Theo Di Castri
July 3, 2015

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?


All by
Theo Di Castri