| Solidarity and the Commons

Februar 2011  Druckansicht    Druckansicht

by Peter D. Thomas

The reality and concept of solidarity constitutes one of the most precious “resources of hope” developed in the long struggle within and against capitalist modernisation. Regarded as an historical reality, lived and experienced in the day to day struggles of different movements and campaigns, the call to solidarity has, for some at least, the force of a categorical imperative, an immediate identification of means and ends. Solidarity is never immediately or essentially given, but emerges laboriously and determinately in response to concrete problems and struggles. It signals a commitment “to be there” not on the basis of a shared identity or common essence, but precisely on the basis of a “indistinguishable difference” whose meaning and significance is only worked out in the process of practising solidarity as an active relation of struggle. Solidarity can thus be said to occur when diverse interests, for very different and sometimes even contradictory reasons, flow into participation in what becomes a collective project, simultaneously confirming and transforming its constituent parts. In this perspective, to act in solidarity with others is thus not, in the first instance, merely to demonstrate an existential belonging to a social group, a class, or a collective; rather, it is to engage in the active construction of those social relations in such a way that places any static conception of the collective in question. As such, solidarity is a concrete utopia, in a Blochian sense, a hope for a future form of social organisation that is simultaneously a promise to work towards its realisation in the present. The practice of solidarity can thus be conceived as one of the ongoing forms of experimentation in the modalities of democratic experience that go beyond the formalistic divisions of bourgeois-civil society and its state, between the social and the political,  association and organisation, fact and norm. In a very real sense, solidarity is the “material constitution” of the modern working class movement and its alliance with other exploited and oppressed social groups, the form in which it has elaborated perspectives and practices of a potential self-governance of the irreducibly diverse.

As a concept, solidarity summarises and attempts to clarify a manifold range of experiences of struggle for new forms of living together that go beyond the limitations of older forms of pre-capitalist communitarian practices and identities, or the newer forms of fragmentation and particularist division that define the always incomplete nature of capitalist socialisation. As Alex Demirovic emphasises in this issue of Luxemburg, the historical development of this concept has not been without deep contradictions and contestations, precisely because the social forms to which the concept of solidarity attempts to refer are themselves contradictory and contested. It is certainly true that some formulations of the concept of solidarity have moved within and not beyond the “exisiting state of affairs” and its juridical and administrative political forms – solidarity conceived as a form of extra-juridical recognition on the part of those “without part” (in Ranciere’s phrase), or as theory of the amalgamation of individual social atoms by means of an administrative instance or “norm” that unifies them from above. These versions of solidarity correspond to those forms of struggle of the “subaltern classes” that have historically remained within the confines of the “narrow bourgeois horizon”, as Marx called it – from the various form of social democratic or labourist “reformism” to merely “syndicalist” struggles that aim to ameliorate the worst effects of capitalist mode of production and social life rather than placing its causes radically in question. On the other hand, other historical experiences have attempted to develop this contradictory concept in very different directions – Luxemburg, Lenin, Gramsci and Thompson, among many others, have pointed to the way in which the active constitution of solidarity between different interest groups in struggle provide us with the outlines of a society organised according to principles of relationality, mutuality, reciprocity and concrete cooperation. In this sense, the slow, uneven and necessarily contradictory development of the concept of solidarity over the last centuries can legitimately be regarded as an astounding discovery of a potentially new principle of ethical life and political organisation, of no less theoretical dignity than the various normative or juridical paradigms of recognition and legitimacy that currently dominate academic political philosophical discussion, to say nothing of mainstream political discourse. Alongside the ongoing revival of practices of solidarity, one of our most important theoretico-political tasks today is to attempt to provide the outlines of a concept of solidarity that will be capable of confronting these dominant ideologies on their own terrains, that is, as “realist” theories of the limits and possibilities of contemporary political action.

