Friday, October 13, 2006

Rethinking Solidarity

Estación Libre Delegation in Oventik (Jan '05)

You'll read all about the project Rethinking Solidarity in the essay below. Since this essay's original publication, the RS crew has grown to include some editors of Left Turn as well as members of Critical Resistance NYC and we've gone on to do a couple speaking engagements and last Monday's honoring of Indigenous Peoples' Day with one last event about Mexico at the old Refugio space...

Rethinking Solidarity
by Adjoa Jones de Almeida, Dana Kaplan, Paula X. Rojas, Eric Tang, and M. Mayuran Tiruchelvam
(Originally appeared in print in Left Turn Magazine's fifth anniversary issue)

If Huey Newtown were alive today, he’d be on the verge of a political comeback. Not because of the supposed shout-out he’s getting from the Boondocks cartoon, but because of a concept he was pushing during the early 1970s—revolutionary intercommunalism.

The idea was simple. We no longer live in a moment where nation-states have the grand relevance they once did. The rise of a truly global capitalism, by its very nature, has always gone beyond territorial limitations. Therefore, as revolutionaries, Huey said, we need to start thinking about ourselves “intercommunally” as opposed to internationally.

If placed in present-day dialogue, Huey’s concept is anything but new. But for his time, Huey was dropping something rather remarkable, if not blasphemous: intercommunalism, a vision unfulfilled. We may have accidentally stumbled upon it again here in 2006 as we attempt to rethink solidarity.


In 2005, dozens of grassroots activists from communities throughout New York City traveled to Global South countries of the Americas, including Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, and Mexico. Our travels and experiences in these countries inspired a desire to “rethink solidarity” and initiate a dialogue back in our communities around the question of solidarity and revolution. This was the starting point for organizing the “Rethinking Solidarity” events series. On four evenings over four months, folks came together at Refugio, a community space in Brooklyn, to share food, fellowship, videos, and conversation on the struggles of communities in resistance in Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, and Chiapas, Mexico. The attempt was to connect those struggles and the relationships built during our travels to movements of resistance here in New York and the United States.

At these monthly gatherings, we attempted to model some of the practices of powerful grassroots movements from the Global South. We created a space for all community members to participate, not just professional organizers and college-educated activists. One of the strengths of the series was in creating a comfortable community space which was accessible and friendly to many different folks. People of all cultures, languages, educational backgrounds, and ages (children especially were right in the middle of our discussions, not hidden away in a separate room) came together to learn how we can be accountable to and in solidarity with each other right here in our own communities and defeat the monster of globalization and capitalism right here in its brain.

Contested concepts

Solidarity has always been a contested concept. It has historically meant different things to different activists. Some see it primarily as economic activism (fair trade/commercial justice). Others view it more in terms of the personal and political connections they make with the people of a particular community. Finally, there are those for whom solidarity is more about taking direct action targeted at policies and institutions ranging from the US military to various forms of corporate globalization, institutions that disproportionately affect people living in the Global South.

Yet if these different forms of solidarity hold one thing in common, it’s the unaltered position of power and privilege that much of this activism rests upon. This involves the access to resources such as foundation funding, the travel privileges that come with US citizenship, the dominance of the dollar—everything one brings to the encounter with the Global South that enables this particular form of social justice. Some argue that these privileges are perhaps not as bad as they seem—after all, those who live inside the “belly of the beast” should mobilize such resources in service of the “other.” That is how we hold ourselves accountable.

But accountability is a process, one that moves in both directions and requires more thoughtful reflection of our position in this country in relation to others. This point is lost among those who believe that solidarity means forever assuming the posture of charitable support (“What can we do for the folks down there?”). And while at face value we may ask for nothing in return, few can deny the cachet that comes with having traveled abroad, the almost consumptive pleasure of immersing yourself in the culture of another’s political movements. This is the pitfall of activist tourism—the privilege of visiting other counties and movements and informing oneself with a firsthand account without the responsibility of full engagement, of being a stakeholder. So long as social movements remain something to go and see as opposed to something we live, then despite our best intentions, we find ourselves only taking up space and inserting ourselves in communities in a way that reflects our internalized colonial attitudes and privileges.

