Towards partnership: A rejoinder to Yassin al-Haj Saleh

The problems of solidarity recently outlined by Yassin al-Haj Saleh are indeed part of a wider, historic breakdown in the values and impact of the Western left, writes Jules Etjim, who offers a “sketch” of one possible way forward.

[Editor’s note: The below is a response to Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s article ‘A critique of solidarity,’ published by Al-Jumhuriya in English and in Arabic on 16 July, 2018, and 21 May, 2018, respectively.]

What is solidarity? Solidarity seems an uncomplicated concept for a simple act, but Yassin al-Haj Saleh reminds us it isn’t a simple thing at all. Al-Haj Saleh’s enquiry was marked by pathos, surely because in the case of the Syrian revolution, solidarity has been elusive, due to the global failure to deliver adequate practical and moral support to the Syrian people.

This ‘failure’—whether due to indifference or ignorance—inevitably shaped the solidarity that was proffered. Solidarity might be instrumental, lacking genuine empathy. Consider the Palestinians killed at Yarmouk camp in Damascus. For many Western supporters of Palestine, these were the ‘wrong’ Palestinians because they were killed by Assad’s repressive state (notionally opposed to Israel) rather than the Israeli military. Intentionally or not, the intrinsic worth of the Palestinian Diaspora and its struggle is denied while Israel is singled out as uniquely ‘evil’ for its foundational dispossession of the Palestinian people. Yet Western supporters of Palestine are not alone in being inconsistent champions of solidarity and internationalism. Only recently Ahed Tamimi, the now-famous Palestinian teenager jailed by the Israeli authorities in December for slapping a soldier, thanked Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah for his support despite Hezbollah’s part in Assad’s genocidal onslaught against the Syrian people. If the struggle against oppression is a school, it is a tough school whose backdrop is the triumph of regional counter-revolution that is as likely to have a severe impact on radical politics in the Middle East as anywhere else. Clearly, like the rest of us, Tamimi’s education has some way to go.

 

Two views of solidarity

Two basic perspectives on solidarity exist. The first views solidarity as common sentiments uniting individuals and social groups that underpin meta-individual identities. This basic notion was the object of classical sociology and its social scientific focus on “social bonds” tended to emphasize social integration before social conflict, the very features of modernity that cut across corporate identities like class. Though classical sociology stressed social integration with modernity’s arrival, this was largely understood in post-traditional, post-metaphysical terms and disclosed a novel historical reflexivity where society was visible to its members.

The second view is solidarity as political solidarity: a social act arising from social conflicts emblematic of various modern struggles for recognition, like the powerful workers’ struggles or women’s suffrage movement, that also helped stimulate democratization in the West or the anti-colonial struggles elsewhere in the past century. Proletarian struggles for recognition demanded intra-class solidarity on the basis of a corporate identity strengthened in the course of economic, social, and political struggle. The antecedents of political solidarity could be traced to the American and French revolutions where democratic politics acquired its iron rations. Solidarity’s extension, internationalism, was a mainstay of socialist ideologies like Marxism. Workers had no country but shared a common interest that could potentially lead to the formation of a political subject able to overcome presumed ‘secondary’ divisions like gender, race, and nationality, thus laying the basis of a global socialist community—essentially the maximum goal of the early socialist Internationals.  

There was conflict between the idea of the working class as a class with specific interests and a ‘universal’ class that could liberate humanity through social revolution. Ultimately barriers to the emergence of a ‘class-for-itself’ would prove greater than early socialists ever anticipated, though, as mentioned, proletarian struggles for recognition helped extend democracy and civil rights while anti-colonial, anti-imperialist struggles added to the political vocabulary of solidarity and internationalism.

