The twin pandemics of COVID-19 and police violence in 2020 seemed to augur a new era of solidarity and collective action. In the memorable words of Arundhati Roy, the moment promised “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” The signs were everywhere: in the street demonstrations that drew those “dying of being alone,” as Mie Inouye movingly recounts; in a flourishing of bold experiments in mutual aid; in the provision of public goods, from unemployment insurance to vaccines; perhaps even in the torrent of carefully worded statements from universities, businesses, news organizations, foundations, and other institutions promising to take action against structural injustice.
Yet as Inouye notes—and I share her assessment—the imperative that sent people into the streets and one another’s lives on new terms did not produce a “sustained multiracial movement.” Her reflections prompt two related questions. What is it, exactly, about political and social life today that makes solidarity seemingly “impossible” to realize? And given these constraints, what can we do to build mass movements—to give large numbers of people the opportunity to practice solidarity?
To be sure, some of the lost promise of 2020 can be attributed to the resurgent power and backlash of the right, but I don’t think all of it can. Nor can it be explained by divergent material interests, ideology, or identities. After all, as Inouye suggests, interests are not given; they are made. Political theorist Lisa Beard expands on this idea in her indispensable new book, If We Were Kin. “The we of politics,” she argues, is forged through collective action and shared reflection and consciousness. It is within particular spaces and experiences that “intimate appeals” for identification serve to reconceive “the lines of relationship between self and other.” In other words, shared interests, ideology, or identification are the result of organizing, not its premise or precondition.
Why, then, did the 2020 mobilizations not themselves produce, in more cases, a bigger sense of “we”? In the sites where we might have expected solidarity to take root and flourish the most—among the students and young people who took to the streets, on college and university campuses, and within many activist, labor, social justice, and nonprofit organizations—it actually imploded. As Working Families Party national director Maurice Mitchell noted in The Forge last November, in many cases, the very groups rooted in building solidarity and collective action became engulfed in internal conflicts. These were not just familiar leftist squabbles over strategy, leadership, or organizational culture. (Some degree of strategic debate is routine and ineliminable.) Instead, many community, labor, and social justice groups experienced full-blown eruptions.
I have experienced several of these conflicts firsthand and heard about countless others from friends and colleagues. The stories differ in details, but the broad narrative is largely the same: a focus on making reforms allegedly required to achieve justice within organizations often displaced a focus on organizing for broader transformations in society at large. Indeed, social justice groups at their best promise a respite from the daily degradations of neoliberalism, and perhaps a prefigurative microcosm of the world we want to build. But in this context, goals and orientations drastically shifted: from the structural to the interpersonal, the social to the institutional, and the political to the moral. Feelings of uncertainty, ambivalence, or disorientation—themselves produced by the everyday brutalities of racial capitalism—became expressed through accusations of betrayal, insincerity, and hypocrisy. Calls for organizational discipline in the service of wider movement aims were condemned as excuses for abuse or instruments of top-down control, and demands for “deference” flourished, as Inouye notes. Solidarity, according to this view, is for chumps.
In their book Insubordinate Spaces: Improvisation and Accompaniment for Social Justice (2019), Barbara Tomlinson and George Lipsitz argue that far from dismantling the hypercompetitive and retributive culture of neoliberalism, these practices express and reinforce it. “Being hurt can make people want to hurt others,” they write:
Injured individuals and groups see a mirror of their own subordination in the eyes of the people closest to them. They can come to perceive people who might be allies as enemies, to be repulsed by the powerlessness they see around them and in the mirror, and to long for escape from association with those similarly aggrieved and with their problems.
For Tomlinson and Lipsitz, it is the experience of neoliberalism—living under a regime of never-ending competition, loss, and humiliation—that leaves us so ill-prepared for the “conflict, risk, and time” Inouye identifies as the necessary groundwork for enduring solidarity. To counteract these effects, they prescribe “accompaniment”—the “attention, communication, and cooperation” that must be learned and repeatedly practiced to end the cycle of mutual recrimination and lateral punishment.
Inouye is thus right: productive conflict has an essential role to play within organizing and movement building precisely because it fosters collective learning. In a 2020 interview, scholar-activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore made a similar contention about the role that political education must play in forging more capable social movements. “The power of literacy to make us fit for struggle must be exercised like a muscle,” she said, “not waved around like a membership card.” I thought of Gilmore’s metaphor when reading Inouye’s reflections on Illinois Black Panther Bob Lee. It takes a lot of practice for most of us to do what he did. That’s because organizing and facilitating are hard-earned skills, and like other social skills we exercise when we work together with others, they improve with experience. As Gilmore often says, it’s something that her students who are artists and athletes take for granted: you get better, you develop the chops, you exercise the muscles, through relentless practice.
I think any explanation of the political aftermath of the 2020 uprisings is incomplete without this insight. Our movements have not run aground on the shoals of divergent interests, conflicting ideologies, or incommensurable identities; difference alone is not, and never has been, the enemy of solidarity. Rather, we failed to develop more lasting bonds in part because neoliberalism has made us—and here I mean not only the broad landscape of labor, community, and social justice groups but many of us in minoritized fields of study within higher education—insufficiently practiced in the craft of solidarity.
That is not our destiny. As Inouye notes, mass protest is spontaneous and constrained, but that does not mean we cannot “prepare to make the most” of it when it does erupt. To ensure its insurgent energies are directed at the stations of power and domination rather than at one another—to build the “social endurance” Inouye calls for and to make ourselves fit for struggle—we must start practicing now. We must exercise the muscles that neoliberalism atrophies. And we must do so at every opportunity: in our classrooms, in our organizing campaigns, in our reading groups and unions—everywhere there is struggle.