Solidarity Between Marx and Arendt09-23-2023
Mie Inouye offers a thoughtful reflection on the nature of solidarity in the latest Boston Review forum on Solidarity. Hannah Arendt, too, wrote and thought deeply about solidarity. First in connection to Augustine’s idea of caritas or neighborly love and then as a problem of Jewish national belonging, solidarity was a lifelong question for Arendt. In the 1950s, Arendt explores the power of reconciliation as a political judgment to reimagine solidarity in the face of evils such as the Holocaust. Later, in On Revolution, Arendt elevates Solidarity as the only meaningful alternative to pity as a way to achieve political unity. Where pity develops unity based on a real or hypocritical empathy with the poor and downtrodden, solidarity allows for a togetherness that includes everyone in a political society, the poor and the wealthy. If pity arrogantly looks down from above, solidarity aims to build a sense of shared purpose and commonality as a friend.
As I’ve written elsewhere, “The fact that solidarity is connected to political judgment means that it includes a judgment about the constitution of a people, a “we.” The “we” appealed to in solidarity is not a pregiven essence but is the result of a judgment that finds something common among a plurality. Solidarity, for Arendt, offers a unity that emerges not out of sympathy or pity, both of which develop togetherness based upon a feeling for depersonalized others, the poor. In the judgment to reconcile with others out of solidarity, people “establish deliberately, and, as it were, dispassionately a community of interest with the oppressed and exploited.” Solidarity moves beyond pity and embraces “the strong and the rich no less than the weak and the poor.” Solidarity, therefore, is a conceptual judgment of reconciliation that is open to uniqueness and meaningful differences (of opinion, status, religion, and race), a judgment that appeals to a “common interest” not in majority opinion but in “the grandeur of man,” or “the honor of the human race,” or the dignity of man. Political solidarity is the outcome of reconciliation insofar as we reconcile ourselves to faction, disagreement, and plurality.”
Inouye approaches solidarity from a decidedly Arendtian direction insofar as she seeks solidarity not only amongst one class or with one class but “across lines of domination.” Inouye’s solidarity is thus not based solely on shared interests. She employs an idea of “social endurance” to argue that simply showing up and talking with others cultivates an “openness to being transformed.” This means that solidarity doesn’t proceed in only one direction but is about finding a common ground that can be shared amongst people of different classes and different interests. This openness to being transformed sits in tension with some of Inouye’s other commitments to a marxist tradition of organizing, and yet it is a productive tension that imagines a politics of solidarity based on the experiential encounter with others rather than from an effort to teach or train others what they ought to believe. It is well worth reading Inouye’s long account of the politics of solidarity, as well as the responses in the Boston Review. She writes:
At a fundraiser for a political organization this spring, a first-generation Asian American organizer from a working-class background asked me, “Why do you organize?”
The organizer—call him Henry—had requested three times that I put on a name tag, and each time I had silently refused, so we were engaged in a subtle but protracted conflict. He was being friendly, but he was also trying to organize me. I answered honestly because I was irritated. “I organize because I need to organize,” I said, “not really because I expect to change the world in any big ways. I just need to have meetings to go to. And I hope that through my actions I am generating possibilities that other people will take up in unexpected ways and that may actually bring about a revolution, even if not in my lifetime and not as a direct result of my actions.”
“That’s so interesting,” he responded. “For me, it’s because of the material changes my family needs to see to our lives in order to survive.” I felt chastened. Only a bourgeois, fourth-generation Asian American college professor organizes for the meetings.
I immediately recognized the political power of Henry’s words. Behind them lie influential left intellectual traditions that see material need as the most potent and reliable basis of solidarity. Still, something in me resisted his implicit criticism. When I consider not only my motivations for organizing but also how I learned to organize, I think of a perhaps unexpected institution: the Mormon Church. While theorists have tended to emphasize either material interest or moral commitment as the basis for solidarity, my experience growing up Mormon taught me that people organize for multiple and simultaneous reasons, sometimes opaque even to themselves. It also taught me that regularly showing up to meetings with very different people is itself a crucial basis for solidarity, at least as potent as either material need or moral commitment.
In a moment of fractious debates about the role of race and class in organizing, social endurance—the capacity to keep showing up, even when you don’t like the other people in the room—might sound like a minimalist solution, too weak to meet the challenges we face. I think it harbors a radical and ambitious lesson: that you cannot know in advance what a meeting—or a struggle over a name tag—will do to you. A commitment to cultivating endurance signals your openness to being transformed, even as you work to transform others. And it helps explain, I will argue, what we most need from a theory of solidarity today.