This is the second episode in AnthroPod’s newest series, What Concepts Do. The aim of the series is to examine, from an anthropological perspective, how different concepts are mobilized in politics, media, and everyday discourse, and understand what these concepts “do” in the world. Each episode features several anthropologists, or anthropologically-oriented scholars and practitioners, whose insights help explain a particular concept.
In this episode, Contributing Editor Sharon Jacobs unpacks the concept of solidarity, alongside anthropologists Darryl Li, Amahl Bishara, Lesley Gill, and Dimitrios Theodossopoulos. What is solidarity, and who can practice it? Is solidarity something we do within communities, or beside allies? What are some of the shortcomings and challenges of solidarity?
Darryl Li is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Social Sciences in the College of the University of Chicago and an Associate Member of the University of Chicago Law School. He is the author of The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity (Stanford University Press, 2020). His research focuses on war, law, migration, empire, and race, stressing transregional linkages between the Middle East, South Asia, and the Balkans. He is a member of the New York and Illinois bars.
Amahl Bishara is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora at Tufts University and current Chair of the Department of Anthropology. She studies media, expression, space, and settler colonialism with a focus on the Middle East. She is the author of Back Stories: U.S. News Production and Palestinian Politics (Stanford University Press, 2013) and producer of the documentary “Degrees of Incarceration” (2010). In addition to her academic work, she has written for such outlets as Jadaliyya and Middle East Report.
Lesley Gill is a Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Vanderbilt University specializing in human rights and political violence. She researches global economic restructuring, the state, and transformations in class, gender, and ethnic relations in Latin America. She is the author of A Century of Violence in a Red City (Duke University Press, 2016) on capitalism and violence in Colombia, among other books.
Dimitrios Theodossopoulos is a Professor of Social Anthropology at Kent University. He has studied austerity, populism, and resistance, as well as authenticity, Indigenous representation, and exoticism. He is interested in creative mediums such as graphic ethnography, and he is the author of the experimental ethnography Exoticisation Undressed: Ethnographic Nostalgia and Authenticity in Emberá Clothes (Manchester University Press, 2016).
The series “What Concepts Do” was conceptualized by Joyce Rivera-González. This episode was created and produced by Contributing Editor Sharon Jacobs. Joyce Rivera-González provided production assistance. Special thanks to this episode's contributors Darryl Li, Amahl Bishara, Lesley Gill, and Dimitrios Theodossopoulos
Theme Song: All the Colors in the World by Podington Bear
Sounds: Solidarity at Recall Scott Walker Demonstration in WI by We Act Radio and Solidarité avec les sans papiers #solidarite #sanspapiers #Paris #Republique #24nov 2020 #mariepanic by Marie Gendron, YouTube Creative Commons Attribution license
Bishara, Amahl. 2016. “Palestinian Acts of Speaking Together, Apart: Subalterneities and the Politics of Fracture.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6, no. 3: 305–30.
Bonilla, Yarimar. 2015. Non-Sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Cingolani, Patrick. 2015. “Solidarity: History of the Concept.” In International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (Second Edition), edited by James D. Wright, 1–5. Oxford: Elsevier.
Gane, Mike J., ed. 1992. The Radical Sociology of Durkheim and Mauss. New York: Routledge.
Gill, Lesley, and Sharryn Kasmir, eds. 2008. “Forum: Solidarity.” Dialectical Anthropology 32, no. 3: 175–215.
Gill, Lesley. 2009. “The Limits of Solidarity: Labor and Transnational Organizing against Coca-Cola.” American Ethnologist 36, no. 4: 667–80.
———. 2016. A Century of Violence in a Red City: Popular Struggle, Counterinsurgency, and Human Rights in Colombia. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Jordan, June. 2003. “Report from the Bahamas, 1982.” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 3, no. 2: 6–16.
Li, Darryl. 2019. The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
———. 2021. “Aid as Pan-Islamic Solidarity in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Toward an Anthropology of Universalism.” American Ethnologist 48: 231–244.
Razsa, Maple. 2015. Bastards of Utopia: Living Radical Politics After Socialism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
[00:00] Solidarity at Recall Scott Walker Demonstration in WI by We Act Radio
[00:16] Solidarité avec les sans papiers #solidarite #sanspapiers #Paris #Republique #24nov 2020 #mariepanic by Marie Gendron
Sharon Jacobs (SJ) [00:37] From the Society for Cultural Anthropology, this is AnthroPod: “What Solidarity Does.”
[00:42] [AnthroPod theme music, All the Colors in the World by Podington Bear]
SJ [00:53] Thanks for tuning into AnthroPod today. I’m Sharon Jacobs, a PhD candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and an AnthroPod contributing editor currently based in Athens, Greece.
You’re listening to “What Solidarity Does.” It’s the second episode in a new series called “What Concepts Do,” where we take a concept that’s in the public eye and talk to anthropologists whose work touches on different aspects of it. Across today’s conversations, we’ll get a bigger idea of what solidarity can be, what issues and problems it brings up, and where solidarity fits into global struggles for justice.
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SJ [01:37] In summer 2017, I visited Athens for the first time. At the time, empty buildings were being illegally squatted by refugees and Greek and international activists standing in solidarity with them, as a form of protest against Greek and European migration control. For two months, I lived in one of these refugee solidarity squats, cutting vegetables in the kitchen, playing endless games of backgammon in the café, and translating between English and Arabic in meetings.
