Solidarity is a concept often missing from 21st century Western living. The panoply of human conditions that governs our existence in the ‘developed world’; avarice, individualism, a sense of superiority, generally leave out solidarity, and why not? In a society that rewards progress over our fellow human being, that champions a system of inherently unfair hierarchy, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the idea of harmony and consensus between people is often relegated to the margins.
Solidarity represents the downtrodden, those who seek change from what is perceived to be a fundamentally unfair life. Undoubtedly, solidarity exists; one only needs to look to fringe groups, be they political or social, independence movements or LGBTQI rights groups, but this is solidarity in the face of systemic intolerance, it is solidarity railing against the unjust, solidarity as a last resort against the world perceived as wrong, solidarity as a force for change and in being a force for change it is both alien and dangerous to the society that we have created.
We stand at a crisis that most of the world will never have experienced, the hidden enemy, one that respects neither bank account nor border, one that has left governments and economies reeling in shock and fear. Indeed it is an existential crisis that seems to have no immediate solution, bar the hastily erected government schemes that seem to be hell-bent on buying time while seeking an answer, one which has hitherto been elusive. It is this lack of options, this feeling of utter helplessness by old and young, rich and poor that has finally provoked the concept of solidarity in mankind, and I, for one, don’t buy it.
Humanity, when stripped of the superfluous baggage that embellishes western living; the job, the commute, the social circles, the holidays, the two-car garage, the financially given freedom, now begins to show an uncanny solidarity with their fellow man. This is a concept that was universally absent from 99% of existence before the onset of the global pandemic. The boss, a byword for one-upmanship and mistreatment of employees, whether it be through worthless contracts, starvation wages and static salaries in the face of rising rents, now stands on his balcony, guitar in hand, no longer a figure of manufactured authority, but rather one of the many. After two days of quarantine, the tyrant has returned to the people and I am expected to accept this with an open mind and an all-encompassing hashtag.
After decades of exploitation and neglect towards one another, this display of human togetherness is endemic of the double standards upon which ‘developed countries’ are built. Being a middle-class, white man living in Western Europe, it is not my place to judge, as indeed I have been extremely fortunate to benefit from said system, one which favours me as default, rather than through any fault of my own. However, it doesn’t take a viewpoint of balanced objectivity to realise that society was far from a fair fight long before the Coronavirus arrived. Last month we lived in suspicion of our neighbours, the doorbell would be answered with the attitude of ‘What do they want?’ Now we celebrate and share together, the question has become ‘What do you need?’ We lived in prisons of our own making, stuck at home for the hours that we didn’t work long before the government ordered us to do so.
Suddenly, the shackles of work are thrown off and our lives lose a portion (in some cases a great portion) of their meaning. In many cases, work has ceased to be merely a way of earning money, it is now an all-encompassing and life-defining endeavour, summed up by the telling question: What do you do? It is when this is taken from us, this inextricable part of our being, only then do we reach out to our fellow man in a display of patent humanity. On the flip of a coin, we are all one.
Again however, this is also a great untruth, as a trip outside will quickly show to be the case. Shop workers, greengrocers, bakers and indeed anyone who continues to work, not through any sense of duty, but due to the fact that they are both contractually and legally required to put themselves out there like it or not, continue to do the same hours for the same wages but in vastly different circumstances. These folks’ existences are driven by the same low wages and shoddy contracts of the guitar-playing boss, who continues to garner adulation from the online community. Those who continue to work, like it or not, are no less heroic than the medical professionals who are winning plaudits for their bravery across the world. Yet our solidarity with those in the supermarket, decked in flimsy masks and rubber gloves pales by comparison.
The world of social media, a world created by the human desire for aesthetic superiority over one’s peers, has now come alight. I say this as testament to the fickle and reactionary nature of the platforms that ever-increasingly define our lives. It is on these platforms that the false hand of kindness and co-operation can be seen at first hand. Tips and tricks, entertainment in the form of music, movies and stories are all in abundance. The situation has given rise to a flood of freeform creativity and helpfulness the likes of which I cannot recall in my lifetime. This crisis has sparked a ‘duty of care’ between people that didn’t have nearly the same scale one month or even two weeks ago. Obviously, the idea of online co-operation has the potential to be a wonderful concept, but this enforced sense of loneliness was not heralded by the virus nor is it a novel concept. It remains to be seen whether this benevolence will continue once the crisis is over.
The western world presents itself as this land of milk and honey, a life free from fear and danger, where one can live a balanced and rewarding existence. Of course such sweeping generalisations are known to hide great falsehoods, but in general the idea that we live a life free from fear is heavily propagated, and one only needs to look to the waves of migrants who risk life and limb merely to be here. However, the idea that we live unafraid in Western Europe is a misinterpretation, as we are merely blinkered to our fear, not free of it. The virus has taken from us the blindfolds and now the concepts of loneliness, loss, sickness, and death are out in the open. But if we are driven by fear now, then what about before the crisis? The same fears, masked differently; job loss, financial insecurity, progression, hunger, falling out of the precarious society that we have built, all simmered under the serene surface. The existential fear of life itself was the defining impulse behind human existence. The crisis has replaced one fear with another, and well we may be scared, but it is a familiar feeling.
I think it is too much to expect for humans to be kind and supportive to one another all the time, the system that we have created simply rewards us too much for progression and superiority over others. However, the outpouring of co-operation and empathy has seldom been seen in the abundance that it is now while facing crises such as this one. Coronavirus will pass and with it so will our ability to show solidarity with one another, and it will take much more than a virus and a comfortable quarantine to really give rise to a human singleness of purpose. In the meantime, once the outside threat is taken away and we’ve nothing to fear any longer, then the true human side of humanity will make itself known again.
Cover image courtesy of Jack Zalium via Flickr