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The Elephant in the Boat: What Ernest Gellner Can Tell Us About Brexit and Trump

By Richard Marshall.


‘After reading Gellner it’s clearer what the Brexiteers in the UK and Trump in the USA get right, as well as where they go wrong. They get right that some if not all of the important cogs in the advanced industrial machine have become damaged, some seriously and certainly more seriously than those holding the levers of power have let on. And they are right to identify inequality in its many guises as the defining issue. Where they’re in error is in the options they think they have. What they’ve opted for is a protectionist economics as extreme and daft as the neoliberal economics they rightly reject plus the exploitation of nativist, ethnic fissures expressed as belligerent and nasty Nationalism. Neither are sensible choices. He helps explain why they seem attractive whilst being exactly the wrong sort of medicine.

In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence’s guilded hand may shove by justice
And oft ‘tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law…


‘Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.’

Marx (Groucho)

Many years ago Weberian anthropologist and social philosopher Ernest Gellner collected together some political essays in his book ‘Spectacles and Predicaments’ so I went back to see if there was anything there to help understand the Brexit Trump phenomenon. Brexiteers and Trump both espouse a type of virulent Nationalism from inside two of the most advanced industrial societies in the world. Why are they doing this? Being so far away Gellner offers an idiom and style that cools and refines. Reading him is like peering at the spaces between today’s urgency and crisis and finding a different scale for weighing options. Perhaps in this cooler atmosphere there’ll be more light.

After reading Gellner it’s clearer what the Brexiteers in the UK and Trump in the USA get right, as well as where they go wrong. They get right that some if not all of the important cogs in the advanced industrial machine have become damaged, some seriously and certainly more seriously than those holding the levers of power have let on. And they are right to identify inequality in its many guises as the defining issue. Where they’re in error is in the options they think they have. What they’ve opted for is a protectionist economics as extreme and daft as the neoliberal economics they rightly reject. They’ve also mistakenly opted for the exploitation of nativist, ethnic fissures expressed as belligerent and nasty Nationalism. Neither are sensible choices. Gellner helps explain why they seem attractive whilst being exactly the wrong sort of medicine.

By way of doing so, Gellner is also suggestive about why ethnic fissures have won over class ones. He wrote about this subject in a review of something by Marxist Tom Nairn. Nairn thought Nationalism was Marxism’s ‘…great historical failure. It may well have had others as well… yet none of these is as important… failure was inevitable… but it can now be understood… Historical materialism can … escape from the impasse in which it has been locked on the issue. However the cost of doing so is probably ‘Marxism’… It means seeing Marxism itself as part of history in a quite uncomplimentary sense… It means losing for all time that God-like posture which, in the guise of science, Marxism took over from Idealist philosophy (and ultimately from religion).’ Gellner endorses this position.

‘Historical materialism’ is the view that the pattern of history is constrained by factors such as hunger, fear and violence. Hunger, fear and violence are notably absent from current vogue Idealist rivals to the materialist point of view, whether branded Zizekian, Wittgensteinian, structuralist, phenomenological or even soi-disant Marxist. Nationalism is for the Marxist Nairn ‘… the defeat of Western philosophy’ and the anti-Marxist, Weberian Gellner agrees. Both Nairn and Gellner think that the real subject of Western philosophy is industrialization, ‘the complex of issues surrounding economic development’, as Nairn puts it.

Much has been made of class, in particular the role of the working class, in the rise of Brexit and Trump. But the role of the concept of class has not been what Marx predicted. Nairn writes that for Marxists ‘… class is always far more important in history than the petty differentiae nationalism seems to deal in. Class struggle was invariably the motor of historical change, nationality a mere epiphenomenon of it. Hence, it was literally inconceivable that the former should be eclipsed by the latter.’

