Solidarity is the only hope we have for saving our crumbling world
– By Maximillian Alvarez
“We have to destroy the f***ing feelings of [selfishness] and build a new society based on solidarity” – Matthieu Bolle-Reddat, French train operator and Secretary General of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) Cheminots de Versailles, Dec. 2019.
In late January of 2020, while many of us continued to live and plan our lives with little sense of the darkness that was coming, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), declared the spread of a novel coronavirus, which we would come to call COVID-19, an international public health emergency. The following week, in his report for the 146th Meeting of the WHO Executive Board, Tedros stated clearly how the world’s nations and populations could tackle the deadly and rapidly spreading pandemic: “the only way we will defeat this outbreak is for all countries to work together in a spirit of solidarity and cooperation. We are all in this together, and we can only stop it together. The rule of the game is solidarity, solidarity, solidarity.”
Two years later, with the official global death toll reaching over 6 million souls (and unofficial estimates ranging from two to four times that number), our hellish timeline continues to be the one in which not enough people heeded Tedros’s warning. And certain actors in particular, who refused to take appropriate action when it mattered most, have had an outsized influence on the rest of the world’s capacity “to work together in a spirit of solidarity and cooperation.” The result, which must never be forgotten, obscured, or accepted as an inevitability, is that a staggering number of people died, and many more were needlessly hurt.
In their analysis of the global disaster wrought from the triumph of “health nativism” and “vaccine nationalism” among the world’s wealthiest and most powerful countries, Stephanie DeGooyer, assistant professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Srinivas Murthy, a clinical associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia, write,
Not only did the United States fail to support a global vaccination program that could have minimized the spread of more infectious variants, such as Delta and Omicron; it has not adequately addressed widespread vaccination refusal among its own citizens, including the Border Patrol agents tasked with keeping out migrants in the name of public health… Because pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Moderna have sought to protect their vaccine patents (unlike the mid-twentieth-century makers of the polio vaccine), supply has remained extremely limited. Rich countries have simply paid to have priority access to this scarce supply, leaving most of the world’s population unvaccinated… The global collaborative scheme COVAX, which aims to provide vaccines to the world based on need, was trampled by rich countries stampeding to get more supply for themselves. Born out of an idea that universal access and global solidarity were possible, COVAX has been hamstrung by individual nations looking to secure preferential supply and by companies more than happy to sell to the highest bidder. Researchers across the world raced against time to develop life-saving vaccines only to end up with world leaders, both in industry and government, restricting their distribution.
In December of last year, WHO declared it “a global imperative” for all countries to reach the threshold of having 70% of their populations fully vaccinated by the middle of 2022. As of April 2022, around 60% of the world’s population has been fully vaccinated, with 67% having received at least one dose, according to The New York Times global vaccine tracker. What is abysmally stark, however, is the disparity between the poorest nations—including Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Papua New Guinea, Haiti, and practically every nation in Africa—and everyone else.
The persistence of global vaccine apartheid has, first and foremost, wrought unfathomable degrees of needless pain and chaos upon the world’s most vulnerable, disadvantaged, war-torn, and “underdeveloped” (i.e., pillaged) populations, but it has also continuously contributed to our own collective undoing. As DeGooyer and Murthy describe above, the international failure to ensure these populations are supplied with the resources they desperately need has effectively turned them into society-sized petri dishes in which new viral mutations have developed and spread to the rest of the world. And the longer global vaccine apartheid goes unaddressed, the longer the pandemic will go on. “It’s dangerous to assume that Omicron will be the last variant and that we are in the end game” Tedros announced at the end of January. “On the contrary, globally the conditions are ideal for more variants to emerge.”
