Necessary Imperfections

Necessary Imperfections

Mini Teaser: Ernest Gellner's Conditions of Liberty is the best treatment of civil society to emerge from a post-Cold War perspective. Gellner himself these days is in Prague much of the time, studying the process of regeneration from the inside.

by Author(s): Kenneth Minogue

Ernest Gellner, Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals (New York: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1994), 225 pp., $27.95.

There seems to be no theory of why communism collapsed that does not send us scurrying back to take our own temperatures. Contemplating the post-communist world, we find ourselves falling into medical metaphors. After so long a political illness, what can it be that constitutes "health"? We cannot merely take our bearings from Europe and America. They are certainly vital and healthy in a number of striking respects when compared to the corruption and pollution of the communist world, yet every time we consider what would be communist regeneration, we seem to be driven to think of what would be ideal for us. Because others have been ill, our spiritual hypochondria seems to be getting worse. Certain ideals have been given a new lease of life by the collapse of communism and they threaten to give a whole new life to utopia.

Recovery from communism is currently understood in terms of three overlapping ideas. Democracy must have pride of place because a rot that began in politics must be corrected by a better way of governing. Democracy here includes the rule of law and the implementation of human rights, and it was these slogans that challenged the corrupt Party oligarchies of communism's last days. The second idea was that the market, with all that it involves, must replace the so-called "command economies" which have impoverished the East: capitalist abundance was what the peoples themselves thought they most needed. But both "market forces" and "capitalism" are unfortunate expressions. "Capitalism" is a recycled item of communist criticism of modern Western life. It retains the sense of something raw and selfish, badly in need of some political softening. "Market forces" has become a kind of demonic metaphysics, detached from its source in the things individuals choose to produce and consume, and feared as an alien power causing greed and the erosion of community. The Marxist theory of alienation has made a remarkable comeback by infiltrating our current vocabulary.

Both of these formulations have their supporters, but it is the idea of civil society which has swept the board. It stands for a plausible doctrine of social regeneration, to the effect that communism atomized society by politicization. Nothing moved in the Soviet Union unless the Party controlled it--nothing, that is, except for the criminality in which alone individual enterprise might flourish. The cure for this moral and political degradation must involve a comprehensive resurgence of the human spirit. No doubt democratic institutions must be established or restored, but the disease was more than merely political. No doubt a modern economy, with its plural centers of initiative, must be created. Neither of these things would be possible without the rule of law. But everyone knew that some additional element was needed to bind this new order together. The name for it has, very rapidly, come to be "civil society."

Ernest Gellner's Conditions of Liberty is much the best treatment of civil society to emerge from this new situation. Gellner himself these days is in Prague much of the time, studying the process of regeneration from the inside. It is perhaps an advantage that the Czech Republic is the most vigorous patient in the ex-communist ward. Some Czechs can still remember what it was once like to be healthy. As a philosopher and anthropologist, however, Gellner has the notable advantage of being able to frame his study of civil society in terms of a comprehensive account of the modern world which he has been developing for many decades.

He wants to persuade us above all that civil society is a most remarkable human achievement. The term refers to the modern Western state under the aspect of its social and economic vitality. It is less an idea than a complex institutional structure combining a very strong sovereign power on the one hand and a great amount of social freedom and independence on the other. But it is above all a moral fact, a complex set of attitudes including mutual trust between the members of society as a whole, which allows Europeans and Americans to be fluent creators of social institutions, including economic enterprises. This moral fact has developed over many generations and depends upon social and political conditions: a strong but limited government and a widespread aversion to overarching monopolies.

The problem is that strong governments are seldom content to allow people to get on with their own lives. Sometimes, as in Gellner's favorite example of the Islamic community, they seek to create a perfect community living according to some specific blueprint for life, something called an umma, which Gellner uses as a technical term. Communism was an umma that proved unworkable. Alternatively conquerors exploit the enterprise of the subjects and reduce them to a servile condition.

It is not unknown, however, for whole societies to escape exploitative conquerors and to live with a high degree of independence from central control. It does not follow that they achieve freedom. The individual is most likely to find himself coerced by suffocating forms of required social cohesion, as in the Maghrebian societies Gellner has studied as an anthropologist. Modern Western states have emerged, precariously, from a remarkable conjunction of circumstances which have bypassed this fatal fork--either the political constriction of despotism, or the social constriction of closed communities--in human development. Civil society was born out of the Protestant reformation: diverse forms of religious enthusiasm created the counter balance of a strong and relatively neutral state. The philosophers of the eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment spent a lot of time figuring this thing out, and Gellner thinks that in the end they just about got it right. His argument is far too complex and subtle to be easily summarized, but one can taste its flavor when he remarks that civil society
presupposed a political stalemate between practitioners of superstition and the zealots of enthusiasm, such as in fact did occur in seventeenth-century England, leading to a compromise. This allowed a diminished, sliding-scale ritualism and mediation at the centre, and a privatized Umma at home, among the minoritarian enthusiasts who turned to the economy rather than a jihad.

