A Model for Civil Society
I’ve finally gotten sick of stepping over piles of books and went today with two friends to IKEA (my German friends tell me that’s short for “Idioten Kaufen Einfach Alles” — “Idiots Buy Simply Everything,” but I disagree) to buy upward extenders for my rather large collection of “Billy” bookshelves. Not only has IKEA revolutionized furnishing houses and apartments throughout much of the world, but they’ve even provided a useful idiom for understanding the relations of citizens in civil society. As Ernest Gellner argued in his excellent book Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and its Rivals,
“There are firms which produce, advertise, and market modular furniture. The point about such furniture is that it comes in bits which are agglutinative: you can buy one bit which will function on its own, but when your needs, income or space available augment, you can buy another bit. It will fit in with the one acquired previously, and the whole thing will still have a coherence, aesthetically and technically. You can combine and recombine the bits at will. . . .What genuine Civil Society really requires is not modular furniture, but modular man. ” (New York: Penguin Books, 1994, p. 97)
(That relationship was recognized clearly by Otto von Gierke in his classic study of the law of association: “Our present system of association, which resembles a great number of infinitely intersecting circles, rests on the possibility of belonging with one part, one aspect of one’s individuality, perhaps with only one closely defined part of one’s range of ability, to one organization, and with others to others.” [Otto von Gierke, Community in Historical Perspective, trans. by Mary Fischer, ed. By Antony Black (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 23; excerpted from von Gierke’s great work, Das Deutsche Genossenschaftsrecht.)
UPDATE: I got an email from a friend asking whether other sociologists have written in similar terms about the formation of civil society from the “modularity” and “intersecting circles” that Gellner and von Gierke invoke. One who comes to mind is Georg Simmel, who wrote elegantly on the relationship between individuality and group formation:
The groups with which the individual is affiliated constitute a system of coordinates, as it were, such that each new group with which he becomes affiliated circumscribes him more exactly and more unambiguously. To belong to any one of these groups leaves the individual considerable leeway. But the larger number of groups to which an individual belongs, the more improbable it is that other persons will exhibit the same combination of group-affiliations, that these particular groups will “intersect” once again [in a second individual].” Georg Simmel, “The Web of Group Affiliations” (“Die Kreuzung sozialer Kreise”) in Georg Simmel, Conflict and The Web of Group Affiliations, trans. by Kurt H. Wolff and Reinhard Bendix (respectively) (New York: The Free Press, 1955), p. 140
Simmel also had very interesting things to say on the topic in On Individuality and Social Forms, ed. by Donald N. Levine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971)
From furnishing my library to furnishing analogies for political theory, I am grateful to IKEA.