Violence and Sustenance
Concerning violence and sustenance, Ernest Gellner summarises:
The simplest formula for Civil Society ... is
- political-coercive centralization with accountability, rotation and fairly low rewards for those manning the political apparatus, and
- economic pluralism.
Maintenance of order is not delegated to sub-units, but concentrated in the hand of one agency or co-ordinated cluster of agencies.
The economic pluralism however (reinforced by both the reality and the anticipation of growth) puts limits on political centralism, compelling it to remain within the bounds of its prescribed and restricted role.
(Gellner. E. (1994), Conditions of Liberty. Civil Society and Its Rivals, Allen Lane The Penguin Press, NY: New York, p. 93 - emphasis and change of format added, G.T.)
Gellner adduces two main factors to explain why
economic decentralization ... constitutes a pre-condition of anything resembling a Civil Society.
(Ibid. p. 87)
He argues that "political-coercive centralization," a concentration of power in the hands of a monopolist of coercion, is indispensable for the functioning of a modern society. This, however, implies that in order for there to be sufficiently powerful countervailing currents vis-à-vis a consolidated power centre, another sphere needs to be established: the field of economic decentralization or in another phrase of Gellner's "economic pluralism," which he defines as:
"the existence of genuinely independent productive and property-controlling units in society" (Ibid. p. 88). [...]
[Civil Society] can only be plural - and contain countervailing forces and balance mechanisms, which are located in the economic sphere or work by means of economic power - precisely because effective political-coercive centralization is a necessary pre-condition of its functioning; hence there cannot be much balancing in the coercive sphere.
(Ibid. p. 87)
In traditional societies, the social, the political, and the economic spheres are hardly distinct; to ensure social cohesion and protection against attacks by outsiders, it is necessary to inculcate high degrees of cultural uniformity and to maintain it by invasive rites of intimate affiliation. Independent agency by members of the community is inadmissible, certainly in the form that modern man is accustomed to.
As economic and social structures are not separate from political ones, they must have it [the sphere of order maintenance, G.T.] in that joint sphere if they are to have it anywhere.
In as far as such political pluralism presupposes eventual or occasional violent conflict, the units which oppose each other and which from time to time enter into conflict must have a hold over the loyalty of their members, sufficient to induce them to fight and to risk loss of life. [...]
In modern industrial society, this profound aura attaches only to the total community, the national state, and perhaps to the preservation of its basic political order. It does not attach to sub-units ... A man is not expected to die for his county or borough or his office community. He is not obliged to wear clothes indicating his membership, and he is not even obliged to support the local football team.
(Ibid. - emphasis added)
In Civil Society,
political pluralism in terms of independent or autonomous coercive units is out. Local units simply lack the adequate weight. Liberty, on the other hand, is impossible without pluralism, without a balance of power. As it cannot be political, it must be economic. (Ibid. p. 88 - emphasis added)
It is matter of subsidiarity to put coercion in the hands of a suitable specialist rather than duplicating the task innumerably among the citizenry. The centralisation of coercive power is highly efficient in that social energy that would be put to evil or unproductive use when dispersed among the members of society, can flow to the realm of sustenance, where subsidiarity requires competition among sub-units that in pursuing their livelihood are largely independent of the specialists of coercion. Perhaps the biggest challenge in transitioning from a closed access society - where politics is usurped by a small elitist and oppressive coalition of specialists of governance and coercion) to an open access society (i.e. Civil Society) is to find an equilibrium such that power becomes dependent on the wealth provided by economic pluralism and, therefore, tends to protect and expedite the conditions of high-power wealth creation.
Thus, Ernest Gellner suggests an interesting hypothesis concerning the division of labour between central bureaucracies and the private economy in Civil Society. Each, agents of the state and agents of the free economy, should be left to pursue those tasks in which they are best at producing desirable results - and ultimately he is saying:
- the state is (more properly: can be) an efficient administrator of power compared to
- individuals and private associations that are more capable producers of economic efficiency compared to the state.
In this way, Gellner proposes two arguments to explain the essential role of economic pluralism in Civil Society:
- Firstly, there must be a second power-source next to the state, if sustainable pluralism is to prevail in a free society.
Power has a tendency to consolidate; a political authority unchallenged by a counterweight outside of the political sphere is not likely to create and defend an open access society; it is more likely to be exclusive, repressive, and prone to stagnation or violent upheavals, rather than warranting open political competition between members of society from all walks of life.
- 2. Secondly, it is desirable to avoid a direct coupling of political power with economic agency.
That is true for the very reason just presented: an unchallenged power-centre will tend to repel an open process of competition and put the need for power consolidation before any other requirements.
By contrast, relatively free economic agents will tend to
- create (owing to creative and commercial ambition),
- acquiesce in (owing to a relative lack of power), and
- observe (owing to state supervision) the prevailing rules of
a competitive environment.
Free economic agents have the potential to bring about levels of economic attainment that, in turn, make it possible to support a large government that is dependent on the continued high levels of economic performance generated by economic decentralisation.
Having dealt with violence and sustenance, Gellner finally turns to ideological pluralism, or "faith" according to my classification:
What of the third sphere of human activity, ideology? Should it resemble the political sphere in its centralization, or the economic sphere in its pluralism?
See also Prosperity and Violence (1/3)