Corona solidarity: Beware! It may not be what you think

By Matti Häyry

Already during the early weeks and months of the COVID-19 pandemic, many media outlets started to talk about “corona solidarity”. We are facing a crisis, they said, but we are pulling through with miraculous mutual support and everybody chipping in for the common good.

I found this narrative suspect from the outset, but was too busy writing about the follies of my academic peers and the plight of political decision makers in Finland to address the matter at once. By the end of the summer, I had, however, completed my other tasks and could concentrate on this one. The data on alleged and real cases of pandemic-time solidarity saturated in a few weeks, after which I was ready to report my findings. They are as follows.

As an antisocial introvert, I have always seen “solidarity” predominantly as a word that well-bonded extroverts use to ease their anxiety while giving the impression that they are morally superior and their cause the best of causes.

I started with the hypothesis that corona solidarity is an unattractive concept because it involves the assumption of moral superiority. When I began to grind the data through my two theoretical frameworks, however, I had to abandon this idea as inconsistent ad hominem. I, too, seem to claim moral superiority in this matter, so the moral-high-horse factor does not distinguish the views of my extroverted rivals from mine.

My first framework defines solidarity as feeling and acting together for a shared goal and against a common adversary. If we do not count everybody’s survival as our shared goal and nature as our adversary (possible but has not happened with COVID-19), very few suggested cases of corona solidarity fit within this narrow realm. Walking the dogs of strangers, sending your employees home to do remote work, and offering advice to countries that are hit harder than your own count as altruism, egoism, and spin rather than feeling and acting together for a specific mutual purpose that “we” share against “them”.

My second framework is a conceptual map on which theories of justice are presented as interpretations of equality. Since solidarity has links to both equality and justice, it can be multiply defined in a similar way. The resulting six accounts of solidarity are separated by their background beliefs and value assumptions. The positional accounts – socialism, care ethics, and communitarianism – swear by role differences, collectivism, and spontaneity; while the universalist accounts – libertarianism, capability theory, and utilitarianism – advocate, to varying degrees, the similarity of norms and values, individualism, and calculation. Solidarity belongs more naturally to the positional camp, while the entire humanity’s battle against nature seems to be a more universal concern.

Especially one reaction to the COVID-19 situation could match both the narrow and the wide definitions. This is the struggle for adequate salaries and decent working conditions for frontline labourers including but not limited to nurses. “We” could be all those who are held in a precarious situation by the iron grip of global capitalism. “They” could be the minority who benefit from the arrangement. The fellow-feeling would be essentially socialist, but it could be shared by almost all because almost all belong to the precariat.

Utilitarians and capability theorists could easily join this battle for welfare and liberation, although their universalism makes me want to say that they would be promoting universal justice for individuals, not solidarity for particular groups. But that is a minor semantic issue that can perhaps be ignored.

A more serious issue has to do with care ethicists and communitarians. While they could both identify and recognise their protected groups and communities as fractions of the precariat and join the battle against global capitalism, they concentrate, instead, on fighting one another. Nationalist and other parochial communitarians, some of whom have formed ideological alliances with libertarians, organise, amidst the pandemic, xenophobic and racist demonstrations and oppose governmental restrictions. Intersectional care and recognition supporters coordinate counterdemonstrations. In many cases, care and community are secondary concerns, as loathing and hatred occupy the driver’s seat.

The struggle for domination in the positional camp is the final nail in the coffin of currently prevailing real-life corona solidarity. The expressions of benevolence are altruistic or hiddenly egoistic, and the most genuine “us” vs “them” togetherness is a mess of violence. Give me the struggle against global capitalism any day of the week.

Paper title: COVID-19: Another Look at Solidarity

Author: Matti Häyry

Affiliations: Aalto University School of Business, Finland

Competing interests: None

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