But it has been and continues to be. Nairn writes:

‘As capitalism spread, and smashed the ancient social formations surrounding it, they always tended to fall apart along the fault lines contained inside them. It is a matter of elementary truth that these lines were nearly always ones of nationality (although in certain well-known cases deeply established religious divisions could perform the same function). They were never ones of class.’ Analysis of Trump and Brexit in terms of them being working class protest movements doesn’t work. If not class then what is behind both Trump and Brexit? For Gellner it’s ‘equality.’

Modern industrial society aspires towards equality. This is not because everyone wants it per se, but because this type of society has certain inherent features that make it inevitable. As a good Nietzschean, Gellner dismisses ethical endorsements of the concept of equality  as post hoc rationalisations of social necessity. He’s saying that the  Ideal Type of our  industrial society functions in the idiom and style of egalitarianism. Because of this idiom and style, thresholds for toleration of inequalities are much lower than in traditional societies. This is the default position.

Brexiteers and Trump are in this respect working within the idiom and style of modernity.They are not mobilising tropes of inegalitarianism nor are they trying to relax the grip of egalitarianism. But they don’t connect equality with the deep structures of their society that produce this egalitarian requirement. What are these? The first is occupational mobility. Gellner writes: ‘modern society is not mobile because it is egalitarian; it is egalitarian because it is mobile’. Where there is large-scale and systematic social immobility there lies social disfunction, immiseration and a culture of inegalitarianism. Modern society refuses to underwrite entrenched, systematic and pervasive inequalities. Where they exist they are disguised, often by being incorporated into an egalitarian idiom (e.g. ‘the American Dream’ etc). This mobility is to an occupational structure involving contact with numerous strangers. Such a context is one where profound inequalities of status would cause friction. In this context ‘… basic equality becomes the normal presumption’. The need to work with the stranger, the outsider, the anonymous other is inherent. The presupposed norm is to work with strangers, not kith and kin, tribe or clan. A norm of occupational nomadism linked to work largely requiring expertise in the standardised high culture requires this facility with anonymity. Social, occupational and geographic rootedness are barriers. A homogeneity of high culture (e.g. shared standardised language and cognitive style) erodes barriers. Standardisation flattens out difference. Essentialist identity markers such as language, culture, ethnicity written into particular family, clan, tribe or territorial ties and which serve to preserve difference, are privatised, optional extras outside of the occupational and cognitive structure. The toleration of deep difference is tolerated so long as the occupational and cognitive structures are unaffected. This can be seen as a way Weber’s ‘iron cage’ of disenchanted, bureacratised conformist homogeneity is capable of accommodating to some extent the romantic pull of the lost traditionalist, enchanted cultures of the pre-modern. Ours is more a rubber than an iron cage.

So there’s this linked requirement of socialization (employability, dignity, full moral citizenship, education including literacy) standardized in the hands of a central agency (not family, clan, or guild) via a single cultural/linguistic medium. This is not easy and tends to erode differences based on tradition but it’s important for the reasons given above. We live in a homogeneous society where most people are strangers. We have to communicate with strangers and anonymity and mobility means we have to have a shared idiom in which to communicate. It is also the idiom of cognitive activity, science: knowledge is understood as cumulative and the result of an institutionalized, shared culture that mirrors the general societal modus operandi. It is also an anonymous knowledge that mirrors the style and idiom of the society: it is linked to no clan, guild, kith, kinship group, tradition, language, ethnicity. Knowledge underwrites no group or privilege. Knowledge itself is disenchanted, and so the world is discovers is too.


Then there’s the separation of working life from family life. No one is a real serf because real serfs must be full time. There’s disapproval and suspicion where the separation is absent. Alongside these, an acceptable generalised level of affluence and welfare provision bring safety against economic pressure. Politicians ignore this at heir peril. Where affluence is absent, or is too little or too unevenly distributed, visibly and without shame, then commercial passions weaken and political passions strengthen. This threatens stability. The recent austerity policy of the Tories both reduced affluence for many and made inequalities visible. It was a definition of toxic politics. Feeling humiliated and hard up, many have turned to glare at those holding the levers of power. Brexit is part of this. The same political toxicity in the USA, where levels of inequality are even more stark, has brought about the Tea-party and now Trump backlash. Both Brexit and Trump are passionate political responses to genuine grievances and speak to fundamental and general political incompetence. If Gellner’s thesis is right then the visible, entrenched and blatant inequalities of affluence and the erosion of welfare provision will disrupt industrial society. And it has. Our political leaders have not been up to the job of maintaining the basics.

