Kristopher Norris of the University of Virginia reviews Rebecca Todd Peters’s Solidarity Ethics: Transformation in a Globalized World, which was previewed recently here in our In the Author’s Own Words section.
A 2005 New York Times poll discovered that 80 percent of US citizens believe that it is indeed possible to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps (quoted on p. 70). In her new book Solidarity Ethics, Rebecca Todd Peters argues that it is this belief in self-sufficiency that, in part, underwrites the structural issues of oppression and inequality of our neoliberal globalized world. Global structural evils stand on the values and worldview of the privileged. And the benefits of privilege are so deeply woven into the fabric of our quotidian realities that it requires a concrete change in perspective—a conversion, in fact—to recognize the problems this privilege also creates for others.
In one of her most critical moments, Peters echoes ethicists like Willis Jenkins in her claim that our inherited traditions have proven inadequate for addressing such unprecedented global problems of injustice (88). The biblical call to “sell what you have and give it to the poor” is not only unrealistic, but does nothing to address the structures of the social order that will only replace that community of the poor with another one. And in the face of such problems, most privileged people lack a vision of how to respond, even when they want to—they lack the tools to recognize what they can do in their own spheres of power and daily lives to make any kind of difference. The new vision Peters offers in this book is an ethics of solidarity.
The problem this ethical framework must address is two-fold, she suggests, both the personal behavior of over-consumption and the structural problem of a neoliberal political-economy. And thus, we see, the solution must also operate on a personal and structural level. Peters begins her account of solidarity with a conceptual history of the term in social, political, and theological usage, arguing that solidarity reaches beyond mere attitude to concrete structural critique and change. Solidarity is not confined to feelings of sympathy (that operate with a division between “us” and “other”) or responsibility (that risk devolving into paternalism), but builds on these toward a notion of mutuality rooted in a belief in the interdependence of all creation. Framed this way, an ethics of solidarity begins with the reality of life in the first-world, and focuses on opportunities for people of privilege to build networks of relationship and common work with those oppressed by the political and economic forces of the first-world. In fact, Peters begins at an even more basic level and suggests that it may be difficult enough just to help people recognize their own state of privilege! Thus, her three steps of solidarity begin with the personal and work upwards: 1) recognizing and understanding personal privilege, 2) building relationships across lines of difference, and 3) engaging in structural change.
Again, these steps seem to pivot, for Peters, on a personal factor: the recognition of human interdependence. The reason Americans believe in self-sufficiency is the predominance of individualism. We have because we have worked to achieve it (and God has blessed us accordingly). Those without are in this state by their own doing. But this attitude drives any “help” to come in the form of acts of charity, a response that is not performed with the recognition of mutuality that true justice requires—working with rather than working for. In response she claims that only the moral agency of mutuality found in an ethics of solidarity can “change the direction of our world” (46).
The content of this ethics of solidarity, then, contains four components. First, and it seems most significant, is Metanoia, the personal transformation toward “a new way of seeing and thinking about the world and a transformation of habits and lives” (60). Only this initial change allows people to recognize the structural forces at work in neoliberal globalization that oppress some while privileging others. Second, is Honoring Difference. This requires understanding cultural, ethnic, and class differences as vital to developing nuanced solutions toward a common good. Third, Accountability builds a bond between the oppressed and privileged and holds the privileged in a situation of answerability to the oppressed for their actions, as well as the responsibility to engage in some concrete partnership or action on their behalf. Therefore, the fourth component is Action, and this involves both personal lifestyle changes and efforts toward systemic transformation. She concludes her proposal by offering three concrete actions that those with privilege can employ in acts of solidarity: using purchasing power intentionally and strategically like investing in micro-finance initiatives; engaging in and working to develop alternative economic structures like gift giving, bartering, or free trade; and realigning our relationships and communities to stretch across ethnic and class borders.
Some readers may be dubious of Peters’ vision of solidarity, especially her somewhat tempered claim that solidarity does not require one to undermine one’s own privilege but to use that privilege responsibly in work for policy solutions to poverty and injustice. This form of solidarity seems to fall short of the kind that liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez call for, as in his example of voluntary poverty. That is not to say this vision is not helpful or even necessary, but it may be a stretch to call it “solidarity.” This is not as close an identification with the oppressed as it seems true solidarity may require—that is, actually giving up privilege and joining the poor rather than “using it responsibly.” The power imbalance implicit in this form of solidarity still seems to run the risk of paternalism that concerns her in efforts derived from feelings of responsibility. Can a privileged person from the first-world actually ever express true solidarity with the poor and oppressed without concretely entering into a situation of poverty and oppression herself?
Still, one of Peters’ primary claims is that charity, while good, is far from adequate to effect any real social change. And like many others who write about and call for social justice, she directs us to address the deeper structural issues of injustice. But here she nuances the call of many other ethicists. Her most interesting move is to suggest that to do this the privileged must begin with opening their eyes, recognizing new perspectives, and changing their attitudes. That is, addressing systemic social issues still begins on the level of the personal; it begins with conversion (metanoia, or personal transformation) and the development of personal relationships with those across class lines. An ethics of solidarity operates on two levels: the personal epistemological level of engaging new perspectives, recognizing one’s own privilege, and opening one’s self to new voices; and the structural behavioral level of engaging in practices that restructure one’s own lifestyle choices as well as seek to effect greater policy changes.
One of the more intriguing aspects of Peters’ proposal is the virtue ethics or ethical formation framework from which it operates. Her ethics of solidarity is not purely about obligation, responsibility, or results (though it certainly includes those), but primarily about the formation of character. She writes that even if people begin to make small changes out of a sense of sympathy, guilt, or responsibility, “each little shift in our behavior contributes to a larger shift in our consciousness, leading us deeper and deeper into the experience of metanoia until we get to the point where we really do see the world in a new way” (99). True systemic and structural change requires the personal transformation of character, the creation of a new consciousness, the alteration of one’s worldview.
In the end, those wishing for a more structural focus in this account may be left wanting. The changes required to move beyond old, inherited ways of addressing these problems will take time, she indicates, and to jump too quickly toward the structural without engaging in the difficult personal level may cause any efforts to fail. While we may wonder if her proposal is really one of true solidarity in the form that some liberationists will find compelling, it at least offers a concrete starting point for beginning to talk to people of privilege about what we can do in our daily lives to make a difference. And that is a valuable and necessary resource. Her ethical proposal is really one of epistemological change: structural change hinges on people of privilege opening their eyes, and as their worldview changes, their character will follow. The social, or the political, ought to first and foremost begin with the personal.
Kristopher Norris is a PhD student in the Theology, Ethics, and Culture area of the Religious Studies department at UVa. He is an ordained Baptist minister focusing his studies on political ecclesiology, including such topics as church and democracy, just war and pacifism, Christian ethics and public life, and the work of theologians like John Howard Yoder and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is the author of Pilgrim Practices: Discipleship for a Missional Church (Cascade, 2012), and is currently working on another book project, also with Cascade Books, on churches and political practices, co-authored with Sam Speers, the result of a research project sponsored by the Project on Lived Theology.