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New Book “Solidarity” Is Necessary Read, Even if It’s Difficult To Apply to All Liberation Movements

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time,” goes the activist quote often semi-erroneously attributed to Lilla Watson, “but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

That any one person’s liberation is inextricably bound up with that of others, and that we are not individual, independent beings but actually interdependent, is a foundational belief undergirding most progressive understandings of the ethic of solidarity: a purposely expansive belief in the power of strategic unity that transcends common group delineations such as race, nationality, or sexuality. But what does a society that systematically practices solidarity actually look like in real life?

That’s what Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Astra Taylor attempt to answer in Solidarity, their new book tracing the history, present, and future of solidarity as a progressive social movement, out today.

Interestingly, because of their backgrounds in Occupy Wall Street and their training and experience in economic justice organizing, Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor organize this comprehensive exploration of solidarity primarily through an economic lens, which grounds it in a unique way.

They start by tracing philosophical and practical applications of the concept through history, from ancient Rome through the French revolution and into the present. They examine the ways different social movements, such as the disability justice movement and Taylor’s Debt Collective, have practiced it. Late-stage capitalism is explored with an eye toward its intentionally divisive, isolating effects, and how it knowingly posits philanthropy as an inadequate response to economic inequity.

They then take the rare step of actually outlining a solution to a major global injustice, proposing an international “solidarity state” as a better alternative to the “welfare state” and laying out in engaging and thorough detail what that would entail. Finally, they argue for a spiritual, philosophical foundation for understanding solidarity as a lifestyle and worldview rather than just a political project.

This comprehensive approach is powerful and contains nuggets of profound wisdom. Some of the historical vignettes were eye-opening: Did you know Ronald Reagan and his administration intentionally put systems into place to gradually increase college tuition in order to stifle political dissent on campuses, thus setting the stage for our current college debt crisis? I also learned more about our economic system; I wasn’t aware of the existence of donor-advised funds (DAFs), for example. They’re charitable funds into which rich people can donate but which have no obligation to actually redistribute their money in any particular timeframe or to share to whom funds are distributed when they do — all the while saving their donors millions on their taxes and making their employees profit on fees and investments.

While all of this was illuminating and revelatory, I started reading Solidarity with a question that unfortunately the book did not — could not? — answer: How do I, personally, live out my political belief in the necessity of solidarity as a societal organizing principle?

The authors argue early on that “there can be no ‘us’ without, at least sometimes, there being a ‘them.’” This building of a community and naming of an enemy is what gives movements their power; it’s how reactionary, right-wing movements have had so much success. We must do the same, they argue, but in the other direction. “A transformative majority would … [build] a society organized around mutual obligation and universal entitlement … within this larger alliance, differences can be respected, and historical and disproportionate harms acknowledged so they can be repaired.”

This seems apt, but I believe the downside of Taylor and Hunt-Hendrix’s viewing of solidarity primarily through the lens of economic justice is that the lessons learned from anti-capitalist organizing feel much more difficult to extrapolate into organizing around other liberation struggles. Occupy Wall Street’s organizing slogan was “We are the 99%.” If the 99% could get organized across differences and for economic justice, a truly transformative majority would be possible. But what about in other communities, for other issues?

Who is the Us and who is the Them, for example, in the queer and trans liberation struggle? LGBTQ+ discourse has engaged for decades with this question. We’ve all seen Us and Them rhetoric splinter LGBTQ+ communities. Transgender women, for example, have long had a precarious relationship within them. To some we’re essential, centered even; to others we’re infiltrators harming “real” women or making it harder for “normal” gays and lesbians to assimilate. Sex workers, bisexuals and trans people in “straight” relationships, non-binary people, and many others have struggled to be considered Us in similar ways. Consider other intersecting identity categories and affinities, and solidarity gets much more complicated, very quickly.

Multiple chapters of Solidarity explore these difficult issues, but in my experience they weren’t entirely satisfying. “Turning on each other is a dead end,” they acknowledge. “We must face these complications … with humility and without losing sight of our larger aims.” Again, this seems doable when you’re discussing economic issues, as the “larger aim” is an economic justice that would clearly and materially benefit the vast majority of us. But it feels much more difficult in other spaces and communities with potentially competing aims.

Throughout, they bring the political down to the personal by acknowledging that, while delineating an Us and Them is necessary for organizing, our boundaries must be permeable, and that unlike our oppressors we shouldn’t aim to exterminate the Them, just transform the systems they’ve created and/or benefit from. We’re all implicated in oppressive systems, so humility, forgiveness, and grace are essential. “In order to sustain a just and solidaristic society, we have to become just and solidaristic people,” the authors write. “Transformative solidarity involves changing not just structures but ourselves, with both shifts equally necessary.” This is an inspiring jumping off point, but it appears that figuring out how to incorporate this outlook into our liberation struggles is up to us. Perhaps this is as it should be.

As with most nonfiction books about political topics, I finished Solidarity with more questions than answers about how to integrate its concepts into my day-to-day life. That’s not a criticism, necessarily; that kind of work can only be done via introspection and practice, and can’t be dictated. As such, I believe this book is a powerful and necessary read. It traces the history of solidarity, explores the many ways it has been exercised in political organizing, offers a spiritual and philosophical take on the concept, and outlines what it could look like if integrated into a society’s policy and economic system. I highly recommend it, especially for anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of economic justice.

Solidarity: The Past, Present, and Future of a World-Changing Idea by Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Astra Taylor is out now.

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Abeni Jones

Abeni Jones is a trans woman of color artist, educator, writer, and designer living in the Bay Area, CA.

Abeni has written 90 articles for us.


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