On Cities Of Friends And Riots: Between Conflict, Solidarity, And Struggles For Recognition

Lately, it seems to be everywhere: conflict, and a bit of connection. Yet  what do we do about it? How do we learn to cope with it?

“I am amazed the amount of contention there can be in politics in so many countries,” says my friend Karmi, based in Tel Aviv but currently traveling the world. “Seems to be a contagious problem in the world, our next pandemic.”

In a world where cultures intersect and clash, with ever ebbing and flowing intersections and collisions, how do we expand notions of solidarity among those of different classes and cultures? How can we see strangers as ourselves, instead of fighting them, especially as disagreements expand?  How do we understand the conflicts and civil wars? What happens when friends turn on friends? Questions follow from city to city, as do conflicts, East vs West, North vs South, ethnic clashes, border disputes, struggles for autonomy, on and on.

Walking Cities, from Berlin to New York

The other day, I found myself walking from the East Village to the West, back in New York for the first time in months during a sabbatical year in Berlin.  I had one conversation after another, including a meeting with my PhD advisor, Irwin. Throughout our conversation, we explored our usual topics and gossip, histories of conflicts and possibilities of friendships, the subject of his great new book,[1] unpacking the workings through, the ones that got away, and those that held. Irwin and I have known each other for over two decades, with him supporting my research on play and my current work on friendship and conflict. On we talked about it. Friendship has changed and so have we. Yet, how do we make sense of it, of what happened and what might become of it?  What is there to learn from the stories of friendships, of James Joyce and Italo Svevo, who Joyce tutored in English, and their abundant conversations, the history of philosophy that they reveal. Joyce modeled Leopold Bloom after him, building and an entire world around him.  Svevo, in turn, asked Joyce question after question about the Irish experience. “A critic once asked Joyce did his Ulysses have to be Jewish? His reply was ‘Yes. Only a foreigner would do. The Jews were foreigners in Dublin at that time. There was no hostility towards them. But contempt, the contempt that people always show towards the unknown.’”[2]

Welcoming the unknown, strangers as friends, this is the stuff of redemption and possibility. Friends remind us, they shake up the cobwebs, expanding what we can be. Opening things. No friendship is the same. The question is: can we recognize what they bring? Can we see their subjectivities? Such are the questions Axel Honneth and the Third Generation Frankfurt critical theorists ask, wondering about the possibilities of recognition  in Germany.[3]  How do we reconcile friendship and fighting? What is the nature of conflict and dialogue? What happens when discourse breaks down, when people turn their back on their neighbors or begin to shoot instead of talking to each other?  Can urban spaces still be cities of friends built around affinity and solidarity, or are such anarchist ideas ill equipped for the times?  

These are the questions I’ve tried to consider this year in Berlin, as the city has welcomed immigrants, many from Ukraine.  “[T]he current war is widely seen as a ‘Zeitenwende’, a return to the world of the ‘cold’ war,” say Abdou and company.[4] Others see the dovetailing climate, COVID, and Ukraine crisis as a new cleavage point. Regardless of what it is called or compared to, this is a new time of conflict, even among friends.

Irwin tells me about Susan Neiman’s article in The New York Review of Books“Longing for Reconciliation.[5]  He offers me a copy of the article to explore. “There are a lot of layers for you,” he tells me, pointing to the story of a philosophy professor at The Freie Universität, where I’m studying sociology all year. His work was part of a generation of German philosophers wondering what kind of philosophy is even possible after Auschwitz. While Richard Rorty turned to pragmatism, narratives and life stories, Frankfurt theorists concerned themselves with the scent of fascism still in the air after the end of the Second World War. Is redemption possible in Germany? Is it possible in Sarajevo, South Africa or the US South? At least in Germany, the government acknowledges the past. I feel it here. The same cannot be said of much of the US, particularly Florida, where the governor has banned such forms of inquiry from public school curricula.[6]  Reckoning is never simple, not historically, not today. Walking the streets of Berlin, one witnesses memorial after memorial for the dead, stolpersteine in the cobblestones to those who perished, the Jews, gypsies, and queers persecuted during the war, where they lived, with names and dates they were murdered.  It’s not as if we see similar individual memorials for those lynched (although we do have a museum); imagine how many would be necessary for those terrorized, left to hang in trees, in the US South.[7]  

“The past continues to seep into and infect the present,” writes Susan Neiman.  “Forgetting the past isn’t helpful…. When pasts fester, they become open wounds.”[8]  We see that today.

In Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman talks about the need for safety and trust before beginning a story of reconciliation.[9] “There is a need at the bottom of the heart,” says Krzysztof Czyżewski, of the Borderland Foundation in Sejny, Poland, during our conversation there last fall. “If you stay with the trauma, there is a slow positive step to show it, to move, for a neighbor’s culture is delivered in a different house. The US is all about multiculturalism. But it is an archipelago, separate. We need to find a new space, a new language to celebrate what’s between us, new rituals.” Can we find ways to address what happened before, the conflicts that repeat themselves, the solidarity that works as an antidote, a form of recognition?

