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Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals

by Charles Kurzman

The hypotheses in this book are thought-provoking, wide-ranging, and almost entirely unproven. Ernest Gellner compares four sociopolitical ideal types: premodern segmented society, civil society, Communist society, and Islamic society. He seeks to understand just how these forms differ, in their essences, and how they came to differ. This is a tall order for a short book, which gives the impression - a chatty manner and relative lack of documentation - of arising from a set of lectures. But Gellner's long experience as a philosopher and social researcher makes this a provocative new take on big thoughts in social theory.

Few theoreticians of the West's Great Transformation can draw on Ibn Khaldun's analysis of urban commercial society and tribal militarism. Few could make the analogy between Communist eschatalogy and the Islamic concept of Umma. Gellner's familiarity with Eastern Europe, both before and after 1989, allows him to note the widespread Soviet cynicism in the 1970s and 1980s about central tenets of Marxism: for instance, the "wry smile" of Soviet scholars passing a prominent red banner that quoted Lenin to the effect that "the teaching of Marx was all-powerful because it was true." Gellner's argument, in short, is that civil society requires political centralization and socioeconomic decentralization. The centralization involves the building of nation-states with a monopoly on coercion -- which Weber took as the definition of the state, but which in fact took centuries to accomplish Only when this monopoly has been constructed, Gellner says, can segmented society -- the localism of fiefdoms, tribes, and city-states -- be overcome.

However, the creation of a nation-state does not necessarily lead to the flourishing of civil society. It can as easily lead to a Communist or Islamic social order. Islamic society, Gellner says, sacralizes everyday life, and subsumes economic to moral ideals. Gellner contrasts this image of the Umma -- the community of believers, which punishes apostates with death, at least in theory -- and a concept of "modular" individuals, analogous to modular furniture units, who combine and recombine easily into various agglomerations. Modern individuals do not need sacrificial rituals to mark their entry into a political party, and they are not accused of apostasy or treason for leaving. Although these agglomerations are not all encompassing, they are powerful enough to be binding on their members for short periods and discrete purposes.

Communism also undermines civil society by mandating a "secular Umma" in Gellner's phrase, in which public control of the means of production is intended to usher in a new form of liberated human relations. It failed not because of Stalinist excesses or Brezhnevian mismanagement -- though the squalor of the Brezhnev years hurt it more than the terror of the Stalin years -- but because state control of the economy is necessarily fatal to civil society. Gellner makes the provocative argument that not only is Marxism totalitarian, but "under modern conditions, any totalitarianism will also inevitably be Marxist" It may not reproduce or revere Marx's philosophy per se, but it will plow under the capitalist economy in order to eliminate rival centers of power.

The main problem with comparisons of ideal types is knowing just when and where they apply. Does the concept of Islamic society refer to the official imposition of Islamic law, as in Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, or to countries with secular-nationalist regimes and Islamic oppositions, such as (at this writing) Algeria, Egypt, and Turkey? It's unclear, even, why they should be lumped together as a single sort of society. Yet Gellner's great-books approach to the subject leaves off Islamic history in the Middle Ages, with Ibn Khaldun. His occasional references to contemporary Iran and Morocco don't give much guidance as to the referent of the ideal type.

The Communist ideal type is somewhat more credible. Gellner wrote this book while helping to establish the Central European University in Prague, so he spends considerably more time discussing Communism than Islam. However, Gellner's antagonism -- he admits to having been fooled, once, by Communism's promises of economic progress -- is insufferable. Gellner takes the collapse of Eastern European Communism as final proof of the failure of Marxism, and spends an entire chapter arguing that Marxist critics of the Soviet Union were just as wrong-headed as Marxist supporters of the Soviet Union. They maintained the ideal of a non capitalist industrial society even after it was proven in all sorts of contexts to have disastrous totalitarian results. "All possible combinations seem to have been tried out in the course of an exceptionally thorough controlled experiment kindly arranged by history, and the verdict seemed much the same: Marxist societies ranged from the repulsive to the unspeakable."

Gellner fails to notice that Marxism has never come to power in the advanced industrial countries that Marx predicted -- which makes Marx a poor prophet, maybe even a poor social scientist, but hardly disproves the ideal. Indeed, Gellner avoids discussing any recent Marxist theory, much of which is in fact concerned with the need for civil society. The book makes much of the Eastern European rediscovery of the concept of civil society in the 1970s, calling this a natural reaction to Communist totalitarianism. But Western Marxists made a similar discovery around the same time: the destruction of the life-world by the administrative-bureaucratic apparatus and the rejuvenation of civil society came to occupy a central place in the postindustrial and new social-movement analyses of Jean Cohen, Alain Touraine, Jurgen Habermas, and many others. None of this literature is mentioned in the book.

Finally, the ideal type of civil society does not sound much like any particular country we know today. The features Gellner stresses include: modular citizens, who are members of groups but not too strongly attached to any one group; a sense of moral obligation that forces individuals to honor their commitments willingly, not because of social pressure; cultural homogeneity within a given nation-state, involving the elimination of "semi-private and local" languages and idioms; and rationality, including "the non-conflation of issues, the separating-out of the social strands." This is all just a bit too smug, and it ignores the threats to civil society which exist in the countries where is it supposed to be flourishing. To take just one issue: the rise of the professions in this century has been accomplished in large part through the creation of semi-private idioms, barriers to entry, and complex initiation rites. What has been the effect on modularity, homogeneity, and rationality?

