In Civil Society, paraphrasing Ernest Gellner, the problem of violence is solved by compartmentalising it, i.e. by taking the coercive instrument out of the hands of the individual subjects that make up the citizenry and placing it in the sole possession of one agent: the state monopolist of power.
The problem of sustenance is solved by creating a wide sphere within which competing individuals and their associations are allowed to strive for the realisation of their own ideas and ambitions as to how to make a living.
The manner in which the problem of sustenance is solved in Civil Society creates a strong force that countervails the state monopolist of power, which becomes dependent on the wealth creating power of a relatively free economy, and thus faces limits to its ability to interfere with it, while being given incentives to facilitate its functioning.
The state relieves the individuals from the need to and the dangers of acting as their own judges, policemen or soldiers. The individuals relieve the state of the burden of procuring sustenance in inefficient ways, that is by robbery, suppression and exploitation on behalf of a predatory elite, or by incompetently micro-managing the process of production.
The Problem of Faith
Sword and bread having been taken care of, how is man in Civil Society to satisfy his need to know what he cannot know, a fundamental problem of an animal habituated to thinking in the face of a world that cannot be conquered by thought alone.
What of the third sphere, ideology? Should it resemble the political sphere in its centralization, or the economic one in its pluralism?
Gellner, E. (1994), Conditions of Liberty. Civil Society and its Rivals, Allen Lane The Penguin Press, New York, p. 93)
Admittedly, I may be stretching Gellner's answer improperly in interpreting it to suggest that the solution of the problem of faith in Civil Society lies in the production of modularised faiths. This is to be contrasted with Umma, a faith shared by all members of a community and expressed in its laws, a faith that defines social belonging, a faith that restricts personal discretion in the choice of one's place in society, a faith that one is not free to deviate from or even give up altogether on grounds of personal reasoning.
Whereas the Umma-type of faith may change only at glacial speed, giving the appearance of perfect constancy to the contemporary observer, modular faith undergoes alteration all the time, being an instrument of adaptation to changing circumstances and changing needs.
In Gellner's below statement, I hear echoes of ideas that I have expressed in Freedom - A Force of Creative Destruction in the Moral Realm:
[W]hereas a traditional tyrannical order was indeed liable to be based on conviction which was both strong and mistaken, a free order is based in the end not on true and firm conviction, but on doubt, compromise and doublethink.
(Ibid. p. 94 - emphasis added, G.T.)
Gellner seems to be implying that changing and improving standards for the authentication of truth, especially science and its vulgarisation in the form of rationalism, break up the contiguous surface of a common faith into particles that are individually selected and honed, creating modular faiths, pragmatically adjusted by a given person to her needs. Incessantly, society is being sculpted by multiple cross currents of faith.
In Civil Society, epistemic authorities such as customs and religion are in decline, or else these sources of intellectual reassurance such as the exact and falsifiable sciences (whose propositions lend themselves to testing and refutation) fail to be pertinent to the contentious issues and the tasks surrounding social order.
The enforcement of a religion or any sort of uniform faith has been deleted from the specification sheet defining the tasks of the monopolist of coercion; in fact, the state protects the individual from attempts at subjecting anyone to a faith aspiring to the rank of Umma, and organises well-protected avenues of evergreen dissent (freedom of conscience and expression etc). At the same time,
the superior kind of truth available in science is both unstable and largely lacking in any clear social implications.
(Ibid., p. 94)
What is more, science actually represents a model for creative destruction in the very realm that provides material for cognitive reassurance. The new ideal is conjectural knowledge, knowledge that is constantly in flux, with old elements breaking off and drifting away, while new ones are docking on, perhaps for only a brief spell.
If conjectural knowledge is an ideal accepted by relative few specialists concerned with scientific methodology, it is certainly palpable as a strong force in the "lived world" - yet:
Its links with the world of daily life, the "lived world", the Lebenswelt, are wobbly. The Lebenswelt now needs to be given a name, precisely because it no longer exhausts the world, it is no longer the world, and can no longer be taken for granted. It is an interim compromise.
(Ibid., pp. 94 -95 . emphasis added)
In Civil Society, man is confronted with a paradox - the best knowledge available, generated by science and other experimental methods, is unsuited as a uniform basis for social order. Its tentativeness, contestability and competitive multiplicity undermine any hope for a modern Umma, and it keeps bringing about unsettling social change in relentless waves of innovation so powerful as to engulf the entire society, yet Civil Society is predicated on the ongoing production of transformative innovation.
The mechanisms underlying that cognitive and technological-economic growth on which modern society depends for its legitimacy, require pluralism among cognitive explorers as well as among producers, and it is consequently incompatible with any imposition of a social consensus.
(Ibid. p. 95 - emphasis added, G.T.)
The above proposition in bold has great significance for understanding the nature of dissent in a free society. The threshold which triggers violent dissent is set at a very high level in Civil Society. Why?
- Firstly, people are essentially disarmed in the presence of a state monopolist of coercion; it is difficult and very costly to physically fight for one's demands.
- Secondly, there are quite effective non-violent alternatives to expressing dissent (public deliberation, political engagement).
- Thirdly, the pay-off from violent dissent is unfavourable - that is: as long as "cognitive and technological-economic growth" is buoyant enough to put people in a position where their undisrupted private existence carries a higher value than the assertion of personally preferred political demands.
As a result, people are harder to motivate and mobilise for the purpose of martial subversion. Even when people join partisan camps such as political parties, these have already adapted to the cultural preference for non-violent conflict resolution.
In fact, modern politics seems to serve as a powerful deflector of manifest violence and a highly functional theatre for affective sublimation by vicarious battling.
The result is "effective trust," as I call it, that is to say: opposing partisans engage in acts of trust without feeling sentiments of trust vis-à-vis one another. One may "hate" members of a rival party, but one does not kill them; outside of the political debate, one can trust the political adversaries not to do harm of an actionable kind to oneself. This may appear trivial, but it is a major advance in human civilisation. And it has a lot to do with the replacement of kinship networks by atomised individuals.
Civil Society is based on
a higher-level admission that truth [is] no one's monopoly. Social co-operation, loyalty and solidarity do not now presuppose a shared faith. They may in fact, presuppose the absence of a wholly shared and seriously, unambiguously upheld conviction. They may require a shared doubt. (Ibid. 96)
Political competition in Civil Society may be viewed as a permanent memento, a permanent renewal of that shared doubt. Unheard of by historic standards, we keep calling one another into question, relentlessly and all the time. That is the essence of modern politics. Unlike the subjects of an Umma, humans with modular faiths are both productive and capable of handling constant challenges. There is a box at the bottom of this post that invites anyone to question my words.