Solidarity in government?

Sissy Chrysochoou, "Handshake, 1999 Sissy Chrysochoou, "Handshake, 1999
Manolis Melissaris
Solidarity is increasingly thought of as a corrective counterweight to the measures imposed by the third memorandum. Many believe that solidarity can play this part, first, on the institutional level by introducing and promoting new forms of economic organisation. Secondly, by linking the state and civil society through solidarity movements, which have proliferated over the past six years.
I think it is right that a counterweight is necessary and that solidarity can play that part. There are, however, some difficulties that need to be highlighted.
The content of the concept of solidarity is famously elusive making it very difficult to differentiate it from other concepts in the same environment, such as benevolence or charity. One of the difficulties is due to the fact that solidarity’s content varies depending on the context in which it is employed. For example, the solidarity displayed by religious groups is different to that of politically oriented communities mainly regarding the source of the guiding norms at play. Nevertheless, it is possible to extract some characteristics borne by all solidary practices.
Solidarity entails a community, the members of which are mutually dependent to some degree. This mutual dependence is normative. The members of the community have rights and duties, which are grounded in solidarity, and which are horizontally directed towards the rest of the members severally as well as the community as a whole. Membership in the community also entails that one is fully included in it. This means that every member must be treated as bearer of all the characteristics on the basis of which she or he was granted membership in all her or his interactions within the community. In other words, solidarity is incompatible with the abstraction and fragmentation of the person depending on the context. This has multiple ramifications. For example, attribution of responsibility, blaming, rewarding and so on must be grounded in the personhood of each member as a whole. Finally, solidarity is always emancipatory or redemptive. One can never be in solidarity to one’s master.
There is no space fully to develop this argument here so allow me to assume that contemporary, modern, democratic societies are grounded in a specific manifestation of solidarity, which we can term political solidarity. They are based on the mutual recognition of each member of the community (not necessarily only citizens) as participants of equal value. It follows that our communities bear all of the above characteristics but also a few more, which constitute their differentia specifica in relation to other forms of solidarity. Of these, the most important is that the normative demands flowing from political solidarity do not presuppose or depend on psychological attitudes on the part of the community’s members such as feelings of philia or love; they apply equally to strangers and foes. This, however, is not to say that political solidarity is independent of the practices of the community in the sense that they have some transcendental, metaphysical texture. They are surmised and constructed on the basis of these practices. An implication of this is that by virtue on our participation in societies of a certain kind we are already bearers of rights and duties, which would not have been in place independently.
So, since solidarity is a foundation of our political communities, why are there difficulties with its institutional realisation? The most important obstacle is this. Government through law is based to a large extent on the formalisation of relations between members of the community. Modern law can only make sense of its subjects in clearly defined properties: creditor, debtor, owner, criminally responsible for a specific offence under specific circumstances and so forth. This is possible only through the kind abstraction, of the type to which solidarity resists. In light of this, solidarity can never be fully institutionally realised. This is perhaps the biggest paradox of late modernity. On the one hand, modern government presupposes abstraction and classification and, on the other, political solidarity, the foundation of the type of society that I have in mind here, pulls in the opposite direction towards cancelling such abstractions.
However, that the absolute realisation of the demands of solidarity is impossible does not mean that a satisfactory approximation is not. It is and every modern democratic state must strive towards it. How might this be possible? As many have already argued, one first step might be the introduction of multi-level forms of organisation and the democratisation of all fields of social co-existence and co-operation. This is a difficult path, of course, and it requires a great deal of hard work. In fact, in post-memoranda Greece it is even harder because of the clear limitations of democratic sovereignty, which resulted from the transformation of financial dependence into political dependence outside any democratic framework. This, however, is yet another reason for which solidarity must function as a regulative ideal so as to find ways to narrow the gap between the rule of law and democratic legitimacy.
The second problem is arguably even more difficult. How can state-independent solidarity movements become part of government? Another paradox awaits us here. If the solidarity guiding the actions of such movements is the kind of political solidarity in which the state is grounded, then these groups are already subject to imperatives marked by the formalism about which I spoke above. To put it very simply, solidarity movements become in a sense instruments of the state. This, however, reduces them to something that they resist and which participants in them themselves would fail to recognise. It is also bound to lead to conflicts between state action and solidary practices. Consider, for example, the cases of those who were prosecuted for people-trafficking offences when they transported refugees in order to assist them in their plight. On the other hand, seeing them as non-political, again misunderstands their foundations as well as the self-understanding of participants in these movements. The risk in this is that solidarity movements will be reduced either to something that has nothing to do with solidarity, such as charity, or to different kinds of solidarity which are based simply on the good will of the actors or non-political, moral norms. Worse even, there is the danger of the idea of solidarity being abused so as to de facto outsource to private actors basic public services (this is what happened in the United Kingdom with David Cameron’s famous Big Society idea, the application of which was pretty much exhausted in the establishment of new privately run schools).
To sum up, yes, solidarity necessarily lies at the foundation of modern, democratic states and it must therefore determine all state action; it must be introduced both theoretically and practically into the practice of government. But this must be done carefully so as not to misread and abuse solidarity while keeping it effective.
Manolis Melissaris teaches legal and political philosophy, and criminal law at the London School of Economics. He is currently working on a monograph entitled “Solidarity and Punishment”. He tweets at @EMelissaris.