Solidarity and the Privilege of Choice

This post was originally published on my personal blog in the aftermath of the 2015 general election in the UK. As we’re getting closer to June 8, the questions raised here remain unanswered. The general trend seems to be toward greater political engagement, but we’re still very far from the kind of mass mobilisation that every tired, weary socialist activist in Britain (and elsewhere) dreams of……

Solidarity and the Privilege of Choice (May 2015)

Last year, on the occasion of International Workers Day, I wrote a blog post in defence of solidarity. One year on, the need for solidarity across identity categories and national borders seems more urgent than ever. And while I wrote most of this before the British general election last Thursday, the outcome (which can only be described as disastrous for many people in the UK who were not born into socio-economic privilege) only further underscores the argument made here. If you’ve visited this blog once or twice before, you already know that it strongly opposes conservative and neo-conservative politics in any shape or form, but the current Tory leadership represents a particularly callous brand of conservatism. The fact that it’s even possible in 2015 for Britain to be governed by people who embody such overt socio-economic elitism and unapologetic entitlement, people who don’t even attempt to disguise their contempt for those who are unable to financially support themselves within the framework of the normative market system, people who openly wage war on the poor rather than on poverty — the fact that it’s not only possible for them to get re-elected, but for a great many people to find this perfectly acceptable, is frightening. This is not only a government that’s dedicated to kicking those who are already lying on the ground, it’s also a government that intends to replace the 1998 Human Rights Act with “common sense”. For real. At the risk of sounding patronising, I wonder if most people who voted for Cameron & Co fully realise the implications of this. It’s certainly true that we often don’t know what we’ve got ’til it’s gone, but this is not the kind of lesson you want to learn the hard way.

The British election was won on clever rhetoric and even more clever distractions from political and economic reality in Britain (a charade in which the mainstream media was very much a willing participant). But as Cameron gets down to “work” with his shiny new cabinet (which by the way, includes at least two people who want to bring back capital punishment — and Boris Johnson), it’s important to remember what this is really about, what’s actually at stake over the next five years. It’s about kids who have to go to school hungry because their parents can’t afford to feed them (yes, in Britain in 2015). It’s about people at the bottom of the income ladder working full time and a half and still not being able to make ends meet. It’s about people being harassed by police because of the colour of their skin, or their religion, or both. It’s about people who are unable to work, or to find work, for any number of reasons, being treated as lazy and dishonest. It’s about people who are ill or injured not being entitled to the same standard of medical care as those who have more money. It’s about a university education becoming a privilege rather than a right. It’s about refusing to support people who fight for their rights and freedoms elsewhere in the world, in favour of supporting the people who oppress them. It’s about devaluing the work of people who dedicate their lives to helping others, to building a better society, in favour of valuing the work of those who dedicate their lives to making a profit. And so on.

Anyway. If you’re a regular reader you’ve probably noticed a bit of a common theme on this blog, besides the contempt for conservative politics. I feel about contemporary (Western and international) society much like Oscar Wilde felt about the late Victorian period: I object to “the existing conditions”. When I started the blog, I expected to be posting far more frequently than I have done. But, as these things often go, the oxygen mask on this particular flight (see below) rarely supplies enough breathable air to do all the things. So, as much as I find reflective or prescriptive writing important (and enjoyable, in a cathartic sort of way), for the most part over the last year, other forms of action have had to take precedence.

Nevertheless, when constantly faced with vastly contrasting worlds, with the huge discrepancy between, on the one hand, those who have the privilege of being able to choose everything from their government (well, sort of anyway), to which school to send their kids to, to their annual holiday destination, and, on the other, those who are forced to leave everything and everyone they love and embark on dangerous journeys with no certain destination because the alternative is even worse, it’s difficult not to reflect on this situation and what can be done to mobilise more of the former to act in solidarity with the latter. So, I’m writing this post partly because these questions are ever-present and increasingly urgent, but also because I was prompted by a conversation with a friend that took place during an IWD march the other week. Privilege is, of course, a complex and relative thing. Many people who experience discrimination in some ways are privileged in others, while there are also those who because of their identity and social position very rarely (if ever) encounter any kind of discrimination at all. You probably know yourself where you fall on the intersecting spectra.

