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What Holds Europe Together?

Krzysztof Michalski


Reflections on Solidarity

Ira Katznelson

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1The central concept in the Europe Paper is ‘solidarity,’ with a focus on values that might integrate a diverse, often fractious, European continent. I believe the concept to be more inherently complex than the essay signifies, so it is about this intricacy and density that I wish to comment. For when we speak about solidarity, its content is not self-evident. Nor are the values on which it stands. Indeed, I have constructed a short-list of attractive normative possibilities of meaning for the term. Each, we will quickly see, is morally appealing. Yet each possesses internal contradictions, and, to some extent, has an uneasy relationship to the others.

2Let me explain what I mean. One basis of solidarity would be a shared commitment to liberty. A second might be a shared commitment to certain moral values—say about the worth of the human person. A third might be solidarity with respect to the way in which governments act to create conditions in which citizenship becomes meaningful by helping to secure a threshold of social and economic equality. This is solidarity based on common social citizenship. Fourth, we could mean by solidarity collective understandings of how the polity—whether a nation-state or a semi-formal polity like the European Union—constructs a common position that evokes solidarity amongst elites and citizens with respect to other polities in the international arena.

3Each one of these potential arenas of potential solidarity is internally contested. There is, quite obviously, no single correct or uncontroversial basis for defining the dimension of liberty. Issues concerning whose liberty, what liberty, and which individuals get to be within the zone of liberty—including issues of membership, immigration, and minority status like that of the Roma in Europe and African Americans in the United States—continue to be subjects of robust dispute.

4The Western liberal tradition, which has much to say about such values as consent, toleration, political representation, and basic rights, has nothing inherent to say about who gets to be a liberal citizen and how access to liberty is to be secured by all. If this is to be the basis of Europe’s solidarity, clearly much remains to be done to clarify relevant values, policies, and circumstances. Perhaps no issue will challenge Europe more with regard to this zone of solidarity than that of potential Turkish admission to the EU.

5Likewise, there are deeply conflicted understandings about the moral and ethical bases of respect for the individual person. Although Europe, in the main, is the globe’s most secularly oriented region, the meaning of such respect remains contested—at times, as in recent disputes concerning homosexuality and membership in the European Commission, in religious terms. We see these kinds of disputes about the meaning of life, family, and sexuality more directly in the American polity, because there is a part of my country’s political discourse that is shamelessly religious. I say shamelessly, because it is meant to mobilize votes through religious commitments. But such issues do not go away, even when politicians avoid the kind of talk that appeals to evangelical Protestants or traditional Catholics in the United States. The question of what the normative basis of respect for the person, for the group, and for life—to use that charged word—should be essentially contested, not just in the United States, but in every single country I know in Europe.

6Equally, the dimension of solidarity concerned with the role of government in creating meaningful and just social citizenship is not an area where agreement, let along consensus, comes naturally. In very broad terms, there is talk of a European social model, but every party system and every parliamentary arena is rife with disagreement about the composition of this model. So, too, is solidarity based on foreign policy. Secretary Rumsfeld’s binary distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europe may have been tendentious and ill-intentioned, but he accurately identified a profound lack of cohesion on the continent with regard to the policies of the United States and the role of multilateral institutions.

7The very concept of solidarity, in short, is internally heterogeneous, conflictual and not simply additive. The maximization of goods in one dimension or arena of solidarity may, depending on the circumstances, create problems for the maximization of moral and other goods at other levels that can also provide the basis for solidarity. Conflict within zones and conflict across zones implies that, unavoidably and perpetually, there are choices to be made, not just about whether to promote a common—say European or American or Western— solidarity, but about the kind of solidarity we wish to have.

8Solidarity is a conception composed of layers, each of which is something like a continuous variable, to use a social science term. Each dimension—whether it concerns liberty, the human person, social justice, or collective international policy—can possess more or less specific, often controversial, values; these dimensions combine and recombine in different ways at different moments as products of a political process. Decent democratic politics directly confronts choices about these dimensions of solidarity.

9None of the ‘goods’ that define solidarity in each dimension, moreover, are ever possessed equally by all citizens, or potential citizens. There is with respect to each of these aspects, as an empirical matter (both in the United States and in Europe), a great deal of inequality. Not every citizen enjoys freedom equally; not every life is valued equally; not every citizen enjoys social justice equally; not every client group gains from an active government; not every citizen can influence or shape foreign policy. Hierarchies of power are steep. At a minimum, they challenge each of solidarity’s bases. Sometimes, they are so exorbitant that they mock the concept itself, revealing it, at times, to be a specious or utopian conceit.

10Solidarity, moreover, has to be judged not as a good ‘a priori,’ but a good in terms of its capacity to deal with crisis and to grapple with human diversity. The very conception of solidarity as a normative and institutional basis for organizing social reality, the very character of solidarity, implies a capacity to perform positive tasks. We would not wish to worry about solidarity unless we thought its absence would make it harder to perform those valued tasks.

