All Together Now: On Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Astra Taylor’s “Solidarity”

By Edward CarverApril 16, 2024

All Together Now: On Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Astra Taylor’s “Solidarity”

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

THE PATRICIANS OF ROME lived the good life in 494 BCE. They had slaves and plebeians to do the hard work and forced debtors into bondage. They made up only about five percent of the population but held most of the wealth and power—until the plebeians retreated to a nearby hill, Mons Sacer, and let daily life in Rome grind to a halt. The strikers negotiated for the establishment of plebeian-led tribunes, which acted as a counterweight to elite power in the Republic.

This “Secession of the Plebs” was followed by more such strikes over the next two centuries, some of the earliest recorded. By the end, patrician privilege was reduced to “the right to hold a few ancient priesthoods and to wear a particular form of fancy footwear,” the classicist Mary Beard has written, calling it one of the most radical stories “of popular power and liberty” that we have from the ancient world.

This is the earliest account in Solidarity: The Past, Present, and Future of a World-Changing Idea, an excellent new book—part history, part manifesto—by Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Astra Taylor, leftist intellectuals and organizers.

While the word “solidarity” didn’t exist for the plebeians, its etymological stirrings were underway. In Rome, an “obligatio in solidum” was a debt held in common by multiple people, which presumably made it more solid to creditors. People were on the hook together.

The modern concept of solidarity comes largely from Western Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Two somewhat contradictory ways of thinking about it emerged from Karl Marx and Émile Durkheim. For Marx, solidarity was a force for change, as it strengthened worker resistance. For Durkheim, a sociologist, solidarity was more like a force for stability, a way of measuring social cohesion: the glue that holds society together. It was in Durkheim’s France that usage of the word boomed. It became common to replace the “fraternité” in France’s tripartite motto with “solidarité.”

Léon Bourgeois, a French statesman, lead the “solidarism” movement. His 1896 pamphlet on solidarity contended that human interdependence was cultural, biological, and economic. Attacking laissez-faire policies, he wrote that we are born as debtors and that “reparative justice” for inequity should be sought through progressive taxation. At the time, France had a weaker welfare state than some peer countries, such as Germany. The solidarists were not revolutionaries but ardent reformists, who argued for strengthening the existing state. Bourgeois was very briefly prime minister. His approach, in keeping with his name, was to try to convince the rich and powerful of the merits of social justice.

Herein lay his problem, according to Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor, who argue that social change comes principally from bottom-up pressure and that persuasion alone will seldom do the trick. They say that we often lose sight of this because we misunderstand social movements of the past, whitewashing their confrontational natures and underestimating the importance of organizing, direct action, and civil disobedience. After the fact, political change almost seems to have been inevitable.

Channeling aspects of both Marx and Durkheim, the authors call for a “transformative” solidarity in which we recognize our interdependence, build bonds across difference—rooting these bonds firstly in shared economic interests, as per solidarity’s Latin origin—and embrace constructive conflict when required. As they argue:

Transformative solidarity involves constructing an “us” and a “them,” and identifying the social conditions that should be changed. Workers unite against bosses and owners who depress wages and degrade labor; feminists call out misogynists and patriarchal structures that disempower people on the basis of sex and gender; environmentalists name and shame special interests invested in destroying our planet; movements for racial justice protest the individuals and systems that perpetuate bigotry and xenophobia. Solidarity […] is polarizing. It constructs a community and names an opponent, engaging in a contest for power to transform society. This tension is what gives transformative solidarity its power, its fighting edge, its revolutionary spirit. Polarization can be generative, not just destructive.

Of course, coalition-building, the creation of an “us,” can be done by anyone, and not all solidarity is transformative. But a sense of unity among commoners has a way of frightening conservatives. Neoliberal economist Friedrich Hayek openly opposed solidarity, calling it archaic and tribal, a relic of an earlier stage of human development before people were civilized. Powerful interests have long shared this opposition to solidarity. After Bacon’s Rebellion, a 1670s uprising in Virginia that saw unity between enslaved people of African descent and indentured servants of European descent, colonial landowners turned to a project of what scholars Barbara J. Fields and Karen Fields have called “racecraft”: they fortified racial categories that have no scientific basis and used them to divide society—that is, to divide groups that might push for change—in an effort to maintain owning-class power.

