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Outside Agitators Are Good, Actually

“Outside agitators have played an incredible role in social movements,” says author Astra Taylor.

Part of the Series

“When people come from outside your community or your campus, it makes you feel like you’re connected to a bigger whole,” says Solidarity coauthor Astra Taylor. “It makes you feel like what’s happening there matters. It creates a sense of a larger coalition. And that’s powerful, which is exactly why the people in power don’t like it.” In this episode of “Movement Memos,” host Kelly Hayes talks with Taylor and Leah Hunt-Hendrix about solidarity, divide and conquer tactics, and the concept of “outside agitators.”

Music by Son Monarcas, Curved Mirror, Pulsed & David Celeste

TRANSCRIPT

Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity, and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. Today, we are talking about solidarity, divide and conquer tactics, and the concept of “outside agitators.”

In recent weeks, students around the country, and elsewhere, have organized Palestine solidarity encampments, seized administrative buildings, and demanded their universities divest from the Israeli war machine. This is a historic moment for the Palestine solidarity movement, and the backlash has been severe. Protesters have been characterized as “outside agitators,” falsely accused of antisemitism, and smeared as “violent” by pundits who excuse genocide.

I was away on medical leave when these protests began. The horrific news of Israel’s ongoing violence in Palestine and fresh waves of protest made me feel like I needed to get up and do something despite my doctors’ orders to rest. While I was resting, I spent some time reading, and one book I found especially grounding and helpful was Solidarity: The Past, Present, and Future of a World-Changing Idea by Astra Taylor and Leah Hunt-Hendrix. In their book, Astra and Leah discuss the history of solidarity as a concept, and argue that it is not a spontaneously occurring phenomenon, but rather, something that must be constructed. They also flesh out the distinction between what they call “transformative solidarity,” which can fuel positive change, and “reactionary solidarity,” which is often rooted in bigotry, supremacy and a desire to exclude or dominate. They write:

Fundamentally, we understand solidarity as the recognition of our inherent interconnectedness, an attempt to build bonds of commonality across our differences. It is an ethos and spur to action rooted in the acknowledgment that our lives are intertwined.

I found this book’s exploration of solidarity so meaningful, and I hope you will find my conversation with Astra and Leah about these ideas as generative as I did. Conversations like this one are so important right now. So, if you appreciate this episode, and you would like to support “Movement Memos,” you can subscribe to Truthout’s newsletter or make a donation at truthout.org. You can also support the show by subscribing to the podcast on Apple or Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, or by leaving a positive review on those platforms. Sharing episodes on social media is also a huge help. As a union shop with the best family and sick leave policies in the industry, we could not do this work without the support of readers and listeners like you, so thanks for believing in us and for all that you do. And with that, I hope you enjoy the show.

[musical interlude]

KH: Astra Taylor and Leah Hunt-Hendrix, welcome to the show.

Astra Taylor: Thank you for having me.

Leah Hunt-Hendrix: Thanks so much for having us.

KH: Could the two of you introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit about your work?

LH: I’m Leah Hunt-Hendrix, and I’ve been organizing in progressive movements for over a decade. Got really started during Occupy Wall Street. I did a Ph.D. in political philosophy, a program called Religion Ethics and Politics at Princeton University, where I wrote on the history of the concept of solidarity. And I spent the past 10 years really building up financial support for progressive movements through two donor networks, in particular, the Solidaire Network, which funds progressive social movements and Way To Win, which focuses on electoral politics.

AT: My name is Astra Taylor. I’m a writer, filmmaker, and an organizer. I co-founded the Debt Collective, which is an experimental union for debtors that has been fighting for all kinds of debt abolition, but most famously student debt abolition. And I met Leah at Occupy Wall Street, which is actually the genesis of this book.

KH: Well, I am so grateful for this book. This episode is actually the first I’m recording after taking over a month of medical leave. It was not any easy time to take a step back from organizing or from movement journalism. I kept feeling that pull that some of us feel when we’re not in the middle of things, like I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. In those moments, I actually found this book really comforting, and I was really grateful that I got to spend some of that time with your words. So I just wanted to express my gratitude on a personal level.

