In this section, I will argue for an approach to solidarity that starts from everyday practices and societal convention rather than from ideal–typical definitions of “what solidarity really means.” To show why this is necessary to approach solidarity in the EU and what the value-added of such a more practice-based reading is, I will draw on two contemporary and much-debated strains of thought that converge in linking “the word and the deed”: Wittgenstein as a main root of the linguistic turn on one side, and (neo)pragmatism on the other. By embracing central insights from both traditions, it will be argued that references to solidarity in the political context of the EU always have to be related to a set of regular practices that are associated with solidarity. Focusing on such meaning-in-use of solidarity is claimed here to be a most fruitful level of analysis supplementing the current discourse, since it (a) transcends the self-perception and perception by others when it comes to solidarity, and (b) allows for a more critical assessment of solidarity in the crises discourses of the EU by reference to an already existing consensus.
Underlying every conceptual as well as empirical study of solidarity, there is an essentialist temptation to find or use a definition that reflects the true and timeless meaning of the concept that captures its intrinsic properties, and its nature. Aristotle is the most prominent proponent of this idea. For him the only way to “know a thing” is “by knowing its essence.” Karl Popper criticized this view not only for its underlying “ideal of perfect and complete knowledge,” but also for its encyclopedic notion of meaning that stands in contrast with empirical sciences, because it puts “intellectual intuition, a mental or intellectual faculty which enables us to grasp the essences of things, and to know them” at the center of definitions, and more generally, of all knowledge (all quotes Popper, 1945, pp. 9–10).
The essentialist starts from the assumption, as Richard Cartwright put it, “that among the attributes of a thing some are essential, others merely accidental” (1968, p. 615) and that it is our task to separate the two. A table, for example, might be considered to consist of a number of possible properties, of which only a flat surface and four legs seem essential. Adding other attributes (like a rectangular shape, a specific color, a tablecloth, or a certain height) to the definition of ‘table’ would be considered inappropriate, since some (but not all) tables may possess these properties. In other words, these properties are not part of the essence of a table, but merely unnecessary embellishment. From such an essentialist viewpoint, solidarity consists of a number of essential attributes, and it is our task to discover what these are in order to develop a clear-cut, timeless definition of the concept.
The most pronounced criticism of such prototypical definitions was developed in the context of the linguistic turn, most notably in the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein and neo-pragmatist thinkers such as Richard Rorty. Although Wittgenstein and Rorty follow different arguments and arrive at different conclusions, they converge on a foundational point—the primacy of language and practice,Footnote 6 i.e., the view that every explanation or definition can only manifest itself as conceptual (re)presentations of their subject matter through the practical application of linguistic tools within their specific context (Grimmel and Hellmann, 2019). At the same time, they reject the belief that language can be a “mirror of nature” (Rorty, 1979) in which “[e]very word has a meaning” that is “correlated with the word” (Wittgenstein, 2001, § 1). For them, the central problem with an essentialist approach—and this also applies to the concept of solidarity—is that it maintains an artificial distinction between the conceptual and the empirical that makes us “look for an explanation where we ought to look at what happens as a ‘proto-phenomenon’,” as Wittgenstein says. “That is, where we ought to have said: this language-game is played” (Wittgenstein 2001 , § 654).
Other than in any kind of essentialist reading of solidarity, Wittgenstein and pragmatists do not seek any true meaning or objective truths about the concept. Instead, they claim that there is no other access to the world other than through the application of linguistic tools. Based on this idea, they start from the actual, everyday language games and ordinary social practices in which a concept such as solidarity is invoked. They ask for the meanings-in-use of concepts, and see these as being part of a wider social context. For pragmatists and Wittgensteinians there is no other meaning of solidarity than that of a practice of some kind that is commonly acknowledged to reflect solidarity. Or, as Rorty (1989, p. 177) explains:
[T]here is nothing deep inside each of us, no common human nature, no built-in human solidarity, to use as a moral reference point. There is nothing to people except what has been socialized into them – their ability to use language, and thereby to exchange beliefs and desires with other people.
For such a language- and practice-based approach, it does not matter whether we think about individual or collective actors, i.e., whether we consider forms of transnational, supranational, international, intergovernmental or—more general—human solidarity (see de Witte 2015; Knodt and Tews 2017, p. 51). What matters are the actual practices—the expressions of solidarity that are shared among various actors and across diverse contexts of action that establish a link between these actors. In this sense, according to Rorty, “solidarity is not thought of as recognition of a core self, the human essence, in all human beings. Rather, it is thought of as the ability to see more and more traditional differences (of tribe, religion, race custom, and the like) as unimportant when compared with similarities with respect to pain and humiliation—the ability to think of people wildly different from ourselves as included in the range of ‘us’” (Rorty, 1989, p. 192).
