On a summer afternoon in 1966, an estimated six thousand welfare recipients rallied around the United States in twenty-five cities. Children in tow, the women held forth in public squares, marched on state capitols, and occupied local welfare offices as part of the first cross-country demonstration of recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children. They demanded better benefits and—in the words of the two thousand–strong New York City contingent—an end to what they called the “indignities” of the welfare system, which they viewed as a patriarchal and punitive government bureaucracy. In place of meager checks, invasive surveillance, and constant shaming, they called for a guaranteed annual income and insisted that people impacted by policy should have a say in its implementation.

Most of the women were Black, but a good number of white women signed on as well. Their actions launched a powerful national movement—the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO)—that aimed to increase material support for all struggling families and create the foundation of a care-based economy. Its militancy and rapid growth opened an opportunity to alter the relationship of the state to its citizens, and the movement brought concrete reforms—though the movement would be undone by the changing political climate of the mid-1970s, when the War on Poverty gave way to the War on Crime.

Ever since, progressives have been fighting to salvage remnants of the liberal welfare state. They are right to push for more egalitarian policies, whether in the form of higher taxation, more generous public provision, or a stronger regulatory regime. But as the NWRO made clear, the social and emotional dimensions of statecraft are just as key. As we forge a more equitable social contract, we also need to change the character of our social relationships and arrangements. A new approach—rooted in the ethic of solidarity—should be our north star.

State policies shape our perceptions of the world, each other, and even ourselves.

State policies play a huge role in determining social conditions, from the amount of carbon in the atmosphere to the cost of rent. They also shape our perceptions of the world, each other, and even ourselves. Conservatives have long understood this and sought to wield state power to remake citizens in their ideal mold. “Economics are the method,” the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said in 1981. “The object is to change the soul.” Because the state structures the society and systems in which we live, it can make us more prone to care for one another and collaborate constructively—or more inclined to compete for seemingly scarce resources, more mistrustful and afraid. These feedback loops are powerful forces that can tear society apart or help weave it back together.

In recent decades, and in no small part due to the influence of Thatcher and her neoliberal allies, social programs in the United States have been structured in ways that stymie and suppress solidarity, obscuring the fact of our fundamental interdependence by promoting individualism and competition instead of cooperation and reciprocity. Part of the problem is what Suzanne Mettler calls the “submerged state.” While aid to the poor is stingy and highly stigmatized, as the NWRO organizers knew firsthand, government benefits to the middle class and affluent are generous and mostly go unnoticed. They inspire neither shame nor appreciation in part because they are structured to be delivered through more passive mechanisms, such as tax breaks and subsidies. The mortgage interest deduction, for example, rewards those who are wealthy enough to buy a home.

In place of these mechanisms, we should structure policies and programs in ways that reveal the formative role the state plays in everyone’s life while also bringing our interdependence to the fore. In a word, we need a solidarity state.

How can we get there? The American Climate Corps (ACC), created through an executive order in 2023, is a modest step in the right direction. Like the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal era, programs that provide dignified and well-paid jobs and create obvious public benefits are a clear way for government to play a positive role in many people’s lives. The ACC promised to provide twenty thousand jobs, but by October last year—just one month after the program’s announcement—it had already drawn forty-two thousand sign-ups. There is clear demand for these opportunities, and the more abundant and accessible they are, the more they will be seen as evidence of the government’s potentially constructive role in ordinary people’s lives.

Imagine if every individual were encouraged and incentivized to participate in such a program as a duty of citizenship. Within the Solidarity State framework, such programs would offer opportunities to perform public service that leaves people and the planet better off, imparting skills and experience while also leaving participants more connected to and invested in the common good. As things stand, the U.S. government routinely prioritizes what historian Micol Seigel calls “violence work.” Police, prison guards, immigration officers, and soldiers are generously subsidized by the state—teachers, therapists, conservationists, far less so. We see care work as an essential way to build communal, solidaristic social bonds.