LHH: Thanks so much.

AT: Thank you. That makes me so happy. It really does. And I hope that you’ve had some time to restore and replenish and feel better because we need you in this fight.

KH: Thank you, I am really grateful to have had some time to rest and heal, and also grateful to be back. So, I wanted to begin today by talking about something that I think is highly relevant to the moment of protest we’re experiencing. Student organizers around the country are being slandered and mischaracterized in some really familiar ways. They are being characterized as violent, and they are being called antisemitic, as Palestine solidarity protesters so often are. We’ve seen situations where false accusations about antisemitic violence and antisemitic language have been leveraged to justify violence against protesters. And we are also hearing the old refrain that the real problem with these protests is the presence of “outside agitators.” Those of us who have been involved with movements for a while, or who have studied movements, are very familiar with this accusation, and how it is used to sow division and rationalize brutality. Can you talk a bit about “outside agitators” in the context of solidarity, and what these words should mean to us?

AT: These days we’re hearing a lot about outside agitators. We’re hearing this from mayors, from university administrators, from politicians, and they’re using this term to denigrate the protests happening for Palestinian liberation, especially the protests on college campuses. And this is a frame that we need to push back against and push back very strongly against. People sometimes push back against it by saying, “No, there aren’t outside agitators at these protests.” As though that will make them more trustworthy, more authentic. My contention, and this is the contention of our book, is that outside agitators are good actually.

In fact, they’re key to building solidarity and that this strategy of denouncing them is as old as the outside agitator. I mean, if you go back before that was the exact phrase, and people have traveled and rabble roused. Abolitionists went around the world and gave lectures to spread the good word of emancipation and racial equality.

Labor organizers like the Wobblies traveled around by freight train trying to organize people into one big union. And most famously in the civil rights movement, and this is when the term outside agitator really gained steam, people traveled from across the country to the American South to engage in campaigns of civil disobedience, to register people to vote. And what the power of brokers in the south would say is, oh, these movements aren’t authentic. These are outside agitators. And they did that specifically to break solidarity, to isolate people and to de-legitimize protesters. But what these outside agitators did was they wove all of these different communities into a larger and more powerful whole. And so outside agitators are really just people acting in solidarity with folks who live somewhere else and they bring certain traits to the table that we think are really important to building solidarity.

I mean, when people come from outside your community or your campus, it makes you feel like you’re connected to a bigger whole. It makes you feel like what’s happening there matters. It creates a sense of a larger coalition. And that’s powerful, which is exactly why the people in power don’t like it. Outsiders also, and this is something that various sociologists have researched, but they bring skills, they bring organizing know-how often, and they can be very transformative for people who are locals because they bring a different perspective and they can be radicalizing.

So outside agitators have played an incredible role in social movements over the centuries, and they’re not going to stop doing that. And I think rather than playing into the trope by saying, oh no, no, people aren’t outside agitators, we should be like, “Yeah, some of them are.” And that’s a good thing because all of our causes are actually connected. And we have stakes in fights that aren’t just within a five-inch radius from where we happen to sit.

LHH: I want to acknowledge that there are times when solidarity can go awry, when people can be trying to be in solidarity and mess up if they’re not familiar with what’s happening in a local situation. Or sometimes this happens in international solidarity work, you may not know that much about the culture that you’re participating in. So I don’t want to gloss over too completely the complexity of the concept of outside agitators, but it’s really of the idea of solidarity in general, that solidarity is a complex thing. It’s a hard thing to practice, but just totally agree with Astra that the naming of who’s inside and who’s outside, that in itself is doing work to say, who has a right to participate in this struggle and who doesn’t? So essentially that’s an effort to break solidarity, and so totally agree that that is something to be resisted.

KH: I appreciate what both of you are saying, and I want to speak to Leah’s point that, yes, solidarity can go wrong, and being out of our element can lead us to make mistakes that negatively impact or harm people. That’s where organizing skills, our humility, and being in right relationship come into play – and these things are deeply important no matter where we are. Because I could overstep and cause harm when supporting my own neighbors, if I’m being cavalier, or assuming I know what’s best. We need to be cognizant, in all situations, of the reality that we don’t know what we don’t know. We have to listen and be accountable to people who will bear the brunt of whatever happens. If we fail to do those things, that’s just bad organizing, no matter where we are. I’ve seen people overstep and cause harm when they’ve gone out of town, and I’ve seen people do the same thing in their own cities and neighborhoods. So, I think this is less about where we’re from than what our practice of solidarity really looks like.

