Thesis: Social cohesion sooner or later requires a collective enemy.
- This depends on your definition of social cohesion. If it means actively supporting a common ideal or identity, my answer is Yes. If it means living together peacefully and respecting each other’s differences within the limits of constitutional boundaries, my answer is No.
- In modern European thought there have been two fundamentally different approaches to this question. The utopian (or nostalgic) tradition maintains that in the end all problems can (and will) be solved as soon as we all ascribe to a common ideal. The realistic (or pessimistic) tradition states there will never be universal peace and harmony, first of all because deep down we are full of violent passions (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud), but also because of limitations of natural resources.
- The implication of the utopian (nostalgic) tradition is that social peace is a natural state disturbed by enemy forces. The implication of the realistic (pessimistic) tradition is that struggle is a natural state which has to be controlled by a social contract and a system of checks and balances.
- As in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries with the rise of public space (Habermas) ever larger groups of people started to participate in political and cultural life, the idea of a God-given political leadership gave way to more abstract ideas about national or class or racial identity. Communities more and more became ‘imagined communities’ (Benedict Anderson), their collective identity no longer based on personal contacts and everyday experience but on the participation in a collective project, the identification with an idea.
- A common strategy to enhance this collective identification, both top-down and bottom-up, was that of ‘negative integration’: defining external enemies and excluding internal enemies who were supposed to hamper the realization of the collective’s goals. Bismarck maintained that Germany would prosper without the disruptive influences of catholics, socialists, Jews, Poles and Danes living within the borders of the German Reich. The use of violence could be defended as a necessary means to enforce universal harmony: WOI to end all wars, eradication of bourgeoisie or the Jews to realize a socialist or racial utopia, imposing liberal democracy worldwide to enforce ‘human progress’. All this belongs to the world of ‘imagined communities’.
- On a somewhat different scale, the documentary ‘We Are All Neighbours’ shows how in the course of a few weeks very old friends can turn into foes because of new militant identifications with collective identities and sudden redefinitions of cultural borders. It illustrates the amazing force of external interpretations over individual experiences.
- Returning to the question: do we need collective enemies in order to realize social cohesion? My counter-question would be: do we really need social cohesion beyond agreement about basic rules of living together and respecting each other’s differences within the boundaries of the constitution? As soon as social cohesion implies a strong identification with collective projects, images and missions, it tends to frustrate the very goals it claims to accomplish.