“We must examine the possibilities of sustaining the global thrust. What is the function of the pandemic if not one of forging solidarity? Not to do so would be suicidal. This calls for a sustained inter-science and global ethics. We have to move beyond disconnections and territorializations, to ever new connections. For such a political economy, antagonistic differences would be the first thing to go. This calls for collective action, beyond the crisis, fusing ideas, feelings and action. An integrative process is everything.”
By Prof. Muxe Nkondo, Chairperson of Collins Chabane Foundation and Rixaka Forum, and Member of Council, University of South Africa
This paper aims to reveal how the investigation of the sources of global solidarity enables us to gain a complex understanding of the origins and foundations of the existential passion for intense political, social, and ethical bonds. To do so, we define the Covid-19 pandemic as a resource that, under current political-economic conditions, can be regarded as the ground for global fellow-feeling.
Political economy is then conceptualized as the processes and technologies of governing, amongst other things, of the mobilization of resources within a given place at a specific historic moment. One therefore considers the way existential crisis emerges as a key site of possibility where different interests and actors can gain access to a common humanity. Indeed, examining the alliance between existential crisis and solidarity means focusing on the material, ethical, and historical conditions of solidarity and locating the crisis in law, politics, culture, economics, and ethics.
Whether you are European, African, Chinese, Coloured, Indian, male or female, your chances of being recognized as equally human are now quite great across the globe. A way of describing this recognition is by saying that all human beings, irrespective of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, or nationality – show a sense of solidarity which we lacked in pre-coronavirus days. Our social imaginary, as it manifests itself now, is of a world in which solidarity is manifest. What this means is that there is something within each of us – our essential humanity – which resonates to the presence of this same thing in other human beings in a world of differences (Rorty, 1989; 2010).
This way of explicating this notion of global solidarity does not cohere with the historical categories of ‘one of us’ against ‘not one of us’, ‘neighbour’ against ‘stranger’, ‘insider’ against ‘outsider’, ‘citizen’ against ‘expatriate’, ‘male’ against ‘female’, ‘straight’ against ‘gay’, ‘able-bodied’ against ‘disabled’, and so on. The idea is that we all possess some component which is essential to a fully-functioning human being. It does not have to do with historical contingency in a narrow sense, but with a global, existential event as deep and fundamental as to break through traditional identities shaped by local historical contingencies. This global reach implies that what counts, ultimately, as being a human being is not relative to local historical circumstance. It is not a matter of transient consensus about what attributes are human and what practices must be inculcated.
However, this does not mean that we have to agree about the existence of something that stands beyond history and institutions. What is bringing the whole globe together is the passion for and reverence for life.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic in China a few months ago, an existential crisis has shown to be capable of regulating thought, feeling, and action, cognizant of the fact that the passion is caused by something deeper than conventional identities, which so far have shaped political, social, and economic relations within and across nation states. Again, it is not necessary to prove that this sense is antecedently shared. This passion cannot be privatized, neither can it be commodified, a phenomenon so radically different from the contingency of community, nation, selfhood, and language (Rorty, 1989).
A sense of global solidarity and obligation are fused into a single, global mega-program of action, collapsing the historic distance between ‘us’ and ‘they’. Nowhere in the world is it said that some people deserve to be protected and defended because they are European, American, British, Chinese, Indian, etcetera. The point of these examples is that, in the coronavirus crisis, our sense of solidarity has nothing to do with historical identity such as ‘black’ and ‘white’. Nothing to do with historical subjectivities, which always refer to something much smaller and more local than the human race.
From this standpoint, the tendency to feel closer to those with whom imaginative identification is localized or historicized is simply deplorable. In a real sense, the pandemic has produced a secular universalism. Far more persuasive than reason, truth, and logic. It has nothing to do with the notion that we should feel an obligation toward her or him because she or he is a rational human being (Kant, 1997; Habermas, 1967). It has become clear, in the last few months, that there is something morally dubious about a greater concern for a fellow American, British, European, Chinese, African, Indian, female, male, heterosexual, homosexual, citizen, foreigner, than someone facing a threat as overwhelming and universal as the coronavirus pandemic.
This position is incompatible with liberalism, capitalism, and nationalism. It is incompatible with the notion that there is a ‘natural, aboriginal cut’ in the spectrum of similarities and differences which span the identity distances, ‘you’ and ‘the other’. Whether the human solidarity movement that is emerging constitutes a final vocabulary is hard to say. Whatever the case, the human solidarity emerging in the United Nations will be sustained, is a work of time; but it certainly constitutes moral progress, and this progress is in the direction of greater human fellow-feeling.