Participants in the squat included people fleeing war and people looking for sustenance, as well as people looking to build a better world and people searching for meaning in their lives—sometimes all of these at the same time. People with vastly different politics, culture, and ideas about what the world should look like. And all these people were trying to live in solidarity, to build some kind of community together. Which brought up all sorts of problems and questions. Like: How do we decide what’s right and wrong in a community that crosses such huge differences of experience and background? How do we draw the line between community support and care, on the one hand, and dependency and disempowerment on the other? How can a community recognize differences of power and privilege inside it, without reinforcing those very differences? In other words—how do we actually live and act in solidarity?
[02:55] After I left the squat that first time and started studying cultural anthropology, these questions stuck with me. I think it’s really important for social justice movements to think critically about solidarity. Anthropologists have written about how communities bridge differences, re-make their borders, and strive towards their political goals. In this episode, we’ll open conversations with some of those folks and introduce you to their field sites around the world.
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Darry Li (DL) [03:26] When folks talk about solidarity, usually that’s a word that resonates in vaguely leftist contexts, right? We think about anti-colonial solidarity, workers’ solidarity, and so on. And the context where I work is very different. It’s basically transnational armed mobilization in the name of jihad as an Islamic practice.
SJ [03:50] Darryl Li is an Assistant Professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Chicago and an associate member of the law school there. As an attorney, he has represented people detained without charge at Guantanamo Bay in the United States’ War on Terror. I wanted to talk with Professor Li because, as an anthropologist, he studies how solidarity works among people who are resisting dominant structures of governance and society, but in a context that’s very different from left-wing organizing.
DL [04:18] So, specifically, the book that I wrote, The Universal Enemy, is about a war that took place in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Southeast Europe, in the 1990s that attracted an immense amount of international attention—really dominated headlines around the world as a site of humanitarian disaster and mass atrocity, especially in the genocidal violence against Muslim populations there. The book studies Muslim activists who came from all over the world to support Bosnia, but who did so understanding their actions as a form of jihad—so, as a spiritual and religious practice, as well as a form of solidarity; in this sense, solidarity between Muslims worldwide in the face of violence waged against them by other folks.
SJ [05:04] Professor Li describes jihad as a “universalist” project, one that uses ideas and practices of solidarity to orient itself. As part of his research for The Universal Enemy, Professor Li created a biographical database of some 200 mujahids—or, people who traveled to Bosnia from other countries in order to fight in what they considered an Islamic struggle. Over many years of work, he kept up ongoing conversations with a core group of Bosnian and transnational interlocutors.
So you’ve talked a little bit about some of the differences among people who participated in this jihadist project—differences in terms of religious practice, as well as citizenship. So can you tell me a little about how people negotiated solidarity, how people came together across those differences?
DL [05:49] Part of what I argue is that really any universalist project has a set of ideals that are directed at all of humanity—but at the same time, if they’re going to be effective, they have to get worked out through concrete, lived differences. It could be racial differences, national differences, ethnic differences, and so on.
So these folks are mobilizing in the name of a global Muslim community, or umma. But they also think of the umma as potentially expansive. On the one hand, they have that idea of a global community; on the other hand, they have very, very specific ideas of what it means to practice their religion, which are not necessarily shared—not only by the rest of humanity, but even by the majority of people in the world who think of themselves as Muslim.
And in that sense they’re not that different from a lot of other universalist projects. Like, your typical international human rights lawyer might have certain ideas that they think apply to everyone in the world, but if you were to take a poll of humanity, they wouldn't necessarily agree with all of those ideas in an overwhelming majority, either.
SJ [06:50] Most of the traveling mujahids who are the subjects of Li’s ethnographic work came to Bosnia from countries in the Arab world.
DL [06:57] These are folks from the Middle East arriving in southeast Europe under conditions of war, trying to organize a kind of multi-national and multi-racial fighting formation under incredibly difficult circumstances. They had to navigate a relationship with the Bosnian nation-state, which was avowedly secular and multi-national, even while these folks subscribed to what’s often called the Salafi orientation of Islam, which is often associated with fundamentalist or conservative interpretations. And they had to navigate these differences through very, very concrete challenges—like military tactics, waging war, training folks, both receiving and also enacting violence upon other people.
SJ [07:36] So how do you see power relations working out in the universalist project and the modes of solidarity that you’re looking at?
DL [07:44] So, anthropologists, I think, have gotten away with not thinking very seriously about universalism, because we’re often thinking about universalist projects that are aligned with the most powerful forces in our world today, whether empire, capitalism, and so on—or, you know, ‘the West,’ whatever that might mean. And part of what this project tries to do is to disentangle universalism from hegemony, and to think about what universalist projects that aren’t as powerful might look like, and how they help us think about universalism kind of as a standalone category.
SJ [08:21] Power relations in Professor Li’s field site are complex and multi-layered, not least because Bosnia is on the one hand a largely Muslim country and on the other hand is located in Europe, and Bosnians are usually considered white in terms of race.
DL [08:36] The crisis in Bosnia aroused a distinct form of attention and sympathy among elite liberal Western audiences, in ways that humanitarian and political crises and mass atrocities, say, in sub-Saharan Africa or Asia didn’t. The mass atrocities, the concentration camps and massacres in Bosnia were often interpreted through the lens of the Holocaust, and there were endless comparisons in that sense. And similarly, Bosnia attracted a lot of interest among Muslim communities around the world. And there, the whiteness of Bosnians was a reminder and a vindication of, kind of, the transracial scope of the global Muslim community. So, this idea of Bosnians as being both white and Muslim, and the idea that that’s somehow unusual or a contradiction, is a reminder of how powerful these global racial hierarchies are—even among Muslim-majority societies.
