One of the underlying and defining dynamics of our social institutional landscape is the interplay of centripetal and centrifugal social forces that simultaneously are pushing us together and pulling us apart, across levels and in overlapping configurations. Neither is inherently good nor inherently evil, though system-wide imbalances in one or both directions undermine rather than contribute to the production of human welfare.
Centripetal forces are necessary to sow and reap the fruits of cooperation, of coordinated efforts, of being members of a society. All of our social institutions are primarily instruments of cohesion, at least on one level, while they may be instruments of violent conflict, or social disarticulation, on a higher level (national militaries are a good example), or of controlled conflict, or social decentralization, on a higher or lower level (competitive markets are a good example). Just as teams compete in leagues, corporations compete in a market economy, and nations compete in a global contest with emergent and precarious rules. Alliances form, symbiotic relationships, client-patron configurations, and fault lines among them, where animosities are more noticable than amistades. But all relationships, from the most intimate to the most belligerent, are characterized by some combination of convergent and divergent interests, and by some combination of cooperation and conflict.
Conflict can be energizing, a catalyst for innovation. Military conflict, for instance, has possibly been the single most robust historical catalyst for both technological and social organizational innovations. Economic competition is well known for its robustness. But it is social organization, the creation of coherence and cooperation, that reaps those benefits.
In terms of the pursuit of interests, these two social forces, centripetal and centrifugal, determine effectiveness, for in any social entity competing with others (e.g., nations with nations, corporations with corporations, political parties with political parties), too little organizational coherence dooms the social entity to impotence and defeat, while too much dooms both those within it to excessive subjugation to organizational or authoritarian will, and the organization itself to lethargy and ossification.
Members of organized groups can, intentionally or unintentionally, catalize either force, centripetal or centrifugal, either beneficially or detrimentally for the group itself, and either beneficially or detrimentally for other groups with which it interacts. For instance, some forms of solidarity are oppressive within and/or predatory without, while others are more liberating within and/or more amenable to partnerships without. For maximum benefit to group members, network ties need to bind those within the group into a coherent whole, avoid binding members of sub-groups within it so tightly that they in effect secede from the main group, and form and maintain bonds across group boundaries, if generally fewer and weaker than those within groups, then at least sufficient to create a basis for communication, coordination, and cooperation.
A group that becomes too “coherent,” with tight cognitive and social bonds within but too few such bonds without, can become predatory (as, for instance, Nazi Germany was), while sub-groups that become too rebellious and demanding undermine the ability of the overarching group to act effectively in its competition with other similar groups. (Economist Mancur Olsen wrote a book in the 1970′s or 80′s called The Rise and Decline of Nations, discussing the enervating effects of too much time and energy being diverted from economically productive activities to distributional struggles, and used it to provide an explanation of the paradoxical economic phenomenon of “stagflation”).
In fact, implicit and explicit alliances between internal dissenters and external belligerents are frequent in human history, even when they are ideological opposites (e.g., the Bolsheviks and the Germans during World War I, when the latter funded and assisted the former in order to weaken and distract Russia from within while they attacked Russia from without; or, in an example of greater ideological compatability, the French alliance with the American Colonies, in which the French assisted the colonies in order to weaken Great Britain from within while continuing to engage in sporadic military conflicts with Great Britain from without).
We see such an implicit alliance today in modern American partisan politics. On the left, there are those who are trying to disarticulate the Democratic Party, just as the far right is ascendent with a passionate social movement. By doing so, that faction with the Democratic Party is inadvertently contributing to the success of that far-right social movement, rather than to the reform of their own party that it is their intent to effectuate (Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t: Why Our Tea Party Future Will Be The Left’s Fault).
One of the factors that will contribute to Democratic Party losses in Congress (and in state governorships and state legislatures and local governments) in the 2010 midtern elections is occasionally organized, somewhat coherent disenchantment with the pace and boldness of legislation pursued by our Democratic President and Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress. When the disenchantment rises to the level that they are declining to vote, then it is quite analogous to an implicit alliance with the far right in the latter’s take over of the country, contributing to the centrifugal forces of their own party at the very moment when highly passionate centripetal forces are mobilizing a sufficiently coherent far-right movement to effect a major shift in the distribution of political power.
While competing ideologies tend to explicitly emphasize either more coherence or more disarticulation, in reality, they are all jumbles of the two. The Tea Party is all about “liberty” and individualism, but its members are also more inclined to be highly nationalistic, moralistic, and militaristic. Progressives are all about using government to address social issues and invest in our collective welfare, but also emphasizes civil rights and multiculturalism.
The distinguishing traits between conpeting political parties do not actually involve a consistent commitment to either more social cohesion or less, but rather to more empathy or less. The right coheres around aggression and authoritarianism (in order to defeat others), while the left coheres around human welfare (in order to enrich all). The right disarticulates in order to possess and exclude, while the left disarticulates in order to enjoy and permit.
But, for both, discipline determines effectiveness, a discipline which either permits or does not permit internal discord, but which always contextualizes it in terms of internal consolidation. The United States began with a document that facilitated only discord, and not cooperation (The Articles of Confederation). It drafted a new one, that contextualized individual and states rights within the context of a strong federal government.
The ultimate goal is to create an optimal distribution of centralization and decentralization, neither too much nor too little of either, at any level of social organization. The future belongs to those, whether nations on the world state or political parties on the national stage, who are able to consolidate with enough discipline to compete with others who have done so. Factions that preach against compromise within the more liberal or progressive political parties are also, in effect, fighting to diminish the efficacy of their party.