The Crisis of Solidarity

“All for one and one for all, united we stand, divided we fall.”

This famous quote from Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers was written over 175 years ago but is just as relevant today as when it was published. Many of us likely read and agree with it, but recognize that its sentiment is not as readily visible in our daily lives and interactions as much as we might like. This is because we as people are in a state of crisis. Not an economic crisis or a mid-life crisis, but rather a crisis that is much more widespread, much less visible to us, but much more serious than any other that we could experience.  What we are dealing with right now is a crisis of solidarity. This crisis has been building for many years and is slowly coming to a head and threatening the very fabric of our societies. A breakdown in solidarity brings us to a cold, dark future where competition crushes collaboration, selfishness silences compassion and giving gives way to greed.  If this is not the future you hope for yourself and for future generations, then it is time to do something about it. But that something has nothing to do with the traditional means of change like politics or the economy, but rather with something much more immediate but much more difficult to transform: ourselves. We very infrequently stop to think about why the world is the way that it is. Or, we do, but since we cannot find an answer we allow others to provide one for us. This must stop. We must doubt every truth, question every assumption and prepare ourselves to reject all that we once thought to be true. This might sound scary, and in many ways it is, but for this we must depend on each other. No one is alone in this world and no one should ever feel that they are—this is an essential component of the solidarity that is currently under attack.  To get an understanding of what the crisis of solidarity is and how it has come to be, we must understand how solidarity’s worst enemy, competition, has become so prevalent in our lives.  We operate under the guise that there isn’t enough to go around for all of us and that we must compete for what we need. This is not only ludicrous, there is more obesity in the world than starvation, but also contradictory to the idea of creating a world with equality, respect, love and compassion, which are things we can all agree we need more of. We must understand why we do this because when we compete, we divide, and when we divide, we fall.

What is solidarity?

Before going too far into the discussion of our current crisis of solidarity, let’s make it clear what it is we are talking about. To go back to elementary school methods, the word’s root is “solid.” This doesn’t relate directly to the definition of solidarity, but it brings to mind some useful images. Something solid is something well organized whose parts are put together in a meaningful and logical way. It is also something that is difficult to break up or that must undergo serious trauma to be destroyed. The dictionary definition of solidarity is a “union or fellowship arising from common responsibilities and interests, as between members of a group or between classes, people.” A second definition is a “community of feelings, purpose, responsibilities and interests.”

We can see the connection between the ideas of solidity and solidarity. The underlying concept is that the parts of some whole come together for some specific reason. It is also interesting how the concept of community is so closely linked to the definition of solidarity. A sense of community is one of the most essential components of solidarity. A sense of community is the sense that we belong to something, that we are a part of something that needs us and that we need as well. It is this reciprocity that drives our actions and governs our values—we act in a way that we would want others to act. This is how we hold each other accountable and work to improve the world around us.

Using these definitions and concepts we have created our own definition. To us, solidarity is acting in ways that ensures the improvement of the community because of our understanding that our existences depend on the overall welfare of the community to which we belong. We are going through a solidarity crisis because we do not act in this way and because our actions indicate that we do not posses this understanding. Instead, we seem to act in ways that are best for ourselves with the community’s interests being secondary at best. We are all guilty of this, even if we don’t realize it. Becoming aware of this way of thinking is essential to recovering from our solidarity crisis and will take some serious reflection and analysis about the way we live and the way in which the world has been constructed. As mentioned earlier, it will likely be difficult and scary, but as we all know, the best things always are.

The current breakdown of solidarity

This concept of community is under heavy attack and is one of the main reasons for our current solidarity crisis. This is very concerning for it causes us as individuals to do strange things. When we feel part of a community we recognize the benefits of belonging to it and tend to act with solidarity. However, without a community, we feel alone and isolated and therefore turn all our attention away from the community and back to ourselves. We begin to imagine a “survival of the fittest” situation where each person is on their own. When this happens, our actions are no longer focused on the community, but rather on ourselves. What is best for me? How can I best help myself? These are the questions we begin asking and our answers contribute to selfish actions. Without a community we tend to doubt its necessity. If I am able to satisfy my needs only relying on myself, then perhaps I do not need a community.