I also want to mention that, in my experience, authority figures will subdivide us with these characterizations regardless of our proximity or shared interests. Here in Chicago, when I was part of a group that was trying to expose unsafe conditions in a local school, including severe lead contamination, our alderman told members of our ward that the people making accusations weren’t part of the school’s community. What he meant was that we didn’t have children who attended the school. The school was in our neighborhood, but none of us had school age children there. And to him, that was grounds to invoke the outside agitator trope. Nevermind the fact that everyone should be supporting their neighborhood school and insisting on safe conditions and a quality education for all children. In this case, the divide and conquer tactics of that now former city council member did not succeed. We had relationships with teachers and students and they knew we were on their side, and we exposed the longstanding coverup of unsafe conditions at the school. Those conditions have since been repaired. But if people had taken the word of a politician, and believed that we couldn’t be trusted because we weren’t as connected to the school as they were, their children would still be playing and studying amid crumbling lead paint. That school’s fire alarms would still be faulty.

Every iteration of the outside agitator trope is grounded in the maintenance of our alienation. Because when we become deeply invested in each other, building bonds of solidarity across difference, and across borders, we become a threat to the status quo. So I just need people to think about that and to think about who benefits from the illusion of our separateness.

AT: Love it. Absolutely.

KH: One thing I really appreciated about your book was the exploration of efforts to counter and dismantle transformative solidarity. You discuss the work of people like Kevin Phillips, a Republican operative who helped hone the so-called Southern Strategy, which leveraged racial tensions to combat the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. Can you talk about the distinction between transformative and reactionary solidarity, and why we need to examine the work of people like Kevin Phillips?

AT: As Leah and I started thinking more and more about solidarity, we felt that we had to contend with the fact that solidarity isn’t always a good thing. So solidarity in its most basic sense is a kind of group cohesion. And group cohesion is not always positive. I mean, group cohesion can be neutral. It can be who you share your town with or what sports team you like, I suppose. That’s not that interesting to us, but that is a kind of solidarity. And then it can be a force for ill, I mean, we can think of the solidarity of white supremacists or nationalists.

So in our book, we distinguish between what we call reactionary solidarity on the one hand, and then transformative solidarity on the other. Transformative solidarity is the force that brought us the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the environmental movement, disability justice, the labor movement. So transformative solidarity is what we’re really interested in. And we believe that both kinds of solidarity, reactionary, and transformative have to be constructed. They don’t just exist there. We actually have to create them. And a whole lot of money, a whole lot of energy has been poured into advancing reactionary solidarity. And we actually begin the book with a story of that process and with a story of someone named Kevin Phillips, who in his late 20’s was already a very influential Republican operative and he advised Richard Nixon and was the architect of what came to be known as the Southern strategy.

And this was a strategy that was used to divide the working class in the south, in the southern United States along racial lines in order to cement Republican rule. And this was, of course, coming out of the social movements of the 1960s, especially the Civil Rights Movement. And this was a way to advance the backlash. And Phillips actually called his project Counter Solidarity. And he said the whole trick of politics is knowing who hates who and fostering those resentments and consciously dividing and conquering. What Kevin Phillips did wasn’t new. We could see it a century before in the 1860s as there’s a backlash to the gains after the Civil War and Reconstruction. But he did sort of professionalize it and really brought it into the heart of the American political process.

And we think it’s just really important to acknowledge that that is work that is happening, that we are not fighting for justice on neutral territory, that there is this project of counter or reactionary solidarity as we call it, because that helps us understand the terrain that we’re fighting on better. And it helps us understand just how high the stakes are because we’re in a moment of intense backlash. The last decade plus of social movements has accelerated an authoritarian reaction and emboldened fascist tendencies that were always present in this country. And so the project of building transformative solidarity is more urgent than ever. And we do need to study some of our enemies.

