As part of our series of events with The Philosopher, political theorist and organizer Mie Inouye sat down with Daniel Martinez HoSang, organizer and professor of American studies, to discuss key questions animating Boston Review’s latest issue, On Solidarity. In the course of their conversation, moderated by Philosopher editor Anthony Morgan, they discuss the challenges of sustaining political movements after the 2020 rebellions, the importance of endurance in organizing, and how to come together despite seemingly insurmountable differences. Below is a transcript of their conversation, which has been edited for concision and clarity.
Anthony Morgan: We may think of a typical definition of solidarity as something like collective action based on recognition of shared interest. That’s a very broad definition. What is the problem of solidarity as you see it, Mie?
Mie Inouye: I think there is a philosophical, political, and theoretical problem of solidarity that I recognize from my experience trying to organize. The problem is that if we recognize solidarity between social groups that are differently situated within a society structured by domination as necessary to redressing the sources of domination, then there’s a cruel paradox, insofar as actually existing injustice seems to preclude the possibility of solidarity between these differently situated groups. It does this by pitting different groups against each other: creating a situation in which they might not have the same interests or recognize that they have the same interests.
Given this paradox, political theorists and philosophers debate the possible grounds of solidarity between differently situated social groups. There are roughly four answers to that question. One is shared material interest. We have to find the places where interests do overlap and organize people around those issues. Another is identity. Identity is the most reliable source of solidarity. Morality is a third. And I think morality is sometimes invoked as a way to create a broader kind of solidarity between people who have different identities. And then the last might be ideology or a vision of the world that you’re working toward building that is beneficial to everyone involved and would be better for everyone involved.
I see a different problem, and perhaps a simpler one, today on the left in the United States. My take on the problem of solidarity today is that we lack the kind of organizations, the organizational infrastructure, and the social capacities necessary to figure out what it is that we all have at stake in our struggle against racial capitalism to forge connections between those motivations, which are multiple and simultaneous, and to forge a shared vision of the world that we’re fighting to build.
I think the reason for this is historical. I think it’s the product of four decades of neoliberal capitalism that has done a great deal to undermine both the kind of organizational infrastructure that we need in order to build strong left-wing political organizations and also the capacities that we need to organize across difference in a sustained way. Some of those capacities I see as really lacking now: the capacity to show up to meetings consistently or to follow through on our commitments to a collective rather than pursuing our careers, our professional ambitions, and our self-care is particularly difficult today, but also figuring out how to endure a certain amount of discomfort and conflict, which is inevitable in any process of organizing.
AM: Before handing it over to Daniel, do you have a kind of neat definition of solidarity?
MI: I define solidarity very broadly as “collective action toward shared ends.” Some people have a much more specific understanding of what solidarity is, and people understand it as a specifically left-wing or socialist achievement. I prefer to think of it more sociologically as something that is present in any kind of social formation, and I spend a lot of time reflecting on my own experiences of one form of solidarity, growing up in the Mormon Church. It’s not a form of solidarity that I would endorse, but it is one that I think we should think of in the same category as the kinds of solidarity that we’re trying to achieve on the left. I think it’s helpful to be able to see similarities and differences between different kinds of social formations that are perhaps unexpected but can be useful for thinking about what it is that we’re trying to build.
AM: Daniel, do you have your own definition of solidarity? What are your thoughts on the problems of solidarity that Mie’s raised?
Daniel Martinez HoSang: I think if you asked many people who feel connected to social movements, organizers, they’d say at this moment—while they may not agree on much—they would agree that something foundational about putting many, many numbers of people, thousands, hundreds of thousands of people, into motion, entering one another’s lives around a shared vision, shared ideas, and shared connections is absolutely necessary to arrest the broad forms of social crisis we face. One of the contradictions or problems is that—and I think Mie names this really well—everyone’s point of entry into those movements will necessarily be along different lines. For some it’ll be as members of unions and workers thinking about their workplace conditions. For some it’ll be around other policy issues, around reproductive justice, the climate crisis, public goods, education, etc. And while we can say they’re all tied together in some ways and that’s true, that’s not the reason we would all act together.
