November 15, 2008


Filed under: Networks / Common(s) — Crosswords Print Issue @ 15:15

Rawls once said that justice is the first virtue of a good society. However, this title might just as well be given to solidarity. Or better still: these two should be considered complementary and equally indispensable virtues.

Yet, with the concentration on justice in contemporary liberal theory, the discussion of the conditions of solidarity has been neglected – an imbalance that has also affected practice. Citizens need a lively sense that they belong together, as discussion partners in democratic will-formation and as members of a community in which benefits and burdens are shared. On whatever this common sense of fate and purpose is founded, it has to be there. this sense of solidarity has usually been based on a common history, language, religion or ethnicity – in modern democracies on the sense of belonging together to a nation. And this is morally problematic, since it can be the source of exclusions and injustice committed against outsiders.

So there is a dilemma here. National consciousness is usually indispensable to a functioning democracy, which until today works only within individual states (or perhaps within quasi-federations of such states, as with the EU). And yet it can offer the most effective resistance to really universal human solidarity. So should we better weaken national feelings in favour of cosmopolitan allegiance? But this can only serve to undermine democracy where it now exists or is struggling to emerge. the dilemma remains.

Since WWI, efforts have been made to make universal solidarity real, institutionally (the League, the UN) and in practice (humanitarian aid, international development assistance, peacekeeping). These attempts have met with fierce resistance, which more than once threatened to terminally frustrate them. We have learned the hard way that just aspiring to solidarity isn’t enough. We need much more understanding of the conditions of its realization, and above all, much more mutual comprehension.

A contribution to the Crosswords print issue by Charles Taylor for Transit, Vienna/Austria.

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