It is thought of as a recognition of a fundamental human self. It is also thought of as the all-too human ability to think and feel about people as human beings who, on the surface, look different. Hopefully, going forward, democratic institutions and a cosmopolitan consciousness will be infused with the global recognition of the humanity that binds all of us, given palpable form in this crisis. Here, shared fear and mutual obligation come together. Here, the empirical and normative are fused. Morality is not distinguishable from experience, the universal and the particular are integral to each other. Here, ‘reason’, a faculty that Enlightenment philosophers assumed to be the ground of moral obligation, does nor feature; we can dispose with it. At the level of lived experience, what is urgent now is shared feeling. ‘We-intentions’, in a narrow, exclusive sense, have no place here. Yet it is not ahistorical.
This notion of solidarity provides the basis for political, social, and economic transformation. This is a process that we should try to mobilize and institutionalize. It compels us to create a more expansive sense of solidarity than we presently have. ‘We’ and ‘us’ are given as concrete and existential a sense as possible. Understood this way, the international protocols to contain the pandemic are a mega-technique for reweaving our vocabulary of solidarity in a world of strangers’, as Nadine Gordimer characterized it in a novel of that name. There is no tribunal here, no dreadful Sanhedrin of jurists to hand down a judgment beyond which there is no appeal. There is a compelling existential crisis, and something moral deep down in our being is beginning to respond.
Strategies for Solidarity
This is based on the need and the desire to collaborate, the desire to have everybody legislate political, social, and ethical meaning. It is vastly different from the desire for nationalism and regional blocs or constellations: European Union, African Union, BRICS, South-South Cooperation, and so on. This movement is taking place everywhere and at different levels of the state and society; it is everybody’s problem. It is an existential crisis we all carry within ourselves, and we need to develop an experientially based analysis of the political possibilities of the crisis, and carefully construct and execute a diagnosis of its origins. The attempt should treat the flow of capital and the flow of obligation as two closely related economies. It is the common economy of flows. COVID-19 is not a private affair, a regional preoccupation; it has to be confronted globally.
Once we forget about our national, class, and patriarchal egos, altruistic forms of politics and economics become possible, where differences collectively are no longer at odds with each other, and where collective expression of the love of life is possible (Nagel, 1978; Zizek, 2014; Wolfreys, 2004; Deleuze, 1983). Such a political economy does not seek to regiment individuals according to a hierarchical regime of norms, but to de-hierarchize relations through a multiplicity of new, collective arrangements to confront a global threat. The goal is the consolidation and integration of human relations in a struggle against imminent death.
We must examine the possibilities of sustaining the global thrust. What is the function of the pandemic if not one of forging solidarity? Not to do so would be suicidal. This calls for a sustained inter-science and global ethics. We have to move beyond disconnections and territorializations, to ever new connections. For such a political economy, antagonistic differences would be the first thing to go. This calls for collective action, beyond the crisis, fusing ideas, feelings and action. An integrative process is everything.
Of course, the global solidarity movement is a combination of various elements and forces of all types. Hence the need to listen not only to experts and politicians, but also to those involved in decision-making positions across all sectors. The essential crisis clasps all of us in its powerful transformative embrace and reproduces our will to survive in a way all the more intense because it is fundamental. It is at work everywhere, functioning powerfully everywhere. Here, the traditional politics of personal or sectional gain and power are all wrong from the very outset. Solidarity is not impossible. Even the most repressive and most divisive form of social production and distribution will yield to this.
But as we mobilize for global solidarity beyond the pandemic, we should understand the political economy of capitalism in both theory and practice. First, resilient and adaptive as ever, how is capitalism adjusting to the crisis? Is the capitalist machine capable of providing a code that will apply to the need for global solidarity? How can it regulate the flow of capital such that it creates conditions for solidarity?
What is at issue here is that capitalism, through its processes of production and distribution, produces an awesome accumulation of resources, upon which it brings all its vast powers of domination and repression to bear; but, fortunately, almost always it touches its limits. For it constantly constructs this inherent tendency, or so it seems, while at the same time allowing it free reign. It continuously seeks to avoid reaching its limit while simultaneously tending towards that limit (Stiglitz, 2002; Deleuze, 1983; Chomsky, 2017; Zizek, 2009, 2015; Deneen, 2018; Standing, 2016; Streeck, 2016).
How to sustain this sense of global solidarity is the rub. Social scientists are concerned with this emergence of a secular universalism, not based on religious belief, but on a profound pragmatism, which could not happen without a strong social bond. So in order to understand what has been an alternative for the few has become so for the many. Needless to say these observations are very provisional, given the immensity of human life and the complexities of radical transformation.
