IT SEEMED THAT EVERY DAY in the summer of 2020, we were greeted by fresh images of police violence and public unruliness. While the season was called by some an “insurrection summer,” no one could have predicted at the time that an actual insurrection attempt would be made in January 2021. In each of these instances—the summer of protest and refusal of the US policing status quo, and the “Stop the Steal” rally that led to the Capitol breach on January 6, 2021—people practiced solidarity. They undertook coordinated efforts to work together to achieve political goals based on shared values or aims, through the agitation of conflict.
In Seattle there was a brief attempt at the development of an “autonomous zone” or occupied protest—alternately referred to as both the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) and the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ). While there is a history of occupying protests being successful in winning community space for marginalized groups in Seattle, CHOP/CHAZ lasted only about three weeks, from June 8 to July 1, 2020. No sooner were the East Precinct’s police station occupied, free food tables set up, and medical, library, and mourning resources established than members began warning each other about the dangers of infighting on June 10 (Bush 2020).
CHOP/CHAZ maintained its police-free zone until it was disbanded by police on July 1, 2020, following a high-profile series of murders within the space. There was no grand end to the zone, or the collectives its members generated while occupying the area. The end of the autonomous zone was unrelated to the lurking threat of infighting. Yet, the possibility of infighting haunted the project nearly from its start. Infighting seems to be the focus not only of organizers trying to build solidarity, but also of observers of solidarity groups.
Infighting and other forms of self-contradiction are depicted as threatening to solidarity. They divide and conquer. They make solidarity groups look ridiculous and laughable to outsiders, who wonder why it is that solidarity organizations just can’t get it together to achieve their goals. Conversely, solidarity groups are also criticized for their conflictual relationships with the society in which they are situated. In each case, the groups manage internal and external conflicts simultaneously, and both forms of conflict are generally up for public critique. This is a book about those political conflicts; its analysis is situated from a position within spaces and organizations designed to build solidarity. This pairing is critical. Academic philosophy concerning solidarity typically avoids engagement with the issue of conflict within organizations. This omission has generated theories of solidarity that lack the necessary connection to its democratic functions and the conflicts it generates. The role conflict plays in building solidarity is decisive.
The sites and methods at work in building solidarity are generally positioned against outsiders in situations rife with conflict. Internal histories and memoirs tend to account for conflicts within the membership of a solidary group, and dwell on their clarificatory function. The character of these conflicts is not to be avoided. While many will mentally leap to the fact that solidarity organizations often take up arms against their oppressors, that’s not the sort of conflict that interests me here. This is a book not about violence or brutality, but about the kinds of democratic life that can be built when people struggle together. It is guided by a set of questions and considerations concerning collective organizing, the emergence and transformation of individuals through group formation, and the role of democracy in our everyday lives. I begin with two related questions: How did democracy become disentangled from our ordinary lives and become something that is done only at ballot boxes? And is this related to the way that contemporary democratic theory shed its historical association with social theory? I develop a theory of solidarity as a way of answering these questions and showing how solidarity itself is intended to address a growing gap between what is popular and what seems politically attainable.
I argue, somewhat counterintuitively, that solidarity functions in its most democratic way when it is open to conflict. Our world is rife with pundits and philosophers bemoaning the lack of ability to develop consensus. While there are many potential sources of conflict in modern society, a select few have been chosen by political philosophers for serious consideration. While one may find many texts concerning the role of religious belief in political justification, little serious attention has been given contemporarily to the role of disagreement and conflict in democratic life. Much more consideration has been given to how it ought to be eliminated.