LHH: I would just add that Kevin Phillips is part of the history of what Ian Haney López writes about in his really fantastic book, Dog Whistle Politics. So if anyone hasn’t already read that, I think it’s really a must read because it’s exactly what’s happening right now. And Kevin Phillips is part of what laid the groundwork. I mean, as Astra said it goes back centuries before, but it’s not always explicit, but it can be these dog whistles. And the war on Wokeism right now is just exactly what was happening in the Reagan era in terms of talking about “welfare queens” or these dog whistles that stimulate these kind of racist tropes and get people distracted from the ways in which wealthy people are organizing to reduce their taxes to accumulate more profits. And meanwhile, just putting people into conflict around racial and identity differences. So Kevin Phillips just plays a key role in that history.

KH: I am so glad we are talking about history, because it’s one of my favorite things to talk about, and because I learned so much from your exploration of the history of solidarity, as a concept. Can you talk a bit about that history? Because, I had actually never heard of the Solidarists before reading your book, and I am willing to bet that a lot of our listeners haven’t either.

LHH: So I really love the history of the idea of solidarity. And I’m going to for a moment, take it all the way back to ancient Rome where it originates in these legal texts where it’s a kind of debt. It is a kind of debt in commons, obligatio in solidum. And it’s taken then into French law when Napoleon sort of adopts Roman law as the basis for modern French law. And then it sort of moved by metaphor into French political thought. And people begin to talk about what are the debts that we owe each other? What are the debts that we owe to past generations who created the world that we are born into and to future generations? What are the debts that I owe to my parents, the debts I owe to my children?

And the Solidarists are a political tendency that begins to build on this idea that perhaps solidarity is the key term to guide the way that we organize society. And they were writing towards the end of the 1800s. It’s the industrial revolution, and it feels like society is falling apart. It’s changing so fast in so many ways. And also the decline of the church is happening, the decline of monarchies, the rise of democratic revolutions. And people are asking what is going to hold us together? And so the Solidarists are sort of proposing that solidarity might be the key term. And the reason they think that is because solidarity is an idea that encompasses the individual and the collective. And there was a lot of tension between those two ideas. The idea of the free individual who charges out into the world on their own, or do we think about the collective good, the common good, and how to create a just and equal society?

And solidarity says actually the individual’s well-being is tied into the collective, into the well-being of the whole. A healthy, thriving individual needs a healthy, thriving society that it’s a part of. And so these are not contradictory or opposed, but actually completely integrated. And so it’s important to note that this is a group of people who are more upper class, they’re kind of statesmen. Léon Bourgeois is one of the key thinkers, and he serves in parliament, and he actually goes on to be the president of the League of Nations. Emile Durkheim, the great sociologist who wrote the first book on theorizing solidarity and the division of labor, is also part of this tendency.

And they create a lot of the foundation of thinking about the welfare state, and that perhaps we owe the nation, we need to pay taxes so that we can have public services like universal health care and public education and other public goods. And I think that part of what happens is that it’s a time when there’s the rise of laissez-faire economics, and we also head into World War I, which really drives people back into their national standpoints and away from thinking about solidarity as an international framework.

Solidarity towards the nation is something very different. It relates a little bit more to the idea of reactionary solidarity at times, especially when it’s used to justify war. And so I think that the trajectory of the Solidarists begins to decline as the war begins and laissez-faire economics really begins to take hold, and then turns into more of a neoliberal perspective later into the 1900s.

I do think that the idea of solidarity and the idea of what we owe each other and public goods continues through, at least in the United States, the labor movement continues to carry that torch. And then the New Deal legislation, Keynesianism to some extent is trying to hold that balance between a laissez-faire, individualist orientation and something that’s more oriented towards the collective. But yeah, we do see neoliberalism end up dominating by later into the 1900s.

KH: I really appreciate the point about the first World War really fracturing the work of the Solidarists, because I think it’s important to remind people that crisis doesn’t always bring people together. Sometimes, it drives people apart in catastrophic ways, as I believe we will continue to see in the current era. So, I really appreciate that history. I also want to circle back to this distinction between transformative solidarity and reactionary solidarity. Can you talk a bit about the utility of this distinction, and how this understanding can help us as activists and organizers?

