The Thinning of Solidarity: A misalignment of economy and emotions

Jesse Callahan Bryant
7 min readJan 29, 2023

Originally posted HERE, at my Substack.

A long time ago a French guy named Emile wrote this whole long book called The Division of Labor in Society where he basically was like, human societies held together by a kind of social magnetism we might call solidarity, and there are a couple kinds. You know, there’s the stuff that makes up families and close communities, romantic partners, the intimate stuff. When economies were small and localized, this is the only sort of affinity that exists. It’s an old kind of solidarity that operates very much in the emotional register.

But then as the world has industrialized, nationalized and then globalized there’s this other sort of thing too where like, I rely on this farmer guy for food and he relies on me to teach his kids in school because he’s a farmer and I’m a teacher. We’re not family, but our lives are kind of entangled now. Neither of us planned for it to be this way, but it just is. This is a newer kind of solidarity that only really exists in complex societies and doesn’t really operate on an emotional register.

Like, sure, my life is entangled with this farmer guy, but we don’t hang out and drink together or celebrate holidays together or anything. Maybe he even voted for Trump and is Christian, whereas I voted for Biden and am an atheist. I just rely on him for some basic shit and he relies on me.

This second type of solidarity was very much at stake during the formation of nation states and still is today. It’s what’s tested by the tension between like, Massachusetts and Mississippi, East and West Germany, Quebec and Alberta, etc: Is the solidarity strong enough to keep a nation together? Does Quebec rely sufficiently on Alberta, and do people know that? Do people feel connected? Oh, how easy national politics would be if Massachusetts didn’t have to deal with places like Mississippi, Alabama, and Wyoming.

The division of labor amongst the nation — that is, between farmers in Wisconsin, millers in Maine, miners in Colorado, and financiers in New York — and the tensions therein are what constituted the politics of the past 200 years. The question of whether the farmer and miner and financier respect one another for what they do and feel sufficiently respected in return was the basic sociological question needed in determining whether national politics was succeeding or not.

When we were all living in self-sufficient villages it was obvious who we relied on for what, and that generated a really obvious type of community. The industrial revolution made that social visibility of who we rely on a little more difficult, and thus feeling a sense of community a little more difficult too. Mutualism became invisible.

Non-settler colonialism turned solidarity on its head too by basically saying the goal is not actually to create an economy reinforced with solidarity. Instead, this is parasitism. We will extract, and even create rules so that human solidarity does not emerge. In British Indian, for instance, it was economy without solidarity.

Today, the basic economic order of the past 70 years — privatize, liberalize, globalize — has replicated this pattern, just without the bad look of colonies. Labor is no longer divided within a nation, but between nations. If the jump from self sufficient villages to nation states was hard enough, consider now the division of labor across the globe. Trees harvested in Georgia are sent to China for processing into two-by-fours and then sent to a Home Depot in Texas to be sold. And thus there is basically no chance for the human warmth of solidarity to reinforce those economic entanglements. We’ve built an economic system wherein the consumer must be totally obscured from the producer.

In short, it obscures our interdependence on one another, especially on nonhuman life, and we lack, as literal human animals, the level of consciousness to be aware of what we rely on for life.

Where I live (New Haven, Connecticut, USA) has almost nothing to do now with what I live off. I am sitting here drinking tea from India from a cup from China, drinking water from a plastic water bottle fashioned in Texas. I just ate a can of soup from packaged in California with bread that was packaged by Whole Foods in Texas. As I read the label it says its Certified Organic, but I’m not allowed to know where the grain was grown, however, the certification was done by Quality Assurance International (not USDA) which suggests to me that the flour could have come literally anywhere and probably did not come from the USA.

Next to me I have books from Norway, the UK, New York, and Virginia. I have no idea where the paper and thus trees came from. Not only is there no information about the paper, it might be unknowable. This is the thing: today our actual ecology is unknowable.

All I know is that I’m more connected as a living creature to China, India, and Norway than I am to East Haven, Connecticut where, despite being 2 miles from me, I’ve basically never been. I am more of a local to Petaluma, California than to Hamden, Connecticut. My life is entangled with the flow of intellectual ideas of Austin, but not the wonderful bakeries and diners in nearby Waterbury where I basically never go.

This is the way in which our economy fucks up time and space, and thus nature. All this entanglement with no commitment. Here in the US, we rely on China for everything, but are told to hate them too. We’re told to care about the Uyghur genocide, but only insofar as it is a frame for China being bad because if Americans knew how much they relied on the Chinese for life the United States might cease to exist. They are us, we are them.

And yet, the global type of solidarity is so weak it basically does not exist. People at Davos and COP say it exists, mostly because it does for them, us, the select few of global travelers. Everyone else who hears them talking about some “global community” thinks they sound delusional. The vast majority of people have never felt a global solidarity, let alone a national solidarity. Consider the lines drawn by white people across the African continent and wonder whether those polygons we call nations are real things or not. Conservative operators know how stupid the global elite sounds when they calk like this, and out of this misjudgment emerges populism.

The problem then is that we have a global economy that has outran the real human capacity for solidarity. In other words, we have a global ecology that has run too thin. The social magnetism that holds the social molecule we call national or global community together is too weak. The progressive metaphysics of the elite see a global community as the unavoidable future of our planet just as Saint Augustine was sure heaven followed life. They could be right, and so could Augustine.

The general left react to this misaligned solidarity in the sort of “think global act local” way, which is fine, but asks more questions than it answers. As Bruno Latour has pointed out, it’s not clear whether that’s possible, whether humans beings, the actual humans that exist, the earthly animals that have enormous inabilities of consciousness, can in fact “think global” and “act local” because doing so makes zero sense. It implies a completely schizophrenic policy agenda.

In its bluntest possible formulation, it’s an open question whether people can return to the soil without becoming super racist, xenophobic, and tribalistic. It might just not be the case that we can all start permaculture farms and solve climate change and the racial wealth gap and the gender pay gap and liberate everyone on Earth and stop species extinction.

We can’t care about everything everywhere all the time. The emerging far-right is reacting to this by being like, let’s go back to that original type of solidarity because even the national, let alone global shit is stupid. They do this with racist and xenophobic politics. It works. It works really well, which should tell us something about the failure of scaling solidarity and economy to the globe.

The funniest thing though about a lot of the far-right is how blind they are to their global entanglements. Movements in Germany, Hungary, and Texas are mirror images. The anti-Asian merchandise they sell to raise money are made in China. The neoconservative economic positions they offer were first imagined by Jewish intellectuals in New York.

Much of the far-right imagines themselves as radicals, but they are cosplaying. The autarkic utopia they imagine exists. In a street in Janesville, Wisconsin a group of skinheads and Antifa protestors are both wearing black clothes made in China. On both sides of the screaming match neither know where their breakfast came from. Neither know where the gasoline that powered their car to get them to the protest came from.

Just south of Janesville an eighteen-year-old Amish kid is planting a seed that will grow into a watermelon that will be sold at the auction in August. Half the produce goes to auction, the other half into his family’s body.

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Jesse Callahan Bryant

Jesse is a Ph.D. student at the Yale School of the Environment, creator of the Yonder Lies podcast, and instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School.