I refer to this book as a study in democratic theory to the extent that democracy is a sociopolitical formation designed to allow for two things: maximal freedom from domination, and the mediation necessary for social life. Theorists will disagree about how formalized democratic institutions must be, the roles that their constitutive members play, and the extent to which representation is desirable. Yet all recognize that democracy is, at its base, a form of collective decision making about matters of consequence to the members. While not all democratic polities (in particular, the Greek polis) are designed with nondomination and collective mediation in mind, those things are the normative benefits of democratic forms of life, which build and maintain pluralistic societies while exercising a minimum of force, coercion, and violence. Democratic forms of life also have other potential benefits: feelings of belonging that are thought to be necessary for human psychosocial existence, autonomy, freedom, and equality. These normative gains will be discussed sporadically throughout this book. Of primary importance, however, is the role of nondomination, and the mediation necessary for maintaining a society that does not drive alienation.
While the political impetus for this text is the contemporary condition of democratic decay, the theoretical impetus is a timely revisiting of the Frankfurt School lineage as it concerns the constitution of society and the mechanism of social integration. Though Theodor Adorno argued that social integration is temporally primary and functional individuation is temporally secondary (Adorno 2001; Butler 2003, 13), Jürgen Habermas, taking his cue from social theory, argued that the primary question is how to achieve social integration capable of legitimating political acts. In doing so, Habermas situates his conception of society primarily vis-à-vis those of Émile Durkheim, Niklas Luhmann, and Talcott Parsons. This explains why Habermas takes integration, communication, and the relationship of action and communication to the foundation of society as primary considerations in his The Theory of Communicative Action. In volume 2, Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason, his critique of Parsons begins with Parsons’s own question: “By what sort of mechanisms are alter’s actions connected up with ego’s in such a way that conflicts that might threaten a given action interrelation can either be avoided or sufficiently checked?” (1987, 202). Habermas argues that Parsons cannot overcome the contradiction this question raises between social integration and system integration while at the same time failing to provide an account of the development of social pathology within his theory. As Habermas puts it, Parsons “suggests, on the whole, too harmonious a picture, because it does not have the wherewithal to provide a plausible explanation of pathological patterns of development” (1987, 203). However, Habermas fails to consider that perhaps Parsons’s question is simply the incorrect one to ask.
Habermas focuses, instead, almost exclusively on an attempt to build a theory of society based on consensus formation. This is appealing primarily because the formation of consensus can provide both for the legitimation of systems-level action and the imposition of lifeworld-level norms. Most basically, rationally achieved consensus is necessary for Habermas due to his conception of society as “social order.” On his account, social order requires the normalization of individual, subjective interests to a society-level structure of normative regulation. As he defines it, society simply is “the legitimate orders through which participants regulate their memberships in social groups and thereby secure solidarity” (1987, 138). Thus, individual interest must be brought, via communicative reason, into line with the values of the whole as subjected to normative validity challenges. That is, consensus, for Habermas, gets us normatively justified politics, law, economics, and society itself. While Habermas critiques his interlocutors for their overly harmonious pictures of social life, he commits the same error as they do. It seems as though some social theorists simply could not comprehend the degree to which a society can withstand a world rife with substantive disagreements concerning the development and norms of both systems and lifeworlds. That is, Habermas himself failed to develop a conception of society fitting for the world in which we find ourselves, and a conception of selfhood capable of generating this picture of society.1
The conception of society as legitimate social order belies two underexplored questions: (a) What are the constituent features of an illegitimate social order, and (b) how do we build societies when the potential for developing social order seems, itself, to be too optimistic a proposition? This text attempts to answer both of these questions. It explores how pathological societies developed out of the ruins of the postwar social order, and how it is that solidarity organizations build society when the broad-ranging consensus necessary for the development of a legitimate political, legal, and economic order is no longer coterminous with societies. That is: How do societies smaller than polity come to be, and what role do they play in the development of normative polity-level commitments?
