Lawrence Wilde. Global Solidarity, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013

Those of us living in these early decades of the twenty-first century are haunted by the grand dream of global solidarity. An ever-present reminder of the failures of past struggles, this dream, which inspired the great socialist tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries, stands apparently thwarted today. Long after the failure of the Russian Revolution of 1917, and with market fundamentalism fully in the ascendency, we live in a world seemingly given over to ever-widening local and global inequality and to persistent and renewed national, ethnic, and religious tribalisms.

As economic crisis piles upon economic crisis, and citizens and nations increasingly turn upon each other, predictions of the ‘End of Ideology’ (Bell) and the ‘End of History’ (Fukuyama) are giving way to concerns over heightened barbarism and the end of liberalism on the one hand, and to hopes that the socialist phoenix will rise surely from the neoliberal flames on the other. In both cases, the prospect of apocalyptic collapse is invoked, and done so in a way in which more serious analyses of the situation tend to be ruled out. Where analysis is more serious, it tends – perhaps understandably, given the degree of retrenchment taking place – to preclude consideration of internationalism. In either case, consideration of norms and ethical sensibilities tend to be avoided.

The great merit of Lawrence Wilde’s study is that it attempts to outline specifically, and in some detail, our potential for overcoming global social divisiveness. Chapters 5 and 7, in particular, deal with the social, political and cultural developments which suggest that beneath the undeniable inequality, exploitation and xenophobia so characteristic of social relations today, there lies a growing potential for the realisation of global solidarity. In chapter 5, and alongside a clear statement of how much still needs to be achieved, Wilde discusses the successes of the new social movements in relation to things such as gender equality, environmental conservation, and the rights of non-human animals. Noting how these movements secured advancements that traditional forms of solidarity based on occupation, class, and community were incapable of securing, Wilde also points out that they quickly embraced a global dimension, working transnationally on issues which were central to their particular concerns. In each case there have been meaningful achievements which demonstrate the kind of prefigurative potential for progression to global solidarity that Wilde is keen to make clear.

In Chapter 7, Wilde focuses on recent political developments that offer an increased potential to help realise the dream of global solidarity. As part of a discussion of the new global institutions that have arisen since the 1990s, Wilde focuses on the 1995 UN Commission for Global Governance, and its report, Our Global Neighbourhood. Although noting that only one of its suggested reforms – namely, the setting up of a Criminal Court of Justice – has been heeded, Wilde nevertheless stresses that the report ‘provided an alternative, more solidaristic future that has helped shape many subsequent ideas for reform’ (232). Wilde notes that the call for ‘a global civic ethic’, a ‘Forum of Civil Society’, and for an ‘Economic Security Council of the UN’ demonstrates that the basis of an initial form of solidaristic global governance is already present within the existing potential policy matrix of the UN. Wilde also discusses the ‘Social Europe’ project envisioned by Jacques Delors in the 1990s.

Although he acknowledges that the project stalled in the light of the economic recovery enjoyed in the years following the adoption of the single market and the preoccupation of the EU with enlargement, etc., Wilde points out that the aspirations for a ‘Social Europe’ are ‘still present in the Social Policy Agenda following the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, and in such things as the Working Time Directive and the right to have works councils’ (245). In this connection Wilde points to the possibility that the kind of tighter economic controls that have been called for in many countries in the aftermath of the 2008 crash may yet lead to intervention in the Eurozone along the lines imagined by Delors in the 1990s. Whilst it is too early to judge, the heavily coercive position adopted by the EU in relation to Greece in recent weeks and months suggests that such intervention is some way off.

Such upbeat stress on the progressive potential of the UN and EU is not advanced blindly, however. Wilde takes time to detail the largely subservient and facilitative role of both institutions to the dominant financial authoritarianism of the WTO, IMF, and World Bank – such authoritarianism, in fact, forming a central target of the book. Even so, there will be those who remain concerned by his statement that ‘a radical change of direction can only be initiated through decisions made at intergovernmental bodies such as G20 or a new version of the Bretton-Woods agreement that set the framework for the world economy back in 1944’ (244). Despite following Joseph Schwartz in contending that the ‘the road to greater international solidarity cannot transcend the politics of the state, but rather, must run through it’,[i]

Wilde is not calling for the floor to be abandoned to party mandarins and political elites. Throughout the book there is a strong stress on the importance of non-affiliated civil society and grassroots movements. As noted above, Wilde stresses the importance of these movements in securing greater gender equality and acceptance and recognition of differences in sexual orientation and practice. Such movements, Wilde contends, will be similarly crucial, if not even more so, in the move towards global solidarity. In particular, Wilde focuses on the anti-capitalist and alter-globalisation movements that sprung up in the wake of ‘Battle of Seattle’ in 1999. He is notably impressed by the potential for global resistance to the social consequences of neoliberal globalisation offered by the growing World Social Forum (WSF), and praises the achievements of INGOs such as Jubilee 2000. He also gives passing reference to the Occupy movement.

