Can we build solidarity in a fractured society?

Saturday 2 November, 10:0011:30, Cinema 1Keynote controversies

In May of this year, the German tabloid newspaper Bild printed a ‘cut-out kippah’ on its front page. The paper urged its readers to wear the kippah ‘in solidarity’ with their Jewish countrymen after concerns about a spike in anti-Semitic attacks and recommendations from a politician that Jews should avoid wearing the kippah lest it put them in danger. Jewish groups in Germany responded that they appreciated the gesture, but ‘more than solidarity’ was needed to deal with the threats posed to Jews. But what is solidarity?

Few would deny that the impulse to express solidarity comes from a genuine and positive place. Jews in Germany were likely heartened seeing Bild’s front page. But perhaps what the affair suggests is that solidarity today often means a kind of gesture. Some companies encourage employers to wear rainbow lanyards ‘in solidarity’ with LGBT Pride, people often change their social media profiles ‘in solidarity’ with victims of terror attacks or natural disasters, and a strike or protest in some other part of the world may well be met with a letter to the newspaper announcing ‘our solidarity with…’. This kind of performative solidarity is offered to an expanding list of identity groups who claim to suffer oppression. It seems in part to be about recognising the struggles of people unlike oneself.

But are there broader kinds of solidarity? Some have seen the gilets jaunes in France as an echo of an older solidarity among all working people: straightforward economic concerns like the price of fuel were a springboard for a broad understanding of the shared position of the ‘ignored’ masses. This kind of solidarity was historically seen in trades union movements, but as unions no longer play a decisive role in contemporary politics, is there a medium today for the expression of wider solidarity beyond one’s racial, sexual or gender identity? Some theorists have categorised populist movements as offering a kind of solidarity: groups who feel they share a specific grievance (such as being ignored) at the hands of an elite.

For many people, the nation plays this role. From football and Eurovision through to national holidays and remembrance days, a sense of national belonging is a key way that people experience broader bonds of solidarity. However, for many others, national identity is still associated with the horrors of the twentieth century and is considered dangerously close to chauvinism or racism. At the very least, national solidarity is said to be potentially incompatible with solidarity for immigrants or those who live abroad.

How are we to approach the question of solidarity? Does solidarity exist today and, if so, how is it different from the experience of solidarity historically? Is solidarity a reality or merely an aspiration? In a world that recognises an ever-growing number of different identities, is an aspiration towards something more universal a hopeless or even dangerous task? Is it possible for the state and other institutions to give shape to or kick-start collective solidarity, or are there no administrative fixes? On what basis are we to recognise political equality today?