Social Cohesion – Good or Bad? A future for the world or anarchy and barbarity?

Long ago we made a big decision; to give up our hunter gatherer way of life and embrace farming.

It changed us from a system of nomadic small bands of hunters into a sedentary group of farmers. It gave us ownership of land and tools. It put us against nature.

Agriculture enabled us to survive in large numbers and create civilisations. We developed trade and cities. We grew into huge social groups, developed kings, nations and religions.

Instead of being tribes of a few hundred we became nations of millions.

In order to unify people there had to be social cohesion. We invested in strong leaders – fearsome warrior-kings like Ghenghis Khan, Richard The Lion-heart, Saladin or Constantine. We invented religions – Islam, Bhuddism, Hinduism, Christianity, Shinto, Judaism. We invented Emperors, Kings, Queens and Ayatollahs. We invented political systems – capitalism, communism, anarchism, socialism, liberalism, democracy, theocracy. We invented national cultures and identity.

With people united behind a set of shared values anything was possible. It was possible to raise armies, conquer and loot, build cities, raise taxes and carry out monumental tasks such as the building of cathedrals, temples, pyramids, banks, cities, palaces and hydrogen bombs.

The millions of people within a nation were united by a shared identity. They wore similar clothes, spoke the same language, worshipped the same god, followed the same laws, had a shared history, looked the same, performed the same rituals, gave allegiance to the same leader, paid taxes and thus invested in the structure of the culture, and supported the political system. It unified people so that strangers could live side by side. It enabled people to live in huge cities with the minimum of violence and discord. It enabled wars and conflict with competing nations.

It also spawned great inequalities as powerful kings, aristocrats and religious leaders took a large chunk of the produce and merchants became wealthy at the expense of the working people.

Social cohesion has created the world we live in.

Social cohesion is very powerful. People believe in it.

It made gods out of leaders. The Japanese created Shinto – a religions cobbled together out of many sources in which the Emperor was deified as a descendant of the Sun God.

From the outside this looks absurd. But people felt strongly enough to sacrifice their lives for him in Kamikaze suicide missions.

Sunni and Shia Muslims follow the same Koran and the same prophet but a disagreement over lineage has resulted in extreme hatred.

To an outsider it is absurd. Yet inside the religions the doctrine is sufficient to have martyrs blowing themselves up in mosques full of women and children.

We have the same with Muslim and Jew, Capitalist and Communist, Catholic and Protestant.

All equally fabricated and absurd.

We look at other cultures with their silly costumes, strange rituals, dietary requirements, prayers, beliefs, pageants, uniforms, parades and shows of allegiance with a range of emotions. We are amused, interested, amazed, horrified, bewildered, astounded and in awe.

We find aspects quaint, absurd, ridiculous, impressive, worrying, bewildering and often beyond belief.

Do people really believe these things are are they playing lip service?

Yet we accept our own rituals, beliefs, absurdities and laws as normal and rational.

From birth we are indoctrinated into our culture. We are brainwashed by our family, our community, our schools, our places of worship, our rituals, customs, political leaders and social leaders, to accept the norm, work within the narrow parameters and follow the guidelines.

Through patriotism, religious belief, fealty to the monarch, national pride, racial unity and faith in the law of the land we allow ourselves to be ruled.

In a new country like America it takes the form of the daily ritual of the vow of allegiance and the symbol of the stars and stripes. In North Korea it is stringent conformity and shows of hysterical support to their leader Kim Jung-Un. We see similar fanaticism towards various political and religious leaders around the world.

There are undoubtedly good things that have come out of this ‘civilisation’. We have certainly prospered. Our numbers have greatly increased, our health has improved, our living standards are much higher (at least for many), we have glorious works of art and architecture and incredible science. Our technology is mind boggling.

All the result of social cohesion harnessing the power of millions of people.

On the downside it has created tyrants, mass starvation, war, poverty, extreme inequality, slavery and servitude, genital mutilation, nationalism, fascism, racism and genocide.

Would-be leaders have exploited social cohesion in order to gain power. They have exploited racism, religious doctrines and nationalism to create fear, hate and division in order to propel them to power.

Is it possible that in this modern age we are witnessing the breakdown of social cohesion?

