Review: Gellner, Civil Society & Conditions of Liberty


Author: Ernest Gellner

Reviewer: Dr. Ng Kam Weng

‘Civil Society’ has become fashionable in local political discourse. This slogan was overlooked despite the prominence it gained as a platform to rally human rights activists in their struggle against communist rulers in Eastern Europe.  Only when the Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Anwar Ibrahim linked Civil Society (Masyrakat Madani) to democracy did the term generate curiosity and excitement. A relatively unknown term was suddenly transformed into a buzzword among the local intelligentsia.

Datuk Anwar Ibrahim’s sympathetic reference to Civil Society is consistent with his cosmopolitan approach to issues of democracy and culture evident in his book, The Asian Renaissance. In contrast, PAS activists displayed ambivalence, if not confusion, in their reception of the term ‘Civil Society.’ Some of their political cadres suggested that Masyrakat Madani subverts Islamic society. Others indicated that they had no problem with the concept so long as it is interpreted in harmony with Islam. Consequently, one hears of Masyrakat Madani redefined by way of contrasting a settled civilization with a nomadic society, a definition that reduces its original meaning to a faint shadow of a mighty slogan which inspired decades of struggle for freedom against communist totalitarianism. The attempt by these activists to hijack ‘Civil Society’ by ignoring its effective history through a linguistic sleight of hand betrays their instinctive recognition that the liberating aspects of the slogan is inconsistent with any authoritarian ideology.

It should be obvious that social political concepts do not drop out from the sky. They are the product of intellectual contestation (agon)  in particular historical circumstances. That the concept of ‘Civil Society’ draws excitement among local social analysts is natural. Now that Malaysia, like the rest of East Asia, has achieved significant economic growth, it can no longer be excused for ignoring the issue of political freedom and human rights. But the development for political freedom is ill served if confusion remains in matters of Civil Society.

Ernest Gellner who hails from the species of polymaths that is fast becoming extinct, has provided us with an analysis of Civil Society that is lucidly compelling, befitting his early reputation an the enfant terrible against linguistic philosophers. His surefooted synthesis of insights drawn from wide ranging historical and cultural movements confirms his stature as a social thinker with the academic resources needed to bridge East and West (given his earlier years of toughening anthropology field work in Algeria and his frequent contacts with social activists in Eastern Europe). Only a quick perusal of his exposition on Civil Society is needed to persuade the reader that the term cannot simply be ignored as another slogan which serves the subversive agenda of neo-colonialists from the West.

We begin first with a clear working definition supplied by Gellner, “Civil Society is 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 peace and arbitrator between major interests, can nevertheless prevent it from dominating and atomizing the rest of society.”

It should be emphasized that Civil Society entails not only separation but requires a balance of power between the market producer and the security state. As such, Civil Society is a superior term to democracy since discussion based on Civil Society focuses on institutional preconditions whereas democracy left in abstraction often secures only an empty formal recognition from political rulers who in practice ignore it. Concepts and definitions however, do not by themselves bring about social transformation, not least when the struggle for freedom must gingerly negotiate between the tyranny that arises from political centralization on the one hand and atomization, that is, social isolation, arising from unqualified liberty entrusted on the individual citizen on the other hand. Gellner artfully portrays the emergence of Civil Society by way of contrasts with historical alternatives.

Gellner begins with Marxism as the magnificent failure of  an unparalleled ideological optimism. “Marxism promises a total salvation, but not to individuals, only to mankind as a totality. It has virtually nothing to say to an individual in personal anguish or in some kind of life crisis.”  But ironically, Marxism “failed not because it deprived man of the transcendent, but because it deprived him of the profane. . . By forcing him to endow concrete reality with its full importance and weight, it also makes it intolerable.” Reality is intolerable especially if economic failure imposes poverty and hardship. The squalor of dehumanizing work relationships only underscores the illusion of Marx’s dream of the liberated proletariat who switches spontaneously between high cultural pursuits and manual labor. Marxism becomes discredited no less because “The squalor of the work relationship was the equivalent of corrupt priesthood in other faiths.”

But if Marxism disappeared with unprecedented vengeance, Islam continues to flourish. If we are to believe Samuel Huntington, Islam even represents the chief threat to Western civilization itself. Gellner empathizes with the unease of Western liberals with this unpalatable  but “persistent option”. Wherein lies this persistence of this hardy plant of Islamic society? Ibn Khaldun’s observation of the dialectic between urban and rural Islam represents the classic sociological entry point. In this regard, Islamic polity was based on a cohesion arising from a  network of quasi tribes and kinfolk alliance where loyalty, rather than contractual relations backed by legal sanctions was crucial. Rural Islam being pluralistic was centred on the Saint who mediated the supernatural world. This was balanced by urban Islam where “the prosperous bourgeoisie looked to scripturalism for a confirmation of its comfortable life-style.”

