Reimagining American Community

QuestCover2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Robert Nisbet’s landmark book, The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom. Over the years, Nisbet has sometimes been cited as a father of postwar American conservatism, and The Quest for Community hailed as one of the movement’s early texts. But these encomia rest on a conception of “conservatism” that is passé in the Age of Limbaugh, and it is unlikely that Nisbet would be welcomed to any tea party that included such “conservative” luminaries as Paul Ryan, Bill Kristol, or Mike Huckabee. This may account for the fact that today The Quest for Community is more popular today with people who cross partisan and ideological boundaries, people concerned most of all with strengthening integral local communities, including a “new” economics based on place, scale and sustainability.

Sociology is to anthropology as journalism is to history: a first cut, the assembly of data that over time take shape as first trend, then truth. Nisbet was t rained as a sociologist but he wrote from the perspective of an anthropologist. His area of interest was the effect of human social arrangements on patterns of political behavior. His analytical lens was what he viewed a basic human need: the desire and quest for community. In Quest, Nisbet’s thesis was that the “single most decisive influence upon Western social organization has been the rise and development of the centralized territorial state.” He believed the modern state to be, in von Gierke’s words, “a process of permanent revolution,” that scours the polity of older, more organic “communities” based on family and clan, place, faith, and even work. As it slowly supplants these traditional, diffused ways of being human in community, the state substitutes alternative, often synthetic forms of “community” that it can transform into ideology and thereby effectively leverage into unflinching allegiance: race, nation, class, and so on.  The state accomplishes this by undermining civil society, the thick web of mediating institutions that in traditional societies form a prophylactic barrier between the state and the individual.

Where Nisbet has run afoul of contemporary conservatives is his observation that this process is active in democratic republics as well as frankly totalitarian states; that war is a mechanism for extending and making permanent this process, even and perhaps especially in democratic societies; and that the atomizing force of economic and political liberalism has been the handmaiden of state power rather than its counterbalance.

Nisbet notes two kinds of democratic republics. In the “unitary” form, whose origin Nisbet locates in Rousseau’s concept of the “General Will,” the “will of the people” is interpreted and rationally applied by the centralized state on behalf of the whole nation.

“State and individual were the two elements of the unitary theory of democracy. The abstract individual was conceived as the sole bearer of rights and responsibilities. The State, conceived in the image of people who lay incorruptible beneath the superstructure of society, would be the area of fraternity and secular rehabilitation. All that lay between these two elements – guilds, churches, professions, classes, unions of all kinds – were suspect for their fettering influence upon the individual and their divisive consequences to the people’s State.”

The other form of democratic republic Nisbet identifies is the “political” or “pluralistic” form, in which the

“ … State emerges as but one of the associations of man’s existence.  Equally important to a democratic theory founded on this perspective is the whole plurality of other associations in society. The intermediary associations and the spontaneous social groups which compose society, rather than atomized political particles, become the prime units of theoretical and practical consideration. The major objective of political democracy becomes that of making harmonious and effective the varied group allegiances which exist in society, not sterilizing them in the interest of a monistic political community.”

Of course, Nisbet attributes this democratic form to the liberal tradition of John Locke, Montesquieu, Adam Smith and Jefferson, and notes that it is especially strong in England, the United States, Scandinavia and Switzerland. The problem with sustaining pluralistic democracy, according to Nisbet, is that

“The founders of liberalism abstracted certain moral and psychological attributes from a social organization and conserved these the timeless, natural qualities of the individual, who was regarded as independent of the influences of any historically developed social organization. Those qualities that, in their entirety, composed the eighteenth-century liberal image of man were qualities actually inhering to a large extent in a series of institutions and groups, all of which were aspects of historical tradition. But, with the model of Newtonian mechanics before them, the moral philosophers insisted on reducing everything to human atoms in motion, to natural individuals driven by impulses and reason deemed to be innate in man.”

In other words, by attributing to natural individuals qualities that grew out of the historical relationship of those individuals to mediating groups, the liberal philosophers made a fundamental mistake that over time would erode the “communities” – church, family, place, guild – that conferred those qualities in the first place, as well as, post hoc ergo propter hoc, those qualities themselves. As a result, citizens in a pluralistic democracy wind up in much the same situation as those in the unitary form: prey to the totalizing, community-building mechanisms of the modern state. We can see the effects of these mechanisms in the community-building role that the President of the United States, the nation’s head of state, now plays for average people. A school shooting in Connecticut? For many Americans the thing isn’t concretized as a shared experience until the chief executive of the national state arrives on the scene and has something to say. “Victory” in battle? Not until the President alights upon the deck of an aircraft carrier in a crotch-hugging flight suit to declare it so. The Christmas season has begun? Only when he flips the switch.

