Introduction Keynote

What is Solidarity?


I was born when all I once feared, I could love.
– Hazrat Bibi Rabia of Basra, 7th century Sufi saint

Survival has become an economizing on life. The civilization of collective survival increases dead time in individual lives to the point where the forces of death threaten to overwhelm collective survival itself. Unless, that is, the passion for destruction is replaced by the passion for life.
– Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life

 

One of the great crises of our times is the crisis of meaning, which is both a symptom and a cause of the broader polycrisis – the convergence of ecological, political, spiritual and social breakdown. Traditionally held certainties about humanity’s place in the world are crumbling. Those to whom we have abdicated our power – politicians, academics, doctors, experts, leaders – reflect back the confused, muddled buffoonery of a collective emperor with no clothes. Extinction illness and other psychological collateral effects are deepening both depression and denial, forcing humility and exacerbating hubris. The Anthropocene casts a long and convoluted shadow.

As the political adage goes, “we are prisoners of context in the absence of meaning.” So what then shall we do? A starting place is better understanding of and relating to the current context – i.e. assessing the nature and texture of the oxygen we breathe (even when we can’t). We can also attribute new and ancient meaning to the consequences of our actions. In this essay I argue that solidarity can play a central role in triangulating these two practices as a means towards sense-making. We can re-imagine solidarity as a communal, spiritual act. Solidarity as becoming.

Etymologically, solidarity comes from the Latin word solidus, a unit of account in ancient Rome. It then merged into French to become solidaire referring to interdependence, and then into English, in which its current definition is an agreement between, and support for, a group, an individual, an idea. It is essentially a bond of unity or agreement between people united around common cause. True to its original meaning, there is the notion of accountability at its core.

Below are some reflections on solidarity within the fast-changing context of modernity, or more aptly, the Kali Yuga, the dark ages prophesied by the Vedic traditions of India. I offer these five interlocking premises in the spirit of wondering aloud and fostering allyship. I do not claim any special expertise or moral authority. Like all truths, these are subjective notions anchored in a particular historical moment, through the medium of a biased individual (accompanied by a complex of seen and unseen forces such as ancestors), and an entangled set of antecedents bringing together the past, present and future simultaneously.

Solidarity is not something activists do. It is a requirement of being a citizen of our times.

It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.
– Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene

 

Protesters hold hands at a rally in Baltimore. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Most of us were not taught moral philosophy outside the constructs of our institutional religions or educational systems. I would like to propose a simple, time-tested applied ethic to steer our conversation. In the troubled times we find ourselves in, our disposition should be to side with those that have less power. In the context of capitalist modernity, to borrow Abdullah Öcalan’s language, this means siding with the oppressed, the exploited, the immiserate, the marginalized, the poor.

You can examine any situation, in all its complexity, and assess the following: who has more power over the other? Who is benefitting from the other’s misery? Who is exerting domination? Where does this power come from? What are the rights of those involved? From this vantage point of critical thinking, one can then engage their moral will in support of balancing power. This can be applied to both the human and more-than-human realms of other species and animate ecosystems.

This ethic does not mean you are the judge or arbiter of final say; rather, it is a heuristic, a short-hand assessment for where to pledge your moral weight and your solidarity. Of course, the difficulty is that we are subjective beings with pre-existing identities and implicit biases. And our identities matter and impact who and how we are able to show up for others in society. Solidarity requires the cultivation of wisdom and discernment, strategy and compassion.

Sometimes being an ally to those in adverse power dynamics may mean educating the oppressor by interrupting their consciousness and steering them towards awareness of equity through relationship and commitment to their higher being. More often, solidarity requires being an accomplice rather than an ally; it requires a direct affront to power itself.

Part of our responsibility is to understand the construct of our identities. Not to transcend or bypass them, but rather, to situate our beingness (our race, gender, socio-economic status, cognitive biases, etc.) in the broader context of society in order to be in deeper kinship with others. By engaging in a perspective outside of our internalized role-type, we create the ability to disidentify, at least momentarily, with our social personas in order to be in service to others who are affected by the cultural constructs imposed on them.

