“You are who I love, you who stands at the courthouse with the sign that reads NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE” – Aracelis Girmay, “You Are Who I Love”
Liberalism assesses solidarity as an abstract concept rather than a strongly-held moral value. In this framework, unity is reduced to a comforting idea that focuses only on the individual. It allows its users to center their own ego — soothing their consciences with meaningless language — within any narrative and provides the comfort of disengagement from true change. Liberal solidarity functions as sandpaper, grinding down those too loudly or radically against the capitalist status quo. This misuse of the term “solidarity” dilutes popular power and defangs movements.
A recent piece by Ryan Golemme titled “The Limits of Solidarity” stated that “activists are wrong to present their goals as a necessarily conjoined front that can potentially undermine their case without tactful messaging.” This “conjoined front,” rather than uplifting its constituent movements, supposedly undermines the importance of each. In turn, absent a unifying purpose, it becomes not about common cause but instead about polite coexistence. If groups working together supposedly weakens them, then it follows that solidarity cannot mean mutual uplift.
But real solidarity is not a liberal tool to politely maintain the status quo. It is not asking, as in the New York Times article quoted by “The Limits of Solidarity,” whether organizers fighting Israeli apartheid are anti-Semitic because they make Zionists uncomfortable. Nor is it dismissing BDS, prison divestment, or any other movement because “some matters are simply more urgent than others.”
My claim may seem a personal polemic. People take different views on activism, including seeing one issue as paramount above all else. But single-issue liberalism poisons effective organizing and splinters any attempt to build popular power. It allows for supposed activists to feel good about their involvement without ever confronting the harsh upheaval that will be required for systemic change. Climate change, cited in Golemme’s article as the paramount issue, certainly is an existential threat. It is especially so for those in the Global South, where it has already caused catastrophic disasters. But why is the Global South particularly vulnerable? In large part thanks to capitalism and its corresponding decades of colonialism and military action, which have left swaths of the planet without the infrastructure or means to provide for their inhabitants. Fighting symptoms without acknowledging the underlying material origins accomplishes little beyond self-satisfaction.
Here is the reality: Anti-capitalism threads through nearly all of the student movements listed in the original piece. Capitalism creates the carceral state, trapping over 2 million people in prison — and the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign fights bravely for the abolition of that horror. Five million people currently live in the apartheid state of Palestine under the looming presence of Israeli colonial occupation, and Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine takes up their torch. Puerto Rican debt helped ensure the island would be left with a fractured infrastructure and starving citizens soon after Hurricane Maria, and students marched against that injustice as well. Different leftist movements on campus take up different individual causes, but each fight confronts a manifestation of capitalist oppression. This is how true solidarity can arise; each of these groups bears the burden of enormous scrutiny and at times danger, and each labors against the interests of capital. In that common struggle lies enormous potential for communal resistance.
Vladimir Lenin once wrote that the most effective tactic to break institutional power comes in joining disparate movements together in a “common struggle to defend the immediate, basic interests of the working class.” Student movements call for great change, but so too do they take care of each other, as in HPDC’s frequent fundraisers and other expressions of need from those in the community. This type of solidarity — a passion animated always by love for others — is unattainable if organizers see their causes as a constellation of unrelated struggles. Solidarity is not providing a statement for a cause. It is fighting for things that materially benefit all peoples with the understanding that no struggle for liberation exists in isolation.
The idea of solidarity with limits actively hurts some of the most important causes on campus. HPDC, for example, has worked for years on ideas only now entering the mainstream, fighting back against the harm police and the carceral state visit upon the most vulnerable. After years of other student movements with larger platforms telling them they were “too radical,” something confirmed by members of the campaign, their political moment has finally come. Now, when the absolute rot of carceral capitalist systems finally comes into the sight of even those safe from that brutality, HPDC is at last met with interest. This could have come earlier. If single-issue liberal organizers had made a concerted effort to build a true solidarity between movements years ago rather than gesturing weakly toward “tactful messaging,” perhaps HPDC would not have toiled alone. Instead, true radicalism was scorned by some out of discomfort, and only now do we see the campaign’s bravery rewarded with broader support.
