A recent issue of Mother Jones presents the notion that, as a society, we are unprepared to deal with major crises or “situations.” We “manage” problems through the free market and self-interest. But perhaps we are living beyond our means and could not face a major crisis (like another major terrorist attack, long-term oil supply disruption, currency devaluation based on the deficit) without learning how to sacrifice.
The writer, Bill McKibben, states:
“Why did we let them cut taxes on the rich?”
“The answer, at least in part, is that we’ve abandoned a sense of common purpose for a sense of hyperindividualism….”
“The opposite of hyperindividualism is solidarity. Solidarity—which was the pre-eminent progressive idea before “liberation”—means identifying with something larger than yourself.”
Boy, this sounds like a good topic for an advance placement English essay test.
The writer is concerned about the increasing gap between the rich and poor, and this is dangerous. It does increase the risk of economic breakdown. Sometimes our arrogant attitude (both of our government and of many citizens) towards the poor in some parts of the world invites vengeful attacks, so the gap also raises a national security issue.
Solidarity (besides its obvious historical connection with the labor movement and unions) has often been associated with “socialistic” plans to redistribute wealth, to call “tornado!” and rearrange the contents of people’s backpacks. Solidarity has been associated with the idea of resolving social justice problems based on the aggregate needs of various oppressed groups.
I would answer this with the “conservative” paradigm: individual responsibility, accountability, and authentication. Authentication means that people show that they are needed in an immediate sense by others. Responsibility refers to accepting the consequences of one’s own act and performance in a customary sense, and accountability means answerability to others besides oneself. In one sense, I am talking about meritocracy, but in a specific, expanded sense that maintains individualism but also reconciles individual goals to long term social obligations.
Problems of social justice and deserved wealth distribution could be resolved by greater emphasis on these ideas about personal behavior and performance. In particular, we would need to eliminate the enormous gains people make through cheating. People need to “pay their dues” by learning to work. A little bit of the “free market cultural revolution” forced on some salaried professionals during periods of unemployment (especially in the wake of outsourcing) is not such a bad thing. But the biggest problem may be this. If someone is allowed to promote himself without eventual accountability to others, eventually that person will set a bad example that in the long run tends to exaggerate social injustice.
This naturally leads to the discussion of “family values.” Family commitment—even blood loyalty-- is supposed to provide the proper granularity for individualism. Of course, family can be manipulated to perpetuate undeserved wealth and force cultural conformity and even intellectual dishonesty. But conservatives can make the argument that this happens because the family itself has been gutted by competition from hyper-individualism. Properly managed, the family should extend to charitable and caring activities outside the home. But even in a world that promotes social solidarity through government and public institutions, "family values" sits on a knife edge: should people receive collective support because of a professed need and political strength (such as with the elderly), or, according to moral case, should the needs of persons who have never had a chance yet get (such as many children) get top priority? The paradox is that support for members in any group can related to other pressures that can be brought to bear on other individuals to bond with them.
Of course, this brings up the gay marriage debate. Gay marriage, if expected as well as allowed (and it has to be full marriage, not just civil union, and lead to parental rights and adoption), could actually make a positive contribution to individual accountability and resolution of social injustice. The main objection boils down to a feeling that it guts blood loyalty and traditional ideas about kinship, as well as the nexus between sex and procreation—and we just have to get over that. Public policies (almost unmentionable until the wakeup call or "situation" of 9/11) that make it clear that some amount of socialization and “solidarity” is expected from everyone—ranging from national service to filial responsibility and the “family wage”—could make a social reform package that includes gay marriage more sellable. Right out of the on-deck circle, solidarity brings up the expectation of personally and publicly going to bat for goals decided by others.
Where does this leave me? Well, I met disaster in young adulthood forty years ago when I “came out” as gay at college, somewhat recovered and took care of myself for decades following rather libertarian ideology, but never supported anyone but myself. However, my availability to care for another in the family has become an issue, and this has resulted in some loss of freedom. One gripe of the religious right is that my freedom “hurts families!” How true. Any self-promotion now on my part is more likely to be seen by many as collectively unfair, dangerous, or legally risky since there are no dependents to justify my efforts. A kid of the Cold War, I recall the ideology that some of us were destined for greater accomplishments than “breeding” (remember the controversy over student draft deferments during the Vietnam era?) and I think, in retrospect, that both ideological war and technological revolution contributes a lot to the devaluation of the family and of the idea that one sincerely wants children and progeny. Again, though, some kind of socialization and “solidarity” are necessary to reinforce the value of human life. If I fail competitively when I've had a chance at success, maybe someone else gets the chance next; but what about the children of failing parents--how do they even get a first opportunity? With solidarity, the question is, to whom is one loyal? Solidarity and individual freedom are still somewhat antagonistic.
ÓCopyright 2004 by Bill Boushka. All rights reserved, subject to fair use.
Here is my essay on meritocracy.
Check the proposed citizenship merit attributes.
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 Bill McKibben, “In Search of Common Ground: After all the post 9/11 talk about Americans pulling together, why does it feel as though we’re moving farther apart?” Mother Jones, June 2004, p. 36. The magazine cover reads "A Nation of Ones: How We Lost the Common Ground." Also in this issue see Ian Frazier, "His Own Private Kingdom: In which our self-sufficient hero says to heck with all those nitpicky, clock-punching bureaucrats," p. 34.
 Longman, Phillip. The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It. New York: Basic Books, 2004. http://www.newamericafoundation.org/index.cfm?pg=event&EveID=362 My review is at http://www.doaskdotell.com/books/blongman.htm . Compare this to
See also the article "The End of Equality: America once embraced the idea of a level playing field. But in Washington these days, Social Darwinism reigns." George Packer, Mother Jones, Dec. 2003, p. 30. "We allow economic inequality because we believe in social equality--in the basic fairness of the race."
Another provocative reference is Liza Featherstone, "Down and Out in Discount America," The Nation, Jan. 3, 2005, p. 11. Ms. Featherstone calls Wal-Mart a corporate "criminal" but also aptly describes the strategy of making money by turning America into a consumerist (rather than working) society, a strategy that tends to promote having a large poor underclass that will always prefer deep discounts.
Is the self-deferral asked of "healthy" Americans from the influenza vaccine (given the failure of Chiron in Britain to deliver supplies) an example of "solidarity"?
Cathy Young, "Ayn Rand at 100," Reason, March 2005, provides some revealing comments about the moral balance between individualism and communalism in her discussion of objectivist philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand. Young writes, "Perhaps Rand's biggest error was the totalism of her philosophy. Having rightly concluded that the values of the free market were moral, she went on to make the sweeping assertion these values were the only moral ones, and that all human relations must be based on the principles of 'trade.'" ... "The Victorians emphasized the importance of charity and viewed family and community as 'havens in a heartless world.'"...But at least the Victorians recognized the need for a balance and variety of virtues." ... In its pure form, Rand's philosophy would work very well indeed if human beings were never helpless and dependent through no fault of their own."
Paul II once said, "There is no freedom without solidarity."