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"Organizing is an effective form of treatment for depression": Astra Taylor and Leah Hunt-Hendrix on the power of solidarity.
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“Organizing is an effective form of treatment for depression”: Astra Taylor and Leah Hunt-Hendrix on the power of solidarity.

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The latest publication by Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Astra Taylor explores the concept of solidarity throughout history and its relevance in building a just and environmentally-friendly future. The inspiration for this book stemmed from their friendship, despite their contrasting backgrounds. Taylor, a writer, filmmaker, musician, and organizer (as they prefer to be called), hails from Canada and was raised in Athens, Georgia. On the other hand, Hunt-Hendrix is also an activist and a scholar of political theory, and she comes from a family of wealthy oil tycoons in Texas. She grew up on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and spent her summers in Dallas.

In 2011, the two individuals initially crossed paths at Occupy Wall Street. However, it wasn’t until 2015 when they joined forces to write about a technology-related topic for the Nation magazine. According to Hunt-Hendrix, they both recognized their excellent teamwork and made the decision to continue collaborating.

They began drafting Solidarity while in lockdown, but the release was postponed due to a contract disagreement between their initial publisher, Verso, and its union. In support of the workers at Verso, the authors made the decision to switch publishers. As they prepare for their book tour, Taylor, who is currently in North Carolina with family, and Hunt-Hendrix, who is at home in New York and dealing with interrupted sleep as a new mother, discuss the concept of solidarity and why it is crucial to overcome polarization.

What led to your partnership?

Leah Hunt-Hendrix: I was impressed by Astra. Our initial one-on-one conversation was about her efforts to host a telethon for the Rolling Jubilee Fund, which successfully paid off millions of dollars in debt. Later, she invited me to a meeting for Strike Debt, a spin-off of Occupy Wall Street.

I admired Leah from the start for her involvement and dedication to the Occupy movement. Despite the various conflicts and disagreements within the movement, I took notice of individuals who were truly devoted to making lasting change. Occupy served as both a protest and a learning experience. As a young person with a passion for social justice, I saw the movement as a powerful call to address the issues of democracy and inequality, even if it wasn’t flawless.

During my time with Occupy, I was struck by the strong sense of solidarity among participants. However, upon researching this term in the Princeton library, I found very little information available. As a result, I incorporated my experiences with Occupy into my doctoral dissertation. This inspired me to establish Solidaire, an organization that provides resources for social movements. I was particularly influenced by Astra’s research on the origins of solidarity, tracing it back to an ancient Roman financial concept of mutually held debts. It was not just a vague idea of unity, but a tangible means of organizing debtor groups.

While discussing her dissertation and the origins of solidarity, I vividly recall having an epiphany. Our previous collaborations had shown us that we make a great team and embarking on this intellectual journey to complete the book only reinforced that.

You mention the importance of organization in fostering solidarity, but how do you define organization?

LHH: Organising is a practice of getting involved with other people, choosing a problem that you want to address, and working together to try to overcome that problem. Whether it’s trying to cancel student debt, or my first experience with organising in college, when I joined a campaign to get a living wage for city employees.

In terms of social action, it can be beneficial to compare and contrast organizing campaigns with engaging in activism. As an individual, I can engage in activism through methods such as promoting awareness and frequent tweeting.

Sending tweets is not equivalent to organizing.

Reworded: Opposing the belief that we can achieve this alone and that protesting alone leads to victory. It is not simply about gathering in the streets for a single demonstration of common goals. Instead, it requires enduring commitment, collaboration with others, and the formation of a strong alliance.

Due to a long-standing lack of solidarity, individuals often struggle to find occasions to come together and plan effectively in our lives. However, it is crucial that we educate and learn from one another, starting with those closest to us and taking small steps towards progress. Ultimately, there is no other option.

In the book, you mention movements like Occupy as being more expansive than just friendships.

In my opinion, inclusivity and majority representation are crucial. We both have a desire to be involved in movements that bring together diverse individuals from different backgrounds. While I had been a part of the left-wing community in New York City for some time, I was not familiar with everyone at Occupy. Many of them were younger than myself. I saw this as an opportunity to establish the Debt Collective, a union for those in debt. As Leah focused on solidarity, I focused on democracy. The movement claimed to represent democracy in various ways, from chaotic meetings to drum circles.

Do your creative and organizational realms have significant overlap, Astra?

