‘Negative Solidarity’ and the Cameroon Concept of Fairness

This wonderful interview with Owen Hatherley is worth reading in full but this particular extract stood out to me:

I’m tempted by two different poles. One of which is to see New Labour as the final death of the Labour Party. Because it was just so much worse than everyone thought it was going to be. People thought that New Labour would be, at the very least, a kind of Europeanized movement, that it would be like a European Social Democratic party. It wasn’t going to be socialist, but it was going to restore some kind of European normality to the country. And instead, old corruption became more powerful than it ever was. Property and speculation, and all these pre-industrial versions of moneymaking just completely took over the country, even more than they had done under Thatcher. The results of that are going to be disastrous; they’re going to last for decades. And it was under a Labour government.

On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be any other game in town. I don’t think any of the far-left parties are in a strong position. The Greens are middle-class lifestyle politics, which winds me up for various reasons. There’s also the fact that the Britain I write about, the Britain I have some connection to, went out and voted for Labour en masse in the election in May. And I guess lots of people think this is a huge opportunity. Everything’s been thrown up in the air, and Labour is our only vehicle.


There’s this phrase: “negative solidarity”. Since the credit crunch there’s this thing whereby someone goes on strike and people go “well, I haven’t got a pension, why should they have one?” And that shows how far things have gone. This basic sense of solidarity and almost common sense that one would’ve thought we might have acquired in the 1880s has now gone. [That is,] this basic sense that, “well they’ve managed to get better pay and conditions, maybe if we joined a union, maybe if we struck, we would too.” But people don’t have that thought, and I find that terrifying.

So one thing that would be good to see would be a build up of the Labour Party and the unions in places like call centres and offices, which are completely proletarianized. Even if people in those jobs don’t think of themselves as proletarians, they are. Their pay and conditions are much worse than manual labourers. I’d like to see those people being mobilized. How one does it I don’t know.

The concept of ‘negative solidarity’ is a useful way of making sense of the peculiar concept of fairness which has come to be invoked by sections of the British right. It’s not new at all but it does seem to have achieved a newfound prominence in the party political discourse surrounding the coalition e.g. “why should public sector workers have better pensions than private sector workers?”, “why should the tax payer fund railways that are predominately used by the middle class” etc. I like Hatherley’s comment because they historicise this form of argumentation much more articulately than I’m able to and also point towards the practical implications for any attempt to collectively confront it. There’s something extremely interesting going on here which I don’t feel sufficiently agile in political theorising to get my head around. Thoughts or reading suggestions much appreciated.

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