Beyond abstract solidarity

James R Mensch
23 January 2008

In our increasingly interdependent world, human solidarity has become a topic of general (and heated) discussion. It has been urged as an antidote to the competitive pressures of globalisation and to the threats of climate change. Others argue that the sense of belonging together, of sharing a common fate that it brings is essential for civil society. Without this, we will seek to avoid the burdens our governments impose on us, for example, taxes and the draft. This sense of belonging facilitates our talking to each other and forming a democratically based consensus on such matters. A common history, language, religion, or ethnic identity can ground this sense of belonging. So can a feeling of shared danger.

The difficulty is that this sense of belonging can be exclusionary. Those belonging to the "wrong" race, professing the "wrong" religion, or speaking the "wrong" language - for example, Flemish in Wallonia - will not belong. Neither will the immigrant, who does not share the nation's history.

James R Mensch is professor of philosophy at St Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada.

He is the author of Knowing and Being: A Postmodern Reversal (Penn State University Press, 1996). A collection of his writings, available online is here
Also by James Mensch in openDemocracy:
Violence and embodiment(12 Dec 2007)

This difficulty points to the basic contradiction that Hannah Arendt saw in the modern nation-state. "Nation" refers back to natus, that is, to "birth" and a collective racial identity. It, thus, includes a reference to nationalism and, hence, to tribalism with its exclusion of the other. "State," however, calls to mind the French état, with its sense of citizenship as defined by universal rights and obligations that hold regardless of the citizens' race, religion, or family history. How can these two combine? If solidarity is only a function of race or religion, then the very sense of belonging that a state needs to function seems to undermine its universal, legal character.

That sense of belonging also undermines the solidarity that is supposed to bind nations together. Such solidarity must, by definition, exceed the limitations of race, language, and religion. When we ask individual nation states to promote it, are we not requiring them to ignore an essential factor in their own social cohesion? As the referendums on the European constitution in France and the Netherlands showed, the result can be a denial of (international) solidarity for the sake of (national) solidarity.

Aside from this, there is the fact that solidarity depends on our identifying with one another. It therefore overlooks what sets us apart. Some, like Montesquieu, argue that a perfect solidarity would lead to a perfect universalism, one where I would not prefer to aid a friend over a stranger. It would lead to a world where the very notion of friendship would cease. Such solidarity, they contend, is that of the internationalism that abstracts from all the particularities of our private histories - language, race, religion, culture - in short, all those ways by which we recognise and seek out what is properly "our own".

No one wants to live in a world without friendship. Equally, however, we all want the modern state with its guarantees of legal and political equality. Given the fact of global climate change, a certain measure of international solidarity is also essential. Is the demand for it really in conflict with the solidarity that binds only by excluding, the solidarity based on race or religion?

Or might it be that the whole discussion of solidarity is too caught up by these abstractions?

One sign that this is the case is its abstract treatment of our temporality. Those who fear solidarity's exclusionary tendencies generally focus on the solidarities based on our past, that is, on our inherited situations of race, language, culture, and religion. Those who proclaim its benefits see solidarity in terms of our working with others to achieve common solutions to common problems such as global warming. Here the focus is on what we want to achieve politically, that is, on the future that we seek to collectively realise. Identity in this instance is not a matter of what the past gives us, but is rather provided by our working with others for a common goal.

This identity is political rather than natural. It is something we have to create. It requires, for example, the creation of a public space where the processes of debate and decision can take place. Such solidarity is not limited to the international level. Being a member of a state with its universal rights and political obligations, that is, being a citizen as opposed to a member of a racial or linguistic group is sufficient for this type of identity.

No one, of course, lives completely in the past or the future. Thus, our identities (and corresponding senses of solidarity) are never so neatly defined. Our collective actions are informed by the past. Without it, we have no experiential or moral basis for acting. But they are also determined by the future, that is, by the goals that we want to achieve. To reduce such actions to our inherited situations is to define ourselves in terms of race, religion and so on. It is to replace citizenship with tribalism. To reduce them to what we want to achieve, without any thought of the past that makes us a definite people, leaves us with an empty universalism - a world without friendship.

Concretely, of course, we are always negotiating between the two. For the nation state to function we don't just need the solidarities given by our collective past, we also need those given by our collective goals and the institutions for realising these. The solidarities created by heathcare and other social systems can often overwhelm all others. In my native Canada, this has reached a point that people have to be reminded that there was a Canada before there was a national healthcare system.

In times of economic crisis or military defeat such institutions can, of course, fail. The result is not just a crisis in their achieving the aims they were instituted for. It is also a crisis in the solidarity they create. Given that nations must have some form of solidarity to function, the temptation is always there to resort to the exclusionary forms of solidarity to make up the deficit. The breakup of Iraq into religious factions is only one example of this phenomenon. In every country, there are always extremists waiting to promote their racial and religious causes as focuses of identity. The question is whether they will receive a hearing. One thinks here of Hitler and his response to the crisis of the Weimar Republic. Hitler's substitution of the solidarities of race for those created by institutions and active citizenship is only an extreme form of an all too common phenomenon.

Also in openDemocracy:

Mark Vernon, The Politics of Friendship (5 December 2007)

Saskia Sassen, Globalisation, the state and the democratic deficit; (18 July 2007)

The practical question is: how do we avoid this? How do we integrate the solidarity provided by our past without falling into such extremes? Once again, we have to beware of being caught up in abstractions. Only by being concrete can we be attentive to multiple solidarities we are actually engaged in. Our different situations of race, language, religion, and cultural preference involve us in differing networks of solidarity. These, unless artificially suppressed, provide a natural system of checks and balances within the solidarity that is based on the past (see, for example, Saskia Sassen's article The world's third spaces, 8 January 2008).

Such solidarity is itself balanced by that which looks to the future. Its basis are those goods that demand collective action if they are to be available at all. Some require this immediately. Television frequencies, for example, must be collectively regulated and assigned before we can use them. Some, like tuna fish, require a longer term vision. We have to realise that if their catch were not limited, the tuna stocks would vanish in a very few years. There are also goods that require an indefinite collective commitment. In the case of global warming, the requisite solidarity extends across the generations.

This solidarity has little to do with altruism. It is a matter of self-interest. The collective institutions that incorporate it, whether nationally or internationally, are based on the recognition of the special nature of these types of goods. Such recognition does, however, require that our self-interest be enlightened. More specifically, it requires a political class that recognises the nature of the goods involved and the collective agreements required to attain them. Ideally, it should be responsible for informing our public debate on such matters.

A further type of goods may be mentioned here - those that are increased by being shared. In teaching somebody something, we increase the knowledge of what we impart. The same holds when we give directions or advise others. In such cases, we do not stand on an equal footing with regard to some good. Solidarity, in this case, moves beyond self-interest to embrace empathy. Feeling the ignorance of the other, the teacher is motivated by a desire to alleviate it by sharing her knowledge. So does the person who gives directions. A related form of solidarity occurs when workers refuse to extend their hours in order to open up opportunities for the unemployed. Perhaps such solidarity should be called responsibility. It is, after all, a responding to the needs of others as revealed by our empathy.

The examples I have mentioned are hardly exhaustive. But they do point out the multiple aspects of our solidarity. It is, in fact, as multiple as our human reality is. Appeals to it will only succeed when we are attentive to this reality and, hence, to the scope and demands of the particular solidarity we are calling for.


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