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Condtions of Liberty: Civil Society and its Rivals


A new ideal was born, or reborn, in recent decades: Civil Society. Previously, a person interested in the notion of Civil Society could be assumed to be a historian of ideas, concerned perhaps with Locke or Hegel. But the phrase itself had no living resonance or evocativeness. Rather, it seemed distinctly covered with dust. And now, all of a sudden, it has been taken out and thoroughly dusted, and has become a shining emblem.

There is relatively little mystery concerning why this should have happened. The condition defined by this term had become highly valued and loaded with political appeal. In extensive parts of the world, what it denoted was absent. This lack came in due course to be strongly felt and bitterly resented: eventually it turned into an aching void. The absence was felt acutely in societies which had strongly centralized all aspects of life, and where a single politicaleconomic-ideological hierarchy tolerated no rivals and one single vision defined not only truth but also personal rectitude. This caused the rest of society to approximate an atomized condition, and dissent then became a mark of heresy or, in the terminology of modern ideocracy, it defined an 'enemy of the people'.

Societies of this kind had emerged through the influence and the implementation of Marxism, and one way of summarizing the central intuition of Marxism is to say: Civil Society is a fraud. The idea of a plurality of institutions both opposing and balancing the state, and in turn controlled and protected by the state - is, in the Marxist view, merely the provision of a fac,ade for a hidden and maleficent domination. It helps to reinforce such a domination by coercive institutions masquerading as benign, neutral or divinely ordained. Marxism claims to unmask both partners in this deception - the state which protects Civil Society, and Civil Society which provides a counterweight to the state. Both are damned as redundant and fraudulent.

So, it was claimed, there is no need for such a formula: once exploitation comes to an end, a social order will emerge which will have no need of coercive reinforcement. Only a pathological internal division of society created the need for a state; the overcoming of that condition automatically renders the state redundant. There will be no need for a state, and so naturally there will also be no need for additional institutions to counterbalance that central agency of order.

On this view the whole cluster of ideas associated with the phrase Civil Society stands for something which is both spurious and unnecessary. A harmonious social order, free of both exploitation and oppression, is possible after all. The formula for its construction is available. Its realization is on the agenda of history, and its coming will be ensured both by the inner logic of events and by the iron will of the quasi-religious order devoted to its implementation.

The actual experience of societies endeavouring to implement this vision in the end also conclusively undermined it. The first attempt at liberalizing Communist societies after the death of Stalin and in the course of the Khrushchevian thaw was, indeed, still marked by a retention of the original faith, and a desire to free it from its alleged 'deformations'. The central idea remained valid, it was felt, and only its implementation had gone astray. If there was a dominant slogan accompanying the reforms of that period within Marxist societies, it was 'alienation'. The same term also provided a focus for the intellectual activity of those in the West eager to endow Marxism with a new life and a fresh, moralistic image. The works of the young Marx, including parts of which he himself had later come to be ashamed and had never published, were revived with a view to offering a formulation of Marxism which was moralistic rather than scientistic, and which could provide a standar! d for judging and correcting fault y implementation of Marxism (a danger previously not seriously considered). The moral inspiration and aspiration of Marxism was stressed more than its scientistic pretensions. There was still the belief that, technically, Communism could be and would be effective, and that, morally, if only it was purged of its deformations, it could be admirable.

By the time of the second liberalization under Gorbachev, nothing remained of either of these two illusions. The second liberalization had been provoked and rendered necessary by an indisputable, and no longer disputed, technical failure and inferionty. As for moral superiority, strangely enough the sleazy but at least relatively mild squalor of the Brezhnev years proved far more corrosive for the image of the faith than the total, pervasive, random and massively destructive terror of Stalinism. That terror could at least be seen as the fearful but appropriately dramatic heralding of a totally new social order, the coming of a new man. It was indeed frequently seen in such a light. It was somehow fitting that the coming of a new humanity would be sanctified by so much blood. The squalor, on the other hand, heralded nothing at all except, perhaps, more squalor. It is possible to live with squalor, especially if the regime guilty of it is also relatively tolerant of those who ! do not actively oppose or threaten the system, but it hardly heralds a new dawn for mankind.

