When a friend invited me to a party with “some labour activists” last fall, I did not imagine I would be spending my evening in the company of a crew of supermodels at a swanky East Village penthouse. Nor, for that matter, did I expect I’d be hanging out with Kalpona Akter—one of Bangladesh’s leading garment worker organizers. Also present were a handful of elderly New York Jews descended from the survivors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, some members of the International Labor Rights Forum and a vivacious hostess whose connection to the event or anyone else there was unclear to me beyond her repeated declarations that she simply loved both “good parties” and “good causes”. This, however, was precisely the motley crew I discovered as I stepped out of the elevator into one of the more bewildering parties I’d been to in New York City.
Once all of the guests had been equipped with canapés and champagne, the lights were dimmed, the mingling subsided and a trailer for a documentary directed by model and activist Sarah Ziff was screened. Ziff had taken a trip to Bangladesh in 2013 to make a documentary about the working conditions of garment labourers in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster. The trailer left unclear how much of the film was to be about the conditions in Bangladesh and the workers’ rights movement there, and how much of it was to document Ziff’s own personal journey. As Ziff put it in her trailer, “Models are in a unique and powerful position to promote decent working conditions not only for themselves but for also for the women who make the clothes that we wear.” But was this a deployment of cultural capital in the name of raising awareness or was it a simply an exercise in accumulating more of it? A shot of Ziff speaking at a press conference at Lincoln Center, flanked by an entourage of stern-faced beauties nodding stoically in agreement with her and only a couple of Bangladeshi laborers standing at the periphery of the frame, left me wondering.
A similar ambiguity haunted a clip of Ziff addressing a group of Bangladeshi garment workers in that stilted, self-conscious English we white people sometimes affect when addressing “the Third World”. “The garment industry here in Dhaka and the fashion industry in New York are very different in many ways…opposite sides of the world,” Ziff explained, “but the fashion industry is built on the backs of young women and girls who in both industries on both sides of the world are trying to have a voice in their work.” Drawing a parallel between the exploitation of models in New York and garment workers in Bangladesh seemed a fraught one at best. Ziff herself readily and carefully acknowledged the fundamental differences that separate her world from those of the activists she is trying to support. The proposed title of her film— “Tangled Thread”— spoke to her awareness of the complexity of both the problems she is exploring and her position as a model doing so.
Despite these tensions, there was something undeniable about the connection she was trying to draw. The trailer’s juxtaposition of footage was striking. On the one hand, models strutting down the catwalks of New York, all of them in perfect, mechanical step—a conveyor belt of androgynous, austere figures; on the other, Bangladeshi factory production lines animated by the repetitive tasks of women and girls churning out clothes destined for North America. Categorically different kinds of exploitation to be sure, yet not entirely disconnected either. Opposite sides of the world indeed, yet inextricably linked by the machinations of the global fashion industry. Could these struggles legitimately be linked in the name of fighting for some common cause? And if so, what might such a coalition look like? What could it achieve?
After the trailer, Kalpona Akter offered a first-hand account of her experiences and activism in Bangladesh. She was encouraging of the nascent interest these models were taking in addressing the abuses within their industry’s supply chain. Her remarks opened up a discussion about what could be done from New York to assist her and other Bangladeshi workers in their struggle for rights back home. One model pointed out that one of the young Bangladeshi women who had appeared in the film had particularly angular features. “If you put her in Western clothes,” she proposed, “she could totally be a model. What if we did a fashion shoot with her dressed as a model, and one of us hunched over her sewing machine, with some tag line about how we’re both women facing oppression?” Somebody else proposed creating an app that would allow consumers to tick off the “causes” they care about—animal rights, worker rights, the environment—and then tell them which items in a store would be ethical to buy. One of the older women reminisced about the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire as a golden age for workers movements. Spectacle, consumption, nostalgia—the discussion spoke of the political possibilities that present themselves to the well-placed, contemporary, metropolitan imagination.
Later that evening, I approached Akter and asked her what she thought of the discussion and of the party in general. I found myself anxious to make clear that I had stumbled into this party by chance. I asked her if she actually believed anything would come of an individualized politics of responsible consumer choice. She told me that in her fight, she requires all the support she can muster and that support can come in many different forms. Lobbying for structural, systemic change—binding international trade agreements and better policies—is of central importance in her work. She assured me that the alliance forming between her and Ziff would also do important work of its own. As for the party? She joked that everything about the evening was “too tall”: the building we were in, the ceilings of the apartment, the models, “And you too!” she said, reaching her hand up in an attempt to reach my head. “You’re also too tall.”
Notwithstanding the fact that I am two meters tall, her playful jab served as a gentle reminder of my complicity in the situation. Nobody was forcing me to be at that party. My bid to maintain a righteous politics of purity was a facile one. The cynic within me wanted to deride the party as a case study of the political effeteness and narcissism that plagues so many privileged young urbanites. What I was witnessing, however, was far too ambiguous and new to warrant judgment in any such categorical terms. This was a distinctly 21st century alliance still tenuous and unfurling; as rife with pitfalls as it was ripe with potential.
In some ways, my opinions about the situation were insignificant. I am not a Bangladeshi garment worker. Neither am I a female model working in the New York fashion world. The forms of exploitation experienced by both these groups are ones I will never know, and the ability to recognize possibilities for mutual understanding and collaboration between them escapes me. Moreover, as a relatively well-placed student in New York, it was not as if I had any immediate suggestions for galvanizing Akter’s cause from downtown Manhattan. Here were two capable, hard-working activists coming together to initiate and explore a tricky conversation across the supply chain of the fashion industry. Who was I to pooh-pooh this effort? However, I was also not content to simply put my reservations to rest on the shallow pretense of a relativistic tolerance.
If there was anything my academic training had equipped me to do, it was to ask questions. As the party came to a close and the various guests dispersed into the siren-serenaded city night, I left with many questions that have stuck with me since. Is there something essential to the concept of solidarity or have understandings of the term changed over time? Was what I had just witnessed rightly described as an instance of solidarity? How much do the near mythical images and stories of the solidarity displayed in past social movements shape current expectations and understandings of solidarity? Does the turn towards a spectacularized, digitally-mediated politics based on individual consumer choice bring with it new possibilities for solidarity or does it weaken the concept? Does it make sense to stretch our understanding of solidarity to account for new forms of activism that are emerging or do we need a new vocabulary for it? In short, what does, what can, and what should solidarity look like in the twenty-first century if it can be said to exist at all?
Proclamations of the death of solidarity are increasingly commonplace in our so-called age of neoliberalism. Just last month, an article appeared in the Guardian sounding the death knell for solidarity in the UK. So it seems an appropriate time to explore and interrogate the concept. Is solidarity really dead, or is it simply taking on new forms that we have yet to decipher?