Calogero Giametta reflects on ‘Political Solidarity: Border Control and Incarceration’, the final workshop organised in the context of his visiting research fellowship at the BIH.

Banner dropped on Vauxhall Bridge in London on the day of Trump’s inauguration (January 2017) Image from: http://www.huckmagazine.com/perspectives/activism-2/bridges-walls-london-stands-together-trumps-inauguration/

In the wake of infectious right-wing ideals permeated by racism, new forms of populist politics and neo-fundamentalism across the Global North, attending to the significance of political solidarity becomes an ever pressing issue. The academic focus on solidarity can be traced a long way back; there have been many commentators within disparate fields of political and socio-economic inquiry seeking to scrutinise solidarity as a concept, a set of practices (of learning and living), and as transformative politics. Activists in and from different places think through and enact it in a quotidian engagement with both finite and perpetual political struggles.

In December 2016 at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, four scholars and activists involved in solidarity work presented four short papers, in the context of a workshop dedicated to political solidarity. Here I am providing a summary of what went on that event, when solidarity became the protagonist! This workshop explored questions around different understandings and enactments of solidarity across different locations (the UK, as well as other parts of western Europe such as Italy and Spain). In the larger context of political shifts to the right, accompanied by the politics of austerity, the dismantling of the welfare state, further privatization and increased suspicion towards minoritised social groups, we discussed solidarity pedagogies and activism by thinking through the notions of trust, relationality and separation. Alongside a focus on geopolitical borders we also attended to how solidarity happens across other kinds of physical borders such as prison walls (S. Lamble). Some central questions we raised include: When/how does solidarity work at its best? How do commonalities and differences feature in the expression of solidarity?

Chandra T. Mohanty’s scholarship on transnational feminist practices was an apt starting point for us, as this work reminds us that solidarity does not need sameness in order to happen. But how do we relate to difference when enacting solidarity? Mohanty (2003) directs us towards the importance of emphasising the way that ‘differences are never just differences’ because, as she argues, in attempting to understand differences and particularities we can better see the connections and commonalities. A feminist solidarity is, or should be, built upon the ‘common differences’ syntagm. Mohanty helps us understand that common differences should always be the basis for building solidarity, as the enactment of the latter should always take stock of differences through stressing relationality rather than separation.

At the outset of our discussion on solidarity, separation was what led me to reference the stage upon which the current fight on gender and sexual rights has been played out in today’s Italy. I focused on the resurgent gender panic vis-à-vis recent developments such as civil unions and surrogate motherhood in the Italian context, and the divided resistance politics this has created (Gender: Between Neoliberalism and Neo-fundamentalism, Zappino ed. 2016). Moments of political solidarity have formed but also quickly dissipated across self-organised queer groups and mainstream LGBT organisations fighting against the rise of heterosexualising demands of the Italian public space. The Vatican and catholic groups (see Ratzinger’s letter to the bishops 2004), government policies and initiatives (Family Day under Berlusconi in 2007, the Fertility Day in 2016), and secular neo-fundamentalist groups (Manif pour tous Italia, Giuristi per la vita, Sentinelle in piedi, No Gender, etc.) have launched an attack against what they define as ‘gender ideology’, a phrase through which they refer to the teaching of gender theories in Italian schools. They vigorously challenge the supposedly dangerous influences that the teachings of ‘gender theory’ are having in schools—to paraphrase Pope Francis’s expression—as these colonize the minds of the children across the nation. The attack on ‘gender ideology’ targets different actors within Italian society, from feminist to LGBT individuals and groups. These, in turn, have not responded in unison. Despite this concurrent condemnation, why has solidarity been so slow to emerge amongst the targeted people? In the present climate, divisions have surely overshadowed solidarity practices among LGBT/feminist groups across the country, as they understand the workings of power and oppression differently from one another. And even when faced with a common threat they have remained separated, rather than  coming together in solidarity because of different political/ethical/epistemological, and in some cases, ideological positions. Following my paper, Sara Lamble addressed the question of ‘difference’ in solidarity in a way that resonated with Mohanty’s suggestion of looking at difference through the lens of relationality rather than separation.