What that means in terms of power within this particular jihad formation that I’m looking at is complicated. So, on the one hand, you know, Bosnians are European; they might be perceived as white in certain contexts. But the Arabs who are coming and leading the jihad are also invested with other forms of authority, right—they’re often seen as somehow closer to the original Islam, and kind of embodying some Islamic authenticity in ways that Bosnian Muslims, who are not only European but also lived under a communist regime for 50 years, are seen as somehow having lost their Islamic authenticity. On top of that, for Arabs coming from the Gulf states, there’s also the issue of wealth—for folks coming from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, petro-economies that also bring their own kind of material benefits.
[10:21] So one of the kind of interesting things in this particular universalist project is how race and wealth and religious authority are not aligned so neatly as they might be in a lot of conventional studies of Western colonialism. The variables don’t always line up, they kind of confound each other in different ways, and that, I think, makes for a lot of really interesting kinds of incidents and encounters to look at.
SJ [10:44] Professor Li describes himself as a “child of the 1990s” who came of age politically during the time between the Cold War and 9/11 in the U.S. As an adult he worked for several nongovernmental human rights organizations before becoming an anthropologist. His academic interest in universalism comes from his engagement in this world of humanitarianism and human rights.
I want to ask you to disentangle solidarity and universalism a little bit. How do those two concepts relate in your field?
DL [11:12] I think of universalism as an anthropological category. I think of solidarity as a political logic, and I contrast it with intervention. Intervention is about descending from above, right—kind of playing the role of the neutral mediator who can sort of step in and sometimes knock heads and get people to behave themselves properly. Solidarity is a more horizontal orientation. It’s about reaching out to people on the basis of a shared interest and shared set of principles. It involves an assessment of one’s own vulnerability, one’s own needs and one’s own limitations—which is not to say that it’s transactional, but it’s more rooted. So it’s about people reaching out to each other in the face of, perhaps, a common enemy, or while trying to enact a common logic.
That’s how I think of solidarity, and that just emerges from my own personal experiences in various forms of political work. But it also enabled me to recognize and to think about transnational jihad mobilizations as people who, you know, I sort of recognize what they do, right—there are similar characters, similar tropes, similar critiques that they generate that I recognize from other solidarity contexts. And I think that’s a different way of looking at them than the more conventional security studies/radicalization kind of angle.
SJ [12:32] One thing that I really appreciate in your work is this sort of objective take on universalism, and I think solidarity as well. That you’re studying these phenomena as things that are not good or bad, but that people orient themselves to in different ways. What does the kind of “solidarity projects” that you study tell folks on the political left?
DL [12:56] So, I think that in the wake of the end of the Cold War, there has been a recognition that transnational non-state solidarity is an extremely important form of left organizing against capitalism, and against empire, and against white supremacy. What I hope is useful about a book like this for those conversations is to call attention to the question of violence. And the question of violence is a very, very difficult one. I think that it’s a conversation, and a concept, that require a lot of thought and deliberation—especially when we think about the gender of violence, the relationship between masculinism and patriarchy and political violence. This is something that I think, for example, Kurdish autonomous movements like the YPG [English translation: People's Protection Units] have also given a lot of thought to. And I think there’s a lot to learn from and also to critique there.
The fetishization of transnational solidarity as a kind of feel-good coming together doesn’t really let us off the hook for thinking about the role of political violence in effecting change—because it is an unfortunate reality that the structural forces that folks are trying to change are deeply, deeply entrenched. And we can think about and learn from earlier generations and earlier revolutionary movements and their own relationship with violence and with spectacle, in ways that are sometimes problematic. But that doesn’t let us off the hook for thinking about these things altogether.
[14:31] The idea that we should learn from these transnational jihad mobilizations, which have dealt with questions of violence and legitimacy and sort of critiques of it—I think it’s really an overlooked resource. It is, of course, also extremely problematic and comes with its own baggage. But generally the way I think of it is, if these movements, for all of their limitations and problems, have at least tried to address this problem, then the relative silence and the gaps on this in circles on the left and elsewhere is really all the more inexcusable.
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SJ [15:13] A big influence on how anthropologists think about solidarity today is Émile Durkheim, a French social scientist who was active around the turn of the twentieth century. Durkheim was an Alsatian Jew who struggled personally and professionally with anti-Semitism in French society of the time—for me, details of his life suggest an urgency behind his academic project studying anomie, or the moral unraveling of society that Durkheim saw all around him.
According to sociology professor Mike Gane, Durkheim blamed European capitalism for this unraveling. He described capitalism as “a highly specific and abnormal phase of European society, a phase dominated by structural deformation.” That’s a quote from Gane’s book, The Radical Sociology of Durkheim and Mauss. (And you can check out our show notes for links to this and other sources.)
Durkheim’s prescription for the moral unraveling of society was solidarity. In his work, Durkheim distinguishes between “mechanical solidarity” based on similarities and common affinities, and “organic solidarity” based on complementary differences—in other words, if I can do something you can’t do, and you can do something I can’t do, it might behoove us to come together in community.
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SJ [16:29] Let’s hold onto this idea of solidarity as an interplay of sameness and difference. It’s a thread that runs through this episode, and it’s especially relevant for Amahl Bishara, an Associate Professor of Anthropology and current Chair of the anthropology department at Tufts University.
