests that business-as-usual will work out just fine, and that there is no need to move towards alternative forms of social/political/economic organization. Again I would point out that Crowley represents groups with a strong vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Most of the author’s arguments seem to rely on the idea that capitalism is a special or ideal economic system that somehow renders our society immune to collapse, despite the fact that collapses have occurred all throughout human history. This argument seems shaky at best–especially given that boom-and-bust cycles are endemic to capitalism–and the author provides no real data to back up such a specious claim. Instead he implies that capitalism promotes technological innovation, something which other economic/political systems are apparently incapable of or at least not very good at, and that innovation and efficiency will save us all. That humans will adapt to new circumstances I don’t doubt; what I do doubt is his argument that under capitalism technological progress is inevitable, that its benefits are or will be universally applied, and that it will continue at a rate that is sufficient to counteract climate change and environmental degradation. He also has little to say about the concentration of wealth and how capitalism does or does not contribute to social and economic inequalities.

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While the article is short, a proper defense of capitalism should include a comprehensive look at available alternatives. Unfortunately the only alternative he looks at is a strangely narrow notion of socialism, which he equates with the authoritarian regimes of the Soviet Union and China, suggesting that he knows absolutely nothing about the complexity and variety of socialist systems and theories. According to Crowley, doomsayers are “always willing to cast themselves in the role of saviour. Give us the power to curb population growth, to spread the wealth, to prevent overconsumption, they murmur seductively, and we will save you from the doom that awaits. According to The Guardian newspaper’s writer who first drew the world’s attention to the NASA mathematicians’ gloomy prognostications, their work shows that only egalitarian socialism can save us from ourselves.” Leaving aside the fact that this is only one interpretation of that study, it is also not how socialism works. Socialism is not something that can be implemented by a small group of scientists and policy-makers; it requires a huge mass movement such as the ones that arose during the October Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, or the Bolivarian Revolution.

Finally, the pretty picture Crowley paints of the world glosses over a lot of injustice, suffering, and corruption that is and has been occurring all throughout the history of capitalism. If capitalism gets to take credit for all the good things that have happened, from hunter-gatherer society onwards, it should also take credit for all the bad, including wars, genocides, slavery, famines and droughts (people like to blame famines on communism but rarely apply that same logic to capitalism), poverty, spiraling debt, systemic discrimination, climate change, etc.

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I am also completely disgusted by Crowley’s statement that: “Far from exploiting the poor of the developing world, the developed world has created the ideas and technologies that have made their very lives possible in such large numbers, and improved the standard of living they can enjoy.” The racist idea that our superior society is bringing the “light of civilization” to the “dark corners of the earth” has been repeatedly used and propagated by colonialists to justify the violent takeover and pillaging of foreign lands and the enslavement of their peoples. The reason developing countries are in such a bad state is because Western colonial powers left them that way and/or are continuing to find new ways to exploit or suppress them, not because the people living there are inherently incapable of achieving our high standard of living, nor necessarily because the material conditions in a country prevent it from developing economically (this is precisely the barrier colonialism is designed to overcome). The idea that the poor of the developing world should “enjoy” their poverty and disempowerment and be grateful to us for allowing them to live “in such large numbers” is sickening. This is like a slave owner telling his slave, “aren’t you lucky I’m here to feed you and put a roof over your head.”

A map of countries England has invaded/occupied (in pink). Here's the source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/9653497/British-have-invaded-nine-out-of-ten-countries-so-look-out-Luxembourg.html
A map of countries England has invaded/occupied (in pink). Here’s the source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/9653497/British-have-invaded-nine-out-of-ten-countries-so-look-out-Luxembourg.html

I don’t think I’ll go further into the complex relationship between the developing and the developed world here, but if you want to know more about where I’m coming from I recommend starting with the Wikipedia entry on postcolonialism and Immanuel Wallerstein’s book, “World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction.”

Anyway that’s my two cents. Sorry this is so long; I had trouble containing myself. Hope everything’s well in your corners of the world.

Neoliberalism, capitalism, and the “doomsayers”