With global travel, the internet and the mixing of races the demes of human culture are dissolving. It is hard for national or local groups to retain their customs and beliefs when there is no rational basis. Why should it be mandatory to wear a veil and be subservient to men when most women do not have to? Why should a black not not be president of the USA? The French girl I met last year was really nice – do we have to hate them all?

Religious beliefs are being questioned.

Political systems are being questioned.

National customs and dress are being questioned.

More mixing is taking place. We are no longer living in homogenous groups.

Of course, this has created great fear and concern. People feel secure within the customs they have grown up with. They want to hang on to them. They feel an affinity to them. They are afraid that their dearly held customs and beliefs are being discarded or, even worse, usurped by immigrants. They certainly don’t want to live under someone else’s patently ridiculous or draconianly restrictive, even barbaric, customs.

It has resulted in a spate of extreme nationalism founded on xenophobia and racism resulting in populist politics – Trump, Erdogan, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Modi and Brexit. It has resulted in ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban and Kim Jung-Un.

The question remains – is this a phase?

When people lose their faith in Kings/Queens, politicians, religions and even national customs, is there something better the other side of that?

It seems to me that we are at a crossroads.

Do we produce a new narrative that is more powerful than the previous narratives?

Do we create a global story that we can all believe in? A story that is rational, with a place for us all, that is tolerant, respectful, and allows freedom?

Astory that goes beyond religion, race, culture and nationality?

I think we have a choice.

We either create a global village that encompasses all humanity and nature and enables us all to flourish or the social cohesions dissolve and we end up with anarchy and destruction.

With 8 billion people we cannot go back to our hunter gatherer way of life. Without social cohesion we cannot live peacefully in communities. The breakdown of social cohesion would create chaos, power struggles, warlords and Mad Max. It would result in mass violence and starvation.

The present wave of populistic nationalism is causing immense environmental destruction and fueling international conflict.

I believe this is a unique period of history.

We have the opportunity to build something really great or descend into barbarity.

8 thoughts on “Social Cohesion – Good or Bad? A future for the world or anarchy and barbarity?

  1. Opher, as so often, I agree with much of what you say. In fact, with almost all of it. But again, as so often, there are a few fundamental disagreements that stick out for me.

    First, you say that the Neolithic village revolution “put us against nature.” I disagree. Surely, it enabled us to start to use nature around us for our own purposes. But that is, very much, part of our nature. I don’t see how that can put us against nature. You could just as well say that, when lions first learned how to catch and kill zebra, that put the lions against nature. Whereas catching and killing such animals as are available is, very much, part of a lion’s nature. It may, perhaps, have been a bit hard on the zebra; but I see nothing wrong on the part of the lions. So, I also see nothing wrong on the part of humans for taking control of our surroundings, and moulding them to suit our own purposes. That’s just part of human nature.

    Second, when you talk of “social cohesion,” what society exactly are you talking about? This is all bound up with the big distinction I make between society and community.

    A society has a purpose, (usually) a constitution of some kind, a set of officers, and a set of policies and rules. When you agree to join a society – my brass band is a good example – then you agree to abide by the society’s policies and rules. The reason you accept these restrictions is because the society enables you to do something you want – in my case, play (and compose!) good music – and you get more gain out of that than you lose by having to keep to the rules. If that ceases to be so for whatever reason, you can always leave the society. And if you want to, you can join another.

    A community, on the other hand, is merely a group of people who have something in common. For example, they all subscribe to a particular religion, or they all live in a particular geographical area. A community does not, of itself, have a constitution, officers or rules. There may be a society associated with the community, which does have these things, and is entitled to impose its rules on members of the community; a home-owners’ association is a good example. But in most cases, you can be a member of a community without also joining any particular society. In particular, you can live in a particular geographical area without also being a member of some society which “represents” all the people who live in that area.