In a sense, the pandemic is effectively inducting everyone into the same concern, in the process tending to reduce social, economic, and political distinctions, inculcating in most people the same social imaginary, relating to all societies in the world. However, the actual road from here to there will be more comprehensive than a simple diffusion story can capture. Whether there will be a decline after the pandemic is difficult to tell. It is much too early for the figures to be conclusive. This, of course, wouldn’t surprise us. All earlier efforts to build a United Nations Organization based on global solidarity have been tentative and uncertain.
The drive of socialism across national borders, as Trotsky would have it, has had serious setbacks, something that Lenin himself had to accept. But then socialism has not been driven by an existential crisis as aboriginal as the coronavirus pandemic. What is intriguing is that the global desire is secular, not driven by religious belief or faith. How this is reaching people who have previously been divided on cultural, ideological, and religious grounds, requires in-depth interdisciplinary research. This development is certainly relevant to the prospect of fundamental change in human relations.
But does this mean that beyond the pandemic human relations will not be shaped by power, wealth, knowledge, and interests? Simultaneously, of all these forces is occurring, at least for now.
So what does this mean for the current passion for global solidarity? It is a commonplace that something that deserves such a force is taking place in all our civilizations and cultures, although this may be contested by social scientists, philosophers, and theologians. The immediate problem, however, is defining exactly what it is that is happening. Like so much of human experience, the crisis turns on questions of evidence and interpretation, and given the intricate relationship between experience, epistemology, history and politics, human relations across time may continue to be shaped by power, wealth, and knowledge, or a combination of all these three agents of history.
As history of hermeneutics tells us, interpretation is fraught with all sorts of subjectivities, personal and collective (Jay, 2005). But something new and important is gained by raising the question of global solidarity as a force for global solidarity. Coming to think of it, what in the past are we comparing it with? Part of the intellectual challenge, and much of the reason to call for an inter-science, is that there is also an important need to ‘unthink’, to use Foucault’s innovative term, which underpins the new form of solidarity (Foucault, ).
I am not arguing some ‘anarchist’ thesis, that we need a total collapse of structure, norm, and identity, and must do everything to dispense of normative and analytical frameworks. Emerging evidence helps us marshal arguments to induce all of us to modify our more or less reluctance to embrace the new phenomenon outside the constraints of traditional normative fields. People, as they enter into these disruptive deliberations, don’t just leave their beliefs, values, and languages at the door. Older, if not ancient, premises continue to shape thought and feeling at a much deeper level, and it is only a continuing open exchange with those of different standpoints which will help us shape new understandings. For this reason, we have to be aware on the ways in which an ‘unthought solidarity’, as well as various forms of contingency, can bedevil deliberations.
There is, indeed, a powerful urge for such ‘unthinking’ operations, mindful of the perspective which maintains that the new solidarity might decline once the pandemic has been effectively treated, because faith is based on transcendental authority, or some combination of belief systems, and because democracy gives an increasingly important place to individual autonomy and freedom.
A difficulty in this whole discussion is that there is some uncertainty as to what the ‘new solidarity’ thesis finally amounts to practically. Is the source of the solidarity movement inarguable? This raises endless questions about the origin of thought, feeling, and language. It is also important to point out that the new solidarity exists in a field of choices which include various forms of demands and rejections. The new solidarity is now the occasion for re-composition of political, social, and economic life in new forms, and for new ways of existing in relation to each other in a complex and unequal world. The social imaginary here is based not on identity, but comes out of an all-consuming existential anguish.
Is this not enough? Beyond the pandemic, what process should be accepted to mobilize for global obligation? This means that it should be induced through the actions of governments, social organizations, churches, knowledge institutions, and corporates, which will entail altering their social imaginaries, their sense of place and belonging in the world. And in a globalizing economy, with its inexorable flow of capital, whatever political, social, and religious structures we aspire to have, must be mobilized into existence and sustained (Mason, 2007). Thus this powerful form of global solidarity will have to weave at least four strands together: existential need, discipline, relationships leadership and management, and a clear image of a new civilizational order. They strengthen each other, and together they can make a whole.
As we proceed, we should examine the creation and reproduction of the current neoliberal hegemony, focusing on both the strategies for and opposition to the production and distribution of neoliberal ideas and practices in a diverse range of political, social, and economic contexts. We should study the global network of institutions, foundations, forums, think tanks, aid agencies, and multilateral institutions which have underpinned the ideological and the political dominance of neoliberalism, and, consequently, neoliberal forces of globalization, focusing on: specific neoliberal projects, regional contexts, and knowledge constellations; impact of neoliberalism on national and international formations; the growing corporate and political connections; the effects of neoliberalism on media, popular culture and education; and the various forms of resistance to change (Plehwe, 2006, 2017; Stiglitz, 2002).
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