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Volume 5.2 1997
ISSN 1048-3721
This page was last updated on 03/15/99


Bruce Thompson
Book Review


One of the surprises of the revolutions of 1989 was the popularity of the idea of civil society among dissident intellectuals in eastern and central Europe. The idea of civil society reaches back to the eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment. It posits a society in which interest rather than kinship or ethnicity generates the most important social bonds; in which liberty rather than equality or fraternity is the primary value; and in which a complex network of voluntary associations shelters the individual citizen from both the power of the state and the risks of the market. Civil society, for the great philosophic historians of the eighteenth century, offers not a promise of redemption or perfection but a hope of steady progress. No one was better situated to anatomize this concept than the late Ernest Gellner, himself something of a philosophic historian, a skeptic concerning perfectibility but a firm believer in the possibility of progress. When he died in his native city of Prague in November 1995, European liberalism lost one of its most brilliant and incisive theorists.

Gellner was unusual among intellectuals of his generation in never having undergone a Marxist phase. His early mentors were George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Karl Popper, Bertrand Russell, and Raymond Aron—all of them powerful critics of Marxist versions of totalitarianism. For Marx, the notion of civil society as a plurality of institutions, thriving in the space between the market and the state, was a bourgeois fraud. Gellner, for his part, regarded this severe dismissal of the idea of civil society as Marxism’s original sin. Conditions of Liberty offers a brilliant reassessment of Marxism, while bringing together virtually all of the major themes of Gellner’s late work: the transition to modernity as pioneered by early modern Britain; the implications of the Soviet collapse; the crucial role of nationalism in modern societies; and the surprising resilience of Islam which, in its scripturalist or puritan form, functions as a surrogate for nationalism.

For Gellner, as for Max Weber, the hallmark of modernity is the "disenchantment of the world" through the powerful agencies of science and capitalism. Traditional agrarian societies, dominated by military/aristocratic and clerical elites, are geared to the maintenance of social order rather than to economic growth and intellectual innovation. But reason and profit are potent solvents of tradition and the sacred. Modernity implies an unbounded cognitive universe in which nothing is sacred and the supply of intellectual capital is constantly increasing. Rapid if uneven economic development is driven by an army of mobile, literate specialists. Perpetual economic growth and occupational mobility, in turn, imply a closing of the ancient gap between literate high culture and oral popular culture, so that in principle all educated members of a society are capable of responding to opportunities created by advances in technology and the division of labor. The individual is "modular": commitments and affiliations are chosen rather than inherited. And whereas in pre-modern societies kinship, religion, politics, and economics are inextricably intertwined, in modern societies these spheres are more or less autonomous. In particular, the market and the state are countervailing powers, balancing and constraining each other, and thereby allowing the rich associational life of civil society to flourish.

Gellner follows Weber again (and David Hume) in locating the origins of this breakthrough in a religious matrix. The Protestant Reformation, by leveling the distinction between clerisy and laity, by dignifying labor with the concept of vocation, and by universalizing literacy, supplied some of the prerequisites of modernity. In England, in particular, a stalemate between the bureaucratic, ritual-oriented Anglican Church and the scripturalist, puritan sects played a crucial role. Frustrated in their attempt to create a virtuous polity, puritan enthusiasts channeled their energies into sober industry and philanthropy, thereby generating both an industrial revolution and a civil society. Mandeville’s famous paradox, in which private vices (greed and envy) produce public benefits through the alchemy of the market, is subtly revised here: revolutionary enthusiasm, modulated into private virtue, produces the unanticipated breakthrough to modernity.

Few modern writers have orchestrated the themes of the philosophic historians and their sociological successors (Tocqueville, Durkheim, Weber) with so much clarity and insight. Gellner’s interpretation of the transition to modernity is rooted in the history of philosophy and the sociology of religion. As in all of his work, there is a wonderful combination of historical sweep and sociological precision. "Civil society" emerges in a specific historical context, but also as the answer to a more general problem: how to avoid the Leviathan state on the one hand, and the stifling social conformity of militant sects on the other. In Britain, religious and political compromise miraculously created an ideal environment for both economic growth and intellectual liberty.

From the perspective of this first breakthrough to modernity the Soviet experiment appears hopelessly retrograde: a disastrous attempt to fuse the political, ideological, and economic spheres in a single bureaucratic apparatus. The result was first terror (Stalin), then squalor (Brezhnev), with the latter far more corrosive of the regime’s authority than the former. Gellner argues:

Far from creating a new social man, one freed from egotistic greed, commodity fetishism, and competitiveness, which had been the Marxist hope, the system created isolated, amoral, cynical individualists-without-opportunity, skilled at double-talk and trimming within the system, but incapable of effective enterprise. (5)

Here revolutionary enthusiasm was transformed, not into private virtue, but into hubris and corruption: the Leviathan state on the one hand, a demoralized populace on the other.

