Intellectuals and working class movements

Chuck Grimes cgrimes at
Tue Oct 20 13:10:34 PDT 1998


We have a completely different conception about the nature of solidarity. You begin your post to Nathan Newman with:

"I completely agree with you regarding norms and the enforcement of them is central to social solidarity."

Solidarity has nothing to do with norms or enforcement, and since political action is a social act, that social solidarity arrives without any collective coercion, enforcement or conceptualization of what is or isn't a norm. But I am coming at this from experience, not theory.

There are a lot of different names for solidarity, and one that is in the American and French tradition is fraternity. I suppose musicians work toward this feeling all the time as do dancers and any collective art form. In that manifestation, then social solidarity maybe all about creating norms, perhaps. But solidarity also arrives in political action and it is an astonishing phenomenon. Of course the authorities call it mob rule, and it is that also. It can be criminal, anti-social, and pathological. But of all the things it is, it isn't a norm and it doesn't function as if it were an ordinary social norm, as in say, acceptable hair cuts or appropriate dress. Solidary in this other form can evaporate in a heart beat, where as norms evolve but are never absent.

But you are speaking of solidarity as a long term phenomenon, more like a political movement with a collective agenda, which then becomes legalistic, a proto-state, subject to all the tools of guilt and shame, managed but dead, a corpse so to speak.

I don't think of solidarity as that kind of phenomenon at all. I think of it as a kind collective passion of imminent intensity, a rapture. There is something like it in sports events, but that is a manufactured, managed, and manipulated, externally control phenomenon. That form is something like a staged and commodified imitation: promised, often delivered on time, plenty of norms and enforcement, and of course costs money--buy your ticket and participate--bah, humbug.

What I think of is externally unmanageable and completely internal to the collective itself, as if a mass were alive, autonomous as a public body. It is spontaneous, like life, it just happens for no reason, or for so many reasons there is no rational accounting for them all. It is also the preamble to revolution that can degrade at anytime into mass criminality or random insurrections. But it can also cohere, not as a norm, but as a unified direction, not through enforcement, but through the very thing that it is--through solidarity in action.

So, I reserve a special place for the word solidarity, because I once lived it a few times and I'll never forget it. Whenever I see tapes of demonstrations or mass actions, I look for it, like a voyeur gazing into a cherished pornographic image. Mostly it is absent. But sometimes it isn't, and I suspect it was very much present in Eastern Europe, liberating itself from whatever it was that was once there. Which reminds me to wonder at what the great masses of people who created revolution in Russia, would have thought, seeing their great grandchildren running in the street again. Would their old gray eyes well up with tears of joy or sorrow? Perhaps they would be mixed, ambiguous, fearful, but full of intense recognition.

In any event, the State disappears. Suddenly it is gone, because no one is sitting at their desk administering it and there is nothing to be found of its normal presumption, except the police and the military. But even they start to dissolve without an external authority, because that very authority has evaporated and been replace with this looming and autonomous body, this collective cohering in solidarity. In this form then, class and most other constructed divisions disappear as part of the cohesion--I mean that is the cohesion, the solidarity.

I think of it on that scale, rather than the refined nuances of acceptable social conduct, petty monitors at pick lines and whether intellectuals and workers have anything in common. I mean, I think you have to have seen this other thing about solidarity in order to even believe it can exist. Of course I only sensed this larger manifestation, transforming many little interrupted and short lived experiences into the longer, more continuous forms they must take on. But I am pretty convinced that these were the stuff, the stuff of history. So, when I read Fukayama's (?) "End of History" essay later in Time or some other news rag, I startled the barber shop I was in with a kind of hysterical laughter. What foolishness.

It is probable that Marx had these same sorts of experiences and dreamed of them becoming communism--that is transformed them into theory, making them concrete, and attempting to define how to turn them into the means of social cohesion, as opposed to the the tyranny of the police and the grueling control exercised on waged slaves though the medium of mere paper.

I don't know. I haven't managed to read enough and am not that far along in my re-read project to know. It is probably a mistake, but I want to read him as he develops this time, like an author rather than a social and economic theorist. All I ever read long ago were bits and pieces, endless derivatives, and listened too a lot of rhetoric. OTOH, this is turning out to be a big and difficult project, because his work is so scattered and disassembled. But even this is interesting since at least some of that careless dis-assembly bares the marks of concrete history: used ad hoc as a religious icon or suppressed as pure heretical text.

What you are hearing from me, the rhetorical and dogmatic tone, is an echo. I have been participating in an oral history project run by the Bancroft Library at UCB. They are collecting oral histories of experiences from various student movements. I was part of some of these as one nameless entity among a mass and then later on was part of one of their institutionalizations. So I've been recounting these experiences, last night in particular. So that is what you are hearing, echos of the past.

But, I promise to brush my teeth, comb my hair, tie my shoes, and get to K-mart on time--in solidarity with most known norms.

Chuck Grimes

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