In the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution upended and remade social relations. During that period, the political tendency known as solidarism argued that the state’s primary function should be to create social cohesion among its citizens. In large part, this meant protecting people from the abuses of power that come with consolidated wealth. The solidarists were radical republicans—they emphasized citizens’ participation in self-governance, envisioning worker cooperatives as preferable to the burgeoning corporate sector, and credit unions as the future of finance. These were upper-class thinkers—indeed, one of their leaders was even named Léon Bourgeois—who often downplayed the role of class conflict and exploitation. Nevertheless, their thinking offers a series of useful prompts to imagining a political alternative to the status quo.

Liberal political philosophy—the intellectual tradition that formed that basis of the liberal welfare state—draws on social contract theory, which argues that society was forged by a contract between rational, autonomous men in a state of nature. The solidarists rejected the premise of this abstraction. Instead, they argued that from the moment we are born, we are already enmeshed in quasi-contracts: we inherit a world made by those who came before us, and we are indebted to the future generations to whom we will leave the world when we pass on. No one is ever fully independent or self-made. Rather, we are all born owing what they dubbed “social debts”—not the debts that are imposed on individuals by predatory creditors, but the debts that tie us together and hold us as both givers and receivers, beneficiaries and benefactors, in a shared society. They also spoke of social property as opposed to private property, recognizing that all property gains its value from its social context and should, in turn, offer benefits more broadly; they emphasized duties and obligations as much as individual rights. They also emphasized the need for restorative justice, aware that past harms must be repaired if we hope to forge solidarity and create a more peaceful and prosperous society.

Updating some of their ideas for our time, we suggest that a solidarity state would be based on four key principles: participation, parity, pluralism, and peace.

First, we see the opportunity to participate in creating one’s society—beyond the ballot box—as critical. The welfare state often treats its citizens as recipients of charity, with the state as a provider of services bequeathed from on high. A solidarity state would instead treat us as active and empowered agents of change. The history of the Community Action Programs, the centerpiece of LBJ’s War on Poverty, offers a short-lived but instructive example. These programs empowered individuals to work together to address local issues, essentially providing government funding for local organizing, some of which was impressively effective and even militant. Under its auspices tenants organized rent strikes and rankled local officials. Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America, summer youth programs, and meal programs all came out of this moment. But under Nixon, and then Reagan, funding was cut and these programs were whittled down to bare bones.

The solidarists argued that no one is ever fully independent or self-made.

Second, parity is necessary to a solidarity state. In contrast to the liberal welfare state at its heyday, a solidarity state would operate on the premise that you cannot successfully wage a war on poverty without simultaneously waging a war on concentrated wealth and the concentrated power that wealth can purchase. And you certainly cannot win it by treating the poor themselves as the enemy, as the War on Crime effectively did.

In addition to policies that support redistribution, a solidarity state would achieve parity by promoting predistribution—in other words, by closing the wealth gap well before taxes are levied. This process would go beyond improving or expanding the services the state provides. Instead, it would democratize control over how society’s resources—including the state itself—are owned, distributed, and run. For example, a reparative approach to finance might invest in communities and households that have long been victims of predatory lending or denied access to credit; it could create green social housing in neighborhoods devastated by redlining or open public banks currently exploited by payday lenders and check-cashing companies. It could build on the legislation that Rhode Island passed in 2022 to legalize cannabis, which sets aside a substantial portion of limited retail licenses for worker-owned businesses. This is the largest expansion of state support for cooperative enterprises in recent history and a way of explicitly ensuring that income and opportunities will flow to the low-income communities most harmed by the War on Drugs.

Third, we do not see pluralism as a hindrance to social cohesion but as something that should be fostered. Pluralism need not be divisive if given a context where differences can be acknowledged and embraced. Today liberals and conservatives often insist that homogeneity is a prerequisite for a stable welfare state. Take political scientist Yascha Mounk’s recent book The Great Experiment (2022), which argues that liberal countries are in crisis, and welfare states are in decline, largely because they are diverse in terms of political perspectives, religious convictions, racial and ethnic identities, and gender and sexual orientations. But the data on whether heterogeneity always leads to social conflict is mixed at best.