There’s a line in one of my favourite political songs, which roughly translates into English as “politics is not fashion, it’s not a cool and trendy thing, for most people it’s a necessity of life”. This post is for those for whom politics is not a necessity of life. I used to think that one of the greatest and most important challenges we face today is how to mobilise the disillusioned and disenfranchised young people who are growing up into a world that the rest of us have fucked up beyond belief. But they are mobilising, all over the world (though when they do, mainstream media, and the political leaderships from which the former takes its cues, love to dismiss it as “rioting”). No, the greatest challenge is, I think, how to mobilise the (predominantly Western but increasingly global) privileged, educated, aware, but overwhelmingly self-serving and politically lazy middle classes. The conversation that triggered this post was about people (primarily straight, white, able-bodied middle class cis-men) who in their youth might’ve dabbled in activism and/or supported the idea of radical change, but who ultimately chose the kind of comfortable, insulated life that is nowhere within reach for a great many people. Another good friend once succinctly referred to this as “relaxing into one’s privilege”. So, how do we un-relax people who (regardless of gender or other group identity) have the privilege of choice and who choose inaction? Well, I think part of a successf

ul strategy lies with the ability to effectively challenge the dominant (neo-capitalist) individualistic, advertising-driven rhetoric of Western culture, the rhetoric that tells people that they’re justified to earn more than they need because the market tells us so, that they deserve their comfortable and insulated lives because they had the privilege of an education and a social support system that allowed them to choose what kind of life to have, and that the route to a better world is not through collective action but through individual “self-love” (because, you, know, “you’re worth it”).

A World of Extremes

We live in extraordinary times. Never in history has political awareness been so easy to attain for so many people, never has information been so available and so abundant, never have there been so many channels of communication, connecting people from disparate corners of the globe. Who could have imagined, even just a decade ago, the bond of solidarity forged between Palestine and Ferguson, for instance? International solidarity has taken on new meanings and new scope that the founders of the idea could not possibly have envisaged. Extraordinary times. But also a time of extremes. Because at a time of unprecedented possibility for political awareness of the masses, public self-education, and social action, at a time when knowledge is so freely available that it has become impossible to say “we didn’t know” in response to genocide, war and oppression, at a time when, finally we do know, we the masses do have access to knowledge, we do, finally, have the ability to set the political agenda, we know what goes on in other parts of the world, because it happens right in front of our eyes, and our governments repeatedly fail to cover up “classified” information and actions despite their best efforts, in this unprecedented time of enlightenment and opportunity for action, what do we do? The answer, sadly, is that many people, far too many, do nothing.

We live in a world where in the space of seconds we can witness young children being detained by soldiers on the way to school [warning: this is difficult to watch] and with the next click of a mouse or tap on a screen watch the grotesque affluence generated by consumer culture as runway models parade around in clothes the cost of which could feed a family for a couple of months (by the way, I’ve deliberately linked to Vivienne Westwood here because of her hypocritical and entitled approach to “ethical” shopping). This is what I truly despise about the high fashion industry (far more than the “skinny” obsession or the vanity complex): the fact that it is considered legitimate practice to spend such absurd sums of money on something so utterly non-essential when starvation and preventable diseases continue to kill children at an alarming rate around the world. It is, in a word, obscene. It doesn’t matter how much people “enjoy” fashion, there is no legitimate reason for the amount of money that is demanded and generated by designer labels. And if you feel like I’m being a self-righteous, sanctimonious bitch, well, maybe you’re right. But that’s really besides the point. If you can justify spending the cost of a weekly or monthly food budget on an item of clothing or a pair of shoes while your fellow human beings can’t feed their children or buy life-saving medicine, I suggest you take a good look at yourself. Because despite what decades of advertising has tried to make us believe, you’re not fucking worth it. Buying ridiculously over-priced clothes when over two billion people live off less than US $2 a day is not an acceptable form of self-care. It’s just not.