In his great work Culture and Society 1780-1950, the “Welsh European” socialist Raymond Williams went so far as to claim that “in its definition of the common interest as true self-interest, in its finding of individual verification primarily in the community, the idea of solidarity is potentially the real basis of a society” (Williams 1959, 332). Against a middle class notion of “service” that he found in the romantic English tradition analysed at length in that book, Williams argued that the development of solidarity indicated the possibility of a genuinely democratic society that would be capable of realising what he referred to as a “common culture”. He argued that “A culture in common, in our own day, will not be the simple all-in-all society of old dream. It will be a very complex organization, requiring continual adjustment and redrawing. At root, the feeling of solidarity is the only conceivable element of stabilization in so difficult an organization” (333). Nevertheless, he insisted that it would be necessary to develop the idea of solidarity further, if it were not to remain a defensive attitude – “the natural mentality of the long siege” (332), as he called it, a merely inverted, “oppositional” reflection of the established society. “The feeling of solidarity is, although necessary, a primitive feeling. It has depended, hitherto, on substantial identity of conditions and experience. Yet any predictable civilization will depend on a wide variety of highly specialized skills, which will involve, over definite parts of the culture, a fragmentation of experience” (333). For Williams, it was thus a question not of homogenising difference – as later his critics such as Eagleton, Hall and Gilroy would suggest – but “of achieving diversity without creating separation” (334). Rather, it was much more a challenge to practice what John Keats had referred to with a preeminently dialectical concept as “negative capability”, or the ability to hold together in a productive fashion potentially contradictory elements. Williams argued that such an enabling dialectic between unity and diversity could only be achieved by searching for principles and practices of socialisation that involve “genuine mutual responsibility and adjustment. This is the conversion of the defensive element of solidarity into the wider and more positive practice of neighbourhood” (333-34). It was in this further development into what we might call, echoing Agamben and Derrida in different ways, a “community beyond community” or “non-communitarian community”, that Williams saw solidarity as not merely a form of struggle against the old, but as a practice whose coordinates contain the seeds of the new.

The programmatic dimension of Williams’s understanding of solidarity took on even stronger forms in the following years, under the impact of the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s and, perhaps above all, the inspiring examples of working class solidarity and “neighbourhood” in the tragically defeated British Miners’ strike of the 1980s. In Towards 2000, one of the earliest and most penetrating critiques of the neoliberal consensus – or as Williams called it, the simplifications of the “plan X technocrats” of the ironically dubbed “Very Late Capitalism” (Williams 1983) – he renewed his insistence that any future socialist reorganisation of our societies will necessarily involve the creation of even more complex structures and experiences of private and communal life, focusing upon what he had earlier called, in The Long Revolution, the need to discover “new common institutions”, or political forms that could embody and reinforce the  experience of solidarity in social struggle (Williams 1961, 375).

Political realities and their terms of discussion, however, were soon to change drastically. With the generalised victory of neoliberalism and its decimation of the organised working class movement in particular throughout the 1980s and 1990s, references to solidarity seemed to some to express a nostalgic longing for an older and now irrevocably lost political culture, linked to a previous “`Fordist” moment and its supposedly working class communitarian identities and exclusionary mutuality. In many countries, the practice of solidarity in its fullest senses – particularly on one of its most traditionally important terrains, in trade union campaigns – was even declared to be illegal, a situation that endures to this day. Equally disablingly, the concept of solidarity itself seemed to fall into disrepute in much theoretical discussion, seemingly tainted by traces of the “organicism” and “essentialist communitarianism” against which Williams had warned. Theoretical sensibilities in this sense trailed behind political realities, responding to social and political disaggregation with theories of irreducible difference and identities. Solidarity implies a possibility of composition, of finding vectors of unification beyond the disparity of nominal identifications; yet it was precisely such aggregation that the realities of political and social fragmentation and its theoretical reflexes seemed to discount from the outset, as either outdated, or even, more sinisterly, undesirable.