However, our work of seeing and understanding the landscape and internal ley lines of intersecting identities, and the cultural byproducts they produce, does not stop here. In addition to our own inner deconstruction, we must also avail ourselves to perceiving and understanding the intersecting matrix of others – especially those who embody different histories and diverse backgrounds.

Perhaps by activating the lens of power, rendering meaning to the plight of other beings, human and otherwise, and being committed to see whole selves with multiple, intersecting identities, we can start to develop the critical capacity of moral judgement and discernment, not as something to fear, or something that others will do (e.g. activists), but rather as a requirement of being a citizen of our times.

Part of the reason we are in a crisis of meaning is that we have stopped exercising our meaning-making sensibilities – our dedication to what we deem so worthy of care that we would challenge anything, including our own constructed roles within the social hierarchy.

To become a citizen of our times requires that we understand the impoverishment of our times.

I don’t know who discovered water, but I can tell you it wasn’t a fish.
– Marshall McCluhan

A child plays in waste products used to make poultry feed at Hazaribagh in Dhaka.

We spend inordinate amounts of time consuming “culture”, yet we do not necessarily have the means to cultivate a critique of culture. Max Weber believed that the human is an animal suspended in webs of significance that we ourselves have spun. Indeed, culture is the cumulation of all those webs of significance. It is only by unveiling the threads that we can start to grasp the limitations of our perceived reality in the attempt to expand the horizon of possibility.

For those of us who live within the dominant culture of the West, our context often prevents us from understanding the consequences of our way of living. We are infantilized when it comes to basic knowledge like how money is created, where our waste goes, where our energy and resources are extracted from, where and how our food is grown, the history of our nations, and the origins of our sources of wealth.

On one level, this is an artifact of power. Privilege is a constraint. In fact, privilege is a blinding constraint. We appear to be hapless fish swimming in the ocean of neoliberal capitalism that impedes our ability to see selfishness masquerading as efficiency; destruction, war and violence wrapped in the euphemisms of economic growth and jobs; colonization masked as “development”; patriarchy obfuscated by pointing to the exceptions; structural racism occluded by “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”.

For one to understand power, one has to understand culture. In order to decode culture, one must develop critical faculties. To be critical, one must disidentify with the object of critique, in our case, the dominant culture.

This requires a de-colonization of one’s entire being. It is an ongoing praxis of deprogramming old constructs of greed, selfishness, short-termism, extraction, commodification, usury, disconnection, numbing and other life-denying tendencies. And reprogramming our mind-soul-heart-body complex with intrinsic values such as interdependence, altruism, generosity, cooperation, empathy, non-violence and solidarity with all life.

These are not programs to be swapped out or software upgrades to a computer. The mechanistic metaphors of Newtonian physics do not easily transfer to the messy reality of lived experience. These values are nurtured by entraining new beliefs, enacting new behaviors, contracting new relationships, activating new neural patterns in the brain, reordering new somatic responses in the body. And by “new”, I mean new as a subjective reference. In many ways, these are acts of remembering.

How does this apply to a politics of solidarity in practical terms? Every time we focus on a single issue that matters to us (e.g. lower corporate taxes, mandatory vaccinations, elite pedapholia rings, etc.) without examining the larger machinations of power or the interests we ally ourselves with (i.e. associational politics), we remove the possibility of true structural change. Every time we defend capitalism as a source of innovation or the “best-worst system” we have, we dishonor the 8000 species that go extinct every year and the majority of humanity that are suffering under the yoke of growth-based imperialism. Every time we say that some poverty will always exist, we condemn our fellow humans because of our own ignorance. Every time we say that we have the world we have because of human nature, we are amputating human ingenuity, connection, empathy and possibility.