This class goal was later achieved by fighting off trade unions. Throughout United States history, capitalists attacked unions, in legislatures, in courtrooms, and at worksites, with propaganda and violence. They also tried to stoke racial animus by, for example, bringing in Black strikebreakers to replace striking white workers. Labor unions fought these tactics, with limited success. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were more strikes, of greater duration, in the United States than in most of Europe per capita, yet fewer victories. American unions were less successful, notwithstanding a period of union gains in the mid-20th century, not because of some inherent American individualism but because the forces of repression in the United States were stronger, Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor argue.

The authors write that conservatives “recklessly wield a scythe” to cut away at solidarity, while liberals use “garden shears,” trimming at it by, for example, sorting people into deserving and undeserving categories via means-tested benefit programs that create “confusion and resentment.” They dryly cite a Kamala Harris presidential campaign proposal to forgive the student debt of “Pell Grant recipients who start a business that operates for three years in disadvantaged communities.” Some of this is familiar, if important, territory for leftist critique. Clintonites cut welfare benefits and promoted “personal responsibility” and “meritocracy,” which, whatever their merits, too often left the implication that people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder deserved their place or could move up with more diligence, education, or training, and without structural change.

The authors also gently rebuke the political establishment for its fear of the masses. Liberals or so-called centrists are wont to suggest that the United States’ current problems stem from too much popular sentiment on the left and right and could be solved if we had a more sensible, rational, and educated discourse. (There’s a hint of classism in this argument.) Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor counter that we need mass participation: more democratic engagement, especially from the disenfranchised, not less. They say that calls for civility and unity are “form without substance” and attempts to wish away differences in race, class, and other social categories—to debate and make policy decisions as if we live in a world without power dynamics.

Their critique of the political establishment reaches its apotheosis in a chapter on philanthropy. The authors regard charity as generally at odds with solidarity: it’s a top-down pursuit that maintains a firm division between giver and receiver, serving as a PR machine for the former and a way of diffusing tensions over inequity. Andrew Carnegie, who wrote The Gospel of Wealth in 1889, thought that philanthropists should act as “trustees” for the poor. In essence, he felt that he should be given great power to determine what society’s problems were and how they ought to be solved. Naturally, worker solidarity was not a priority: his steel mills cracked down on unions. In one bloody standoff, they called in the private Pinkerton police force and, ultimately, thousands of members of the National Guard. (Much union repression was state-sanctioned.)

Philanthropists avoid looking at the roots of the problems they seek to solve, the authors argue. They lament that adherents of effective altruism, a now-popular approach to giving, refer to “‘the world’s poor,’ as if these communities were inherently impoverished, rather than conquered, oppressed, and exploited.” As they explain, “There is no discussion of the complex legacy of slavery and colonization, the seizure of land and resources and the enclosure of the commons, the ongoing attacks on organized labor and refusal by the wealthy to pay taxes,” the same processes that “made philanthropists rich, whether by mining minerals or mining data. Power is not visible in this paradigm, history is largely forgotten, and regional differences and cultural variation are flattened.”

Another problem with rich donors is the way they water down radical movements, according to Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor. Even the venerable National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) may have been subject to such capture. W. E. B. Du Bois helped start the NAACP as a radical alternative to Booker T. Washington’s vocation- and education-focused work, which was beloved by white philanthropists. The early NAACP focused on Black people’s economic rights and anti-lynching campaigns. But as white-led foundations, such as the Garland Fund, came to influence its approach, the NAACP shifted away from addressing economic justice or anti-Black violence and toward educational equality.