That’s a paradox that I think Mie labels early about the impossibility of solidarity. We’re differentiated by identity, by interest, by point of entry, and yet we still need to act in collective ways beyond that. The other thing I’ll say is the kind of differentiation and the separation is not by accident. We can just think about the way work is organized. Think about the UAW strike happening now. Even within large workplaces, there’s differentiation by part-time and full-time, by contingent and regular, people competing with one another for hours, by the site they’re working on. Any gig worker turns on an app and is immediately put into competition with other people doing it. If you work at a warehouse, it’s the same thing. The material structure of our economy and our social life is always already anti-solidarity.
We could say in many ways it’s both intentional and it’s become a kind of cultural norm that we expect. As you said, living under these conditions, you’re kind of on your own—don’t expect help from anywhere or anyone. You want to address your own precarity, your own fear of humiliation? That’s going to come from your efforts and your agency. You might find someone to connect with, but there’s no promise of anything else. And I think this is an area where Mie talks about social endurance.
In many ways Mie frames this as the paradox starting from 2020, and, to say more about that: this just seemed like a moment when solidarity was on everyone’s mind. It cannot go back to the way it was before, right? That’s what everyone said. We have to find ways to figure this out and work together. There’s no other choice. And there’s a part early in the essay where she says that whatever we can say about the impact of that and the longevity and the insights of the movements produced, it’s hard to claim that a sustained, multiracial movement around policing, carcerality, and state violence was one of the outcomes. So that’s the part of the problematic that Mie lays out. How did that happen? And, what happened?
There are structural conditions that leave us impoverished and unpracticed in doing what we would need to do to be able to sustain solidarity beyond that moment. Mie, I wanted to ask you a question because in the essay, you take us to the moment of being in the street, escaping the sense of isolation that the shutdowns during the pandemic had imposed, and that something felt, you didn’t use the word cathartic, but something felt like a release. From your perspective, was that something that felt like a precondition? That feeling of connection and mutuality? Or are you saying it was something more like a flash in the pan and that a feeling of catharsis was never what was going to sustain people together?
MI: I think one of the reasons that the George Floyd rebellions were the largest protest movement that has ever happened in the United States is that we were in the middle of a global pandemic. People were feeling extremely precarious in ways that allowed them to feel empathy and relate to George Floyd’s plight, to his murder, but also a lot of people were extremely isolated. A lot of people were very lonely. Many people have said this, but I think that a need for sociality was one of the things that brought so many people into the street, and I think that need is one of the reasons that many of us organized. One of the points that I’m trying to make is that we don’t all organize for the right reasons all the time. I think that we are taught on the left that the answer you’re supposed to give to the question, “why do you organize?” is because you recognize that you have shared material interests that you want to pursue jointly.
That’s important and powerful, but I also think that we have a very real human need for sociality that is denied to us in all kinds of ways by the society in which we live. Its denial was felt particularly acutely during the pandemic, and I think that that was motivating. We should recognize sociality as a need—as a material, deeply felt need—and we should try to help people to meet it through political organizing.
DH: This gets to another paradox that people experience in labor unions and others kinds of politically oriented organizations. The relationships that they build, the satisfaction, and the sense that you get to see one another and experience one another at their best just isn’t possible at other moments. After that initial moment in 2020, as people returned to their respective organizations—student groups, racial justice groups—the hope might have been that we felt a kind of political renewal. But something quite different happened.
There was often a deep feeling of alienation: suspicion that there was some kind of competition between people over whose experiences or voices would be centered. Actually, those things were acute. I experienced them across a range of organizations, but I heard them even from my friends and even other professional organizations. At the moment when solidarity was most clear, the imperative for it was most clear, everyone seemed so incapable of practicing it. Mie, could you talk about social endurance in that capacity?
