We need to talk about solidarity

‘We all belong to the same society, and we all have a stake in making it better. There is no “them” and “us”’ – there is us. We are all in this together.’ So said David Cameron, famously, in the wake of the summer riots of 2011.

Three years later, there’s a stronger case than ever for acting together to make society better. Everyone afflicted by falling living standards, insecurity, ill-health, unemployment and poverty would benefit from pooling resources, sharing risks and helping each other out. 

But in spite of Cameron’s claim, divisions within society run deeper than ever. That’s why NEF wants to start a debate about solidarity – what it means, why it matters, and what can weaken or strengthen it.

The problem is not just the gap between rich and poor – although that is growing exponentially, with serious social and economic consequences. Far from fostering ‘togetherness’, the Coalition Government has pursued a programme of divisive policies. We are encouraged to fear and distrust newcomers and strangers. We are led to believe that taxation and public services are a necessary evil rather than a common good. ‘Hardworking families’ are set against the unemployed. The ‘squeezed’ middle-classes resent other people claiming benefits. The poor feel betrayed and diminished. The rich increasingly live by a different set of rules, with less and less inclination to share health, education and other public services. 

Blame for widening inequalities is shifted away from elites towards the poorest and most marginalised sections of society: migrants and the so-called ‘undeserving poor’. How possible would the Coalition’s austerity drive and cuts to public services have been without such growing divides? Meanwhile, a tiny minority accumulates wealth, consumes the lion’s share of energy intensive goods, consolidates power and defends an economic system that serves its own short-term interests at the expense of everyone else. 

Solidarity is essentially about feelings of sympathy and responsibility for others, leading to mutual support. Unlike ‘social capital’ or ‘social cohesion’ it’s more about momentum than glue. It implies collective action to tackle a shared problem. It’s not intrinsically virtuous.The Taliban, the mafia and the Bullingdon Club could all be said to practice solidarity. But there are plenty of examples of people acting together to promote progressive causes: trade unions, feminist groups, social movements such as UK Uncut and Occupy, and outward-facing membership organisations such as the Jubilee Debt Campaign, to name but a few.

NEF is interested in how different catalysts can work together to generate the kind of solidarity that will help to achieve the goals of a new social settlement – which are social justice and well-being for all, a fairer and more equal distribution of power, and environmental sustainability.

For this purpose, we want solidarity to be inclusive, expansive and active, both between groups who are ‘strangers’ to each other, and across generations. Historically, solidarity has usually been forged in the face of a common enemy. In this case, the ‘enemy’ is not other people, but the systems and structures that shore up inequalities, foster short-term greed, plunder the natural environment and blight the prospects of future generations.

There is sound evidence that engaging people in decisions and actions, and giving them more control over what happens in their lives and neighbourhoods, is good for their health and well-being. The idea of empowering communities was central to the Government’s once-heralded aim of building a Big Society, now rarely mentioned in more than an embarrassed whisper. But without solidarity between groups, measures that encourage engagement and local control will privilege some over others and widen inequalities. As NEF has argued, that’s because some groups are already better placed to exercise power: they’re better educated, better heeled, better connected; they have more confidence and experience; they have more time; they are more closely-knit and better organised. Those who are poorer, less well-educated, less confident and connected, will be far less likely to benefit. 

Solidarity is the missing piece of the empowerment jigsaw. It is about reaching out to others instead of closing ranks. Feeling sympathy and responsibility for strangers, not just people ‘like us’. Making sure that no-one is marginalised or excluded.

Widening inequalities, free-market ideology and a divisive political narrative all tend to discourage solidarity. On the other hand it can be strengthened by efforts to reduce inequalities, and by inclusive local activities, such as co-production and participatory budgeting, that build habits of shared responsibility and mutual support.  

We hope our new working paper will start a wider debate about solidarity, why it matters and how it can be strengthened.

Article originally published on the nef blog on 27/03/14

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