Medical researchers around the world are involved in an unprecedented collaboration to test experimental treatments for COVID-19. When Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, announced the initiative in mid-March, he called it the “solidarity trial.”
Across the globe, local expressions of solidarity appear to be spreading as individuals take it upon themselves to act on behalf of others in need.
From the WHO to government leaders and citizen actions, expressions of solidarity may appear to be a good and common-sense response to the crisis. Yet, as American author Barbara Ehrenreich suggests, fascists, religious zealots or nations at war also unite in solidarity to advance their agendas. Some groups can mobilize solidarity for destructive purposes.
While solidarity may be a fundamental human need, the meaning of solidarity and what it requires of us is elusive. In my work, I explore how realizing solidarity depends on education. Teaching for solidarity requires relationships, intentions and actions grounded in explicit ethical and political commitments. I am interested in how the values that underpin these commitments define the differences between “us” and “them.”
Whether we are confronting a pandemic, global warming, income inequality, racism or gender-based violence, solidarity depends on how we come together. It is defined by how we understand and enact our responsibilities to, and relationships with, each other.
Equally responsible for a debt
The word solidarity has its roots in the Roman law of obligation that held a group of people bound together — in solidum — as equally responsible for a debt. The contemporary uses of the concept go back to the French Revolution and the ideal of human solidarity articulated by philosopher and “champion of socialism,” Pierre Leroux.
For Leroux, solidarity was necessary for human well-being and flourishing. But in their 1848 Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels conceptualized solidarity as an expression of the shared experience and specific political needs of the working class.
Solidarity has also been a central concept in Catholic social teachings since the end of the 19th century. It figures prominently in liberation theology, in which solidarity and communion with the poor is a fundamental spiritual commitment.
This brief history illustrates that solidarity depends on some idea of what it means to be “us.” In my forthcoming book, I explore the educational challenges that arise when people invoke solidarity in colonial societies.
I examine what happens when solidarity is contingent on others being more like us, thinking more like us and believing what we believe.
German philosopher Kurt Bayertz points to four uses of the concept of solidarity.
The first, universalistic solidarity, suggests all human beings have a moral duty to work together for the benefit of all. This is implied whenever someone says “we’re all in this together.”
While compelling, this view of solidarity ignores differences and potential conflict between the needs and values of different groups. It overshadows how the impact of a crisis isn’t equal among different groups.
The essence of civic solidarity is that we don’t necessarily have a personal relationship with those on whose behalf we take action. Civic solidarity involves an indirect commitment through taxes or charity contributions. Practising physical distancing is also an act of civic solidarity.
Bayertz’s third use, social solidarity, refers to how societies stick together, but also to how certain groups act together as a community to protect their interests.
Maclean’s magazine contributing editor Stephen Maher suggests that in the United States, Donald Trump supporters’ acceptance of the president’s early response to the virus, which downplayed its possible impact, reflected low levels of social solidarity.
But this is misleading. Trump’s right-wing conservative supporters don’t lack social solidarity. Rather, their sense of solidarity coheres around a commitment to ideals of freedom from restrictions and protecting their financial resources and investments as a way to ensure their own well-being.
Likewise, there is a strong sense of solidarity among conservative religious groups that rely on Christian faith over science to protect themselves.
A strong sense of social solidarity is crucial for advancing all kinds of political agendas and values.
Political solidarity revolves around issues of inequality related to class, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. Political solidarity usually involves one group acting in support of another, even though groups may not be affected equally by injustices.
Three critical aspects of solidarity
Whatever form we invoke, it’s helpful to remember three aspects of solidarity:
Solidarity is always about relationships. We cannot be in solidarity alone. Who are we in solidarity with and what defines that relationship?
Solidarity always requires us to be intentional about our commitments. What is the aim of our solidarity and where do those commitments come from?
Solidarity requires actions that also change us, perhaps even a sacrifice. What am I willing to do and give up in order to ensure the well-being of others, whether they are like or unlike me?
Toward creative forms of solidarity
Acknowledging the ethical and political commitments that we bring to solidarity is crucial. Otherwise, solidarity can “turn against us,” as Barbara Ehrenreich suggests.
For instance, some solutions, such as physical distancing, become impossible for communities that are already under-resourced, such as the homeless. Otherwise allied nations like Canada and the U.S. find themselves in conflict as both seek to ensure the supply of personal protective equipment for health-care workers.
Being explicit about ethical and political commitments will become increasingly important as governments ask us to compromise our personal freedoms and civil liberties to contain the spread of the virus.
Such compromises and the global character of the current crisis demand that we also think of solidarity as creative.
As the “crisis blows open the sense of what is possible,” in the words of journalist Naomi Klein, we are forced to imagine new ways of being with one another. We also have the opportunity to rethink our values and intentions, and to re-narrate the stories we tell about who we are, where we belong and with and to whom we share a debt.