Solidarity and Resilience: A Forum

Between 19-21 September 2014, resident blogger Wanda and King’s College partner-in-crime, Nicholas Michelsen, organised a workshop with the theme of Solidarity & Resilience at King’s College, London. Before the special issue hits the stands, we have gathered for our readership a small forum of contributions to sample some of the hot topics discussed over that weekend. The organisers would also like to use this opportunity to thank all those who participated in the event. It was really a tremendous gathering that shattered many old ideas and made possible new ones!

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As most good things happen, the “Political Action, Resilience and Solidarity” workshop was born over post-conference drinks. A few of us were musing over the proliferation of the term resilience at the 2013 EISA in Warsaw, when someone chimed in the concept’s obvious rival, solidarity. Had we forgotten about this term? Perhaps even declared it dead? The level of excitement grew and we just knew we had to organize an event about this strange pair. Exactly one year later, we met again at King’s College in London, with much appreciated support from the Open University and Westminster University, to unpack the hidden genealogies of these two concepts and muse over their possible associations/combinations.

We hosted panels approaching the matter from the perspective of political theory, conflict studies, governmentality and social movements. In almost every case, resilience appeared to be more malleable (sometimes infinitely malleable perhaps to its detriment and our suspiciousness), befitting contemporary challenges, and just plain… resilient. Solidarity, on the other hand, required complex theorizing, lacked a practical anchoring, was at times entirely absent from some panels, and made a strong comeback only on the closing roundtable thanks to the benevolence of some Marxists speakers.

Certainly, we would not want to do something as simplistic and rash as to declare a winner. Practices of solidarity would certainly benefit from a dose of resilience, and investments in resilience would certainly be a lot richer if they drew upon the latent democratic culture and transformative impetus of solidarity. But it was hard at the end of the two-day event to not feel like we had found ourselves on the threshold between two worlds. There is a great force pushing against the spirit of Enlightenment thinking, with its “enthusiasm for revolution” and its half technocratic, half romantic belief in human-led progress and perfectibility. That force is variously known as complex systems analysis, new materialism, flat ontology or the Anthropocene, all of which describe a connectivity-volatility-fragility nexus for which resilience emerges as the proper mode of action.

Solidarity                              Resilience

Agency                                     Vitality

Modernity                             Anthropocene

Discursive                             Assemblage

Representational               Post-representational

Antagonistic                         Adaptive

Resilience-thinking comes out of left-wing, libertarian and ecological critiques of Cold War “command and control” logistics, that strange blend of thinking that connects the California counter-culture to the Silicone Valley cyber-culture. 70s complex system theories rejected the notion of epistemological certainty and equilibrium, proposing instead an ontology of permanent turbulence, incomplete knowledge and unknown futures. Where crisis becomes a constitutive feature of complex life that cannot be prevented or predicted, as is the case for the Anthropocene (more aptly called, the Capitalocene) or the secular crisis of capital, the best we can do is become reslient.

production in the desert

Production in the Desert. (“Workers of the World, Disperse”). In Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog, January 1971.

Resilience is the ability of an organism or system to absorb changes and bounce back after external shocks, whilst maintaining some sort of equilibrium. It is an attitude of constant preparedness for emergency and precarity, otherwise agnostic about the causes of crisis or the direction of change. According to Jeremy Walker and Melinda Cooper, resilience is “the acceptance of disequilibrium itself as a principle of organization.” Climate change fits this description best, but increasingly also cybernetics, ecology, neoliberal economics and public management.

What’s more, resilience is resilient. It is a highly adaptable and expandable concept. It means endurance, preparedness, adaptability, ingenuity, activation, expansion, collective intelligence, and even democratic mutualism (for a study of “resilience from below” see Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell). Resilience can be positive (a resistance movement can be resilient to repression) or negative (patriarchy can be resilient). It can even be a virtue (resilient resistance). It can apply to humans, non-human life, machines and geological matter or to a composite of all of the above.


HSBC Ad campaign

But can it be a politics, or provide a conceptual locus for political action?