In contrast, we believe that plutocracy, not pluralism, is the problem. Anti-immigrant sentiment is often driven by elites who want to deflect responsibility for low wages and inadequate safety nets. In our view, solidarity must be consciously cultivated—its presence or absence is not preordained. This means demography is not destiny, but rather an opportunity to connect people across their differences. Consider one interesting example from Canada, where the state provides small groups of private citizens the opportunity to sponsor refugees. Sponsors are expected to help get them set up with housing, schools, and doctors, and supply food, clothing, and other forms of material and emotional assistance. They are even encouraged to “introduce newcomers to people with similar personal interests” according to the Canadian government’s website, a statement which is attuned to the crucial role social ties play in individual and collective wellbeing.

This program inverts the logic that sees citizens as consumers of benefits, fighting each other for scraps. Instead, it fosters solidarity: citizens work with the government to provide for people who have fled their home regions in search of safety or opportunity. In this way, the program offers more democratic and dignified roles for all parties. We must develop ways to cultivate solidarity by enabling diverse people and groups to collaborate and coexist on scales small and large, whether through refugee assistance programs, truly integrated schools and neighborhoods, citizens’ assemblies, multicultural or plurinational governance structures, or any range of other pluralistic and participation-enhancing public initiatives.

Finally, we need to make peace a central pillar of our society. As Coretta Scott King said in 1975, “this nation has never honestly dealt with the question of a peacetime economy.” In contradictory fashion, war has spurred the creation and expansion of welfare programs, going all the way back to the country’s first, short-lived federal welfare policy, which consisted of pensions for Civil War veterans and their widows. The welfare state of mid-century America was simultaneously a warfare state, its expansion accelerated by World War II. Today we still live in a proverbial guns-and-butter economy, where public investments in violence are enmeshed with public investments in care. After her husband was assassinated, Scott King dedicated herself to the cause of a federal jobs guarantee. Today the military is a far more extensive public job program than the Climate Corps, employing 2.1 million servicemembers and over 700,000 civilians. As Scott King argued, we need an economy based on meeting human needs and sustaining life, not manufacturing weaponry and promoting death. 

Plutocracy, not pluralism, is the problem.

Because racism has been key to undermining even the modest gains of the welfare state, antiracism must be a core pillar of the solidarity state. Today’s war on wokeism is just the most recent version of an effort to break solidarity, roll back progress, and distract from our increasingly oligarchic economy. The right’s plan for 2025, outlined in the Heritage Foundation’s Mandate for Leadership, begins with fearmongering about the “Great Awokening” and sets out to erase public discussion of racial justice, gender justice, the history of slavery, and the science of reproductive health. Given the centrality of the right’s weaponization of racism—as well as misogyny, homophobia, and other forms of divide-and-conquer serving bigotry—the defense of racial justice must be central for a project that seeks a more universally beneficial alternative.

These proposals for the solidarity state are not a fully fleshed-out plan but a provocation and prompt, in hopes that intellectuals and organizers might find the seeds of something to build upon. The crises around us are too severe to waste time, either on solutions too small or dreams too unreal. A solidarity state offers a potential horizon that is both feasible and transformative—and also more resilient against elite capture and reactionary attacks than our current paradigm. 

Of course, states can both secure our freedom and threaten it; there is no way to permanently escape this dilemma. But the conscious cultivation of solidarity would make people feel more connected to each other and more invested in and protective of the social programs and democratic structures on which everyone’s lives depend. Nurturing these relationships is essential to ensuring that vital progress is not lost and that our social debts—to past and future generations—are finally paid. Solidarity is both means and end, how we get out of this mess and where we might, one day, arrive.

This essay is adapted with permission from Solidarity: The Past, Present, and Future of a World-Changing Idea, published by Pantheon in 2024.

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