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by Tom G. Palmer in Cato Journal


One of the most powerful rallying cries of those who overthrew socialism in Eastern and Central Europe was "civil society." It was both a slogan, a conceptualization of the alternative to socialism, and a program, as parallel structures -- notably in Poland and in Hungary -- were built alongside but independent of the state. The promise and the reality of "civil society" -- the very "Buergerliche Gesellschaft" so savagely attacked by Marx and his followers -- systematically undercut the legitimacy of the socialist power structure, bringing down some of the world's most powerful states with barely a shot. Ernest Gellner, a noted Cambridge University anthropologist and director of the Centre for the Study of Nationalism in Prague, has devoted his attention in the past few years to the study of the twin legacies of communism -- civil society and nationalism. He has written several books on nationalism; we now have his insights into civil society in Conditions of Liberty.

Denunciations of civil society for being "atomistic" have long been a staple of socialist rhetoric. Karl Marx had insisted that civil society is based on a "decomposition of man" such that man's "essence is no longer in community but in difference." Civil society, so the charge goes, separates man from himself, as well as from his neighbors, leading to alienation and atomization. But the experience of "real socialism" was that it led, in Gellner's words, "not to a newly restored social man, but to something closer to total atomization than perhaps any previous society had known." When the state absorbed society, it dissolved the normal bonds that tied humans together in civil society, leaving the awesome might of the state on one side and the naked individual on the other. The appeal of civil society is, contra Marx and his contemporary "communitarian" echoes, that it allows individuals to associate freely and thereby to increase their power, strength, and dignity in opposition to the state, which confronts them as an alien power.

Gellner is relentless in his critique of socialism, which is systematically stripped of its pretensions to moral superiority and to any claim to be the embodiment of freedom. As he points out, "In an industrial society, full socialism cannot but be totalitarian -- and totalitarianism cannot but be socialist." Totalitarianism represents the triumph of coercion over production, whereas civil society attempts to tame power and direct it toward peaceful ends. The socialist taunt that the "bourgeois state was merely a kind of executive committee of the bourgeoisie" should be, according to Gellner, civil society's "greatest badge of honour": "The taming of power, its reduction to an instrument, one to be judged by its effectiveness and service, rather than allowing it to be a master--this is perhaps mankind's greatest triumph." Civil society is not merely a condition of political pluralism; premodern societies lacking centralized states (e.g., European feudalism) may also be pluralistic, but they are not thereby civil societies. Nor is civil society simply a condition of an individualized or atomized population, for certain Islamic societies (e.g., as described by Ibn Khaldun) neatly fit this mold, too.

In contrast, civil society manages at one and the same time to realize (1) checks on the awesome power of central states through countervailing power and mobility and (2) freedom for the individual, who is not smothered in the inescapable embrace of clan, tribe, or caste. Civil society rests on what Gellner calls "modular man," that is, on the freedom and opportunity to change one's loyalties, allegiances, and memberships without thereby becoming a traitor or an outcast from society generally. Thus, civil society allows "the forging of links which are effective even though they are flexible, specific, instrumental." Gellner echoes, without citing the reference, the famous claim of the classical liberal anthropologist Sir Henry Sumner Maine that "the movement of the progressive societies has hitherto been a movement from Status to Contract." The achievement of civil society represented, in Maine's terms, a situation in which "relations arise from the free agreement of individuals." Thus, the free-market economy, based on contractual agreement, is an element of civil society, as are freedom of conscience, freedom of movement, and other liberties of association.

One might expect that Gellner would heartily embrace the free market. But even piercing critics of socialism are sometimes caught in its embrace, and Gellner has unfortunately failed to examine some of the central criticisms of the market made by socialists to determine whether they are true. Specifically, the claim that fully voluntary orders are incapable of generating support for the unfortunate is taken over as an a priori truth by Gellner, when, in fact, it is false. The welfare state, without which a modern society would be, according to Gellner, "unutterably repulsive," has succeeded in atomizing large segments of Western societies almost as effectively as socialism atomized Eastern European societies. It has done so by eliminating those voluntary institutions that provide for mutual aid and the care of the unfortunate. For example, in Britain the friendly societies, which provided welfare support, mutual aid, medical care, and solidarity for millions of working class members, were completely wiped out by the welfare state, which systematically supplanted them. The effects have been starkly atomistic. And given the great rise in illegitimate births and the resulting suffering on the part of fatherless children, the welfare state can be justly accused of undermining one of the most important building blocks of civil society: the family. (David Green's work at the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs has done much to increase our knowledge of this history and of the effects of welfare statism.)

In addition, in every advanced welfare state there is growing conflict between young and old, as politicians have displaced voluntary retirement systems with compulsory Ponzi-scheme state insurance systems and made promises that the state is simply unable to fulfill. These conflicts show very frightening long-term potential for social disruption, as a glance at actuarial tables and the projected growth of the over-65 set in every welfare state will show. Over the long run, the welfare state may turn out to be almost as great an enemy to civil society as socialism has been. Conditions of Liberty is full of deep insights, careful arguments, and telling points. That the author does not see the threat to civil society posed by the growing welfare state does not diminish the value of his careful analysis of what makes modern liberty in civil society both possible and worth having.


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