Now a new ideal or counter-vision, or at least a slogancontrast, was required, and appropriately enough it was found in Civil Society, in the idea of institutional and ideological pluralism, which prevents the establishment of monopoly of power and truth, and counterbalances those central institutions which, though necessary, might otherwise acquire such monopoly. The actual practice of Marxism had led, wherever it came to be implemented, to what might be called Caesaro-Papism-Mammonism, to the near-total fusion of the political, ideological and economic hierarchies. The state, the church-party and the economic managers were all parts of one single nomenklatura. A single and centralized hierarchy with an unambiguous apex monopolized all important decisions. Autonomy of the formal segments, consultation and electoral decision-taking were all of them pure theatre, and known to be such. This tendency was perhaps specially marked in a society which had in any case been, even pri! or to the coming of Marxism, stron gly CaesaroPapist. The superimposition of Marxism on Byzantine theology and traditions proved disastrous. Modern administrative and communication technology had made economic centralization both more feasible and more disastrous than it had been in the days when Russian villages were isolated by impassable mud in spring and autumn, and when nature herself, if not human will, had circumscribed autocracy. Modern technology at the service of Caesaro-Papism did not shine in economic performance, but it endowed authoritarianism with an altogether new, totalitarian quality.

By the I9805 if not before, the consequences of such a system had become plain for all to see. Economically it was disastrous, and had caused the Soviet Union to be beaten simultaneously in the consumerist and in the arms race. It was bad enough for a country to have a Chayanovite peasantry and working class - one preferring security to increased output, as the Russian economist Chayanov had shown - but the unification of all hierarchies also led to a Chayanovite bureaucracy, one playing politics and playing safe, rather than committed to effectiveness. Its members were inevitably far more concerned with their position inside the networks than they were with technical efficiency, which would earn them no good marks and was indeed liable to eam them black ones. They learnt how to cheat the plan rather than how to increase output. Excessive zeal for production would cause friction, and might well earn a person guilty of it the label of saboteur.

At the same time, the system led to an atomized, individualized society, where it was barely possible - or literally not possible at all - to found a philatelic club without political supervision. Far from creating a new social man, one freed from egotistic greed, commodity fetishism and competitiveness, which had been the Marxist hope, the system created isolated, amoral, cynical individualists-without-opportunity, skilled at double-talk and trimming within the system, but incapable of effective enterprise. In these circumstances, the very thing which Marxism had proclaimed to be a fraud was suddenly seen to be something that was to be most ardently desired. The dusty term, drawn from antiquated political theory, belonging to long, obscure and justly forgotten debates, re-emerged, suddenly endowed with a new and powerful capacity to stir enthusiasm and inspire action.

What is it?

The simplest, immediate and intuitively obvious definition, which also has a good deal of merit, is that 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 the peace and arbitrator between major interests, can nevertheless prevent it from dominating and atomizing the rest of society.

Such a definition conveys the idea contained in the phrase, and also highlights the reason for the newly emerged attractiveness of the slogan. None the less, this definition has a grave deficiency. It is good as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. The problem is simple: such a definition would include under the notion of 'Civil Society' many forms of social order which would not satisfy.

The point is this: historically, mankind has not always suffered under centralized despotism. It has suffered from it frequently, more often than not perhaps, but not everywhere and at all times; quite frequently it was free from such oppresslon.

The imposition of a despotism is not always an easy matter. Pre-modern polities quite often lack the equipment for pulverizing and then dominating the societies they control. They are interested in extracting as much surplus as possible and ensuring obedience, but frequently the best way of doing this is to allow local communities to administer themselves, and merely oblige them to supply produce - or labour - on pain of punishment. In circumstances favourable to them, such as those conducive to mobile pastoralism or prevailing in difficult mountainous terrain, local communities can even become fully independent and effectively resist demands for taxation or corvee. In most places in the agrarian world, however, power is concentrated in one dominant and, by our standards, oppressive centre.

The logic of successive elimination of rival candidates for power until one only remains, does indeed operate in certain widely prevalent conditions, such as river valleys. In places where the vanquished cannot escape (because they depend for their survival on immobile fields, for instance), but can be deprived of arms, it then leads to a marked concentration of power and to exploitation. But these conditions do not prevail everywhere. What all this means is that in the traditional agrarian world, though its polities are most often monarchical, one nevertheless often finds internally wellorganized, self-administering and partly or wholly autonomous sub-communities.