MI: Part of the problem of solidarity is that in the United States, we just lived through one of the most remarkable displays of interracial solidarity in our society’s history: the summer of 2020. It was the largest protest movement in our history, and it was deeply multiracial, and it was a moment where a lot of things felt possible and, I think, were possible. Things are shifting now. I’m excited by the solidarity that we see, particularly in the labor movement, in the UAW strike that you referenced. I think that’s probably a legacy of the summer of 2020. Obviously, the summer of 2020 is living on in different ways, and we’ll see where it goes. I don’t at all mean to say that it was a failure that we need to come to terms with, but I do think there is room for self-critique on the part of all of us who were a part of that movement.
I did see in the subsequent couple of years an incredible brittleness to the organizations and movements that emerged from that moment. I think a couple of things that I saw were an inability to have conflict openly, a sort of conflict avoidance, and also a certain style of conflict that has been very atomizing. I think that part of this has to do with the fact that we don’t have in place the kinds of practices and capacities for enduring the forms of discomfort, the forms of conflict that inevitably emerge in any attempt to change the world. One version of that or one manifestation of that is deference politics.
“Deference politics” has defined organizing spaces as the dominant way of trying to forge coalition in the wake of the George Floyd rebellion. By deference politics, I mean an ethic that requires that people who are relatively privileged within a collective defer, suspend their own judgment, about political questions to the judgment of people who are relatively oppressed. There are a lot of problems with deference politics, and, as a whole, I think it’s a dangerous way to build coalition.
The main critique that I have of deference politics is that I think it’s a mode of conflict avoidance. It’s a way of evading the possibility of conflict between differently situated people and groups of people that precludes us from figuring out what it is that we each have at stake, regardless of our identity, and forging connections between those needs. As a result, it makes organizations very fragile, and it makes people not very reliable as long-term organizers. I think a lot of people came to the left and joined organizations in the wake of the George Floyd rebellions. As is to be expected, that didn’t all last. I do think that we could have more endurance if everyone had the opportunity to figure out what it is they have at stake.
DH: I was at an academic meeting recently and a longtime organizer from the South posed a question to the ethnic studies faculty when she described the challenges she was facing. They had a long record of working with student interns and organizers and helping to bring them into movement work. She addressed many of the issues you’re describing, of people being hesitant to give anyone any grace or space to work through issues. There was an attitude of, “if you’re not right there with me, if I don’t see myself kind of mirrored in our first interaction, I need to cut you off for the sake of the greater good” that they were describing. The organizer asked us, “What are you teaching them?” At first, I took this as a kind of lament. “Oh, it’s a generational thing, students need to do something different.” But the question was posed at us: it was posed at the site of the classroom and learning about social movements. What is it we’re failing to do?
The ability to practice solidarity, to enter into social movements, to stay connected with people who they don’t immediately know is really denied to students today. The reproductive justice organizer Professor Loretta Ross has mentioned that we have had the capacity to teach about ideas but not the skills to use them. I wondered if you could talk about modeling organizing practices in the classroom. What are you trying to help students potentially see?
MI: This is my third year as a professor. I learned pretty quickly that the only way to teach a successful class is to create a sense that there’s a shared goal that we have. Usually it’s a question that we’re trying to answer that is meaningful to them. A huge amount of my pedagogy is trying to build relationships between my students.
Bard has a very experimental and engaged curriculum, so I’m able to teach some classes that have engaged components, and I teach a class on political organizing. One of the things that my students have to do for the class is go canvassing. And, to me, that’s extremely important for them, whether or not they continue to organize. First of all, they have to show up. Then they have to talk to strangers all day. And, they have to have conflict with strangers sometimes. And they love it. Almost universally, they have a really positive experience. I think that they want that kind of contact with strangers and with other people. They want the opportunity to try to convince people to get on board with the way they’re experiencing the. I think that building those muscles is an important part of my responsibility as a teacher.
DH: In many organizer training programs, there’s an immediate component where we’re trying to get people out onto the doors, into workplaces, talking to people, and, a lot of that requires getting over a lot of the things we’ve been taught about suspicion and our vulnerability. Of course you’ll talk to people while canvassing who don’t have the time, space, or interest in talking. I think what you’re affirming is the value of that, of experiencing talking to someone who you don’t know and working through something and finding a connection there that is deeply meaningful and valuable.