Thus, our approach follows Wittgenstein by asking about “things we do, language games we play” and shares the pragmatists’ “emphasis on a deep layer of human action or practice that informs our experience of the world” (Goodman 2002, p. 175). The most game-changing point of this perspective, however, is that the focus shifts from the idea of solidarity to the actual practice(s) of solidarity. It is thus no longer the intellectual intuition that allows for insights into the meaning of the concept and poses serious questions when applying the concept, as described in more detail later in this article. Rather, it is about the “conceptual worlds” (Bloor 1997, p. 99) of social institutions, how solidarity is used in everyday contexts, how it works in these various contexts, and how this knowledge of the “meaning as use, meaning-in-use, or meaning as immanent in use” (Read 2000, p. 75, emphasis in the original) of the concept can be transferred to other, more sophisticated contexts. Wittgenstein renders this into the programmatic and well-known formula “don’t think, but look!” (Wittgenstein 2001, § 66, see also § 124).
The main difference of such a language- and practice-based approach to any essentialist reading of the concept is that it can start from commonalities and joint interpretations that are not just reflected, but manifested in the regular concurrence of language and practice. Rather than engaging with abstract and chameleonic notions of solidarity or intended meanings of the concept that normally come along with a strong normative or even moral impetus (cf. Kolers 2016), we will use a comparative approach here that first assesses the everyday use of solidarity in ordinary language games and then analyzes how it is used in more sophisticated discussions of what solidarity implies in the political context of EU crises.
An in-depth analysis of the long-standing discussion between proponents of essentialist vs. anti-essentialist positions is beyond the scope of this paper. Also, I will abstain from the usual overview of the literature on the concept of solidarity and the various interpretations of the concept (for such an overview, see Grimmel 2019). I instead follow Wittgensteinian and pragmatist arguments in choosing to neglect “true meanings” in favor of solidarity as a linguistic concept, and shed light on its “practice and practical rooting” (Schatzki 1996, p. 136). It is thus not intended to say anything about “real motives” (or interests; see, e.g., Hechter 1988) that may, or not, lie at the bottom of any solidary action or to engage in the conceptual history of the solidarity concept (for such a study, see, e.g., Stjernø 2009), but to argue that solidarity is part of a specific yet contingent practice that is based on certain grounds for action commonly shared within the boundaries of a distinct context of action. In other words, the reasons actors provide as grounds for their action do not necessarily have to match their motives or interests and could still be accepted by others as practices of solidarity.
My three main goals are (1) to probe the value of such a theoretical perspective in an empirical case study, (2) to show how this allows a critical perspective on the roots of the EU’s insufficient crisis management, and (3) to understand how solidarity could play a more fruitful role in European integration. Against this backdrop, I start by describing three grounds for action and by arguing that these build the basis for enacted solidarity in various contexts: voluntariness, selflessness and identification. These elements are explicitly not to be understood as constituting a timeless, irreducible, or even a complete definition of what solidarity is. Rather, it is claimed here that these are elements of practice that are present in most everyday situations that are regularly described to reflect solidarity and on which actors can rely in their actions. As such, they provide grounds for action and can be considered a point of reference for practices of solidarity in the political sphere and among diverse groups of actors. Deviations from these practices, it is maintained here, would at least need justification by actors why these elements are not applicable in a specific situation, or why there should be a different standard of solidarity to be applied. This view does not entail a rigid understanding of solidarity, in the sense that it is only reflected in situations in which nothing but practices of voluntariness, selflessness and identification have a place. The standard cases are certainly situations in which a number of motives, reasons and rules come together. The point is rather that it is hardly possible to think of solidarity without these three practices playing a central role in a specific situation.
Solidarity is a delicate value to apply in practice. It is easily contested by attempts to enforce it, either by physical force (which is a rather extreme possibility) or any kind of external pressure or legal obligation that conflicts with the idea of the free will of the actor. Acting in solidarity is generally based on the absence of coercion from others. After a natural disaster, for example, state A may appeal to the solidarity of state B by asking for help (such as engaging in rescue missions or providing humanitarian aid), and it can even demand the support of its neighbor state by reminding it of their close ties. And even though state B might have been reluctant to support state A, its decision to do so is still an expression of solidarity because it was made voluntarily. However, if one state tries to threaten another to make it help, for example by insinuating consequences for future political or economic relations, it is hardly possible to tell whether state B’s decision to help was based on a voluntary decision or on state A’s threat. However, the result is the same: Analogous to the impossibility of forcing someone to be free, in the various language games in which solidarity plays a role, it seems to be rather odd or even contradictory to invoke the concept as an enforceable practice. In other words, the meaning-in-use of solidarity is closely linked to actions that are explicitly or implicitly expressions of the idea of actors’ freedom of choice. An exception, of course, is that an actor might feel obliged to do something, which still depends on the actors own appraisal of the situation and his or her sense of being bound to perform certain duties.
