Solidarity is a word in the air these days, while people struggle to intervene in the planned withdrawal of public support for culture in the Netherlands, and I’ve just been to Gdansk where I tried to make a short work about the political organization called ‘Solidarity’, which of course was of such consequence in recent European and indeed world history.
As I understand it, the practice and organizational strategy of Solidarity in Gdansk, seeing as direct confrontation with the state would only lead to massive repression, was to build up a social space of mutual support, commitment and standing in the place of each other. To say ‘an injury to one is an injury to all,’ as the common protest anthem goes, is not the same as to join in a fight on behalf of another, or to take a blow for another.
The clearest example of solidarity that I know of was the refusal of French World War I veterans to accept special privileges from the Vichy government. Jewish veterans were offered special treatment on the basis of their service in the armed forces: they could go to a different kind of camp and possibly avoid deportation, while the rest of the Jews were to be sent away. Grandfathers could save themselves but watch their grandchildren perish. The veterans refused, going as far as to explicitly renounce any special status or privilege.
Going along with it could certainly have been justified, even perhaps in terms of being useful somehow, but they refused, and if I had to put it into words, I would say that they did so not just because of their private consciences, but as an act of non-cooperation with a course of affairs.
Thus, solidarity exceeds even the broadest concept of enlightened self-interest. It is a commitment to a certain set of principles that transcends any utilitarian equation or calculation. This kind of solidarity also clarifies that there are some principles that need to remain non-reducible or exchangeable, some priorities which are not subject to any kind of means/ends instrumentalization.
In Poland, it took a twenty-year effort, from the strikes of 1970 onward, to build up this principle into a practical political project, and it is still not yet clear how to reconcile Solidarity with the ‘dog-eat-dog’ style of economics that seemed so appealing to the post-Cold-War Polish government.
In the case of the Netherlands, solidarity could mean for privileged immigrants to stand up for the right of all immigrants to be treated like equal human beings, not second class citizens. And given how many cultural institutions are former ‘squats’, it has been hard not to notice the relative silence of the cultural realm as squatters were outlawed. Did it occur to anyone that other cultural organizations would be next? This would be a negative solidarity – to at least recognize that ‘we’re all in the same boat’, so to speak.
Mutual agreement, sympathy, consensus – that is not the same as jumping in and fighting for another or refusing special privileges. In organized struggles over working conditions, when one person loses their pay check, the others come together to support them. I’ve read stories that during the Great Depression in the US (and recently in Spain), when a family in an apartment building was evicted because they could not pay the rent, the rest of the residents would fight, and sometimes even help move the family back in.
I heard that there was a call for a general strike by the cultural world last week, but that some of the more tourist-oriented museums refused to participate, so the plan was abandoned. ‘Easy,’ said a young art student, ‘then we’ll blockade those museums, force them into striking by closing them down. Demand solidarity.’
It sounded so clear when he was explaining it, but now that I think about it, all the words just break down into sounds.
Jeremiah Day is an artist, currently pursuing a Doctorate in the Arts at the Free University (Amsterdam) and MaHKU (Utrecht)