In many ways, this text is intended as a non-ideal response to Habermas’s generally unsatisfying insistence on the ideal conditions in which his theory of communicative action takes place. As he puts it, communicative actions are “processes of social integration and of socialization” (1984, 139). His proposal shares much in common with my own: that society is built via conflict. After all, disagreement about normative validity claims is a certain kind of conflict over which norms ought to bind us so that the collective action necessary for the development of legitimate social orders can occur. This, though, tells us very little about the operation of conflict and disagreement within illegitimate social orders. While Habermas takes pains to argue that social pathologies can develop, he does not have much to say about normative circumstances at the edge of social breakdown.
Yet those who argue for the elimination of disagreement via forms of consensus building spend precious few words on the status of conflicts themselves. Instead, they simply assume that a democratic polity requires consensus, and that otherwise legitimation is not possible. The elevation of consensus is wrapped in the legacy of a tradition whose founding was based in a general will, or in a social contract of some kind. Many take the aspects necessary to founding a democratic polity to be continually necessary conditions for its continued existence and legitimation. Yet they ignore the fact that the founding consensus of a democratic polity is necessary only by virtue of the existence of conflicts that cannot be mediated or eliminated in social life alone. Conflict and consensus, then, are both necessary as foundational social elements of democratic life.
Because consensus has received such broad attention from democratic theorists—including in the development of schemes for how to ensure it, the mechanisms by which it can be attained, and the normative principles on which one might justifiably ignore dissent—this text serves as a necessary overcorrection. It places conflict at the center of democratizing social life, economic life, and the polity. In that way, it positions democracy as an ongoing political process, rather than a set of formal and secure political institutions or constitutional rules.
The basic premise of this book takes its cues from sociological conflict theory. This theory, which readers may know under the terminology of in-group / out-group theory, posits that conflict holds the potential to improve group cohesion and integration. It explains why, for instance, one expects to see a rise in nationalist sentiments when the state is involved in an external war. It also is intended to explain why conflicts arise between different groups: because, it tells us, human beings feel more comfortable with people sufficiently similar to them. While the text takes the first premise as a basic motivation, I’m uninterested in the identitarian-style arguments that are commonly made in empirical sociology and political science concerning what is contemporarily often referred to as “tribalism.” Rather than focus on how human beings develop community with those who are sufficiently similar to them in some identitarian fashion, I focus on the development of community based on preexisting values and goals. That is, to the extent that this book considers groups composed of people with similar identities, it is not about those identities, but about the politics, values, and goals held by the members of the group.
Social conflict theory is rooted historically in Marx’s conception of society as a conflict over resources. It was taken up by others to argue that competition under capitalism is a form of conflict: arguing that innovation, higher wages, and better working conditions are the result of competition between firms. Others consider conflict to be any form of agitation, including mere taunting or mocking of others. This text does not focus on competition or personal quarrels as forms of conflict. It instead focuses primarily on what Lewis Coser refers to as “realistic” conflicts, or conflicts that are productive and creative. I refer to them as “substantive conflicts” because they concern something of substantial import. They are not quarrels over personality, because one person simply dislikes another, nor are they disagreements about elements of our lives that have little practical effect, such as the choice of what to watch on television. Substantive conflicts are conflicts over elements of the world that affect our lives in serious and thoroughgoing ways.
We also live in a time where many argue that we’ve simply had too much democracy. In diagnosing social ills, many theorists are pleased to place the blame on democratic life, policies, and institutions. Democracy is to blame for its role in the increasing hostility that many find in various social interactions. It is to blame for political corruption and inefficiencies because it is run by the “ignorant” (Brennan 2016). Or an excess of democracy is taken to ruin the goods sought through democratic organization (Tallise 2019). Not only are we constantly pumped with the message that democracy is harmful, or that it fails to fulfill the normative ideals it is based on; we are also told at the same time that democracy is crumbling around us because voters cannot or should not be trusted to determine the course of their lives, their political institutions, or their societies. This is a confusing message: that we ought to eliminate democracy, but at the same time be fearful of its death.
