Looked at from the perspective of all of human history and all other human
civilizations, what has happened on earth during the last three hundred years is
extraordinary. A new kind of civilization has emerged which has an unprec-
edented set of organizational principles. All other civilizations have been based
on the principles of an ordering of institutional parts in two ways. There was a
strict vertical hierarchy, some form of stratification where orders were
integrated through a set of levels, whether castes or otherwise. These were based
on birth and indicated to people where they were placed, how to behave, how to
live. Yet the overturning of these premises is precisely what has happened in the
last three hundred years and anarchy, on the whole, has not ensued. This is part
of the tendency towards equality, which Tocqueville analysed. That this
happened raises two great questions. How did such a strange thing as the
break-down of hierarchy occur, and how could a civilization not based on it
work? What could hold equal people together and prevent them either from
falling apart into atomistic confusion or, equally dangerously, from surrendering
their liberty to some form of absolutist government?
Put in another way, the problem could be seen in terms of the loss of the
sovereignty of groups. In the long history of mankind, people had always existed
as subordinate to groups, but now, for the first time, a world arose where the
individual came before the group. This is often seen as the quintessence of
modern liberty. Again this poses the double question of how such a strange
situation could have emerged, and, once present, how it could possibly work.
Too much atomization would surely lead to the collapse of the social system.
This was one of the great quandaries for the anthropology and sociology of the
nineteenth century and lay behind many of its best-known theories.
Yet not only did this unprecedented social order work, it worked so well, at
least at the material level, that the area where it first developed, Holland,
England and then America and western Europe, rapidly became the richest and
most powerful area of the world and hence dominated and spread its system.
Now this system, or local attempts at imitating it, envelopes almost the whole
An 'open' society is a miraculous, unique and precarious phenomenon. 'That all men are created equal
and independent' is far from being a universally 'sacred and undeniable' truth. As Gellner forcefully puts
it, 'The American Declaration of Independence is one of the most comic and preposterous documents
ever penned. Yet Thomas Jefferson was not, in any technical or ordinary sense, a fool.' The
explanation for this puzzle is then given. 'America was born modern; it did not have to achieve
modernity, nor did it have modernity thrust upon it. It has, at most, a rather hazy recollection of any
"ancient regime".' Most of the world was not so fortunate and Gellner's own experience of three
'Ancien Regimes', that is to say all of the world as he conceived it to be before about 1500, and then
Islam and Communism since, made him deeply aware of the strangeness of 'modernity'. He elaborates
the difficulty of many of us, not just Americans, in realizing what the problem is when he attacks
postmodernism. 'Individualism, egalitarianism, freedom, sustained innovation - these traits are, in the
comparative context of world history, unusual, not to say eccentric; but to Americans they are part of
the air they breathe, and most of them have never experienced any other moral atmosphere...No
wonder that Americans tend to treat these principles as universal and inherent in the human condition.'
Other posts on this theme:
What do we mean by "modernity"?
The Emergence of the modern mind