According to Nisbet, this substitution of the State for older, traditional allegiances – a process which can be seen in the progress of the American Republic since the Civil War – is accelerated by the preparation for and conduct of modern war:

“One of the most impressive aspects of contemporary war is the intoxicating atmosphere of spiritual unity that arises out of the common consciousness of participating in a moral crusade … when the goals and values of a war are popular, both in the sense of mass participation and spiritual devotion, the historic, institutional limits of war tend to recede further and further into the void. The enemy becomes not only a ready scapegoat for all ordinary dislikes and frustrations; he becomes the symbol of total evil against which the forces of good may mobilize themselves into a militant community [emphasis mine].”

One thinks of Andrew Bacevich’s contemporary critique of the permanent national security state that emerged after the last spiritually “pure” American war, World War II, and especially of the deformations it has wrought on American democracy, particularly in the now 13-year old “war on terror.”

As we’ve seen, Nisbet views the philosophical assumptions of political liberalism as a key contributor to the destruction of traditional “communities” and, by extension to the growth of the totalizing State. The same can be said of economic liberalism, and in particular the ideology of laissez-faire capitalism. “Society,” Nisbet writes, “was envisaged by the classical economist as being, naturally, an aggregate of socially and culturally emancipated individuals, each free to respond to the drives that lay buried within his nature. Economic freedom would be the result, it was declared, of the same conditions that produced economic equilibrium: masses of autonomous, separated individuals, a minimum of social constraint of any kind, and a reliance upon the automatic workings of the free market.”

For over two hundred years, this revolutionary conception of man has been an active agent in disassembling the social institutions that give human life identity and keep the totalizing State at bay, as Nisbet observes:

 “Unfortunately, it has been the fate of these external institutions and relationships to suffer almost continuous attrition during the capitalist age. First the guild, the nucleated village, and the landed estate underwent destruction. For a long time, however, the family, local community, tangible property, and class remained as powerful, though external, supports of the economic system which the rationalists saw merely as the outcome of man’s fixed instincts and reason. But, in more recent decades … even these associations have become steadily weaker as centers of security and allegiance. Modern rationalization and impersonalization of the economic world are but the other side of  … the ‘decline of custom’ and which we may see as the dislocation of certain types of social membership … and in this whole process the directive role of the political State becomes ever greater.”

Even its apologists recognize (and some even trumpet) the tendency of capitalism, especially in its Anglo-American form, to scour civil society of the mediating institutions that embody and preserve tradition. In his book War Against the Terror Masters, neoconservative theorist Michael Ledeen wrote, “Creative destruction is our middle name, both within our own society and abroad. We tear down the old order every day, from business to science, literature, art, architecture, and cinema to politics and the law … Of all the myths that cloud our understanding, and therefore paralyze our will and action, the most pernicious is that only the Left has a legitimate claim to the revolutionary tradition.” Ledeen made this claim in precisely the Promethean spirit that eventually leads not to liberation from State power, but enslavement to it. Man will have community and, by extension, culture; and when the subsidiary natural institutions that provide him with it are lost, he will turn to the State.

In the last section of the final chapter of The Quest for Community, Nisbet calls for a “new philosophy of laissez-faire” which will “create the conditions within which autonomous groups may prosper …” Because of its mistaken assessment of human nature and atomizing policy prescriptions, the old laissez-faire, “far from proving a check upon the growth of the omnicompetent State … actually accelerated this growth. It’s indifference to every form of community and association left the State as the sole area of reform and security.” The new laissez-faire, by contrast, would be one in which “the basic unit will be the social group.”

Nisbet affirms that “the liberal values of autonomy and freedom of personal choice are indispensable to a genuinely free society,” but notes that “we shall achieve and maintain these only by vesting them in the conditions in which liberal democracy will thrive – diversity of culture, plurality of association, and division of authority.”

It should be clear why Nisbet is accorded little attention in the parlors of the contemporary conservative establishment. His realism about the limitations of liberal democracy – and particularly the philosophical assumptions embedded in its Lockean and Jeffersonian roots – his indictment of the warrior state, and his critique of the atomizing influence of Classical Economics are all anathema to a movement that makes a fetish of the American constitutional order, celebrates global empire and permanent war, and promotes a vision of man as a deracinated homo economicus.

On the other hand, it is equally plain to see why Nisbet’s The Quest for Community is treasured by those who locate the “good life” in the civil space between State and Market, and who long for a polity that privileges the rich fabric of local, natural and immediate associations in which human persons can truly flourish.

About the Author
Mark Gordon is a descendant of a Scottish prisoner of war sold into indentured servitude in 1652. The Gordons have been trapped in New England ever since. Mark earned a degree in philosophy and then worked as a commercial fisherman, Army officer, trade magazine editor, and serial entrepreneur, which just shows what you can do with a degree in philosophy. He’s written for the National Catholic Register, Mars Hill Journal, Aleteia, and a lot of little publications of no one has ever heard of.