It also highlights another feature of this society, the maintenance of egalitarianism as a moral null-hypothesis, the ‘base line for negotiations’ throughout. There are always inequalities in fact, but they should be discreet, largely invisible, disguised and seem temporary and contingent rather than flaunted, permanent, and necessary. On these grounds Bill Gates wealth is less offensive than the Queens’ even though he has more than she has. And he’s also rich because of his talent: talent-specific jobs requiring genuine knowledge (as opposed to purely symbolic role play) make hereditary jobs more difficult to legitimize. The need for genuine knowledge rather than the ability to wield symbolic knowledge also reinforces the need for a shared high culture and why universal access to genuine education is so important. Again, this is not an optional feature but a functional requirement of a society sustained by its incredibly powerful cognitive resources generated and transmitted in the standardised idiom of the high culture. The average mechanic – who must be able to read manuals and manipulate quite sophisticated machinery, has literacy and knowledge levels superior to the average scholar of the medieval age.

The very concept of wealth in industrial society is different from how it was understood in preceding social arrangements. General affluence is not about things anymore, as it was in the agrarian society, but rather symbols and people. This means that the role of wealth becomes formally less important than before whereas bureaucratic, non-heritable roles and posts become more important. The recognition that ‘We are all mamluks now’ set the bourgeois tone of industrial society from its inception and marginalized the more violence-orientated members of society who once hogged all the power levers and traditionally conceived wealth. The difference between tolerable plonk and an expensive wine is more about snobbery than the wine. Difference becomes just status-symbolic rather than anything intrinsic. The antics of rich celebrities are tolerated so long as their bling and decadent lifestyles are hilarious Emperors’ clothes. They are a source of entertainment and mockery. And linked to this, ‘the sexual revolution, by undermining one important motive for seeking control over people’ strengthens this shift toward equality.

Another important feature supporting egalitarianism is the dominance of the work ethic which diminishes any need to seek status elsewhere. The bourgeois lifestyle is one where work dominates. Long hours are spent at it. Pride is taken in not being a shirker, not being late, presenting oneself well, doing the job to the best of ones abilities and so on. The conscious identity of most people in advanced industrial society is primarily linked to their occupation. What they do is who they are. They are the antithesis of the dashing romantic hero, the bohemian and the aristocrat. Neither Romanticism nor riches the man or woman maketh. The identity with the nation is largely unconscious because, unlike previous egalitarian social orders, it is direct and requires no vivid ritual or rite of passage.

Finally there’s the highly elusive and half invisible location of power. Gellner contrasts industrial power with that of power in agrarian society. ‘In agrarian society it consists basically of the means for taking a part of man’s produce from him, and making him work for you. It is persistent and visible. Under the condition of modern division of labour, it consists of the occupancy of a post near a crucial lever, at a moment when the machinery happens to be decisive. Different levers at different times, and different individuals are near them at different times…’ That there is just one lever is an illusion. Nostalgia for agrarian society’s big man leadership feeds into this illusion about the nature of power.

So these are eleven Weberian features of modern industrial society required for the maintenance of an advanced industrial society according to Gellner’s account. It’s pretty clear that these have been under severe strain for quite some time. And here’s the take home from Gellner; if you lose these, you’ve lost advanced industrial society. And what’s clear is that very few of these features have been defended by the leaders of these societies, nor even articulated and made visible to the members of society as being crucial. So two things are happening: their erosion is leading to political passion amongst society. And the passions have been channelled into using visible ethnic cleavages – not class ones – as scapegoats for the mess. Out of this catastrophic and idiotic channelling a toxic nationalism emerges.

