What exactly is Cohesion – and how can We make it Useful?

I have a love-hate relationship with cohesion. We’ve been in an on-off, hot-and-cold relationship for three years now. If I’m going to be honest, I don’t think cohesion fulfills my needs anymore. I’m left looking for something more.

Here’s the problem: central to my PhD (as in properly central, as much as I wish it wasn’t sometimes) is a critical engagement with cohesion. This compels me to keep it in my PhD, as well as making me constantly think and rethink what I mean when I say cohesion. Just to make things worse for me, when I talk about cohesion, it’s usually directly related to the UK’s Community Cohesion policy (which, from reflection on reading and research, seems about as useful as a chocolate teapot – ok, this might be a bit of an exaggeration).

As a policy it was pretty much New Labour’s plaything, because it was an empty vessel in to which the party could pour any old policy ethos. And without making too much of a fuss by rubbing up against the celebrity policy (tax, welfare, migration, crime etc) it became embedded in wider policy formulation. It also served a particular political purpose. Something I used to go on about all the time when I was a Z-list leftie blogger was that New Labour employed centre right economic policy and centre left social policy, and these two things were not sustainable. In my mind it turns out I was right, but that best left for another piece. The point here is that cohesion can be seen as a counterbalance to the excesses of aggressive reform elsewhere. To illustrate what I mean, here is a crude graph (the first, and quite possibly the last, time I will use a graph on this blog):

I told you it was crude!

What I’m trying to get at here, using welfare retrenchment as an example (yes, that’s what it says), is that the more we erode policies of social solidarity (e.g. welfare, but also many other policies that can be both economic and social in nature) the more we are in need of a policy aimed to directly boost cohesion.

Yet if we look at the past couple of years in the UK, we have seen marches, strikes (yes, they happened, even if no-one cared past complaining they’d be late to work one day out of the year), and of course one of the largest riots in living memory. Anecdotaly and viscerally, the country doesn’t seem to be all that cohesive – although neither does it seem to be slipping closer to civil war. This is backed up by fieldwork I did in two of the most deprived areas in the UK. People don’t feel like they are living in a cohesive environment. This is worrying, considering the UK has had specific policy in place since 2001 – coming on 12 years now.

In my work (and to anyone else who’ll listen) I argue this is because Community Cohesion policy does not have the right focus. It was set up – and is still treated as – a sophisticated race relations policy framework. In other words, it does not work on building cohesion. It works on keeping the peace. From the outset its concern was on ethnic ‘communities’ (making the language of community inherently divisive) living ‘parallel lives’ – people staying in their own enclaves and not mixing. This is what caused the race riots of 2001. But if you go and actually talk to the people living in areas the policy was designed for, there is no feeling of parallel lives.

One person in Bradford told me that they just wanted to be left alone, and wished the government and academics would just leave them to it. Another person, in Birmingham, told me they’d like to see cohesion instead of just hearing about it. Others told me they just wanted to be listened to. The overwhelming feeling I got from my empirical work was that people were frustrated that they were being ignored by their representatives whilst the very same people were claiming to be solving all their problems – if they would just listen to government and do as they were told. This smacks of assimilation (and has been published on, by myself and others) – in both socio-cultural and economic terms). People did not feel as if their ‘communities’ were separate from one another (in fact my focus groups contained people from many different walks of life) – they acted as one community (their area) against a bigger group – the government.

Alongside the feeling of being ignored and then chastised for not speaking up, there is also the problem of targeting the wrong issues. People weren’t worried about what their Pakistani neighbour was or wasn’t up to, or about the Polish immigrants stealing jobs by and large (there were some murmurs, but this accounted for less than 5% of discussions). They were worried about the quality of their schools, the development of their neighbourhoods, the lack of funding for community projects, and yes – the slashing of the welfare budget.

So how to make cohesion more suited to reported needs? First we would have to start with its academic/theoretical foundations. Without going in to it, getting technical and making this piece the size of a journal article, we would need to rethink what we mean by and how we use social capital, developing it beyond its flawed foundations in capital accumulation and competition. Secondly, we would need to move cohesion theory away from conceptualising the world as comprised of individualistic, rational utility-maximising individuals. Cohesion would need to be tailored more toward collective action and grassroots organisation if we are ever to have any hope of it being taken up and developed en masse.

This is a particular irony. New Labour and the coalition bang on about empowerment. There was little empowerment in the New Labour era, and likely less now, as I see it. Yet, an entire cohesion and welfare policy was built upon this idea, without actually giving people (and groups) any more agency and autonomy. In fact – and welfare reform is a good example of this – stricter measures have straight-jacketed people. All this alongside a discourse of liberty.

The second major pillar to developing a relevant and useful cohesion policy would be to increase (and perhaps privilege, depending) the role of the economic. Focus on inequality between not only individuals but groups – even classes. Give people a fighting chance with integration, not by forcing them in to jobs where they don’t even get paid but by developing infrastructure. I agree with policy when it says that people need to feel that they have a stake and that work is important for integration, but these things are not excuses to give corporations and smaller companies free labour, administered by yet more private interests.

For a specific cohesion policy to be implemented by a Labour government, to me, exemplifies where New Labour split from its antecedent. A proper Labour government (insert tub thumping romanticism here) would have cohesion at the heart of both economic and social policy. Furthermore, cohesion cannot be developed far when there are so many private interests at stake – indeed, with its individualist outlook, cohesion essentially entrenches the legitimation of the competition of private interests in social life. And since when has competition brought people together? Only if you’re on the same team.

This is what Google Images tells me “community cohesion” looks like.

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