These, however, maintain their cohesion, internal discipline and solidarity with the help of much ritual, employed to underscore and enforce social roles and obligations. The social roles are generally conceived and defined in kin terms, and may indeed frequently be filled in terms of the kin positions of their occupants. So political, economic, ritual and any other kinds of obligations are superimposed on each other in a single idiom. This strengthens all of them: one cannot ignore one's kin of obligation, for instance, without impenlling other relationships. The price of such strengthening is of course that all spheres of life become rigid, and innovation, technical or other, is rendered that much harder. The social visibility and authority of relationships is fortified by a plethora of ritual reminders: as in a military organization, discipline is enforced by a proliferation of minor rules and hence additional possible transgressions, the avoidance of which puts a heavy a! nd constant burden on each individ ual, and thus keeps him in awe of the social order as a whole. There are so many ways of putting a foot wrong that a man is always at risk and seldom socially innocent. This being so, he needs to maintain a fund of good will among his fellows and his superiors, to compensate for the transgressions which he cannot but commit, and which render him perpetually vulnerable. His role is stable and ritually orchestrated. It is both intemalized and externalized: it enters deep into his soul, and a plethora of markers pervades the outward life of the community. It endows him with an identity both secure and inescapable. He knows only too well who he is and what is expected of him: his prospects of redefining his own identity are negligible.

Traditional man can sometimes escape the tyranny of kings, but only at the cost of falling under the tyranny of cousins, and of ritual. The kin-defined, ritually orchestrated, severely demanding and life-pervading systems of the 'ancient city',l in Fustel de Coulanges's sense, may indeed succeed at least for a time in avoiding tyrannical centralization, but only at the cost of a most demanding culture, one which modern man would find intolerably stifling. Roughly, the general sociological law of agrarian society states that man must be subject to either kings or cousins, though quite often, of course, he is subject to both. Kings generally dominate societies through the intermediary of local institutions and communities, so that a tyrant at the centre is sustained by local institutions, and vice versa.

Therefore, if we are to define our notion of Civil Society effectively, we must first of all distinguish it from something which may in itself be attractive or repulsive, or perhaps both, but which is radically distinct from it: the segmentary community which avoids central tyranny by firmly turning the individual into an integral part of the social sub-unit. Romantics feel nostalgia for it and modern individualists may loathe it; but what concerns us here is that, whatever our feelings for it may be, it is very, very different from our notion of Civil Society, even though it satisfies that plausible initial definition of it. It may, indeed, be pluralistic and centralization-resistant, but it does not confer on its members the kind of freedom we require and expect from Civil Society.

Fustel de Coulanges in his La Cite' Antique did more than perhaps anyone else to establish this distinction. His aim was to disabuse his fellow French citizens, who had for some time been eager to invoke the alleged liberties of the ancients as precedents for the liberties they were eager to acquire or to fortify in their own society. But this was a total misunderstanding, Fustel claimed:

L'idee que l'on s'est faite de la Grece et de Rome a souvent trouble nos generations. Pour avoir mal observe les institutions de la cite ancienne, on a imagine de les faire revivre chez nous. On s'est fait illusion sur la liberte chez les anciens et pour cela seul la liberte chez les modemes a ete mise en peril.2

Fustel was eager to cure his compatriots of their illusions, and thereby guard against the dangers inherent in them. Fustel was anticipated on this point by Benjamin Constant~ who, however, only pointed out the absence of individual freedom among the ancients (even when they enjoyed liberty in the sense that their city was free of a tyrant or of foreign domination). He did not see, or at any rate he did not firmly point out, the role of social sub-groups and of ritual in the subjugation of the individual. So he cannot altogether be claimed as an ancestor of the Durkheimian sociological and anthropological tradition, and hence of the understanding of a kind of society which, though plural, does not resemble our Civil Society.

Segmentary communities constitute an important social form, but it is one which differs significantly both from centralized tyrannies and from our Civil Society. Nor can Constant really be hailed as the anticipator of the distinction between 'positive' and 'negative' liberty. The objection to the ancient city is not so much that it prefers positive liberty (fulfilment) to negative liberty (absence of external constraints), but that its crucial defects preclude the possibility of formulating this contrast. It thrusts on to the individual an ascribed identity, which then may or may not be fulfilled, whereas a modern conception of freedom includes the requirement that identities be chosen rather than ascribed.