In these cases, pathologies of democracy are said to create social ills. They enable widespread ignorance, dependence, partisanship, “mobbing,” and so on. This book begins by discussing the social ills we face. I follow the origins of democratic theory in arguing that social systems are mutually constituted with our political lives. Democratic thinking historically involved the consideration of society as a necessary element of democratic life. Contemporarily, democratic politics is taken to be something set apart from everyday life—a particular arena that affects but is unaffected by social organization. This text is an attempt to remedy the pathologies that result from a democratic theory that fails to take seriously the role the social world plays.
Nowhere are the failures and ideals of democracy more clear than when those who have been politically marginalized agitate for their own nonexclusion. As a system, democracy promises autonomy for its subjects—but also withholds it from those who are excluded. The push to end exclusions is, then, a form of both spreading democratic life and recognizing the value that it holds in the world. Eliminating exclusions is often part of the work of creating a less dominative world. Since democracy is a form of building and exercising power, exclusions from it are often forms of domination, or of powering over others. This text takes seriously the roles that exclusions play both in agitation for greater democratic life and in agitation for restricting democratic life. In total, I argue that substantive conflict is a central form of democratic world-making because of its central role in the building of society. In particular, this occurs via conflicts agitated for nonexclusion. I focus primarily on conflicts that are intentionally agitated by social movements aimed at nonexclusion. This is to say not that conflict is what makes democracy possible, but rather that conflict shows the necessity for democracy, thus making it both possible and desirable.
This text concerns the relationships generated by three central concepts: solidarity, conflict, and democracy. I deploy these concepts to develop a critical social theory of the associative preconditions of democratic life. In other words, I provide a social theory that is capable of supporting a democratic theory. Contemporary democratic theory is largely disconnected from the need for a social theory. The problem arises here because without social theory, democratic theories could be theories for some other world, and perhaps even a perfect world. This would render them relatively useless as tools for actually understanding our contemporary political circumstances, or for working toward building a more democratic world. Historically, democratic theories were based first on social theories—and even much older instances of political thought also first provided theories of the social circumstances necessary to produce both the subject of politics and the conditions for those politics to thrive. Plato’s Republic is an exemplar of this relationship, though the tendency I describe isn’t limited to ancient thought.
Enlightenment political philosophers almost always saw fit to provide some kind of theory of the social that would be capable of providing support for their political arguments. Imagine an attempt at justifying the Leviathan without Hobbes’s theory of the state of nature. State of nature arguments, then, are social theory first, political theory second. This is explicit in most texts because they highlight that the state of nature is lacking in any formal political institutions. One can see an example of the phenomenon I’m describing in that contemporary democratic thought has lost its historical connection to social theory with the transmogrification of the state of nature into the original position by John Rawls. While theories concerning the state of nature posit men as social beings—or antisocial beings, as the case may be—the original position requires no such social theory. It relies strictly on various assumptions concerning individual psychological norms and economic rationality.
This is, of course, just a backdoor method of smuggling in a social theory under the guise of a neutral claim about what human beings desire and how they feel about others. It is still a social claim, but one lacking in justification or explanation. To constrain the original position via the concept of human beings’ economic rationality subtly supports the idea that there just is something about human beings that makes them desire whatever they can have, and as much of it as they can get. In that way, the critical social theory of solidarity and conflict is meant to provide the context for the possibility of building democratic forms of life. Conversely, democratic values can help us to evaluate the normative valence of solidarity organizations, and the sorts of conflicts they generate internally and externally.
No small part of this book is dedicated to developing a coherent concept of solidarity. In particular, I work toward developing a concept that isn’t weighed down by thick assumptions about the moral status of solidarity. In this text, I develop a theory of democratic solidarity as a nonexclusive group of people who work together toward a goal while sharing some independent aim, goal, end, tactic, or value. I say that this is a democratic theory of solidarity because the book also develops the inverse, in the concept of antisocial solidarity. Antisocial solidarity occurs when a group of people share an aim of domination or oppression, and when the group itself is a permanently exclusive and exclusionary organization. While one might think that democratic solidarity organizations are also exclusive or exclusionary, consider that their goal is often that everyone adopts some value or is influenced by the achievement of their shared ends. That is, the goals of democratic solidarity organizations are ones compatible with a social formation suitable for democratic life. The goal is a process that leaves no one excluded, provided that they participate.
