Solidarity: Coercion, Influence and Authority in Contemporary Society

Part II: Cases

 

  1. Solidarity: Coercion, Influence and Authority in Contemporary Society

“Solidarity Forever,” written by a member of the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies), Ralph Caplin, in 1915, and sung to the tune of “John Brown’s Body” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was the most widely belted out tune by the United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO) when I was a kid. It was the anthem of the Jewish communist organization. It was popular among unions and socialist groups. We sang it at our non-communist summer camp and it was adopted by the social and racial protest groups of the sixties in which communists played a very minor role. When I was active in the cooperative movement in my twenties, however, the “Battle Hymn of Cooperation” was sometimes sung as a substitute and rival. The words of the original are as follows:

When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run,

There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun;

Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,

But the union makes us strong.

 

CHORUS:

Solidarity forever,

Solidarity forever,

Solidarity forever,

For the union makes us strong.

Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite,

Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?

Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?

For the union makes us strong.

Chorus

It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;

Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid;

Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made;

But the union makes us strong.

Chorus

All the world that’s owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone.

We have laid the wide foundations; built it skyward stone by stone.

It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own.

While the union makes us strong.

Chorus

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,

But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.

We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn

That the union makes us strong.

Chorus

In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,

Greater than the might of armies, multiplied a thousand-fold.

We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old

For the union makes us strong.

The themes are simple. The lone individual is weak. The collective – in this case the collective of the trade and labour union – makes us strong. Why do we need that unity and strength that comes through membership in a worker’s union? Because the employers, the capitalists, the greedy parasites and idle drones, are exploiters who would, if they could, turn workers into serfs, even though what you see all around you has been built by those workers and is ostensibly owned by those workers. Yet when times get tough, workers are dispensable even though what has been constructed, what feeds us, has been built and supplied by those very same workers. The only way we can repossess what was once rightly ours is to break the power of the capitalists. The only way to do that is through the union, through solidarity. That is the only way that the exploitive character of the capitalist system can be overthrown and a new world order rise from its ashes.

Why were we singing this song in camps in the forties and fifties and in the protest marches against nuclear testing and then against racial segregation in the sixties? The words did not match our positions, our beliefs or our role as students, at least for the vast majority of us. We did not think of capitalists as slave drivers and exploiters, idle drones and parasites. Workers in unions were earning good wages. Nor did we in the New Left believe that the individual was powerless without belonging to a collectivity.

I raise this issue for two reasons. First I want to introduce the vertical bar of power and the horizontal bar of solidarity. The premise of the song is that the less power you have, the closer you are to the bottom of the vertical bar of power, the wider and the more unity needed in the horizontal cross bar of solidarity. The undisclosed ironic premise was also that, in such a world view, more coercion was required to maintain and enhance that solidarity. The union was not just the aggregation of individual interests, but a larger entity to which the individual owed his or her proportionate rewards.

The second reason is because I want to telegraph a theme – the incongruity between what we said and sung and our own predominant values. In the sixties in the nuclear protest movement and in the striving for the rights of those who suffered from racial discrimination and social injustice, we did not identify with their struggle because we experienced the absence of power at the root of their suffering or because we shared in their interests. Nor did we believe that the ruling order was intent on blowing us all up or even were just lackeys of the military-industrial complex. Nor were they drones and exploiters. They were just politicians inattentive to our priorities, values and concerns. Countervailing power was not needed to bring them around. Pressure and education would be sufficient to influence them. Nevertheless, we sang the old Wobbly union song to express our solidarity with the downtrodden and those who were racially excluded or segregated in inferior situations. We wanted solidarity among people with very different interests and we did not believe that we needed power to challenge power.

These incongruencies and contradictions are apparent in periods of historical transformation. In the sixties we were in the final stages of society’s transformation from a modern society based on rights and freedoms. Solidarity played a very ambiguous role no longer linked to the acquisition of coercive power. The secular religion that developed vied with a secularist religion which relegated both morality and traditional religion to the private sphere as it manipulated to acquire and hold power in partnership with economic interests that worshipped at the feet of the idol of the free-market. This was the new postmodern world. In this world, traditional religion was sidelined. The two forms of religious secularism occupied the main space. To understand the character of this shift, it is necessary to offer a very potted overview of fundamental paradigm shifts in the structure of our beliefs, thoughts and passions. But first a note on coercive power.

Solidarity is horizontal. It attacks the problem of how one achieves unity among a myriad of individuals. There are three dimensions to that effort. The first is power, the vertical bar discussed above. It has two faces – the creative use of the energy of each of the members of the group and the group as a whole, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the way coercion is applied to exclude outsiders, identify outsiders as threats and enemies, and promise security and protection for the members within the collectivity.

The second dimension is influence. That influence may be material focused on how an organization serves and enhances the material interests of its members to maintain their sense of identity and inhibit a desire to leave – exit. Alternatively, that influence entails ideas and ideology, a common set of principles and values to bestir loyalty and a system for ensuring input to defining those values. The third is authority which also has two faces.  On the one hand, there are the formal rules and regulations by and through which the organization is run. The tensions between the coercive versus creative uses of power and the competing interests and ideas are provided with boundaries by those rules and regulations. However, those same rules and regulations do not let us discern whether the leadership is authentic behind that exercise of authority or whether the authority is merely formal. Does the leadership represent the interests and articulate the best ideas to allow the organization to persevere with the minimal application of coercion or does the leadership simply pick and choose among rules and regulations as an exercise of power (Adelman 1976)?