One of Gorbachev’s errors was to think that liberalization would immediately generate economic growth, thus giving him the opportunity to refloat the Soviet Union as a superpower. In the absence of a genuine civil society to undergird market reforms, liberalization actually disrupted production and seemed to lead, ominously, to a more or less open criminalization of the economy. Tentative market reforms, instead of revitalizing the economy, only furthered the drift toward economic feudalism, as the managers of enterprises and local political bosses rushed to enhance their own power and wealth at the expense of the failing center. It is a great deal easier, runs an Eastern European adage, to turn an aquarium into fish soup, than it is to turn fish soup into an aquarium. What emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet economy was not the dynamic market socialism for which Gorbachev had hoped, but rather an inefficient amalgam of clientelist politics and corrupt entrepreneurship.

Gorbachev’s second, and fatal, mistake was to underestimate the centrifugal force of nationalism in the Soviet empire: again, it was easier for ambitious rival politicians to appeal to national pride and ethnic grievance than to create, ex nihilo, a democratic politics in what was still after all a one-party state. Ideology, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and as socialism appeared to be bankrupt, and liberalism stillborn, nationalism expanded to fill the gap.

Gellner’s theory of nationalism is undoubtedly one of his major achievements. One of the leading features of modern society, he argues, is the "semanticization" of work. From the advent of the office to the triumph of the computer and the internet, modern work is increasingly intellectual rather than physical, requiring fluency in a standardized idiom. Advanced technology places a premium on the ability to communicate with far-flung networks of essentially anonymous interlocutors. Effective participation in such networks is possible only for those who have mastered the standard literate culture of the society in which they happen to live: hence the overriding importance of the language that is taught in schools and used in offices, understood by nationalists everywhere. But at the very moment when, in Weber’s terms, the world of work has been transformed into an open-ended, anonymous Gesellschaft, the modern ideological reflex tends to exalt a putative Gemeinschaft. According to Gellner, this response is not merely misguided nostalgia for some lost ethnic fraternity that serves as a haven in a heartless world; it is a veiled recognition of the importance, under modern conditions, of a single, standardized medium of communication. Gellner’s theory of nationalism is, as Perry Anderson has pointed out, a functionalist theory: it has more to say about the objective role of nationalism under modern conditions than it does about the subjective factor of identity. But the subjective factor can take on a momentum of its own, as it has in the former Yugoslavia.

No purely functionalist theory can ever fully explain the mad excesses of nationalism in the twentieth century, and Gellner was perhaps too much the cool rationalist to fathom the recrudescence of fierce ethnic tribalisms in our time. Nevertheless he was deeply pessimistic at the end of his life about the prospects for a happy outcome in the former Soviet Union, worrying not only about a Weimar scenario but also about the dreadful possibilities of nuclear blackmail and terrorism as remnants of the old Soviet arsenal find their way into the clandestine arms bazaar.

Nor was he a cheerleader for the "casino capitalism" of late twentieth-century Western societies. Given modern concentrations of wealth and power, the ubiquity of more or less legal insider trading and corporate greed, and the increasing threat of ecological catastrophe, the "market" is simply too powerful to go without regulation. The rich are rewarded not in proportion to the true (and rather modest) value of their entrepreneurial and managerial contributions, but for their luck in happening to occupy strategic positions in an infinitely complex economy. And as the super-rich enjoy and increase their privileges, an underclass of the dispossessed festers in a chronic and demoralizing poverty that market forces alone cannot possibly redress.

In a posthumously published coda to Conditions of Liberty, Gellner spelled out some of the troubling consequences of this trend ("Return of a Native," Political Studies 67.1 [1996]). Advanced economies not only generate appalling inequality and demoralized underclasses, they also tend to import cheap labor from less developed economies and then to deny the newcomers the rights of citizenship. If poverty and illiteracy drive some of the immigrants, or their children, into the criminal underworld, prejudice against them is reinforced. But given the continuing disparities of global economic development, labor migrations on a massive scale can be expected to continue. The result is that polyethnicity will be the norm in industrial societies even as linguistic fluency in the national idiom continues to be a prerequisite of economic success. Although the spirit of civil society and the principle of modularity are deeply averse to the linkage of the rights of citizenship to ethnicity, advanced economies will continue to generate ethnically differentiated and politically disadvantaged underclasses—a contradiction for which there are no obvious solutions in sight.

Gellner’s work, then, issues in a series of ironic paradoxes: the religious origins of secular, civil society; the failure of the economy in the Soviet Union, a society that made a fetish of productivity; the overwhelming appeal of the Gemeinschaft ideal of a closed society in the era of the radically open, global Gesellschaft; and finally the inexorable tendency toward polyethnicity in an era when resurgent nationalisms yearn for ethnic homogeneity. His cool, incisive rationalism was the enemy of every attempt to re-enchant the world, to avoid the intractable contradictions at the heart of the human condition. If he was not as original as Max Weber and the great masters of modern sociology, no one did more than he to preserve and to apply their legacy as our century slouches toward its close.

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