To do so,  Krzysztof and company have looked to rituals and performances. He refers to “August 21, the Day of the Bridge, a mystery at the Bridge,” in homage to Stari Most, the rebuilt 16th-century Ottoman bridge in Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, across the the river Neretva, destroyed in 1993 during the civil war in Yugoslavia. “We stage ‘Mystery of the Bridge’” says Krzysztof, paraphrasing the words he delivered at the porch of poet Czesław Miłosz’s manor house in Krasnogruda before the Mystery of the Bridge, at 8.30 p.m., 22 August 2015: “Hayrudin, who built the Old Bridge in Mostar in 1566, the Ottoman civilization referred to him as the ‘architect of the space,’ one who had ‘absolute pitch’ that allowed him to combine various, often contradictory elements into one harmonious whole… One of the children who worked with us, when asked what the greatest mystery of the bridge was, answered: a bridge is a whole, a unity of different parts, it is enough to remove one beam, just remove one part, and the whole structure will collapse. To break a bridge just takes: inattention, inhospitality, ignorance, forgetfulness, lack of understanding, omission, exclusion, maltreatment, neglect, distrust, being blind or hard of listening, indifference, a sense of superiority….”[10] Rebuilding the bridge involves combating the hostility. “Do something together,” says Krzysztof. “There is no owner of the day. We all own it… Create a space for something together. Invent a line to cross these borderlands.”  

I remember when it was bombed in 1993, old world animosities reappearing, returning. I recall that feeling as the world turned their backs on the Muslims of Mostar and Sarajevo, former friends attacking each other, solidarity crumbling, people fleeing, the kids without shoes, running from Srebrenica in July of 1995, as some 8,000 Bosniak Muslims perished. In the former Yugoslavia, a non-aligned “Kingdom of Southern Slavs” favoring solidarity over nationalism and religion, being consumed, vulnerable under siege, in a civil war in our own lifetimes. Why? What happened as absolute positions impeded progress or mechanisms for collaboration?

“I saw the destruction of Dresden,” recalled Kurk Vonnegut. “I saw the city before and then came out of an air-raid shelter and saw it afterward, and certainly one response was laughter. God knows, that’s the soul seeking some relief.”[11] God knows, everyone needs it.   

Seeing the bridge back up years after it crumbled reminds me we can do something different. It’s the same feeling as looking at the rebuilt Cathedral in Dresden, made of the old bricks and new ones, old scars and new foundations, building something new. [12] I feel it in South Africa seeing white and Black people, once segregated, sharing the beach. I sense it, walking over the old bridge in Mostar, through the bazaar and old mosques. We make our way to the station to catch our train for Sarajevo. We love trains. Somehow they are  reminders—bodies in motion, moving to freedom or oblivion. I always think this on a European train—that it’s the last train to Nuremberg, or in this case to Sarajevo. That trip started it all, connecting the pieces from Cambodia, Hong Kong, and VietNam, where we’d been two summers prior, and Poland, where I talked with Krzysztof, the dots between our modern struggles, from Berlin to Kosovo, Tbilisi to Madrid, California to New York.

During my conversation with Krzysztof, we chatted about poets, his favorite being Czesław Miłosz, who translated my hero, Walt Whitman. Whitman dreamed of living in a city of friends, writing Leaves of Grass on the 4th of July, 1855. I have often felt the same way walking down my street to the bike shop and to the wine store and to the bodega not far from where Whitman drafted his poems. Many of my students work at the grocery store nearby. I greet them in the mornings before class. I feel like I’m in a city of friends. I also see conflict, car horns blaring, screams, the sounds of construction, fights over immigrants, race, policing, homelessness, a war on trees, underdevelopment and overdevelopment, who’s more pure, who is not, etc. I wonder, was Whitman missing something?   Can we create a city of friends? In his lifetime, he saw his city consumed with riots over who would fight in the US Civil War—five days of burning buildings and class resentment over the draft in July of 1863 that seemed to anticipate something. Whitman’s view that poetry could help us realize a democratic promise clashed with an ever-expanding war machine. Anarchist ideas, support for affinity, are always contending with global trends. Today, these trends swirl around a seemingly expanding conflict.

There is no mistaking that antagonism, sometimes even between communities and friends, sometimes between nations, is on the rise. Our democracy is riddled with stories of people taking either or positions, instead of finding common ground or room for compromise. The United States experienced a bloody civil war over such conflicts in the mid-19th century. Yet, this is not an isolated problem.

As I write this, Europe is experiencing its first ground war in three decades. The conflict seems to be everywhere. A riot in Washington, DC on January 6th, 2021, aiming to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power, led to the deaths of police on hand. A few weeks after the one year anniversary of the Capital Riot, Russia invaded Ukraine on the 24th of February, 2022. New York City witnessed countless speakouts and rallies in opposition to the conflict, blue and yellow flags hanging everywhere—in storefronts, restaurants, homes and businesses—in solidarity. And new waves of refugees moved West, where they were treated in enormously different ways than the Syrians refugees, exposing a vexing racial bias in reactions to immigration policies.[13]

I started talking to others about these tensions. First in my neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, where Walt wrote, followed by other boroughs of New York City, with people from everywhere, other places, states and even countries. Each interview considered open-ended questions about friendship, fights, what happens when we want to hurt each other instead of agree to disagree, why neighbors attack each other and what to do about it. I’ve conducted dozens of semi-structured initial interviews with participants from New York, Peru, Texas, California, Italy, Rotterdam, Brussels, Poland, Prague, Sweden, Cambodia and Berlin, as well as other places coping with historic conflicts including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Serbia, Czech Republic, Ireland, Spain, Italy, South Africa, Hong Kong, Tbilisi, and the United States. Over time, the sample has only expanded, trying to understand the world by seeing it, learning about it firsthand.  

