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solidarity for never?

February 15, 2012

Just read an interesting article in the Guardian: “All together now: Montaigne and the art of co-operation.”

While I wholeheartedly agree with Richard Sennett’s overall conclusion that, “As social animals we are capable of co-operating more deeply than the existing social order envisions,” I question whether cooperation and solidarity are as mutually exclusive as he seems to imply.

On the one hand, I can certainly see how the desire for solidarity has the potential to invite command and manipulation from the top in that people are often willing to hand over authority to someone or something they feel can lead them out of bondage and into the proverbial promised land. As Eugene Debs so eloquently warned the working class about the inherent danger of this follow-the-leader mentality:

I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, someone else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition; as it is now the capitalists use your heads and your hands.

But on the other hand, it’s difficult to ignore the role that class plays in social relations, especially when such a small percentage of the population possesses the vast majority of wealth and power in society. And if solidarity naturally leads to tyranny and so easily perverts cooperation, what alternative framework/tactic should the left utilize to radically change the existing social order in such a way as to make cooperation more prominent while at the same time making grievous socio-economic and political inequalities less so?

Where would the Occupy movement be, for example, without a modicum of solidarity in its ‘us-against-them’ form, without any anger aimed at Wall Street and the 1% of the population that essentially rules over the other 99%?

Here, Sennett offers no solutions beyond an appeal to Montaigne’s “emblematic, enigmatic cat.” In one sense, what he suggests sounds progressive and socially revolutionary; but behind it, I see an inadvertent argument for simply leaving money and power right where it is while simultaneously ridding the left of one of its primary tools in combating ruling-class hegemony: unity.

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