Two-way street

Practicing a more horizontal, reciprocal type of solidarity is difficult. When international exchanges happen, its often relatively privileged US-based activists who get to travel to interact with others. Occasionally folks from Global South movements come north and speak at US events, but even then those spaces are often limited to academic or intellectual elite circles, many of which mistakenly see themselves as some sort of US social movement representatives. But alternative and more powerful connections amongst North-South organizers are possible. This past year members of the Argentinean MTD (Movement of Unemployed Workers) were able to sit with members of the Pachamama childcare cooperative in Bushwick, Brooklyn, to talk about the similar obstacles they face and what processes are being tried on the local level. The Bushwick crew was inspired and the Argentineans felt the human warmth that speaking at colleges and lecture halls doesn’t always provide.

The Rethinking Solidarity series was, in part, a collective search that came out of this dilemma of how to create horizontal solidarity. And it helped to be reminded that Zapatistas do not consider their allies in the United States to be living so much in the “belly of the beast” as in the “brain of the monster” (el cerebro del monstro). In other words, the US is the place where neoliberal policies aimed at subverting global democracy are hatched and executed in communities around the world—including right here in the United States.

Local resistance

This brings us closer to the kind of solidarity we are advocating. Being in solidarity with the people of the Global South means building relationships and strong communities of resistance here; by doing so we are linking to those standing up to the vast, global systems of control. This may seem vague, even counterintuitive, for how can you be in solidarity abroad by focusing within? But think of the converse logic of those from the United States claiming to be in solidarity with others, when their homeland is very much a “backward” country in many ways. Indeed, few can deny that when it comes to building strong social movements, those in the United States are in need of desperate aid from the Global South. Activists in the United States are still suffering from the way social movements have been crushed and “professionalized” over the past thirty years. We have lost touch with the basics, the foundation of movement building, which is about building relationships and sustainable communities while breaking out of the confines of single-issue organizing.

This doesn’t mean that we stop sending necessary support and resources to those abroad who need it. But our accountability lies in what we do within our own communities here. If our own communities are not strong enough to stand up to neoconservatives, then the work of those who promulgate war without end, the dictatorship of the free market, and the stealing of indigenous land will be made all the easier.

What’s more, focusing on communities here in the United States compels us to understand First World “privilege” as not purely nation-bound (i.e., if you reside here, you’ve got privilege). On the contrary, privilege is layered by histories of slavery, colonization, patriarchal control, etc. Our solidarity struggles must therefore find ways to address these inequalities within. This involves learning from the struggles of the Global South as well as offering what we can from within the US, including the perspectives and learned lessons of oppressed peoples in the US.

The political moment calls for the kind of intercommunal solidarity that Huey had in mind. The upsurges in Latin America are truly mass movements that seek power at all levels, not just in the form of a nation-state grab. Only rarely has the left taken state power, and even then usually only for a blink. But its historical, if not relentless, presence and long-term impact in places such as South America is undeniable. One is left to conclude that its power has always seemed to reside elsewhere, outside the state. Today’s movements fully recognize that sustainable power has always been located in communities seeking to do the “impossible” (at least what’s considered impossible here in the United States)—that is, the literal building of new societies that may provide alternatives to the nation-state model. Solidarity is to attempt the impossible wherever you might stand.


corryb said...

where can i get a copy of this article? it's exactly what i've been thinking about, on my mind all the time since i started working at the mexico solidarity network... thank you for hitting the spot- right time, right place.

RJ Maccani said...

Hey Corry,

I'm glad that it's helpful!

I'm pretty sure this is the only place you can find it on-line...if you wanted the original you could order the back issue of Left Turn #20 (their fifth anniversary issue) in which it is originally featured...


Anonymous said...

thank you- would you be willing to share your email so i can write to you not over the blogosphere? my email is

Anonymous said...

just fyi the picture is from the January 2005 Estacion Libre delegation, and just happens to be all the women delegados + women from one of the EZ womens' cooperatives.

RJ Maccani said...

Thanks Mayuran...I'm gonna change the heading right now!

Anonymous said...

YA BASTA, TODO PARA TODOS...While the privledge of this western cage is a hypocritical blackhole, with the potential to paralyze even the most motivated...we must remeber the call of the EZLN, if we feel our fight IS their fight, then we have much to do!

Roger Springer said...

Great reaading your post