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Multiculturalism and social cohesion

The nuts and bolts of a Big Society require a conspiracy of effects at every level, local, national and international. It also requires multiculturalism.
Ger Mennens
10 November 2011

Since the fall of the iron curtain, eastern European politicians, especial those from populist Freedom Party’s, have often stated that diversity undermines social cohesion. Also in western Europe, populists more and more point to multiculturalism as a cause for social disaggregation. Even in the most successful multicultural state, Canada, critics say that multicultural policy leads to ghettoisation. But what is missing from these accounts is the third term, a strong civil society.

Civil society is the space located between the public and the private sector. It is neither the space where government-related activities are present – such as elections or tax paying – nor the space of commercial activity. In civil society we find the space where people voluntarily cooperate and are involved in activities that enhance the general good. This is an intermediary tool for social cohesion located between government and private sector.

This space is open for all citizens who wish to participate in it. Civil society is what Michael Walzer calls the “set of settings.” In interactions between people in this space there is a tolerance for diversity and it is accepted that people have different interests. Diversity can go hand in hand with a stronger social cohesion since the diversity of interests is at the same time directed to common goods. For instance, in volunteer organisations people with different cultural backgrounds and thus different personal interests cooperate in face to face relationships while mutual respect is enhanced because all actors have the same common good, namely the goals that a particular volunteer organisation stands for.

In order for civil society to succeed, three conditions have to be present. First, society has to be designed according the principles of a constitutional democracy. This means that there has to be Rule of Law, decision-making through democratic procedures and guaranteed human rights. Civilians have to compromise at least on a minimal set of values - liberal values such as tolerance and fair play. It is not necessary that all groups have to support the same cultural identity. Consensus on liberal values, such as respecting the Constitution, is already sufficient to create a common identity which in its turn enhances social cohesion. Most important, civilians respect and support the value of democracy. It was Robert A.Dahl who pointed out that democracies seldom go to war with each other. This same mechanism is present inside nation states: people who support democratic values seldom engage in violent conflicts. Thus, we need strong democratic institutions where all ethnic or cultural groups are included through participation in organisations in meso-politics. Face-to-face relationships between people in these groupings, aiming towards a common good, creates mutual respect. This leads to more social cohesion.

Furthermore, society has to embrace the free market. Constitutional democracy only exists in countries that have an open, free market. This free market itself requires a broad and well developed middle class. Trade and education are two important pre-conditions for making civil society strong. Governments should not exclude groups from education. Government has to play an active role to promote and enhance education. Enhancing trade opportunities and education leads to economic growth enhancing citizen participation in this process. For citizens, money-making in a space of peaceful political culture is more attractive than getting involved in, for example,  cultural-religious conflicts. Such conflicts are less likely to arise where people work together in personal relationships in the field of meso-politics. This network of social relationships gives us our third precondition for a strong civic society, namely, the creation of social capital.

Social capital is all about relationships and trust. It implies that as long as people are connected to each other in close relationships, trust between people will increase. In particular, these organisations within the civil space where people act together in face-to-face relationships, will bring more trust  - a great benefit for social cohesion. This means government should actively support and promote units within the civil space. Schools, volunteer groups, church groups, groups where people work together. This also means that there has to be far less of the bureaucracy involved in the welfare state. Welfare state bureaucracy, in making people dependent on the state, also renders them passive consumers of state commodities. Wherever this occurs, it takes away energies from civil society which by contrast demands that people become active in pursuing common goods through their social organisations. The relationships between government and civilians are impersonal and can only operate in a one-way direction. They need to be restricted so that people become more active in meso-politics.

People complain about fragmentation and individualism. But even though people have become wedded to new forms of individualism, especially since the 1960’s, individualism can also go hand in hand with social cohesion, as long as the organisations in the civil space work well. Inside such organisations, whether it is a church, volunteer work, NGO’s and so on, people participate driven by their own, particular interests. Yet, they are at the same time striving towards common goals together with other people seeking their own interests.

Wealthy nations make it possible for their citizens to be actively involved within volunteer organisation in the meso-political space. Free market and trade, we can conclude, are therefore important requirements for a strong civil society. Yet, individualism in the form of selfish advancement can also flourish in the heart of wealthy nations. It is up to government to promote meso-politics by making it attractive. Television and internet campaigns have to play their part in mobilizing this activity. Organisations in civil space in such affluent countries should do much more campaining and promoting common goods out of individual interests. As for less wealthy nations, trade and relative peace are required to establish a broad middle class. Just as in Europe, the growth of the middle class will lead to more democratisation and wealth, the true pre-conditions for civil society. Conflicts have to be perceived as less attractive than trade, economic growth and education. International organisations such as UN also have a responsibility in this process. 

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