Solidarity: The Past, Present, and Future of a World-Changing Idea

Truth to Power is a regular series of conversations with writers about the promises and pitfalls of movements for social justice. From the roots of racial capitalism to the psychic toll of poverty, from resource wars to popular uprisings, the interviews in this column focus on how to write about the myriad causes of oppression and the organized desire for a better world.

Rithika Ramamurthy: In your introduction, you outline the “slipperiness” of a concept like solidarity. Can you define solidarity for us, and tell us why you chose to write about it?

Astra Taylor: All concepts are slippery—including equality, liberty, freedom, democracy, and justice. That’s why there are so many tomes written about those concepts. What’s striking is that you’ve got this incredibly interesting, important, galvanizing concept in solidarity—and yet philosophers haven’t been throwing themselves at it with the same enthusiasm. It is an extremely capacious concept, an ancient one that has been through various iterations. It arises in moments of social tumult, like the one in which we’re living. We are continuing that tradition of raising the question of solidarity during a time of profound anxiety and change.

This raises the question: why didn’t this book already exist? Of all its philosophical cousins, the word solidarity is the most invested and engaged. It’s something that people have been busy doing out in the world. That kind of thinking doesn’t get translated as frequently into theoretical dispositions. There was an enormous space to fill, which gave us the freedom to develop a new theory of solidarity.

Leah Hunt-Hendrix: This book enters the conversation around solidarity because it’s an ongoing project. Similar relational concepts are woven through discourses from political theory to philosophy to religion. We can think of Aristotle’s focus on friendship or fraternity during the French Revolution, or the Rawlsian idea of justice. In our research, we discovered an article that traces the concept of solidarity back to ancient Rome as a debt held in common by a community of people: obligatio in solidum. The idea of solidarity has a material basis and economic meaning, which immediately undermines the idea that solidarity is about everyone just getting along. Solidarity is about our interconnectedness, and what we owe each other.

After that, the idea is transferred into French law and political theory in the 1800s and finds its way into politics. There is even a political tendency at the time called Solidarism which proposes that solidarity is the solution to problems arising from the Industrial Revolution—and puts forward social policies and ideas about the role of the state. Two other uses of the concept arise around the same time: Emile Durkheim’s sociological theory of social cohesion and the Marxist vision of the labor movement’s solidarity as an engine for change. These concepts seem as if they have contradictory meanings, but they fit together because social cohesion requires social change. We also see people thinking of solidarity as a body made up of different parts, all separate organs working together towards a common purpose.

Solidarity has a material basis and economic meaning, which immediately undermines the idea that solidarity is about everyone just getting along.

AT: Solidarity is not just getting along. It’s not unity, but it is relational. It’s the thing that holds groups together across difference. But it’s important to recognize that solidarity isn’t always good. That’s why we distinguish between reactionary solidarity and what we call transformative solidarity. Reactionary solidarity draws hard boundaries, creating an “other” towards which it can be hostile, aggressive, or violent. Transformative solidarity has porous boundaries, it’s aimed at inclusion and expands people’s identities to build a bigger “we.” This project can ultimately change not only people’s idea of themselves but larger social and political arrangements. It’s important not to be romantic about it; it’s not something that just exists in the world—it’s made.

RR: I want to discuss the psychological dimensions of solidarity. You call it “a form of power rooted in the acknowledgment that our lives are materially intertwined.” Practicing solidarity is “analyzing oppression across identities and building bonds beyond them.” Can you talk about some of the assaults against and obstacles to solidarity and how to overcome them?

LHH: In the history I mentioned, ideas about solidarity arise at the same time there was a real change in the structure of labor. Marx talks about alienation, Durkheim of anomie. Both concepts address how and why we feel disconnected from ourselves and others in modern society. Alienation arises from the capitalist economic structure. Beyond that, there are physical and legal obstacles to solidarity, like segregation and the prison system. There is even outright criminalization of solidarity: crackdowns on doctors trying to help women who want reproductive care or people who want to help refugees seeking asylum, or the dismantling of bail funds. People everywhere are attempting to support one another, and they face an active assault. Even the critique of “wokeness” as a response to the powerful potential of racial justice movements is this kind of assault.

AT: There is an innate human capacity and instinct for solidarity. It’s something in our nature. We are social beings, and we’re interdependent. All the tactics we mentioned are so aggressive because the solidarity instinct is really strong. There is a tremendous amount of energy and resources that go to squashing solidarity, and that wouldn’t be necessary if it weren’t something people were inclined towards. But nature is not enough—you have to construct those communities and movements that foster it.

RR: Your book tries to tell the history of an understudied concept. It also draws together the understudied movements that have mobilized around solidarity. What are the effects of the poverty of this kind of knowledge on the strength of left movements?

