“Around the world, multination states are in trouble. Many have proven unable to create or sustain any strong sense of solidarity across ethnonational lines[i].” (Will Kymlicka, 2001).
Investigating the Social Cohesion Research and Early Warning Division of the Council of Europe, it is natural to question the meaning of social cohesion. Social cohesion is an outcome of the Council of Europe’s main objectives: Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law, but, to some extent, I would also argue that it is a necessary ingredient of these same concepts. Without social cohesion, human rights are compromised, the unity required for democracy is missing, and there is no incentive to apply the rule of law. I would go further and say that the terrorism-security debate is fundamentally a consequence of failed social cohesion, and in its absence human rights are inevitably abused, democracy is ineffective and the rule of law is applied in accordance with the largest force wielded (c.f. UK police ‘stop and search’ powers under the ‘sus’ law, extraordinary rendition in EU states, UK parliamentary debate on the 42-day terror limit.)
The undermining of social cohesion described above is far more a consequence of greater global freedom of movement and interaction than national disintegration, although loss of social cohesion has also led to devastating instances of the latter, Yugoslavia, Sudan, and Mali, for instance, being cases in point. Regrettably, the vast majority of the literature I have been able to find on social cohesion, including Kymlicka above, describes it within the paradigm of nation-states. Ulrich Beck is an exception to this in his book Cosmopolitan Vision where he criticises the limits of modern sociology in its inability to transcend this paradigm and take into account the post-national reality of transborder globalisation (Beck, 2006). Such reality validates international institutions like the Council of Europe and the role it plays in promoting social cohesion.
Emile Durkheim, the celebrated French sociologist, first investigated social cohesion in detail through his analysis of mechanical and organic solidarity. Cohesion naturally implies the bonds that tie disparate individuals together in society. The difficulty lies in combining the postmodern world of diversity and variety with these principles of links and connections. Kymlicka emphasises these major developments in his call for more flexibility in the forms of cohesion in Canada: “[…] looser and more provisional form of ‘togetherness’ which coexists with ongoing questioning of the value of maintaining the federation[ii].” It requires an appeal to people’s sense of humanity, to recognise and respect the difference of others, and to value the human qualities of each and every member of society.
In my opinion these are the elements missing in all our present-day societies, and the only way they can be established is through diversity. At the same time, a minimum degree of order in the form of democracy, rule of law and human rights is essential. Diversity does not ensure togetherness, hence the need for shared social goals and, to some extent, fundamental values. I think the Council of Europe’s White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue gets it right, but the major challenge is putting the white paper into practice.
BECK Ulrich (2006), Cosmopolitan Vision,Cambridge : Polity Press
COUNCIL of EUROPE (2008), White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue, Strasbourg: Council of Europe publishing
KYMLICKA Will(2001), Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism and Citizenship, Oxford: Oxford University Press