The theory of solidarity presented in this text is thus political rather than moral. While many liberal accounts of solidarity present it as primarily a moral relation that generates moral responsibilities—and thus develop action-guiding principles such as moral responsibility to act for the benefit of another, to defer to another, or to cooperate with another—I avoid this temptation. I refer to it as a temptation because I think that solidarity is much easier to theorize when one considers only the kinds of collective association and action that are beneficial, positive, or aimed at building a better world for us. However, theorizing isn’t merely easier. It also provides a distorted picture of collective action and association, which is often aimed at building a more dominative or oppressive world. Groups with such goals are often overlooked in the liberal literature—focusing as it does on providing, at a minimum, a regulative ideal of moral behavior rather than a tool for political analysis.
The account of solidarity I provide aims not to make a virtue of necessity, in terms of ontologizing conflict in solidarity groups, but to provide an account of solidarity that recognizes that all its forms are not normatively equal. When I refer to moral accounts of solidarity, I mean that they are often intended to develop not merely an evaluative standard for solidarity organizations, but a theory of how those groups can provide action guidance to those who are in solidarity with them, or can make moral claims on others who would, for example, impose duties or responsibilities.
However, this is not a neutral text. I argue that some forms of solidarity are those we ought to pursue, and some are forms we ought to avoid or eliminate. I aim to provide a descriptive account of the formation of organized social groups that share social, political, legal, and economic goals or values, and the way those groups operate. At the same time I provide a democratic theory. The evaluative norms applied to the solidarity groups I discuss are those associated with democratic life: openness to challenge, nonexclusion, and liberation. Thus, this account of solidarity is a normative democratic account insofar as it argues that democracy is desirable, and that when solidarity organizations are democratic, they’re desirable as well. What I wish to avoid is to argue that because an organization is democratic, I ought to participate in it or follow the dictates it develops. In chapter 3, I will present a theory of nondemocratic solidarity as a kind of pathological social formation or political association: one that undermines its own existence by virtue of the norms it adopts.
To the extent, then, that the theory I propose is normative, it is normative in the sense that it provides evaluative standards for assessing how a solidarity group operates, and the role it plays in a democratic society. The aim is to develop a theory of solidarity that avoids three features of fascist group formation: exclusion, expulsion, and extermination of difference. In this way, the theory developed isn’t intended to guide action or provide an organizational imperative. For example, it doesn’t tell me whether I ought to join a solidarity group, democratic or otherwise, or whether I ought to follow a solidaristic action. Not only are these moral questions I do not attempt to answer; they are also political questions about the efficacy of certain organizations or tactics which are highly context-dependent, and for which no consistent set of guidelines can be generated.
The final goal of constructing an evaluative rather than imperative theory of solidarity is that it avoids the confusion between a theory of solidarity and what a solidarity group ought to do. To my mind, a theory of solidarity ought to have explanatory mechanisms that make sense of actual experiences of solidarity and provide some critical way of evaluating solidarity groups. It is not the purpose of a theory of solidarity to inform the reader how one ought to act in solidarity. There are normative and practical reasons for this. First, the theory I develop is a democratic one. The picture of solidarity and democracy I outline is fundamentally based on the idea that members of a solidarity group are in conflict over what ought to be done and why. Thus, a theorist of solidarity cannot provide action guidance, unless it is in their capacity as a member of a solidarity organization, and not as a philosopher or theorist. It would be a violation of the democratic ethos for me, as an observer of such organizations, to tell others how they ought to engage with or interact with them. Even worse, given the goals of solidarity organizations, it is not politically feasible. Different actions will be effective for different groups in different contexts with different goals, values, or aims.