We live in a time when millions of people are acutely aware of the suffering of their fellow human beings in real time, yet are far more interested in keeping up with their favourite reality TV celebrities than seizing this unique opportunity with both hands. So, this post is, essentially, a call to arms. Chances are if you’re reading this blog that you’re already deep in the trenches, but if you’re not, this post is for you. Look around you. The world is on fire.

But, what if I’ve already got enough crap to deal with in my own life, you might say. What if I don’t have the time, or resources, or resilience to worry about things that affect people other than those closest to me? Well, someone recently alerted me to a useful metaphor for life. When you’re on a plane watching the safety demonstration, the flight attendant will tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. This might sound a little selfish, but it makes a lot of sense. If you’re not wearing your own mask you’ll be unconscious in no time and not only risk your own life but you’ll be of no use to anyone else either. So, putting your own mask on first is not just a self-preserving act, it’s also an act of solidarity. Following from this, if you’re struggling to put your mask on, or if you find that it’s broken and you’re gasping for air, you’re not going to be able to help the people around you. Instead, they will have to help you. In other words, there comes a time — or many times — in most people’s lives where we’re struggling to get our own mask on, where we can’t breathe properly, and therefore can’t act to help other people, or perhaps even ourselves (I don’t know about you, but I can’t even find my mask half the time, or remember how to put it on properly). That’s just how it is. But imagine a plane going down where about a third of the passengers have got their masks firmly on and breathing just fine while their fellow passengers are struggling all around them, dropping like flies. Imagine if the majority of the people already wearing their masks and being able to breathe just sit there watching those around them die without lifting a finger. Except for a few, who frantically try to do what they can to help get the other passengers’ masks on while trying to radio for help and struggling not to lose their own masks in the process. That’s unfortunately a very apt metaphor for the world we live in. The people wearing their masks and breathing properly have a choice whether to act or not, and most of them choose to watch their fellow passengers struggle and die, rather than risk their own comparative safety.

Solidarity and Charity

I was recently reminded of the important difference between charity and solidarity when a friend quoted Eduardo Galeano on social media. Charity, Galeano argued, is vertical — in other words, it is hierarchical — whereas solidarity is horizontal, an act between equals. I don’t necessarily think this distinction is always a clear one, and I also think that acts which we traditionally think of as charitable can be acts of solidarity too (to use a very simple analogy, if you have a loaf of bread and the person next to you has nothing, giving them half of your loaf would be an act of solidarity. If, on the other hand, you have a whole pantry full of food and the person next to you has nothing, giving them one loaf of bread would be an act of charity). Nevertheless, Galeano’s remark is a useful way to think about social and political action, as it brings into focus the relationship between solidarity, privilege, and choice. There is another way in which we can distinguish solidarity and charity, and that is that charity is a lazy form of political action, one that demands little “sacrifice” or “risk” on behalf of the giver. So it’s not surprising that charity tends to be the preferred action of the affluent, the comfortable, the safe, that is, people who have the privilege of being able to choose whether to act at all. Solidarity, on the other hand, is arguably less of a choice and more of a necessity.

As Galeano’s words suggest, charity is a key function of a strongly hierarchical society — indeed, one could plausibly argue that in an equal society the concept of charity would be completely redundant. A useful way to frame this is to consider the function of charity in Victorian society. As a nineteenth-century historian I’ve probably spent more time immersed in the world of Victorian Britain than any sane person should, but the Victorians were such horrendous (or wonderful, depending on your point of view) caricatures of themselves that it’s often helpful to turn to them in order to highlight some aspect of present Western society that is much more subtle these days. Charity was the moral duty of the gentry, an important Christian virtue and a pillar of nineteenth-century (and early modern) British society. The rise of the workhouse spelled the demise of outdoor relief, and was perhaps the most overt example of how charity was in reality another means of social control of the poor. However, whether performed through institutions, or through private patronage, donations, or various other community activities, charity filled an important function in terms of keeping the social hierarchy intact; it justified the affluence of the gentry and kept the poor dependent upon, and morally indebted to, the former. The greatest threat to the Victorian and Edwardian social hierarchy came with the emerging working class movement, in the form of solidarity.

