The Precarity of Us: Solidarity in the Digital Age
Julie A. Wilson and Emily Chivers Yochim
In her piece “How the Transformative Power of Solidarity Will Defeat Trump,” Naomi Klein unearths the layered meanings of Bernie Sanders’ slogan “Not me. Us.” Fundamentally, the slogan refers to the grassroots, anti-establishment spirit of the campaign: we can’t rely on one elected leader to solve our problems; we have to build a movement. Indeed, as Klein suggests, “Not Me. Us.” also captures the political organizing and consciousness-raising work that Sanders’ grassroots army is undertaking. Sanders organizers do so much more than articulating the case for Bernie and his policies. Instead, they are listening to people’s everyday stories of hardship and stitching those stories together to understand these experiences as social, not individual. It’s not only me that struggles; it’s all of us.
After Sanders’ heart attack, “Not Me. Us.” took on yet another layer of meaning. At the Bernie’s Back rally in Queens, New York in October, where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Sanders in front of a crowd of 25,000, Sanders asked supporters to look for someone they don’t know, “maybe somebody who doesn’t look like you, who might be of a different religion, maybe who come from a different country…. My question now to you is are you willing to fight for that person who you don’t even know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?” Here “Not Me. Us.” is clearly about solidarity across divisions of race, gender, class, nationality. I’m not just fighting for me and people who share my identity and/or experience. I’m also fighting for you, and for all of us.
Finally, Klein suggests that “Not Me. Us.” acts as a call to “kill the Trump within.” In so many ways, Trump embodies the ultimate neoliberal subject: a narcissistic and hypercompetitive human brand tethered to social media, firing off hot takes hardened to the world. We’re of course called into this subject position too, beckoned toward the broken promises of personal responsibility and branding. And yet, we won’t be able to realize solidarity if we don’t destroy our own neoliberal inner demons. Indeed, the Sanders campaign feels as if it’s trying to cut out the beating heart of neoliberal culture: that we are fundamentally human capitals locked in competition for scarce resources; that we must harden ourselves to each other, our families, neighbors and communities in order to survive; that there is no alternative to the brutalities of unfettered, fossil-fueled capitalism.
Still, solidarity and the slaying of our inner Trumps are complicated prospects in the digital age.
“Not Me. Us.” is largely a social media phenomenon. In addition to rallies, canvassing, and phone-banking, the Sanders campaign is an amalgamation of memes, hashtags, video clips, posts, tweets, groups, comments, likes, loves, and shares. It’s about always advertising, always amplifying the Bernie brand and the voices of Bernie supporters (and sometimes attacking Bernie haters) in the attention economy. In other words, “Not Me. Us.” takes shape within the churning digital networks of what Jodi Dean calls communicative capitalism. Within this context, “Not Me. Us.” is experienced as a series of digital encounters with always flowing Bernie content.
For Bernie supporters, these ongoing digital encounters undoubtedly sustain affective investments in the campaign. We turn to our networks for affirmation and confirmation, to fuel and hone our commitments. As Dean argues, communicative capitalism runs on the production and circulation of affect. For Bernie, and Us, to win, though, we need more than these affective networks. We need solidarity.
In her essay, “One for All,” Astra Taylor and Leah Hunt-Hendrix explain:
“Solidarity isn’t a feeling or affect, a fuzzy sense of connection or unity; nor is it a preexisting bond within an established and stable group, a kind of tribalism. Unlike identity, solidarity is not something you have, it is something you do—a set of actions taken toward a common goal. Inasmuch as it is something experienced, it is not a given but must be generated; it must be made, not found. Solidarity both produces community and is rooted in it, and is thus simultaneously a means and an end. Solidarity is the practice of helping people realize that they—that is to say, we—are all in this together.”
Within the affective networks of communicative capitalism, “Not Me. Us.” remains fuzzy and tribal. It is a feeling, an affect that circulates. It arrives in our digital networks as a given, found by algorithms, streaming to our feeds through responsive apps tailored to our clicks, likes, and loves. Even more pressingly, the affective networks of “Not Me. Us.” can actively turn us away from the work of generating solidarity that it imagines. For communicative capitalism renders the Us, and the process of generating it, precarious, even despite broad, energetic support for Sanders' vision and policies.
Communicative capitalism is engineered to hold our attention to its churn, cordoned off within algorithmically-defined filter bubbles, feeding our inner Trump. Like, link, unfollow, cancel: our machines direct us to set up boundaries that pull us into what Ulises Mejias describes as “nodocentric” networks. Solidarity asks us to push beyond easy relationships marked by similarity, generating relations that collectively care for and build the Us. It therefore requires demediation, stepping offline in order to give our attention to the uneasy and uncertain work of organizing. For unlike online encounters with Bernie media, encounters with strangers on the doorstep or over the phone on behalf of Bernie are radically open. There is a relationship of common cause, of Us, of solidarity, that must be created. Organizing thus requires our presence, patience, time, curiosity, ears, and mouths. It requires we show up in person and without our inner Trumps.
The Sanders campaign is fighting for a world where we all have health care in an epidemic. Where we address, in just and transformative ways, the existential threat of global warming. Where no one is disposable, except for billionaires. The campaign asks us to speculate that another world is possible. Winning this world will mean overcoming the precarity of Us.
Dean, Jodi. Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.
Klein, Naomi. “How the Transformative Power of Solidarity Will Defeat Trump.” The Intercept. January 22, 2020.
Mejias, Ulises. Off the Network: Disrupting the Digital World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
Taylor, Astrid and Leah Hunt-Hendrix. “One for All.” The New Republic. August 26, 2019.