Central to the reality of true solidarity is that student activism — and organizing beyond campus — exists in an extraordinarily asymmetrical relationship with power. It is not a polite discourse between equals; it is a defiant yell in the face of the unimaginably powerful. Harvard controls a $40 billion endowment, the profit of centuries, and has wielded that might against the working class for most of that time. Isolated movements cannot stand against an institution with the resources and will to wear them down, no matter how courageous and hardworking their members. “The Limits of Solidarity” says that it may “seem puzzling that one group would let a different one take over its own rallies.” But the Harvard Graduate Students Union — the group being referenced — won a contract this year in part because it worked with groups across campus, building solidarity amongst those fighting for the working class and justice. When organizers build true unity across their causes, they can succeed against monumental opposition. And when aesthetic activists recoil at the idea of joining with radical movements, they throw away that possibility of true victory for the sake of personal comfort.
Toward a Better World
Liberal solidarity endangers the battle for oppressed peoples beyond campus too. Elizabeth Warren provides a case in point. In July of last year, Warren tweeted that she stood “in solidarity” with Hawaiian people protesting the installation of an observatory on Mauna Kea. This fit with the rest of her messaging: She routinely claimed to be a progressive candidate, and the media framed her as the reasonable progressive against Bernie Sanders’ supposed radicalism. But this is precisely why she encapsulates the worst elements of limited solidarity. Even as she claimed to stand with the protests on Mauna Kea, she waffled on retracting the damaging claim that she was of Native ancestry herself. She retreated on Medicare for All, protecting the interests of private insurance as she did so. Native people across the country consistently have worse health outcomes and worse access to treatment than nearly any other group. Medicare for All would provide care to vulnerable communities across the country, many of whom have fewer resources and worse care under the American system. This is where solidarity matters, because solidarity is material. Anything less is a meaningless pablum.
The rhetorical work done by campaigns like Warren’s — softening capitalism’s cruelty while also co-opting the language of progress to advocate for the status quo — carries great danger. At least Joe Biden does not pretend to be fighting against capital; in that he is honest. Warren and other “liberal progressives” mask that casual scorn for the working class with a polite facade. Malcolm X put this problem succinctly:
“The white conservatives aren’t friends of the Negro either, but they at least don’t try to hide it. They are like wolves; they show their teeth in a snarl that keeps the Negro always aware of where he stands with them. But the white liberals are foxes, who also show their teeth to the Negro but pretend that they are smiling.”
In claiming to stand with the most vulnerable among us while instead operating in the interests of capital, Warren and her ilk put a kind face on exploitative systems, telling the country they have a plan for a better world while still saying that we “need” ICE. In the disingenuity lies the danger.
Liberal expressions of unity defang the true radicalism of antiracist and anticapitalist movements, channeling their enormous energy away from harming the status quo. In the past few weeks, dozens of mayors — many Democratic — painted “Black Lives Matter” murals on their city streets. Only one ended qualified immunity, the policy that makes it nearly impossible to convict police of any wrongdoing. The paintings pretend at progress; the law materially protects the vulnerable. Ask even capital’s most dedicated propaganda machines, and they will tell you liberalism and capitalism work hand in hand. Liberal solidarity is an oxymoron; without substantive material change, which liberalism and capitalism cannot supply, unity means nothing.
True solidarity has no limits. Solidarity is standing together against the might of capital and oppression and fighting back; it is understanding that your struggle is my struggle and that our greatest allies are each other. Climate change arises from capitalism; so does the prison-industrial complex. Zionism is by design a colonial project; imperialism is the final conclusion of capitalist expansion. While everyone fights their own battle for liberation, the battle against capitalism undergirds it all. Claiming that a fellow organizer is “too radical,” that they need to find more “tactful messaging” absent any substantive reasoning, does not solely weaken campus groups. It splinters the possibility of common cause, throwing away the battle for oppressed peoples because of petty discomfort. Solidarity is not a polite request for conformity but a fierce expression of deep love for others. It is a loud and vibrant celebration of the fight for a better world and our willingness to “demand the impossible.”
Image Source: Courtesy of Ben Roberts