EssaysFeatureSocialismThe Left

Solidarity is Not a Liberal Value

Feminism and collective struggle

On January 20, 2018, at the end of the Pioneer Valley’s Women’s March in Northampton, Massachusetts hundreds stood gathered in front of the imposing, castle-like City Hall. We were children, women, and men, trans and non-gender conforming people. We were black, white, and brown, gay and straight. We were rich and poor and middle class, farmers and thinkers and workers of all kinds and we stood in front of City Hall and listened.

We listened, that afternoon, to the passionate, sophisticated voices of a number of activists, who took up a range of issues: from the horrific presidency of Donald Trump to the inability of the Democratic Party to do much to stop him; from climate change to the persecution and prosecution of undocumented people. One of the final speakers, while discussing how people in the local community were working to defend the undocumented from arrest and summary deportation, was particularly radical and inspiring. She called for the gathered crowd to continue to work together in solidarity to openly and aggressively defend “liberal values.” It was this phrase that struck me — Liberal values. Because to me, what she was describing were not, in fact, liberal values at all.

It took me some time to figure out why I was so discomfited by the association. But after some reflection on the liberal political theoretical tradition (which is one way to describe my profession, I suppose) my discomfort with associating solidaristic, collective, community action with liberalism became clearer; the significance hit me harder. It is, I realized, why I consider myself a socialist and not a liberal.

***

There are undoubtedly thousands, if not millions, of people out there who consider themselves liberal who oppose President Trump and the far-right Republican agenda of mass deportation. [1] My hope is that this essay will lead some of these liberals, many of whom already value solidarity and democratic organizing, to question why it is they consider themselves liberal; why it is they look towards that tradition, as opposed to another: namely, the socialist tradition.

It might seem like I am making a prosaic point here — after all, isn’t protecting the human rights of individuals a classic liberal value? Indeed it is. But what is not a liberal value is the means by which that protection and resistance should be carried out. And the means suggested by the Women’s March speaker are not liberal values. Democratic, solidaristic resistance is not a liberal value.

Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that solidarity and collective resistance are inconsistent with liberal values — but the fact remains that they themselves are not liberal values. One could put together different, intellectually serious lists of liberal values and come up with different principles with differing interpretations of what those principles look like in practice. Individual liberties (e.g., freedom of speech, conscience, religion, etc.), personal conception of the good life, private property, and equal treatment under the law would undoubtedly make most lists of liberal values. While there is much disagreement within the liberal tradition regarding what these principles mean in practice, radically democratic, solidaristic organizing and resistance to injustice would be unlikely to appear on any such list. [2]

The key to understanding the difference I am pointing to is this: Liberals treat solidarity merely as a means, not as an end. The liberal tradition, when it places any value on solidarity at all, treats solidaristic collective organizing and resistance only as either tactics or strategy. For example, if liberals can defend individual human rights simply through voting or passing laws they will — whether this is done more or less democratically or not. And this is perfectly consistent with liberal values. Solidarity and collective action are purely instrumental for liberals.

Solidarity as both a means and an end is not a liberal value but a socialist one. It is the broad tent of far left (non-authoritarian) socialist traditions which value solidarity. [3] To be sure, like liberals, socialists also treat solidarity, organizing, and democratic collective action as instruments — as tactics, as a strategy for winning political power. But for socialists these are not only means. For socialists, solidarity is both the means and the goal of winning political power. This means that political power without democratic solidarity is not only undesirable, it is illegitimate. It is a kind of political power not worth having. Political power is the tool, and for socialists it is only worth exercising if it is accomplished through, and in the interests of, the masses; the people — especially those who have been and continue to be exploited and oppressed, silenced and ignored. Solidarity means empathy, sympathy, compassion, and shared struggle. Solidarity is knowing that, although we are distinct biological entities with important personal differences, we are also in this together — and we will embrace and appreciate the differences among us through shared struggle or we will fail. I won’t fail. You won’t fail. We will fail.