Classical Islamic polity attained a durable balance which Ibn Khaldun outlined as historical cycles of urban degeneration of civility and renewal of social cohesion from the tribal fringe.   However, this balance was lost in recent Islamic societies. How did this come about? Social mobility bought on by modern economics and the ability of the urban centre to project its power through a novel bureaucratic institution increased the dominance of the urban elite.

The state can be still be called to account for any violation of the sacred law. However, the focus of the religious critique is on how to govern the details of daily life rather than on accounting of power in public institutions. The entrenched religious constitution of society provides rules for conduct of life, but not a blueprint for the organization of power. The power vacuum is filled without protest by clientelist politics. This leads to a “curious combination of religious moralism and cynical clientalism.”  On terms of democratic expectations then, such societies are seen to  be tolerating ‘legitimate injustice’. Gellner argues, “In the end, society seems to possess no cement other than faith on the one hand, and loyalty on the other. . . The residue of the population not locked into any such network is effectively disfranchised.”

Some Western liberals might be tempted to capitalize on the deficiency of these historical contrasts and take credit for the emergence of ‘Civil Society’ as the outcome of the European Enlightenment.  But one cannot disregard the failures of the Enlightenment itself. The French Revolution as the grand project of the Enlightenment led to the rise of an imperialist like Napolean whose expansionist monarchy only devastated Europe. More disturbingly, Max Horkeimer and Theodor Adorno in their trenchant Critique of the Enlightenment charged that instrumental rationality ultimately led to mass destructions like the Holocaust. Real humans are tragically sacrificed on the slaughter bench of ideological history in the name of progress and the perfectibility of universal mankind.

But wherein lies the genesis of this miraculous but fragile Civil Society? Gellner in particular highlighted both the impact of the rising dominance of the economy over politics and the ‘failure’ of the religious revolutionaries exemplified by the Puritans as contributing factors. One must resists the temptation to find mono-causal historical explanations. However, what cannot be denied is the wonderful or providential confluence of these historical forces.

In earlier historical societies, freedom was impossible for ordinary citizens who fall into the tyranny of the armed defenders against external threats. “Specialized, atomized producers were politically helpless victims of cohesive, unspecialized tribesmen, who manned the citadel and in effect constituted the state.” However, the Industrial Revolution with its innovative technology unleashed powerful economic forces giving rise to socio-economic institutions, that is, new power centres which grew rapidly beyond the control of state. Economic decentralization led to a decentralized political system. Gellner notes that the attempt to combine political ideology and economic pursuit by Marxists in a command economy resulted in economic inefficiency and political corruption and cynicism. Thus the eventual disintegration of recent Marxist regimes. However, “To allow an independent economic zone is to leave an enormous breach in the authoritarian system, given the importance. To deprive Civil Society of an independent economic base is to throttle it, given the inevitability of political centralization.”

But will not the breach of  political hierarchy lead to atomization and individualism? Not if man attains new qualities of modularity. Modularity as such is the capability of combining into effective associations and institutions without these being immobilized by the rituals and social contracts of traditional societies. Social relations become flexible, specific and instrumental and yet not atomize. ‘Modular man’ makes Civil Society which remains structural and yet readily adjustable and responsive to rational criteria of improvement.

How did ‘Modular man’ emerge? Gellner concedes to the decisive role of Reformation enthusiasts in their ensuing struggle with established priesthood hierarchy.  First, Reformation spirituality insisted on the equalization of human relations seen primarily in the rejection of a distinctive priestly caste. Second, the political stalemate between the practitioners of superstition and the zealots of enthusiasm led the zealots to renounce their ambition to impose righteousness on earth by force. Mutual tolerance followed as a necessity. This in turn translated religious energy into private zeal and economic productivity. In Gellner’s words, “they turn to economic activity, practicing it with religious zeal and disinterestedness.” Most significantly, the enthusiasts of the Reformation maintained the discipline of self-regulation which constitutes the potential for modularity, that is, the ability to adapt into voluntary and changeable communities.

