Our Way

John Gray

  • Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals by Ernest Gellner
    Hamish Hamilton, 225 pp, £18.99, August 1994, ISBN 0 241 00220 6

Recent discussion of the Soviet collapse, even when not echoing the shallow triumphalism of Western conservatives and neo-liberals, has interpreted that collapse as an episode in the global spread of civil society – defined by Ernest Gellner as ‘that set of diverse non-governmental institutions which is strong enough to counterbalance the state and, while not preventing the state from fulfilling its role of keeper of the peace and arbitrator among major interests, can nevertheless prevent it from dominating and atomising the rest of society’. The debacle of Gorbachev’s reformist project has been understood, if not as proof of an ineluctable global convergence on Western institutions, then at any rate as compelling evidence of their functional indispensability to a modern industrial economy. Western opinion, shaken by the political upheavals of the past five years, which confounded all the expectations of diplomats, strategists and (not least) Sovietologists, is now gripped by the conviction that, in the long run, there simply is no alternative to the institutions of civil society: any state which wishes to enjoy prosperity and the stability that prosperity confers will have to adopt them.

The truth of the matter is virtually the opposite of this conventional view. The demise of the Soviet system occurred at the high-water mark of Western civil societies. Among its unintended consequences are the unravelling of the post-war political settlements in the major Western countries and a burgeoning legitimation crisis for their market institutions. Moreover, our economies are being outpaced by East Asian societies which have adopted few of the central norms and practices of Western civil society, such as individualism and the priority of contract over status, and which increasingly question, or reject. Western models for their institutions. The idea of civil society, indelibly marked as it is by its historical and intellectual origins in the period of European and North American bourgeois hegemony which endured from the 17th century almost to the present day, can scarcely do justice to the diversity of institutional and cultural forms we see around us now, when the axis of global economic power is tilting away from the West. Whatever else it may have been, the Cold War was a family quarrel among Western ideologies. If it is true that the Soviet side lost, it is also true that Western civil societies did not win. For the ending of the Cold War at once removed the legitimacy which they acquired from their rivalry with the Soviet Union and released non-Western cultures from the perceived necessity to emulate Western models, liberal or Marxist. The demise of the Soviet state has indeed been accompanied by the re-emergence of civil societies, where they existed prior to the Communist period, and where historical memory of them has not been altogether effaced. Globally, however, it marked, not the universal spread of such societies, but the beginning of a period of weakness, instability and retreat in the struggle with their new rivals, at whose outcome we can only guess.

Ernest Gellner’s Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and its Rivals is a brilliant collection of aperçus, asides, obiter dicta, historical analogies and digressions. Into the 29 chapters of a shortish book, Gellner crams more insight and incisive reasoning than we could hope to glean from half a dozen sociological tomes, each of them several times as long – even if, as I think, his argument is excessively whiggish and wrongly conflates the conditions of prosperity in a modern market economy with the institutions of a Western-style civil society. Gellner begins by making a crucial and often neglected distinction – one on which his own grip seems to weaken later in the book – between modern civil societies and traditional segmentary societies. Civil societies differ from segmentary societies, which are plural, decentralised and balanced in their structures. In civil societies Benjamin Constant’s modern liberty is institutionalised: in a segmentary community social life is governed by pervasive and demanding rules of kinship and ritual. In ancient pluralism, identities are matters of inheritance or ascription, while in civil societies (according to Gellner) they are chosen.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in