AT: It was important to us to distinguish between these kinds of solidarity reaction and transformative in part so that we could think more clearly and critically about what the good kind of solidarity is and how we build it because ultimately, Leah and I, are writers. We wrote this book, we have an interest in intellectual history, but we’re also organizers. We’re practitioners, and we want to provide tools for other people who are our movement builders. And that’s really our agenda.

I think this book, not unlike your book, is really a kind of love letter to organizing and any book about organizing should facilitate that process. So the word “transformative” in “transformative solidarity” sort of points to the fact that people and systems can change. And I think that’s something at the heart of any organizing project, it’s the idea that the world doesn’t have to be how it is, and that we can change the world. And through that process, we also change ourselves, that we’re mutable and we can open our minds, we can open our hearts to other people.

And I know from being in movements that it’s an incredibly transformative experience. I mean, part of the emotional power for me of seeing video and photos of all of the Gaza solidarity on campuses right now is just knowing how impactful that’s going to be for the students who are there. They’re going to learn amazing lessons from the kind of mutual aid and political education they’re getting, and they’re going to also be transformed by the incredible repression that they’re facing, right? In ways that can be sort of traumatizing and bad, but also eye opening and radicalizing.

So transformative solidarity is also both a means and an end. I think this is another important aspect that it’s a way of building the power that we need to win change, but it’s also the thing we’re fighting for. We’re fighting for a more solidaristic world. And we are looking toward the future and trying to imagine a better world. This idea that it’s a means and an ends gives us license to think about solidarity at different scales. So solidarity is something that we create as individuals in our relationships with other people.

It’s something that we can do and try to build in our daily lives, but in a kind of middle level, it’s also something we can build into our organizations. I mean, that’s what labor unions are. They’re organizations of solidarity, at least at their best. I’m founder of the Debt Collective, which is the world’s first union for debtors. We’re trying to build solidarity between debtors, tenants, unions, any community group that is engaged in social change or protest of any kind is kind of trying to create organizational bonds of solidarity.

But we also think that solidarity can be written into our policies, that it can be institutionalized at the level of the state, that we should expand our horizons and think about what it would mean to actually put solidarity at the center of how we organize our entire societies. So it’s the flip side of the divide and conquer. Right now, all of this energy, all of these resources are going into dividing us to actually keep us alienated, keep us separated, and actually decriminalize solidarity.

I’m sure this is not news to listeners, but solidarity and protests are being criminalized in all sorts of really troubling ways across the country right now, from the fact that many states are passing laws that increase charges for things as harmless as blocking a sidewalk. It’s now illegal in many states to assist someone who’s trying to get an abortion. It can be illegal to aid migrants in Georgia now in response to the stop city protests. It’s now illegal to bail more than three people out a year without registering as a bail bonds company.

So all of this effort, all of this energy is being invested in sabotaging solidarity. But what would it be like if the opposite was happening? What if we were making, I mean, I’m talking about state level investments in cultivating solidarity? And that’s… Talk about transformative. So that would be a pretty epic transformation of the world we live in, but we think that’s the scale of imagination that we need to have. And we don’t think that it’s just naive or idealistic or utopian to point to the possibility of a radically transformed world because when you have a historical perspective, you see just how far solidarity has actually gotten us.

LHH: I would also add that I think transformative and reactionary solidarity are useful tools to use when trying to figure out a movement’s potential. We wrote this book in part because we think it’s important for people who are involved in organizing to help theorize and create intellectual tools and frameworks that come out of our own experience and can be used sort of on the ground and in any given moment. The question is always solidarity with who? You can have white supremacist solidarity, ruling class solidarity. And no, that’s not a good thing. Solidarity is not always a positive thing.

So it’s important to kind of be looking at does your solidarity expand the circle of inclusion? Does it help transform conditions to be more beneficial for everyone? So in orienting oneself, you can look at, well, who is doing the work that’s going to benefit more people? And who is doing the work that’s trying to just kind of claw the benefits to themselves? So we sort of hope that it’s just a useful intellectual framing for people as they’re navigating the world.