Gellner is a philosopher, but his explanation of modernity is in terms less of ideas than of interests and structures. Ideas do make an appearance, but only as they explain social structures. This is a point to which I shall return.

The First World is, then, democratic and economically free and prosperous, but what underlies this happy condition is (as Gellner tells it) the unique historical accident which has made its member states also civil societies. It was the Scottish philosophers who first theorized this new and central feature of the modern world, and especially that part of it which came to be called "the economy," but it was the German philosopher Hegel who raised it to the level of a philosophical theory and used it to explain one vital aspect among the things that made Western civilization unique: civil society was the first society to dispense with serfdom and slavery. As Hegel put it, the modern European state was the first in which "all are free."

Later writers focused upon specific features of civil society, and often found Anglo-Saxon civil societies to be peculiarly exemplary, especially in the nineteenth century when English civility was widely admired. Alexis de Tocqueville was struck by the social creativity of Americans. And recent work in political science, most notably that by the Harvard scholar Robert Puttnam, has further consolidated the case for believing that civil society is the indispensable soil for the spiritual plants we most admire. Puttnam's work on Italian politics over the last few decades has revealed the way in which central power has been devolved democratically to the regions since 1970. Where you find an abundance of voluntary associations--choral societies, sports clubs and the like--democracy works. Where you find an entrenched, segmentary client society, as in southern Italy, it doesn't. And what is most depressing about his findings is that the line that demarcates these two forms of life corresponds to the thousand-year-old division between the city republics of the north and the Norman kingdoms to the south.

This is depressing because it provides historical evidence for something obvious. We may talk of "creating a civil society" in the old communist world, but civil society is not the sort of thing any single power can create--and certainly not from without. It bubbles up from below, from the vitality, the sense of independence and mutual trust among people themselves, or it does not happen at all. And that is why the dream of the mid-twentieth century, that European standards of democracy and rights could be transplanted to the newly self-governing colonies of the European powers, was merely a dream. (Which is not to say that the dream has died. When it became clear that communism was collapsing, two of the books that greeted its demise were Gregory Fossedel's The Democratic Imperative: Exporting the American Revolution (Basic Books, 1989), and Joshua Muravchik's Exporting Democracy: Fulfilling America's Destiny (aei Press, 1991). Both authors were conservative and both books were taken seriously.)

Gellner is right, then: civil society is an extremely fragile creation. It is a historical creation, and history is a capricious benefactor. What she gives, she can take away. It is obvious that ex-communist states have a massive and perhaps insoluble problem in creating or re-creating civil society. What is perhaps less evident is that we in the West have a problem sustaining it.

What obscures this point is that the collapse of communism may still be seen in Cold War terms, as merely the triumph of our system against theirs: something external to us. Politically speaking, this is what happened. But it is a reading of events which wrongly suggests that communism was quite separate from our own free way of life; it wasn't. Communism arose out of the most powerful impulse in our civilization, which is to unite behind a powerful government, using the entire resources of technology, to make our society perfect.

Perfection and imperfection are thus central underlying categories of our political understanding, and they were exercised conspicuously in the Cold War rhetoric of moral equivalence. Communist societies were, by general agreement, horrible, but we in the West (so many believed) could hardly boast that we had solved the problems of social injustice which had generated communism. It is notorious that many intellectuals in the West were tender and protective of communism even when they recognized its horrors, and the reason was that they recognized in it the same impulse towards social perfectionism to which they themselves responded. They could not wholeheartedly condemn it because it stood for something whose foundation they themselves felt to be valuable. And it is this fact which explains why the newly resurgent ideal of civil society is so profoundly ambiguous.

It is ambiguous because it is both an explanatory ideal which relates social conditions to forms of political expression such as democracy, and also a normative ideal which reflects back upon our own Western societies in order to tell us that we are imperfect. A civil society is one in which a vigorous population exercises its initiative by finding satisfactions in a richness of individual and group activities. But those who are economically poor are also likely to be poor in the scope of their social and cultural involvement. The poor thus become a reproach, revealing our own failures to realize the ideal of a civil society.

This is a drift of ideas which will inevitably be picked up by the dominant technocratic rationalism of our civilization. How are we to remedy our civil defects? What is to solve this problem? Obviously, the only society-wide problem solver we have, namely, the government. The state must become a facilitator drawing the poor into the morally desirable network of civil society. But those who are dependent upon the government for the conditions of their vitality are precisely those who do not belong in a civil society. The concept of civil society as a normative ideal thus leads, in this context, to a contradiction.

The source of the trouble, as I see it, lies in technocratic rationalism which seeks to manage the way we all live. It torments us by a ceaseless preoccupation with the imperfections of our society, and seeks to solve these imperfections by modifying the actual choices we make in conducting our affairs. And at this fundamental level, there is no other way to block this slide towards a benign despotism than to state the most fundamental proposition on which our liberties depend: it is that our social imperfections are our perfection.