This blog post, to be clear, is not about COVID-19—it’s about solidarity. As I wrote in my original application to be a Maintainers Movement Fellow, “I believe that building bonds of solidarity among the many divided or disconnected segments of the global working class… is politically and ethically necessary if we are to collectively forge the social infrastructure that will enable us to care for one another in the face of twenty-first century catastrophe and develop the kind of mass political movements needed to address the sources of that catastrophe.” Over the course of my fellowship, I intend to explore the important roles care and solidarity play in the maintenance of our shared world, the roles they could and should play in the construction of a more just and sustainable world-yet-to-be, and I will discuss the many meanings and forms solidarity can take in the lives of working people who practice it, depend on it, build it, and cultivate it every day.
In the labor movement, where the majority of my work is focused, organizers like the great Jane MacAlevey often talk about the importance of “structure tests.” Whether it culminates in a strike, a unionization vote, or another shared objective, to build a successful organizing campaign requires envisioning, evaluating, mapping, detailing, and maintaining a structure within which workers can be organized and organize one another. As MacAlevey described to Pete Davis for the magazine Current Affairs, “In order to know that you’re going to win, what we do, what I think organizers try to do, is we engage in a lot of what we call ‘structure tests’ in the lead-up to any hard yes-or-no, win-or-lose contestation… And by structure, I mean ‘agency,’ ironically, in the vernacular of the academy. I mean people, bodies. The structure that we’re testing is: ‘How strong is the people’s army?'” Testing that structure in the build-up to, say, a strike vote or an actual strike is crucial, because it gives you a pretty clear sense beforehand of whether or not you’ll win, whether or not a supermajority of members are standing in solidarity with one another, whether or not they are ready for action and will stay committed to the end—and that’s something you and your coworkers want to know before taking that fateful step onto the picket line.
I am beginning my exploration of the life- and world-saving valences of solidarity with a note about COVID-19 for a number of reasons. Firstly, as depressing as it is to acknowledge, the two years we have spent living and fighting our way through this pandemic have provided a historically unique, clearly observable, and deeply morbid “structure test” of our current personal, national, and global capacities for exercising the kind of solidarity required to, as Dr. Tedros put it, “defeat this outbreak.” COVID-19 tested us; by many accounts, we failed the test. Secondly, beginning at the moment we’re in now, here, with COVID-19, is necessary because it underscores the life-or-death stakes of continuing to live in a world that the bonds of global solidarity are not currently strong enough to hold together. It’s been said many times, many other ways, but if this pandemic has been a preview of how the world’s unequal nations will individually and collectively address the catastrophic consequences of runaway climate change as we plod further into the twenty-first century, we’re in deep sh*t.
As discussed in the previous section, however, it’s vital to acknowledge the fact that there are different degrees to which we, as a global society, and certain powerful actors in government, industry, media, etc. have failed the structure test that COVID put us—and our capacities for exercising solidarity—up to. Rejections of international solidarity by the likes of Donald Trump or Bill Gates, for instance, have caused immeasurably more havoc than irate customers berating restaurant staff after being asked to wear a mask, though a paucity of social solidarity with one’s fellow human beings is the common thread.
This is certainly not to say that our world is devoid of solidarity—there wouldn’t be much of a world left if that were the case. In so many big and small ways, the devastation we’ve experienced during the COVID-19 years has been met and mitigated by heroic displays of solidarity so powerful that they must be experienced to be believed. From students in India risking their lives to find oxygen tanks for sick elders to meatpacking plant workers in South Dakota banding together to demand stronger workplace safety measures and better treatment from managers, from people delivering groceries to their immuno-compromised neighbors to millions marching in the streets to demand an end to a racist and oppressive policing system in the US, solidarity has kept us alive.
If anything, for all the death and upheaval we have had to endure in the process, I suspect that the past two years have reminded countless people—or perhaps shown them for the first time—that we are all we’ve got, and that building a society founded on solidarity is the only hope we have. For those of us in the capitalist Global North, however, the issue, as I see it, is that we have for so long lived and labored in a fantasmic dreamland driven by a consumeristic type of individualism that has all but blinded us to the myriad ways we need and depend on one another. Thus, it’s incredibly difficult to even imagine, let alone begin constructing, a social order premised on solidarity. What would such a society look like? What would it ask of us? What should we expect of it? What kind of social and material infrastructure would be required to maintain it, to make it run smoothly for the benefit of the collective? What past and present examples of practiced solidarity can we look to, learn from, and build on as we do our best to forge a path towards a future worth living in? These are the questions that I will be exploring in my coming blog posts over the course of my fellowship with The Maintainers.