    When you (and others) talk of “social cohesion,” it seems that the “society” you are thinking of is a political society, formed of all the people who live in a particular nation. You are following the “social contract” idea, according to which all of us have (implicitly) signed a contract to obey the rules of that political society. Now, this idea originated with Thomas Hobbes. It was followed also by John Locke; though he also thought that if government encroaches on the rights of the governed, they have the right to withdraw their obedience. (Read paragraphs 229-231 of his Second Treatise of Government.) But the “social contract” idea was put forward most strongly in the 1760s by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

    Unfortunately, Rousseau also made (deliberately?) what in my opinion was a very, very big error. He posited that the population of an area has a “general will”, which makes them into a unity. That is, all of them can collectively agree on what they want. But this cannot be so among a large number of people with differing views on the questions of the day. For an example, think: Which was the general will of the people in the UK, to Brexit or not to Brexit? Such a unity cannot exist among a large number of diverse and divided people, with a range of divergent interests; unless it is imposed by force.

    The loss of political unity within nations has been fanned by several processes. One is mass migrations of people from one culture into another. Another is the expansion of people’s horizons, which has taken place as a result of affordable global travel and the Internet. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the global élites are seeking through their green policies to make global travel unaffordable for anyone who is not part of the élites. Nor is it a coincidence that by more or less obvious censorship of social media, together with de-platforming and “cancel culture,” they are aiming to shut down the Internet as a place for anti-establishment views.

    But the most destructive of these processes, I think, is the divisive effect of democracy. For, after a while, factions form among those that seek political power. Then, each party faction mostly panders to its own core supporters; and when one faction gets enough power, they seek to favour their supporters, and to shaft everyone else. Those shafted, naturally, get angry. A bit further on, the power factions grow closer together, and all of them aim to shaft anyone who isn’t part of their politically connected cadre. That’s where we are right now in the UK. That you and I can agree that the bunch of prats in power deserve to have something unpleasant and debilitating done to them, even though we originally came from opposite sides of the political fence, is testament to that.

    You can see the divisions, which democracy has caused, even more strongly in the USA. Interestingly, the founding fathers knew the danger of the “general will.” If you read the US constitution, you will see that it was not a constitution for a society composed of all the adult people who live in the area known as the United States. Instead, it was a constitution for a “government society” to take on certain governmental functions, over and above what the individual states could do. But today, an election result – whichever party wins – is treated as if the entire population of the USA has a “general will,” which just happens to be whatever the string-pullers of the winning party for the time being want to do. And so, it gives them carte blanche to do what they want, even things which completely alienate a large slice of the population. That’s why the Trumpists are so up in arms.

    So, my view is that the kind of “social cohesion,” of which you speak – that is, unity within a political society – cannot be saved. Nor, indeed, is it worth saving. Which brings me, conveniently, to the point where I can give direct answers to some of the questions you ask at the end.

    “Do we produce a new narrative that is more powerful than the previous narratives?” Yes, and I’m one of those working on it. Though I would prefer to use the word “paradigm” rather than “narrative.”

    “Do we create a global story that we can all believe in? A story that is rational, with a place for us all, that is tolerant, respectful, and allows freedom? A story that goes beyond religion, race, culture and nationality?” If by “global” you mean bottom-up global like the Internet, rather than top-down global like the United Nations or the former British Empire, then Yes. And I’m trying to write the damned thing. But I give everyone fair warning; it will be a long story!

    One more small but fundamental disagreement. You see the ruction against the political establishment, which has been happening across the globe, including in the UK and the USA, as a “wave of populistic nationalism.” And because of that, you disapprove of it.

    We’ve had this conversation before, but populism is “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established élite groups.” Johnson is no populist; he’s as élite as they come. Trump tried to be a populist, but couldn’t bring it off. And Bolsonaro, from what little I know about him, is just a conservative trying to make out he’s a populist. A true populist is against the establishment, not with them. Hell, in some ways I’m a populist!

    But I see the ruction as something very different from your view. I see it as a giant V-sign, a “fuck you” symbol, aimed at those that have used and are using politics as a tool for screwing us over, while feathering their own and their cronies’ nests. So, I’m all in favour of it. More power to all our elbows! Even though, despite my support for Brexit, I’m no nationalist. (I might, perhaps, be a patriot; but if I am, I’m a Wessex patriot).

    We live in interesting times, no?