Modern industrial society has never been and probably never will be actually fully egalitarian but any inequality it has requires that it be hidden by a shared similarity of culture and life style. Where it becomes visible and there is a group that can identify themselves as losing out then conflict arises. Gellner writes:

‘Inequality is moderated, camouflaged and tolerable unless visibly related to the kind of diacritical sign which breeds ‘ethnic’ conflict and generates self-conscious ethnicity. It then appears as ‘nationalism’”. Brexit and Trump have seen these signs. As a result Brexit portrayed the (white) English and Trump portrayed the (white) American as ethnic groups losing out. Outsider ethnic groups are then visible as problems – be they immigrant or Mexican.

Nationalism comes when Industrialism doesn’t happen all at once all over. Industrialism requires this new type of division of labour and its shared culture as outlined above. But industrialization hasn’t happened evenly, all over and at the same time. And uneven development makes for the ethnic cleavages from which nationalism results (Not the other way round note: the divisions brought about by inequalities allow the less privileged to identify themselves against the privileged and then they find some useful historic element to make up a lineage and ‘destiny’.) Nationalism is a consequence of inequality in a new context where inequality is no longer tolerated (for functional reasons) and where culture is immensely important.

Brexiteers and Trump have noticed the (often deliberate) erosion of egalitarian culture inside their own states. They understand that for an increasingly large group of people this erosion has left them vulnerable, humiliated and without hope. Once that happens then for these people the state has failed them. They want egalitarianism and know the state isn’t delivering it.

For those in charge of Brexit and Trump, of course, there’s a great deal of cynicism and hypocrisy involved in their stance. After all, the leading Brexiteers have a huge responsibility for the failings they identify and complain about. The current crop of Tories and UKippers have continually pressed political decisions that have eroded all of the things discussed above. Whenever there has been an option, the Tories have pivoted to block social mobility, access to affluence, welfare safety nets, the moral significance of the work ethic, the eradication of hereditary wealth and cronyism, free access to universities for all, access to shared education, affordable housing and free health services and so on and so on whilst visibly supporting, protecting and being the cheerleaders of the very affluent. (Interestingly, Trump himself is on the record defending higher taxes for plutocrats, universal health care and the pro choice lobby but seems to have changed his mind. It seems he is someone who is very sensitive to underlying passions and looks to piggy-back onto them in a deranged sociopathic way.) We’ve got to this state by previous administrations from Regan/Thatcher onwards mobilising an aggressive and spurious economic ideology of extreme free market liberalism.

And in fact it’s not just the Tories in the UK, and the Republicans in the USA who have been guilty of this. Ever since Reagan/Thatcher all our political leaders have bought into the ideological view about the economy which has dominated their political decision-making. All parties in power during and since Reagan/Thatcher in the UK and the USA have accepted a rampant neoliberal position. Out of power leftists who argued for a Marxist solution have also accepted, oddly, the same mistaken premise about the economy that the neoliberals do and which has been so important in this. What Gellner suggests is that, strangely, both neoliberals and Marxists accept that the economy is autonomous (a position that Adam Smith, often cited as the founding father of this idea, actually never held).

Neo-liberalism is aesthetically pleasing but preposterous. It is aesthetically pleasing because of a simplicity that is both technical and ethical. It’s technical simplicity rests in its claim that the only way of fixing value is the free market. This rests on a profound insight. No metaphysics – be they of theology or naturalistic – can assign value to anything. The neoliberal claims to have found a machine that overcomes this genuine problem: the machine is an autonomous, blind market-mechanism, a hidden hand, capable of delivering the true value of everything. This is the simple view of the market as oracle. This impersonal mechanism is maximally efficient and has the additional bonus of being supremely ethical as well. Its impersonality means that no shady and biased human perspective interferes with its decisions. No bribes, no deals, no nepotism, no coercion, no politics can distort its work. It is an impersonal judge that deliberates outside the petty and corrupting ways of humans seeking to advance themselves and their tribe at the expense of others. It is just and blind to the factors that would corrupt even the best of us. Its verdicts are pure.