Why does this kind of conceptual distinction matter? Why should anyone care that a dynamic and, otherwise, insightful speaker at a local Women’s March treated solidarity and radical organizing as liberal values? In all honesty, the conceptual distinction is relatively unimportant compared to what this distinction means in practice, or, better, to what it means about the selection of which political tradition, which historical example, people might look to for lessons and inspiration. In other words, the distinction matters because it shapes how we should understand what success even means. It shapes what progress look like, and this despite whatever very real failures exist in a particular tradition’s past. It is the present and future that truly matter, and we need to look towards value systems that are genuinely empowering; empowerment rooted in an egalitarian solidarity that embraces both optimistic idealism and pessimistic practicality.

And it is this difference that matters. It matters for the future of feminism and the #MeToo movement especially. The difference between liberal values and socialist values is the differences between telling your boss to get his hands off your ass and working together with your fellow employees to fight for democratically-accountable management or democratic unionization. The difference between liberal values and socialist values is the difference between having more female CEOs and abolishing CEOs through bottom-up, democratic counter-organizing. The difference between liberal and socialist values is the difference between an individual victim of sexual violence winning a lawsuit against the company that protected her attacker and organizing against the social system that conditions young men to become harassers or rapists and induces their victims to blame themselves. The difference between liberal values and socialist values is the difference between working through Human Resources to have better enforcement of existing anti-harassment policies and organizing against the system which incentivizes companies to pursue cover-ups and settlements as opposed to open accountability — all in the name of profit.

***

There was a young woman walking near me during much of our march through Northampton on January 20th. She was holding a sign that, on one side, read: “Intersectionality!” The reverse side read: “RACISM is a TOOL of Division created by the 1% #BLM.” The differences between liberal and socialist values are well-captured in this sign. The difference between liberal values and socialist values would be the difference between electing a trans person of color President and mass organizing against the two-party duopoly that activates identity politics every two to four years in order to maintain their plutocratic control of our society. The difference between liberal values and socialist values would be the difference between redistributing wealth and redistributing power and control (over wealth, opportunities, and responsibilities).

This is why, contra Jeffrey Goldfarb’s position in his recent essay here at Public Seminar, we must maintain that socialist values are feminist values and feminist values are socialist values. This doesn’t mean that “we cannot have feminism within capitalism,” but that such feminism should necessarily oppose capitalism. Liberalism and capitalism are intimately connected in valuing individualism above democracy and solidaristic activism. And this lack of value for solidarity and democracy, as means and ends, is why women and trans peopleespecially those of color, continue to experience the most egregious forms of injustice and inequity in their workplaces. Liberalism — and capitalism — have no interest in a democratic, egalitarian workplace.

An effective resistance, one that is also building towards a genuine alternative, needs different values. We need different values — and not liberal ones. Because, although she was wrong to call it liberal, the otherwise inspiriting speaker after the Women’s March was right in this: we do indeed need to work together in solidarity. But not just in it; for it as well.

Dr. Bryant William Sculos holds a PhD in political science, specializing in Critical Theory and global ethics. He is a postdoctoral fellow at The Amherst Program in Critical Theory, adjunct professor at Florida International University, contributing writer for the Hampton Institute, and Politics of Culture section editor for Class, Race and Corporate PowerBryant is also a member of Socialist Alternative-CWI.

 


[1] An agenda which was, sadly, first aggressively pursued by the liberal president Barack Obama, the so-called “deporter-in-chief”  — though his approach to deportation had specific targeting parameters (focusing primarily on convicted criminals) and with protections for the so-called “Dreamers.”

[2] At least not if we exclude the socialist influence on the more or less liberalized tradition of social democracy, wherein you very well could find solidarity of this sort as a core value. Thinkers who could fit into this social-democratic liberalism include: Eduard Bernstein, John Dewey, John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas, Iris Marion Young, Onora O’Neill, Richard Rorty, David Held, and William Connolly. Even Bernie Sanders could be put on this list.

[3] Including: Marxism, anarchism, anarchocommunism, left libertarianism, ecosocialism, socialist feminism, and even some of the more radical iterations of democratic socialism (which is where some might place some of the aforementioned thinkers such as Bernstein, Habermas, Connolly, and Sanders).

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Bryant William Sculos

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