Professor Bishara works with Palestinian communities within the borders of the state of Israel as established in 1948 and in the Israeli-occupied territory of the West Bank. She’s interested in how activists across this fragmented Palestinian geography use different kinds of actions and demonstrations—what she calls different “protest repertoires”—to contend with occupation and assert their shared, collective identity as Palestinians.
Amahl Bishara (AB) [17:07] Palestinians want to assert a unity across their struggles, they want to say that liberation and justice must address all Palestinians, in Israel’s 1948 territories, under military occupation, and the refugees. They want to think about it as one struggle. And in that sense, the idea of solidarity suggests too much separation between the groups. And so people try not to use that term in many cases.
SJ [17:29] In her work, Professor Bishara describes the geography of Palestine as “fragmented.” Palestinians who were able to stay in the newly created state of Israel after 1948 eventually became citizens, albeit marginalized, while in the West Bank, Palestinians are subject to Israeli military occupation and the rule of the Palestinian Authority. The Gaza strip is further affected by an ongoing blockade and periodic air bombing campaigns from Israel. Meanwhile, more than five million Palestinian refugees—people who left their homes during the nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe that accompanied the formation of the state of Israel—and their descendants live around the world.
So you’re working with Palestinian communities in places that have been made separate from one another. So, can you tell me a little bit about what it means for the people who you work with to be Palestinian, and how that’s different depending on this split geography?
AB [18:22] When I began this project to think about Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship living in Israel’s 1948 boundaries and Palestinians living under military occupation in the West Bank, I think I was thinking a lot about differences and a little bit about similarities. And now, as I’ve been doing this work for a long time, I find myself thinking about similarities more and more and more.
It’s very, very difficult for Palestinian towns and cities to expand in the West Bank, and it’s also very, very difficult for Palestinian towns to expand inside Israel. So there’s continued restrictions on land use. There’s a racialization of Palestinians inside Israel that puts them at threat of certain kinds of violence. Palestinians in Israel are citizens who have the right to vote in Israeli elections, they have access to Israeli services like health care, they get an Israeli passport which, you know, facilitates movement in many ways. They get those kinds of social services, but they are discriminated against systematically, legally as well as socially.
Palestinians who live in the West Bank are subjects of Israeli military occupation, they have no way to influence the Israeli government directly—they certainly don’t vote in Israeli elections, and haven’t, you know, for the more than 50 years they’ve been living under Israeli military occupation.
The structures of dispossession operate differently on either side of the Green Line, although in some ways we find that there are more similarities than one might expect in, sort of, what it means to live one’s life as Palestinian in these two places.
SJ [19:41] In a recent article, Professor Bishara discusses a protest event in the city of Lod, within Israel’s 1948 territory, that was called “Yom at-talaahum ma‘ Ghazza” (or, day of cohesion with Gaza). Notably, the event organizers, Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship, described their actions as talaahum, cohesion, rather than tadaamun, solidarity. I wanted to ask Professor Bishara about the differences between these two words—and when the term tadaamun comes up short for her interlocutors.
AB [20:12] While there is a sense that liberation and justice must come for all Palestinians together, and when it comes then many Palestinians believe that this will bring equality and justice that will improve the lives of Jewish Israelis alongside of all Palestinians—so to this sense that Palestinians want to think about liberation as something that is a common struggle for Palestinians, they think that solidarity kind of undermines that sense of unity.
SJ [20:35] But activists don’t entirely avoid the term tadaamun, either.
AB [20:40] However, there’s also a recognition that the forms of suffering and violence that Palestinian are experiencing can be quite different. There’s no question that when Palestinians in Gaza are facing Israeli bombing from the air, that is a very specific kind of violence. And it’s really incommensurable with whatever Palestinians are experiencing at the same time in Haifa or Jerusalem or even in Hebron. And the fact that they’re experiencing these bombings while besieged, unable to leave—this is a very, very distinct thing. So people use the word “solidarity” sometimes because it speaks to something that feels true, which is that these people are suffering more. But they also sometimes refuse the term “solidarity” because they also want to assert unity.
I think another key moment where the term “solidarity” emerges and then is sometimes sort of revised is around standing in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strikes. There is nothing like refusing to eat for days and weeks on end. There is nothing like laying in a hospital bed, unable to talk, having lost a good portion of your body weight. The conditions that led a person to be in that situation may indeed be the same as those that limit Palestinians’ right to education, limit their ability to express themselves, limit their ability to have safety through, you know, their daily lives. And yet the experience of being a hunger striking prisoner is so different that people naturally will say, you know, “I am standing in solidarity with these prisoners,” in recognition of the different risks that people have put themselves under.
But then they step away from solidarity when they want to think about this as one struggle. So there’s a dynamic there that people kind of explore as they use these words.
SJ [22:16] The other word that you bring up in your work is talaahum, so can you tell me a little bit about the different saliences of these two terms and when talaahum becomes the relevant signifier?
AB [22:27] So talaahum means “cohesion.” People will say, you know, “We are standing in cohesion with the people of Gaza,” right—we are standing in utter unity, if you will. And that’s a really powerful statement. But, you know, I think it’s really interesting to think with that. What does it mean to stand in “cohesion” with a prisoner who is so isolated from all other Palestinians, right? Other than, you know, the military guards and military doctors that would be watching over that prisoner, right. So “cohesion” is just sort of asserting in an extra strong way a sense of unity and the importance of unity.
SJ [22:57] It sounds like these two terms are both relevant and important for the struggle in different ways, and that solidarity seems to be really highlighting important differences in governance that might require different strategies for response, whereas cohesion highlights the unity of the struggle.
