“Solidarity” is an old-fashioned term, trailing connotations of earlier generations of union activists and leftists, but rarely used in mainstream discourse. We don’t think about it much, and we don’t miss it, although every so often a pundit will point out a deficit of something sort of like it, usually under more anodyne terms like “community” or the grating “social capital”. Corporations try to instill it in their employees, again under some depoliticized term like “team spirit”, but only the clueless really buy it. The military depends on it and have their own jargon for it (“unit cohesion”). But the term itself is as musty and out-of-fashion as the old-school industrial trade unions who used to sing songs about it.
That’s a shame, since it points to one of the most important and fundamental phenomena of human social life – the ability and tendency of groups to form, of people to join into groups, to align their interests, to take collective action, to increase the strength of individuals by banding together. This series of blog posts will address a variety of questions about solidarity, taken in the broadest possible way (for instance, I may touch on theories of how individuals create something like solidarity amongst their conflicting internal parts). Since I’m not by training a sociologist, this will be something of an amateur’s romp through foreign intellectual territory; and/or a hacker’s view of how human groups work. Talking about the texture of social life is sort of like a fish trying to discern the nature of water – and it’s only the odd fish who is even prone to notice the medium they spend their lives swimming in.
“For the word “We” must never be spoken, save by one’s choice and as a second thought. This word must never be placed first within man’s soul, else it becomes a monster, the root of all the evils on earth, the root of man’s torture by men, and of an unspeakable lie…” — Ayn Rand, Anthem
“Corporations are people, my friend.” — Mitt Romney
My previous post touched on the notion of group agency, that is, how and when groups of individuals can combine to form something that is treated as a single agent. Solidarity, from this vantage, is the emotional glue that makes these clumpings possible, the means by which group agents assemble and sustain themselves. It is the feeling, among members of a group, that you share interests and commitments with the other members and with the group as a whole. This is somewhat distinct from agency as such, because it leaves open the question of how a group decides and acts. Solidarity comes first, to make the group cohere, although of course in practice these are going to be combined.
“Unless the number of individuals is quite small, or unless there is coercion or some other special device to make individuals act in their common interest, rational, self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interests” — Mancur Olson
“A resource arrangement that works in practice can work in theory.” – Ostrom’s Law (see also Elinor Ostrom, Type of Good and Collective Action)
Groups don’t form around nothing. They require some kind of coordination — which can be either a central authority or person, or in more distributed groups, an abstraction such as a symbol, slogan, or ideology. The most successful large-scale groups usually employ both techniques together (think of how Apple’s corporate ethos the persona of Steve Jobs worked together, or Lenin and communism). Even if people have a natural desire for and tendency towards solidarity, they need to figure out just who and what they are going to be in solidarity with (the uncertainty of where one’s loyalties should lie might not be found in more traditional societies where family and tribe dictate loyalties, but the modern individual has choices, for better or worse).
Thomas Schelling, musing on the nature of how coordination is achieved by parties that can’t communicate, developed the idea of focal points (now known as Schelling points) that would be natural centers where that agents would gravitate to, based on their uniqueness or salience or that they are universally known (for instance, two people who had to meet in Manhattan without knowing where might choose the clock at Grand Central Station). The libertarian economist Daniel Klein has a theory that government is a Schelling point, a “binding communitarian force”, a necessary locus for people’s coordinated sentiments of loyalty.
Klein, given his ideology, thinks that the resulting loyalty and solidarity is a bad thing, the cause of people’s over-devotion to government and the state. But the question of how much loyalty and solidarity is optimal is, to say the least, and open question. In the US, for constitutional, political, and historical reasons, we have a deliberately hobbled political system that often finds it has the inability to act coherently. The US’s failure to act in its own benefit (for instance, in maintaining its infrastructure, educating its citizens, and general problem solving) in comparison to, say, Sweden, makes it less agent-like. Even in its military side, where it spends enormous resources, the lack of a coherent connection between military force and political will makes its military actions incoherent.
Of course, the US is more agent-like than some other countries, such as those that ceased to exist once the political forces that bound them together altered: Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR, once so powerful an agent that it defeated Hitler and posed an existential risk to the US, yet it dissolved practically overnight.
Macro-rituals and micro-rituals of solidarity
Kevin Simler has written a post about how solidarity is built through rituals. For the most part, these are what we might call mass or macro-rituals such as military drills or sports rallies. These phenomena are all quite striking and often overwhelming.
But the social world is held together by solidarity rituals that happen on a smaller scale, by the practices of everyday life. Every small face-to-face personal interaction is an act that collaboratively creates the ongoing texture of social existence. The role-playing aspects of these interactions have been described in great detail by Erving Goffman.
Goffman’s descriptions of the intricate details of interaction are often oriented towards what might be called failures of solidarity: those occasions where a social interaction results in embarrassment, confusion, loss of status, or alienation, precisely because those phenomena are more readily noticed. But his heart I think was in those occasions when interaction worked well:
Thus, as Adam Smith argued in his Theory of the Moral Sentiments, the individual must phrase his own concerns and feelings and interests in such a way as to make these maximally usable by the others as a source of appropriate involvement; and this major obligation of the individuals qua interactant is balanced by his right to expect that others present will make some effort to stir up their sympathies and place them at his command. These two tendencies, that of the speaker to scale down his expressions and that of the listeners to scale up their interests, each in the light of the other’s capacities and demands, form the bridge that people build to one another, allowing them to meet for a moment of talk in a communion of reciprocally sustained involvement. It is this spark, not the more obvious kinds of love, that lights up the world. — Goffman, Interaction Ritual, p 116-7
Recursion and Mimesis
Goffmann’s view of social interaction is fundamentally dramatic – it emphasizes the roles, loose scripts, and improvised sequences that participants collaboratively generate. He did not spend much time addressing the psychological mechanisms that would be required to support this activity. But we can make some speculations about what must be true in order for individuals to play the complex roles and execute subtle social movements that he outlines. Individuals, at minimum, have to be able to model each other, and these models must be recursive in the sense that A’s model of what B is thinking includes B’s image of A’s thoughts of B, etc.
It’s thought that the need to perform such complex social calculations was one of the prime drivers in human evolution. But like any complex biological capability, it has to have its roots in something similar, and it would seem that the root of complex recursive theories of mind is likely in a more primitive mimetic ability. Social mimesis has been observed in dogs and the neural mechanisms underlying it are beginning to be understood. A picture of the roots of solidarity starts to emerge from these findings. The native ability of individuals to mimic and synchronize with each other provides a substrate for unified action.
Social life is the medium in which we live and breathe, out of which we construct our selves and the roles we play, the glue that holds us together. I’m using “solidarity” to refer to the various techniques by which this semi-miracle is accomplished, but it feels somewhat inadequate to the task. Can one word help us understand both the bodily synchronization that takes place in conversation or dancing, and the political processes that generate vast nations and armies? It seems ambitious, but I can’t help see an insistent common thread. It seems to me that that developing a better set of concepts and technical vocabulary for understanding and cataloging the various ways in which collectivities manage themselves is one of the more important tasks we can take on, as a step towards solving the world’s variety of intractable collective action problems, at all scales.