Over the next while, I want to write a bunch of posts looking at the Trump administration – and the worldwide surge of right wing populism more generally – through different lenses offered by different books. This may or may not be useful to other people – as much as anything I’m doing it to get my own thoughts in order about the condition we’re in, and the various possibilities for pushing back, using other people’s ideas as a starting point. First: civil society.

One way we can think of Trump and leaders like him is in terms of civil society. On the one hand, people like Daron Acemoglu argue that civil society is the last defense against Trump and his ilk.

This leaves us with the one true defense we have, which Hamilton, Madison, and Washington neither designed nor much approved of: civil society’s vigilance and protest. In fact, this is not unique to the United States. What is written in a constitution can take a nation only so far unless society is willing to act to protect it. Every constitutional design has its loopholes, and every age brings its new challenges, which even farsighted constitutional designers cannot anticipate.The lack – and in fact active discouragement — of direct social participation in politics is the Achilles’ heel of most nascent democracies. Many leaders of newly emerging nations in the 20th century, who professed as their goal the foundation of a democratic regime, all but prevented the formation of civil society, free media, and bottom-up participation in politics; their only use for it was mobilizing core supporters as a defense against other leaders seeking to usurp or contest power. This strategy effectively condemned their democracies to permanent weakness.

On the other, Stephen K. Bannon, the eminence grise of the Trump administration, describes his fears of foreigners as follows:

Last November, for instance, Trump said he was concerned that foreign students attending Ivy League schools have to return home because of U.S. immigration laws. “We have to be careful of that, Steve. You know, we have to keep our talented people in this country,” Trump said. He paused. Bannon said, “Um.” “I think you agree with that,” Trump said. “Do you agree with that?” Bannon was hesitant. “When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think . . . ” Bannon said, not finishing the sentence. “A country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.”

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.

The emergence of Civil Society has in effect meant the breaking of the circle between faith, power and society. The loyal citizen of a liberal Civil Society may indeed grant a kind of conditional legitimacy to the society of which he is a member, and recognize an obligation to defend it and to observe its rules, even if he tries to change them; but he is not given to sacralizing the power structure or revering the ranking of the society. He who is above him is fortunate, or has some achievement to his credit: but is no longer better or nobler. Loyalty no longer entails credulity. The criteria of truth, the criteria of social efficiency, the social hierarchy and the distribution of advantages within society – all these are not mutually linked, and the citizen can live with the clear awareness that indeed they are not linked, that the social order is not sacred, and that the sacred is not to be approached through the social. Inquiry into truth and commitment to the maintenance of social order are separated. The social can become both instrumental and optional.… Civil Society is above all a society whose order is not sacralized, or rather is only sacralized with ambiguity, irony and nuance … The social order is now instrumental, not the guardian of the absolute. Still, it needs values and a sense of obligation or commitment among its members. … In fact, it lives on a certain ambiguity, a compromise between faith and its absence and the obligation of honest doubt. It needs both …(pp.141-143)

This means, for one thing, that it has an awkward relationship with nationalism, particularly ethnic nationalism. Ethnic nationalism is, in the end, a “cult of community” which is at best indifferently compatible with the values of liberalism. This was especially marked in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe where:

the nationalists were hostile not merely to rival cultures, but also, and perhaps with special venom, to bloodless cosmopolitanism, probably in part because they perceived in it an ally of political centralism, and felt it to be a support for the old trans-national empires against neo-ethnic irridentism. They felt special loathing for those they considered to be the principal carriers of such cosmopolitanism. (They were right” in the end, the liberals committed to an open market in goods, in a sense men and ideas, were the last supporters of centralism, remaining faithful to it even when the old baroque absolutist partisans of the ancien regime had themselves given up the struggle. (pp.111-112)

There’s a lot to unpack in there. One obvious train of thought is the identification of liberalism in free movement of goods, markets and ideas with the ‘centralism’ of the European Union today – the hostility of Orban and Kaczynski to the EU has historic parallels (and differences) to an earlier generation of nationalism’s contempt for the Austro-Hungarian empire. Yet there also is a suggestion that ethnic nationalism (and – to extend Gellner’s thought a little to the US context – religious fundamentalism) is generically hostile and contemptuous towards liberalism precisely because the latter is based around a plural notion of civil society. Bannon’s “civic society” is a society where Asian immigrants are frightening, not because they threaten conflict, but because they embody the far more insidious threat of peaceful co-existence between a variety of ways of life, rather than a single moral order.

As Gellner notes (p.142) “A moral order, by contrast [to civil society], is comforting.” It gives people a sense that they know what the order of society is, even if they don’t always agree with it, and perhaps even if they don’t internalize its values at all. From this perspective, what Trump’s (and Orban’s, and Kaczynski’s, and Erdogan’s) politics purports to offer is not simply an economic restoration for those who think that they have been screwed by the bloodless cosmopolitans. It’s a moral restoration, of an order in which everyone knows, or ought to know, where they belong. This also perhaps explains the intuition behind the otherwise protean term ‘elite’ in populist discourse. Someone is an elite not because (or not simply because) they are doing better than you in economic terms. They are an elite because their pluralist system of values is not only doing better than the moral universe that you hold to be fundamental, but overwhelming it.

Gellner’s account of civil society is one that suggests a closer alliance between the left and a certain strand of libertarianism (there is nothing in Gellner that is more than slightly uncongenial e.g. to the people who are associated with the Niskanen Center). It suggests this because it emphasizes the values that the left and liberals hold in common, while pushing to one side the questions of redistribution and state power that they disagree on. Some people on the left – especially those committed to a strong state – would be left out of such a putative alliance.

It’s also one that emphasizes the value of social movements such as the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter. These – as Acemoglu’s framework suggests – can be seen as a reaction by a self-consciously pluralist civil society against the excesses and violence of a tacit alliance between the state and those who see themselves as defenders of the natural, white male dominated moral order of American politics. As Tyler Cowen argues, there’s a strong libertarian case for the value of #BLM. The detestation of many libertarians for the cause is less grounded in political principle than in their own peculiar identity politics.

Yet Gellner’s argument also points to the potential weaknesses of any such movement. If Gellner is right, civil society goes together with an ambiguous, even ironic attitude towards specific identities (they are of value, but no single one should be allowed to become overwhelming). Civil society is a faith without foundations, a faith that believes that there are no foundations in any absolute sense, and hence it is a faith composed of a mixture of attachments and ironies (non credo, quia absurdum est). This means that any broad movements in defense of civil society – such as the one that may be coming to life around us – will have always to struggle with itself, and specifically with those within it who are non-ironic partisans of their specific causes and identities. Even if it somehow succeeds, it will never be surely capable of generating the foundations for its own long term stability, since it is based on non-belief in a set of universal foundations that can reconcile facts and values.

Finally, and most importantly, the challenge that civil society faces – if it is to be a bulwark against the domination of the state – is to identify the political tools and conditions that allow it to exercise its strength. Many invocations of the strength of civil society aim merely to identify it as an enabling condition for forms of politics that they find attractive. The specific means, however, through which it may enable, are left largely undescribed, perhaps, in fairness, because they vary from context to context. The mere fact that civil society (or one version of civil society anyway) seems to be finding its voice is not sufficient to ensure that it can work to constrain the state as it ought in Gellner’s argument.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.