I think of new labor union organizing campaigns, when organizers and a group of workers will say: “The union doesn’t start when we have an election or get cards or get recognition. It starts today.” I’m thinking about the importance of small, escalating collective actions that continue to tease that out. Everybody wearing a button one day at work, bringing a petition to the boss, and presenting their cards together. It’s something that transforms people in an atomized society constantly pushing them away from one another toward a collective attitude of getting suspicious. I think that practicing solidarity in these little moments is so important.
AM: What do we need most from a theory of solidarity today?
MI: We need an account of how to cultivate endurance. We can’t unlearn the habits of isolation, of suspicion, of competitiveness that we’ve learned in every aspect of our lives through a single conversation or social media exchange or whatever. We can only unlearn those things and learn new habits and capacities through the ongoing practice of engaging with other people in the course of trying to advance a shared goal. Nathan Duford’s recent book, Solidarity in Conflict (2022), makes the case that we need to appreciate and make space for conflict as an essential feature of solidarity. But that can’t just be any kind of conflict. It needs to be conflict that takes place in the context of an enduring relationship mediated by an organization. We need a theory of solidarity that answers to the question of, how do we stick together, at least for long enough to change to the world?
DH: What’s happened in the last couple of years shows that the prevailing institutions that we inhabit are profoundly limited. They are not going to save us from the everyday violence that people see around them. The notion that better days are coming just on their own—very few people subscribe to that anymore. People hoped that there might be some space—my classroom, my organization, my union, even a set of kind of political friends—that would be a kind of sanctuary free of cynicism, where we could develop something anchored before confronting the outside world. That makes sense for many reasons. We don’t want to reproduce what’s out there in here. And yet, as I said, that’s impossible because we’re all going to bring our ugly parts, our parts that are suspicious, our insecurities, and our failures into our spaces. It’s not enough to hope for someplace that a has managed to expel altogether the contradictions and all the problems and uneasiness.
If we want the real joy of solidarity, you don’t just declare it and expel the demons away. They’ll come in with us. And part of solidarity is the capacity to understand that that’s central to the work. Even in the context of teaching, I have now approached things differently. I can’t say, in here none of these things follow us. “We have safety,” or something. It’s a disservice to people entering the space to promise them that.
AM: Taking a question from the audience, how are we to achieve solidarity when some comrades have the expectation of hierarchy and privilege? Is solidarity even possible in the face of this?
MI: Yes, it is possible. But I think it usually involves conflict. It involves some form of being able to say “listen, the way that you’re behaving right now is inappropriate to a democratic organization” and figuring out together what are the norms according to which you want to make decisions collectively. That’s difficult. I think that one of the reasons it’s so difficult is that we are trained to respond to conflict as something extremely aggressive or threatening. And sometimes in organizing spaces people have a perception that they’re being canceled when they’re not being canceled, they’re just being critiqued. That’s why I think endurance matters because if you express concern about the way that a person relates to hierarchy, you need to be able to show up for the next conversation with that person. You need to give them grace, or at least the opportunity for them to change. We don’t get or give each other a lot of those opportunities, but they’re really important.
DH: There’s also a skill in being in organizations that figure out how to do that so as to prevent a sense that collective humiliation is lurking around the corner. Books like Charles Payne’s I’ve Got The Light of Freedom (1995) pierced the notion that there was just a singular Southern, working-class Black community always already in line around every correct idea, vision, and experience. In fact, lots of tedious, careful work took place for people to find one another, to come to understand each other’s experiences, and to figure out what they wanted. That’s as much a practice of organizing and movement building as being able to call through a list and invite people to come to a meeting.
There isn’t a set of norms or mores that we can put up in the front of a room to remind everyone, “let’s agree to give each other grace.” Grace is about having the experience necessary to maneuver around touchy issues and find ways to rally people back affected around shared goals. Difference is never the enemy of solidarity. The identities that cohere us together and give us a sense of self are always produced through collective action. They’re not the precondition of it: they’re the result of it. But it is a skill to be able to help one another realize that.
