Click the play button on the sound file below. It is the sound of the street in Aberdeen where I live recorded on April 2nd2020. I recorded the soundfile during the weekly Clap for Carers event, where the dedication of NHS workers was to be acknowledged and celebrated by the public clapping outside their homes. Clap for Carers ran for ten weeks, in the initial stages of the pandemic, with various celebrities and politicians standing on their doorsteps applauding, or banging pots and pans.
Different sounds are present on the sound file. Clapping is coming from the doorways from just about each of the bungalows on one side of the street or people leaning out their tenement windows on the other. Car horns are also present. The eerie other worldly sounds that dominate the file are fog horns from the ships in Aberdeen harbour that supply oil rigs in the North Sea.
It was the volume of what was happening that evening that prompted me to lean out my window with my Ipad and make the recording. The fog horns are loud in themselves, intended to work over the vastness of the North Sea, but it was the clapping that cut through the most. When I looked out onto my street, I was taken aback by what I saw. The number of people clapping, standing in their doorways, leaning out of windows, exhorting others to participate plus every car that passed by slowed down and sounded their horn.
Another element was evident: a feeling, if not a passionate outpouring of emotion. It was close to Durkheim’s theory of ‘collective effervescence’: the stirring of emotions necessary to enthuse people into creating social bonds and social solidarities. Or perhaps a moment of dis-alienation, where the distances that capitalist social and economic relations creates between people, the alienation from others that is part of Marx’s wider theory of alienation, are reduced and people recognise and the value and how their lives are interdependent with the lives of others.
Before I proceed, the cynical posturing of the weekly Clap For Carers needs to be acknowledged. It was a simple and, fundamentally, cheap manoeuvre by the Conservative government to cosplay that they cared for a service that in the neoliberal heart of hearts they have long wished to privatize. The applause didn’t require any additional expenditure on salaries or PPE or funding any other need necessary to deal with the early stages of the pandemic. It was also roundly criticised at the time by many the people it was meant to celebrate and an attempt to relaunch it in early 2021, rebranded as Clap for Heroes, fell flat.
The move can be dismissed as empty gesture politics on behalf of the government that was unable or unwilling to tackle the pandemic. But perhaps more nuanced approach is required. Every social phenomenon is a tangle of contradictions, and these contradictions need to be teased out to understand what was happening in a particular point in time.
I contend for many it was a genuine solidarity that did reflect a deep appreciation and gratitude for what other people were doing for them or others. Whilst the clap for the NHS was a dubious government sleight of hand in its origin it did lead to a period – albeit a fleeting one – of genuine solidarity and recognition of the capacities, values and essential worth of others that offered the potential to challenge the dog-eat-dog discourse of neoliberal life. It wasn’t in support of the government but for other people, other workers.
Had there existed a political or social movement of some sort, from below or above, that could have engaged with the genuine expressions of emotion for others that could have lead to an interesting new direction in ideas and ways of being in the world.
I have written before about how the temporary suspension of norms can let other ways of relating to others emerge suggestive, that we do not have to follow the idea of humanity inhered in the homo economicus ideology of humans as individuated, isolated actors making rational self-centred decision for their own betterment at the expense of every and anyone else.
No claim is made here that by simply pausing existing norms, hey presto, a sudden wave of human love and kindness sweeps the world. Rather, what these moments, these glimpses, of different ways of seeing oneself and others indicate that alternatives, a line of flight, to what Mark Fisher called Capitalist Realism, the despairing existence of contemporary capitalism that no alternative to exists to the exploitative and soul draining existence of wage labour. Fisher argues it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
We need the cracks in everything, as Cohen suggested, to allow the light in and see things a little differently. During the pandemic there were little cracks. We need to remember them and understand how they could lead to more than a crack in future.