Walking the streets of Sarajevo, where Sarajevo Roses, bullet holes and remains of mortar shells from hand grenade explosions, still remain, I wondered about friendship and the reasons people fight, and what to do when friends turn on each other.  I thought about Mostar, our divisions, friends and neighbors, as well as conditions of conflict, when neighbors fight, and draft riots seem to vanquish Whitman’s City of Friends. From the LA Riots of 1992 to the civil wars which took apart Georgia and then Yugoslavia before the Soviet Union collapsed, twenty new countries took shape. Each born of their own more fragmented history, regional economies,  local conflicts and supply chains.[14]

Here in Berlin, we spend a lot of time thinking about history. For many of us, it’s thinking about the 1920’s and ’30’s, about the Weimar Republic in Germany, the abundant years of arts and culture, cabarets and sex work, inflation and dread that something horrible was around the corner. Reading about it all, I imagine being there. Going for a walk in 1920’s Berlin, Joseph Roth writes about the advertisements he sees on the streets, the capitalist spectacle. They seem to keep us thinking, argues Roth in What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-1933, reporting on the day to day life of the Weimar Republic before darkness obscured the light in 1933.[15] I think about it, looking at the remains of the Wall here, imagining what it was like to run from the police and security guards, trying to elude their glare, tanks rolling over protesters, families separated, some on one side, some on the other, a man shot trying to cross from east west to see his mom again.

I think about it, watching protesters and counterprotesters during Trump’s indictment hearing this year in New York, each falling on their mutual antagonisms. That polarization spreads and extends its tentacles. Wherever there’s a genocide, a murder by a cop, a war, a piece of brutality, it starts with a feeling, a sense they are wrong, a sense they are less than me, than us. We can step on them.  

Thinking of what was becoming of my city of friends, I wondered about Walt Whitman, meeting with friends near his old apartment, reading Leaves of Grass. Mark, who teaches Whitman, and I talked about the sage and the civil war. He suggested I look at his poem, “To a Stranger” from 1860. “This is going to be the epitaph for your next book,” he said. The poem addresses this unknown figure, the stranger.

Passing stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon you,

You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to me as of a dream,)

I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,

…I am to think of you when I sit alone or wake at night alone,

I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again,

I am to see to it that I do not lose you.[16]

Over and over we see him and we seem to lose site of him, all of us “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” from place to another, one bridge to another, short to shore, one side to another:

“Just as you feel when you look on the river and skyso I felt,.

 Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd.”[17]

We are all a part of the crowd, a  city of friends, if we listen to each  other, if we learn from each other, to  feel  what you feel. I am you and you are me. Yet, somehow we lose sight of the stranger. This city of friends is always facing walls. Today it is a rightward drift in the US electorate opposing support for the immigrants, for the strangers Whitman embraced along with the sailors he met under the piers, the others he saw as a bit of himself.  Born on the 31st of May 1819, Whitman’s life contended with many of the contractions of our first civil war and struggle for democracy. The simmerings of civil war were there from his earliest days. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, granting simultaneous membership to both Missouri and Maine as slave and non-slave states, came to be the year after his birth. It established that enslaved Americans would be counted as three-fifths of a person for taxation and representation purposes.

By the time of his death in 1892, New York’s population had increased exponentially, from 122,000 in 1820 to 2,693,000 in 1890. He embraced the flow of immigrants, welcoming the stranger as someone he knows and needs.  “The Civil War changed everything for Whitman,” says Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price.[18]  His poems about the war, Drum Taps, address the conflict. There was conflict and there were friends, ever dueling with each other.

Some saw strangers with fear. Others see them as sources of wonder.  Stefan Zweig recalls a friend who learned something from strangers in Paris before the war. “Andre Gide once visited me and, amazed….commented, ‘We have to ask foreigners to show us the most beautiful places in our own city.’”[19] Within a generation, everything would change. Conflicts would engulf this space, occupiers taking over.

Berlin sociologist Georg Simmel argued that rather than avoid it, conflict helps integrate a culture; resolving conflict was essential.[20]  It could engender mutual self respect and forward social change. He identified four different types of conflict: 1) war, 2) feuds, 3) litigation, and 4) clashes between friends and peers.[21]  “Conflict can exclude all personal and subjective factors thus reducing hostility, engendering mutual respect, and producing an understanding on all personal matters, as well as recognition of the fact that both parties are driven by historical necessities,” wrote Simmel.[22] Coming to terms with conflicts depends on the level of hostility in question. Some are more manageable than  others. That’s what Whitman saw, the possibilities and the emotional reactions when conflicts become heated and violent.

