Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Solidarity and its opposite in New Orleans

One of my many amateur fascinations also happens to be a (perhaps the) fundamental question of sociology, political science, economics, and management: how do people organize themeselves into groups and coordinate their actions? There are enough approaches to this question to keep a real scholar busy for a career, so you won't find the answer here. Economists talk about Collective Action, management types talk about Coordination (and many of them are looking at the Open Source movement with a slavering grin, seeing as it represents a brand new and largely unstudied mode of coordination).

But today I am attracted to the old-fashioned and leftist-tinged term solidarity, which captures the psychological/emotional/spiritual side of the question. Nobody uses this term except hard leftists, Polish labor unions, and Richard Rorty. Being in solidarity means seeing other people's interests and very being as aligned with your own. The connotations of the term go beyond narrow economic calculations though. For example, if I am selling my house, the realtor and I have a common interest in getting the best price for it, but nobody would say we have solidarity. Teams who work on projects together develop solidarity, if the team is any good. The military has explicit techniques for building solidarity at the platoon level (they call it "unit cohesion"). If my community is working at all I have some solidarity with my neighbors and will trust them and help them out if necessary, and vice versa.

The open-source movement has solidarity (which is why they can call themselves a movement), in part driven by a collective dislike of Microsoft and proprietary software in general. Aligning against a common enemy is great way to build solidarity.
Solidarity is linked to one's sense of self. You can see yourself in an atomized, alienated way, or as sharing interests and existence with others.

Which brings me to what I wanted to point to in the first place, this report from New Orleans which is both heartening and heart-rendering, in that it illustrates both solidarity and its opposite. A bunch of random individuals thrown into survival mode is another great way to build solidarity. People do have this drive to take care of one another which is, amazingly, revealed in the most stressful circumstances

What you will not see, but what we witnessed,were the real heroes and sheroes of the hurricane relief effort: the working class of New Orleans. The maintenance workers who used a fork lift to carry the sick and disabled. The engineers, who rigged, nurtured and kept the generators running. The electricians who improvised thick extension cords stretching over blocks to share the little electricity we had in order to free cars stuck on rooftop parking lots. Nurses who took over for mechanical ventilators and spent many hours on end manually forcing air into the lungs of unconscious patients to keep them alive. Doormen who rescued folks stuck in elevators. Refinery workers who broke into boat yards, "stealing" boats to rescue their neighbors clinging to their roofs in flood waters.

So these people under conditions of extreme stress and danger manage to form some kind of makeshift community, and take care of one another. Solidarity. Perhaps it isn't so amazing -- people will do what they need to survive, and a functioning community is a hell of a lot more survivable than scattered individuals in a dangerous situation. As Ken Kesey said about love, solidarity isn't an emotion, it's just good sense.

On a larger scale, the citizenry display a high level of solidarity in terms of their concern, willingness to donate to charity and house refugees. This extends beyond the US to the world at large. We're used to this, but it's still rather amazing.

Contrast this with the second part of the story, though, when the makeshift community is trying to leave New Orleans on foot:

As we approached the bridge, armed Gretna sheriffs formed a line across the foot of the bridge. Before we were close enough to speak, they began firing their weapons over our heads. This sent the crowd fleeing in various directions. As the crowd scattered and dissipated, a few of us inched forward and managed to engage some of the sheriffs in conversation...We questioned why we couldn't cross the bridge anyway, especially as there was little traffic on the 6-lane highway. They responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans and there would be no Superdomes in their City. These were code words for if you are poor and black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River and you were not getting out of New Orleans.

When I first read this I was disgusted and ashamed of my country. How could people treat each other like that in the face of catastrophe? How could officials deliberately add to the burden these survivors have already born? Now I've calmed down and tried to think about it, and I realize that this is a pefect manifestion of the opposite of solidarity, a rift in the human commonality, a particular anti-solidarity that has infected this country since before it was born. I'm talking about racism of course.

Actually if you look at it more closely racism is a form of limited solidary or pseudo-solidarity. It's built on solidarity within a group and, in opposition, hatred of other groups. This is the dark side of solidarity. Imagine a Klan meeting in the woods -- these white racisists have solidarity, are building solidarity. Imagine prison gangs. I don't really want to apply the label solidarity to these phenomenoa, but they are undeniably a form of group identity, with people banding together to pursue their shared interests, seeing the common humanity of the ingroup (and denying the common humanity of the outgroup). Ingroup solidarity is at the root the various genocides and slaughters of the 20th century (and no doubt others). It's an essential element of war.

So let's say there are two separate and very different forms of solidarity. Ingroup solidarity promotes group bonding at the cost of hostility to outgroups. Unbounded or humanistic solidarity is solidarity based on a perceived shared humanity, period. The latter is the proper thing to aspire to, although the former is almost always easier to generate.

If you want to judge a political intellectual, see which form of solidarity they are promoting.

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