KH: We absolutely need that framing. And speaking of sharing analysis based on our own experiences, Astra, I would really like to hear more about the Debt Collective and how that work has evolved over time.

AT: The Debt Collective has its roots in Occupy Wall Street, and of course Occupy Wall Street, it was about so much. It was a movement that was about the corruption of democracy, about rampant inequality. But it was also a movement about debt because it was in response to the economic crisis in which bankers had essentially forced these subprime mortgages onto millions of people and then securitized them and committed fraud and basically brought down the global economy as a result.

And what happened? They got bailed out. So the bankers engaged in this debt-based fraud, and then the political class said, “Hey, yes, we’ll help you” while being very stingy about the relief that they gave to homeowners. So debt was in the air. But what happened when we came to the camp was that we realized that on a much more personal level, all of us were struggling with debt.

At the time, I had just defaulted on my student loans. A lot of people had enormous amounts of medical debt. They couldn’t pay their rent. After the financial crisis, millions of jobs dried up. So a lot of people were unemployed, so they were having to put stuff on their credit cards or maybe take out payday loans. And long story short, I began connecting with people, talking to people, debating this issue, and someone said, “Wow, you know what we need? We need a union for debtors.”

And so the idea of the Debt Collective is that just like workers come together in a union to fight the boss and to demand better pay, better benefits, maybe even more free time, debtors can do the same. And that if debtors did this, it would be complementary to all kinds of organizing that’s happening on the ground, that debtors could be an organized force to help with so many of the important struggles today.

And so one of our slogans is “you are not a loan,” a L-O-A-N. And it has just been a project of building solidarity and calling people into community, helping folks cast away their shame. Debt is highly stigmatized. Poverty is stigmatized in this country, the word, debt, often means guilt. So for example, in the German language, the word for debt is schuld, which actually means guilty or blame.

So part of what we do is break the isolation and alienation by trying to challenge that stigma and say, well, hold on. Why are you in debt? It’s not just because you were financially irresponsible, but it’s because you live in a society where the minimum wage, the federal minimum wage hasn’t budged past basically $7.25, or what is it, $7.50 or $7.25 an hour. Of course you can’t live on that. And then we have a for-profit health care system, we have a higher education system that you basically are told you have to participate in order to have a chance of joining the middle class, and yet you’re going to be saddled with tens of thousands, if not six figures of debt if you are able to graduate.

So people are not living beyond their means. They’re denied the means to live. And when we come together and organize and develop strategies and a vision of what the future could look like, then we can win. We can change things. Since President Biden took office, we’ve had a lot of setbacks including losing a battle with the Supreme Court, but we’ve won $140 billion of relief. And in fact, today we actually won $6 billion of debt cancellation for over 300,000 people who had gone to a predatory for-profit college. We began this campaign when Obama was president. So seven years of fighting, we did manage to move the needle. I think it really is my experience organizing with the Debt Collective that made me more attuned to the importance of solidarity as a practice and as a philosophy. And it helped me realize how underappreciated it actually is in the wider world.

And of course, it’s also what helped get me excited about this idea that etymologically, if you go back to its origins, that solidarity means collectively held debt, obligatio in solidum. This idea that we are all on the hook for each other. And so what we need to do is refuse and resist these exploitative debts. We need to engage in campaigns of economic disobedience and say, “Hell no, we can’t pay.” We’re not going to pay our student loans, our medical bills, our back rent even, because we are entitled to those things. What we need to be paying actually our debts to each other, our debts to other people, to the planet. We need to pay reparations, our climate debt, our taxes. We need to get even more imaginative than paying our taxes, but we need to honor our obligations to care for each other. So we need to pay and honor our just debts and refuse these odious and exploitative ones.

KH: Can you talk about divide and conquer, and the use of conspiracy charges against workers and activists? Because reading your book, I was really struck by some of the parallels between the robber baron era of capitalism and the repression of labor struggles and what we’re seeing today, with RICO charges and critical infrastructure bills, amid out of control inequality and runaway environmental devastation. Can you talk a bit about the repression we’re experiencing in this moment, and how it relates to the histories you discuss in your book?

