True Solidarity

From Ashley Bohrer, professor, author and activist, in a May 2020 interview with George Souvlis on the Salvage site. Bohrer was asked about “solidarity” as both an analytical concept and a political reality.

True solidarity is life. There’s no other way, I don’t think, to orient ourselves to the struggle and to each other. There’s something really beautiful about solidarity, about the ways that millions of people work together and for each other, not on the basis of personal connection or individual acquaintance, but out of clarity and conviction that we all deserve a better world. We’re doing this interview in the midst of the Covid crisis and the mutual aid work I and so many other have been participating in, I think, has brought a whole new group of folks into understanding that feeling.

But I think sometimes when use the term solidarity, we actually mean a kind of saviorism. I see this a lot when people are talking about differences in social power: ‘I’m not queer/trans/POC/undocumented/incarcerated/etc, but I stand in solidarity with them.’ In that sense, people use it sometimes to mean they have politics that are not reducible to the oppressions they experience. Now, of course, I think we need to be showing up for folks across identities, social locations, and experiences. But I think what this understanding of solidarity misses is the ways that we are all affected by systems of domination. We are all created in and through those systems, and we are all worse off because they exist.

Let’s take white supremacy for instance. I’m a white Ashkenazi Jew, I inhabit and hold white-skin privilege and all that entails. Even though I am on a life-long journey of unlearning and opposing white supremacy, growing up in a white supremacist world has effects so foundational as to be nearly imperceptible to me. This is what it means, in a certain sense, to believe in a materialist account of the world – the organisation of the world shapes and makes us, even against our desires (and of course, it even makes and shapes our desires). Being made in and through a white supremacist world, no matter how committed I may be to undoing and unlearning it, still means that I have been damaged by white supremacy. Fanon, for example, was very clear about this: benefitting from systems of exploitation and oppression, being made in and through those systems, degrades our humanity. So when I think about undoing white supremacy, I am not committed to that fight only on behalf of others. I am not outside this fight or this system. I am also a part of it.

When we think about the project of topping domination, we have to understand that capitalism, white supremacy, heterosexism, ableism, etc all harm even those who are ‘privileged’ by them. White supremacy certainly accrues benefits, privileges, social and physical mobility, etc to white people, just as these other logics do. But being made in a world that is forged through structures that teach us, at every turn, that some lives are valuable and some are worthless, effects us all. This is, in my mind, the crucial difference between liberal and revolutionary approaches  to liberation. Liberals want inclusion into the system; they want proletarians to be ‘just like’ capitalists or women to be ‘just like’ men. Liberal philosophies keep in tact the ruling ideas of what we should be. Revolutionaries know that even those who have the most advantages in the current system are wrong. They are the product of the wrong world. We do not want parity with them; we want something totally different. We want a world that has never been seen.

That’s why when people take the approach that ‘I’m not X, I’m in solidarity’, I cringe a little, because it suggests that those who have privileges or have accrued social power do not see themselves as part of what needs to be transformed. And I think, at its base, solidarity names the way that by coming together against domination, we change our communities, ourselves, and the world. So when I think about solidarity, I use it to mark this recognition of a relationship. Now, we need to be very clear: solidarity does not mean sameness. I’m absolutely not saying that white supremacy or anything else affects all of us in the same way. This would be absurd. There are wildly different consequences for being a white person under white supremacy and being a person of color. I’m obviously not in the same position under white supremacy as people of color (who are not all in the same position in relationship to each other). As the neo-Nazis like to remind us more and more, as an Ashkenazi Jew, I’m not even in the same position under white supremacy as other white people. But what solidarity can name is understanding that there is a logic (white supremacy) that touches all of us – the neo-Nazi, myself, people of color, etc. When I struggle against white supremacy along side others in that fight and against the neo-Nazi, we are engaged in this fight from inside it, even if we are inside it from different positions and places. But in this case, solidarity marks a connection (but not a sameness); it names the recognition that, across many kinds of social locations, systems of domination connect us and only through mobilising and detourning those connections can we topple that system.

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