This particular danger of confusing modern and ancient liberty may not be serious in our time: the rhetoric of the recent converts to the idea of Civil Society does not contain much, if indeed it contains any, invocation of the ancient liberties of the Greeks and Romans. Pericles was not invoked, nor Plutarch quoted, by striking dockyard workers or miners in Gdansk or Donetz. Nevertheless, a proper understanding of what the ideal of Civil Society really means now must distinguish it from an implicit identification with any and every plural society, within which well-established institutions counterbalance the state. That is simply too broad. The danger of such a mistake is present in current discourse if it adopts the intuitively plausible definition of Civil Society which already takes for granted a modern context and, so, tacitly excludes ancient pluralism. But, unless 'segmentary' societies are clearly excluded, the definition of Civil Society invoked at the start include! s them, and mistakenly identifies them with what we want now. But such an equation is not merely in error theoretically, it also has practical consequences. These, even if they are not the same as those of the French contemporaries and predecessors of Fustel, are important.

Fustel is exceedingly eloquent on the matter of how much real individual liberty in the modern sense there was in the ancient city:

La cite avait ete fondee sur une religion et constituee comme une Eglise. De la sa force; de la aussi son omnipotence et l'empire absolu qu'elle exerc,ait sur ses membres. Dans une societe etablie sur de tels principes, la liberte individuelle ne pouvait pas exister. Le citoyen etait soumis en toutes choses et sans aucune reserve a la cite . . . La vie privee n'echappait pas a cette omnipotence de l'Etat . . . Il exerc,ait sa tyrannie jusque dans les plus petites choses . . .4

Fustel was concerned to show how this kind of plural, noncentralized, but socially oppressive society, despite its political pluralism could never satisfy a modern craving for Civil Society. It was eventually replaced by a new order, one in which the Christian separation of religion and polity made individual liberty thinkable. In this way, Fustel was not merely the ancestor of those who, like L. Dumont,s try to locate the religious origins of Westem individualism, but also of those who seek to understand the kind of society based on the principles he had laid bare, and which in due course was to be called 'segmentary'. Fustel's story recorded the disappearance and replacement of one set of such societies, those of classical antiquity. In fact they had not disappeared from the earth, or even from the Mediterranean. They are a hardy plant, which is part of the reason why they merit attention.

Fustel and his ideas have thus also become the inspiration of those many investigators, who have since come to be called social anthropologists, who are eager to understand societies which long continued to function in the manner which Fustel credited primarily to Mediterranean antiquity. In his own time, Emile Masqueray rediscovered the ancient city, under Muslim camouflage, in the Berber hills of Algeria.6 For some reason which might repay investigation, the great Parisian star Fustel and the provincial nobody Masqueray coldly and almost completely ignored each other, though they must have known each other and their paths had crossed: Masqueray's scheme of evolution of Berber communities in Algeria mirrored Fustel's triadic succession in the ancient Mediterranean. Was it general or academic politics which explains this mutual avoidance by the two men? More recently, an American scholar has used Fustel, directly rather than mediated by Durkheim as is more common, in studyin! g a longurbanized and unusual Asia n population, the Nepalese Newars. After summarizing Fustel's segmentary account of society and the way in which each level of segments was sustained by its deities and rites, Robert Levy goes on to comment:

Fustel's portrait contained a deeply felt myth, that of an earthly paradise of orderly, family-based unities prior to a transformation into a larger, impersonal and conflictridden state organisation.'

Perhaps Fustel's materials were indeed used to help foster such a myth, though Fustel himself was rather concerned, as we have seen, to counter an earlier myth, that of the ancient city as a precursor or model of the French Revolution and its ideals.

But the real situation is at the very least triangular (later we may need to add further options): there are the segmentary communities, cousin-ridden and ritual-ridden, free perhaps of central tyranny, but not really free in a sense that would satisfy us; there is centralization which grinds into the dust all subsidiary social institutions or sub-communities, whether ritually stifling or not; and finally, there is the third alternative we seek to define and attain. It excludes both stifling communalism and centralized authoritarianism. It is this kind of Civil Society which concerns us.

A proper definition of it must take all this into account: Civil Society has at the very least two contrasts, and so its essence cannot be seized with the help of a merely bi-polar opposition between pluralism and monocentrism. We must try to understand that which we have suddenly discovered we possess and value. Many of us in the West took it for granted (some still do), as a kind of normal human condition, while those in the East learnt to love it more ardently by being so thoroughly deprived of it, and by seeing the utter falsity of the faith which declared it to be redundant and fraudulent. But we need to know just what it is we love. We can only identify it through characterizing the full variety of its historic contrasts.8