Back in the 1960s, I was editor of a Swedish liberal magazine, Liberal Debatt. We tried to develop and pursue a kind of “left liberalism”. The concept of solidarity was very important to us and we were very disturbed that the socialist left was trying to monopolise the concept. One of the great debates in Sweden at the time concerned the welfare of prisoners. While socialists defined the prisoners as a kind of proletariat which the workers movement and trade unions should show solidarity with, because they were supposed to basically have the same interests, we, the left liberals, considered the prisoners to be in need of help to resocialise and that we should show solidarity with them despite having very different social positions and interests. This attitude was contemptuously discarded by the socialist left as “pisshumanism” (pissy humanism). From this discussion I drew the conclusion that solidarity can mean very different things.
Paternalism or solidarity
One type of solidarity, like class solidarity or national solidarity, is basically a kind of egocentrism, because the solidarity demanded from people is that they should act in solidarity with people of their own type, social or national.
Another type of solidarity is what we then believed to be a liberal solidarity with people of other types, for example by socially well adapted persons with prisoners, by rich with poor, by Swedes with starving people in Africa etc. This type was often looked upon with great contempt by socialists, as a kind of paternalistic benevolence by the upper class with lower classes. The socialists didn’t want the poor to get benevolent support by rich; they should join in class solidarity and fight for their rights. And starving Africans shouldn’t accept alms from Europeans; they should fight for their independence.
There may be some truth in the left wing criticism of liberal solidarity; there is a risk that it deteriorates into paternalistic charity, serving more to prevent than to promote necessary social change.
But at the same time I am still convinced that it is not enough to show solidarity with people who are in a very similar situation as oneself. As a matter of fact, if people understand solidarity only as a kind of common action with people of the same social or national group, the world will be full of left-overs who cannot enjoy any solidarity at all.
A wider take on solidarity
This is the more obvious when the perspective is broadened from our anthropocentric liberal view of solidarity to a Green perspective. According to the Swedish Green party (Miljöpartiet de Gröna) program the aim of the Green policy is to show solidarity with three groups or items: 1. Animals, nature and the ecological system. 2. Future generations. 3. All humans in the world.
None of these three solidarities has anything to do with group egoism. Greens are not supposed to show solidarity with other Swedes or with Green activists or with people who may come from a similar social background. The objects of the Green solidarity are quite different. And this solidarity with “the other” is basic for the possibility of Green politics.
If your concept of solidarity is limited to other people of the same type, social or national, the logical result is a common struggle to improve the position of the group. This is a basic cause behind the ideology of unlimited material growth. The class struggle does not accept or recognise any restrictions imposed from outside, neither from bourgeois rulers, nor from nature.
Sometimes of course, group solidarity is needed. Trade unions are very important to a democratic society. Feminist solidarity among women may promote a higher degree of gender equality. Group solidarity by discriminated groups to pursue a common struggle for equal rights is of course commendable. All this is not enough, not to create justice between human beings and far less in order to solve the huge ecological problems and to realise decent relations to other life forms, animals and nature.
What space for nature?
Even if nature is looked upon as an organism, Gaia, and even if there are many signs that nature is taking revenge and is striking back at humanity, I think it is obvious that nature will lose heavily against humanity for a long time, if humanity only feels solidarity with itself. At the end, of course, nature will win, in the sense that humanity will destroy the possibilities for its own survival. But nature cannot by itself stop the destructive forces of humanity before it is too late. In order to do this there must be a considerable number of human beings feeling solidarity with nature.
The debate over immigration continued
From the point of view of electoral politics, the traditional group solidarities are of course much easier to handle. Socialists may urge wage-earners or workers to show solidarity, right-wingers may demand every Swede to show solidarity with other Swedes. In fact this means that people are supposed to show solidarity with themselves and fight for their own interests. This is solidarity without sacrifice. Just now we have a debate in Sweden that illustrates the different concepts of solidarity. The new Social Democratic leader, Stefan Löfven and the General Federation of Trade Unions (LO) has started to attack a law that allows for some immigration from outside the EU for employment reasons.
The number of such immigrants is very low compared to the number of refugees. Most of them are employed in areas where there is a real shortage of experts in Sweden, such as computer experts from India. However the argument by the Social Democrats is that some thousands of these immigrants have been employed in jobs where there is no real shortage of labour among the population already living in Sweden. The law was adopted by the right-wing majority with the support of the Greens. To the social democratic mind it is clear that a Swedish worker always should have priority, which is a combination of class and national solidarity. To the Green mind this is not obvious, even if everybody agrees that a totally open border is not practically possible even if it, from a Green point of view, would be the right thing ideologically. As a matter of fact both the democratic left and the democratic right are arguing more and more like the xenophobes. One reason, apart from mere electoral tactics, is that neither the left nor the right ever understood a solidarity which applies to people and items which are not very similar to oneself.
