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We're all in this together

Eurozine (eurozine.com), a network of print and online publications from across the continent in which the Dublin Review of Books participates, has just announced that the 27th European Meeting of Cultural Journals will take place in Gdańsk in Poland in November this year. The subject of the conference will be “how to bring solidarity back to Europe”.

The announcement prompts some reflections on the history and possible meanings of the term “solidarity”, which is of course particularly linked in the context of Gdańsk with the trade union (and national movement) Solidarność.

Solidarity was not a term I was overly familiar with before 1980, in spite of having some interest in left-wing theory and practice. I had, however, come across it in France in 1974, where they seemed to be very keen on it: indeed it seemed to be at the core of the social thinking of both the Socialist Party (PS) and the Communist Party (PCF). The former also, through the heritage of the small grouping the Parti Socialiste Unifié, seemed to be interested in what was called auto-gestion, which implied (a greater or lesser degree of) employee control in the workplace. This is an idea you don’t hear very much about today from anyone on the left.

In Ireland, and in particular in Northern Ireland throughout the civil rights period that preceded the Troubles, I was more familiar with “equality” and “justice” (and later “peace with justice”) as demands. Solidarity, I suppose, is the essential socialist, or more properly social democratic, demand in a normal society; in an abnormal society, such as unionist-dominated Northern Ireland, or Northern Ireland in the middle of the IRA's "war", other things came first. Solidarity asks that security and opportunity be more widely available, that no one be entirely left out of a share in the wealth created by capitalism. Over the last couple of decades, however, it has seemed that capitalism has become less prepared to share ‑ that is to be taxed ‑ and while, in spite of recessions here and there, profits, and sometimes very large profits, are still being made, wages have remained for the most part depressed and governments are starved of the funds required to redistribute wealth to sections of society that are in need.

In the early part of this century, the election of a series of governments in Ireland intellectually dominated by the free-market Progressive Democrats led many to believe that our electorate would always in the end prefer to vote for a tax cut (“more of your own money in your own pocket”) over an improvement in services or benefits, or indeed long-term productive investment (that could be left to the market). But the result of the 2016 election, though confusing, would seem to point in the other direction. The electorate, or those sections of it which are relatively comfortable, were offered the prospect of further “benefiting from the recovery”, of feeling it in their pockets. For the most part this carrot appears to have been rejected. Perhaps we are finally more interested in a society of greater solidarity.

Solidarity has also, of course, a European dimension, and it is probably this aspect which will most interest the autumn conference in Poland. But what does solidarity mean in Europe? Mr Tsipras and Mr Varoufakis wanted Europe to show more solidarity with Greece and went to the brink over it, but Europe decided that it did not want to be gamed any further, that its patience was exhausted and there was no more so solidarity in the pot, at least not for a Greece led by Syriza. And Greece apart, how much solidarity is Europe capable of sustaining?

Last year Angela Merkel showed her (Christian Democratic?) solidarity with refugees from Syria, Eritrea and elsewhere by announcing that she was prepared to accept a very large number of distressed, homeless people in Germany. For this she was first saluted for her imagination and decency; shortly afterwards she was condemned for her foolishness and political naivety.

Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic made it clear that they were not prepared to show solidarity with people in extreme need if those people were Muslims. In response, many people in western or northern Europe, though perhaps chiefly intellectuals, seemed to experience a distinct diminution in their feelings of solidarity with Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic since, as it seemed, these states wished to reserve the right to ration their humanitarianism on religious or sectarian grounds.

While solidarity is perhaps most widely understood as a value of the political left, the idea does also have Christian, and specifically New Testament, roots. But of course when the traveller in St Luke’s Gospel was beaten and robbed and left for dead by the roadside it was neither the priest nor the Levite who helped him but the (alien) Samaritan. Do the Catholic nations of central Europe now consider that hostility to those of other Abrahamic faiths, and in particular Islam, is an essential part of their European identity? And if so, is Hungarian Europeanism compatible with, let us say, Swedish or German Europeanism? Which is not, of course, to say, that we do not have plenty of priests and Levites in "old Europe" too. There should be plenty to talk about in Poland.

20/3/2016