In late December 2019, just months before the pandemic lockdowns began, France was in the grip of a historic general strike. From train operators and teachers to medical staff and even dancers at the Paris Opera Ballet, French workers in the private and public sector united in demonstrations around the country, with the biggest centered in Paris, as they went on strike against President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed overhaul of the public pension system. The strike was the longest and one of the largest the country had seen since 1968.
Macron’s plan was an object lesson in neoliberal “restructuring,” a proposal to replace France’s largely beloved post-war pension system with a points-based model that, among other things, would require workers to retire later and would adjust how their payments were calculated (namely, averaging a person’s pay over the course of their working life, as opposed to their top earning years) so that the average worker would be taking cuts to their expected retirement checks. These features of Macron’s project were part of a larger attempt to homogenize France’s pension system, which had contained 42 different pension schemes, with varying retirement age and benefit specifications, across private and public sectors. They would also further individualize people’s relation to the pension system itself, with each person’s retirement relying more on individual payments into their plan than on a socialized model of collectively pooling and disbursing resources.
As Maxime Quijoux and Guillaume Gourgues explained at the time, “For seventy years, pensions have operated on the principle of intergenerational solidarity, as active workers finance payouts to their elders. Some groups of workers benefit from ‘special regimes’ allowing them to retire early, on account of the more difficult conditions in which they work—from rail workers to sewage-facility operatives and opera dancers.” More than anything, the angry and exasperated demands from strikers in 2019-2020 centered on preserving the principle of solidarity upon which the French pension system was based: solidarity among younger generations who pay for older generations to retire with dignity, as they themselves hope to one day; solidarity between different segments of the workforce collectively paying to support those whose jobs and pension schemes were different from their own.
In this special, two-hour episode of my podcast Working People, recorded in late December 2019, I compiled interviews with eight different French workers who were participating in the general strike against Macron’s proposed overhaul of the pension system. While all of the interviewees articulated similar reasons for participating in the strike, Matthieu Bolle-Reddat, a French train operator and Secretary General of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) Cheminots de Versailles, had a particularly memorable way of putting it:
- (9:35) We fight to keep our social security system not just for us, but for all the population of the country … because we have to destroy the f***ing feelings of selfishism [sic] and build a new society based on solidarity.
- (44:40) After just 10 days on strike, I win—we [the railroad operators] win. They say, “OK, we take … the drivers of the trains out of the bill.” So now I win … because of the strike. But I stay on strike, and we stay on strike, because we are not f***ing selfish… We stay on strike to win for everybody.
I really can’t do justice here to the power of the testimonies from Matthieu and the other French workers I spoke with in that time, which feels so long ago now…, nor can I hope to sum up the importance and full context of the strike in this blog post. (My message in that regard is the same as it always is: Don’t listen to me, listen to the workers.) I wanted to end my first post by remembering this historic strike, though, because I think it serves as a tangible and awe-inspiring reminder that people can and will fight for the promise of a society built on solidarity, and solidarity can and will keep them fighting harder together.
Drilling down to its etymological roots, “solidarity” conjures the image of making solid that which is currently intangible, latent, or nonexistent, making palpable and fortifying the supportive interconnections of our mutually dependent being in and of this world. Solidarity, that is to say, is a form of infrastructure—if it is cultivated and practiced, if it is instituted as the guiding principle for the material arrangements of our political, social, and economic systems, it can hold the world together better than cutthroat individualism ever could. More than that, it can help us collectively build a world worth living in and fighting for.