The Green solidarity is of course more difficult to “sell” in an election campaign. When Greens talk about solidarity with nature or future generations or people in other parts of the world, the inherent implication is that such a solidarity entails some kind of sacrifice for their own population.
Of course it could be said that even the Green solidarity with “the other” is a solidarity with oneself – in the long run. Yes, in the very long run, because it is about the survival of humanity. But at the same time it is a reality that a majority of people in rich European countries may live quite some time without personally feeling any direct effects of ecological destruction. They will not be mobilised for ecological activity only by an appeal to their self-interest. There must be added a feeling of responsibility for interests other than one´s own, a solidarity with “the other”.
The place for national solidarity
All good rules have exceptions, it is said, and that applies also to Green solidarity with “the other”. As already mentioned sometimes it is obvious that class or group solidarity in a common struggle to enhance the position of a special social group is both needed and legitimate.
But what about national solidarity? This is a tricky thing. It cannot be denied that nation states are based upon a large amount of national solidarity, not only in the form of armies to fight ugly enemies, but also in form of common taxation, social security, etc. In order to be entitled to all benefits of Swedish social security a person should be a Swedish citizen or at least be a legal resident. About sixty years ago most of the social rights were extended to other Nordic citizens. I have personally used Danish health care with exactly the same rights as Danes, without even being resident. Through the EU the right to enjoy social security in many respects has been extended to include all EU-citizens.
I have nothing against Nordic and/or European social solidarity – as long as it is clear that it can be considered as steps towards a future global solidarity.
The xenophobic mind-set
It is obvious that this is not the way many people think. Let’s take another example from the Swedish political reality just now. This summer illegal refugees, hiding from legal decisions that they should leave the country, will get some rights concerning health care and schools for children. This is a result of a campaign by the Greens, which finally resulted in a deal with the right-wing government. Interestingly it was impossible to get an agreement on this with the Social Democrats before the elections of 2010 despite the fact that a very comprehensive draft for a Red-Green common government was agreed. I was one of the Greens in the working group which handled these matters and had to listen to normally decent Social Democrats arguing like xenophobes: “They are legally denied the right to be in Sweden, thus they should be driven out, not given social security.” Very logical, but very inhuman. I asked: “So you are prepared to mobilise huge police forces to track them down and throw them out?” Now this was not the meaning, rather they hoped the illegal immigrants, including their children, would be starved physically and psychologically in order to make them leave. Social Democratic solidarity did not include non-European illegal immigrants.
A shrinking solidarity
The question is: What about European solidarity generally? In Sweden we have seen how the partly imposed European solidarity has shrunk the space for global solidarity. This happens both very practically, with Swedish financial contributions to areas in Europe that may be poorer than Sweden, but are much better off than for example most people in Africa. It happens also morally, in the sense that the whole debate and thinking about solidarity since the Swedish entry into the EU has been redirected from the “third world” to Europe. Europe featured very little in Swedish public debate on international issues before 1990; instead debate was concentrated on the “third world”: solidarity with freedom struggles in Vietnam, South Africa etc. International aid was a huge issue and nobody would have dreamt that Swedish taxpayers one day would have to support French agriculture instead of African famers.
The ever growing Swedish financial contribution to the EU is of course a sign a European solidarity. But is it a Green solidarity? Is it legitimate and Green that somewhat richer countries in the EU, like Sweden, sends billions of euros every year to somewhat less rich European countries, when the need in Africa is limitless?
Some internal cohesion and internal solidarity is needed in every political body. I find it inevitable and legitimate with limited Swedish, Nordic, European solidarities. But if any of these leads to less global solidarity it is not OK from a Green point of view.
In the 1950s a very famous book was published in Sweden proposing that the military defence should be scrapped and all the money used for global solidarity. Sweden, it argued, should develop from a conventional national state defending its own interests, showing solidarity only with its own population, into an active partner in a global society. The proposal was not realised, but its thinking strongly influenced public life for the following three decades – until Europe was drawn into the picture.
Thus, the question that has not got an answer is: What is the point of Europe? To create a European state premised upon traditional nation states, with internal solidarity, but borders, limits, weapons against the world outside? Or is the aim to make Europe a strong player in order to support the rest of the world and to widen the concept and the feeling of solidarity to include nature, future generations and human beings all over the world?