Can solidarity exist? Or is it just a fantasy, a pious dream of the soft of heart and weak of brain? Gross inequality, greed and prejudice: these manifestations of selfishness which stalk our world may seem to invite our condemnation and to call for an alternative – but what if they are part of the natural order? It is a widely-held presumption that our egotism is hard-wired in our nature, and that a genuinely selfless act is almost an impossibility. In a hostile review of a recent study of altruism, an American professor of humanities, Mark Hunter, wrote that an attack on capitalism is ‘an attack on human nature.’ Running counter to the liberal individualistic norm, however, research in biology and in psychology indicates that the human gene contains both selfish and altruistic tendencies.
As the psychologist Richard Crisp explains, the brain, which prefers an easy life, tends to default to a lazy position of self-immunising insularity. But studies of individuals who have exposed themselves to the unfamiliar and adapted to strangers – such as students who have lived for a significant period abroad – have shown a positive correlation between such testing experiences and the ability to solve problems in business and diplomacy. When the ego is suppressed in order to comprehend and to accommodate the unfamiliar, there is positive feedback in the brain’s capacity. How the balance between these propensities, respectively to self-protection and to openness to others, will be struck in a given moment is dependent upon the surrounding culture. Here the evidence of history has much to show – and, perhaps, something to teach.
History has been tragically absent from the current debates surrounding the identity of Europe and its capacity to respond to large-scale migration. The Home Secretary Theresa May’s recent statement that “when immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it’s impossible to build a cohesive society” brings into sharp focus what is at stake today in the question about the possibility of solidarity. The former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, famously declared that “there is no such thing as society”, and by her particular emphasis on self-help did much to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. The use of history by politicians across the spectrum tends to be opportunistic and misleading. A telling instance is the Conservatives’ ‘Big Society’ agenda, designed to offload public services from central government to ‘the local community’: a conveniently hypothesised solidarity supposedly rooted in a history of neighbourliness and mutual support. The policy draws also upon an essentialised notion of religion: as the Party leader David Cameron claimed in 2014, “Jesus invented the Big Society 2000 years ago: I just want to see more of it.”
The truth is that over hundreds of years these questions concerning human nature and the possible conditions of society have been debated extensively in national and local forums, leaving a rich legacy for those prepared to pay attention. One fertile context in which the issues were explored was that of the guilds of medieval Europe. Although we are now more familiar with guilds that were linked to particular trades, the majority of these organisations brought together, in voluntary association, men and women of diverse crafts and, to varying degrees, of different backgrounds. The appeal of the guilds – and there were many of them: 30,000 in late-medieval England alone – derived partly from their festive celebrations but even more from their moral standing: the ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ were required to be morally virtuous and trustworthy citizens, and membership therefore served as a guarantee of good standing. To the recent immigrant to a town, lacking the support of family or neighbours, this status was an invaluable basis of trust.
It is a widely-held presumption that our egotism is hard-wired in our nature, and that a genuinely selfless act is almost an impossibility.
But it was recognised that neither brotherhood nor virtue was a natural condition: both had to be worked for, and the rules and practices of the guilds embodied a practical ethics directed at these goals. A core aim was the deliberate cultivation, as a value in its own right, of friendship. Typical was the declaration of the brothers and sisters of a fourteenth-century London guild of St James that they undertook ‘to nourish more love between them.’ In their promotion of friendship amongst their members and between these and others outside the association whom they helped in various ways, the guilds anticipated those philosophers who have recently called for an ‘ethics of care’ which puts a value not on the particular benefit to any party in a relationship, but on the quality of the relationship in itself. In the age of Facebook, ‘friends’ are not hard to come by – but we risk losing sight of a different kind of mutuality, based upon a conscious effort to open up to another person, which entails the uncomfortable possibility of being changed by that experience.
The guilds placed value at the same time upon the collectivity and upon the individual member. This historical example can help us to break the dualistic model, under which we have laboured for too long, in which ‘the individual’ is opposed to ‘the community.’ As modern research is demonstrating, the medieval guilds were rooted in a more realistic understanding of human nature which, in order to survive, needs to face both inwards and also outside itself. They showed realism, too, in their conception of ‘community’ not as a fixed or simple state, but as the challenge of a shared responsibility. (As the political philosopher Roberto Esposito reminded us, the word ‘community’ derives from the Latin cum: ‘with’ and munus: ‘burden’). The recognition of such a common responsibility is widespread across diverse cultures: whether described in religious or secular terms, the shared concern is always with a perceived need to defend certain human values. Within that framework, the members of the guilds were able to develop multiple identities: loyalty to the association co-existed with personal concerns, family ties, neighbourhood identity, and participation in the kingdom or city-state.
There is a close parallel with the Muslim concept of the umma: an idea of universal belonging in a culture of shared human values, within and alongside which other loyalties can also exist. (That instance has been brought tellingly to bear within the current debate on migration by an essay by Faiz Sheikh and Samanthan May in Religion in Diaspora: Cultures of Citizenship, ed. Jane Garnett and Sondra L. Hausner). The model of the umma does not preclude the possibility of liberal citizenship, nor does that of the medieval guilds deny the unique personality of the individual. But both challenge the monopolistic hegemony of individualism. Their example deserves our attention.
Headline image credit: Map of Britain circa 1250 by Matthew Paris. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.