They rarely overlap in direct ways. A long time ago, I convinced my partner (the musician Jeff Mangum) to perform at Occupy events and the launch of Rolling Jubilee. However, we have not done anything similar since then. Nonetheless, my artistic projects, whether as a filmmaker or as a member of the band Neutral Milk Hotel (with Mangum), do not feel completely separate from my political work. Organizing is a creative act, as it involves viewing the world as malleable and changeable, almost like a material that can be reshaped. Political work can be serious and difficult, but it also presents opportunities for collaboration, unexpected outcomes, experimentation, and play. Organizing, much like creating art, requires taking imaginative leaps and risks. Making films and being in a band both involve coordinating a group of people and working together to achieve something that cannot be accomplished alone. It is not a coincidence that many of the founders of the Debt Collective are also artists.

Can you describe your experience, Leah, as both a member of the Hunt family and a participant in social movements?

LHH: The Hunt family [which owns one of the largest private oil companies in the US] is a fascinating one and my grandfather is a storied man, but my mom Helen left Dallas and raised me in NYC, in the feminist movement, surrounded by grassroots activists. She was focused on organising women of wealth to support women’s rights, so in many ways I followed in her footsteps when I began to organise among wealthy donors too, though I was more focused on economic inequality. I also benefited from the example of my aunt, Swanee Hunt [former US ambassador to Austria], who spent her career helping women play leadership roles in politics, and particularly in conflict zones. I certainly wouldn’t be who I am today without the influence of Helen and Swanee Hunt.

Do you sometimes feel the need to downplay your background, especially in the beginning?

I try not to immediately disclose it, but honesty is crucial so others do not feel like I am keeping something from them. Some individuals with financial means and progressive beliefs may feel inclined to conceal their upbringing or experience shame surrounding it. It is vital for each of us to embrace our own personal narratives because it allows us to tap into the diverse resources that our backgrounds provide us with easier.

As stated in the book, solidarity refers to different groups collaborating together.

“We are being forced into separate groups based on our identities, as that is the current political landscape. There has been a significant and well-funded effort to decrease solidarity by using strategies of dividing and conquering. In the US, the recent arrest of 61 activists at the construction site of “Cop City,” a ÂŁ70m police training facility being built on one of the few green spaces in Atlanta, labels solidarity as the dangerous ideology behind their protests. However, solidarity is not the same as identity – it goes beyond one’s identity or expands it. Our message is that we must move beyond our individual boundaries. Solidarity is about connecting across differences and forming new alliances to bring about change.”

LHH: We were really interested in the history of the term, especially as it became more prominent in the late 1800s. At a time when we’re so polarised, that feels like an important history to draw on. We didn’t have a weekend, we didn’t have an eight-hour workday: all these basic things that we take for granted now and are being eroded were the result of the labour movement’s vision of a more humane society. They’re the product of organising.

The modern discourse of solidarity, which has emerged from the incredible tumult and economic changes of the Industrial Revolution, is rooted in the changing religious patterns of the time. As old systems were crumbling, the concept of solidarity became more prominent, particularly among organized labor who sought to challenge exploitation and drive political change. This is especially relevant in today’s age of hyperpartisanship, where it often feels like it’s “my party” against “your party”. It’s important to once again consider what can bring us together in the face of immense upheaval. While writing this book, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities to the current debates and discussions surrounding solidarity.

LHH: Our idea is the concept of a “solidarity state,” akin to the development of the welfare state during discussions in the 18th and 19th centuries. What would be the modern-day adaptation of this? Rather than solely an interpersonal concept, we envision it as something that can be ingrained in the structure of society.

What if individuals are too frightened, indifferent, or fatigued to participate?

The sense of powerlessness is a significant contributor to our current crisis. At a Debt Collective Rolling Jubilee event hosted by Astra, attendees prominently displayed their amount of debt on name tags. The purpose was to convey that this is not a source of shame or personal failure, but rather a systemic issue that can be overcome through collective action. Joining a group or organization is like an antidepressant when feelings of isolation and powerlessness arise. It can be incredibly empowering to be part of a group working towards change.

In discussions about the issues surrounding social media and false information, particularly among those who identify as liberals, there is often a focus on the solution of fact-checking. Our stance, however, is that in order to combat this problem, we must come together and take organized action. This is what labor unions excel at – they serve not only as platforms for demanding fair treatment, but also as spaces for gaining political knowledge, similar to how Occupy was for us. We believe that the true adversaries are not immigrants, transgender individuals, or students, but rather those who are profiting from and upholding this corrupt system.

I admire Mariame Kaba, an organizer and educator, for coining the phrase “hope is a discipline.” Reflecting on the past, from abolitionists to disability justice movements and workers, we see that people have persisted against insurmountable challenges in situations that offered little reason for optimism. It is only by collaborating that we can save ourselves and one another.

Source: theguardian.com