Our Natural Sense of Solidarity is Both Necessary and Compromised
Our natural sense of solidarity with others is situationally compromised, no matter how self-glorifying we perceive ourselves. While we generally feel great empathy for the suffering of others such as e.g., on TV as we see children ripped apart by bombs in war zones or scrapping for food on third-world garbage landfills, we also close our eyes with ease once we are asked to pay a price for solidarity. Refugees should receive help by the UNHCR, we all agree, but better not knock at our doorsteps. We know very well about the difficulties of countries such as Italy or Greece to deal with the influx of refugees and the unbalanced demands of the Dublin treaty, but conveniently close our eyes at the remote prospect of having to share the burden. We opt for solidarity when it suits us and as long as it does not cause personal inconvenience. Our natural sense of solidarity, mirror neurons activated or not, appears only of limited use to solve issues of social justice. Natural perceptions of human solidarity are easily corruptible, especially by politics.
Three Principles of Social Justice
Generally, we are dealing with three principles of social justice: the principle of need, the principle of performance and the principle of participation.
The principle of need says that people should get what they need. Like in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, people need to be provided food and shelter, comfort and respect. This is fair. From a Machiavellian perspective we could state that unless the poor are not comfortably poor, social unrest will knock on the door. Typically, we all agree that people should be provided with the basics of life, such as medical care and education. Social justice is served when people are provided what they need.
The principle of performance says that it is justice when an effort is rewarded. We commonly hear two variations of this principle. (1) On a negative attributional note, it says: Someone ambitious cannot be treated the same as someone lazy. Be it grades at school or salaries – those who put in an extra effort need to be rewarded while others even may get punished. (2) On a positive normative note, it says: People are not equal. Some are content to live simple, happy lives while others are ambitious to live more demanding lives that also involve higher responsibilities. A surgeon should be paid more than a taxi driver because, obviously, a surgeon carries greater responsibility and requires years and decades of qualification while a taxi driver does not. When I visited China in 1985, corrupt taxi drivers actually made more money than doctors at a hospital, so assumptions on the principle of performance should not be taken for granted.
The principle of participation says that justice is when all people can participate in society and nobody should be excluded. People from socially disadvantaged backgrounds should enjoy going to the movies, theatres, order a pizza, not be discriminated against etc. just like anyone else. Disadvantaged socioeconomic groups should not be worn down to the point where they stop voting, lose hope in a better future, limit their world to immediate physical needs to merely live in the here and now. Participation entails the empowerment to contribute to the whole of society and to play an active part in it.
Conflicting Principles – Now What?
It is easy to figure out that although we generally agree on the justification of these noble and sensible principles, they can conflict with one another. Let’s take capital gain for instance. If I work hard enough, I accumulate capital. This capital is earned by my blood, sweat and tears and I shall, therefore, enjoy the benefits. So goes the traditional libertarian narrative. Soberingly, stock markets do not know blood, sweat and tears. They know numbers, patterns and trends, investor sentiments and market dynamics, but not private perspectives. Once people have accumulated enough capital, such as by inheritance, they do not need to work anymore for anyone, at least not directly. The non-working rich contrasted against the working poor violate the principle of performance: It is against the principle of performance that people enjoy the benefit of a luxurious and comfortable life without effort and qualification. In dictatorial states, such as North Korea, a small corrupt elite manages a different system in which people are rather poor together (low needs satisfaction, high social inclusion cemented by ideology) while performance is measured by the loyalty to the regime.
Currently, the USA under Trump promotes a Rusian model favouring oligarchs, reminiscent of feudal societies of the Middle Ages. In this system, a caste of ultra-rich and powerful individuals and multinational corporations govern the rest of society. Democratic institutions, such as the judiciary or media, are hollowed out and remodelled to serve the reigning caste. Trump and Putin essentially share the same idea of society. Eventually, large parts of the population become socially and politically excluded (and alienated), they will not be able to satisfy basic needs and, in addition, experience how honest effort and hard work do not translate into a better life. People work hard but stay poor. The American Dream has come to its end. How does this compare to North Korea where a large part of the population prefers staying poor together, united under a God-like leader?