One doesn’t have to look so far back to find other examples. Today, the Gates Foundation is regularly criticized for redirecting efforts for change. Its position on the access-to-medicines movement is illustrative, the authors argue. Bill Gates’s strategic use of intellectual property laws served him well as a businessman, and as co-chair of the organization that wields substantial power over global health initiatives, he favors strong IP protections. So he took umbrage when the Oxford lab that developed one of the world’s first COVID-19 vaccines planned to allow any manufacturer in the world to use it. No matter that most of the research, as with the other COVID-19 vaccines, was publicly funded. The Gates Foundation pressured the lab to partner with a corporation. AstraZeneca ended up with exclusive rights, and the world ended up with a deeply inequitable distribution of vaccines.

If patronizing and self-serving rich people can’t solve our problems, what will? The authors call for building mass, dues-paying organizations that can wield political power. The goal should be not a welfare state—which, at its worst, “bestows beneficence on dependents from on high,” like a charity—but what they call a “solidarity state.” This would entail both reparative and universal programs. They support reparations for slavery as proposed by scholar Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, as a way not of assigning blame but of setting ourselves toward a more egalitarian future.

They also favor higher taxes on the rich. In the United States, the top marginal rate was above 90 percent until the 1960s and was still 70 percent when Ronald Reagan entered office in 1981—rates that would seem otherworldly to most of today’s rich. Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor want not only to redistribute via taxes but also to “predistribute” wealth and power more fairly, starting in communities and workplaces. They cite community action programs (CAPs), a “War on Poverty” initiative of the mid-1960s, as a model. Forgoing the degrading rituals of most welfare programs, the federal government provided local nonprofits with significant funds, giving them great autonomy and requiring that they be managed by local residents. Black Panthers founders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton got their start as community organizers at a CAP called North Oakland Neighborhood Anti-Poverty Center. CAPs registered voters, provided legal aid, organized immigrants, negotiated with landlords and housing agencies, and more. The government was “funding disenfranchised people to protest and demand real representation,” the authors write approvingly. They also support efforts to democratize workplaces by, for example, setting aside a portion of corporate profits to funds controlled by workers or unions. This is in keeping with the political platforms of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, as are the authors’ prescriptions more generally.

If their politics seems “hard,” Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor also show a softer side. To the rich and powerful, the book is more a call in than a callout, its tone earnest rather than snarky. Hunt-Hendrix herself is heir to an oil fortune, the granddaughter of H. L. Hunt, who, in the 1950s, was one of the 10 richest people in the United States. She leads a donor group of wealthy “class traitors,” as they call themselves semi-ironically, according to a recent New Yorker profile.

She and Taylor are clear that there is nothing inherently immoral about rich people or conservatives—they are “the product of structural conditions”—and that the categories of “us” and “them,” while important for building solidarity, must remain fluid. In coming together to fight entrenched interests, activists should keep a hand open, inviting the “them” in. So while the authors don’t subscribe to the idea that social change comes about principally by finding the ear of the powerful, or telling members of the ruling class a convincing story, they do believe that anyone can be transformed.

The book’s final chapter deals with constructing shared values and rituals. For Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor, capitalism has shaped what we hold sacred: many US rituals are centered around commerce or competition. But this is subject to change. Politics is “the practice of negotiating between competing ideas of what is valuable,” they write; social movements are “attempts to challenge and reconfigure the dominant systems of meaning and value.” American society is in a vicious cycle in which a lack of solidarity—across races, for example—causes public goods to be removed, and the lack of public goods then makes it harder to build solidarity. Whereas in Iceland, “sundlaugars” provide spaces where people from all walks of life can mingle as they sunbathe and relax, in the United States, many public pools shuttered because white people didn’t want to share them. On an individual level, the way out of such cycles is to cultivate a devotion to civic engagement, one focused on listening and paying attention to others’ needs, the authors write. Solidarity, they say, is not just a concept but also a practice, one that could begin by joining a social movement or political organization. By definition, solidarity requires other people—one has to have some kind of faith in others to get started, so beating back cynicism is key.

Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor met during Occupy Wall Street and regard its “We are the 99 percent!” motto as “brilliant.” While there are huge class disparities within that 99 percent, the motto is an invitation to build a coalition across such divides. May it not be too late to do so.

LARB Contributor

Edward Carver is a writer based in Maine.


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