Political solidarity was actively built, usually by a partisan minority appealing to a wider political community united by certain ties. Yet, tacitly, this also implied separation. Political solidarity was a conscious act and didn’t simply arise spontaneously from pre-existing inter-subjective social bonds. Often internationalism was simply an ethical appeal to a common humanity. Also, historically, Social Democratic opposition to the local state was ambivalent. Sections of Social Democracy lent support to its ‘own’ state against the anti-colonial movement. Later, Stalinism’s rise reinforced the degeneration of socialist internationalism and these trends excluded consistent principled support for the colonial revolution. In the Cold War many leftists viewed the Soviet Union as ‘progressive’ while the alignment of some anti-colonial struggles with Moscow meant support for anti-colonial movements often had a campist character.

 

The state of political solidarity today

In Europe today, Social Democracy increasingly articulates the idea of a socialist heimat as a solution to globalization’s turbulence. This nativist vision is usually accompanied by a strident rejection of the liberal centre for complicity with neo-liberalism, with some left voices questioning previously unambiguous support for multiculturalism. In the bio-political age, the state’s determination of who is a citizen rested on the Other’s exclusion, and with the modern nation-state’s emergence, the Other was usually framed via the imaginary-ideological matrix of race and ethnicity.   

Fifteen years ago political solidarity blossomed as a mass anti-war movement opposed to the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan sprang up, while the Second Intifada (2000-05) helped to make the Palestinian cause mainstream. Yet the anti-war solidarity campaign visibly degenerated in recent years. Instead of mobilizing international support for the Syrian Spring, the global left viewed Assad’s opposition through the lenses of Islamophobia and Orientalism, denying the Syrian people their agency while resistance to Assad’s thanatocratic state was passed off as “regime change” hatched in Washington and Riyadh, exposing the left’s senescence.

The failures of solidarity (Arabic tadamon) in the Muslim world are of a different order. On the one hand, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon host millions of Syrian refugees in conditions varying from vast sprawling camps to new built towns. This is an incredible act of solidarity. The UN Refugee Agency has rated Turkey’s camps—effectively towns—as “excellent,” impressive given Turkey hosts 2.5m Syrian refugees. Clearly this is a life infinitely preferable to trying to survive in Syria. As Assad’s counter-revolution consolidates its grip, the grisly reality of systematic death by mass torture of tens of thousands of Syrians is revealed as families receive official death notices. Assad’s security apparatus has already compiled lists of those it wishes to exterminate. Currently most of these potential victims are exiled abroad. Life in a refugee camp is surely preferable to certain death by torture, and yet it is suspended life, and no one can say how or when this will end. 

Early in the Syrian revolution there was deep support across the Middle East and North Africa, but many were victims of the wider regional counter-revolutionary roll-back of the Arab Spring. President Morsi promised to mobilize Egypt’s armed forces to topple Assad, but was overthrown himself shortly after. The Muslim Brotherhood’s partisans were among the Syrian Spring’s firmest supporters, but today face the severest repression under al-Sisi. A turning point for Muslim solidarity was Russia’s intervention in 2015 that saved Assad from imminent defeat. Now only Erdogan’s government supports the Syrian rebels, chiefly because of the popularity of the Syrian Spring among AKP members, though the Turkish state has never seriously entertained unilateral intervention to overthrow Assad.

The crisis of political solidarity today is a symptom of a malaise gripping the global left. For example, Britain is very different from, say, Germany, that welcomed over half a million Syrian refugees. Britain, by contrast, is what David Renton called a “deportation state,” annually deporting 13-15,000 people thanks to Home Office policy introduced by Theresa May. Fewer than 10,000 Syrian refugees have been welcomed to Britain since 2011. The British left is mainly indifferent to the fate of Syria’s people. Labour’s left wing leader tacitly supports Assad and has even suggested Assad might not have been responsible for chemical weapons attacks on non-government areas. More widely, in British society, levels of racism towards refugees and migrants intensified after the 2016 EU referendum. Thus the small band of liberal and leftist supporters of the Syrian revolution can’t offer much in terms of “practical” solidarity. These activists are little more than advocates of the cause of the Syrian people reduced to pedagogy; “raising awareness;” promoting the cause in what al-Haj Saleh memorably referred to as a crowded symbolic “marketplace” of causes.