Durkheim was less optimistic about conflict. In The Division of Labor and Society, Durkheim writes:

“It is to this state of anomie that, as we shall show, must be attributed the continually recurring conflicts and disorders of every kind of which the economic world affords so sorry a spectacle… they tend to grow beyond all bounds, each clashing with the other, each warding off and weakening the other. To be sure, those forces that are the most vigorous succeed in crushing the weakest or subjecting them to their will.” [23]

From Spain to Sarajevo, Brooklyn to Fort Sumter, what is it about humans? We seem to need to clash, over the most petty of differences, small pieces of land or resources. But sometimes we look out for each other, sheltering the vulnerable from political persecution. And sometimes we move backward. That’s what it feels like reading about the war in Ukraine. Looking at the Texas trans law and abortion ban, the war on sex, on queer bodies, queer thoughts in motion in the USA. Reading about the clashit’s hard not to see the Florida don’t-say-gay-bill, as a way to move us backward, back to retrograde narratives, of teachers as pedophiles, the ghost of Anita Bryant, with the 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Doing so, they turn back abortion rights. I recall Lawrence in 2003, but could see us go back to Bowers v Hardwick, or turning over Loving v Virginia. Who knows how retrograde conservative majority in the court may become? The centrists are gone. No Kennedy to swing votes, no Ruth Bader Ginsberg on the court to hold the line.

More and more people in the US are talking about a Cold Civil War, or proxy conflicts. Our family was a part of that first conflict of April 1861-64. Dad used to always say, the South lost the war but won the peace. The US was never close to becoming communist, he followed. But we’ve come mighty close to becoming fascist. And that was before Trump.

All summer, we watch the January 6th hearings on TV, chatting about the civil wars and our hope for peace,wondering why we continue to refight the Civil War. What if the left had killed the cops, as the rioters did that day in DC?

“Abortion is a mitzvah,” said my favorite sign at the annual Dyke march, the last weekend in June 2022.

Waves of civil disobedience follow the Dobbs decision, dozens of us arrested in front of the Supreme Court.

“This is a cold civil war,” said Jean Francious.  Says a poll. “Over 50 percent of Americans expect a civil war ‘in the next few years’,” reports Quay.[24] Much of the conflict seems to boil down to a few basic questions and themes: how we deal with difference, with strangers.


For some, recognizing strangers as friends is a matter of principle. Many faiths remind us of the imperative to support strangers in need. Yet not everyone sees the world in this way. Others recoil from this view. “Evangelical Christianity has been hijacked by those who would have given Jesus the boot if he knocked at the door,” laments US President Jimmy Carter.[25] Still some political leaders, such as Angela Merkel, see welcoming strangers as good public policy, opening the doors of the country she was leading to some 1.2 million refugees amidst the 2015-16 migrant crisis, even when doing so became a political liability, igniting political backlash.[26] Sometimes this anger leads to conflict, even war.

“There should be an honest attempt at the reconciliation of differences before resorting to combat,” argues US President Jimmy Carter.[27] Conflict and reconciliation, we hear about these ideas all the time. But what of recognition and solidity?  We all breathe the same air. Why not share resources? Expand solidarity instead of conflict?

Debates about conflict, recognition and solidarity involve questions about inclusion and exclusion, war and peace, immigration and citizenship, cosmopolitanism and particularism, migration and border walls, multiculturalism and tolerance, as well as clashes between “fundamentalist or national utopia, and … cosmopolitan liberalism.”[28] Conflicts over multiculturalism follow over “situations in which people who hold ‘different’ habits, customs, traditions, languages and/or religions live alongside each other in the same social space.”[29] In the face of difference, clashes emerge, often over questions of recognition. After all, what is recognition but a plea for acknowledgement of individual intersubjectivity, needs and hopes, rather than condemnation and harm.[30]  It involves struggles and aspirations, as well as the inequalities which impede them.[31] Who can be acknowledged and recognized, among differing points of views?  

We see these dynamics in debates about rainbow flags and contests over school curriculum, histories of colonizing and decolonizing curriculum, those ideas that can be accommodated and those which inspire backlash, among other questions about democracy. Others wonder if ideas of democracy, understood as “a model for organizing the collective and public exercise of power … among individuals considered as moral and political equals”, has reached its limits.[32]  After all, not everyone feel like equal players.[33]

The conflicts is always there. Sometimes we see solidarity. In others, we clash and fight. I thought about this observing a memorial for gay people killed by the Nazis here in Berlin. The war on difference takes countless shapes. As Irwin Epstein puts it:

“Being afraid of the different is a survival mechanism. Every baby fears a new face. But when that new face smiles, or gently sings or coos and makes loving eye contact the fear diminishes. After a while the baby smiles and even laughter may appear. How can we bring that awareness to adult fear or difference?”  

That’s the eternal question: How do we learn to embrace the other, to recognize them.  For Axel Honneth, there is a parallel between the need for maternal love and social recognition.[34] The question is why do some recognize others and others shoot them? To address this, it is worth unpacking the very nature of the clash, struggles with solidarity, and recognition.