Walker and Cooper argue that resilience has established itself as “a pervasive idiom of global governance” because it is an intuitive fit with the neoliberal doctrine of there being no alternative. Resilience seems to resonate with a number of governmental priorities indicative of the neoliberal societies we inhabit. The injunction to become-resilient seems to suggest, quite strongly, that we need to accept the closure of substantive debate about the future of the social orders we inhabit, and rather accept much of what now appears as a concrete structure at the end of history. In this sense, the concept seems to sit in a kind of historical opposition to the core left-wing activist concept of solidarity, which implies that collective action can make a better, more equal, fairer or deterritorialized social order.

Suddenly, with resilience, the question no longer seems to be: Do we agree with the way the world is organized? Does it conform to our conception of the good life? And if not, how do we change it? The question becomes rather: How do we develop counter-conducts or counter-capabilities to either cope with or withstand powerful forces outside our control? There is a paradigm shift here from labeling exceptional events as “unacceptable” to accepting them as “immutable.” From an Enlightenment view, this might strike one as a bowing out from politics or a redefinition of politics away from familiar (anthropocentric, language-based) parameters of representation, deliberation, contestation.


Snowpiercer (2013)

If we define politics as antagonism or contestation, as we have been used to within the Enlightenment tradition, which left-oppositional thinking is certainly a part of, resilience implies something accommodating (even acquiescing): it provides a stabilizing force in a world of turbulence and uncertainty, or, in the language of IR, it allows for continuity amidst anarchy. At the same time, resilience does not shy away from change. It is only agnostic about its content. To be resilient is not to close off the new. It’s to be able to change in the face of shocks without incurring a wider collapse. The most resilient system is one that is permanently directed at transformation, and has no interest in predefined goals, aims or ends. It is concerned only with the continuation of process. Resilience is resilient precisely because it assigns no particular, or indeed absolute, good in the “process of transformation.” Change “as such” has no immanent political qualities. Capitalism is resilient as a form of social organization precisely because it permanently evolves, axiomatically learning from that which injures or threatens it. Capitalism particularly likes revolutionaries in this context; they have all the best material.

By comparison, solidarity looks like a rigid modality from a bygone era. Where are the large working-class organizations, the culture of workerist pride, and the mass culture to provide a common metalanguage in which concepts like solidarity would even make sense? Solidarity seems to imply a kind of coherence of identities and interests, which critical theory of late has deconstructed in favor of “multitudes of singularities,” “whatever communities” or a “common ground without a common subject.” To the extent that we can speak of solidarity in these times of neoliberal counter-revolution, it might even be more appropriate to speak of negative solidarity, that sneaking suspicion that our fellow citizens are not pulling their weight or that the labor aristocracy acts as a dead-weight on a system, which, if freed from its obligations to the state and its union protégées, could produce a lot more lottery winners.


Sibylle Bergemann: Marx-Engels-memorial (for Berlin-Mitte) in front of the atelier of Ludwig Engelhardt Gummlin, Usedom, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, May 1984, GDR.

Where solidarity is not yet exhausted is perhaps in its virtual capacity, which following D&G, are not less real than actual capacities, only un-actualized capacities to affect and be affected that require particular attention to excluded knowledges and fragile voices. If resilience is about connectivity-volatility-fragility, solidarity is about commonality and counter-power: the common of creative cooperation, the common of collective spaces and stewardship, the common of democratic self-determination, etc. These are common things that still need to be produced or which are lying dormant underneath the pavement, so to speak. They are an image of our future. This is what ultimately makes solidarity political: this virtual quality of a politics of the not-here-yet. The order of things is contested from a place, which is both undecided and necessary. Politics comes from outside the normative order, from a sense that things could be different and that we could be other.

