We need to talk about solidarity

It's time for a fresh debate about solidarity.

Anna Coote
7 April 2014


‘Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change.’ Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change, warned this week that extreme weather events including droughts, floods and storms, were bound to disrupt everyone’s lives in the coming decades.

When it comes to the natural environment, we are (to borrow David Cameron’s phrase) ‘all in this together’. Money and geography may cushion some from the worst effects of damage in the short term, but ultimately there is no escape. Unless we all act quickly to cut greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to inevitable change.

It is hard to imagine a stronger case for people getting together, pooling resources, sharing risk and helping each other out. The word for this is ‘solidarity’. We need it to fend off climate catastrophe. We also need it to tackle widening inequalities of income, wealth and power. That’s why the New Economics Foundation wants to start a fresh debate about solidarity: what it means, why it matters and what can weaken or strengthen it.

The more we need solidarity, the more we seem to be divided. Lobbyists for the fossil fuel industries (euphemistically described as ‘sceptics’) lose no opportunity to stir up doubt and confusion about the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. On the social policy front, far from fostering ‘togetherness’, the Coalition Government has pursued a thoroughly divisive strategy. We are encouraged to fear and distrust newcomers and strangers. We are led to believe that taxation and public services are a necessary evil rather than a common good. ‘Hardworking families’ are set against the unemployed. The ‘squeezed’ middle-classes resent other people claiming benefits. The poor feel betrayed and diminished. The rich increasingly live by a different set of rules, with less and less inclination to share health, education and other public services.

Solidarity is about feelings of sympathy and responsibility, shared by people within and between groups, encouraging inclusive, supportive action. It implies a sense of shared values and purpose, and often suggests reciprocity (meaning an exchange of similar or equivalent value). Without solidarity, there are just groups fending for themselves, either in active competition or conflict with others, or indifferent to how their actions impinge on the capacity of others to fend for themselves.

The concept can be traced back to Greek ideas of civic friendship and, later, to Christian ideals of universal brotherly love. It emerged as ‘Fraternité in the French Revolution, an essential collaborative companion to the goals of ‘Liberté and ‘Egalité: if everyone is to have an equal chance of experiencing freedom, then ideally as many people as possible must work together to achieve that end. More recently, it has been a guiding principle of trade unionism and feminism, as well as contemporary catholic and socialist organisations.

Solidarity has much in common – but is not interchangeable – with such concepts as social capital (central to the communitarian agenda), social cohesion (an early goal of the European Union) and shared social responsibility (subject of a new charter from the Council of Europe). All of these are more readily included in contemporary policy debates than solidarity. No doubt that’s because solidarity is linked with class politics, which is deeply unfashionable these days. But solidarity matters more now than ever. It’s not just about social ‘glue’; it’s got momentum. Typically, it implies active mutual support in pursuit of a shared purpose – usually to tackle a common problem or adversary.

It is more easily generated in smaller groups, where people identify with each other because they share values and experience, or depend on each other to pursue particular goals. The big challenge today is how to foster feelings of sympathy and responsibility both between groups and towards future generations. So long as current generations are careless of the longer-term impact of their actions, the energy barons will continue to call the shots. So long as the poor and less-than-rich are busy distrusting each other, they’re unlikely to close ranks against the causes of poverty and inequality. The strategy of ‘divide and rule’ has been pursued by elites throughout history to defend privilege and power.

Theorists argue about the degree to which solidarity is generated by emotion or reason, by nature or nurture, by moral values or practical self-interest, by civil society or government institutions. In our view all these are possible. There isn’t a pure form of solidarity. Nor is it intrinsically virtuous (the Bullingdon Club is one example of solidarity in practice). It needs to be understood as a kind of politics, open to negotiation and change.

The word itself may be unfashionable and social divisions may be widening. But feelings that contribute to solidarity remain strong. According to a European social survey in 2012, people are much more likely to agree that it is important ‘to help people and care for others’ well-being’ (80.7% say this is ‘very much like me’ or ‘like me’) than to agree that it is important ‘to be rich, have money and expensive things’ (only 15.3% say it is ‘very much like me’ or ‘like me’). And a British Attitudes survey in 2013 revealed large majorities in favour of collective action through the state – as the table shows.


The dominant political narrative takes no account of these views. Instead, it favours individualism, choice, competition and the allegedly intrinsic fairness of free markets. But there is clearly a solid base of opinion on which to build an alternative narrative: one that encourages feelings of shared sympathy and responsibility, and mutual support.

For those of us trying to build a new economics, we want a solidarity that is inclusive, expansive and active, both between groups who are ‘strangers’ to each other, and across generations. There is a common ‘enemy’ but it is not specifically other people. It is the systems and structures that shore up inequalities, foster short-term greed, plunder the natural environment and blight the prospects of future generations. NEF has issued a working paper to start a debate about solidarity. Join in and send us your comments, either here or at @nefsocialpolicy, #futurewelfare.

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