BOOK REVIEW / Our beautiful system of illusions: 'Conditions of Liberty' - Ernest Gellner: Hamish Hamilton, 18.99

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The Independent Culture
One of the many side-effects of the collapse of communism was the shocking realisation in the West that we might conceivably possess something of lasting human value. As the states of the old Soviet empire began to speak out, it emerged that they aspired not just to our wealth but also to our subtle and complex system of freedoms. After years of Western self-doubt and dissent we now find ourselves furiously seeking to define and celebrate socio-political virtues that we had not previously thought we possessed.

Ernest Gellner's book is a direct response to this post-Cold War intellectual climate. For him the great virtuous innovation of the West against which the absolutism of Marxism could not prevail is 'Civil Society', a historical condition whose creation he describes quite simply as 'a miracle'. It is his intention here to define Civil Society and to assess its chances for the future.

The result of his efforts is a short, dense book that requires careful reading. The negative reason for this is that Gellner's writing does not make things easy. He has a fondness for phrases like technologically-sophisticated productive orientation and an odd way of organising his material that obstructs the development of his argument. The positive reason for reading with care is that this is a book that contains a very great deal of very urgent material.

Gellner is cautious in stalking his definition. Civil Society in its simplest terms 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'.

But he is not satisfied with this, because it is a definition that could include many partially despotic societies of the past. The bulk of this book is his attempt to get closer to the distinctive character of modern Civil Society.

The dragons of two non-civil societies have, in the process, to be slain. The first is Islam, a faith and social system that is unique in that it appears to be resisting, indeed rolling back, the worldwide trend towards secularisation. Gellner's analysis of this phenomenon is brief and brilliant.

Marxism, the second dragon, specifically identified Civil Society as a mechanism of oppression. Civil Society had, therefore, to be eliminated in the name of a secular absolutism predicated on a quasi- scientific analysis of history. But this absolutism could not be 'routinized'; it was a pantheistic faith which invaded every aspect of human activity. In the religion of Marxism everything was made sacred by being engaged with the dialectic. There was no space left for the profanities of the human heart and, as a result, it never succeeded in engaging the heart. 'There are few individuals,' comments Gellner, 'who can remain indefinitely in a condition of high exaltation.'

From here Gellner moves forward through liberalism to an image which he regards as central to an understanding of what does work about Civil Society. The image is that of modular furniture. A unit in modular furniture is always at home although it can fit in with its neighbours in a variety of different ways. This is the self in Gellner's version of Civil Society - possessed of a variety of attachments, none of which need be rigid, final or absolute. A Mancunian can support Tottenham Hotspur or even AC Milan, he is free of absolute demands from his immediate culture even though, as Gellner insists, he will be defined by that culture. He can celebrate it without denying its fallibility. 'You might say,' he writes engagingly, 'that a real Civil Society is one which does not rechristen all its railway stations and boulevards and issue a new city plan each time the government changes.'

Modular man knows that the world does not consistently support any one over-arching rationalisation, there is no one justification. As a result - 'Reason leaves almost everything unsettled, and so only irrational pressures can give us a stable and habitable world.' The ways of the culture must be seen to embody a truth even if that truth is not final - 'Men prefer to think of themselves as sinners, rather than to damn the system in which they live . . . We like to accept the universe.'

These strike me as profound and human insights, confronting the essential mysteriousness of our attachments and the unknowable complexity of the cultures and societies which grant us our selfhood. Some may find the irrationality distasteful, but, after the failure of so many rationalisms, there is little serious evidence that can be assembled against Gellner.

Civil Society is, therefore, a miracle, an extraordinarily valuable attainment that succeeds in containing the power of certainty without assaulting - as communism tried and failed to do - the basic human requirement of cultural identity.

The book is reasonably optimistic about the ability of Civil Society to endure. But, in his last paragraph, he raises a problem which, I believe, is more serious than he realises. The nature of our society prevents us from 'terminating the regress of justifications', we cannot elevate Civil Society to the position of absolute because any such move is forbidden by the rules we have made. Put simply: we cannot say we know we are right when confronted with the otherness of Islam over, for example, the Salman Rushdie affair. Gellner's conclusion is to say that 'we cannot overcome this tension, but we can understand why we must suffer it'. On the other hand, pessimists like me would reply, we may succumb to it and suffer a catastrophic loss of confidence in our virtues that will, ultimately, undermine Civil Society.

This is an essential book. It is frequently unclear and the argument is sometimes far too compressed. In detail there is much to disagree with. But, in general, it represents a profound and honest attempt to justify the benign and rather beautiful 'system of illusions' thanks to which, for the moment, the West has won.

(Photograph omitted)