LHH: I love the quote that we quote in the book, “If the rich meet to reduce wages, that’s a conference. If the poor resist the reduction, that’s a conspiracy.” So there’s such a history of attacking people for organizing. In the 1800s, workers who were trying to organize were charged with conspiracy, but the monopolization of our economy is just, at least until Lina Khan became chair of the Federal Trade Commission, that was completely condoned.

AT: I think it’s just important, again, to have that long view, because right now we are in a moment of intensifying backlash. And I mean these new laws, mostly in Republican-controlled states because they have taken over legislature after legislature are really scary. They are not just inflating charges for activists and always, of course, for progressive activists, because they’re doing this in response to anti-pipeline protests and Black Lives Matter protests and the movement that kicked off after the murder of George Floyd. But they’re also easing penalties for attacks on demonstrators.

In some states, they’ve said that there’s no liability if people drive into a protest, and so therefore making it essentially for people on the right to commit acts of violence. And unfortunately, this has historical precedent, and I think it’s just really important to have that long view. I mean, during the colonial era at the founding of this nation, we imported British common law, which basically made it illegal to unionize and dubbed any combination of workers who were fighting for their own interests a conspiracy. And this was called the conspiracy doctrine.

And workers had to fight, nevertheless. They fought under incredibly difficult conditions and engaged in illegal strikes and walkouts and stoppages. And eventually at the beginning of the 20th century, during the Great Depression, labor organizing finally became legal, but unfortunately, labor law in the United States is still set up to impede labor organizing. So for example, in the United States, what are called sympathy or solidarity strikes are illegal, and that’s not the case in every country.

So in this country, if Amazon workers were all engaging in a strike, then UPS drivers or United States postal workers couldn’t legally strike in solidarity with them. And that makes the working class a whole lot less powerful. And so I think it’s, again, it’s urgent that we sort of take stock of this, that we recognize this as a strategy, that we see that the terrain that we’re fighting on is anything but neutral. We need to resist these attacks and keep pushing back against them because that’s what people have done over the decades and centuries. I mean, in this book, one thing we share is that it’s often said that the United States is exceptional because people are just so individualistic. They don’t want to come together. They don’t want solidarity. They just want to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become millionaires. But the fact is, we were not exceptional for having a kind of complacent working class. What set the United States apart was the viciousness of the attacks on labor and the way that our legal regime was set up to inhibit working class organizing. So I think that’s also an important thing to acknowledge.

And we see the resistance happening today. We see doctors performing reproductive health care, gender affirming care. We see communities demanding that care. We see people flying, folks who need to get abortions across state lines. We’re seeing tremendous inspiring organizing in Atlanta, Georgia. With Stop Cop City, people are engaging in acts of civil disobedience and trying to shut down the contractors who have been hired to build the police training facility. And that’s as much part of the story as the repression is that even under these onerous conditions, people are still building solidarity and putting their lives on the line, and we need more and more people to do that.

KH: We need more and more people to do that, and we also need to understand that those actions and behaviors don’t materialize out of awareness alone. We need courage in these times, and in my experience, people find courage in each other. That’s one of the many reasons that I think this conversation around solidarity is so important right now.

You know, I have a number of favorite passages in this book, but there is one in particular I’d really like to share with our listeners and readers. It reads:

Whether or not we are personally in the red, we all suffer from a system that treats healthcare, education and shelter as individual debt, finance, profit centers instead of universal entitlements and public goods.

Can you say more about that idea and how it relates to the solidarity we need in these times?

LHH: We live in a society that treats us as consumers and puts us into competition with each other to fight over scraps and really look out for ourselves, to worry about our own well-being because we don’t provide a strong social safety net. And so as you read, whether or not you’re personally suffering from that or whether or not you’re personally in debt, we’re all sort of in this mindset and in this system, this kind of washing machine that’s spinning us around and forcing us just into anxiety and chaos and it’s hard to ever feel like you have enough because you never know what’s around the corner, what kind of medical expense you may run into, or how much your kids are going to need to go to college one day.