What we don’t realize, though, is that we are actually worse off when our communities are weakened. This is a familiar idea but one that we perhaps do not apply appropriately to our current situation. For example, most of us would probably not want to become rich if we knew doing so would cost us our friends and families. We are better off with that strong community and therefore are not willing to sacrifice it for perceived personal gain. In another example, we get upset when crime or drug use in our communities go up. We feel pain for those affected and we are hurt by the suffering of others. We as people are a product of those around us so attempting to improve ourselves while hurting others actually does more harm to us than good.

This creates a paradox where doing something that you think benefits yourself actually hurts you and doing something that benefits others, which implies individual sacrifices, actually benefits you. This paradox is not fully understood and therefore causes us to believe that individual action is best for us. We are caught in a trap because we continue thinking that acting for our own benefit actually benefits us. This is understandable, it seems so logical, but it actually goes against much of what many of us believe. Freeing ourselves from this trap is essential if we ever hope to recover from the current solidarity crisis.

This idea is not radical. We all want to live in happy, healthy communities since we know the benefits of this situation. However, we tend to limit the word community to a small group of people that directly impacts our lives. This type of thinking must stop. The world is too connected for us to think our community stops at the border of our town with that of the next. Our community includes not only all the people in our town, county and state, but also everyone in the country and in the whole world. However, this type of thinking is not common and it seems that as time progresses we are going in the opposite direction. Instead of expanding our communities to include everyone, we are shrinking them down and sometimes even eliminating them so that all we are left with is ourselves.

For an example of what is being discussed here, let’s take a look at some recent events that have sent shockwaves around the world: Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. After these events occurred many people both in these countries and out were left asking: how did this happen? To me, the answer is very simple, people voted for what was best for them. They took a look at their situation, determined a series of issues or problems and then responded to the rhetoric that most spoke to them and most promised to relieve these problems. When it’s put like this, perhaps it doesn’t seem so shocking that these events happened. After all, how else are people supposed to act? Well there’s the meat of the problem. Voting was never meant to be about fighting for what is best for YOU, it was meant to help determine what was best for the group, for the COMMUNITY. This is no longer the case. Instead, we pay attention to what is most likely to affect us as individuals, which goes against the central concept of democracy.

When thinking about it like this, voting for Donald Trump actually makes total sense. If I live in Michigan and have spent my whole life working for a car factory that is shut down seemingly overnight and set up in China or Mexico, it makes sense to vote for someone who is promising to “be tough on China” or to renegotiate NAFTA to bring back American jobs. It doesn’t matter if the person saying this has no intention or no real power to do these things, the message rings true for many and it gets people to act. There is no emotion more powerful than fear. When we feel threatened, when we feel backed into a corner, we will always fight to get out and we won’t care who we knock down on the way.

It isn’t hard to see how the idea of community is under heavy attack. We each have our own small communities for whom we would do anything, but most of us draw a line somewhere. We help out where we can and generally try to do good by others, but there is only so much we can do with what we have and this makes us limit who is in our community and who is not. This explains why many of us pass people on the street asking for money with our heads down. It’s not that we don’t want to help, but it’s just that we feel like we can’t. It’s hard enough making ends meet and many of us are limping along from month to month; there just simply isn’t enough to go around. Is this really true, though? Is there really not enough to go around, or are we just confused about what it means to have enough? It is my belief that the latter does a better job of explaining this problem and this is what we will be focusing on next.

How did we get here? The problem of unlimited needs

There is probably not one answer to this question, history is a multi-faceted phenomenon made up of unique events that each affect the future in their own way. But even though there is not one answer to this question, one thing is clear—we did not get here by accident. Rather, our modern world and our collective thoughts and ideologies are the result of a systematic transformation of how we think, which causes us to act in ways that go against our best interests. However, this systematic transformation is not limited to just the planting and propagation of the ideas of competition and of not having enough; it extends to the engraining of this ideas so deep into our collective thoughts that we do not recognize their existence and their threat to our solidarity as people. To combat this trend we must rethink who we are, why we act the way we do and what kind of world we are truly working to obtain.