Finally, solidarity becomes truly interesting when it brings together non-equals (e.g., Palestinians and Israeli anarchists; migrant workers and indigenous people; those who have something to lose and those who have nothing) – difference, inequality, and hierarchy being something which resilience cannot register. Here, the common needs to be brought into being not just through deliberation and negotiation (a largely discursive, rational process), but also through a certain stripping bare of the rights, privileges and micro-powers, acquired through the expropriation or violation of the common, a certain decolonization of the self for common purposes. Self-liberation might be the goal, but this is not necessarily a restorative, cleansing process (e.g., “white guilt”). Unlearning privilege is discomforting, a lot of hard work, and might indeed require a certain measure of resilience.

It might very well be that resilience has no politics in and of itself, but the question of “how” the new is folded into the old, which it raises – how a community changes over time, for example – is an important one. If solidarity is to have a place in post-representational politics (post-state, post-proletariat, post-people), perhaps the question of “Resilience and Solidarity” should be a pragmatic one: How can we make these concepts work for us, what can they do together? In the context of the multitude, the mob and the transindividual informational composite of sensory-body-technology-bio-matter, resilience might not be so free from riotous political possibilities at all.

occupy sandy


6 thoughts on “Solidarity and Resilience: A Forum

  1. what about if there is no resilience without solidarity? i think resilience the concept of resilience is contested and as there is no singular definition of resilience we have actually problems to define the term. From my little research resilience is demonstrated differently in different political and economic systems. it can work well with the idea of solidarity if we think resilience within the concept of solidarity….


  2. It seems like you set the terms in opposition only to try to reconcile them again with the question of pragmatics. Yes, absolutely, not enough of the left and the anarchists appreciate the need for a kind of pragmatics that operates within a strategic horizon (ie: a communist pragmatics). If it is the case that these two terms can be reconciled, or rather that the possibility of a reconciliation is even thinkable to you, then it seems like the oppositional pairings in the divided table might also be less irreconcilable as well.

    I certainly don’t see why a flat ontology means that one can’t think agency, if anything it multiplies agency- the real threat to agency comes from the sciences; or why adaptation can’t itself be part of antagonism. I think its quite clear in many ways that swathes of the left and anarcho world haven’t even accepted let alone begun to adapt to the new ecological situation— reproducing old slogans and old strategies that were once antagonistic doesn’t cut it any more (this isn’t aimed at you). I’m less attached to the DeleuzoGuattarian ideas around assemblages or Latourian ideas about networks and so on but with the issue of adaptivity I just don’t understand why it is situated in opposition to antagonism.

    To be nerdy about it there is always the happy example of Star Trek’s Borg who are antagonistic with just about every other life form, but for whom that antagonism takes the form of assimilation (a nice metaphor for recuperation? but why not also for accelerationist repurposing “we will add you technological distinctiveness to our own”) and via adapting to the attacks of the enemy. This adaptation is The Borg’s real tactical advantage- you shoot them with your phaser and they just recalibrate their personal shields so that your phaser fire is ineffective against them. They need to adapt in order to assimilate. Just so we need to adapt to the present situation before we attempt to assimilate aspects of it for ourselves.

    First of all this means making a cognitive adaptation by way of charting the new cartographies and choreographies of the situation, and by means of accepting the various catastrophes that we are within, and that we can no longer forestall. We are already after the catastrophe- literally in some senses- and so catastrophism can’t paralyse us. But that demands neither pretending the catastrophes aren’t there or that we can or should go back.

    It also means adapting to the pragmatic field that we find ourselves in. I was drawn to the Accelerationist Manifesto for the insistence on using what is to hand, the tools of the master. As far as I understand it we’re living in the ruins of capitalism and our job is to build from those ruins. This dictates the limits of the pragmatic field: what is to hand? can I use it? do I know how to? what can does it do? what can it be made to do? And this refers to political tools as much as it does to social and existential ones, as much to therapeutic technologies as it does to pharmacological ones (I would love to see “repurposing” take place right now with an autonomous pharmacological lab making free drugs, even on a small scale). Repurposing is a maximalist kind of salvagepunk.