In providing an idealized picture of solidarity that only discusses morally praiseworthy organizations, those who theorize it miss out on how it functions as a form of association for groups across the political spectrum. This prohibits a complete picture of contemporary politics and the way in which political change is fomented. Solidarity is not practiced only by groups whose aims a moral person or a just society would want to defend. Without recognizing this, we cannot make sense of criminal organizations, white supremacist clubs, or misogynist groups. We cannot, in fact, make sense of colonization without some understanding of how solidarity can function for domination rather than as a tool of liberation or justice.
The distorted picture of collective action and association has the side effect of presenting a picture of our political action that is wildly inaccurate. How, for example, ought one treat fascist associations, white supremacist groups, and far-right protomilitias? These groups and their political associations often fall outside the bounds of liberal theorizing on solidarity. The result is that liberal theories of solidarity fail to comprehend what is at stake in developing solidarity organizations, how those organizations can expand, the tactics they use to achieve their goals, and how their spread can be slowed or stopped.
A consideration of antisocial and antidemocratic solidarity organizations provides a more clear picture of their purpose, their membership, and the role they play in democratic life. We can develop a way of classifying these organizations that doesn’t rely on accepting precise moral judgments of the goals, tactics, or values they espouse. This is a significant downfall of many works on solidarity, which aim to help us sort out when we should be in solidarity. I call it a downfall because if, for example, one is not a Kantian, one may find oneself unconvinced by Kantian arguments for solidarity. If one conceives of justice differently from what is considered the liberal norm, then one may come to different conclusions from Kant about what joint actions count as solidarity. A nonmoralized conception of solidarity avoids this pitfall.
This brings me to the concept of democracy that operates throughout this book, which is based in a radical democratic tradition. I see democracy as more than a set of formal institutional structures designed to process many individual wills into legitimate rule. Democracy also encompases our relationships with others, how we order and organize political associations, and the way we include, exclude, or hear others. I take these cues about the role of democracy from a lineage of radical democratic thought that positions democracy as a process rather than an idealized outcome or set of procedures.
When I discuss democracy and democratic life, I do so in the tradition of radical democracy. In a basic way, this means that I treat contestation and conflict as fundamental features of human life under capitalism. They are enacted in our lives via politics aimed at modifying either the formal political structures under which we live or the material conditions of our lives. That said, it is important that I distinguish my work here from that of those on whose work my arguments are based. As Sheldon Wolin identifies it, politics is the work of contestation over material resources by organized groups. He goes on to say that democracy “is a project concerned with the political potentialities of ordinary citizens, that is with their possibilities of becoming political beings through the self-discovery of common concerns and modes of action for realizing them” (Wolin 2017, 11). This ongoing project of realizing ourselves through collective value, common interest, and coordinated action is one I identify throughout this text as “solidarity”; it is democratic if and when it maintains the openness to challenge and nonexclusion that is essential to democratic life. The process of building and maintaining solidarity groups outlined in this text is intended in some ways to focus on the social and communal aspects of radical democracy, rather than merely on what radical democracy can achieve politically.
Radical democracy has been a form of democratic theorizing and practice since ancient Greece. Its primary distinguishing feature is that it is not a description of a set of government institutions, norms, or functions. Rather, as Lummis (1996) puts it, it forefronts democracy as the goal of government. In that sense, radical democratic theory is about democracy as something to be strived for, rather than a value to be implemented or a function to be instrumentalized.