The social and political movements of the last 15 years, however, have prompted a return in both political and theoretical discussions to the question of what we might form the basis for what Williams referred to as a “common way of life”. Defeats, frustrations and setbacks have sometimes made it difficult to recognise that, albeit in modest forms, these have been years of a ‘political accumulation’ of experiences of resistance and new perspectives for a future society. In the process, the concept of solidarity is being rediscovered and transformed. The debate underway in the German Left Party, the RLS and the pages of this journal represents a welcome and long overdue refusal of new labour and third way rhetorics of inevitable neoliberal fragmentation. By placing the concept and reality of solidarity at the centre of political discussion of contemporary organisational forms, this debate offers not only an “historical line” on which to organise our contemporary reflections.  Even more promisingly, it also offers an opportunity to inherit this tradition in the fullest sense of the word: that is, as a revitalisation of the dynamic tensions that have characterised the development of the reality and concept of solidarity, both within and against the current organisation of society, a struggle overdetermined by existing juridical and political forms but whose historical, concrete content points, at least potentially, towards lines of future development beyond the abstractions of the bourgeois-capitalist state.

This movement has also been noticeable at the level of contemporary theoretical debates. Against the particularisms, regionalisms or identitarianisms of a previous philosophical conjuncture (in shorthand, the moment of a depoliticised postmodernism), a wide range of contemporary theorists have stressed the need to think the coordinates of a contemporary renewal of universalism, the commons, and even what Alain Badiou has called the affirmation of an historically invariant “Communist Hypothesis”. More directly linking the idea of solidarity and the commons, Peter Linebaugh, in his inspiring Magna Carta Manifesto, has emphasised the valorisation of the everyday experience of “commoning”, as both a concept of historical comprehension of modernity’s unending appropriative dialectic, and as a precious political resource for contemporary struggles. For Linebaugh, “Human solidarity as expressed in the slogan ‘all for one and one for all’ is the foundation of commoning” (Linebaugh 2010). His project thus strongly links the idea of solidarity to quotidian practices of mutuality and reciprocity, of social intercourse founded not upon the exchange of “equivalents”, but in practices of care and cultivation. Crucially, by distinguishing the commons from “the public” (a juridical passification of the dynamism of the participatory dimensions of the commons), Linebaugh emphasises that solidarity begins where individual egotism ends, or rather, in those moments when a foundational commoning can find the forms to resist their appropriation and ultimate destruction by juridical categories of property, whether private or public.

Perhaps one of the most interesting contributions to this renewed discussion of the commons is represented by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s recent Commonwealth, the fourth in their collaborative tetralogy, including Empire and Multitude and the earlier Labor of Dionysus. In a way similar to Linebaugh, though with a more explicit thematisation of their political ontological presuppositions, Hardt and Negri also take aim against what they characterise as the “Republic of Property”. They insist that the common constitutes the capitalist mode of production’s always-already denied – or in Commonwealth‘s terms, “corrupted” – foundation. Its corruption unfolds in the institutions of the family, the corporation and the state, mechanisms of “representation” that fix singularities in identities, perverting and bifurcating the common into the juridical property forms of the private and the public.

It is here that Commonwealth outlines a number of concepts that are useful for thinking the forms of a renewed practice of solidarity today – although the word itself only appears marginally in that book. Unlike some other contemporary theorists, such as Zizek, Hardt and Negri demonstrate a more dialectical appreciation of the potential and limits of identity politics. Rather than opposing identity politics to a more ‘real’ form of politics (founded on an irreducible anatagonism or fixed opposition of interests), they argue for a “revolutionary parallelism” of a manifold of identities, “insurrectional intersections” whose dynamism would permit the overcoming of the fixity of the notion of identity (ultimately reducible to the logic of property and representation) and its elaboration in an active sense of “singularity”. They call this process the becoming multiple of the singularities of their preeminent figure of the “Multitude”. For Hardt and Negri, “Making the multitude … is not a process of fusion or unification … but rather sets in motion a proliferation of singularities that are composed by the lasting encounters in the common” (Hardt and Negri 2009, 350). In their turn, it is precisely these encounters of singularities that compose the common, as a terrain of inclusive mutuality that does not negate but rather valorises conflict and difference as constitutive of any full experience of being together in common.

