One of the important factors that enabled the dismantling of the welfare state and of the annihilation of its culture, is voiding the notions of the ‘common’ or ‘commune’ (common interests, common good) of meaning, relevance, and punishing practices of solidarity.
What is solidarity? The definition is simple, accessible, as is the word’s etymology. What is complex, rather, is the notion’s destiny across cultures and realities of the twentieth century. For American workers, “solidarity” is first Solidarity Forever, the anthem for the largest federation of blue and white collar unions, or the AFL-CIO. Ever since Taft-Hartley Labor Management Relations Act (1947), the AFL-CIO has provided crucial votes for the Democratic Party, and the party has bartered the well-being and social security of workers to corporate interests. For the freedom fighters engaged in struggles of liberation from colonialism in the 1960s and 1970s, solidarity was a vital link to access support, safe havens, training, weapons. For the Palestinians’ struggle, solidarity was a bridge to combat isolation. For Brazilian, Argentinian, and Chilean exiles fleeing persecution of the military juntas in control of their respective countries, solidarity meant safe haven. For ‘Third World’ powers, solidarity was the marrow for forging the Non-Alignment movement and evading the toxic bipolarism of the Cold War. For Soviet Cold Warriors, solidarity was diplomatic strategy, or political instrument.
Now that neo-liberal capital seems to have vanquished the currency of any form of socialism or social welfare systems, the notion of the “common” has resurged as a site of ideological, intellectual and anthropological resistance, the notional and practical soil for discovering, theorizing, political alternatives. Solidarity however is still lackluster, sometimes tainted with cynicism, the necessity and urgency for its revival is still latent. An idea whose time has not come yet?
I don’t have an answer for why there has not been a dedicated issue of the eflux journal, or international conferences, or Documenta projects dedicated to exploring revisiting solidarity, as is the case for “the common”. There are nonetheless ‘symptoms’ of solidarity – like the Avaaz and Change.org internet-empowered petition template– that are as much testament to its efficacy as to its failure. If we consider the modest realm of our own industry and trade, namely the world of contemporary art, does solidarity have any currency? In contrast with other intellectual disciplines, the extent to which the logic of neo-liberalism prevails over the realm of the métiers in contemporary art is notable. The canons for success and failure, reward and sanction, job security, are practically entirely ruled by the logic of the market (even within state run institutions) and by the perfidious notion of meritocracy. In the art world too there are so-called symptoms of “solidarity”. Every year, at least one curator is unjustly dismissed and humiliated because of exasperated patrons, or offended publics, and a petition goes viral from mailbox to mailbox, in a gesture of solidarity. Some sign it because of empathy and/or affinity, others as t safeguard the principle of job security or freedom of expression. There are also petitions dedicated to mobilizing outrage against the abuse or sentencing of an artist, the shutting down of an institution, the sale of an archive or collection...
The question is not whether petitions are useful or not, some do lead to the release of a detained artist, writer, or curator, while others incarnate emotional and psychological support for an aggrieved colleague in difficult times. The question is whether solidarity is effectively imaginable in our professional world, knowing that we, cultural workers, operate under extremely precarious conditions in the present world order.