    1. Lol Neil.
      Of course, it put us against nature. When we were hunter gatherers we worked with nature. It provided.
      As farmers, nature intruded. We had to fight the weeds, the bugs, the weather and we had to tame it.
      We tried religion, rain dances, sacrifices. We ended up tending the land day and night – fighting off animals that might damage the crop, pest that would eat it, and droughts and weather/. We had to produce drainage, irrigation, and worry about floods and drought.
      Nature was a nuisance and sometimes much worse.
      We invented herbicides, pesticides and killed animals and insects that dared to damage our crops.
      Nature, with all its vagaries, was now the enemy.
      Society is the large grouping of people into kingdoms and nations. It is when people became unified under a leader to coexist. Large cities are not communities. They are much bigger than that. Kingdoms enabled us to conquer, to control and built on a much greater scale than a community.
      Without social cohesion on this big scale we cannot function in the numbers we currently have. Small communities cannot control invading nations, mass immigration, war, pollution, global destruction of habitats, tax evasion, multinationals, international travel,the internet, fake news, conspiracy, despots and tyrants, climate change, nuclear war………………….
      We need a global response to global problems.
      We have far outgrown communities.
      We are a global species with global problems.
      The wave of nationalistic populism is a luddite reaction to the inevitability of globalism.
      Now we can have globalism with an elite preying off and exploiting the rest of us or we can devise a system where everyone has their freedom, equitable rights and a bright future.
      What we can’t do is bury our heads in the sand and pretend it’s not going to happen.

      1. Opher, I think our disagreement on “nature” is a matter of world view; below the level of rational thought, so not resolvable by rational argument. As I’m sure you would agree about, for example, the Catholic doctrine of “transubstantiation” of communion bread and wine into Jesus’ body and blood. “Chemically impossible,” say you. “Never proven beyond reasonable doubt,” say I. And yet, there are still those that believe it; and neither you nor I will ever persuade them. There’s no way forward there, except to say “you go your way, and I’ll go mine.” On the matter at hand, you say that humans are against nature; I respond that we are for human nature. We’ll have to agree to disagree on this.

        In the middle part of your missive, I think your message is, in essence, “it takes politics to fight politics.” Many of the bad things you talk about – invasions, nations, mass migration, war, taxes, fake news, despots and tyrants – would not exist without politics. Granted, while politics still exists, you need to have some kind of organization to defend yourselves against invasions and wars; but why does it have to be a political organization? If we de-politicized life, and governments focused on delivering objective justice to all, instead of on lying, virtue signalling, making bad laws and taxing people out of existence, wouldn’t the world be a far better place?

        As to the “inevitability of globalism,” I actually agree with you! Provided, of course, we are talking about economic globalism, not political globalism. A global economy, if not over-regulated, is a good thing; it enables, for example, fruit grown in places like Morocco to be consumed out of season in the UK. Both parties benefit. But political globalism would mean a world-wide Orwellian Big Brother. No, thanks.

      2. I certainly would not want a world-wide Bib Brother – but I do want peace, stability, freedom and control.
        Politics is present in all things Neil. Always has been. Tribes run on politics. All groups of people interact and that is politics. You see it in the playground. We cannot exist without it.
        If you have a global unity you have global politics. I want that to be positive and benign – based on human rights and freedoms but with control of those who would exploit or abuse.

  2. “Bib Brother,” Opher – nice one! But yes, they surely do want to control what we eat. No beef or lamb, they tell us; they emit too much carbon dioxide!

    Which do I want out of your laundry list? Peace, yes. Freedom, yes. Stability, up to a point; enough to make plans, and if you succeed to enjoy the fruits of your earned success. But not stasis. Stasis is death. As for control… who will control the controllers? I prefer justice – objective justice, where everyone is treated as he or she treats others. Including the controllers.

    And as to global unity, let me put your argument in the contrapositive. If you have no global politics, you have no Big (or even Bib) Brother!

    1. Too late Neil. We have had global politics for centuries. We live in a global world, not a national one. Your clothes, food and goods are likely to be grown, mined, manufactured in countries all over the world. The profits go to companies from other countries. Your pollution knows no national boundaries. Taxes are paid or evaded all over the world. The multinationals and wealthy are avoiding taxes and exploiting people everywhere.
      We need to control them much better. They are destroying everything out of greed.

      1. As I’ve said before: Economics global, politics local. Or even better, economics global, and no politics at all.

        As to unjust exploitation, that ought indeed to be a crime everywhere. It’s on my list of things that are not fit behaviours for human beings. And in my book, any kind of taxation, which does not directly reflect the benefits received in return, is unjust exploitation!

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