One of these simple facts that is so engrained in our daily actions that we rarely question it is that the world runs on money. There is absolutely no way to avoid the influence of money on our lives. It causes stress and despair for those who don’t have enough and it provides satisfaction and relief for those who do. Of course there is more to the human experience than just money, but there is no denying the tremendous role it plays in our day-to-day lives. You essentially cannot do anything in this world without money. It is so powerful that without money you might not be able to eat or drink clean water, which are essential and unavoidable processes needed for survival.  Since money has such prominence, we tend not to question it. In a way, it is so influential that it is not even worth it to talk about it; it’s wasted breath and the energy spent looking at this is better used trying to figure out how to fit inside this world rather than change it. But as mentioned earlier, in order to come out of this crisis we must examine and rethink basic assumptions about our lives—the role of money is no different.

But money alone isn’t to blame for the crisis of solidarity; how we obtain it and how we spend it are equally if not more important to explaining this phenomena. The way that we earn money is a vital aspect of who we are. We define ourselves by how we make a living. Think about it, when you meet someone for the first time, one of the first questions asked is “what do you do?” We all work and this common ground serves as a starting point for us to get to know each other. At face value this might not seem so dangerous. After all, people have earned money and used their occupations to construct identity since the beginning of time. However, what separates the modern conception of earning a living is one simple concept: we don’t simply work for it, we compete for it.

Anyone who has ever spent more than a few weeks or months looking for a job knows that the job market is a jungle. You send out hundreds of resumes and cover letters, go to job fairs and networking events, send emails and thank you notes to anyone who pays attention to you and the whole time you are hoping that no one else besides you gets that job. Maybe it’s not that drastic in reality, there is more than one job available, but in terms of the labor market this incredible sense of competition does exist. You must constantly be doing something that you can add to your resume to make you more viable and any side step is a waste of time that puts you at risk of “falling behind.” This is why young people who aren’t in school or aren’t working need to “get their lives together” and this is also why so much pressure is placed on children in school. If they do not take advantage of their time in school, they risk falling behind their future competition and are potentially missing out on fruitful opportunities.

It is this very sense of competition that is dividing communities across the world.

But why do we compete? Part of it is to be able to find a job that makes us happy. Recognizing that we will spend most of our lives at work, many of us work to find something that allows us to earn the money necessary to have the lifestyle we would like to have while also enjoying a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. In this sense, we compete because we want to be able to secure an opportunity that best allows us to be who we want to be.  How we earn and spend money has become so integral to our identities that we are willing to fight for it and give little regard to how our actions affect those in our community. But this does not answer the question of how did we get here. To do that, we must look at the historical and cultural significance of work and the concept of human needs.

Why do we work? Why do we earn money? A common answer to this is that we earn money to get what we need.  This is undeniably true and explains the emergence of work; we specialize in something to be able to trade or buy for that which we do not or cannot make ourselves. This is very logical and easy to understand, but it does not tell the whole story. If it did, why would we compete the way that we do? There are plenty of jobs out in the world that allow us to obtain what we need, but many of us do not want those because we do not think they are sufficient. Why not? Because the word need has been muddled and expanded to something far greater than what it is and this makes it exponentially more difficult to satisfy. The word need has been applied to abstract concepts such as morality, self-confidence, happiness, etc. In this sense, everything can be considered a need and if everything is a need, our needs become unlimited. This idea by itself is not worrisome and is in fact quite logical. We are complex beings with a complex set of needs. However, the way we have come up with to achieve the satisfaction of these needs is rather troubling. They must either be earned through how we make money, our jobs, or more commonly, they must be bought. What we eat, drink, wear, put in our homes, give as gifts, etc. each says something about who we are as people. They each satisfy an abstract need. It is for this reason that we compete. We compete because we never think we are going to have enough or because when we do have enough, we feel as though we need more. If this were not the case, we would not compete as we do. Instead, with our own needs covered we would look to help others cover theirs, but this rarely occurs as we are constantly trapped in the never-ending quest to satisfy our unlimited needs.

