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Thomas More wrote his ‘Utopia’ in 1516, in which he gave us a word and described an imaginary community or society that possesses highly desirable or near-perfect qualities for its members, and since then mankind has experimented wth the notion of an ideal society. The idea of utopia has become commonplace in social and political thought, both negatively and positively. There are two versions of utopia: the first focuses on bodily pleasure in terms of food, drink, and sex; and the second focuses on social organisation. The first is seen as being created by Nature or God and the second as a human creation. Both these versions are ancient and continue to be adopted somewhere on earth, today. Since More we have become quite conscious about the nature of the society in which we live. To define its desirable qualities we have lately defined the term ‘social cohesiveness’.
I came across it in a reference to the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute the other day. It had just released its annual summary on social cohesion in Australia.The Institute has a strong position that social cohesion is a process to be continued, as opposed to an end point or destination. This is based on broad agreement across different definitions and ideologies. However some may note this allows for an endless conversation without a strong goal. As you all know, since Covid19 hit us we have been adjured to maintain a ‘social distance’, so I was interested to follow it up, to see where we were and to learn more about ‘social cohesion’. Gough Whitlam was on the money. Talking about urbanisation and city life in Australia, Whitlam said, “We can double and treble social benefits, but we can never make up through cash payments for what we take away in mental and physical well-being and social cohesion through the break-down of community life and community identity.” In other words, mere financial well-being is not of itself, enough.
What we call social cohesion has long been a concern of philosophers. As early as 1897 in a study on suicide, Emile Durkheim spoke of it as a meliorating force including the absence of latent social conflict based on for example, wealth, ethnicity, race, and gender, and the presence of strong social bonds like a civil society, responsive democracy, and impartial law enforcement, a sense of justice. The idea of social cohesion quickly moved into the area of public policy, and became a tool for measuring the health of a society.
It is worth noting here that Australia is among the most cohesive and harmonious societies on earth, based on stable institutions, high living standards, economic expansion and isolation from zones of conflict. Since 1788 it has never had a revolution, never been invaded, and no public figure has been assassinated. Since 1860 it has regularly changed its governments through the ballot box. It extended the franchise to women well before Britain or the United States. Its industrial relations have been regulated by law for a century. Only in a society with a high degree of social cohesion could this be true.
Population growth through immigration is a major challenge in social cohesion for policy-makers and institutions, particularly in late-industrial nations experiencing declining birthrates and populations. Some nations have steadfastly refused to embrace immigration as a way of resolving the problem of declining birthrate and a consequential fall in population. Still others have used immigration as a means of facing the economic and demographic challenges associated with declining birthrates. This has especially been so for Australia, where there is a strong historical link between the official encouragement of an immigration program as a part of a general economic and growth policy.
Economic objectives have tended to be the main drivers of immigration policy, although many nations also include social policy-oriented components such as family reunion programs or, more likely, refugee and humanitarian programs. A potential problem lies in the extent to which immigrants bring with them the feuds and anxieties inherent in their native cultures. These can have a strong detrimental effect on social cohesion in their adopted context. We saw it a couple of decades ago with the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans consequent on the collapse of the Yugoslavian state. There is also a burgeoning problem with home-grown neo-nazis.
And the war in Gaza has been spilling over into the Australian suburban consciousness. Just days ago a home-made explosive device was laid on the bonnet of a car parked at a house displaying a pro-Palestinian notice. Nevertheless the contributions of migrants and their descendants have helped make Australia what it is today – a thriving, enterprising and diverse society. Migration will continue to play a crucial role in Australia’s future. Australians currently speak over 200 languages, identify with more than 160 ancestries and practise a range of religions. The immigration program is bringing an increasingly diverse inflow of new arrivals with varying levels of skill and education. Australian society so far is not subject to the divisions and tensions experienced by many other countries around the world. It has a high degree of social cohesion.
Long may it remain so.
John Fleming II
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