Despite this potential, Wilde is frank in his acknowledgment of the many obstacles to the kind of global solidarity that he wants to see. He is clear that persistence of social division seems to point to a ‘congenial inadequacy to achieve reconciliation’ (142). He is also aware of ‘the relative weakness of the social and political forces needed to secure the change of direction’ (236). Despite this, he offers hope that change is possible. For instance, whilst the grassroots and civil society groups he focuses on are relatively sporadic, he stresses that existence of such a ‘solidaristic spirit’ is highly significant. Wilde cites research by Spencer and Pahl that has shown that by focusing on the nature and quality of people’s informal relations, it is possible to identify strong solidaristic communities.[ii] He notes further Pahl’s reasonable suggestion that such ‘hidden’ solidarities span the globe.[iii] The far from baseless hope that Wilde draws from this is that ‘[i]n exposing injustice [these movements can create] the space in which social forces can be mobilised to create a more humane system of global governance, and to further the cause of solidarity on a national and global level’ (225).

Wilde’s hopes in this regard are indexed to the overcoming of the neoliberal project as an initial task. To this end he advances a radical reformism in which we turn the purpose of the state around to building social cohesion, repealing neoliberal legislation and offering support to local and national civil society groups concerned with developing solidaristic projects across a range of areas. Such a reformism will naturally require the deepening and at least partial unification of the many oppositional movements Wilde discusses; and it is here that we arrive at the real heart of his account: namely, the contention that only an explicitly ethical response can generate momentum powerful enough to ensure concerted political action towards global solidarity.

According to Wilde, solidarity – which he defines as ‘a feeling of sympathy shared by subjects within and between groups, impelling supportive action and pursuing social inclusion’ (1) – can be best achieved through an explicitly ethical commitment. To such an end, he explores the possibility of creating a culture of human solidarity in which there is ‘a growing consciousness of our inter-dependence and a growing commitment to a just and sustainable world’ (191). In Chapter 6 Wilde stresses the need to cultivate this social self in everyday life, through interpersonal relations in communities and workplaces and through attitudes affirmed or demonised by the media and through education. Although he does not state it explicitly here, what is also required as a necessary part of this cultivation is a deeply committed individual effort at character formation in line with the virtue ethical position he adopts and with the subjective moment of the ethical Marxist approach to revolution that he otherwise stresses.

The greatest provocation in the study, however, is to be found in Wilde’s drawing on the idea of a common humanity in his account of ‘radical humanism’ in Chapter 4. The idea of a common humanity, which in turn evokes the idea of a common nature or essence, has been so out of bounds in influential sections of academic discourse for so long that it still seems odd to see a discussion specifically dealing with it. In a deliberate attempt to further re-normalise sophisticated discussion of universal aspects of what it means to be human, Wilde advances an account of what he contends are the core universal human potentials relevant for a discussion of solidarity and human flourishing. The positive development of rationality (understood substantively as opposed to instrumentally), compassion, productiveness (understood in the Frommian sense as referring to the freely chosen development of individual abilities), and cooperation, all interpreted generally so as to ensure room for realisation in a wide variety of cultural forms, offers for Wilde the central ethical preconditions for global solidarity.

Such an account poses a direct challenge to the leading theorists of solidarity that Wilde discusses in Chapter 3. Richard Rorty, Jürgen Habermas, Alex Honneth, Alain Touraine and Carol Gould all stand united in spite of their differences in a shared opposition to the notion of a common humanity – an opposition which, as Wilde points out, leads to crucial insufficiencies in their respective accounts. Although more will need to be said in relation to specifying a robust radical humanism, it is clear that Wilde has provided a significant contribution to this wider project, as well as to the radicalisation of the discussion of cosmopolitanism and the old dream of global solidarity more specifically.


[i] Schwartz, Joseph M. (2007) ‘From Domestic to Global Solidarity: The Dialectic of the Particular and the Universal in the Building of Social Solidarity’, Journal of Social Philosophy 38 (1).

[ii] Spencer, Liz and Pahl, Ray (2006), Rethinking Friendship: Hidden Solidarities Today, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[iii] Pahl, Ray (2005), ‘Hidden solidarities that span the globe’, New Statesman, 17 January:

Kieran Durkin teaches sociology and social theory at the University of Glasgow.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1