It has also long been a feature of the various vanguard groups’ work to treat solidarity campaigns as a pool in which to fish for new cadre. Such instrumental activity is usually faithless as these groups don’t stay for the long haul. Or this, at least, is a complaint of activists repelled by these instrumental attitudes. The critics are not wrong, but their own activity is often marked by a supercharged moralism.

Crucially, both these reactions derive from deeper problems facing the left. In the 1980s, social historian Raphael Samuel lamented the “waning of collectivity” among British workers, including the breakdown of a common experience arising from shared conditions of life and struggles. Arguably these trends—disaggregation of the working class, erosion of proletarian solidarity—are global, apparent in China and India as well as the more obvious candidates of post-industrialism like Britain. We need to consider the possibility that proletarian disaggregation can accompany the formal expansion of wage-labor in a country like China. The global implications of the “waning of collectivity” were bleak for political solidarity.  

Relations between leftists in the North and those fighting tyranny in the South have long been fraught. In the immediate post-war years, empire was forced to retreat before the anti-colonial and national liberation struggles despite efforts to re-impose control. Algeria was a notable example, where the main party of the French working class, the Stalinist PCF, actively blocked extending solidarity to the FLN and the Algerian struggle. Political solidarity on the French left was confined to small groups like the Trotskyists or “Socialisme ou Barbarie”—groups that were at the margins of the working class. Inevitably this solidarity was symbolic, largely irrelevant to the armed struggle in Algeria.  

In the 1960s, anti-imperialist struggles like Algeria and Vietnam inspired a growing rebellion in North America and Europe, but again the relationship between the two zones was ambiguous. Vietnam, Che, the guerrilla foci, Mao and the Cultural Revolution, impacted on campus in the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere with the adoption of a martial, ultra-left politics that was irrelevant to the political horizons of these societies. A partial exception was perhaps the transition from non-violent civil rights in 1963 to Black Power in 1966 as the struggle against racism and Jim Crow moved from the south to the industrial north. At least there was a reciprocal relationship between the struggle in North America and the struggle to throw off colonialism, even if it was limited—consider Malcolm X’s tour of the Middle East and his pilgrimage to Mecca. Malcolm X was still evolving politically when he was assassinated by Nation of Islam members in February 1965. In the last analysis what failed in the Bolivian jungle was even more inappropriate in the pacific North.

Today, the terrain is transformed—globalization and the crisis of traditional working-class politics are evident in the hollowing-out of traditional institutions and weakened social struggles. The left has far less social weight than it did in the past. In the West, this is connected to the atrophying of representative democracy apprehended by a number of thinkers. For example, Cornelius Castoriadis, discussing what he called the democratic liberal oligarchy, noted the privatization of social life and a growing narcissism that fed rejection of society. Western liberal democracy prevented citizens from fully participating in the authentic constitution of society. Instead, involuntary participation in the reproduction of the status quo reigned. Genuine autonomy resting on direct democracy was thwarted while political parties, instead of providing competing political stalls and genuine choice, offered only the illusion that fundamental reform was possible. Politics was a loaded dice. In the post-war years democracy’s decadence was exposed by the challenge to the ‘universalism’ of Western culture. Castoriadis underscored the malaise of Western societies lacking the internal resources to resist exogenous shocks and thus unraveling.

In Britain, the left’s apparent rebirth obscured ideological degeneration. More broadly the left’s NGO-ization, spreading from the charity and campaign sector, betrayed substitutionism with struggles exaggerated and campaigns treated as insurgencies and so on. With flat-lining industrial struggle, solidarity at least provided an arena for faux-activism, a vicarious identification with struggles elsewhere in the absence of struggles at home. This is arguably where solidarity politics stands today in British politics, rendering dismissals of the idea of ‘selective solidarity’ a moot point.

