The effectiveness of coercion depends on the cohesion of the agents of coercion. Any single one of them is generally weak: to be really effective, it is necessary that there be a number of them, often quite a large number, and that they stick together and maintain discipline. But what exactly makes men stick together, especially in perilous situations, in which betrayal and abandonment of a group — if that group is about to lose — may be by far the best strategy? Among the considerations liable to induce an individual to remain loyal, one of the most important is the conviction that others are also remaining loyal to the group, so that it will continue to be a numerous, disciplined and effective force. If the others are about to desert, it is very wise to do the same; if no one else will do so, it is most unwise to constitute the one exception, who will then be conspicuously punished, by way of example to all the others.
But how does one know, in situations which often involve geographical dispersal and lack of quick and reliable communication, whether this or that group or leader will continue to attract loyalty? One good criterion is whether that group or leader or cause is, by the recognized standards of the culture, ‘legitimate’. This consideration does not sway the individual waverer because he is necessarily a fanatical adherent of the locally held doctrines concerning what is and is not legitimate. It sways him because he thinks that others are also swayed by it, perhaps in the same opportunist spirit as he is, and so, in the interest of his own safety, he wants to stay on the ‘legitimate’ side because he expects it to win.
For this kind of reason, those who control the symbols of legitimacy thereby also in some considerable measure control the crystallization of social cohesion and loyalty, and thus exercise great power, even if they are not themselves direct possessors of weapons or practitioners of coercion.
Referens: Gellner, Ernest. 1995. Anthropology and Politics. Wiley-Blackwell, s. 165–66.