This paints a rather bleak picture and I understand many of us do try to help others, but it doesn’t seem that we as people are ready to accept a world where we only want what we need and we understand that we don’t need much of what we want. These abstract human needs can never be satisfied through the means we currently use and this is the cause of much of the strife in our world. Those who have do not want to sacrifice their ability to define who they are and those who do not have want this more than anything. Both parties do not think they can achieve what they want by allowing the other to do so as well. This creates a deep-rooted conflict in our global society that stands little chance of being resolved if we continue as we are. Instead, we should be focusing on satisfying these needs through communication, empathy, understanding and love. Until this happens, the battle for who we are will continue until it tears humanity apart.

Why did this happen? How to explain the widespread acceptance of unlimited needs

It was mentioned earlier that this crisis of solidarity was not an accident but rather a systematic transformation of how we think. The question this statement begs is: how did that transformation take place? The answer is both terrifyingly complex and shockingly simple: advertising and mass media. It seems ridiculous, but those seemingly harmless forms of entertainment that try to make you laugh or cry or feel nostalgic are actually working to create and reinforce this idea that we can never have enough and that how we earn and spend money helps us define who we are. What they have done is capitalized on this idea of abstract and endless needs in the name of profit. Six large companies own all the news media in the United States and film studios, publishing houses, television networks and other forms of mass media have combined to construct a reality about how to satisfy these needs that fits in rather nicely with the competitive environment in which we live. These influences work best when we are not aware of them and understanding is our only defense.

To illustrate this concept let’s look specifically at advertising and how some of the world’s largest corporations use it to propagate the idea of unlimited needs. There is not enough space in this article to tackle the role of all of mass media so for the sake of brevity we will focus on just this aspect.

What does Apple or Nike or GM really sell? Obviously on a basic level they sell electronics, athletic apparel and cars. But how do they convince a potential consumer to buy their product? How do they get someone to choose their phone or shoe or car over someone else’s? Easy, they don’t sell a product, they sell portions of an identity. Okay, maybe this isn’t easy; this concept is the result of decades of developments in advertising and marketing. In fact, this is taught in business schools all around the world. The ideas of “brand management” or “corporate image” are based on this concept. You want someone to feel something when they buy your product. This is a central aspect of modern day advertising and is also a key theme in the hit series Mad Men. Evoking emotions is what set Don Draper and his colleagues apart from the competition and is what made them so successful.

This is a pretty powerful concept because by doing this, by selling identities, these companies have moved the things we buy into the realm of human needs. There is a simple psychological concept called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that divides human needs into 6 categories starting with the basics such as food and water and ending with more abstract things like self-actualization. This pyramid is used in business schools and is taught to people in advertising and marketing. They know what they are doing because it has been proven to work. Here’s the whole pyramid:

The idea is that as you achieve or satisfy one set of needs you begin to look for others. It makes sense that if you lack food and water you probably are not too concerned with friendship or morality. However, this doesn’t mean you only focus on one set of needs at a time. Once you satisfy the basic ones you are constantly searching for how to satisfy the others. But what is shocking here is how so many of these concepts fit into what these companies that we just discussed sell to try and get you to buy their products.