Crucially, our predicament has been over-determined by the Western left’s political myopia. The left’s Orientalism and Eurocentrism strengthen a theoretical error of viewing the ‘global North’ as the engine of history, denying people elsewhere their agency, treating the ‘global South’ as peripheral to the real drama elsewhere. On this view the ‘global South’ is the object of forces outside its control, cursed with the wrong politics, mired in traditionalism and so on. However, we reject the supposition that world history is a fatality of social development, inevitably unfolding in successive stages radiating from a specific central zone. Instead we sympathize with the inversion of Eurocentric prejudices by those who point to China, India, and elsewhere as the ‘locomotive’ of history, though ultimately we should reject a priori attempts to privilege one part of the global order over another part. The point of a critique of an ontologically-generated myopia (‘privilege’) is too well taken to be allowed through the back door in inverted form. Critique is global, though clearly China’s economic impact is far more consequential than, say, Poland’s, or even Britain’s.

 

Solidarity and politics    

In his article, al-Haj Saleh invoked “many worlds” to describe the reality that people occupied different social realities. “Many worlds” can be linked to One world—in Hegelian terms not identity, for they are incommensurate social realities but certainly a unity. Different worlds and the Same world. Clearly political activists in the West enjoy certain ‘positional goods’ compared to their counterparts fighting tyranny elsewhere. The most fundamental asymmetry between radicals north and south is surely that radicals in the north are not at present locked up, tortured, or murdered.

Finally, one wishes to address, albeit schematically, the meaningful basis of political solidarity. Al-Haj Saleh proposed “partnership” as an ideal to cultivate in contrast to the unequal relationships in the symbolic marketplace of causes. A revitalized model of solidarity/partnership should address two issues: firstly, the source of solidarity’s crisis, and, secondly, an alternative model. Reasons for solidarity’s crisis have been touched on, but what about the basis of an alternative model? In The Struggle for Recognition, Axel Honneth placed solidarity at the centre of post-Marxist critical theory with promising implications for a revitalized democratic politics. 

Intriguingly, Honneth linked Hegel’s insights in his Jena period with a similar, more materialist argument presented by the American pragmatist philosopher, sociologist, and psychologist George Herbert Mead. Honneth did not elaborate a full synthesis of the two thinkers but highlighted the common ground Hegel and Mead shared while pointing to a powerful account of modernity and the individual’s development within an inter-subjective realm that was also the ground of an ever-expanding mutual recognition. Honneth helpfully pointed to certain gaps in their argument, proposing specific solutions or points for further investigation. Crucially the young Hegel had dismissed the mechanistic, atomistic social theory of Thomas Hobbes who had essentially conceived ‘society’ as the outcome of a social contract between mutually hostile individuals potentially capable of inflicting death on each other and a sovereign power (the state) sanctioned to exercise coercion to prevent the “war of all against all” and maintain social peace. Hegel, contra Hobbes, pointed to the always-ready co-operation between individuals indicating they were already social individuals. Significantly, Hegel’s brilliant Jena-era insights were quietly abandoned for a preoccupation with the unfolding of absolute consciousness in The Phenomenology of Spirit.

The self emerged in the reciprocal social process of individuation that began in the affective realm of the family. Honneth derived confirmation for Hegel and Mead’s argument in post-war psychoanalysis, particularly the ‘object relations school’ that departed from Freud’s double focus on the Father (Oedipus complex) and the asocial intra-psychic conflicts between Ego and Id driven by the libidinal drives. Instead, ‘object relations theory’ underlined the significance of the infant-mother relationship, especially the affective attachment of the dependent infant on its mother and how a process of mutual recognition and dependency initiated a development of the self that would widen into broader reciprocal processes of recognition.

