Fluidarity, Not Solidarity

I revisit a post from 2013, and update nothing but the first sentence

Four years later [now twelve years later], I don’t think we have made much progress on the agenda these authors suggested [although Biden’s agenda gives me some hope]:

Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr, Rising to the Occasion, 2009

[…] with both long-term biological and day-to-day economic survival in doubt, the only relevant question is: do we have a plan, people? Can we see our way out of this and into a just, democratic, sustainable (add your own favorite adjectives) future?

Let’s just put it right out on the table: we don’t. At least we don’t have some blueprint on how to organize society ready to whip out of our pockets. Lest this sound negligent on our part, we should explain that socialism was an idea about how to rearrange ownership and distribution and, to an extent, governance. It assumed that there was a lot worth owning and distributing; it did not imagine having to come up with an entirely new and environmentally sustainable way of life. Furthermore, the history of socialism has been disfigured by too many cadres who had a perfect plan, if only they could win the next debate, carry out a coup or get enough people to fall into line behind them.

But we do understand–and this is one of the things that make us “socialists”–that the absence of a plan, or at least some sort of deliberative process for figuring out what to do, is no longer an option. The great promise of capitalism, as first suggested by Adam Smith and recently enshrined in “market fundamentalism,” was that we didn’t have to figure anything out, because the market would take care of everything for us. Instead of promoting self-reliance, this version of free enterprise fostered passivity in the face of that inscrutable deity, the Market. Deregulate, let wages fall to their “natural” level, turn what remains of government into an endless source of bounty for contractors—whee! Well, that hasn’t worked, and the core idea of socialism still stands: that people can get together and figure out how to solve their problems, or at least a lot of their problems, collectively. That we–not the market or the capitalists or some elite group of über-planners–have to control our own destiny.

We admit: we don’t even have a plan for the deliberative process that we know has to replace the anarchic madness of capitalism. Yes, we have some notion of how it should work, based on our experiences with the civil rights movement, the women’s movement and the labor movement, as well as with countless cooperative enterprises. This notion centers on what we still call “participatory democracy,” in which all voices are heard and all people equally respected. But we have no precise models of participatory democracy on the scale that is currently called for, involving hundreds of millions, and potentially billions, of participants at a time.

What might this look like? There are some intriguing models to study, like the Brazilian Workers Party’s famous experiments in developing a participatory budget in Porto Alegre. Z Magazine founder Michael Albert developed a detailed approach to mass-based planning that he calls participatory economics, or “parecon,” and one of us (Fletcher, in his book Solidarity Divided, written with Fernando Gapasin) has proposed a locally based network of people’s assemblies. But all this is experimental, and we realize that any system for mass democratic planning will be messy. It will stumble; it will be wrong sometimes; and there will be a lot of running back to the drawing board.

But as socialists we know the spirit in which this great project of collective salvation must be undertaken, and that spirit is solidarity. An antique notion until very recently, it flickered into life again in the symbolism and energy of the Obama campaign. The Yes We Can! chant was the slogan of the United Farm Workers movement and went on to be adopted by various unions and community-based organizations to emphasize what large numbers of people can accomplish through collective action. Even Obama’s relatively anodyne calls for a new commitment to volunteerism and community service seem to have inspired a spirit of “giving back.” If the idea of democratic planning, of controlling our destiny, is the intellectual content of socialism, then solidarity is its emotional energy source–the moral understanding and the searing conviction that, however overwhelming the challenges, we are in this together.

Solidarity, though, is an empty sentiment without organization—ways of thinking and working together, and of connecting the social movements that are battling injustice every day. We see a tremendous opportunity in the bleak fact that millions of Americans have been rendered redundant by the capitalist economy and are free to dedicate their considerable talents to creating a more just and sustainable alternative. But if we are serious about collective survival in the face of our multiple crises, we have to build organizations, including explicitly socialist ones, that can mobilize this talent, develop leadership and advance local struggles. And we have to be serious, because the capitalist elites who have run things so far have forfeited all trust or even respect, and we — progressives of all stripes — are now the only grown-ups around.

Modernity has erased solidarity. I don’t think we can get people to have a sense of shared purpose in a society so remorselessly divided, in a culture obsessed with individuality.

My hope is that the postnormal makes it clear that solidarity is gone, here in a world where connection is displacing membership, where social media is eroding institutions, and where loose connection is replacing tight collectives. We should aspire to fluidarity in place of the modern era’s solidarity. So, postnormal progressive thought has to move past searching for the lost solidarity of the last century, and contrive social tools to allow us to build — connection by connection — a new fluidarity together.