And what is one to make of socialist democracies and other hybrids? Ideal types do not meld easily on a continuous spectrum, and Gellner is unclear on the topic. In successive paragraphs, Gellner ridicules hybrids -- "Either productive units do have genuine autonomy (in which case they behave as in the market or they do not" -- and then defends what sounds like a middle position, with some state control: "The unfortunate consequence of the collapse of the Mandst Umma is that it seems to some people, quite incorrectly, to constitute a vindication of the complete marketization of society, a reinforcement of the minimal state and maximal market doctrine. This is most unfortunate." Elsewhere he calls the lack of an effective welfare state "unutterably repulsive." So Gellner is not a radical free-marketeer.

The book's image of civil society, however, is purely capitalist. Gellner dates the concept of civil society to Adam Ferguson in the eighteenth century but ignores the changes that the concept has undergone in the meantime. Ferguson's definition of civil society equates it with apolitical, self-interested, individual behavior, as opposed to the martial passions of politics. Commerce, not virtue, constitutes citizenship. By contrast, nineteenth century theorists from Tocqueville to Durkheim saw civil society as something far more complex and difficult. The definition shifted to the presence of intermediary groups between the individual and the state, which capitalism could not be counted on to generate automatically. These intermediary groups could not be apolitical and individualistic -- they had to be group-oriented and politically involved precisely in order to counterbalance the power of the state. Purely self-interested individualism was now seen as a threat to liberty, and not its savior.

Gellner recognizes that intermediary groups are necessary for civil society: "how is it possible to have atomization, individualism, without a political emasculation of the atomized man (as in the world of Ibn Khaldun and to have politically countervailing associations without these being stifling (as in the [segmented, premodern] world of Fustel de Coulanges)?" Gellner's answer, already noted, involves the concept of "modular" citizens, who can be mixed and matched in changing combinations within a given nation-state (though not between them). Capitalism involves modularity, Gellner suggests, and therefore has no difficulty creating and sustaining intermediary groups. The only societies in the modem world that have to worry about atomization are Communist ones.

This is fairly unsatisfying. Gellner avoids all the tough issues raised by Tocqueville, Durkheim, and others: why should capitalism imply civil society In terms of Gellner's ideal types, couldn't capitalism just as easily strengthen nonmodular social organization? Gellner briefly discusses the cases of East Asian industrialization and notes how capitalism is accompanied there by near-feudal paternalism. (The same might be said of post-Soviet gangsterism.) The book also notes that Islam has become more powerful in the past century, as Islamic countries have been integrated into world capitalism. Finally, the dog that doesn't bark: mass society. Gellner dismisses the doomsday capitalist scenario of isolated mass individuals, abjectly subject to totalitarian rule, that has motivated so many theorists since the 19th century. Indeed, Ferguson may be seen as a forerunner of this obsession, since he worried about the ability of commercial individualists to ward off military despots. Gellner tells him not to worry. As states have grown stronger and technologically more advanced, the economy grew stronger as well Ferguson's pessimism "came to be invalidated ... by the tremendous expansion of productive power consequent on the impact of scientific technology The image is almost one of a benign arms race between capitalism and the state.

It is hard to conceive of large corporations as defenders of liberty, helping to stave off totalitarianism. Even Gellner has difficulty maintaining this image for long. One of the fortunate aspects of British industrialization, he notes twice, was that it occurred during a period of "a fairly feeble technology powerful enough to counteract the state but "blessedly feeble enough not to destroy society or its environment, or give anyone power to dominate society militarily. All that has changed, and will never happen again. Modern technology is enormously powerful, and contains a disastrous potential for ecology and for the possibility of terrorism, by generating devastating weapons controllable by a small number of persons." The state, therefore, must protect us from capitalist destructiveness -- "In a sense, it is still true that we are all socialists now" -- just as capitalism protects us from state domination. Without appearing to notice the distinction, Gellner wishes to defend both types of liberalism: the nineteenth century version which promoted the free market against premodern restrictions, and the twentieth century version which promotes state regulation and redistribution.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this form of argument the balance of power between capitalism and the state may indeed constitute the "conditions of liberty" that the title seeks. But it is not the argument that Gellner wishes to make. Despite his dense o the welfare state, he feels that state subordination is crucial to liberty. He states this clearly in his discussion of Western civil society, where "wealth leads to power, more than the other way around. This is both remarkable and exceptional. Marxism made it into a reproach when it should be a source of pride, and it [Marxism] absurdly generalized the dominance of production over an alleged political 'super-structure' as a law governing all class-endowed societies, when in fact it is a unique characteristic of one type of society." The dominance of production over politics defines civil society and guarantees liberty. That seems to be Gellner's bottom line. It is, as Gellner says repeatedly of Marxism, only compelling to people who wish to believe.