We first need to understand the cultural waters we are swimming in before and during the process of forming and reforming our political perspectives. And we must deeply question any opinions we may hold that require the world to stay the way it is, especially if we are benefitting from the current order.

Solidarity is not a concept; it is an active, embodied practice

To define another being as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being. By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies.
– David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous

Police arresting meditators at an Occupy Oakland protest in 2011. Photo via nowpublic.com

As we deepen our critique of the dominant culture, we will naturally start to oppose the values that are rewarded by our current order. By better understanding what we stand against, we will deepen our understanding of what we stand for. As we create intimacy with ideas such as solidarity, empathy, interdependence and other post-capitalist values, we refine our internal world, the felt experience of what it is to be a self-reflective, communitarian being in service to life. As we shift internally, we will find the external world of consensus reality start to mirror back these values, and in turn, our bodies will reflect the external changes.

The political transmutates into the somatic whether we are conscious of it or not. We carry the scars of history in our bodies, physically, genetically, epi-genetically and memetically. Solidarity requires that we honor history, that we do not deny or ignore the historical circumstances that led us to this moment. Techno-utopianism and the New Optimist agenda of people like Bill Gates and Stephen Pinker require amnesia and anesthesia, forgetting and numbing, as their starting place. The somatic realities of historical trauma and current life trauma, as they relate to different and intersecting social locations, presents an opportunity to redefine solidarity by engaging in relationships that actively heal the present while healing the past.

Although identities are political, they are not fixed; rather, they are emergent and ever-unfolding facets of human nature as a sub-stratum of cultural evolution. Intersectionality asks us to relate to a matrix of identities infinite in expression and limitless in nature. Rather than checking the boxes of understanding and political correctness, we are instead asked to develop our muscles of multi-faceted perception; we are asked to become more agile in our relational being and to develop a multitude of entry points to our empathy. Intersectionality challenges us to become humble in our orientation to solidarity because it requires us to question deep assumptions of our socialization. As the feminist scholar and poet Audre Lorde reminds us “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” We are tasked with developing a field of solidarity worthy of the complex forms humanity is dreaming itself into.

As we start to become practitioners of solidarity, we might find that our humanity expands as our conceptions of identity expand. We might find that we are more resilient in the face of the onslaught of neoliberalism and its seductive forces. We may find ourselves less susceptible to advertising propaganda or conspiracy theories on the one hand, or existential angst, despair and ennui on the other. We may find ourselves more adept at holding multiple simultaneous truths, ambiguity, apparent chaos and other paradoxes. We may find that solidarity as embodied practice is where true meaning and integrity comes from.

As we start to see how all oppression is connected, we can also start to see glimpses of how all healing is connected. And that our own liberation is not only bound up with that of others but that our collective future is dependent on it.

Solidarity is not an act of charity, rather it is a means of making us whole again. Solidarity will ask of us what charity never can.

Solidarity is a pathway to spiritual development

The world is perfect as it is, including my desire to change it.
– Ram Dass

It is a common belief that there is an oppositional relationship between inner work and outer work, spirituality and politics. They are separate domains – politics happens in halls of power or the streets, and spirituality happens in ashrams, churches, temples, forests, caves and other places of worship. This separation is often manifested in statements such as “I have to take care of myself before I can help others”. Although there is some truth in this sentiment, it overlooks the possibility that being in service to others is being in service to one’s self. The act of solidarity for another being or community of beings feeds the soul and cultivates character in ways that often cannot happen through traditional spiritual practices.

The binary thinking goes both ways. Political communities often lack deeper spiritual practices and metaphysical worldviews beyond Cartesian rationalism. Activists often get burned out because they lack spiritual resourcing and a sustained depth of purpose. On the other hand, spiritual communities are often disconnected from reality as they attempt to bypass the physical plane. Through solidarity, there is the possibility of a sacred activism that creates lasting structural change.

