For a Solidarity State

By Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Astra Taylor
June 2, 2024
On a summer afternoon in 1966, an estimated six thousand welfare recipients rallied around the United States in twenty-five cities. Children in tow, the women held forth in public squares, marched on state capitols, and occupied local welfare offices as part of the first cross-country demonstration of recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children. They demanded better benefits and—in the words of the two thousand–strong New York City contingent—an end to what they called the “indignities” of the welfare system, which they viewed as a patriarchal and punitive government bureaucracy. In place of meager checks, invasive surveillance, and constant shaming, they called for a guaranteed annual income and insisted that people impacted by policy should have a say in its implementation.
Most of the women were Black, but a good number of white women signed on as well. Their actions launched a powerful national movement—the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO)—that aimed to increase material support for all struggling families and create the foundation of a care-based economy. Its militancy and rapid growth opened an opportunity to alter the relationship of the state to its citizens, and the movement brought concrete reforms—though the movement would be undone by the changing political climate of the mid-1970s, when the War on Poverty gave way to the War on Crime.
Ever since, progressives have been fighting to salvage remnants of the liberal welfare state. They are right to push for more egalitarian policies, whether in the form of higher taxation, more generous public provision, or a stronger regulatory regime. But as the NWRO made clear, the social and emotional dimensions of statecraft are just as key. As we forge a more equitable social contract, we also need to change the character of our social relationships and arrangements. A new approach—rooted in the ethic of solidarity—should be our north star.
State policies play a huge role in determining social conditions, from the amount of carbon in the atmosphere to the cost of rent. They also shape our perceptions of the world, each other, and even ourselves. Conservatives have long understood this and sought to wield state power to remake citizens in their ideal mold. “Economics are the method,” the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said in 1981. “The object is to change the soul.” Because the state structures the society and systems in which we live, it can make us more prone to care for one another and collaborate constructively—or more inclined to compete for seemingly scarce resources, more mistrustful and afraid. These feedback loops are powerful forces that can tear society apart or help weave it back together.
In recent decades, and in no small part due to the influence of Thatcher and her neoliberal allies, social programs in the United States have been structured in ways that stymie and suppress solidarity, obscuring the fact of our fundamental interdependence by promoting individualism and competition instead of cooperation and reciprocity. Part of the problem is what Suzanne Mettler calls the “submerged state.” While aid to the poor is stingy and highly stigmatized, as the NWRO organizers knew firsthand, government benefits to the middle class and affluent are generous and mostly go unnoticed. They inspire neither shame nor appreciation in part because they are structured to be delivered through more passive mechanisms, such as tax breaks and subsidies. The mortgage interest deduction, for example, rewards those who are wealthy enough to buy a home.
In place of these mechanisms, we should structure policies and programs in ways that reveal the formative role the state plays in everyone’s life while also bringing our interdependence to the fore. In a word, we need a solidarity state.
How can we get there? The American Climate Corps (ACC), created through an executive order in 2023, is a modest step in the right direction. Like the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal era, programs that provide dignified and well-paid jobs and create obvious public benefits are a clear way for government to play a positive role in many people’s lives. The ACC promised to provide twenty thousand jobs, but by October last year—just one month after the program’s announcement—it had already drawn forty-two thousand sign-ups. There is clear demand for these opportunities, and the more abundant and accessible they are, the more they will be seen as evidence of the government’s potentially constructive role in ordinary people’s lives.
Imagine if every individual were encouraged and incentivized to participate in such a program as a duty of citizenship. Within the Solidarity State framework, such programs would offer opportunities to perform public service that leaves people and the planet better off, imparting skills and experience while also leaving participants more connected to and invested in the common good. As things stand, the U.S. government routinely prioritizes what historian Micol Seigel calls “violence work.” Police, prison guards, immigration officers, and soldiers are generously subsidized by the state—teachers, therapists, conservationists, far less so. We see care work as an essential way to build communal, solidaristic social bonds.
In the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution upended and remade social relations. During that period, the political tendency known as solidarism argued that the state’s primary function should be to create social cohesion among its citizens. In large part, this meant protecting people from the abuses of power that come with consolidated wealth. The solidarists were radical republicans—they emphasized citizens’ participation in self-governance, envisioning worker cooperatives as preferable to the burgeoning corporate sector, and credit unions as the future of finance. These were upper-class thinkers—indeed, one of their leaders was even named Léon Bourgeois—who often downplayed the role of class conflict and exploitation. Nevertheless, their thinking offers a series of useful prompts to imagining a political alternative to the status quo.
Liberal political philosophy—the intellectual tradition that formed that basis of the liberal welfare state—draws on social contract theory, which argues that society was forged by a contract between rational, autonomous men in a state of nature. The solidarists rejected the premise of this abstraction. Instead, they argued that from the moment we are born, we…