11We need to judge solidarity not simply in the abstract, but in terms of the particular mix or configuration or constellation of elements that compose it, and in terms of its ability to deal, first of all, with deep potential economic, social, political, or geopolitical crises which come at some point for all of us, and, secondly, with the most remarkable feature of Western modernity: its demographic, cultural, social and geographic diversity. If we cannot deal with diversity, if solidarity cripples diversity, then it will fail. If solidarity is merely a cover for good times but cannot help us get through hard times, it is not much of a model or ideal for social integration.

12Let us not assume that the more solidarity the better. But all depends on what kind. The last century offers us many examples of strong solidarities that were not just ugly, but far worse. We also know from sociological literature that social solidarity may be the result of what the network analyst, Mark Granovetter, calls “the strength of weak ties.” It is possible to build durable social structures on the basis of ties which are not very tightly bound, but which, indeed, are weaker than a threshold level often looked to when we talk about high levels of solidarity.

13Let me give an example from the history of the American trade union movement: in the 1930s, a period of massive growth in membership for mass production unions in the United States, the working class population in those factories was remarkably heterogeneous. How did Polish immigrants, Irish immigrants, Jewish immigrants, German immigrants, and black immigrants from the South actually fashion union solidarity? Traditional Marxist analysis might say “of course they’d be solidaristic, they are members of the working class,” but it is not so simple to form a solidaristic trade union in the face of such cultural diversity. A good argument can be made that the ethnic and religious groups who composed this union working class of the 1930s brought with them experiences of local trust. Robust local ties facilitated the construction of paradoxically ‘weak’ yet ‘strong’ links among these workers. Thus, as an example, Polish neighborhood solidarity organizations taught people practices of trust that they then transferred across ethnic, religious and racial lines in workplace settings. The unions were built on weak ties layered on top of strong ties.

14We thus need to think harder about the nature of networks that connect people, both elites and masses, in different social groups and different social classes to each other in common public spheres. We need to think about those networks as consisting not only of one valence or one level, but also of heterogeneous linkages in terms of varieties of strength and weakness. Finally, we have to think about solidarity as a boundary condition. If we speak of European solidarity or American solidarity or human solidarity, each site of solidarity implies a set of boundaries—between people and among normative and institutional positions. This is never a single list of values. Rather, solidarity is composed as a perpetually contested set of configurations combining values and institutions in distinct constellations.

15From this perspective, the European Union and the terms of its solidarity are so very important, from an American point of view. We have an enormous stake in the success of Europe in these terms. Only within a framework that goes beyond the traditional European nation-states is it possible to imagine the development of this kind of thick and thin, pluralistically contested, democratic form of solidarity. Only that kind of solidarity can confront crisis when it comes or sensitively grapple with the various types of human diversity.

16These issues of solidarity challenge both Europe and the United States. Despite all our differences, we face broadly common problems about how to think about the relationship between state and citizen, between state and economy, between the state and other states, and especially, about questions of membership. In addition to identifying our differences, I hope we can also identify broadly common challenges to our very similar polities in terms of their deepest and best commitments: to toleration, to consent, to political representation and the like.

17We also need to talk about Europe and America in more subtle and richer relational, rather than simply comparative, terms. Think of the period that spans the Second World War and the first decade after. It is impossible to understand the history of European integration at that time without understanding that at the end of the Second World War only the American New Deal stood as a large-scale model of a polity that had managed the crises of capitalist collapse and the mass appeal of totalitarian regimes. Only the New Deal surmounted these challenges. This had a profound influence in the making of postwar Europe. Surely there is more continuity between post-Second World War European social democracy and the left-of-center-part of the American New Deal than there was continuity between pre-War and post-War social democracy in Europe.

18In short, we cannot compose the history of the post-War years unless we write it relationally. We cannot record the history of the Cold War unless we write it in relation, one nation to the other. Today, whatever is going to happen with respect to European integration will, yet again, be deeply affected by the quality and character of the relationship with the United States—as a foil, as a partner, or as another polity broadly working out the complexity of the meaning of solidarity under common difficult and also democratic conditions. I thus very much hope—not simply for the sake of Europe, but for the sake of the United States—that the conversation that takes place in Europe about values and integration and solidarity will overlap with similar conversations under way inside the American polity.

19The last thing I want to observe is this: I was very much informed by the Europe Paper, but I confess to a certain skepticism about the amount of weight it places on the value dimension itself because, as I have noted, the values at issue in the quest for solidarity are always internally heterogeneous and contested. I would speak in a sober way about the threshold conditions for solidarity on the understanding, as the paper underscores so well, that Europe is a project that unfolds, and that the central challenge of European solidarity is therefore that of creating boundary conditions within which that unfolding can take place productively.


Ira Katznelson is Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History at Columbia University. Member of IWM’s Academic Advisory Board as well as of the Board of Directors, Institute for Human Sciences at Boston University. He is most recently author of Desolation and Enlightenment: Political Knowledge after Total War, Totalitarianism, and the Holocaust, Columbia UP, 2003.

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