Discerning New Forms of Solidarity

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One thing that is clearly evident is that human beings have consistently developed new forms of solidarity as we have evolved from roaming bands of hunters and gatherers to a digital society with swiftly eroding national borders. Organisations such as Médecins sans Frontières, The Red Cross, and Amnesty international were created as platforms of international solidarity (Baglioni 2001, p. 224). For these organisations, all that mattered was helping people in need, wherever they were and utilising individual expertise for global benefit (Baglioni 2001, p. 227). Today, the primary basis of solidarity is nationalism—i.e. the recognition of a special duty to one’s own nation, although this notion is eroding in Europe and Asia. Although there are certainly extremists for nationalism, most support for these movements is moderate, and moderate nationalists would say that the individual does have a moral duty to treat others fairly (Wilde 2004, p. 137). Nevertheless, nationalist sentiments preclude global identification as prioritising one’s national group still allows discrimination to flourish. Of course, the next logical step of human solidarity is that of the global level—where through the creation of international bodies, people strive to articulate universal values that are common to all cultures and come together on that basis. The aforementioned organisations do play a role in helping us advance to that point, but there are still many things that need to happen before the cosmopolitan ideal can be put in place. For instance, there needs to be a development of a universal system of ethics, a common language for business, science, and politics, and a change in consciousness from being a citizen of Nation A to citizen of the world. In a sense, this has happened as local movements for equal rights have influenced other people around the world to campaign for their own interests as well. As more organisations and governmental bodies are recognising the inherent worth of the individual, it is reasonable to expect that the development of a broader form of solidarity will emerge.

In the scholarship of international relations, an increasing number of writers agree that the ‘old international order’ is insufficient for dealing with the current threats to human survival, such as resource shortages (oil and potable water), increased population growth, and chaotic climate patterns (Wilde 2004, p. 137). Therefore, it is recommended that a form of global governance and stewardship should emerge (Hardt & Negri 2005, p. 161). Now, more than ever, the primacy of the nation-state is in question, especially as new ways of identification continue to be explored. While some lean to embracing a more local identification—with one’s city or cultural group, others believe that identification on the continental or global level would be more relevant (Waterman 2001, p. 200). In the mid-twentieth century, there has been some movement to creating bodies that possess international oversight such as the International Criminal Court to try war crimes, the Geneva Convention, which dictates international provisions for the treatment of prisoners of war, and the United Nations which dictate standards and prohibitions for weapons proliferation and international trade agreement (Tarrow 2011, p. 2). Although this does present a positive advance toward a system that promotes global accountability and global collaboration on certain commercial and environmental issues—there is still a strong tendency to identify nationality before anything else, and in some circles, tribal identity is most important. Social change toward a more global perspective will likely be slow and painful because of the tendency of the ruling class to view all collective action with suspicion—i.e. as a conspiracy or an infection that must be extracted (Melucci 1996, p. 42).

One piece of evidence that supports the conclusion of social change as a contagion was the opposition’s past reliance on terrorism or guerilla warfare to achieve particular ends (Clark 2009, p. 1). In 1605, Guy Fawkes and his compatriots sought to blow up Parliament in order to kill the king and restore England to Catholicism. On September 11, nineteen hijackers seized control of four US planes and killed more than 3,000 people in order to force Americans from Muslim lands and decrease support for Israel. In both cases, that led to increased persecution of English Catholics and American Muslims and in the latter case, an even larger American presence in the Middle East. This was especially true of governments where any form of verbal dissent meant exile to a prison colony or execution. As violent reactions often backfire, nonviolent protests may succeed where armed resistance has failed in the past. Even though nonviolent protest was always an option as a tool of social change, it was not until the 1940s that it had been thrust into global consciousness (Tarrow 2011, p. 102). Since the movement for Indian Independence in the 1940s, the concept of the nonviolent protest has gained ground, and the results have been astonishing. To those on the outside, the protestors look like champions of social justice while the government looks repressive for violently putting down the protests rather than simply letting them make a statement. This has worked not only to successfully ensure Indian independence in 1947, but also helped to pass Civil Rights laws in the United States in 1965 and ultimately end the state of apartheid in South Africa (Tarrow 2011, p. 216). The world was moving toward a stance of inclusion and tolerance, stressing an appreciation of all cultures. Thus, governments could no longer maintain a racist status quo without global condemnation, nor could it inflict acts of cruelty on its own citizenry without censure (Tarrow 2011, p. 217). ‘The point here, however, is that global politics will slowly penetrate the domestic agendas and there will be a need for articulation of old and new politics’ (Wilde 2004, p. 150). Several movements from women’s rights to anti-war movements and other independence movements have used nonviolent protests to gain their objectives and the current democratic movements in the Middle East and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US shows that it continues to be seen as a viable tool.

