Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber:
Civil society is a notoriously loose term – Marx, Gramsci, Bobbio and a whole host of political theorists and writers in the 1990s mean very different things by it. So how can we make it useful? One good place to start is the work of Ernest Gellner.
Gellner’s book on civil society, Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and its Rivals, was published in 1994. My hardback copy was remaindered from the library of the American Enterprise Institute, which suggests a micro-history of the American conservative movement in itself. Gellner’s account of civil society makes it clear that what’s important about civil society is that it’s not the ‘civic society’ that Bannon is talking about, and in many respects is its antithesis.
Much of what Gellner has to say isn’t immediately relevant today. He’s writing in the immediate wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites of which Gellner, an idiosyncratic social democrat, was not a fan. He also has a lot to say about the role of the umma in the Islamic world, stressing the ways in which Islamic ‘fundamentalism’ is a product of a set of very modern conditions. Yet what he has to say about civil society is highly relevant to Europe and the US. He writes with some skepticism about the efforts to build civil society in Eastern European countries where the state had atomized its citizens, and in which the local substitute for bourgeois modernizers were a clatter of spivs and former apparatchiks. This skepticism seems to have been born out in many cases, at least as things stand at the moment. The politics of the governing parties in Poland and Hungary, for example, are in part a deliberate retreat away from civil society into more traditional forms of identity such as religion and nationalism. It’s no coincidence, comrades, that the great hate figure of the populist right on both sides of the Atlantic is George Soros, whose Open Society Foundation is dedicated exactly to building up the kind of civil society that Gellner and his old sparring partner Karl Popper wanted to see.
And for Gellner, the cultural conditions of civil society are essential. Civil society involves a relationship of power, in which the forces within society and the economy are sufficiently strong to constrain the state. Yet it also involves a set of associated beliefs, or, more precisely, a pluralism of beliefs and identities, in which no identity is so overwhelmingly strong as to become a prescribed faith or universal moral order.'