AB [23:13] Yeah absolutely. One of my interlocutors in the field, we were at a photography opening, photographs taken by Palestinians in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, and in Bethlehem, under Israeli occupation. She’s a Palestinian citizen of Israel, and she said, you know, “The occupation is both what divides us and what brings us together.” She’s saying that Israeli rule both separates us and brings us together in these contradictory ways that, you know, are always needing to be worked out again and again. And the thing about it is, when Palestinians in Haifa, for example, protest Israeli violence in Gaza, in some ways they are in solidarity, right, to stand up and reject what is in some ways their government, and to utterly reject that. But on the other hand, they then get targeted by Israeli authorities. Palestinian leaders of civil society get beaten up and arrested in those kinds of protests. And so it’s not just an outsider relationship of solidarity, you know. They are also vulnerable and at risk—in quite different ways, but nevertheless they are at risk.
SJ [24:07] It sounds like acting in solidarity in this case—by doing it, you assume bodily risk yourself, because of who you are, because of the kind of colonial governance that’s acting on people.
AB [24:18] Yeah many times, definitely.
SJ [24:21] Of course, the Palestinian struggle is a cause that has found resonance around the world—among other communities facing state or colonial violence and with people whose history and ideas of liberation are bound up with Palestine. During the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, Palestinian activists sent advice to Black American protesters on how to deal with tear gas. Groups and individuals in the Black Lives Matter movement have expressed support for the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, and critiqued police violence across borders. For Palestinian activists, larger-scale relationships like these also affect the way they think about Palestinian solidarity.
AB [24:59] I think this kind of concept of solidarity comes up a lot for Palestinians in Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank as they’re thinking about people who are coming from the United States or Europe to express support for Palestinians, and also particularly inside Israel as they’re working with Jewish Israelis, who are working also for justice.
Again, people can be affected by similar structures of violence and similar structural wrongs like racism, capitalism, and patriarchy—but, you know, they are facing different daily struggles. The stakes are different. And so, you know, recognizing those structural similarities and the ways in which all the people involved are harmed by those structural wrongs is important. But it’s also very important to recognize the different stakes people have.
I don’t know if you know this Hazel and Alice song, “Hello Stranger”?
SJ [25:43] I do not, no.
AB [25:46] So, Hazel and Alice are singers from American Appalachia. They’re women singing in a duet, and part of the duet is to an incarcerated person, saying that they’re on this streetcar and every time they ride by, they can see their lover, sort of, through the bars. And that person acknowledges them with a nod: “Well he bowed his head and he waved both hands at me.”
So there’s this structure of a relationship. But then the chorus: “I’ll see you when your troubles are like mine, I’ll see you when your troubles are like mine, I’ll see you when you haven’t got a dime.” So, to me, this is that moment of recognition of, you know, this profound and incommensurable difference between being in prison and being out of prison. And that can make lovers strangers, right—it’s called “Hello Stranger.” And then, when something shifts and the person is out of prison, once again they become vulnerable in the same ways to some of the same structures, like capitalism and poverty, right: “I’ll see you when you haven’t got a dime.”
SJ [26:31] Yeah that’s actually really fascinating. The song highlights that even out of prison, it’s a different relationship to these injustices, but they’re not gone.
AB [26:41] Yeah. And that’s what’s so interesting—I think about Palestinians in Gaza, when the bombs are falling, I mean, they really have no out. They have no way to escape that really horrifying, terrifying violence. And that’s one thing. And then, the other example to think about is prisoners who decide to go on a hunger strike. Of course they can’t just decide to leave prison. But they don’t have to be on these hunger strikes. They have put themselves into an extraordinarily vulnerable position, as a way of taking a stand for themselves—but not only for themselves, you know, also for all Palestinians. And it’s recognized that their sacrifice and the risk that they’re taking on are part of a much broader struggle for liberation.
So yeah, I do think it’s really interesting to think about how solidarity and taking actions, participating in acts of resistance, you know, shifts one’s relationship to these structural and ongoing violences—even though those relationships, in an underlying way, remain the same over time.
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SJ [27:36] One of the things Professor Bishara’s work gets at is how solidarity changes us. Acting in solidarity can put us at personal risk, where there wasn’t a personal risk before. Sharing sacrifice, risk, and resistance can strengthen communities or build new ones, and it can make us see the world in new ways.
One example of this is Yarimar Bonilla’s book Non-Sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment. It’s an ethnography of labor activism in the French overseas region of Guadeloupe. The workers who organize strikes and other actions in Professor Bonilla’s book aren’t only involved in an anti-colonial struggle for national independence—her book shows how they’re trying to empower themselves through solidarity to find new, more effective roadmaps for lasting political change, bigger than the question of who controls the state.
Back in the former Yugoslavia, Maple Razsa is an ethnographer who does research among Balkan anarchist networks. His book Bastards of Utopia: Living Radical Politics After Socialism shows how a new generation of activists in Zagreb, Croatia, have turned to techniques of direct action, practices of solidarity, and a politics that stresses change in the here-and-now, rather than a future revolutionary utopia. These activists are breaking from the ideas and traditions of both communist Yugoslavia and the neoliberal Croatian state that followed its breakup.
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SJ [29:00] As I was piecing together this episode, I was inspired by the work of Balkan anarchists and Guadeloupean labor unionists. But solidarity isn’t something you can build overnight. In fact, my experiences in Athens have led me to wonder if solidarity can ever be achieved in a holistic and lasting way—I’ve met too many people who’ve felt silenced by liberatory political projects carried out in their name. Solidarity failures are demoralizing, even heartbreaking—but absolutely crucial to learn from, if we’re going to keep trying. We’re going to turn now to a thornier attempt at solidarity.