AT: Aspiring world-changers often reinvent the wheel and rediscover the logic of solidarity. In the beginning of the Debt Collective and its origins in Occupy Wall Street, we intuitively started holding debtors’ assemblies and having people talk about their debts. We were weaving together a new identity, and trying to show people that they had something in common despite their very different experiences and backgrounds. At the time, I didn’t know that that’s what every movement did, and that’s what every movement does! Whether you’re organizing for gay liberation, trans rights, disability rights, civil rights—those formations and collective identities weren’t given, they were made. A more robust discussion of solidarity might help people start further along, with more resources and more of that history.

Millions have died as a consequence of the war on solidarity.

This book is an eccentric mix of intellectual history, political diagnosis, and organizing how-to. Solidarity, as a concept, calls on a person to actually try to manifest it in the world. A book like this would have helped our group as we stumbled onto many of these strategies without knowing it, without having the guide or the consciousness. A book like this can give you context and appreciation for how things came to be and invite you to be a part of changing the narrative and reshaping things.

LHH: There are many organizations that train people to organize or build campaigns. But building solidarity—expanding the idea of who is a part of the struggle and how campaigns can broaden to become more powerful—is a different thing. The result is that we organize in smaller and smaller groups—or seek out people who already think the way we do. It’s important to want to be good and right, but there’s not a conceptual counterweight pulling us in the direction of being broader and more inclusive. We hope this book helps pull our movements in that direction.

RR: There’s ideological repression, and then there’s material repression of solidarity throughout time. I’m thinking here of McCarthyism, COINTELPRO, and the dismantling and erasure of Black liberation organizations. As two movement leaders and intellectuals, you’ve probably seen that erasing revolutionary history changes the composition and limits the power of the left.

AT: Millions have died as a consequence of the war on solidarity. We are living in a different moment within that war. This book is coming out in a very different context than when we began writing it in 2020. There was a hope that COVID would give us all a common enemy and bring us together, and there were also the historic protests following the murder of George Floyd. What we’re seeing now is a coordinated and well-funded effort to break that nascent solidarity, to make people ashamed for understanding that oppression is systemic. In opposition to that, it’s very important to preach just how dangerous to the status quo solidarity is. The threat that we might build a multiracial, multigenerational, multigeographic movement—people really don’t want that to happen. So, let’s do it. Let’s break down the barriers. Let’s get out of our silos. There may be backlash, but the response to the backlash needs to be solidarity, not succumbing to its tactics.

RR: Speaking of context—I want to ask about Gaza. You end the book with an ambitious chapter on “Solidarity Beyond Borders,” so I’m wondering if you can reflect on the state of the movement for justice in Gaza and liberation for the Palestinian people.

LHH: Israeli solidarity with Palestinians has been really impactful in my thinking for a long time. I spent some time in Israel and the West Bank with those solidarity movements many years ago. There’s an understanding that nobody can be safe or happy as long as there is oppression of Palestinians and occupation of their land. In terms of a global framework, there is a whole history of people in colonizer countries standing in solidarity with people their countries have colonized or oppressed. In that chapter, we look at the history of independence movements to show that you can’t really create your ideal society in one nation alone, because we’re a global community at this point. We want to push people beyond the idea that this is optional or secondary. Global capitalism allows capital to move freely and traps people behind borders. We want to revive ideas from the history of independence movements and internationalist frameworks based on solidarity to spark our imagination on what else this world could look like.

What’s happening in Israel and Gaza really involves us all. It involves the nature of the international order and the institutions created after World War II, like the United Nations and the International Court of Justice, and all these institutions that were ostensibly built to protect people. The US is demonstrating how powerless these institutions are by entire[ly] overturning their authority—and that has consequences for everyone. You might not feel all those consequences in your personal life, but we need an international system that protects people.

AT: We really see both reactionary and transformative solidarity on display right now. There is the reactionary Jewish identity being mobilized that is in opposition to Palestinian freedom, that sees them as the enemy. Then there is the transformative movement led by groups like Jewish Voices for Peace and If Not Now that is in the streets for Palestinian liberation. The people taking a stand on the side of life, as we can see, are being met with intense militarism. A lot of the motivation to take this stand comes from disgust and dismay witnessing the violence of genocide.

But there is self-interest in it, too. We need an international regime that stands up to genocide. We need a world in which groups like AIPAC [American Israeli Public Affairs Committee] are delegitimized because they are not good for democracy. It’s a powerful moment that requires real moral bravery from people. There’s a politics of divide-and-conquer at work right now in recent mobilizations of accusations of anti-Semitism, which often seek to strategically break solidarity not only between the left and progressives but attack liberals and mainstream democrats, too. Let’s not fall for it.

A framework of solidarity might create more humility in philanthropy. It would involve a lot more listening and acting as a partner to organizations.

RR: I want to turn to your sharp critiques of advocacy. The rise of neoliberalism is paralleled by the rise of the nonprofit sector. This is a two-part question: First, can you talk about the limitations of advocacy models, and what kinds of organizations we should be building instead? And second, can you talk about how philanthropy can go beyond its “solidarity without substance” limitations?

