Ibn Khaldun was a North African political thinker with great insights in the problem of group cohesion, a factor which he called “asabiya.” His insights into the factors by which groups gained and waned in power and influence are important about explaining the unity or division of groups of people far beyond those Berber monarchies he witnessed in North Africa and southern Spain.
Ibn Khaldun came to his insights about group cohesion by examining the history of Islamic dynasties over spain. Every three generations or so a new Berber monarchy would rise up out of the desert and take over the disunited and fragmented Muslims states of southern Spain, Morocco, and neighboring areas. These dynasties would have a lot of tight cohesion that would allow them to defeat the existing petty monarchs in their way. However, once they took over the trouble began, as luxury and power struggles would begin to weaken the unity they possessed, until they became the next disunited dynasty and a new group of desert Berbers would sweep in to replace them.
It is a commonly held thought that groups that are struggling to join together will unify as a result of outside persecution and assault, but that isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, that is the problem I would like to talk about today. In the absence of sufficient asabiya, a group cannot mount a unified stand against any threat. It is only the possession of sufficient asabiya to group together that allows unity to result from outside threats, and that unity can often suffice to build up large groups of people with a unified purpose. Unfortunately, the presence of crises, of intra-elite conflicts, often saps that unity in groups and causes a collapse.
What makes asabiya interesting is that it usually depends on a “core area” or “core group” of people who serve loyally and pay a high price but who in result are the leading element in a particular group. Having more than one core group leads to instability, and usually the breakup of the group between the two cores (the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the breakup of the English-Aquitaine Empire) or the destruction of one core area’s dominance by its rival (the American Civil War). As long as that group maintains its togetherness and avoids rivalry over spoils of office and luxury, it can endure for a long time (sometimes hundreds of years).
Core groups tend to develop along what are called “metaethnic frontiers,” where there is a fierce worldview clash between two people whose ways of looking at the world are so alien and mutually hostile that there is no comprehension of the basis of the other perspective, much less the possibility for agreement. Core groups are born out of fierce conflict, their unity forged in combat against rivals who wish their destruction. Their unity begins with a common enemy, and the realization that unless they stick together they face destruction. This common threat is the beginning of the buildup of asabiya, and the bonds forged in that desperate conflict of worldviews provides them with the capacity to endure for generations.
There are a few things that kill asabiya, though. Among them is the institution of slavery–slavery destroys social cohesion, by creating a permanent underclass with hostility towards masters, as well as the destruction of the biggest asabiya building factor–egalitarian “bands of brothers” against mortal enemies. The more hierarchial and stratified a society, the less able it is to build asabiya and maintain social cohesion, at least according to the research of social historians like Peter Turchin (and, from my experience and research, I happen to agree).
Once asabiya is killed through rigid hierarchies and slavery, it is nearly impossible to regain. Southern Italy (Rome and south) was home to the biggest plantation slavery in the Roman Empire, and was the “core region” of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire until about 268AD or so, and has never since then developed a single native political state. Every single government that has ruled over Southern Italy and Sicily since the Roman Empire has gotten its strength and social capital and start from somewhere else–the Vandals, Byzantine Empire, Arabs, Ostrogoths, Normans, Angvin French, Germans, Aragonese, or Northern Italians in modern Italy. For almost two thousand years Southern Italy has been ruled by “foreigners” without the single slightest movement towards developing its own social cohesion. Once asabiya is gone, it almost never comes back.
So, where does that leave a group seeking to find social cohesion? What could it do to build up its asabiya? If one looks at social historians and their research, there would be a few things it could do. First, it could seek to build egalitarian relationships based more on service than on hiearchy and rank, allowing social advancement for ambitious and capable people. Second, it should seek out and call out its most ferocious worldview enemy to provide it with a ferocious enough conflict to build together unity among those on the same side of the dividing line. Third, give the asabiya time to grow during the course of the conflict while maintaining an egalitarian, upwardly mobile sort of structure, and be prepared for massive and sustained growth. It’s worth a shot–especially when you don’t have any better options available.