About a decade ago or so, I read a fantastic book about the cycles of history called War And Peace And War. The book was so good I have pondered reading it again simply so I could give it my contemporary review treatment. To Mr. Turchin I owe the idea behind the title of my blog, Edge Induced Cohesion , and a great deal of insight concerning the issue at hand. After all, the problem of imperiogenesis and the concerns how one achieves social cohesion relate to precisely the problem of gathering chickens together. It is easy in this world to divide others, as there are many grounds on which even reasonable people, to say nothing of unreasonable people, may disagree. It is a much more difficult problem to foster and encourage unity, even when we sincerely want it. Yet it can be done. The problem may be difficult, but it is not an impossible one.
There are basically two ways to create unity from disunity. We may summarize them by calling them the upper and the lower path, similar to the high and low road to Scotland in that famous drinking song. Scotland, not coincidentally, is an area that has long suffered from poor social cohesion. Let us begin with the lower path, as it is more common. In order to create social cohesion, it is often useful and beneficial to have worldview enemies. People can often unite in the face of a common foe–that is what edge induced cohesion is. In the face of a common enemy whose differences are so stark and whose hostility is so plain, even people who may not be deeply inclined to unify will find common cause under certain circumstances, which include a high degree of egalitarianism and a just social order that is based upon consensus and provides for a great deal of mutual respect.
We must note that even the low road of genuine social cohesion is more than a mere alliance of convenience, like the alliance of the Nazis and Soviets, or the Soviets and the Western democracies during World War II, or that of the contemporary alliance against Christendom by secularists and Islamists. In the case of an alliance of convenience, the presence of a common enemy does not include with it any sort of common cause. As soon as the common enemies are vanquished, if they are, one can expect the victors to fall out immediately. In stark contrast to that, in the case of even the low road of social cohesion, the unity built is a genuine one. Think of the diverse elements that were formed in the cauldron of hostility to the Gauls–Romans, other Latin tribes, Etruscans, and Greeks. These nations formed a cohesive whole that overcame a great deal of conflict that had existed between these groups previously. Think also of the unity of the American colonists against first French and Indian attacks and then against a resurgent British imperialism. The unity formed did not, of course, remove every cause of conflict, but it was (and is) a genuine unity of diverse elements. E Pluribus Unum: from many, one.
We might also note that along with the low road of having a common enemy against whom one makes common cause, there is a high road of common ideals. The United States, in addition to its common enemies, appealed to higher principals of God-given unalienable rights. Even if this discourse has proven awkward and embarrassing to contemporary secularists who deny God and the implications of creation, this discourse still serves to unify those who are genuine citizens of the American Republic. If one’s eyes are turned towards heaven, one can catch the vision that preserves a nation from perishing. Even less elevated institutions often seek to unify people through vision statements that provide a common purpose that gives meaning to everything that is done by those within the company or organization. Those who share a commitment to that vision unify together for the common benefit, and may have in addition to this common vision common enemies or rivals or competitors that must be vanquished for that vision to prevail. Often in seeking unity one travels the high road and the low road together.
We may also note, though, that there are clear barriers to working together and developing social cohesion. The social cohesion of the United States was long hindered by the presence of states where some of the people were viewed as property as others, and where the commitment of local elites to their own supposed property rights outweighed their commitment to the common ideals including a belief in the equality of man before God as man. Throughout history, slavery and related forms of exploitation have been consistent dead weights on the social cohesion of areas. Even centuries of millennia after slavery has taken root in an area, that area remains deeply divided to the point where maintaining a just social order is immensely difficult–Haiti, Somalia (whose ports Zeila and Berbera were major slave ports from ancient times), and Sicily are but some of the famously divided areas where plantation slavery and the infrastructure of slave trading wrecked the possibility of legitimate social orders.
How can we learn from this? Few of us are responsible for building social orders, but most of us have at least some choice in the social orders we support and endorse. Do we support orders that pit some people against others and seek to expropriate or exploit others for our own selfish benefit? If so, we cannot expect any sort of lasting unity to develop. Even if we are successful in ruling by dividing others, the fights for the spoils of what we have expropriated will serve to divide us from our erstwhile allies of convenience. Eventually the aliens and predators fight over disagreements on how to divide their prey. If our concern is genuinely for the well-being of others, this concern will be exhibited through our actions, and it will be possible to build trust and work in concert over time. Gathering the chickens is sometimes a bit like cat-herding, but nothing worth doing and left undone in this world is easy to do.
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