Gellner summarises the neo-liberal point powerfully: ‘You cannot logically tie price tags to things or efforts; and you cannot do it politically or practically either, because it is complicated and it offends people, including influential and powerful groups of people; and because you cannot do it logically, you cannot do it politically. The lack of logic makes obvious the arbitrariness, the inevitable bias, the political nature, of the attachment of price tags from above.’ The trouble, as he goes on to explain, is that although neither God nor nature attach labels to the value of things, invoking a metaphysics of the oracular market is equally spurious.

Why? Well, in modern industrial society there is no free market, one that can work its magic outside an institutional and cultural context governed by the state. Such a speedy knock-out reason may make some suspect sculduggery – after all, if the idea really is so simple to destroy, why did anyone ever take it seriously in the first place? Well, one reason is that when the classic pictures was originally conceived it did seem a plausible scenario. But those conditions don’t hold now. Pricing is political and has to be. For example, take the idea of labour. Classical economic theory assumes capitalism must treat labour in purely economic terms. Maybe at the beginning of modern industrial society productive units did seem to be separable from their social and political elements. It thus seemed to the writers of early industrial society that it was possible to separate the social and political units from economic ones. But this was a rare state of affairs not to be generalized forward into advanced, mature forms of industrialisation. Early capitalist formations arose in perhaps unique conditions where coercion was suspended ‘because there was a state strong enough to prevent private coercion, yet at the same time willing and obliged not to expropriate and exploit the producers itself; and, equally important, the producers themselves, being allowed to accumulate, to become rich and hence powerful, were willing or constrained not to become themselves a new set of sword-endowed exploiters. They were content to remain producers’ as Gellner explains it. It wasn’t true of traditional society that prefigured capitalism and it isn’t true now. (It actually wasn’t true then either, but it seemed a lot like it was.) In political environments productive units are also social and political. That’s where we are now. To treat labour today as just productive units shorn of their political and social aspects is suicidal for the functioning of the modern industrial state. Our political leaders, hooked by neoliberal oracular charms that require we do proceed in such a way, have opted to take this suicidal option. It helps explain why things have gone badly wrong.

The other thing that classical economics didn’t identify when their theory was being formulated was the state of technology at the time. It was innovative but not all that powerful. ‘Classical capitalism presupposed relatively small productive units, sufficiently uncomplex to be set up by single entrepreneurs, and to run on fairly untrained labour; it presupposed, notoriously, a homogeneous labour force – for how else could labour become a ‘mere commodity’?’ This technological feebleness at this early stage of industrialisation was important. Why? The technology of early capitalism ‘ … was feeble enough not to disrupt totally the society in which it engaged, in whose womb it grew. It did not tear that womb apart…. It did not oblige the encompassing state to control and dominate it in sheer self-defence. It did not create a political dilemma in which the new commercial class either had to eat or be eaten by the old power-holders.’


The moral Gellner draws from this is interesting: ‘spontaneous development benefits from stability and, cancerous though the new economic order may be for ‘tradition’ in the long run, during its initial growth what was remarkable was that it did not tear apart the surrounding social world. This… made possible the illusion that the economic realm could be autonomous (liberalism) or even dominant (Marxism).’ So the error of neoliberalism is also the error of Marx as both are built on an analysis of the early formation period of capitalism. This was a specific and particular context which is no longer ours. But despite that all of our political leaders since Reagan/Thatcher have bought into the error wherever they can (Think about the justification of the austerity policy in the UK – ‘the oracle of the market has spoken, we can do no other but follow its instruction’). What Gellner has done is highlight the contradiction between this dominant ideology which has hijacked the political discourse and the structures underlying the advanced industrial society which necessarily mustn’t separate productive from political and social structures.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, August 6th, 2016.