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hen the pandemic began spreading in Belgium, before I (or the Belgian government) understood the severity of the situation, my good friend Nadine initiated a Facebook group titled “spreading solidarity – not the virus – Brussels.” The group sparked large interest and quickly brought together not only neighbors and activists, but also people from diverse backgrounds who did not know each other. One of the group’s first initiatives was designing simple signs in multiple languages, which people could hang in their street or post in mailboxes, encouraging neighbors to contact them if they “need help in shopping, food or […] just want to talk.” This virtually-coordinated action constituted the nearby neighborhood and the street as a renewed arena of ‘public sociality’ (Rozakou, 2016). As stricter lockdown policies were introduced, making traditional spaces of publicness inaccessible, a new type of public sphere emerged, which was simultaneously more intimate and more virtual.
Only a few days later, a new Facebook group titled “#HelpYourNeighbour by Covid-Solidarity” was launched. It was linked to a professionally designed website, in which both “volunteers” and “isolated people” from all over Belgium could register through online forms or a call center. A team of volunteers worked to ‘match’ those needing help and those who could help, mainly on the basis of their geographical proximity. The platform was “created online by a group of entrepreneurs and students from the BeTech Community who wanted to create a positive social impact.” The home-printed leaflets that connected neighbors were gradually replaced by neatly designed and coded matching tools, with an aura of efficiency and a glittering entrepreneurial spirit.
In the coming weeks, the trend of virtually-induced altruism expanded in new directions. The digital platform “Give a Day,” which routinely operates a “volunteer matcher” that connects individuals seeking volunteering opportunities with nonprofits that could use this (wo)men power, converted its platform to suit the pandemic reality: Belgian municipalities were offered locally-tailored platforms of episodic volunteering coordination (Macduff, 2004), and local web pages such as “Brussels Helps” and “Antwerp Helps” started blooming. For-profit entities have also jumped on the bandwagon. Start-ups that routinely specialize in the uberization of labor power discovered that providing episodic workers is not a priority in times of lockdown, and gratuitously refurbished their profit-making matching platforms: precarious workers were replaced by unpaid workers (i.e. volunteers), temporary jobs offers were replaced with volunteering options, and wage was replaced with gratitude and warm feelings. The market logic of matching supply and demand became the foundation of certain pandemic relief efforts. For-profit matchmakers left out remunerative aspects in favor of altruistic notions, but still gained a surplus value of enhancing their public reputation and workers’ engagement (Shachar and Hustinx, 2019). Altruistic apps and algorithms may also become a source for data mining and venture capital experimentation, subsuming even our collective solidarity efforts into the grim “screen new deal” that Naomi Klein describes as emerging out of the pandemic.
Collective organization and action in these times of pandemic rightfully received wide exposure and broad public support. As the crisis deepened, attempts to make relief efforts more efficient were also generally welcomed as a much needed response. Even critical reflections on the new covid-19 reality have often focused on governmental and corporate actions, mirroring this critique with an idealizing image of grassroots solidarity. However, the brusque genealogy sketched above illustrates that the terrain of solidarity action can be complex and sometimes hazardous, and highlights the need to “remain vigilant” also regarding the diverse voluntary-based initiatives that flourish in these times of pandemic. Naturally, times of crisis lead even the most radical solidarity initiatives to be predominantly responsive and to make compromises in order to satisfy urgent needs. But as the pandemic is weakening in some parts of the world, and most governments are developing exit strategies that adhere to the neoliberal hegemony, citizens could start imagining radical exit strategies from the devastating social reality that the pandemic revealed, beyond the organizing logics that dominated the solidarity landscape in times of crisis.
Facilitating an altruistic marketplace
In a frequently quoted passage, Eduardo Galeano contrasted the “vertical”, top-down, and thus degrading character of “charity,” with the “horizontal” and thus respectful character of “solidarity” (Galeano, 2000). Rebecca Solnit recently quoted Galeano in order to glorify the horizontal “mutual aid” initiatives that surfaced during the pandemic, reinforcing the charity vs. mutual aid dichotomy (Spade, 2020). However, the examples indicated above show that those recent solidarity initiatives are often organized in the form of a network that does not fit neatly into the spatialized imaginaries of vertical vs. horizontal dichotomy. Networked spaces of organization and the logics that guide them can often be aligned with corporate and governmental rationales, and their horizontal practices are often grounded in existing social hierarchies.
The network structure of the recent solidarity initiatives aspires to be flat and horizontal, and thus overcoming inequalities and hierarchies and giving us a sense of democratic potential, which Solnit praises. However, Fraser’s critique (1990) on the Habermasian vision of an egalitarian public sphere remains valid also to these new civic networks, whose seemingly neutral character too often obscures historically-grounded inequalities that shape participation patterns. Furthermore, the pandemic solidarity networks tend to focus on tangible, hands-on actions, which helps participants to imagine that it is possible to “avoid politics” and refrain from speaking on race, corporate power, and other issues that participants perceive as too complicated to change (Eliasoph, 1998, 1999). When we are encouraged to avoid politics, we cannot even try to figure out why there are givers and receivers, which social groups populate one of these categories more than others and why, and what happens if individuals have needs that cannot be fulfilled by the good will of the network participants.