Let’s look at some real life examples so we can see how pervasive this concept is. Here’s a recent advertisement by Nike:

In terms of a product, what is this ad really selling? The reality is we’re not quite sure. The man in the commercial is wearing a NIKE shirt and shoes and based on what we know about NIKE, it is safe to say this is what they are selling. But, how much attention is given to the shoes and shirt? Do you know how much they cost? Do you know why they are better than Reebok or Adidas shoes? Do you know where to pick them up? No! This is not surprising, though. First, NIKE is so well-known that they really don’t need to include this information in their ads. Second, and this is the more important justification, NIKE in this advertisement is not trying to sell shoes and shirts; instead, it is selling an identity, or parts of it. So what identity is being advertised here? The narrator is asking Chris Mosier, the first transgender athlete to make the Men’s Olympic Team, how he knew that he would make the team or that he would be able to compete. Mosier responds to each question that he did not know, which means he had to rely on himself to stay motivated. The narrator also asks how he knew the team would “accept” him, to which he also replies that he didn’t. This, along with the overall tone of the advertisement, screams confidence, self-esteem and respect. NIKE is saying that its products are for people who want to be like Mosier, who want to believe in themselves and succeed above all odds. NIKE is saying that by buying its products you are helping to satisfy your needs. These needs are coincidentally found clearly listed on Maslow’s Hierarchy.

We tend to think that advertising doesn’t work, that it doesn’t have an effect on us and that despite its constant presence we are capable of making decisions on our own. This is somewhat true. We are capable of ignoring its influences, this is why we do not all own NIKE shoes or Apple phones. However, the underlying goal of this advertising has been more than achieved. Think about buying shoes. For all intents and purposes every single shoe ever invented is exactly the same; they perform the same function of protecting your feet. However, we do not all own the same shoes. We carefully choose certain styles, colors and brands based on who we are and what we like. In this sense, advertising and mass media has already won. We are using these products to define who we are, to satisfy our needs. All of us are subjected to this and this is why companies spend so much on advertising and why we can say unequivocally that it works.

Muddling the idea of a need has tremendous consequences that are not just limited to the unsustainable trend of modern human consumption. This message forces us to use material things to try and fulfill needs that are anything but material. Self-confidence doesn’t come from the shoes you wear or the car you drive, but those in charge of creating and spreading the messages we receive want you to think that it does. This has a huge impact on how we communicate and how we construct our identities. By making this connection between material consumption and identity, we are creating a scenario where this consumption becomes something we must do and must fight to maintain.

How does all this relate to solidarity?

To understand how this connects to our current breakdown in solidarity, let’s take a look at the following diagram:

Solidarity breakdown chain

Basically, by co-opting the concept of a need, large corporations have created the ideal scenario for their continued growth: individualism. We as people compete amongst ourselves to satisfy something that we cannot really ever satisfy.  This hostile environment disconnects us from any sense of community. This is why democracy is under such siege. Corporations prey on this idea of scarcity and of not having enough so that we vote for what seems best for us, for what is going to give us as individuals the best chance of obtaining the resources necessary to satisfy these needs. Meanwhile, governments have been taken over by these corporations who rig the game in their favor to further perpetuate this situation. By creating this environment, the concept of voting and elections is totally skewed. We no longer vote for what is best for everyone; we vote for what is best for ourselves as we no longer feel part of a community.

This is the most dangerous thing facing us as humans in today’s modern age. Much of this movement is based around trying to get an understanding of what it means to be human. The idea behind this is to try and reestablish this idea of community, a human community, to which we all belong. If how we currently define ourselves as human beings is derived from how we earn and spend money, we will never truly understand what it means to be human. Instead, we will continue to compete for something we can never obtain. This prevents us from listening to each other and from working together.

This movement hopes to create something that reminds us that selfish individual action does not create collective societal benefit.  What benefits society is solidarity and the acknowledgement that we are all in this together. We are not competing against each other for survival anymore, those days are long behind us. So it is time we accept it and begin working together for the survival of humanity. We started this conversation with Alexandre Dumas and let’s finish it the same way:

“One for all and all for one, united we stand, divided we fall.”

If we let ourselves get divided, if we put up barriers between us and those around us, we will fall.

Let us know what you think. Are we in a crisis of solidarity? Does advertising have an impact on us? Do you feel like you are part of a community?

These are just a few questions to get the conversation started but please weigh in with your reactions. Agree, disagree, not sure, every opinion is valid and must be voiced. Comment on this post below or send in material to