    Adaptivity is dynamic and involves being response-able, and it is not reducible to accommodating ourselves to the present. Indeed adaptivity is an organic evolutionary quality that all animals share. If we want to emphasise reason we could do so by saying that while animals adapt, humans create. And yet creation is our our mode of adapting. We both adapt-to and adapt-with as modes of coping with the environment. I would also link this modality of thinking to an expansive idea of survivalism that would echo the Black Panther Party’s establishment of survival programs (survival until the revolution). Or perhaps that kind of thing remains reactive and amounts to little more than foodbanks and so on? I don’t think so though.

    The “connectivity-volatility-fragility nexus” is, I think, one that is born out of the realities of our situation. Connectivity can’t readily be dismissed as a metaphor, although it certainly does play the role of a master metaphor in our contemporary. There are authentic networks everywhere but this certainly doesn’t necessitate fetishing the network as a political organisational model. Fragility is also absolutely a worthwhile term to retain, and it doesn’t have to be situated in relation to the machinic or networkological philosophies you situate yourself outside of. Fragility was a term I heard at a Human Ecology event on the disciplinary psychologisation of unemployed workers undergoing ATOS assessments and sanctioning.

    During this event someone made mention of the fact that we spent a lot of time talking about how we really are psychologically damaged by these processes, and how this becomes a kind of self-reinforcing accusation. Someone mentioned that the human psyche is fragile… it is damageable, injurable, but also of value. Personally I prefer the term vulnerability which conveys much the same sense without the tinge of sentimentality. Humans are vulnerable because they are corporeal, and so open to (psycho)pathologies, injuries, suffering, death. Surely this is the very basis of our politics- it is certainly the foundation of mine: that there is an unequal distribution of suffering and vulnerabilities (justice; equality; these are abstract terms that come after the fact). All politics, and all political economy, is necropolitics.

    I see this vulnerability as being precisely the very foundation of our capacity for commonality and thus for solidarity. Behind the ideological bullshit of “we’re all in it together” is the reality that there are those of us who really do share in the same suffering. I really appreciate Albert Camus’ line on this: “I suffer therefore we exist”. And it is recognised in every struggle around and for compassion, care, and social reproduction. Suffering, vulnerable bodies are bodies with needs- needs that the strategy of austerity has diminished often to the level of biophysical survival, but which still everywhere generates radical needs such as that of autonomy. Communism is a politics built on vulnerability because it is built on (radical) need.

    All of that said: I find the term “resilience” to be the single most insidious category in contemporary Western political thought. It occurs, funnily enough, in all three of Guattari’s Three Ecologies. We see talk of resilient communities, of psychological resilience, and of ecological resilience. There is nothing in and of itself bad about any of this because there is nothing in and of itself bad about any category of thinking; it is all in the deployment, the use, and the context of that use.

    As a mental health blogger and psychiatric nurse I tend to be most familiar the construct of psychological resilience. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with building psychological resilience it is very apparent that we are expected to do so in the context of a mental health crisis that is precipitated, triggered and worsened by the conditions of everyday life under neoliberal capitalism and its secular crisis. We are expected to develop resilience, and indeed we should, because the state is no longer going to provide us with the services we require for caring for our psychic wounds, let alone the conditions for a psychologically healthy life.

    In fact as others one of the other commentators said, and as you allude, we can’t really have resilience without solidarity and mutual aid. Likewise, we can’t have those things without some degree of resilience. If you are falling apart because of a depression or PTSD or panic attacks then you aren’t able to engage in solidarity; and it is by building up counter-power that we are able to build up our resilience. The problem, as ever, is more with the emphasis on individualistic resources and on the idea of what should be a starting-point becoming a goal.

    Resilience is not a goal, it is a necessary but insufficient condition for the survival and politicisation of communities, ecologies and collectivities of individuals. The category of resilience is so corrosive because it diminishes, it shrinks, and it hides. Resilience as a slogan narrows the imagination to survival for its own sake.


  3. Reblogged this on synthetic_zero and commented:
    This is only one of a series of posts over on The Disorder of Things that deals with the concept of resilience from the perspective of contemporary resistance. My own thoughts on this piece are contained in the comments.


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