Lesley Gill (LG) [29:35] There were a number of people in the food and beverage workers union, and specifically the Coca-Cola workers that I worked with, who, by the time I started doing my research there, had lost their jobs, and who were doing things such as driving taxis to make a living.
SJ [29:53] That’s Leslie Gill, a Professor at Vanderbilt University.
LG [29:56] You know, the sort of micro entrepreneurial work which, in this case, had been pushed on people that never wanted it, and conditions in which they were working fourteen, fifteen, sixteen hours a day, absolutely no protections, no guarantees, even for their safety.
SJ [30:16] Professor Gill is an anthropologist of political violence and human rights in Latin America. I wanted to talk to her about some of the kinds of misunderstandings and misalignments that come up inside solidarity movements. For that, we’re turning to Colombia, where, in the 1980s and ’90s, right-wing paramilitaries with links to the state targeted workers, peasants, students, and anyone suspected of left-wing sympathies. The “paras” were defending Colombian elites against guerilla groups, including FARC and ELN. Around this time, Professor Gill was working with SINALTRAINAL, Colombia’s national union of food industry workers.
LG [30:52] It was just incredibly dangerous for these people, and this was the result of the decline in labor rights and protections. And this is what the union was really concerned about and was really at the basis of what they were struggling for in Colombia.
SJ [31:10] SINALTRAINAL had a militant Marxist-Leninist outlook centered around the industrial working class, stressing class-based unity and struggle. At the turn of the millennium, the union was on the defensive due to neoliberal restructurings of labor relations—and also due to the brute violence targeting them.
LG [31:26] You know, facing the overwhelming repression of both the Colombian security forces and, more problematically, even, the paramilitaries that were aligned with the security forces and who carried out the unsavory aspects of fighting a dirty war, in a way that allowed the security forces to deny any responsibility or accountability. Because of this incredibly dire situation in Colombia, this had moved the union to reach out internationally, in the hope that international pressure could force the Colombian government to back off. And that was their understanding.
SJ [32:08] SINALTRAINAL started working to build horizontal alliances with other groups, in the hopes that widespread solidarity would build a broad base of opposition to the Colombian state in particular, and neoliberal capitalism in general. In 2001, a U.S.-based legal team charged the Coca-Cola Company with gross human rights violations in Colombia. But the lawsuit was just one tactic among many. Also in the early 2000s, organizer Ray Rogers started the “Campaign to Stop Killer Coke.” You might remember it: manipulated Coca-Cola logos dripping blood in its trademark red; slogans like “The Drink That Represses” and “Murder—It’s The Real Thing.”
LG [32:47] But I think the way the campaign developed in the United States was really around consumption, about not consuming Coca-Cola products and kicking Coca-Cola off campus—which happened in a couple of notable cases. And it became—it kind of operated on a separate track than what the labor struggle was about in Colombia.
SJ [33:10] Activists in the U.S. and Colombia saw their solidarity effort in different terms: anti-corporatism versus a broader anti-capitalism. For Professor Gill, that’s at least in part because the activists came from different worlds.
LG [33:23] It was a very diverse coalition: Colombian trade unionists who had come up in, you know, in a very leftist political culture in Colombia, and who were facing incredible repression in Colombia in the late ’90s and the early twenty-first century—and who still face it today. And then a lot of activists in the United States, who were primarily students—middle-class students at universities—but also there were some key lawyers who were involved, and—I’m not sure how you’d describe Rogers—the individual who had really started the whole notion of a corporate campaign.
SJ [34:06] I did want to ask you a little bit about what success looks like? These Colombian workers had a different notion of success based on their own context from what their U.S.-based legal team thought of success as.
LG [34:20] Yeah, I think that, you know, the legal team thought that success was going to be getting as big a settlement as possible from Coca-Cola. The union leaders didn’t see that as a success. They actually saw that as possibly making them more vulnerable in Colombia: vulnerable to extortion, vulnerable to the criticisms of other unions. So they, you know, they had a lot of concerns—and the campaign against Coca-Cola was not supported in Colombia by other unions. It wasn’t supported basically because what was happening to Coca-Cola workers was happening to all unions. And to some unions even worse. Like, the oil workers union in the town that I worked in was hit even harder. They felt that there was all this attention to Coca-Cola just because it was a global brand that everybody recognized, whereas the Colombian oil industry wasn’t as sexy internationally. So there wasn’t a lot of local support for the campaign.
From the, I think, the union leaders’ point of view success would have meant, you know, less a monetary settlement from Coca-Cola—which, by the way, as part of the settlement they offered, union leaders couldn’t criticize Coca-Cola anymore, and they were never going to accept that. I think what they would view as a success would be some of the people who lost their jobs to be reinstated, some of the subcontracting arrangements that had made workers so much more vulnerable had been discontinued, so that those individuals would have been recognized as workers with rights to benefits and decent wages and so forth, and not as subcontractors who weren’t eligible for any of that. I think that that’s what would have meant a victory for them.
[36:11] And I have to agree, that’s what the beginnings of a victory would have been like.
SJ [36:17] So essentially changes in the labor relations and possibly even changes that people in the U.S. at that time might have taken for granted due to their own context.