For example, by engaging in collective prayer as an act of solidarity, we are exerting our life-force for shared healing, knowing and trusting that our healing is entangled with the healing of all others. Our individual healing can be a consequence of our prayer, but to focus our prayers on simply our own safety, abundance, etc. is to relegate our relationship with the divine into a selfish monologue.

Often, collective prayer or contemplation can become an entry point into a more thoughtful, delicate activism. Even for those deeply steeped in direct action and political organizing, transforming reactionary impulses such as outrage into intentional prayer opens latent potentialities. By spending time in contemplation about what another being may be going through, we access the possibility to live many lives, to see many perspectives, to hear many tongues, to know many ancestors, to receive the blessings of many deities. In that sense, empathy and solidarity are gateways to what quantum physicists call non-locality.

Solidarity expands our capacity for generosity, pleasure and grief 

Generosity is doing justice without requiring justice.
– Imam Junaid of Bhagdad, 9th century Islamic scholar

Ny’Aja Roberson, 16, performs a freestyle praise dance at a protest in June.

Among activists, there has historically been a strong culture of self-flagellation, worldly denial and asceticism. This has partly contributed to a political climate bereft of pleasure, especially on the Left. This in turn repels potential allies and diminishes the appeal of social justice movements. To paraphrase Emma Goldman, a revolution without joy is not a revolution worth having. Nor will our subconscious ratify its manifestations. Part of the practice of resistance to dominant culture is to create and live alternatives of such beauty and extraordinariness that the so-called “others” are magnetically drawn to post-capitalist possibilities.

The more we develop our capacity for pleasure, the more we can access the immediacy of the present moment. The skill of being present with what is while creating what could be also allows us to access the deep grief that comes with being a human in the Anthropocene and potentiates the generosity of spirit that is required to flourish in these times.

As we remain present, as we hold what spiritual traditions call “witness consciousness” in the face of planetary destruction – of other species, of cultures and languages we will never know because of our way of living – we may also access the mythopoetic aspects of our being, the archetypal realms that can assist us in reshaping the physical world. We may start to remember that our lives are creative, shamanic acts we are performing on ourselves.

The practices of tending grief, of being faithful witness, of opening to pleasure, of deepening generosity, of expanding our circle of concern, can rewire our identities from atomized individuals having a personal experience to inter-relational beings taking part in the immensity of a self-generating cosmos.

As we shed the veils of separation and anthropocentric logic created by monocultures of the mind, we open ourselves to what the physicist David Bohm called the implicate order, an omnicentric worldview connected to the wholeness of every perceived other.

We are being prepared for even deeper complexity, breakdown, tragedy, renewal and rebirth. This transition calls upon all of us to be vigilant students of our cultures, to contemplate our entangled destinies, to abandon our entitlement, to transcend the apparent duality of inner and outer work, and to reaffirm our responsibility to each other and the interwoven fabric of our sentient planet and the living universe. Through solidarity we give more of ourselves over to the divine, to the collective unfolding, so the future can reflect back who we really are.

 

Special thanks to Carlin Quinn, Yael Marantz, Martin Kirk, Blessol Gathoni and Jason Hickel for their contributions. As with all acts of creation, this article was a communal endeavor.

 

About Alnoor Ladha

Alnoor’s work focuses on the intersection of political organizing, systems thinking, structural change, and narrative work. He was the co-founder and Executive Director of The Rules (TR), a global network of activists, organizers, designers, coders, researchers, writers, and others focused on changing the rules that create inequality, poverty, and climate change. TR started in 2012 as a time-bound project and an experiment in anarchist organizational design, exploring new ways of how to work, play, and make trouble together.

Alnoor comes from a Sufi lineage and writes about the crossroads of politics and spirituality in troubled times. He is a co-founder of Tierra Valiente, an alternative community and healing center in the jungle of northern Costa Rica. He is a board member of Culture Hack Labs and The Emergence Network. He holds an MSc in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics.

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