In the general debate in the German Bundestag last week, there was much talk of social cohesion. Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of it, as did SPD interim faction leader Rolf Mützenich, while other speakers did the same. There it was, the concern at the speaker’s desk.
Re-thinking social cohesion was the task of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Berlin Conference at the beginning of September. In rethinking social cohesion, we ought to consider the whole world. A British participant praised the choice of location: After all, Berlin and its citizens had repeatedly experienced seismic upheavals. Re-construction, new development and conversion followed upon destruction.
Social cohesion is a fragile commodity
Initial insight of the Berlin debates, both in the Bundestag and at the Bertelsmann Stiftung: Social cohesion is a fragile commodity. Nothing works without trust. Moreover, trust comes slowly and disappears quickly when the distortions increase.
The quake can be triggered politically (see Syria), economically or socially, from Rwanda via Kosovo to the shattered Brexit Britain, there are enough examples. Never before have there been so many people on the run; the UN counted almost 71 million refugees worldwide at the end of last year, most of them internally displaced persons in crisis and war zones (together with numerous authors we recently tried to find ways towards “Escaping the escape”, see the book of the same title).
Time is out of joint – one answer is fear
Time is out of joint – and on the move. Globalisation, digitalisation, demographic change (Europe and Japan are ageing, many young people are leaving Africa and Asia), mobility and diversity are changing our work and our everyday lives. Some welcome this as an opportunity, others fear only the risks – and sometimes flee into identitarian thinking and doing, want to perceive the other only as a stranger, who does not belong to their society, and should rather be got rid of again.
Social cohesion has to do less with pay than with recognition, which was also heard in Berlin. Those left behind in times of rapid change do not only have little part to play in this change, they also feel abandoned: From the elites, from the higher earners, from the Anywheres (David Goodhart), who find their fortune somewhere between New York, Dubai, Shanghai or Tokyo, while those places in the middle of nowhere all over the world are somehow forgotten.
Don’t forget the deplorables
Hilary Clinton’s fatal campaign term “the deplorables” comes to one’s mind. In the American Rust Belt, but also in better-off areas, they preferred to vote for Donald Trump, just as the de-industrialized communities of northern England voted for the Brexit. At least say no, the abandoned can still do that.
Where the English turn their backs on the EU, the immigration of European workers plays an important role. Where Italian or Greek voters run to their populist parties, dealing with refugees plays a role – these EU citizens feel left alone by the EU.
Thinking social cohesion across borders
If I have taken home one central finding from our Berlin Conference, it is this one: Today, we must think and live social cohesion across borders and nations. Both is not easy. After all, cohesion is already suffering within our nations, as the German East-West problem, the British urban-rural problem and the Chinese tensions with Uighurs and Hong Kong Chinese show.
The fires in the Amazon rainforest or Congo concern us all, the war in Syria also somehow and the internal development in China or the United States even more so. Globalisation, digitalisation, demographic upheavals and climate change all know neither borders nor fatherland nor motherland. Neither can the global space be a promising refuge nor the local space be a protected retreat any longer.
Anyone who wants to rethink social cohesion must start here.