“Fraternity”, the third term in the French revolutionaries’ motto, feels a little outdated, more than a shade sexist even, referring as it does to “the community of brothers” (and feminist scholars have not been slow to explain how it has justified patriarchy since 1789). And yet, I believe there is a precious kernel of meaning that should be preserved, even cherished if we want to build a better society and a real democracy.

Originally and naturally, fraternity is the warm feeling of togetherness between brothers, a bonding that means we will stick up for each other through thick-and-thin. It’s an emotional rather than a rational tie. By analogy, it’s the connection between all the members of a society, typically the members of a nation, which implies a feeling of responsibility for each other and commitment to a common project. It goes beyond the individualistic, rational agreement to follow the rules of society in return for social peace – the idea of the social contract which underpins our liberal democratic societies, and may help explain in part where we have gone wrong. Fraternity carries with it the idea of equality – although there may be “bigger” and “smaller” brothers and sisters, all act for the good of the whole, and none have the tyrannical authority of the father. A fraternal society is one that is built together by equals, not imposed from the top down. Shorn of its patriarchal and machistic (“blood-brothers”, “brothers-in-arms” etc) associations, fraternity is surely something that needs to be reconstructed in our fractured and individualistic societies.

Left-wing party members and activists often refer to comrades as “brothers” and “sisters” – a phenomenon which is mocked by those who take themselves to be more worldly. But when it is authentic, this fellow-feeling of ordinary people fighting for the same vision of a just society is one of the most beautiful things to behold in the often shabby world of politics, and certainly more edifying than the self-satisfied, back-slapping (and overwhelmingly male and white) fraternity of the Establishment deal-makers.

Today, we can extend this traditional left-wing idea of fraternity one step further – we are after all children of the same mother – our Mother Earth – and depend on her for everything we need. We need to combine the active feeling of empowerment we get from fighting side-by-side for a just society with a dose of humility borne of our shared dependence on nature. This is not superstition or new age spirituality – it’s a hard-headed recognition of our causal dependence on nature for our collective survival.

What about animals? Are they too our “brothers” and “sisters” as some say? I don’t believe so. They do not share a project for society with us. But they do share our animal nature and a dependence on the rest of nature for their survival – perhaps for this reason they could be described as our “half-brothers and -sisters”. In any case, in sharing our animal nature they share our capacity for physical (and to some degree, emotional) suffering, and therefore deserve our compassion and active care.

Returning to human animals: many people believe that fraternity is not possible in large-scale and culturally diverse societies, because those who neither know nor resemble each other cannot trust each other. But a lot of this difference is fabricated: unscrupulous politicians invent domestic or foreign enemies in order to divide society, create a following – and build their own power base. They can create a bad, socially-divisive, even a murderous, kind of fraternity. Of course, we will never enjoy the kind of familiarity that existed in smaller-scale societies, for example, in the ancient Greek city states. Nevertheless the many examples of successful cosmopolitan societies throughout history show that cultural diversity in itself is not a barrier to fraternity. If we can ensure there is at least some overlapping culture and a shared acceptance of the basic values of society – a belief in democracy and equality hopefully – then cultural differences cease to matter.

Continuing social and economic inequality, however, do undermine attempts to build fraternity, because they divide society into haves and have-nots, creating social groups that live in different worlds, and affecting the material security of the poorest and even their survival. In such conditions there can be no trust, and therefore no fraternity. Unsurprisingly, the groups in society which think they will lose most from a more equal society – though in fact everyone will win from less division and more fraternity – are likely to block moves in this direction. They are helped in doing so by the fact that they occupy positions of power in business, the media and Government. It will therefore be down to the rest of us – aided by the fact that we make up the overwhelming majority – to bring about a more equal society.

In conclusion: there are two ways of fostering fraternity: by resisting and rolling back on attempts to divide us culturally, and by reducing social and economic inequality. Then we can finally come to regard each other as brothers and sisters.

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