German sociologists Max Weber and Karl Marx famously debated conflicts over inequality, social structure and class.[35] Much of the debate, of course, had to do with power. Weber defines power in terms of asymmetry: “the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance.” Who can control who?[36] “All history has been a history of class struggles between dominated classes,” posits Friedrich Engels.[37] Conflict is often based on distribution of resources, with varying dynamics among social groups: 1) personal, 2) racial, 3) political, 4) class, and 5) international.[38]

Still Georg Simmel seemed to understand our interrelatedness. He saw conflict as a kind of disruption, generally involving contests of ideas and beliefs, often opposing each other, ever evolving, influencing each other, as a sort of “Dialectic of interaction and socialization.”[39] Ideally, such clashes take shape as a sort of  dialogue among impacted parties. Yet, inequality impacts who can participate and how.[40]

Built of engagement between clashes of opposing ideas, such dialectical approaches open space for engagement between apparently contradicting points of view. From Hegel to Marx, dialectical analysis grew out of distinct social relations involving interpretation of opposites, internal relations, contradictions, quantity into quality, identity and difference.[41] Ever expanding forms of conflict include: 1) individual and 2) cultural differences, 3) clashes of interest, as well as 4) social change. Some aim at changing societies and culture: 1) social movements, 2) rebellions, 3) civil politics, and 4) revolutions.[42] These conflicts extend in countless directions, from micro toward cultural and economic clashes, to bullets and wars.

Following Marx and Engels, and later Simmel, German philosophers within the Frankfurt School helped frame a critical theory to help us situate questions of conflict and inequality within a larger sociology and philosophy of history.[43] The school helped reframe questions and debates from these thinkers, who wanted socialism and ended up with National Socialism, or how we live in periods of capitalism when the whiff of fascism is not quite out of the air and our culture absorbs efforts aimed at social change. The first generation of Frankfurt School theorists included Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, followed by a second generation, including Jürgen Habermas, and a third, with Axel Honneth and his critical theory of recognition.[44] Questions about differences run throughout the work. More than an academic debate, Walter Benjamin perished on his way to Spain on the 26th of September, 1940, fearing for his life as a Jew denied citizenship, feeling a sense of difference that could be deadly in a war over tolerance for difference, individual rights conflicting with the state. An absence of social solidarity, compounded within a global conflict, left him profoundly alone.[45]

Building on this, Honneth worried about the wounds, the “moral injuries, arising from the deeply human need for mutual recognition”.[46] Workers “seek and deserve mutual recognition,” argued Honneth; thus “class conflicts and other such social conflicts must remain central to a critical social theory”.[47] Such struggles serve a purpose if they open space for new forms of consciousness and awareness, built around respect, love and self esteem.[48] Difference and recognition, the two concepts dance throughout discussions of conflict and solidarity.

The Search for Recognition

How do we see each other, when some of us are invisible? How do we reconcile differences or recognize each other, when some of us are more visible, some of us enjoy more access to debate and participation than others?[49]  At a conference after the fall of the Wall, American philosopher Nancy Fraser famously challenged Jürgen Habermas: “If, as you have argued, ‘markets and state bureaucracies are a necessary feature of life in complex societies’ must we not ask whether capitalism is compatible with a ‘non-exclusionary and genuinely democratic public sphere?”[50]  For Fraser, much of the challenge involves questions of recognition. Fraser’s “Rethinking Recognition” was published in June 2000, before the US crisis of democracy, with two out of the next four presidents, elected without the popular vote, a first Black president, followed by a cultural backlash and the ascent of an immigrant bashing, mogul, advocating for white lives and resentment. Identity is not destiny. Yet how do we support democratic living, open to different opinions and subjectivities, wondered Angela Davis, speaking in Oranienplatz in Berlin about the refugee crisis.

After all, we live in a diverse, multicultural world. At least that’s how it feels on the subway, with accents from the Caribbean, Russia, Latin American, Eastern Europe and Brooklyn co mingling, sharing jays and beach chairs on the way to Rockaway Beach in the summer, each contending with our own questions about recognition and interconnection in the public sphere.

Fraser helps us consider the plea for recognition:

“Claims for the recognition of difference now drive many of the world’s social conflicts, from campaigns for…autonomy, to battles around multiculturalism, to…movements for…human rights, which seek to promote both universal respect for shared humanity and esteem for cultural distinctiveness. Why today, after…the acceleration of globalization, do so many conflicts take this form? Why…so many movements [over] recognition?”[51]

For many years, calls for recognition took place among leftist movements, “under the banners of sexuality, gender, ethnicity and ‘race’… to bring a richer, lateral dimension to battles over the redistribution of wealth and power as well.”By the end of the century, “issues of recognition and identity have become even more central, yet many now bear a different charge: from Rwanda to the Balkans, questions of ‘identity’ have fuelled campaigns for ethnic cleansing and even genocide” as well as opposition. The result, “a new constellation in the grammar of political claims-making—and one that is disturbing on two counts,” says Fraser. “First, this move from redistribution to recognition…” takes place, “when an aggressively expanding capitalism is radically exacerbating economic inequality…”  Fraser worries, “questions of recognition are serving less to supplement, complicate and enrich redistributive struggles than to marginalize, eclipse and displace them.”  For Fraser, this is  “the problem of displacement…”  All the while, communication flows have expanded exponentially. Unfortunately, such discourses “serve not to promote respectful interaction within increasingly multicultural contexts, but to drastically simplify and reify group identities… encourag[ing] separatism, intolerance and chauvinism.” This is a “problem of reification.”  In this way, concepts become things, dead and inanimate, “reifi[ng]group identities,” claims about groups are transformed into simplified categories, “sanctioning violations of human rights.” Not unsurprisingly, many have turned away from, “‘identity politics’” and “cultural struggles altogether.” Others are “reprioritizing class over gender, sexuality, ‘race’ and ethnicity” thereby “rejecting all ‘minoritarian’ claims….”[52]Back to the old arguments that class trumps race or economics determines all.

