The hidden evils of “social cohesion”



Wouldn’t it be good if we all lived in an ordered society in which everyone did what they were told, we all had the same values and acted in the same way? Of course not. And yet that is what a popular buzz phrase, cheered by just about everyone who considers themselves respectable, wants us to do.

The phrase is “social cohesion”. Just about everyone in government, the media and non-governmental organisations says we need it. So do aid donors. And yet we need “cohesion” about as much we do a military coup – and for much the same reasons. It is a deeply undemocratic idea that gives a licence to the powerful to dominate others.

Why, then, is social cohesion so popular with people who would be horrified by claims that they want the powerful to dominate? One reason is that there are two versions, one of which sounds caring and democratic.

Malign and benign versions

The “malign” form of social cohesion is clearly undemocratic. It began life in Britain a couple of decades ago and was ahead of its time: its prejudices are shared by today’s parties and governments of the right. Its target is immigrants, who it blames for destroying the “cohesion” of white European society.

It offers two solutions – immigrants must go away or become other people, which means “integrating” into British society — no head scarves, no funny accents and, as one politician infamously put it, no cheering for the England cricket team’s opponents. Its best-known adherents today are the comedian John Cleese, who has left Britain because it is no longer “English” enough, and former prime minister Tony Blair, whose foundation tells immigrants that, if they want prejudice to go away, they must do more to become British.

But there is also a “benign” version that emerged at roughly the same time. It first appears in documents produced by the European Union and has been embraced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Canadian government and many policy wonks, talk show hosts and public commentators.

Not only does this version denounce cultural and racial intolerance, its target is also free market economics which, it complains, has weakened or dissolved bonds between people. It promises to unite us in more caring “communities” in which everyone is welcome. Surely there is nothing here to which decent democrats could object?

But if worship of the market is the problem, why is social cohesion and not social justice the solution? Writers on “cohesion” agree that a society which is “cohesive” is orderly, largely because people share the same values. It is this, not a fairer society, which this form of social cohesion wants. And it is a recipe for some to dominate others.

Using cohesion to dominate

Social cohesion talk never says who decides which values should be shared. Modern thinkers who worried that the market was destroying shared values were conservatives like the French thinker Émile Durkheim. They said that moral values were “organic”, part of the “natural” make-up of societies. But values are created by people – and that always means people who wield power. To insist that we hold shared values is to demand that we all value what powerful people want us to value.

This may explain why it is only the elite who worry about social cohesion – there is no popular demand for it. Even the “malign” version enjoys support not from people at the bottom but from those who have dominated until now and fear that their domination is threatened. This is true not only of racial nationalists who feel that white supremacy is threatened but also of planners and academics who worry that their control of society is under threat.

A stark example of how social cohesion works appears in an article by a respected economist, William Easterly, and his colleagues, who explain that “cohesion” is essential to economic reform in the Global South because “citizens have to trust the government that the short-term losses inevitably arising from reform will be more than offset by long-term gains”.

They admiringly mention as models of “cohesion” South Koreans who appeared on American television “tearfully selling their modest family treasures in the belief that their humble contribution was somehow making a difference to the financial health of their country”.

Social cohesion, then, means trusting the government even when it might be wrong – and believing that it is your duty to help it, not its duty to help you. The economists never suggest that it is the government’s duty to ensure that reforms do produce long-term gains: the burden falls squarely on citizens. It is difficult to imagine a more obvious blank cheque for the powerful to treat others as they please.

Other writing on social cohesion is not this stark but also insists that in a “cohesive” society, citizens show “commitment to the community”, which means to those who control it.

Blame the citizens

The economists hint at another way in which social cohesion licenses domination – it passes the blame for failure in society from the elite to citizens. The elite are not meant to be socially cohesive, citizens are. If they are not, they, not the elite, are the problem. Northern governments have blamed “lack of social cohesion” for increased illness levels, not the economic and social policies that made people ill.

Not everyone goes as far as Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka, who said in a co-authored work that democracies become unstable if they don’t have the right type of citizen. But they assume what he said aloud.

This not only means that the elite never have to say they are sorry – it makes domination highly likely. If citizens are not “cohesive”, they must be made to change. We are back to Blair: people can keep their head scarves and accents, but must behave in other ways as the elite wish them to behave. So, they must also change who they are to avoid blame. And if they don’t? They can presumably be punished for being different as they are, after all, the cause of the problem.

Despite all its tolerant language, “benign” social cohesion thinking lands up in the same place as the “malign” version: people must be forced to change or must be driven out.

This is a problem everywhere, but particularly in South Africa, where the elite tend to blame citizens for their failures. People are blamed for not paying for services. The possibility that they might be unable to pay because of policy decisions over which they had no control is not considered. Nor is the fact that large organisations are sometimes worse at paying than poor people.

Social cohesion thinking is already used to dominate the poor in this and other ways. Its popularity gives a green light to more attempts to bully people in townships and shack settlements into behaving as others want.

Social cohesion insists that we must all be the same when we have a right to be different. It assumes that we should obey the elite when we should hold them to account. It insists that citizens are to blame for what is done to them. And so, it is a licence for a minority to dominate the majority, not a recipe for a better world. 

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