As every Mancunian football fan will tell you, tomorrow evening sees the most hotly awaited derby in Premier League history when Manchester City and Manchester United square up for the last time this season. Whatever the outcome, what we will witness in abundance – at least while the ball is in play – is what the father of sociology, Emile Durkheim, called “collective effervescence”, a ritually induced passion or ecstasy that cements social bonds.
Given the current Europe-wide epidemic of melancholia induced by various crises, financial and political, and not helped in the UK by an April deluge, predicted to last through May, the good news is that we are all about to experience opportunities for a veritable season of effervescence. We report on these pages how three giant puppets walking the streets of Liverpool as part of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic have attracted 250,000 people on to the streets and raised the spirits of the city hugely. Over coming months, even arch cynics – those allergic to red, white and blue, republicans and lifelong couch potatoes – may find themselves succumbing, just a little, to communal and classless pleasures as, for instance, the celebrations connected to the Queen’s diamond jubilee gather traction. The Olympics become ever more imminent and the prospect of a gold medal or two potentially binds stranger to stranger regardless of income, ethnicity and background, in the alchemic way that victory in sport can…
Any festivity, inevitably in this day and age, comes saturated in commercialism. It will be difficult over the next several months to find a china cup and tea towel that isn’t festooned with crowns, coronets or concentric rings. Nevertheless, there will be events and occasions – many of them free –which will proof themselves again commodification and remain beyond the reach of the marketplace simply because they require only our time and interest….
This week sees London mayoral and local elections in addition to a referendum on elected mayors in 10 English cities. Inertia, rather than effervescence, is likely to mark the experience. But while dancing in the streets strengthens our collective sense of solidarity, we improve its health still further by exercising our hard-won right to vote. As Professor Michael Sandel pointed out in his Reith lectures on BBC’s Radio 4 in 2009: “The virtues in democratic life – community, solidarity, trust, civic friendship – these virtues are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are, rather, like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise.”
Translation: while the world may look like it is in bad shape, there are still moments in which we can come together, advance the common good, strengthen relationships, and be part of something bigger than ourselves. It is interesting, however, to note that some of these examples require choosing one side or another. For example, will fans of Manchester United or Manchester City be celebrating the game of football together or hoping the other side loses disastrously? In voting, is everyone pursuing the common good or hoping their side gets enough political power to force the other side to kowtow to its interests? Perhaps there are still moments where people can come together in larger settings, such as at the Olympics (national pride? celebrating humanity?) or at large rock concerts or a few other places.
Also, I’m having a hard time imagining an American newspaper editorial invoking Emile Durkheim. Would many newspaper editors in the United States know who this is?