LG [36:27] Yeah perhaps. I think a lot of people in the U.S. saw it through the lens of moral outrage, that what was happening in Colombia was outrageous. And it certainly was outrageous. And I think a certain amount of moral outrage is not bad, in terms of getting people engaged. But at some point I think activists have to move beyond moral outrage to understanding what, really, the underlying issues are.
The political violence was really the outcome of people asking for their rights. And protesting when they were denied those rights. That’s the issue. And the violence that people were experiencing was a byproduct of that pushback.
SJ [37:10] Mmhmm, yeah, the political dimensions behind moral outrage, which can be so vague.
LG [37:16] Yeah.
SJ [37:17] While perhaps useful, it doesn’t produce an analytic itself.
LG [37:21] Right. I mean, anybody who wouldn’t be morally outraged at what was happening in Colombia, I would find that very difficult that people couldn’t experience outrage. But at some point you have to get beyond the outrage and understand a little better what is producing this situation in the first place.
SJ [37:39] Ultimately, for Professor Gill, finding shared understanding of goals and tactics is key to building productive relationships of solidarity.
LG [37:48] The way I begin thinking about solidarity is fundamentally as a political relationship, one in which people are working together toward common political goals, that they have a vision of where they want to go, and they develop strategies and tactics to get there. And I think that also the notion of solidarity means that people have each other’s back. I understand it as not necessarily based on feelings and emotions—I don’t think people in solidarity necessarily have to like each other, although that certainly helps. But it’s really more the basis of having a common political project, and that’s what drives the relationship.
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SJ [38:48] Professor Gill emphasizes the importance of awareness in solidarity projects—understanding the political causes behind something outrageous, even when those causes might fall outside our own experience—and developing an understanding of what it is we’re doing when we do solidarity.
Anthropologists often stress the related concept of reflexivity. Being reflexive—whether as a researcher, an activist, or just a person participating in a society—means re-examining our own backgrounds, beliefs, and biases.
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[39:22] To get at reflexivity and awareness, we’re going to check back in on Greece. I entered this field in the midst of an unfolding story—the refugee solidarity initiatives that I got involved with in 2017 were building on a much longer Greek history of solidarity as a response to mounting crises.
Dimitrios Theodossopoulos (DT) [39:39] Well, I had been working in Patras for many years before the austerity crisis.
SJ [39:45] Dimitrios Theodossopoulos is a social anthropologist at the University of Kent, in England. He’s done research with the Indigenous Emberá people in Panama, but he was born in Greece, and another of his field sites is in Patras, Greece’s third-largest city.
DT [39:59] I had a network of, let’s say, interlocutors—people that knew me very well—and they were waiting for my returns to discuss timely politics.
SJ [40:09] In 2010, the Greek parliament was obliged to put into place the first in a years-long series of austerity packages as part of a debt bailout plan arranged by a “troika” of financial powers-that-be: the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank. Experts have compared recession-era Greece to the U.S. during the Great Depression—unemployment rates topped out above 25%, and at one point a third of the country’s population was at risk of poverty. Healthcare was slashed, and mortality rates worsened.
With a crippled state and mounting social problems, people around Greece started forming grassroots networks of mutual aid—things like free pharmacies and social kitchens, where people cooked and ate together, supporting those in need while building community. Those initiatives piqued the interest of Professor Theodossopoulos.
DT [40:57] At some point I was back in Patras, and I had to collect new data for a new project focusing on the consequences of austerity in everyday life. And while I was there doing that, I felt maybe a good idea would be to go and visit those new solidarity initiatives that had sprung, let’s say, from 2009, 2010 onwards, and get involved—not just be there and talk, but try to do a little bit more, participate in humanitarian and solidarity action.
At some point, I found myself carrying plastic bags filled with evaporated milk and food for people affected by austerity, participating in initiatives like that—talking with the people who were receiving the aid, but spending, actually, even more time with the people who had volunteered to help those in need. While doing that, we were debating what we were doing. We were debating the ethics of giving.
In time, the conversations about the ethics of giving became, for me, much more fascinating than the actual broader topic, austerity.
SJ [42:05] Professor Theodossopoulos has written several articles about the ethical dilemmas facing people involved in solidarity initiatives in austerity-era Patras. He uses comics-style graphics to illustrate what he calls the “authorial split”—in other words, that the author is struggling with the same issues as his interlocutors, balancing between what he calls his “uncompromising, pathologizing, Marxist self” on the one hand and his “rationalizing, soft, lefty self” on the other.
DT [42:33] Obviously, I had many ideas in my head when I started my fieldwork. I had all the anthropology I was carrying with me after teaching the discipline for many years, but I had all my own political views, my own reading of Marx, my own views about charity and solidarity and the distinctions between the two.
But what was really exciting was that during my time in the solidarity movements, I realized that I was not alone. The people around me had quite similar ideas. They were kind of debating, in many cases, very similar questions: why a good intention that is responding to the pain of others can be seen in critical terms, or why helping others can generate contradictions.
So I and them—the people next to me—were all evaluating our practice. Which was a wonderful idea, to re-examine all the ideas we had in our head.
SJ [43:25] One of the ideological guideposts in these debates is something Professor Theodossopoulos calls the Marxist critique of philanthropy.
DT [43:32] Marx felt that charity, philanthropy, was a practice of the bourgeoisie, middle-class people, with some progressive ideas, sometimes, trying to help. But that was far from being enough. So he felt that actually, this type of middle-class charity was very much embedded in a particular system of economic relationships that was perpetuating inequality.