In this perspective, solidarity could be regarded as ethico-political principle that aims to allow the multiple-singular of the multitude – or in an older terminology, the rich diversity of the identities and realities of the exploited and oppressed classes – to “manage their encounters” in an enabling fashion (357). Solidarity, that is, would be the active attempt to construct forms of experience of difference not as a corruption of a pregiven essential unity, but as the precondition for dynamic processes of ongoing and always negotiable unification; in Gramsci’s terms, practices of enabling “translation” between different vocabularies of social experience and struggle. As Mario Candeias has emphasised, such a practice of solidarity would aim not at the negation of differences, but at their valorisation, as resources for the potential “generalisation” of interests that is both the means for achievement and the ends of a society based upon solidarity (Candeias 2010, 8).

From a very different political and intellectual tradition, Hardt and Negri thus seem to repropose in one of our contemporary vocabularies Williams’s insistence on a type of solidarity which would be able to achieve and encourage diversity, without creating separation. Even more importantly, Hardt and Negri’s emphasis upon developing forms of a non-corrupt, self-presentation of the commons can be related to Williams’s argument for the need to discover “new common institutions” of the practice of solidarity, based upon principles of “genuine mutual responsibility and adjustment”. Indeed, Hardt and Negri’s final challenge in Commonwealth, which they call the process of “governing the revolution”, is to elaborate new types of institutions, institutions that would not be mere governing forms enwrapping a subaltern content (in a representative and jurical paradigm). Rather, their aim is to outline the coordinates of new substantive institutions, based upon practices of self-governance, in the last instance indistinguishable from the encounters such institutions permit to endure against the corruptions of the “Republic of Property”. Again, we are not far from Williams’s proposal to develop the concept of solidarity beyond the “mentality of the long siege”: from a merely defensive formation aiming to unite against shared experiences of exploitation and expression, towards a positive political and social programme based upon the active engagement of a community constituted in difference, an ongoing form of what Williams referred to as the democratic “long revolution”.

As the global economic crisis deepens, various forms of local resistance will inevitably proliferate and sometimes even enter into conflict. Our challenge today is not only to revitalise the concept and practice of solidarity, as a “tradition of the oppressed” that will help us better to coordinate and to strengthen these struggles. Equally as important, the depths of the contemporary crisis require us to elaborate these revived practices of solidarity in institutional terms, as a potential  alternative political programme and principle of socialisation. In this perspective, Williams’s notion of community as “genuine mutual responsibility and adjustment”, Linebaugh’s notion of “commoning” as foundational to social life and Hardt and Negri’s proposal of ongoing “encounters” of singularities in the common can be regarded as among the first steps towards the development of new realities and concepts of solidarity adequate to our times; a practice of solidarity that will be capable of refusing so-called “realist” appeals to “manage” the crisis, and instead begin the much more realistic and necessary tasks of resolving it in a democratic socialist society.


Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, London: Verso, 2010.

Mario Candeias, “From a Fragmented Left to Mosaic”, Luxemburg 1/2010, 6ff.

Alex Demirovic, “Freiheit, Gleichheit, Solidarität”, Luxemburg 4/2010, 130ff.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2009.

Peter Linebaugh  Magna Carta Manifesto, Berkley: University of California Press, 2008.

Peter Linebaugh “All For One and One For All!” Some Principles of the Commons @
www.counterpunch.org/linebaugh01082010.html, 2010.

Raymond Williams, Culture and Society 1780-1950, London: Chatto and Windus, 1959.

Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution, London: Chatto and Windus, 1961.

Raymond Williams, Towards 2000, London: Chatto and Windus, 1983.

This article was first published in German in Luxemburg 4/2010, 140ff.