How does one know whether the authority of an organization or the state as a whole is being used in a manipulative way or, alternatively, to represent the interests and values of an organization? One clue is whether the leadership emphasizes and exaggerates the role and place of external enemies and plays on the fear of its members about dangers from within or without, and, in turn, induces flight and exit from that collectivity altogether. On the other hand, to what extent are ideals allowed and encouraged, to what extent are interests represented? And how is authority actually exercised? These various dimensions of authority, influence and power determine the degree of solidarity of a group. This essay, will, however, primarily focus on the interaction of power and solidarity and largely bracket the other two dimensions. But a few notes on authority and influence first.

In the case of the solidarity which we praised and sang hymns to in my youth, we were free of any authority of any organizational rules which governed our behaviour. Further, we usually had leaders truly identified with the interests and values of the membership since there were few material or other rewards. Authentic authority counted, not formal authority. In the area of interests, we were fighting for interests that were either not our own (people suffering from racial discrimination or, in the case of aboriginal Canadians, from neglect and material exclusion), though in the beginning in the nuclear disarmament movement we were focused on interests that were our own and, as in the contemporary environmental movement, interests that encompassed us all. We fought battles through ideas, not material influence. But most of all, we fought against the misuse of coercive power that could end up blowing up the whole world in the name of providing for our collective security.

Because we ourselves lacked coercive power, because the authority of the organizations were weak and the continuation ephemeral, and because we had never really worked out how to reconcile power and authority while enhancing both material and intellectual creativity, we could sing songs of solidarity with a substantial message that had virtually nothing to do with reality. They were the hymns of the Old Left adopted by the New Left already inhabiting a very different world. The totally apparent contradictions of the hymns offered the best clue that the issue of solidarity in reconciling power, influence and authority had not been resolved.

We were not free of identifying an enemy without (the political-industrial complex), though most of us eschewed such simplistic reification of those responsible for the nuclear arms race. The common interests were usually one-themed objectives – stopping nuclear testing and the production of strontium 90 that got into the milk of babies. The organizations fostered open dissent and disagreement, but had difficulty working out methods of resolving fundamental differences that avoided exit or sectarianism. (Hirschman 1970). For the core question with respect to solidarity is who is included and who excluded. In our modern states, this fundamentally revolves around the basic question of who can and cannot become citizens of that state and the entry or exit routes for that decision.

On the level of solidarity, the major question is one of either exit or participation. There are two basic alternatives:

  1. A normative method, such as in traditional religion or in what I argue are the elements of a new secular religion, wherein every individual is instilled with a common set of rules and practices that are internalized to form habits. In that way, political systems need the least coercive power to attain and maintain solidarity while fostering individual freedom;
  2. Structural control so that system of distribution of power as defined formally wherein that formal system infuses every relationship and provides a hierarchy of power and stratification that defines how power is distributed and how influence, both material and ideological, may be exercised.

There are three routes to travel in dealing with these two alternatives. On the one hand, the principle of solidarity may take from traditional religion the internalization of rules, values and practices, and, via state structures, the system of authority and organization of power in a dialectical tension to promote the self-realization of the individual. Second, one can break away from a system of internalizing rules altogether and foster material self-interest through the discipline of economic market forces now operating globally on the foundations of an ostensible rational choice model. Third, one can build a system which decreasingly rests on the rule of any law, internalized or external, though often using traditional internalized rules and practices to undermine the rule of law, and instead rest authority on a single leader or party, usually married to nationalism, as the way of translating and using the rules of the traditional religion to foster a new one.

This is the case in Putin’s Russia or in Iran’s theocracy or Egypt’s military state or in a host of would-bes, with a particular concentration in states where one sect or other of Islam is ascendant, and corrupt. Authoritarian governments and leaders disrespect internalized norms of traditional religion that foster tolerance and respect for differences. Instead, they use external norms and dress codes to control populations, particularly the population of women. Most of all, these regimes rely on fear to keep their populations in line. Stephen Harper’s divisive efforts in Canada and disrespect for many established democratic norms, however much hated by a majority of Canadians, have been a very weak and insipid version of such mechanisms.

Western democracies faced with these two outliers find that the political party most wedded ideologically to both extremes – the worship of the free market with minimal political input and the worship of an authoritarian leader – also generally emphasize most of all a set of values inculcated through habits and traditional practices, usually religious, to foster solidarity. That religious secularism has the strongest tendency to rely on the politics of fear. That party also faces an opposition that tries to meld market forces that are policed and governed by polities and the rule of law, with political institutions that protect against authoritarian tendencies by marrying the internal coherence of the market with lawful authority through the new religion of universal human rights. Unfortunately, the effort operates as an abstraction representing the actual invisible and internalized practices fostering tolerance in such a society. As such, that opposition lacks the power and appeal of such forces for bonding as nationalism. Inability to foster loyalty and solidarity is the Achilles’ heel of the religious secularism of HRH.

I will next spell out how these tensions manifest themselves in one case study of citizenship rites and another case study of refugee policy in Canada, particularly the policy on the intake of Syrian refugees.

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