Lamble’s paper ‘Rethinking the politics of solidarity across prison walls’ referred to her own involvement as an organiser with the Bent Bar Project, a pen-pal scheme for LGBTQ and gender non-conforming prisoners in Britain. She started with a critique of the conventional understandings of solidarity, which privilege categories of ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’ as a basis of unity among individuals and groups. These conventional definitions are inadequate for the material realities of prisoner justice work and efforts to engage in meaningful solidarity across prison walls. Lamble argued for an alternative understanding of solidarity that involves three components: (a) solidarity as an epistemological rather than ontological relation that alters how we understand and relate to ourselves and others; (b) solidarity as an attempt to acknowledge, challenge and transform hierarchies of power; (c) solidarity as a practice of connection rather than unity. Using this approach, and drawing from examples and dilemmas within queer and trans prisoner solidarity work in the UK, she argued that the solidarities, which are the most difficult to practice, are the ones that are most needed. What we took away from Lamble’s analysis was that ‘the transformative potential of prisoner solidarity work lies less in its promise of unity through commonality and more in its capacity to challenge established relations of knowledge and power, particularly among differently situated subjects’. Finally, she suggested that in order to move away from the notion of solidarity as sameness, solidarity work should be understood as ‘epistemologically generative’ insofar as it generates space for novel modes of knowing and relating to others. The epistemological dimension of solidarity was also importantly present in Sarah Keenan’s paper, albeit through a different focus.

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Artwork by Fernando Marti Quetzal (http://justseeds.org/artist/fernandomarti/)

Keenan’s ‘Solidarity in the face of fascism’ (based on work with Nadine El-Enany) reflected on what solidarity demands in an age of rising racist nationalism and fascism. Keenan argued that an understanding of racial capitalism is necessary for the purpose of accurately analysing recent political developments such as the Brexit and Trump victories. She adopted a critical race feminist perspective in critiquing positions which prioritise long-term political goals at any cost. Keenan argued that solidarity can only emerge from a strategy that has, at its core, the immanent safety and well-being of the most vulnerable in society. In order for solidarity to emerge, the safety of racialised people must therefore be prioritised over the pursuit of theoretical political goals. In the Brexit context, Keenan took the example of the ‘Lexit’ position (the left-wing argument for a Leave vote with the political goal of building a socialist Britain outside the EU). Some maintained this ‘Lexit’ position despite the increasingly violent racist sentiment and actions that occurred in the run-up to the referendum. Keenan’s analysis points to the fact that calls for solidarity and unity are premature without a process for rebuilding of trust on the Left.

We have seen how difficult creating the conditions for bringing about solidarity are, but solidarity can happen and it happens in different sites of the social field, even within bordered institutional settings. By focusing on the legal space within Spain, in her presentation ‘Political solidarity and lawyering ’, Carla Mirallas discussed the possibilities, limits and risk for radical/critical lawyers to show solidarity with activists in the fight against state repression. Mirallas looked at how state repression in Spain has been reinforced over the past years through police brutality, legislative reforms that criminalise the right to protest and several antiterrorist police operations aimed at targeting activists. The paper was based on her interviews with three Spanish lawyers who represented people arrested in the framework of recent police operations. Drawing on an understanding of solidarity as a radical empowering concept to resist repression, the interviews showed that solidarity worked at its best when lawyers decided to take a side and not remain silent in front of the injustices produced by the system and its institutions—thus breaking neutrality/impartiality and working towards unmasking the reality of the legal and judicial system.

Undoubtedly, it requires large amounts of work and time in order for solidarity to emerge. However, it is ever more relevant to consider place and context. If urban space has been acutely affected by gentrification, and public space increasingly privatised, where are the places for the emergence and sustainability of solidarity today? In addition, some workshop participants brought up the role the Internet plays in our understanding and enactment of solidarity; if on the one hand we complain about the individualising character of social media interactions, on the other we must acknowledge the potential for producing a space of tactical resistance that can readily translate into transformative solidarity work across physical borders. Yet without a strong commitment to do the work and a continuous willingness to learn, be it online or offline, solidarity cannot generate new ways of seeing and relating to others.

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