The trend is understandable, but misguided. “Culture is a legitimate, even necessary, terrain of struggle,” says Fraser. “Properly conceived, struggles for recognition can aid the redistribution of power and wealth and can promote interaction and cooperation across…difference.” But it “depends on how recognition is approached.” Thus, Fraser callsfor a new “way of rethinking the politics of recognition in a way that can help to solve, or at least mitigate, the problems of displacement and reification.” Ideally this is a space where social actors reframe movements for recognition in terms of redistribution.[53] In this way, recognition takes shapes as a sort of “reciprocal relation between subjects, in which each sees the other.” Redistribution flows through reciprocity, within the complexity of our experiences, rather than the one-dimensional thinking Herbert Marcuse lamented.[54] Identity is constructed dialogically, with mutual recognition of our relations, histories and subjectivities. After all, we are shaped in relation to others, notes George Herbert Mead.[55]  Yet all too often, we witness distorted claims of recognition, fueled by resentment, propelling conflict. Think Trump. Think populism.  This may have been what I saw last fall on Prenzlauer Allee, a drunk guy yelling at a rally of some dozen reactionary protesters, surrounded by cops, screaming, “down with NATO,” “no more masks,” “no more fake energy crisis.” The drunk man was screaming “Nazis fuck off.” If Fraser were there, I imagine her saying this frame rejects dialogical interaction in favor of monologue, turning complexity into a hegemonic narrative. The clash is everywhere.

Is this a problem with recognition or good old fashioned know nothingism, a new version of the paranoid style of politics we’ve seen all these years?[56] How do you have dialogue with people who do not want to talk? In a period of flux, what comes of status?  Who is seen and who is not? Who is perceived as valuable and who is not?  In many ways, this is one of the roots of grievances around multiculturalism, with poor white people feeling that without supremacy, they were left with very little after desegregation in the South in the US. Without hierarchies, poor whites felt lost. And they turned rightward. Calls for walls, restrictions on immigrants, and penal solutions followed. Misrecognition leads to institutional subordination. Jim Crow laws fell only to be replaced by a New Jim Crow in the US, with a school-to-prison pipeline.[57]

It all leaves me wondering, can we build a politics of recognition that fosters participation, built around recognition of difference.[58] Is there room for an alternative politics of recognition, that addresses maldistribution of resources, fostering dialogue, seeing ourselves in others, recognizing our interconnections in a city of friends, rather than an identity-based framing? Is this possible? Or will the clash become a chasm?  Martin Luther King called for such a framing.  Not long after, he was shot.[59] What of solidarity?


For Jürgen Habermas, notions of solidarity are essential for  democratic living. So are difference, interdependence and commonality; each are “critical standard[s]” for modern living and “political life”.[60]   Yet, all too often, people are isolated from the process, left bowling alone.[61] Along the way, questions about difference and solidarity become complicated. “Ethnic diversity is increasing in most advanced countries,” writes Robert Putnam, “driven mostly by sharp increases in immigration. In the long run immigration and diversity are likely to have important cultural, economic, fiscal, and developmental benefits. In the short run, however, immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital.” Many: “‘hunker down’. Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.”[62] Yet, why are friends fewer, solidarity breaking down? Cycles of connection and separation ebb and flow. During Superstorm Sandy in Brooklyn, people came together. In other times, they are more separated, friends harder to find. Yet solidarity extends in countless directions, expanding and contracting. I see it in the streets, from Brooklyn to Berlin, where students from a seminar and I met to march in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and Georgia, struggling for freedom and autonomy, instead of conflict. I see it in women’s marches calling for solidarity between movements for women in Afghanistan, Iran and the United States.

Many of us long for, and recognize a sense of mutual interconnection, a sense that our fates intertwine.[63] Yet, what creates solidarity in a Hobbesian world?  For Craig Calhoun,  mutual interdependence, common culture, social relations, communication and material culture are all ingredients. Still, “social solidarity— and its individual manifestation in a sense of  belonging—is marginalized and…stigmatized.”[64] Is there “is any place for culture or ethnicity in such theory except as the stigmatized other.”[65]

There have been times when the answer was affirmative, when we feel solidarity across borders. “…there is no East, no West, no North, no South, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole, wide world,” said Nobel Laureate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in his Sermon at the Marienkirche, East Berlin, September 13, 1964.[66] His was an expansive idea of interconnection and social solidarity. Today, “liberal theory” is “impoverished (despite repeated efforts to integrate more attention to participation and difference, both, in part, issues of social solidarity).”[67]  Still, one could suggest King was trying to do just that.[68]

North, South, East, West, the struggles between intolerance and solidarity are many. Rich vs poor, wars and refugees, create continuous interacting dynamics.[69] Add to them problems of climate and inequality and tension increases.[70] What happened to Solidarity, Lech Walesa wondered, on the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall in 2019. He reflected on the shifting legacy of the revolution in which he took part as a union organizer.

“We succeeded in eliminating this old division in the world. But then the question arose: What should happen next? How should the world develop?… We have not truly constructed anything new in the world…. One era has come to an end, and another one has not fully emerged. And we are in between.… The point is, we still don’t trust each other after the old era.… [W]e need to be constructing something completely different. The question is, what?[71]

Still, gestures of solidarity can be found in countless places, in discos, shop windows, street signs, lit candles, even art galleries. Take the show in Berlin in January at Zionskirche:

“You Know That You Are Human” began as an exhibition of Ukrainian photographers…depicting human likeness in a diversity…. They remind us once again that despite the elusive monstrosity of war, every life counts.”


