Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What I've been reading: Ernest Gellner, Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals

What if Max Weber had written like Isaiah Berlin?

I thought I'd read this book in grad school, but having seriously read it this summer I now suspect that I just skimmed a few chapters. The alternative is that by second year in graduate school I just knew so little social theory and so little history that my brain didn't have receptors for the ideas in this idea-rich book to latch on to-- which is, I admit, possible.

The book is deceptive: published by Penguin and written in a light, breezy, sometimes chatty, and lucid style, it looks like it should be a popular book on the end of the Cold War and the resurgence of the idea of civil society. In fact, there are books packed into most paragraphs-- many books read and, usually, books to be written. Like Weber, Gellner tosses out three-sentence ideas that make you (or at least me) stop and say-- "wow, if that's right it's hugely important, and I can see how it might be right, but figuring out whether it actually is right would take years."

In one respect the book has dated badly; there's a bit too much immediate-post-Cold-War smugness in putting down Marxists and Marxisms of all stripes. Which is not to say I think he's wrong on the merits-- but it gives the book a certain ugliness, not mitigated by his swipes and jabs at what we would now call neoliberalism.

But in other respects just the opposite is true. Certainly, the idea that Islam represented a world-historical idea, a great and important set of rival ideas and social organizations to liberalism, Marxism, and traditionalism, would probably interest a lot more people now than it did in 1994. Gellner is not loved by scholars of the Islamic world (any more than he is by anthropologists or analytic philosophers), but compared with most large-scale social theorists, he took the Islamic world seriously, and treated it as importantly normal and central rather than exotic and inexplicable. Crucially, he also treats it as changing over time, and as participating in modernization.

I probably would have preferred a book that was more about civil society and less about its rivals (Marxism, Islam, and pre-modern systems). I found his history and theory of Europe through the 19th century much more interesting than his mini-book about Marxism, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War, useful though it is to try to offer a general account of the relationship between productive power and coercion that includes the Communist case.

But I think Gellner was in a mood to write something big and sweeping, and this certainly is that. It's more sweeping a theory of politics, economics, language, society, and religion than a 200-page book has any business being. And I wish that we were now 15 years into an era when people wrote books trying to understand whether the ideas in this book were right or not. Maybe we would be, if this book and Plough, Sword, and Book: The Structure of Human History had been combined into one book. In any case I find them fascinating and provocative big ideas. Now that I've properly read it, I expect to return to this book many times.

In the short term, I'll be doing follow-up writing. Gellner treats civil society as dependent on the linguistically-unified nation-state in the sense and for the reasons he laid out in Nations and Nationalism, and on the "modular man" also developed in that book. Modular man can not only switch from job to job, from one sector of the economy to another, he can also switch from one local, religious, cultural, or associational attachment to another, with only national identity not being malleable in this way. And civil society depends on the existence of a state that is Weberian in function (it expropriates private holders of coercive power and subsequently monopolizes that power) and yet limited enough to allow for private and decentralized market and associational life.

My own view is that keeping the state limited in that way depends in some part on there being associations and groups in the social order that are not filled with modular men. If the only real loyalty is to the nation-state and loyalties are not separated among other social groups, the equilibrium Gellner praises is likely to be unstable. I think he's [very] broadly right about the forces that tend undermine social loyalties and transfer them to the nation-state, but he's entirely too sanguine that the result will just happen to be, and to remain, a stable outcome. He's also only broadly right about those forces, and social (religious, cultural, associational, federal) ties, organizations, and institutions have always been somewhat stronger, man always somewhat less modular, than he allows-- and I think this has been important for the development and stability of (in his sense) civil society.

I wish that I had read this book six or seven years ago, whether that would have been a first-real-reading or a first-serious-rereading.

FN: I had started to re-read this before this Crooked Timber thread alerted me that my colleague John Hall has published a new intellectual biography of Gellner, and prompted reflection on why Gellner isn't better appreciated, but the thread (and Scott McLemee's review of the Hall book) may well have shaped the way I thought about the book as I went.

1 comment:

jseliger.com said...

and prompted reflection on why Gellner isn't better appreciated,

One problem at the moment: Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals isn't in print or available electronically, and it's $30 used on Amazon.

After this post I want to read it but can't effectively buy it. I'm a grad student at the University of Arizona, where the library has a copy, but a Really Big Book is often worth buying (even or especially if it's 200 pages).

The Crooked Timber thread inspired me to get Plow, Sword, and Book, which is mostly going over my head but remains interesting.