Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals by Ernest Gellner
The existence of individual liberty as it is known in the western world is, according to the eminent social anthropologist Ernest Gellner, conditional upon the presence of civil society—institutions and associations that are strong enough to check the power of the central state but that are (except for the nuclear family) entered and left freely rather than imposed by birth or station. He has in mind such “intermediary” institutions as trade unions, churches, civic associations, clubs, pressure groups, and political parties. The idea is by no means original with him, but his application of it is original: he employs it to address the problem of what will fill the void left by the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe. The approach is intriguing and promising. Unfortunately, the book does not live up to the promise.
The main problem with the work is that the author seems unable to decide what it is about. To be sure, he devotes a good deal of space to a (convincing) analysis of how and why communism failed, but the only connection the analysis has with the concept of civil society is a negative one, namely that Marxists rejected it as a sham. In addition to that analysis, however, there are lengthy (and unconvincing) descriptions of how Islamic societies worked historically and how they work today, along with much about ancient city states and “segmentary” communities that avoid central tyranny but nonetheless stifle individual liberty and individual identity. The book also contains endless digressions that seemingly are thrown in simply to showcase Gellner’s admittedly impressive erudition.
Given the lack of an organizing principle, considerable duplication was almost inevitable. On page 188, for example, we are told that Marxism “collapsed with a speed and completeness which is quite unprecedented in the intellectual history of mankind, and unlike religions in the literal sense appears to have left virtually no nostalgia in the souls of those who had been so systematically and pervasively subjected to it.” I made a marginal note at that point: “100th time.” A bit of an exaggeration perhaps, but we had been told that, pretty much in those words, at least a dozen times and possibly two dozen. (There is another problem with the proposition as well. Insofar as the book has a thesis, the statement is absolutely pivotal to it, and it is dead wrong. I am by no means an expert on the Soviet Union or on what has become of it, but people who are tell me that an enormous surge of nostalgia for the defunct old order is sweeping Russia.)
Likewise repetitive, and likewise wrong—or wrong-headed is the better term—is Gellner’s insistence upon the necessity of the Leviathan state, at pages 90-91 and 169. His argument is that modern technology is so powerful and contains such disastrous potential for ecological damage and terrorism that, together with the “bulky, package deal quality of the social infrastructure” and the “morally unacceptable destitution for the weak” brought on by the “atomization of society” it has become “imperative that a very large proportion of the total output, something in the neighborhood of one half, passes through the hands of political institutions.” Readers of Continuity will scarcely require convincing that government in the West has become so big and cumbersome that it not only has ceased to work, but has also contributed powerfully to the breakdown of the intermediary institutions that constituted the civil society in the first place. I would, however, add a historical datum: the United States of America became the richest, most free. and most powerful nation in the history of the world before its central government became the monster it is today.
One more point: Gellner simply does not understand economics well enough to treat his subject adequately. Toward the end of the work, he considers the future of the civil society, as part of which he examines the question whether societies that do not resemble the West in its individualism can adopt the new technology and match or outperform the West economically. As one reads, what springs to mind immediately is the example of some countries in east Asia. But the specific example he cites is as unfortunate as is much of his analysis: Japan, “possessing a brilliant economy whose enterprises are notorious for their ‘feudal’ or communal features, for the way in which they grant life-long security, respect seniority and hierarchy, and so forth.” Maybe Gellner had no way of being able to foresee the catastrophe that the Japanese economy has become, but if he proposed to write such a book as this one, he should have.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Reprinted with the gracious permission of Continuity: A Journal of History.