What creates solidarity instead of conflict?  It’s a question for our times, for all times.  Throughout this essay, we’ve explored ideas of reconciliation and recognition. How can we broaden notions of solidarity among those of different classes and cultures? Faced with difference, why isn’t there more solidarity? The barriers are many, so are the contradictions.  We see  stories of displacement and community building.[72] We see cities of friends as well as riots. We struggle to see each other when facing expanding inequality and displacement?  How can we see strangers as ourselves, instead of clashing and fighting?  “Who keep us safe? We keep us safe,” chant activists from Brooklyn to Berlin. We look out for each other, recognizing our interconnected, ever-differing needs and histories.[73] Still problems around climate, inequality, and refugees complicate the task, crisis after crisis.[74] We see “high energy prices in the name of solidarity,” in Germany’s sanctions with Russia.[75] Notions of solidarity as interconnection have long been with us; is it possible for these old ideas to be expanded into broader engagement between bodies and communities? After all, solidarity takes place in countless forms, from policies to poetry and protest. Looking at the streets from Brooklyn to Berlin, I see a lot of it. But I also see barriers. Solidarity, conflict and recognition—each are interlocked in a dialectic, ever connected and separate, independent and interdependent.[76] Our economic and social worlds require a closer recognition of each other; the planet compels it. Unfortunately, others feel separated from this, still bowling alone, resentment building, ever clashing with their friends and neighbors.

Benjamin Heim Shepard is Professor of Human Service at New York School of Technology, CUNY. His most recent book is Sustainable Urbanism and Direct Action: Case Studies in Dialectical Activism.

[1]Irwin Epstein. 2023. Men As Friends. Koehler Books

[2]Stanley Price. 2016. James Joyce and Italo Svevo: the story of a friendship – The Irish Times. 7 September.

[3]Axel Honneth. 1995. The struggle for recognition: the moral grammar of social conflicts. Blackwell, Cambridge. Also see Joel Anderson, (2000)“The ‘Thrid Generation’ of the Frankfurt School” by Joel Anderson (uu.nl) Intellectual History Newsletter 22

[4]Hadj Abdou, Leila, Andrea Pettrachin, & Heaven Crawley. 2022. Who is a 3 Refugee? Understanding Europe’s Diverse Responses to the 2015 and the 2022 Refugee Arrivals. EURAC Research. Science Blogs. https://doi.org/10.57708/B118906807

[5]Susan Neiman. 2023. https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2023/04/06/longing-for-reconciliation-jacob-taubes/ 6 April

[6]Matt Papaycik , Forrest Saunders. 2022. DeSantis signs bill banning critical race theory in schools (wptv.com) April 22.

[7]Campbell Robertson. 2018. A Lynching Memorial Is Opening. The Country Has Never Seen Anything Like It. – The New York Times (nytimes.com) 25 April, New York Times.

[8]Sustan Neiman. 2019. Learning from the Germans: Confronting Race and the Memory of Evil.  Penguin

[9]Judith Herman (2015). Trauma and recovery. Basic Books.

[10]Krzysztof Czyżewski. 2015. Before “The Mystery of the Bridge” Begins

[11]Kurt Vonnegut (2007) A Man Without a Country. Bloomsbury Publishing

[12]Kurt Vonnegut (2007)

[13]Hadj Abdou, Leila, Andrea Pettrachin, & Heaven Crawley. 2022.

[14]Ivan Krastev on how the Invasion of Ukraine is Transforming Europe & Transatlantic Relations – Ralph Bunche Institute 2022.

[15]Joseph Roth. 2003. What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-1933. Granta Books.

[16]Walt Whitman To a Stranger – Poems | Academy of American Poets

[17]Walt Whitman. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45470/crossing-brooklyn-ferry

[18]Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. PriceRe-Scripting Walt Whitman: An Introduction to His Life and Work (Criticism) – The Walt Whitman Archive

[19]Stefan Zweig. 1942/ 2011. The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European. Bitkin Press. p.156

[20]Münch 1994. Sociological Theory. Volume 1, 2, 3. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers.

[21]George Simmel. 1955, p. 41

[22]George Simmel. 1955, p. 41

[23]Durkheim. The Division of Labor in Society (1893) (uchicago.edu)

[24]Grayson Quay. 2022. Poll: Over 50 percent of Americans expect a civil war ‘in the next few years’ (yahoo.com)

[25] Jimmy Carter.  (2008). Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid New York Simon and Schuster.

[26]Harris (2022). Merkel wins award for Germany’s open door policy to refugees. Euro News. 10 October. https://www.euronews.com/2022/10/04/merkel-wins-award-for-germanys-open-door-policy-to-refugees

[27]Carter, 2008

[28]Calhoun, 2003, Belonging’ in the Cosmopolitan Imaginary. Ethnicities, 3, 531

[29]Colombo (2015). Multiculturalisms: An overview of multicultural debates in western societies. Current Sociology Review, 63(6), 801

[30]Zuidervaart (2014). The Critical Theory of Axel Honneth. New Left Review. April


[31]Nancy Fraser (2000). Rethinking Recognition. New Left Review, (3), 107-120. https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii3/articles/nancy-fraser-rethinking-recognition

[32]Benhabib (2002). Deliberative Democracy and Multicultural Dilemmas. In. Benhabib, S(Ed.).  The Claims of Culture. (pp. 105–146). Princeton: PUP.

