Solidarity is one of the watchwords of the political left. In French, solidaire means "interdependent." In Latin solidus means "solid" or "whole." Solidarity as an ideal imagines a society in which "we're all in it together," whole, one. This is, I believe, an ideal to which we should aspire.
However, interdependent wholes can be either more or less inclusive. As historian Timothy Smith points out in his bracing book, France in Crisis, the rhetoric of solidarity in Western Europe has served as cover for economic predation by the powerful against the weak. Large politically connected labor unions, claiming to speak for workers at large, instead express solidarity only to select workers already inside the club -- presenting a powerful unified front in order to lock down political bargains that guarantee a maximum of wages, benefits, and security for a minimum of labor. Aspiring workers -- often immigrants -- who have come late to the party find the doors to the club of worker solidarity locked against them.
Workers on the outside looking in have every reason to resent the hypocrisy of a system that divides the world into employed "haves" and unemployed "have-nots" on grounds of unity. This resentment may be muted by subsidized housing and government checks, but it cannot be resolved. There is no substitute for the dignity of productive work, or the pride of paying your own way through your own efforts. We are truly part of the interdependent whole of society when we are free to make our own contribution to the growth of the economy. Side payments to the economically ghettoized are neither a mark of social generosity nor solidarity. (Apparently they don't prevent rioting, either.)
Here in the United States we are lucky to be relatively free from the phony rhetoric of solidarity and its ill effects. Our less regulated labor markets make it easier for jobs to come and go, as demand requires, and for workers to find jobs and jobs to find workers. Allowing the market to readjust to ever-shifting circumstances gives us a bit more volatility, but it also gives us a system in which it is easier for every willing worker to contribute to and share in the fruits of economic progress.
This is not to say that Americans have entirely escaped from divisive illusions of sham solidarity. Our system of public education, for instance, is praised as a great equalizer and source of social unity when it is in fact a cornerstone in the American version of socio-economic apartheid. Fat, happy teachers' unions, in solidarity with class-conscious suburban parents, conspire to keep vouchers out of the hands of poor families, ensuring the perpetuation of two Americas while singing the praises of our unifying public system.
Solidarity is tricky. There is a feeling of solidarity, fraternity, and belonging that can pervade the gut and bring a tear to the eye. There is also a system of solidarity in which we can be embedded and enmeshed. As joint participants in the market, relying constantly on far-flung partners in a mind-boggling network of specialization, vying to cooperate with one another on increasingly beneficial terms, we are, in fact, in it together. We are part of the system of solidarity, whether we know it or not. One of the paradoxes of modern life is that the system of solidarity does not necessarily produce or even encourage the feeling of solidarity. I need not feel warmth for, or even recognize the existence of, the Chinese laborers running the machine that made my socks (nor they for me) in order for us to be participants in a needful common enterprise -- to be related parts of an interdependent whole.
The feeling of solidarity too often devolves into an atavistic tribalism in which we band together to protect "our" interests again the depredations of outsiders. Even the apparently innocuous feeling of solidarity expressed by, say, vocal support for the status quo system of public education can subtly corrode the system of real solidarity by propping up the hidden system of politically enforced inequality.
We should beware the temptations of the feeling, which so often serves to solidify the barriers against those outside the charmed circle of our sentiments, and reorient ourselves toward the system. The system of solidarity pushes us past our tribal commitments to class, creed, and nation into real relations of mutual advantage with our fellow human beings.
Perhaps in time we will become civilized and our feelings of solidarity, expanding to encompass all those embedded in the worldwide web of cooperation, will catch up to the reality.
Will Wilkinson is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute and managing editor of the Institute's online magazine, Cato Unbound. This essay was inspired by this month's Cato Unbound, which asks, "Is 'Old Europe' Doomed?"