One critique of the global mindset is that it would, on the micro-level lead to increased unhappiness, mental ill health, and distrust of others. This was especially true as the demands of an industrial society had split up neighbourhoods and created a world where people did not automatically know what their ‘place’ was (Spencer & Pahl 2006, p. 10). Yes, there are more options than ever as people are more free to emigrate to whichever nation would suit them best, but the discontent would more likely be attributed to the consumer-capitalist ideal of defining the individual by the sum of their purchases. This mindset has also been exported around the globe, which makes it difficult to form communities along anything other than product lines. Yet Spencer and Pahl are optimistic that the old communities can be re-established through the virtual communities of the Internet. While the old cities and towns were grouped around people performing a particular occupation, today, a teacher can go online and correspond with other teachers to discuss the challenges of moulding young minds. A doctor could contact other doctors to learn about treatment modalities they have not tried yet. Only in this case, the community of like-minded people is global rather than local in nature. ‘First, while rightly crediting communities for developing our sense of right and wrong, a universal moral sense, it overturns the universality of the moral sense by asserting the priority of a particular communal obligation’ (Wilde 2004, p. 137).

One defining characteristic of the modern Western state is that it is rich in racial, religious, and cultural diversity. Another is that many of these states are relatively peaceful in spite of this heterogeneity. Part of the reason for this is that states have begun to protect the rights of those historically considered to be an Other based on race, religion or gender. One critique of the liberal policies of cooperation is that it encourages people to think of themselves first as members of religious or ethnic groups rather than members of a society. According to Touraine & Macey (2000): ‘What the liberal conception lacks is a principle of unity that can facilitate communication between different actors. This is why we see so many individuals fleeing into communities, which ensure a high level of communication but also enforce a homogeneity that is potentially intolerant and authoritarian’ (p. 137). One way to avoid this kind of self-segregation is to ensure that society recognises and appreciates the contributions of all member cultures and teaches a mutual valuing of cultures within its educational system (Mason 2000, p. 149). If the dominant society insists that only its own contributions are relevant, minorities would not feel as though they belong to that nation and would continue to behave as strangers in a strange land. If the dominant society is not prepared to acknowledge the needs and interests of minorities, then change often comes slowly through local action. Even though movements such as the one for African American Civil Rights and the one to expel the Chinese from Tibet started out on a local level, they would eventually be able to exert influence on an international level (Pleyers 2011, p. 41). Another example of this is the women’s movements. Starting primarily in Western nations, the quest for the rights of women had taken on global significance when taken to nations that had allowed women little to no agency over their lives (e.g. Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan). While there was some success in the sense that women around the world were able to gain increased agency over their lives, they still remain entrenched in inequalities (Lyons 2010, p. 101).

Although Eric Fromm wrote with the intention of recognising the tenets of authoritarian regimes and analysing the tendency to get caught up in mass movements, he was pessimistic in the human capacity to establish a global society of peace and love because even as they adopt new ways of thought, the social structures still support the old ways. In this, he uses the example of the European conversion to Christianity. While the old pagan myths showed a strong male protagonist conquering adversaries, Christianity advocates turning the other cheek and practicing love for one’s neighbour. However, the history of Europe for the past five hundred years has been steeped in war, conquest, and greed. As Fromm (2007) says: “European-North American history, in spite of the conversion to the church, is a history of conquest, pride, greed; our highest values are: to be stronger than others, to be victorious, to conquer others and exploit them” (p. 116). This shows that even though a society may choose to embrace certain values, there is a problem of human nature and its slowness to align with their philosophical ideals. However, adaptation does take place because even though racism and sexism are still problematic, the Western world is significantly less sexist and racist than it was one hundred years ago. Progress is slow, but it is inevitable. Global solidarity is possible, but it would be a long time in coming. Curiously, the national socialist movements that were quite prominent in the twentieth century had drawn society together with the premise that they faced a common enemy in the existing social structure (Wallerstein 2002). For some nations, it involved becoming independent of a colonial ruler—for others, it was a war of the working class (proletarians) with the middle classes and aristocracy (the bourgeoisie). Usually, the existing structure only served the interests of a very small, wealthy minority and those in charge of the movements sought to create a society where almost every citizen stood to benefit. State governments, such as the People’s Republic of China and Soviet Russia had taken the position that religion was to blame for widespread inequity and rendered the practice of any faith illegal, even though it provided a sense of community among groups of people. In any case, Wallerstein described the socialist movement in two steps: the revolutionary phase, where the existing government would be overthrown and the transformation phase, where the former revolutionaries are now members of the legitimate government. Wallerstein (2002) argued that this two-part movement was problematic because the government would now have to contend with the fact that they are members of a wider international community whose requirements may get in the way of a particular agenda. On the left, there was also the problem of balancing the interests of women and minorities, as movement leaders have often promised that they would be solved ‘after the revolution.’ Working to restore most inequities may be a viable first step for socialist revolutions, but the needs of each supporting group need to be considered.

