Reimagining Solidarity, Acting on an Anthropological Imagination

Mamyrah Prosper (Graduate Center, CUNY)
Mark Schuller (NIU, Faculté d’Ethnologie)

An anthropological imagination connects the species level to lived experience, seeing particular local injustices as manifestations of global capitalism, built on plantation slavery and buttressed by patriarchy, and hence connected to one another. Products of human action, they are therefore changeable. Importantly, an anthropological imagination also sees these global and species level phenomena as lived, understood, and confronted by real human beings. We must identify the humanity in others, and the common humanity in their struggle, while affirming particular positionalities and challenging differential privilege: an anthropological imagination inspires radical empathy and solidarity.

Solidarity is not just about empathy or concern for others. It is certainly not speaking on behalf of others, being “the voice for the voiceless” in a long line of noblesse oblige, what Teju Cole called the “white savior industrial complex.” It is acknowledging that specific forms of oppression intersect with others, and moreover, at the heart of these systems is dehumanization. It is truly believing that my liberation is tied to the liberation of others. Solidarity is believing in and understanding the indivisibility of justice. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Humanity is brought together in a single global capitalist market, with some hybridized, asterisked exceptions. This system of accumulation was created first by the genocide and expropriation of indigenous peoples followed immediately by the enslavement of Africans. The system is maintained by white supremacy, preying on racial fears and self-doubt, and enforced by nationalism and xenophobia, maintaining borders to regulate who has access to resources.

Solidarity is identifying the shared humanity in particular communities in struggle and acknowledging that advancing human liberation requires supporting them and the particulars of that struggle, while identifying the common roots and the multiple connections. Solidarity is about recognizing ourselves in the other, understand that we too struggle against the transactional bodily relations capitalism imposes. Those of us located within imperial centers then have a responsibility to dismantle it from within, disrupting the processes of violence and accumulation. Solidarity is practicing love, building connections that do not depend on capitalist accumulation, corporate media, militaristic and imperial states, and the system of nations set up to justify and endorse these processes of dehumanization.

As anthropologists, many of us imagine some form of solidarity in our ‘activist’ work, but surprisingly given the public promotion of public engagement within anthropology, the dilemmas of solidarity remain undertheorized. Moreover, given the insularity of U.S. (Global North) academia, Global South partners become the native informants we do not have to face, resulting in a dangerously incomplete understanding of solidarity.

Many still use a model published two decades ago by political scientists Keck and Sikkink, in which groups in the Global South appeal to those in the Global North to lobby our governments to pressure their host governments. Its effectiveness aside, this model normalizes imperialist geopolitical inequalities. And the specific forms of solidarity activism presuppose involvement with NGOs, which most often reproduce the same asymmetrical relationships of power.

We would also call attention to the specific forms of solidarity activism that are practiced in the Global North in and do they match the activism in the Global South in terms of tactics and intensity, or is some vitality or radical vision ‘lost in translation’?

Also, we are interested in interrogating the specific identities and positionalities of those acting in solidarity: is the solidarity subject imagined as relatively powerful, i.e., white, male, middle-class, able-bodied, cisgendered, and heterosexual? Does or should the solidarity relationship entail some transformation of these inequalities and even identities, akin to the transformation that social movement scholars (e.g., Alvarez and Escobar) have described?

  • What roles are being claimed by those in structurally marginalized positions, the “South in the North?” Are there examples of these activist exchanges?
  • As anthropologists, can we begin grappling toward more appropriate models?
  • Is such a solidarity described above possible in this contemporary moment?
  • What kinds of relationships would need to be built or strengthened? Between whom?
  • How would these relationships be sustained?
  • What roles are appropriate for anthropologists? What are not?

Since we are admittedly submitting this query late, we are asking for a quick response: please email by Monday, April 9 with a sketch of ideas you’d like to cover. Please include details about the issue, the countries involved, and the organizations. We will try and assemble a panel that reflects a diversity of experiences.

Thank you.