Gellner must be seen to have backtracked from this insight when he maintains that Civil Society is an a-moral order.  How can it not be moral given its historical impetus? Gellner stresses that Civil Society is constituted by “politically coercive centralization with accountability, frequent rotation with minimal rewards for those manning the political apparatus and economic pluralism.” But how can such a Civil Society be possible without an altruism expressed as a moral choice?

Gellner evidently has restricted his analysis to social institutions in the search for the historical conditions for the rise of Civil Society and curiously ignored the moral resources of culture.  The decision to keep to positivistic sociology following the footstep of Ibn Khaldun is commendable, given Gellner’s self description elsewhere as an Enlightenment fundamentalist. But by the same token, it can also be reductionist if moral and religious factors are ignored, if not ruled out. Not surprisingly, Gellner has to conclude that the emergence of Civil society is nothing less than a miracle. The truth is, Civil Society is not just the automatic outcome of a fortuitous confluence of social conditions. The struggle for Civil Society presupposes the willingness of a people who are prepared to reject the bread and circuses of Caesar and confront the anxiety of freedom, a role suitably met by Reformation spirituality.

It is therefore arguable that Civil Society is built on the social capital of Judeo-Christian religions. In contrast to Gellner’s skewed or reductionist reading of history, we refer to Charles Taylor’s article “Invoking Civil Society” in his recent book Philosophical Arguments.  Taylor’s careful narration included contribution from the medieval ideal that society is not identical with political organization arising from the insistence that the church is an independent society and the reality of relatively independent, self-government cities. This is reinforced by the development of the notion of subjective rights, a notion that was undoubtedly strongly reinforced by religious identity.

Civil Society is after all, what individual citizens feel deprived of and therefore a cause they struggle for and eventually create. But to echo Nietzsche’s taunt, will ‘men without chests’ be willing to struggle sacrificially for an ideal like Civil Society under difficult circumstances? Therein lies the considerable significance of religious motivation for resistance to tyranny exemplified by the Huguenots in France and the Calvinists in Scotland. In this regard, Civil Society was significantly nurtured on the moral capital of Reformation spirituality.

Gellner is correct in his insistence that non-governmental institutions should have the ability to balance the power of the state. However, Gellner needs to go even further by acknowledging that non-governmental institutions will fail unless they are buttressed by strong moral foundations. For example, the family institution in America is currently a private institution par excellence. But the disintegration of the family institution renders it the root of social problems. In other words, what we need is not only the revitalization of Civil Society, but the remoralization of Civil Society.

Unlike secular Westerners, Asians call for both the revitalization and remoralization of Civil Society. But will not this move merely ignore Gellner’s warning that traditional society became stagnant precisely because of the requirements of social and religious rituals? The challenge for Asians who are concerned that religion should continue to play a role in social development must certainly be to develop a religious morality that is not rigidly legalistic.

It has been repeatedly emphasized that Civil Society must be independent of state power. As such it would be a contradiction to look at Civil Society as a deliberate fruit of government planning. Indeed, what is needed is not governmental intervention but governmental abstention. But can those Asian governments informed by religions that reject the separation state and church/mosque/temple resist the inherently expansive intrusion of the state into all other sectors of society? This is particularly difficult if religion is deemed credible only in proportion to its power projection and control of social institutions.

For Gellner, Civil Society entails political accountability, frequent rotation with minimal rewards for those manning the political apparatus and economic pluralism. But surely this is essentially a call for effacement of power springing from the recognition of the ‘Other’ as an authentic partner in social projects. As such, Asians who want to maintain a religious dimension in the development of Civil Society must also call for religions to be capable of self-critique and affirm an ultimate reality that is capable of the effacement of power and has an inherent relational plurality that enables the recognition of the ‘Other’. Only then will Civil Society in Asia be both morally just and religious.

To look forward to this possibility is already a declaration that our quest for Civil Society in Asia need not be a blind imitation of the Western experience. But it does affirm one essential pre-requisite, that is, an openness willing to address social realities and to learn from others so as to avoid earlier errors and capitalize on the lessons of history. To this extent, we are indebted to Gellner for his insightful and incisive analysis on Civil Society which justifiably has become a vital if not central category in the quest for a free and democratic society whether in the East or the West.

Ng Kam Weng


  1. miriam farhi-rodrig says:

    I liked your article and it is helpful for putting light on the need of civil society in the East. meanwhile I suggest you have a look at ernest gellner & contemporary social thought ed by malesevic & haugaard for more on gellner and civil society,

  2. kostas says:

    neat.not a fun of gellner’s science and somewhat critical towards hegel but found it cool and sincere.
    kostas bizas:))))))))))