The cited examples share a common trait – they are based on inequality. This is not inequality in people being different, which by nature they are, but by attributed inequality (in this case the ‘entitled’ versus the ‘non-entitled’ members of society). Inequality corrupts all three principles of social justice. In a society where rich and powerful elites reign there can neither be a fair gain by effort (since wealth and power are inherited and stays within the caste) nor can there be a fair social participation (little or no social mobility, Wallmart for the poor and luxury brands for the rich) nor can there be a fair distribution of social goods such as medical services, housing, a decent infrastructure, democratic political influence and education. Perversely, it is even beneficial to reigning elites if the rest of society stays poor, uneducated and easily controllable. Recent technological advances in Big Data and AI provide dominating classes with powerful tools to predict social motivation and to influence groups’ decision-making.
Kant would have argued that since we are agents of reason, we cannot use others as a means to an end. Applying the Categorical Imperative, it would be immoral to instrumentalise others, or groups of others, for one’s personal benefit and gain since we would violate their autonomy as well as betray our own. But why should powerful elites care about Kantian reason?
The Habermasian argument goes deeper. Reasoning, unlike a Kantian metaphysical concept, renders for Habermas as a function of intersubjectivity and underlies social action. No matter how unequal and suppressive a regime might be, it can never fully silence questions of legitimisation and justification. Which good argument (that is not ideological and arbitrary) could legitimize inequality? Stakeholders in society can raise the questions of a fair mediation of applied principles at any time. Emancipating inquiry, suppressed or endorsed, is in principle always open and possible. Only in a society that is based on solidarity, claims to social justice can be mediated amicably, peacefully and productively. The process of globalisation supports Habermas’ view since questions about the legitimisation of systems and the distribution of wealth are amplified in an interconnected world – or ‘spaces of flow’, as Manuel Castells put it.
Beyond demonstrating the logic of solidarity via a communication-bound rationality, I could think of another good argument. This is that in a diverse, open pluralistic society any public solution-development tends to be superior and more sustainable as compared to single-minded propositions by dominating groups. Social coherence, shared wealth, democratic innovation and a future-oriented design of institutions are best mitigated within conditions of solidarity where stronger members openly support and foster the disadvantaged of society. We may in the short term suppress the perspectives of others, but only at the cost of negative long-term ramifications.
The more perspectives are invited to a discourse, the more differentiated and fair policies can be designed. Let’s call it the cultural problem-solving argument. It asks what kind of society we want to live in and which benefits, or suffering, we are we willing to impose on our members. In economics, solidarity is realized by a social market economy. It aims at empowering, not alimenting, the less well-off members of society.
Conclusion: Social Trust versus Living in Fear and Paranoia
Although principles of social justice compete with one another, we cannot escape the social and cultural conditions that we create. Solidarity, as an underlying expression of unity and framework to mediate claims to social justice, is a prerequisite for unbiased public discourse. Solidarity goes beyond the weighing of interests or the balancing of influence since it aims at a cooperative system design. Cooperative design creates, beyond more sustainable solutions, the precious outcome of social trust. Correspondent Jan-Philipp Sendker illustrated the argument by telling the story of a Chinese billionaire (Talkshow with Markus Lenz on German TV, ZDF, on 30. November 2017).
Despite his incredible wealth, this man lived in constant fear of authorities and even of his family who, according to him, could not be trusted with taking care of his autistic son after he and his wife would die. This is how he asked Jan-Philipp Sendker if he could assist him applying for German citizenship. He had heard in the media that Switzerland, New Zealand and Germany were among the few countries where handicapped children could be institutionalized and trusted but not Chinese institutions. Not all the money and power in the world was able to provide him with the comfort of public trust.
Solidarity among all groups of society is a prerequisite for social justice. This is how divisive and polarizing populists run down countries by turning them into plutocratic oligarchies. It is not a trajectory that open Western societies want to follow.