LHH: The tax code, which was created early in the last century, enables people to give away money and get a tax break. That’s already a policy decision that diverts money out of democratically controlled public funds and lets wealthy people decide what to do with their money. Wealthy people often use those funds to serve their own benefit or don’t even give that much away. In donor-advised funds [DAFs], they may not even be required to report where their funds are going. These policies increase the power of wealthy people in the nonprofit sector. This created a model where organizations depend on the whims of philanthropy, and there are many negative consequences to that. Donors can influence the mission, programs, and strategies of organizations. They can also suck organizations dry with bureaucratic requirements to raise money to survive.

There are many critiques of philanthropy, but we don’t want to leave it there. We live in a world where nonprofits need to appeal to major donors. What would it look like if solidarity was a framework for people in the philanthropic sector? We would see grantees and organizations as the real decision-makers over the work that benefits everyone. We would invert the power dynamic of the benefactor and the beneficiary. Philanthropy is providing some financial resources, but it’s really the organizations that are actually doing the work to change the world and to solve social crises by which we’re all impacted.

A framework of solidarity might create more humility in philanthropy. It would involve a lot more listening and acting as a partner to organizations. A framework of solidarity would also need to get at the root cause of why philanthropy has so much power in the first place. Because it’s not a functional system. It’s a system of domination in the technical sense of the term, which is the arbitrary control of one person over another. Ultimately, we have to get at the real roots of that, which is not procedural but is about addressing the roots of economic inequality. There are a lot of ways to do that: to break up the concentration of corporate power, to reform the tax code, to support working class movements that are trying to expand the economic wellbeing of middle-class and poor people. Also, to change the laws around philanthropy: to increase payout amounts, to increase transparency, and to require more from people who are getting a tax break to put their money towards charitable purposes.

AT: We talk about philanthropy as a semblance of solidarity. It can be a force that actually disorganizes people under the guise of helping them, or it can be a powerful tool to supercharge organizing. There have been a lot of books that criticize philanthropy, and rightly so. What we try to offer is a realistic account. Movements need resources, we can’t pretend that they don’t. But those resources have to be channeled into movements in a way that aims at building power and disassembling the conditions that led to that imbalance of wealth and power. The way funding is set up creates a lot of organizations that are stuck in an advocacy model. They aren’t base building; they aren’t accountable to members.

Our argument is: this is not strategic. When you don’t have solidarity among people, there’s a vacuum. That means it’s easier for the right wing to mobilize and misdirect them. The shortcuts of the funder-directed advocacy model are detrimental to democracy in the long term. There are consequences to letting masses of people be disorganized. So, we are making both a moral and strategic case for a more solidaristic approach. Millions of people in this country don’t have a political home, so they’re more susceptible to arguments that scapegoat vulnerable people for systemic issues. If we want even basic liberal democracy, we need more robust movements.

RR: There are all kinds of opposition to solidarity: racism, sexism, and more—but capitalism is the political-economic system within which these divisions are lived. Can you talk about why capitalist exploitation is the central target of transformative solidarity?

LHH: Astra and I met during Occupy Wall Street, and I was drawn to it as a person who comes from a wealthy background. I’ve always been interested in economic inequality and the detrimental impact it has on everyone, including wealthy people. Even wealthy people are not insulated from the depression and isolation that capitalism imposes. It’s not working for anybody. I met people who felt committed to rethinking the economic system, the outsized power of banks, and the 1 percent’s ownership of society. We started to ask: how would you fund social movements, especially anticapitalist ones, when philanthropy is not typically interested in that? We built Solidaire as a network of people who were responding to movements at the speed they require, in the spirit of accompanying them over time and wanting to give power to the grassroots.

Capitalism reduces everything to its exchange value. Under capitalism, money is what’s sacred—what organizes our daily habits and practices. It drives all of us. It has no relation to what we need to survive. It does not lead to happiness, and happiness is what most of us want. We want belonging. We want care. But we live in a system that drives us towards other ends. This system also destroys our lives, our communities, our planet. Solidarity can ground an alternative economic system. Our economy is made, not found. Solidarity can be a principle for remaking it.

AT: Capitalism differentiates people. That’s why we talk about racial capitalism: capitalism is racialized, because it separates people into more or less exploitable categories. Stratifying human value by racializing populations, or by gendering people, requires an ideological framework. It’s not just that capitalism is individualistic or commodifies, but it depends on differentiation through fictions of race, gender, nationality, and other invented concepts that it materializes. In that sense, solidarity is anticapitalist, because it challenges the divisive exploitation of the capitalist machine.

It’s through organizing that I learned that it’s not enough to just have the best analysis. You have to bring people together. If you can’t make them feel connected, you don’t have power. If you want people not just to come to a meeting, but to come back, if you want more allies, if you want a policy shift, you have to build solidarity among groups. This book happened because of my time in movements, and it’s a real testament to the fact that movements involve thinking. Solidarity came out of that too. There is nothing like seeing people realize that they are connected, and watch solidarity kick up the scale.