This is what solidarity looks like

2016 has been one hell of a year. It only feels like a month ago we lost Bowie, but then there was Prince and Leonard Cohen and Alan Rickman and Florence Henderson and Sharon Jones and Mr Fuji, who must be having a hell of a time pranking archangels.

Politics was no escape. Brexit. The refugee crisis. Syria. Countless more people of colour executed by law enforcement. Continued inaction on climate change even though our planet is actively trying to kill us. And yes, then there was Trump.

Humans are hardwired to look for patterns, overarching narratives that explain why so much seems to go wrong, or (pun alert) right, at the same time. And when it comes to explaining the resurgence of narrow-minded, reactionary, violent right-wing politics across the Anglo/Euro world, the answer is apparently clear.

If like me you believe that things like equal pay for women, police violence, Indigenous rights or marriage equality are important issues of our time, it’s our fault.

Think piece after think piece tells us that the Left has failed to appeal to the white working class. We have done this, apparently, by talking about certain things or ideas that are … what? Not relevant to the lives of working people? Don’t directly benefit those people? It doesn’t make sense. Equality benefits everyone. Lifting up others lifts us all.

Maybe that’s my problem. Unlike the (let’s face it) white middle-class men who have identified the problem – ‘identity politics’ – and the solution – ‘shutting up about “identity politics”’ – I understand the concept of solidarity.

This is the fundamental divide between Left and Right: the Left believe humans seek community and advancement through cooperation. The Right believe humans are motivated by self-interest. We’re about the collective. They’re about the individual.

For this reason, solidarity is the basic building block of progressive, left-wing politics. It means standing together, not necessarily because we’re the same, but because we have the same enemy: capitalist power.

Capitalism is a very clever monster, and there’s no end to the ways it can find to oppress people. The core strategy stays the same – the powerful appropriating the products of others’ labour – but there are a multitude of tactics. A huge amount of women’s work is unpaid; men are alienated from ‘family’ life. Young people are deemed ‘less productive’ because they’re ‘unskilled’; older people aren’t worth ‘investing’ in retraining.

But capitalism’s cleverest trick is turning us against each other. Look out for those women, it told the post-war male working class – they’re going to take your jobs! Look out for those migrants, it tells the domestic working class – they’re taking your jobs! No pay rise for you this year – we had to spend all our money making the building accessible for people who use wheelchairs. No new job for you – we can hire-and-fire teenagers who don’t have mortgages and kids to support.

How has the Left historically defeated this monster? By creating bonds with each other, despite our differences. By using collective power to rebalance the scales against the hoarded resources of capital.

We have never built real power – the kind that improves lives or advances communities – by marginalising other people. We have never changed things by turning against each other while capital sits back and reaches for the popcorn.

We’ve done it with goddamned SOLIDARITY.

Solidarity is not passive. It’s not as easy as calling yourself an ally and wearing a safety pin on your lapel so other people will know you’re a Good Person.

Solidarity is standing up to the racist guy on the train who hassles the woman in a headscarf.

Solidarity is refusing to cross a picket line, or to buy products from companies which exploit migrant workers and contract out services to the lowest bidder.

Solidarity is thousands of veterans choosing to go to Standing Rock, to put their bodies on the line in a fight which isn’t theirs, which doesn’t benefit them directly.

Solidarity is the hundreds of people who have gone to Logburn Road on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island to support the Pike River families fighting for justice, or gave money to help them take their campaign to parliament.

Solidarity isn’t about grandstanding to show what a good person you are. It’s asking oppressed people: how can I help? And then coming through with the help.

Not everyone has the ability and resources to chain themselves to a threatened native tree or shut down a motorway. Solidarity can be as simple as giving $5 to a community organisation and sharing their post on Facebook, or tweeting a picture of yourself drinking a non-CUB beer.

The important thing is we back each other up, visibly – not simply to show those who oppress us, but to show each other we care. Simply living, when capitalism is pitted against you, is exhausting. If you also think you’re alone, it can be fatal.

Solidarity is productive. It demands action. And it is ongoing. We don’t take each struggle on its own and divide people into the allies and the affected, as though one is doing all the work while the other gets all the benefit. Today the veterans are at Standing Rock. Maybe next year, the water protectors will stand with vets to oppose healthcare privatisation. Or they’ll help protect a mosque against neo-Nazis. Or escort patients past gauntlets of anti-abortion bullies. Or donate some home cooking to locked-out factory workers.

Solidarity demands looking past our own individual situations and giving a damn about others.

This is why the assertion being made that we must stop giving time to the needs of women, or Māori, or migrants, or LGBTQ+ people is so counterproductive. It only functions if the Left literally cannot comprehend solidarity existing between people from different backgrounds and communities; and it ignores how all of these people are also part of the working class.

Maybe the Left hasn’t pitched solidarity well. Perhaps the links between racism, sexism, inequality and the plight of all people whose labour is exploited aren’t always made clear.

And maybe that’s a bit because some of us have bought into, and reinforced, the idea that white working-class people would not stand together with women or foreigners or gay people. That those interests were not part of a common struggle.

But if we accept that the white working class will only support us if we speak exclusively about and for their specific issues, we are, to use a technical term, fucked – we’ve bought into the stereotype of the redneck small-town bigot who doesn’t care about anyone else. (The irony being that the people railing against ‘elitist identity politics’ are pushing an incredibly elitist, condescending assessment of the working class.) It means we’ve cut out the heart of our own politics. We’ve rejected the possibility of solidarity.

In 2017, the challenge for the Left is not to find the magic words which will make a stereotype of the white working class vote for us. It’s not to silence women or transgender folk or Indigenous people. It’s to stop buying into the Right’s divisive bullshit, and show everyone what solidarity means.


Image: ‘To the point’ / flickr

Stephanie Rodgers

Based in Wellington, Stephanie Rodgers is a director of Piko Consulting. She writes at Boots Theoryand tweets at @bootstheory

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