We live in a kind of a precarious situation. And so we think that it’s really important to think about how solidarity might apply in terms of rethinking the safety net and rethinking the role of the state in addressing the underlying conditions that create this precarity. And so we actually talk about this concept of the solidarity state, which would essentially go beyond the welfare state. It hopes to provide a strong social safety net and redistribute economic goods. And we think that that is also the role of the solidarity state. But the welfare state has been undermined in a lot of ways through means testing (who’s deserving and who’s not deserving). It also affords a lot of benefits to the upper classes who kind of get their mortgage interest deduction and other benefits of what’s called the submerged state, while those on the other end have to really struggle through applications and all these processes that are really strenuous.

And so we think that there should be universal public goods. I think this connects to Natalie Foster’s new book called The Guarantee, that basic rights should be guaranteed like housing, education, health care. But we also think that the solidarity state would help kind of foreground the role of the state in our lives, the fact that we aren’t just isolated individuals, but we live in society together and need each other.

And so it would actually see solidarity as something that the state should cultivate intentionally. Some examples are opportunities like the new civilian climate core that gives people a chance to work on climate change together. And we’ve had programs like this in the past, and they’re wildly popular. There’s always thousands and thousands of more applicants than there are spots for these roles. But back to the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal era. And we look to some examples in Canada where private citizens are given an opportunity to take in refugee families and help migrants settle into Canadian society.

These are programs that just remind you that you’re in a society with other vulnerable beings. We’re all vulnerable and we can support each other. We need each other, and these would be programs that would support our ability to do mutual aid. So, yeah, I think that we just need to get away from this idea that seeking your own personal benefit is the goal and your own personal safety, because we’re always enmeshed with each other and we can’t really ever accomplish that.

AT: And this goes back to some of the ideas that we pick up on from the Solidarists, and they talked a lot about what they called social debt. This idea that, as Leah said, went back to ancient Rome. And of course, that’s not the origin of the practice of solidarity. I mean, I have no doubt that human beings have been practicing solidarity since we’re human, just like we’ve been practicing communism in a certain way, practicing democracy. But this is kind of the one intellectual tradition. It’s where we got the word that we use in English today.

But this idea that we’re all kind of born debtors, right? We didn’t make this world. We didn’t make the language we speak. We don’t make the knowledge that we benefit from. We didn’t pave the roads that we walk on or build the libraries or the electrical grid, and that we pay these debts back through solidarity. We’re beings in time. We owe our ancestors and we also owe the future.

And we live in a world today where instead of emphasizing those social debts, people are mired in capitalist debts. Instead of paying the social debts and having a robust solidarity state, we have to pay for the basic necessities of life. So over 100 million people have medical debt in the United States today, 45 million people owe student loans, household indebtedness has reached something like 17 trillion. It’s just mind boggling. Meanwhile, there’s a handful of billionaire dudes who have all the power that that money can buy. And so something is really off. And I think that the Solidarists actually give us some useful and almost poetic terms to think about what we actually owe each other and how we could restructure our society to reflect those obligations.

[musical interlude]

KH: What a conversation, and what a wonderful way to come back to the show. I want to thank Astra Taylor and Leah Hunt-Hendrix for talking with me about their book Solidarity: The Past, Present, and Future of a World-Changing Idea. I really didn’t want this conversation to end, because there’s so much in this book that I wanted to talk about. The chapters “Solidarity Beyond Borders” and “Solidarity and the Sacred” really deserve their own episodes. But I hope you all found the conversation we had time for today enriching, and I hope that you will check out the book. As I mentioned earlier, I have a number of favorite passages from this book, and I wanted to close us out today with some of those words. Astra and Leah write:

It is crucial that those fighting for justice embody the virtues of solidarity – the courage, curiosity, commitment, and humility that they hope to manifest in the wider world. In 2020, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants and one of the most prominent labor organizers of her generation, distilled her philosophy of organizing into two phrases: “a strike is the tactic, solidarity is our power.” To this we would only add: solidarity is not only our power, it has to be our practice and our purpose, too-our approach and destination, our means and our end.

I hope we will all carry those words with us as we continue to protest and build the bonds of solidarity that we’ll need to upend our oppression and build a new world. We can only do that work together, so let’s continue to connect and build.

I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show Notes

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