The prevalence of the network form of organization in the covid-19 landscape of solidarity is grounded in wider historical developments. Its origins can be traced to certain grievances of the 1968 social movements, to which the corporate world responded by gradually replacing vertical and rigid bureaucratic structures with networks that congregate around temporary projects, a process that reached a mature form in the working environments of the 1990s tech industry (Boltanski and Chiapello, 2005). The appreciation of this networked and projective logic diffused from the corporate sphere to other social realms and became dominant even in the nonprofit sector, creating a common terrain for hybrid collaborations between nonprofits and corporations (Shachar et al., 2018). One of the most valued skills in forming successful networks and projects is the creation of new connections and the making of a “good match” (Shachar et al., 2018: 97-99). The solidarity initiatives that emerged in these times of pandemic are often grounded in this prevailing logic: matching givers to receivers became a predominant aim, and therefore those who could conduct this matching process in the most efficient manner became the most valued and successful actors.
An aspect that was overlooked in earlier accounts of the network logic is its intimate connection with market principles. The market logics perceives unregularized exchange in a metaphorical marketplace as the best mechanism to balance supply and demand: commodified goods and needs of consumers are balanced through the commercial market, and available employees and suitable positions are matched in the labor market. The same logic guides those solidarity networks that presume volunteer workforce, private donations and other forms of altruistic engagement can satisfy all ‘social’ needs if only matched and managed correctly. An item in Brussels’ weekly newspaper focusing on a large solidarity group that was initiated on Facebook reiterates the predominant market logic: “In many cases supply and demand are quickly brought together, whether it regards food packages, medical supplies or doing groceries for elderly people.”
Like in other markets, also in the altruistic marketplace the hand that balances supply and demand is not completely invisible: certain mediation is still needed to match the streams of donated goods and labor with those who appear as trustful or deserving recipients. The prevalent assumption that almost all demand could be satisfied relies on clinging to a “fantasy” of abundant relational labor that is “’spontaneously’ available because it is already engrained in the hearts of sensitive citizens” (Muehlebach, 2011: 67). If there is an abundant supply, only efficient mediation work is needed to ensure demand is met and the market is balanced. Professionalizing this mediation work is the declared aim of the new digital “solutions” – the online platforms and apps - that became predominant in the solidarity landscape. This technological “solutionism” serves as a new ideology, which sustains the fantasy that all society needs can be satisfied if only the most advanced and professional form of mediation could be applied. Policy makers enthusiastically adopt this ideology and limit themselves to the neutral position of a mediator, as Brussels Smart City Manager stated in the same news item: “the [city] government collects bottom-up initiatives and brings supply and demand together. I think of Ms. X that needs a mask, and the charity shops that offer them.” In line with neoliberal principles of welfare provision, the municipality functions only as a “platform” and a “facilitator” that utilizes newest information technologies to nurture a self-sufficient and voluntary market of solidarity efforts. To maintain the hegemony of this neoliberal perspective, the state channels and governs the altruistic energies of citizens, while obscuring the possibilities of political actors to intervene in the mere production of supply and demand rather than only in their balancing.
Seeking an exit strategy
The alignment of networked structures, market logic and technological solutionism creates a discursive space in which the work of mediators is perceived as adhering to rational calculations and professional standards, and thus politically neutral. Critical views are marginalized even more intensively in the context of an epidemic and social crisis, which seems to require pragmatic and effective responses in the form of a professional management of solidarity efforts. Political polemics such as the financing and status of public services and the connection between capital accumulation and public health are abandoned in favor of reaffirmation that “we are all in this together.” The post-political discourse that marginalizes any political contestation of neoliberalism (Mouffe, 2005), which suffered series setbacks during the pandemic, is making new advances through the solidarity networks that often appear to challenge it.
There are, however, recent experiences of solidarity initiatives which successfully resisted the attempts of the neoliberalizing state to promote post-political discourses and polices of volunteerism and humanitarianism, as a means to institutionalize these groups activities and control their radical potential (Rozakou, 2016, 2017). This essay attempted to contribute to the possibility of such resistance by explicating certain presumptions that are promoted by some actors in the current solidarity landscape. Political alternatives can and should be developed to the neoliberal designation of the state as a mere facilitator of a market of altruistic energy that could satisfy society needs. Based on this, we should start a discussion on how our quotidian solidarity activities, as well as the ways in which our solidarity spaces are imagined and designed, can lead to the establishment of economic relations and political institutions that promote the well-being of most people, not as contingent eruptions of charity but as stable social arrangements.
It is time that we start developing exit strategies not only from the covid-19 pandemic, but also from the post-political, neoliberal hegemony that too often succeeds to dominate our ways of organizing and our political imaginaries. One step in this direction could be a gradual transformation of our solidarity networks to platforms that next to mutual aid could also facilitate discussion, organization and action, and will continue to operate beyond the current crisis. We should rely on the networks that emerged during the pandemic to develop spaces of publicness characterized by collective organization methods that would avoid the pitfalls of the network logic, and would allow us to regain political subjectivity and to imagine possibilities of exit from the neoliberal malady.
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Itamar Shachar is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO), based in the Centre for Social Theory and Department of Sociology at Ghent University, Belgium.