SJ [43:58] The Marxist position was one of the major ideas motivating Professor Theodossopoulos and his interlocutors when they talked about the ethics of solidarity during austerity.
DT [44:07] But that was not the only interpretation of solidarity. At the time I was doing that fieldwork, around 2015 and ’16 and ’17, there were many developed ideas of solidarity, since the whole emphasis on solidarity had really developed from the beginning of the austerity crisis.
For example, there was another view available that we should stop theorizing and approaching all this in abstract terms. Try to help other people, people in need, and by doing that, maybe we can achieve something much more important than giving people evaporated cans of milk. We can cultivate a social consciousness—and some people may say “socialist consciousness”—and in this way, we can effect some long-term change in society, by participating in action and by coming together. And this coming together was probably even more important than the aid that was provided to the beneficiaries.
Versions of this idea provided an alternative to the very harsh position that maybe giving is not good, maybe we should not try to repair the cracks in the system but get rid of the system overall—which was, let’s say, the hard Marxist position.
In the process of fieldwork, I found myself really in between those amazing ideological possibilities. I mean, all of them were lefty ideas and progressive ideas. None of the people around me was really supporting capitalism or austerity, but people had different positions regarding giving aid to other people.
SJ [45:42] One of the things that struck me is that you associate these different ways of thinking about solidarity with two major left political parties in Greece—the Greek communist party, the KKE, and SYRIZA, the coalition of the radical left. But then when it comes down to the individual level and to these conversations that people are having—on the one hand, people are not just standing with one party, everybody has the same “split” that you have. And then on the other hand, you show people changing their views and growing, not in a set direction but in different directions, just developing as people through these conversations and through these different ways of seeing things. It seems like this is something that is not at all resolved but rather a conversation that keeps going and going.
DT [46:30] I think that’s a better way to present social life, isn’t it? Not in black and white terms, not as something fixed that happened and is written in stone. Everything changes around us, you can trace that kind of logic back to the ancient Greek philosophy and Heraclitis. But it’s not very different from what Hegel said, and from what Marx has said.
We have processes out there. And we see the different ideas of people developing within processes. We see the same people identifying with different ideological positions, slightly different—some of my respondents were educated by the communist party and they learned how to think, dialectically even, by the communist party, and then it’s modified a little bit their positions and they were now SYRIZA supporters and solidarians practicing a slightly different direction and motivated by slightly different ideas. And in a similar way, some of my communist respondents, who were still faithful to the communist party, they were tempted by the slightly different positions, and they were participating in solidarity actions—not only the ones sanctioned by their own party, but even the ones organized by different parties like SYRIZA.
So real people in real life don’t see the life in black and white terms, they find a way to navigate between those positions and generate their own creative synthesis of what we see here as a thesis and an antithesis, and it’s all super fascinating.
SJ [47:58] What do you think that people involved in solidarity initiatives in completely different contexts can learn from Patras austerity-era solidarity initiatives, what’s one generalizable takeaway from this situation?
DT [48:12] The complexity that I faced, I’m sure is something that many other researchers are facing. But one particular dimension of it that is very clear in the context I study was that there was a very thin line separating beneficiaries of aid and providers of aid. And this generated a very interesting dynamic. Then again, for me, the greatest value of all that was training a little bit my representational approach. I was forced to learn to be much more reflexive, much more experimental, much more inclusive, focus more on the gray area in between opinions, experiment with new tools and possibilities, and that was a very great gift.
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SJ [49:06] And with that, we’ve reached the end of our conversations with anthropologists on solidarity. I hope these conversations push you to think in new ways or provoke your own political work.
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SJ [49:19] I want to close out this episode with the Black queer feminist writer June Jordan. In an essay called, “Report from the Bahamas 1982,” Jordan finds herself staying at a corporate hotel in the Bahamas steeped in colonial nostalgia. The distance between herself, as a Black tourist coming from Brooklyn, and the woman responsible for cleaning her room forces Jordan to think about the hiccups of sameness and difference that make solidarity such a challenging aspiration.
“So far as I can see,” Jordan writes, “the usual race and class concepts of connection, or gender assumptions of unity, do not apply very well. I doubt that they ever did.”
We often think of solidarity as different individuals or identity groups joining forces because they share a common enemy. We could think of transnational jihadis facing a secular liberal state system, or Palestinians facing Zionist colonialization, or Colombian workers inviting U.S. activists to support them against labor exploitation and violent oppression, or Greek communities resisting neoliberal austerity and intra-European hierarchies.
But resisting a shared enemy isn’t enough to build real solidarity, according to June Jordan.
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SJ [50:34] We’ll leave you with her words:
“What happens beyond the idea of that enemy and beyond the consequences of that enemy?
… The ultimate connection cannot be the enemy. The ultimate connection must be the need that we find between us. It is not only who you are, in other words, but what we can do for each other that will determine the connection. … [And] I must make the connection real between me and these strangers everywhere before those other clouds unify this ragged bunch of us, too late.”
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SJ [51:18] Thank you for listening to AnthroPod, the podcast of the Society for Cultural Anthropology. Special thanks to Joyce Rivera-González, who conceived this series and provided feedback on this episode.
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SJ [51:28] Our theme song was produced by Podington Bear. Music and soundbites throughout this episode were produced by Godmode, We Act Radio, and Marie Gendron. All independently-produced and available at the Free Music Archive, Youtube Studio, and Mixkit.
For our show notes, including a list of the articles and books we referenced in this episode, please search for AnthroPod on www.culanth.org - that’s c-u-l-a-n-t-h-dot-org. Until next time!
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