It is possible to imagine a case in which an actor acts voluntarily and refers to the value of solidarity, but the actual grounds or reasons for action are not related to solidarity. An actor might, for example, have a self-interest in acting, and it might be a rational choice to camouflage the true considerations behind a solidarity-based justification. In such a case, alter could help ego just to fulfill his or her own private aims, or in anticipation of a later payoff. Borrowing ego money to implement a social project on the grounds of expecting high returns is not exactly an expression of alter’s solidarity towards ego and the project. The actor would follow a rule, to use Wittgenstein’s logic, but this would not be an expression of the concept of solidarity. What is missing is selflessness understood as the absence of other, private, motives. This does not make every act of solidarity an act of charity. And it does certainly not preclude that we understand solidarity as a value that demands at least a minimum of reciprocity (in that you can expect that others would be solidary with you in a similar situation) (Flache and Macy 2006) and mutual trust when showing solidarity with somebody (Taylor 2015, pp. 136–139; Hilpold 2015, p. 258). It instead creates demands on the grounds for action that go beyond the mere voluntariness of the actor and call for other rules for action than those based on self-interested motives.
From our perspective, this is also, and explicitly, not a question of the motivation or interest of actors—i.e., the will and belief to engage in such practices—because a belief in following a rule or principle such as solidarity does not necessarily mean that the rule or principle is actually followed. Wittgenstein made this clear in his famous “private language argument” by stating that “to think one is obeying a rule is not to obey a rule. Hence it is not possible to obey a rule ‘privately:’ otherwise thinking one was obeying a rule would be the same thing as obeying it” (Wittgenstein, 2001, § 202). Put another way, to think one is acting in accordance with the principle of solidarity is not necessarily the same as acting in a way that reflects solidarity. This brings us to a last ground for action that builds the basis for practices of solidarity in various contexts.
From a Wittgensteinian as well as from a pragmatist perspective, there is a general need for perceptible expressions of every value, principle, rule, concept, or any other linguistic category to define its concrete meaning. Embedded in a social world, such perceptible expressions occur in the form of practice, i.e., the regular application of a rule or concept in concrete cases. Wittgenstein put it into the formula that every “inner process stands in need of outward criteria” (Wittgenstein 2001, § 580); pragmatists called this the “primacy of practice” (Putnam 1994, p. 152). Only by practicing linguistic expressions and attaching meaning to them “as we go along” does the constant comparison and mutual correction of the meaning-in-use of concepts and rules become possible. This makes the definition of meaning no longer a domain of “private” reflection, but an essentially social endeavor, since, as Kripke pointed out, actors are normally “interacting with a wider community” that will necessarily react to divergences in interpretation or application that are manifested in practice. “Others will then have justification conditions for attributing correct or incorrect rule following to the subject, and these will not be simply that the subject’s own authority is unconditionally to be accepted” (Kripke 1982, p. 89).
This “practice and practical rooting” (Schatzki 1996, p. 136) of “conceptual worlds” (Bloor 1997, p. 99) within social institutions cannot be overestimated, since it reveals a central weakness of solidarity as a core value vis-à-vis other core values, such as democracy (Niżnik 2011), in the EU today. I discuss this point in detail below. For now, it is important to understand that linguistic practices fulfill a function that goes beyond the mere physical act of “doing something.” Linguistic practices are social acts of ascertainment and adjustment of meaning as well, which also means that individual actors cannot decide alone what a concept like solidarity means in practice, or when they act in accordance with the concept.
This also applies to the expressions of enacted solidarity that we have identified in practices that reflect voluntariness and selflessness and to a final element that is commonly associated with the concept and practice of solidarity—the identification with either others or a shared idea. In this sense, solidarity also comprises practices in which the association or linking of one’s own preferences, views or beliefs seems to match those of others. One could identify, for example, with the labor movement, the idea of sustainable ecological development, the fight against racism, or a group of people suffering from a civil war. In these cases, identifying oneself with a case, person, or group is much more expressive than acting based on voluntariness or selflessness. Practices of identification showcase a certain feeling of belonging or affiliation that is typically part of a larger narrative and “crucial to the construction of affinity groups” (Dean 1998, p. 14) that can serve various social functions, such as creating or reassuring a sense of togetherness.
In this sense, identification is often closely linked to reciprocity or reciprocal expectations as an often-adduced element of solidarity (see e. g. Eschweiler et al. 2019). Normally, we expect that others are at least willing to help us when we help them. Yet, in fact, there are also cases where we cannot reasonably expect those suffering to help us one day later, e. g. because of differences in the potential to help. Moreover, in the end, we can just hope that others are willing to help us in return. At least, it would hardly be an act of solidarity if we would understand it to be a tit-for-tat game in which ensured reciprocity is a precondition for helping others.
The expressive identification of enacted solidarity is thus crucial since it involves relating to others, an idea or objective that goes beyond the concept itself. Practices of identification give solidarity a concrete aim or objective that is necessary for action. As such, they serve as a necessary specification of the concept, and may provide reasons or justifications for action.