From Altruism to Solidarity: A New (or Perhaps Old) Model for Public Service

This is part of our symposium on the legal representation of poor people.

Sam Allison-Natale–

To put the matter crudely: if one relegates a certain social space simply to the selfish acquisition of material things, it is almost inevitable that soon someone else will come to set aside another domain in which to preach that, from the perspective of ultimate values, material things are unimportant; that selfishness-or even the self-are illusory, and that to give is better than to receive.. . .. Pure greed and pure generosity are complementary concepts; neither could really be imagined without the other; both could only arise in institutional contexts that insisted on such pure and single-minded behavior; and both seem to have appeared together wherever impersonal, physical, cash money also appeared on the scene.”  David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years.

In their call to young lawyers entering public interest, Hershkoff and Loffredo remark that students entering public interest work are often held up by the sense that they are “losing out” by entering public service – in status, first and foremost. They work to dispel that selfish notion of individualistic altruism, and as the quote above illustrates, the individualistic altruism view is nothing more than a reverse manifestation of the individualistic greed that motivates much of the profession. The ideology underpinning individualistic altruism infects many of those who do enter public service law and this view glorifies powerlessness, when power is precisely what we need if we are to end injustice.

Public interest attorneys must conceptualize the work as in the holistic interests of both themselves and their clients and not as merely selfless altruism. Downwardly-mobile attorneys are badly saddled by school debt, and high rent. For lawyers of marginalized identities, all of this compounds on top of oppressions rarely ameliorated by simply occupying a “professional” occupation. In other words, public interest attorneys share interests with our clients in ending racial, gender, and economic injustice. The martyrdom culture of “heroic” public interest attorneys must be replaced with a sense of solidarity.

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