This text follows in the agonistic tradition of radical democratic thought, which generally is characterized by the fact of ineliminable conflict that makes politics necessary. Sometimes this may be characterized as an ontologization of conflict or contest. This is often the case for left-Schmittians who, following from Schmitt, take conflict and contest as ontological fact. Broadly understood, there are three mechanisms for moving beyond the ontologization of conflict: a fictionalist, a quietist, and an esotericist response. In particular, I attempt to move beyond this framework of responses by developing a negative dialectic that recognizes the current necessity of conflict but the future possibility of a sociality that isn’t marked by the kind of competition for material resources and conflict over the sources of mutual respect by which our current world is marked. As Schmitt characterizes it, human beings are by nature “anti-social.” He refers to them as wolves in his interpretation of Hobbes (1996), going on to argue that “the more dangerously this asocial ‘individualism’ asserts itself, the stronger becomes the rational necessity for reaching a general peace” (36). Chapter 5 of this book is primarily an argument against this element of Schmitt’s ontology.
I do take the same position as Laclau and Mouffe, who state in their original statement of radical democratic politics “that without conflict and division, a pluralist democratic politics would be impossible” (1985, xvii). But I differ from their articulation of the goal of the elimination of conflict. In their account, the goal of eliminating conflict is to limit the democratic horizon in advance and postulate a hegemonic end to the pluralism they see as inherent in human relations. There is, to be sure, an inherent pluralism within human sociality. However, I argue that the contest over resources is in many ways eliminable. I follow from a negative dialectical tradition, positing that while the attempt to end conflict creates conflict, we ought to work toward ending conflict via nonexclusion. This does not mean all conflict can be eliminated, but it may be possible to eliminate many conflicts that are realistic and productive, rather than merely psychologically satisfying and nonrealistic. I’m careful here to separate myself from a particular strain of radical democratic theory which argues that conflict just is. Rather than a constitutive feature of human beings, conflict is conditioned by our material and historical circumstances.
This brings me lastly, to the topic of conflict, which figures centrally in both my conception of solidarity and my use of the term “democracy.” As previously noted, this is not a book about brutality, armed conflict, or guerrilla war. My concept of conflict follows that of other radical democrats, such as Chantal Mouffe and Bonnie Honig. By conflict I often mean contestation: an openness to challenge that is necessary for members of a polity to articulate their self-conceived needs or desires. However, unlike that of many radical democrats, my concept of conflict, like my theory of democratic life, is informed by social conflict theory, based in the thought of Georg Simmel. In this tradition there are two types of conflict, realistic and nonrealistic. One of the most common critiques of radical democratic theory is that it doesn’t merely highlight the irreducibility of conflict and contestation, but claims that conflict is irreducible and that it must create conflict where it isn’t already found—thus leading to infighting or other so-called pathological forms of conflict in society. Simmel’s theory of conflict incorporates and explains this feature of our collective lives by distinguishing between conflict generated for the purely psychological satisfaction of a fight, and conflict generated in the course of advancing a constitutive aim.
When I discuss conflict throughout this book, I’m referring to conflict of the latter sort, generated in the course of advancing an aim or goal. Like the concept of solidarity deployed throughout the text, it is based not in a moral framework about “good” and “bad” conflict, but in a somewhat functionalist definition based on what conflict does and what role it has in a society or for the subject. For the most part, I write almost exclusively about productive conflict, with the rather large exception of a chapter on misogynist solidarity, which considers how unproductive conflict helps misogynists maintain psychic solidarity with each other. The solidarity is only psychic, as the conflict provoked isn’t productive or aimed at any material or cultural modification of the world; its goal is the feeling of satisfaction in domination or exclusion. Simmel sometimes refers to it as being about “the love of subjection” or a desire for “annihilation” (1955).
The three concepts—solidarity, democracy, and conflict—are thus developed individually, but acquire their full meaning in combination. Not all conflict serves democratic processes. Not all solidarity groups are capable of withstanding conflict or operating democratically. Said more plainly, democratic institutions and organizations must be open to conflict and contestation. Solidarity groups that are open to internal conflict, and are not merely aimed at provoking external conflicts to achieve some independent end, are democratic in two senses. First, because their internal function is open to contestation, their membership is not set out in advance in exclusionary ways. Second, their goals, aims, and tactics are open to revision through contest.