In summation, there is evidence that we are heading toward an expanding view of solidarity. While some European nations were caught in the grasp of nationalism during and after World War II, in 1958, six states established what would become the European Union—which would create a larger economic community and dismantle obstacles to travelling between member states. While member states have more autonomy than members of a federation (e.g. the US) with respect to the maintenance of the military or foreign policy, all member states must agree to support a democratic free market and the rule of law. Considering the sheer diversity of language, religion and culture, this was a remarkable achievement. This was what Honneth (1996) had in mind when he said that genuine solidarity was created not out of passive tolerance for one another, but with active concern for each citizen on to a degree, which encourages them to contribute their gifts and talents to abstract societal goals (p. 129). This does not mean that people should have a symmetrical level of esteem on a personal level, but instead cultivate a desire for people to develop their best positive attributes, even if it seems foreign. Yes, progress has indeed been made but the global community still has a long way to go before it reaches the point where the vast majority of people consider themselves to be citizens of the world rather than a member of a certain nation or race. According to Wilde (2004): ‘there needs to be a “more heroic” version of universalism that attaches no intrinsic significance to national boundaries… Cosmopolitanism [should be] the “ideal of the future”, which could not yet be realised because of the strength of national sentiments was too great’ (p. 138). Given the level of existential issues such as food and water shortages in a time of unchecked population growth, humanity can only travel one of two paths: global warfare or cooperative management of resources. Since humanity now has the capability to destroy itself, cooperation and global citizenship is the only realistic solution to these problems, otherwise the scope of felt solidarity would once more degenerate to the level of nation, race, religion, or social class. Perhaps Fromm is right in that while human beings can adapt to the reality of a new situation, the fundamentals of human nature can never change enough to ensure the development of a peaceful global society.


Baglioni, S. (2001) ‘Solidarity Movement Organizations: Towards an Active Global Consciousness’ in M. Guigni and F. Passy (eds) Political Altruism: Solidarity Movements in International Perspective, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Clark, H. (ed.) (2009) People Power: Unarmed Resistance and Global Solidarity, London: Pluto Press
Fromm, E. (2007) To Have or to Be?, New York: Continuum Publishing Group
Hardt, M. & Negri, A. (2005) Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, New York/London: Penguin
Honneth, A. (1996) The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, Cambridge: Polity Press
Lyons, L. (2010) ‘Framing Transnational Feminism: Examining Migrant Worker Organizing in Singapore.’ In Dufour, P., Masson, D. and Cauette, D., eds. Solidarities Beyond Borders: Transnational Women’s Movements. British Columbia: UBC Press
Mason, A. (2000) Community, Solidarity and Belonging, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Melucci, A. (1996) Challenging Codes: Collective Action in the Information Age, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Pleyers, G. (2011) Alter-Globalization: Becoming Actors in the Global Age, Cambridge: Polity Press
Spencer, L. & Pahl, R.E. (2006) Rethinking Friendship: Hidden Solidarities Today, Princeton: Princeton University Press
Tarrow, S.G. (2011) Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Touraine, A. & Macey, D. (2000) Can We Live Together? Equality and Difference, Stanford: Stanford University Press Wallerstein, I. (2002) “New Revolts Against the System” in New Left Review, Vol. 18 (available electronically)
Waterman, P. (2001) Globalization, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms, New York: Continuum Group Wilde, L. (2004) Erich Fromm and the Quest For Solidarity, New York: Palgrave Macmillan

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