AM: Do you think part of the problem is making some signs of solidarity appear to be easy? For example, is using people’s chosen pronouns a show of solidarity in itself, or is more needed?
MI: I think that there is a problem with equating solidarity with gestures. Equating solidarity with having a yard sign in front of your house or even donating money to a cause or using the right language isn’t quite accurate. I think we should think of solidarity as something stronger than gesture. I don’t think that means that ‘easy’ gestures are bad, obviously. But I think that there is value in making distinctions between expressions of empathy and engaging in sustained action together with people to try to redress oppression and domination and to build a more free world.
DH: It’s not about control and fluency in a certain kind of organizing language. But I do think there’s a way that that language has become just something you say and do. If we think about pronouns or land acknowledgments, they come from political traditions and concerns and critiques of the way power works. Gestures could be sites for us to think about those histories together. I think the concern with gesture is when it becomes something that’s ticked off as the resolution to something rather than the start of something. To think about land, its origins, and people’s relationship to it or to think about how gendered language works, about how it is often a site of violence, and about the dignity that’s attached to forms of self-description should spur conversation. There are ways that language can open us up to one another, but when it’s treated as something that is either something you have or don’t have, I think that’s where it produces the “easiness” that the question registers.
AM: Would either of you like to comment on the relationship between solidarity and inequality?
MI: Given the ways we are situated in a society structured by domination, how to reckon with existing forms of inequality while also trying to instantiate what Jodi Dean calls “the ego ideal of comradeship” is tricky. I don’t know that I have a one stop shop kind of answer to how to work that out, but it’s a tension that I think you need to keep in view while organizing.
DH: I would add that the inequality is part of the sense of partitioning and alienating people from one another that directly inhibits solidarity. I think the language around both privilege and the self-awareness of privilege has failed us because it individuates privilege as if it’s a personality trait, as opposed a description of our positions in relation to one another. Those positionings make us predatory toward one another. An example of that is how Wall Street firms have been on a huge spree buying up single family houses in the wake of the 2008 crash and renting them to people. It’s just plundering equity from communities all over the country and it’s directly responsible for the housing shortage now. Their money is just going into hedge funds.
There was a story about this recently in the Times. Someone was outraged about what was happening to their neighborhood, and then they were asked, “would you invest in one of these firms?” The person responded “Absolutely. The returns are great, and it shows.” For many of us in education, our retirement investments are in these same hedge funds. That’s part of how inequality and partitioning impedes solidarity because we’re incentivized to think about what we can obtain through predation off of one another rather than thinking about a interpersonal and communitarian relationships that are reciprocal and mutual.
AM: Organizer Dean Spade makes an interesting claim about conflict, arguing that when mutual aid groups split, this may not necessarily be a bad thing because, if the two groups’ goals are different, they can now fill two different niches. What do you think about this claim?
MI: I think that there’s a lot of value in organizing ecosystems. I really agree that there’s a lot of value in having an ecosystem of left organizations that are oriented toward a shared horizon of socialism but who might be pursuing it based on different strategic analyses. Since none of us really knows how to get from here to the revolution, we have to experiment with different strategies to some extent.
I would like more mutual respect, appreciation, and generosity across different tendencies on the left, less a sense of competition. I think that there can be moments where an organization might realize that it has two competing strategies that it’s trying to implement. Maybe it’s better to do these separately and collaborate in moments when it makes sense. There’s room for mutual support and appreciation when an organization splits, not denigration and tearing each other down.
DH: There’s a group called Hartford Deportation Defense that does this incredibly well and has been able to show that people already have the skills to engage one another precisely in the terms that Mie just said, by cooking together, by finding support for one another, by connecting through phone trees. I think it’s an important reminder that all of the qualities that we’re talking about here are not simply going to trickle down from a treatise or an article. They’re very much embedded in many people’s everyday experiences with care and reciprocity. Figuring out how we draw on those experiences in our practice of solidarity is a vital opportunity in front of all of us.