According to Honneth, though Mead shared a similar starting point to Hegel, he was able to reformulate Hegel and elaborate a superior social psychology to explain the underlying drivers of an individual’s formation. Any account of society and social development had to explain why and how change took place, how innovation arose in the sphere of ethics, culture, and politics, and why society didn’t simply reproduce the status quo ante in perpetuity. Why didn’t individuals stay within the existing normative bounds of community? In essence Mead linked this change to the struggle for recognition—or what Cornelius Castoriadis characterized as autonomy. This struggle for mutual recognition was linked to the reproduction of social life, it underpinned a practical relation-to-self that meant an individual only learned to view herself ‘objectively’ within the wider normative perspective of the inter-subjective sphere. For Mead, the struggle for recognition was multi-faceted, and included internalizing social norms that also made them a potential catalyst for innovation when they were used critically to push for the generalization of norms, extending existing rights, introducing new rights, and expanding the relations of mutual recognition, though Mead lacked an account of disrespect—a potential stimulus to individuals and social groups struggling for recognition.

The struggle for recognition also explained the origin and telos of social conflict between social groups. Here Honneth noted that Hegel and Mead had suggested, albeit in rudimentary form, that recognition was divided into three stages underpinning growing autonomy: love, rights, and solidarity. Love pertained to the affective sphere of inter-subjective recognition, of the infant-mother relationship, the family and the growing circle of friends that we referred to above. In contrast, rights pertained to the sphere of the law and the recognition of the individual as a free and equal subject. With modernity, the sphere of law had become detached from traditional sources of authority and was now subject to debate and rational determination that logically presupposed individuals were free individuals. Finally, solidarity pertained to a wider sphere than the affective realm of love or the legal recognition that individuals were free individuals, and reflected the desire for social esteem and self-worth that increasingly exercised every individual, arising from the recognition of an individual’s accomplishments, their social status, their role in the social division of labor, in the broader world, and so on. Modernity was a threshold where the individual was increasingly distinguished from predetermined social traits and traditional or corporate identities whose dissolution paralleled the emergence of the competitive field of social esteem. The individualization of achievement accompanied a proliferation of social goals and means of self-realization that could be regarded as different contributions to society’s goals or “general value horizons,” though the latter were themselves subject to competing interpretations via various forms of the struggle for recognition or political will formation. This arose where individuation intersected with social groups formed by income distribution and the inevitable struggles for recognition whose form was economic struggle.

Finally, we have arrived at solidarity—these struggles for recognition derived in part from corporate identities like class that generated solidarity, partly characterized by the symmetry of mutual recognition and esteem within the group, and partly by the formation of a shared value horizon formed via collective struggles like economic or political struggles against oppression.

The struggle for recognition—the extension of recognition, autonomy, democracy, freedom, civil rights, and social equality, is a global struggle that has no center other than civil society or nascent civil society. Apprehension of the goals of this struggle for autonomy and democracy also discloses the agency of this struggle that can only be the citizen or citoyen—made up of particular individuals but pointing to a cosmopolitan meta-identity consistent with mutual recognition and autonomy that is also the pre-condition of social esteem and individual differentiation. The struggle for autonomy and democracy implies a political program that is inimical to state power, the imaginaries of fascism or closed, racist ethno-nationalist identities resting on the exclusion of the Other. In other words, the struggle for recognition implies the extension of autonomy and democracy and is the ground for genuine solidarity, fraternity, and love.      

Radicals and activists North and South, East and West, have much to learn from one another. In terms of the social cartography of the global system, the conditions of struggle vary, often widely. But the social and political thought of thinkers like Castoriadis and Honneth points to possible lines of flight in terms of a revitalized social scientific enquiry, and radical politics that is decidedly anti-statist and rooted in struggles for recognition, the logic of which is the de-centered extension of autonomy and democracy. Only a broad conception of radical politics, as briefly sketched here, is genuinely compatible with a model of solidarity conceived as a genuine partnership: mutual recognition within a particular radical value horizon.