Validation? Ernest Gellner

“Civil Society” is a notion which serves a double function: it helps us understand how a given society actually works, and how it differs from alternative forms of social organization. It is a society in which polity and economy are distinct, where polity is instrumental but can and does check extremes of individual interest, and yet where the state in turn is checked by institutions with an economic base; it relies on economic growth which, by requiring cognitive growth, makes ideological monopoly impossible. This is its location on the map of possible forms of social organization. It seems to have historic roots in the city-state and in the political centraliza­tion of the authoritarian state, and even on a thwarted but not wholly eroded aspiration for an Umma. It is a social form among others: preaching it in conditions which do not permit it is pointless.

At the same time, “Civil Society” does help us clarify our social norms, and make plain what it is we endorse and why it appeals to us. In this respect, “Civil Society” is markedly superior to a notion such as “democracy,” which, though it may highlight the fact that we prefer consent to coercion, tells us precious little concerning the social preconditions of the effectiveness of general consent and participation. It lumps together participatory tribal segments, ancient or medieval city-states and modern growth-oriented national or supranational states, obscuring the profound differences, whether in states of mind, social organization, or external circumstance, under which these various forms operate or operated. By contrast, the notion of Civil Society highlights not only the mechanics but also the charms of the kind of society to which we aspire.

Civil Society is based on the separation of the polity from economic and social life (from, in effect, Civil Society in the narrower sense—i.e., the social residue left when the state is subtracted), but this is combined with the absence of domination of social life by the power-wielders, an absence so strange and barely imaginable in the traditional agrarian world, and found so surprising and precarious by Adam Ferguson. The political centralism is essential, for in the modern world economic and social units simply cannot double up as order-maintaining ones. Economic pluralism, far from total, is compatible with political control over strategic economic issues (indeed, requires this). The autonomy of the economy is needed, not merely in the name of efficiency (this would not matter too much, given that modern technology is in any case terrifyingly effective), but so as to provide pluralism with a social base which it cannot any longer find anywhere else. It requires intellectual or ideological pluralism: the growing economy which is indispensable to the system is impossible without science, and science is incompatible with a cognitive picture of the world which is socially sustained, enforced, and endowed with a priori authority.

In the future, it may well need to operate in conditions which differ from those which originally helped to bring it into being. A central world political authority may come about and be indispensable, if ecological or terrorist disaster is to be avoided. This means that Civil Society will no longer benefit from the support of social-natural selection in a multistate world, which had helped it so crucially in the past (even assuming that we can rely on efficiency continuing to be on its side, which is not obvious). It remains to be seen whether mere economic and cultural competition will have the same effect, and will suffice. Modularity/individualism may decline with the erosion of the faith which engendered it, and nonindividualist cultures may surpass individualist ones economi­cally: thus individualism may lose the vindication-by-wealth. Cultural homogeneity will probably be severely disturbed by emigration engendered by differences of economic level, and put liberal politics under severe strain.

Why should we want Civil Society? Karl Popper, in The Open Society and Its Enemies (a book to which the subtitle of the present work is an allusion), familiarized us with the difference between what he called “historicist” and liberal ways of validating social arrangements. By “historicism” he meant an appeal to the allegedly irreversible verdict of history: that which must be, is right. I am of course familiar with all the objections to historicism, not least because I was profoundly influenced by Popper’s book; the verdicts of history are in fact most unclear and unpredictable, and even if one did know them it would still be craven to treat them as authoritative.

Nevertheless, I feel that a partial historicism is inevitable. Civil Society may or may not be the unique social corollary of the kind of scientific-industrial mode of life to which mankind is now ineluctably wedded; but at any rate a certain number of the visible and advertised alternatives to it are unlikely to be compatible with it. That consideration must be present in our mind.

So, all in all, Civil Society is justified at least in part by the fact that it seems linked to our historical destiny. A return to stagnant traditional agrarian society is not possible; so, industrialism being our manifest destiny, we are thereby also committed to its social corollaries. On top of that, we—or some of us—also actually like it: we have no desire to live under an ideocracy, old-style or new, or under some kind of traditional communitarianism, let alone under the old central­ized authoritarian regimes. But we are the fruit of that which we also endorse, and how much does our endorsement add to its merits? Something, perhaps the collapse of Marxist ideocracy, demonstrates that modern man is not slave even to the most persistent and monopolistic indoctrination, and does not necessarily like that which pervades his world even though for a time it seems to have no alternative and be endowed with a powerful self-validating rationale. But what point is there in vaunting our values, and con­demning the commitment of others to absolutist transcen­dentalism or demanding communalism? They are what they are, and we are what we are: if we were them, we would have their values, and if they were us, they would have ours. I am not a relativist—the existence of a culture-transcending truth seems to me the most important single fact about the human condition, and indeed one of the bases of Civil Society, for it made possible that cogni­tive growth and the denial of absolutism on which it is based. But all the same, preaching across cultural bounda­ries seems to me in most circumstances a fairly pointless exercise.

In some limited measure, therefore, our attachment to Civil Society does have a kind of historicist foundation. But not altogether. Historical circumstances may eliminate some of its rivals, but in all probability they do not uniquely determine the residue (and most certainly do not determine it in all its details). Within the range of options which then remains—and we do not yet know just what that range is—the choice is ours. The code of cognitive conduct which has emerged with Civil Society, which separates facts and values, unfortunately prevents us from terminating the regress of justifications, and freeing our choice from the charge of arbitrariness. But that is our situation, and we cannot escape it. My own choice happens to be clear, but the nature of our values also prevents us from validating it. A validation of the choice would require that it be the corollary of an absolutized and unique vision: yet the rules of the order we choose forbid precisely such an absolutization! So the nature of our choice prevents us from proving its preeminent merit. We have to live with this. Paraphrasing Kant on ethics, we cannot overcome this tension, but we can understand why we must suffer it. Do not blame the bearer of the news for its content.


Ernest Gellner, “Validation?” Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals, Penguin Books, London 1996, p. 211–215.