Tobias Müller on Solidarity as Co-Liberation
Solidarity is something that is expressed when people don’t do anything. At least this is how the word seems to be used most frequently today. We express our solidarity with Ukraine, with striking Amazon workers, with those whose lives are devastated by climate change. In direct contrast to its original meaning, it seems that solidarity has become a discursive gesture rather than tangible action, at least in Euroamerica. It has become a declaration of sympathy, as non-committal and non-consequential as a “like” on social media.
The difference in the reactions to the Ukraine crisis and the people fleeing from the wars in Syria, Yemen and Somalia have demonstrated once again how deeply tied solidarity is to a sense of proximity — cultural, ethnic, and religious. In previous conflicts, welcoming refugees caused discomfort among right-wing and centrist parties across Europe. But now those same people support directly intervening in a war by sending tanks and rocket launchers. Would governments talk about Ukrainian refugees differently if the expressed solidarity had not also enabled the industrial-military complex to enjoy a moral and financial renaissance not seen in Europe since the Second World War?
Euroamerica today is convinced of the universality of its values, that we are living in the heartland of liberalism, democracy and human rights. The equal dignity of every human being, a universal norm, is at the heart of our moral self-understanding. However, it seems clear that our solidarity with Ukraine is heavily influenced by the fact that the women and children running out of bombed buildings are “European”, or, as some have declared quite openly, that they are mostly white Christians. The fact that Black Africans studying in Ukraine have been pushed back at the Polish border demonstrate the racialized nature of European solidarity.
Credible solidarity cannot be based only on generosity or moral principles. It needs to be based on the conviction that what is at stake is who we are, and the lives we aspire to live.
In contrast to the universalist claims of many philosophers, Richard Rorty openly affirms that solidarity is necessarily ethnocentrist. We feel solidarity with people who are like us, which in our racialized world means people who fall into the same racialized category. Social progress, according to Rorty, lies therefore in the gradual expansion of the “we”, the people we feel solidarity towards, including people who are “diverse”.
After the killing of George Floyd, many Black Lives Matter activists were critical of the well-meaning expressions of solidarity from university boards, parliamentarians, and climate activists alike. Many public statements on anti-racism were verbal expressions of solidarity that were at best not credible, and at worst a form of virtue signaling that evaporated as soon as the topic had vanished in the ever-faster churning of news cycles. Ian Haney López, author of Merge Left, claims this is because those expressions of solidarity are not based on a true sense that what is at stake is the freedom and dignity of all people, including those racialized as white. In a recent training session for climate activists, he argued that credible solidarity requires for us to be clear about “our skin in the game.” Credible solidarity cannot be based only on generosity or moral principles. It needs to be based on the conviction that what is at stake is who we are, whatever collective or group we belong to, with our needs, dreams, and the lives we aspire to live.
Instead of understanding freedom as a declaration of independence, co-liberation asks us to declare our radical interdependence.
A group of activists connected to Extinction Rebellion (XR) have turned this conviction into a new political project centred around the concept of Co-Liberation. Developed mainly by the Kashmiri Sufi co-founder of XR, Skeena Rathor, Co-Liberation is based on the principle that any one person or group’s liberation is necessarily linked to the liberation of all human and non-human beings. Those working on this Co-Liberation as deep solidarity often quote the indigenous Australian Marri artist and activist Lilla Watson, who succinctly summarizes this sentiment: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”.
Co-Liberation involves an uncomfortable and challenging journey into our own traumas. It is based on the conviction that what bell hooks calls “capitalist, white supremacist heteropatriarchy” has left us all deeply marked with embodied mindsets of “power over”. We are captives of the will to dominate and control, driven by the fear that we are never fully loved, that we only deserve love if we live up to the demands of status, competition, and success.
Nobody can do the work of Co-Liberation alone. It is necessarily a relational journey. Instead of understanding freedom as a declaration of independence, co-liberation asks us to declare our radical interdependence. We are who we are because of the people we are in relation with. That is why we need to be in deep resonance with others to regain our fractured humanity. We need to allow our relations of care, who we care for, and who cares for us, and what we depend on to flourish, including non-human beings, to become the core organizing principle in all social and political systems. We need to decolonize our own minds and bodies from the violence and controls that keep us trapped: individually through trauma, and collectively through systemic racism, patriarchy, and capitalist alienation.
If all that solidarity means is sending tanks and temporarily suspending our otherwise violently exclusive border regimes, it has lost its place in a politics fit for the 21st century.
If we truly take this seriously, it becomes clear that solidarity means to put our own bodies in the way of harm. So many people are doing this for us every day, often without us even noticing, as mothers, care workers, abolitionists, or Indigenous earth protectors. If indigenous communities had not been at the forefront of resistance against the destruction of ecosystems through resource extraction for generations, our chances to avert the worst of the climate crisis would be so much worse today.
Many peoples and communities around the world have been practicing Co-Liberation for centuries. In the face of a partial collapse of society, which scientists consider to be “highly likely”, solidarity requires us to let go of the security of distance. What will our communities of deep trust and unconditional support look like when supply chains collapse, money becomes worthless, and taps run dry? How do we make sure these communities are not an ethnocentric, economically privileged enclave? How can we ensure our sense of security are decoupled from the maintenance of an ecocidal and genocidal status quo?
If all that solidarity means is sending tanks and temporarily suspending our otherwise violently exclusive border regimes, it has lost its place in a politics fit for the 21st century. If we reconfigure it in the spirit of Co-Liberation, which requires transforming our deepest fears into radical interdependence and love, it might help us to retain and recover some of our lost humanity in face of the sixth mass extinction event.
Tobias Müller is a fellow in our program “The Future of Democracy". He is an Affiliated Lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Studies and College Research Associate at King's College, University of Cambridge.