What this formula means can be explained by a logical fork: If we remain responsible creatures making moral choices, many of us will act unwisely and one of the consequences will be the social imperfections that worry us. Such is the real condition of civil society. If, on the other hand, we first take our political bearings from social imperfections, we cannot escape embracing a managerial regime which blocks our imperfect moral choices and replaces them with the wise choices of democratic management. In reality, of course, this is entirely chimerical. We know all too well that governments lack this wisdom. All we need observe here, however, is that there can be no moral life, and hence no civil society without social imperfection.

This brings us back to Gellner's conception of civil society. He recognizes that it rests upon a basic moral fact, which is individualism, and he gives an account of it. This seems to me the weakest part of his argument.

A civil society, he tells us, is composed of modular men who (like modular furniture) can either stand alone, or fit together with other pieces to compose some desired and desirable structure. The remarkable thing, he is clear, is that the constantly changing links between these modular men are strong and stable--by contrast with the unreliability and treachery of the individuals in segmentary pluralist societies. What he is not clear about is why these modern individualists are morally reliable. Is it cost-benefit analysis, based on the realization that reliability certainly "pays dividends" in the long run? Is it perhaps the lingering terrors of Calvinist religion, which created and sustains a tradition in which men abide by the rules? Gellner does not know, and says it does not much matter, for the simple fact is that these individualists have "helped bring about civil society."

It does matter, however. The success of Pacific Rim economies has shown that the modularity required for economic success, a modularity quite sufficient for stunning vitality in this respect, does not require individualism and civil society. Japanese industry is nothing if not modular. It serves the firm and does not involve what the West takes to be civil society. It may be, of course, that Asian economic success is not only facilitated but entirely dependent on the fact that it is imitating the established social and technological model of the West; or it may not. We do not know.

What is clear, however, is that the kind of individualism which Gellner treats patronizingly as an offshoot of outmoded religious belief or as a smart, self-interested calculation is under severe attack, and that the attack is based on misconception. The Oxford political theorist John Gray, currently in the throes of an intense passion directed against free market institutions, has criticized Gellner for conflating market institutions with individualist Western civil society. Quite what Gray wants to say is not clear. Although he engages in a good deal of rhetorical frothing at the mouth about market institutions, he also seems to think they are to be encouraged so long as they are "channeled" and "embedded" within a culture, which will certainly mean that they must be closely controlled by governments. He detests something called "neo-liberalism" (it is, he tells us, "hubristic") but seems to approve of "a liberal way of life." What he approves of is threatened by what he calls "the excesses of individualism."

To talk about "excessive" individualism is very much ˆ la mode. The Archbishop of Canterbury earlier this year had a conference on this very topic with Anglican bishops from all over the world. What is sinister about the expression is that it identifies the individualism of the West not with honor and moral responsibility for one's actions, but with mere indulgence in desires, and individual desires must, of course, be circumscribed. If this false view were the essence of individualism, then criminals would be the most complete individualists, whereas in fact they are usually the people least capable among men of exploring their own individuality. It is this view of individuality which lies behind the question with which Gray challenges Gellner: "How are Western market institutions with their animating individualist culture and liberal civil societies to be politically legitimated in a context of low or zero economic growth?"

This question is the counterpart of Gellner's view that the strains and challenges of modern society can only be borne because the populace can be bribed by rising standards of living--something Gellner elsewhere calls "the Danegeld state." There is, no doubt, a certain realism in this view, and it may perhaps justify the common view (Gray being particularly insistent on it) that economic decline is on the way and we had better tighten our seat belts for a bumpy ride.

But what is concealed by Gray's floating metaphysics about "market forces," and what cannot be defended in terms of Gellner's realism, is the fact that Western individualism is a moral commitment to a free way of life rather than an optional device we have adopted in order to get rich. Hobbes, the great theorist of liberal individualism, saw that a modern society would have a problem in inducing men to abide by their agreements, and thought that "the passion to be reckoned upon is fear;" but he also thought important "a glory, or pride in appearing not to need to break [one's word]." He agreed that it was "a generosity too rarely found to be presumed on, especially in the pursuers of wealth, command or sensual pleasure; which are the greatest part of mankind." Generous or not, this is the moral constitution of our relatively uncorrupt societies, however many may be delinquent. And it results from the central importance we assign to individuality as the vehicle of moral responsibility. But there is no doubt that the basis of Western civil societies is a moral commitment to admiration for the character of individuality. Neither the power of government, nor the bribery of economic growth, could possibly sustain it without this central element.

Conditions of Liberty raises, then, the largest of questions. It develops a view Gellner has long held, that the "really fundamental trait of classical capitalism [a.k.a. civil society] is that it is a very special kind of order in that the economic and the political seem to be separated, to a greater degree than in any other historically known social form." But then he spoils this remark by an aside which reveals the weakness of his exclusive preoccupation with structure and interest: "The individualism of capitalism is a corollary of this, and is less fundamental." On the contrary, it is the morality of our Western societies, our taste for dealing with others as independent beings, which lies at the heart of civil society. Tastes and moralities are precarious things, and we must never forget that what history gives, history can take away.

Essay Types: Book Review