But I doubt you need a lesson in the history of socialism and working class action, and in any event I don’t really want to get too caught up in the nineteenth century. However, just like the charity practiced by the Victorian gentry, the kind of charity practiced today in the form of “substantial” donations by wealthy individuals and large corporations helps sustain the unequal system that makes such charity donations possible in the first place. If we lived in an equal society, those contributions would not be needed, nor would they be possible, since no one would be disproportionately wealthy (or poor). I’m not trying to suggest that charity donations aren’t filling an important function in the present world, or that people should stop giving money (on the contrary, I think they should give more). But if things are to change, that is, if we want a world where charity isn’t necessary, acts of charity should be a temporary complement to acts of solidarity, not an excuse to continue to actively or tacitly support the status quo. So, for instance, a true act of solidarity by someone who earns far more than a living wage would not be to donate a fraction of their earnings, but rather to a) refuse to accept a disproportionate, unethical and unjust salary, b) urge their colleagues to do the same, and c) use their position of privilege to campaign for a just and fair wage system. I don’t want to get too side-tracked talking about wage systems and “market value” here (and if I start I probably won’t be able to stop), but something we really, really need to start talking about as a genuine option is instituting a legal maximum wage (FYI, I would wipe a zero off the figure suggested by Monbiot here. Yes, really, I would.). Most mainstream politicians won’t touch the idea with a barge pole at present, but they will have to address it if enough of us start to demand it.

Anyway, back to the point. When he was jointly awarded the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction last year, Australian writer Peter Flanagan gave his $40,000 prize money to the Indigenous Literacy Fund, with the following remark: “Money is like shit, my father used say. Pile it up and it stinks. Spread it around and you can grow things.” So, if you’re sitting on a pile of shit, it’s not because you deserve it due to good karma, hard work, or God’s will. It’s because you are (actively or passively) supporting the unequal system that enables some people to collect piles of money while others are struggling to make ends meet. This line of reasoning does not only apply to those at the very top of the global order — it also applies to the many, many people, in the West in particular, who tacitly support and actively help maintain global inequality by staying in their comfort zone, protected from most of the preventable ills of the world, simply because they can.

“Self-Love” and Solidarity

That’s the thing about privilege, it means having the choice whether to act or not. If you’re sitting comfortably in your safe and comfortable home, with your comfortable salary (that you probably work very hard for — and no I’m not being sarcastic), and your multiple electronic gadgets and abundance of food, you have the luxury of being able to ignore the suffering of others if you choose to. Over 1700 refugees (yes I deliberately call them refugees rather than migrants) have drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year alone. The world is quite literally on fire, but a majority of the people sitting on the extinguishers are too bloody comfortable/lazy/selfish (take your pick) to get off their arses and use them. So, the question is, how do we mobilise the lazy, comparatively affluent, comfortable middle classes to act in solidarity with those in less privileged positions? Short of a violent, property-seizing revolution (which I’m not advocating, though there are certainly times when it feels justified, or at the very least necessary), as suggested above I think a key strategy here is to challenge the prevailing system of belief that provides moral justification for the inaction of the privileged. The system that, in short, keeps “middle class guilt” at a tolerable level, easily alleviated by an extra donation to the Red Cross or by turning up to a protest march once or twice a year (and, not to be forgotten, the obsessive household waste recycling of people with massive carbon footprints). A concept that seems to permeate increasingly more aspects of Western consumer culture at the moment, and that epitomises the individualism and private ownership fetish that are the cornerstones of this culture, is “self-love”. In the same way as “happiness” is promoted as a free choice, self-love is promoted as an essential one (and, not surprisingly, a necessary pre-cursor to happiness).