[33]Nancy Fraser (1989). Unruly Practices. University of Minnesota Press.  

[34]Jeffries (2016). Grand Hotel Abyss: Lives of the Frankfurt School. Verso.

[35]Karl Marx, K., & Fred Engels (1972). The Marx-Engels reader. Norton.

[36]Max Weber (2002). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York. Penguin Books.

[37]Karl Marx, K., & Fred Engels (1972)

[38]Khan, nd. Understanding Conflict (mgcub.ac.in)

[39]Kohl  (2022/23). “Georg Simmel, American Pragmatism and the early Du Bois.“ Sociological Theory. Freie Universitat.

[40] Fraser, 1989

[41]Bertrell Ollman  (2003). Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method. Urbana: University of Illinois Press 

[42]Khan, nd. ND

[43]Horkeimer (1982) Critical Theory: Seabury Press.

[44]Jay, M. (1973). The dialectical imagination. 1923-1950. Little, Brown.

Zuidervaart, D. (2014). The Critical Theory of Axel Honneth. New Left Review. April


[45]Jay, 1973; Jeffries, 2016

[46]Zuidervaart, 2014

[47]Zuidervaart, 2014

[48] Zuidervaart, 2014

[49]Fraser 1989

[50]Benjamin Shepard (2002, Summer)Review of Masses, Classes, and the Public Sphere edited by M. Hill and W. Montag. WorkingUSA: A Journal of Labor and Society, 135-43.

[51]Fraser, 2000

[52]Fraser, 2000

[53] Fraser, 2000

[54]Fraser, 2000 abd Herbert Marcuse (1964). One Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press.

[55]G. H. Mead (2015). Mind, self, and society. University of Chicago Press.

[56]R Hofstadter (1996) The Paranoid Style of Politics. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

[57]M. Alexander, M. (2011) The New Jim Crow. New York: New Press.

[58]Fraser, 2000

[59]ML King (1964). Why we can’t wait. New York :New American Library.

[60]Pensky (2019). Solidarity. In A. Allen & E. Mendieta (Eds.), The Cambridge Habermas Lexicon (pp. 427-429). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 427

[61]Robert Putnam (2001). Bowling Alone. Simon & Schuster.

[62]Robert Putnam, D. (2007). E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century. The 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture. Scandinavian Political Studies, 30(2), 137–8

[63]Buber (2008). I and Thou. New York, NY: Howard Books.            

[64]Calhoun (2003, p.532)

[65]Ibid P. 532

[66]Ligon (2020). “…there is no East, no West..:” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Visits Cold War Berlin. 20 January.  https://rediscovering-black-history.blogs.archives.gov/category/civil-rights/page/4/

[67]Ibid p. 532

[68] King (1964).

[69]Calhoun (2003, p.533)

[70]Eric Laursen, 2021. The Operating System: : An Anarchist Theory of the Modern State AK Press

[71]Hirsh (2019). Lech Walesa on Why Democracy Is Failing: ‘There Is No Leadership’ https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/11/14/lech-walesa-poland-why-democracy-failing-there-i-no-leadership/

[72]Marx and Friedrich Engels, 2015

[73]King (1964) and Fraser (2000).  

[74]Erik Laursen 2021. Operating System. AK Press.

[75]Entous et al. 2023. “Intelligence Suggests Pro-Ukrainian Group Sabotaged Pipelines, U.S. Officials Say.” 8 March. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/07/us/politics/nord-stream-pipeline-sabotage-ukraine.html?searchResultPosition=2

[76]Buber (2008).


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Zillah Eisenstein: Newest Misogyny/Ies

By Michael Ruse: Anti-Vaxxers And The Covid Crisis: The Sorry Story Of The Pernicious Influence Of A Pseudo-Science

By Rev. Matthew V. Johnson, Jr: A Letter Of Concern To Black Clergy Regarding “Cop City”

By Firoze Manji: Amílcar Cabral And The Politics Of Culture And Identity

By Andrew Feenberg: The “New” Lukács

By Bill Fletcher, Jr: The Continued Relevance Of W.E.B. Du Bois, Sixty Years On

By Philip Green: On Liberalism

By Benjamin Shepard: On Cities Of Friends And Riots: Between Conflict, Solidarity, And Struggles For Recognition

By Sabby Sagal: REVIEW ESSAY: Dostoevsky as Political Agitator: Alex Chistofi, Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life (London: Bloomsbury, 2022)

By Mario Kessler: Susan Neiman, Left Is Not Woke. New York: Polity Press, 2023

By Warren Leming: Bob Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song (New York: Simon & Schuster 2022)

By Kurt Jacobsen: John Nichols, I Got Mine: Confessions of a Midlist Writer (Albuquerque: High Road Books, 2022)

By Aidan J. Beatty: Jo Guidi, The Long Land War: The Global Struggle for Occupancy Rights (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022)

By Sarah Kamal: Eben Kirksey, The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2021.