To be fair, the idea behind self-love is a good one (think about the oxygen mask analogy), and a lot of the advice out there is sound and makes sense — let go of perfectionism and past mistakes, practice gratitude, take time to rest, and so on. There’s no doubt that a lot of people go around feeling shit about themselves a lot of the time. But the rhetoric of self-love (or self-care) is, to put it bluntly, the wrong solution to the wrong problem. We have created a society where beauty ideals are unobtainable without digital retouching, and where we repeatedly shame people (well, women for the most part) for their body size, clothes, eating habits, parenting styles, life choices, and where tremendous amounts of money are being made from people’s feelings of inadequacy, through everything from dieting tools and fitness programmes, to self-help books, to plastic surgery. It’s not surprising that a great many people walk around hating themselves because they’re “fat”, “ugly”, “unsuccessful”, or “bad parents”. This is obviously bollocks. But the solution to these problems is not to stand in front of the mirror every day and tell yourself how fucking awesome you are. The issue here is the same as with happiness — these are not individual problems to be solved on an individual level. In other words, the solution to self-hatred generated by a socio-economic system in which people’s low self-esteem is a huge source of profit is not to learn how to practice self-love, it is to create a kinder and more compassionate society — love as a social project, not an individual one. The idea of learning to “love oneself” keeps the focus on the individual and reinforces the norms of a society that’s more interested in fat-shaming female celebrities than in saving lives. A better way to frame the idea of self-love is to talk about self-respect, acquired through good deeds, not words of self-praise:

We must awaken to the essential goodness — to what in Nichiren Buddhism is termed our “larger self” — that lies within us all. If we want to fall in love with our lives — and by this I don’t mean the “we” of our small-minded egos — we must work diligently to manifest our larger selves in our daily lives. We must generate the wisdom and compassion to care for others until we’ve turned ourselves, piece by piece, into the people we most want to be.

Choosing Solidarity

The kind of individualistic rhetoric that holds happiness to be a personal choice and that prescribes self-love as an antidote to problems artificially created by an obscenely profit-driven neo-capitalist culture is a strikingly effective distraction from the very truth that would spell the demise of that culture if enough people took it on board: that we live in world where most human suffering is preventable and that we do in fact have the power to end it if we act together. This world is not inevitable, we have the ability to change it. But this won’t be achieved by standing in front of a mirror and repeating self-affirming mantras, or by “treating” yourself to a pair of designer shoes. It will only be achieved if we act together, in solidarity.

While acts of charity require us to give some of our material wealth and/or some of our time, in other words doing something for other people, acts of solidarity means doing, acting, with other people. It means being an interventionist rather than a bystander. Which can seem more difficult, daunting, frightening even. But acts of solidarity are equally beneficial to ourselves, not just to the people around us, and as soon as we realise this they become not only possible, they become easier than the alternative. Equality is by definition not a zero-sum game. Sure, you might have to get far out of your comfort zone (depending on how comfortable you are at the moment) in order to act with other people, but any apparent sacrifice is vastly outweighed by the reward — a better, fairer, juster world for everyone.

In this time of extremes, political “extremism” is really one of the least surprising phenomena. If anything, it’s surprising that not more people, young people especially, become radicalised. What is surprising, however, is how many people fail to get angry enough to act against inequality and oppression when we’re all so acutely aware of it. Call me naive, but I do believe in universal human compassion and kindness, I do believe most of us are capable of it, I see it around me every day. And I think one of the reasons many people choose not to act at all is because the task at hand seems overwhelming, and like anything they can do won’t be enough anyway. But that’s why we need to mobilise as many people as possible. The more of us there are, the easier the struggle will be. Strength in numbers. But we do have to be prepared to fight, not just stand on the sidelines and make encouraging noises. Solidarity means active participation, it means making other people’s struggle our own and fighting with them.

So, if you are one of the people fortunate and privileged enough to have a choice, please, make the right one.