Skip to comments.The Prospects for Community in the Age of Obama
Posted on 03/19/2014 6:30:30 PM PDT by Zionist Conspirator
In this insightful reflection on Robert Nisbets classic 1953 book The Quest for Community, New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat examines the human impulse toward community and its connection to the rise of statism. This essay is adapted from Douthats introduction to ISI Books critical edition of The Quest for Community.
The intellectual conservatism that flowered unexpectedly, like a burst of tulips from a desert, in the aftermath of the Second World War was preoccupied above all else with revising the story that modernity told about itself. Twenty years of totalitarianism, genocide, and total war had delivered hammer blows to the Whig interpretation of history: after Hitler, and in Stalins shadow, it was no longer possible to be confident that the modern age represented a long, unstoppable march from the medieval darkness into the light. Instead, there was a sudden demand for writers who could explain what had gone wrong, and whyand just how deep the rot really ran.
Postwar conservative thought derived much of its energy from this project. From émigré philosophers like Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin to native-born figures like Richard Weaver, the central thinkers of the emerging American Right labored to explain how progress and enlightenment had produced the gas chamber and the gulag. In the process, they often ended up reinterpreting the whole sweep of Western intellectual history, emphasizing unusual inflection points (Machiavelli, William of Ockham) and fingering unusual suspects (gnosticism, nominalism) along the way.
All of these efforts looked backward and forward at once, explaining the Western past to illuminate the dilemmas of the future. But few of them did so more persuasively than Robert Nisbets The Quest for Community. No prophet or futurist could have anticipated all the twists and turns that American political life has taken since 1953, when the forty-year-old Nisbet published his Study in the Ethics and Order of Freedom. But his Eisenhower-era analysis of the modern political predicament looks as prescient as its possible for any individual writer to be.
What was Nisbets insight? Simply put, that what seems like the great tension of modernitythe concurrent rise of individualism and collectivism, and the struggle between the two for masteryis really no tension at all. It seemed contradictory that the heroic age of nineteenth-century laissez faire, in which free men, free minds, and free markets were supposedly liberated from the chains imposed by throne and altar, had given way so easily to the tyrannies of Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. But it was only a contradiction, Nisbet argued, if you ignored the human impulse toward community that made totalitarianism seem desirablethe yearning for a feeling of participation, for a sense of belonging, for a cause larger than ones own individual purposes and a group to call ones own.
In pre-modern society, this yearning was fulfilled by a multiplicity of human-scale associations: guilds and churches and universities, manors and villages and monasteries, and of course the primal community of family. In this landscape, Nisbet writes, the reality of the separate, autonomous individual was as indistinct as that of centralized political power.
But from the Protestant Reformation onward, individualism and centralization would advance together, while intermediate powers and communities either fell away or were dissolved. As social institutions, these associations would be attacked as inhumane, irrational, patriarchal, and tyrannical; as sources of political and economic power, they would be dismissed as outdated, fissiparous, and inefficient. In place of a web of overlapping communities and competing authorities, the liberal West set out to build a society of self-sufficient, liberated individuals, overseen by an unitary, rational, and technocratic government.
The assumption, indeed, was that the emancipated individual required a strong state, to cut through the constraining tissue of intermediate associations. Only with an absolute sovereign, Nisbet writes, describing the views of Thomas Hobbes, could any effective environment of individualism be possible.
But all that constraining tissue served a purpose. Man is a social being, and his desire for community will not be denied. The liberated individual is just as likely to become the alienated individual, the paranoid individual, the lonely and desperately-seeking-community individual. And if he cant find that community on a human scale, then hell look for it on an inhuman scalein the total community of the totalizing state.
Thus liberalism can beget totalitarianism. The great liberal project, the progressive emancipation of the individual from the tyrannous and irrational statuses handed down from the past, risks producing emancipated individuals eager for the embrace of a far more tyrannical authority than church or class or family. The politics of rational self-interest promoted by Hobbes and Locke creates a void, a yearning for community, that Rousseau and Marx rush in to fill. The age of Jeremy Bentham and Manchester School economics leaves Europe ripe for Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer, and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The extraordinary accomplishments of totalitarianism in the twentieth century would be inexplicable, Nisbet concludes, were it not for the immense, burning appeal it exerts upon masses of individuals who have lost, or had taken away, their accustomed roots of membership and belief.
But this is not the only possible modern story, he is careful to insist. The mass community offered by totalitarianism may be more attractive than no community at all, but it remains a deeply unnatural form of human association. And its possible for both liberal government and liberal economics to flourish without descending into tyranny, so long as they allow, encourage, and depend upon more natural forms of community, rather than trying to tear them up root and branch.
Possible, and necessary. The whole conscious liberal heritage, Nisbet writes, depends for its survival on the subtle, infinitely complex lines of habit, tradition, and social relationship. The individual and the state can maintain an appropriate relationship only so long as a flourishing civil society mediates between them. Political freedom requires competing sources of authority to sustain itself, and economic freedom requires the same: capitalism has prospered, and continues to prosper, only in spheres and areas where it has been joined to a flourishing associational life. Thus Nisbet quotes Proudhon: Multiply your associations and be free.
This multiplication was, of course, the great achievement of the young United States, with its constitutional and geographical limits to centralization, and its astonishingly active associational life. (Nisbets debt to the brilliant Tocqueville is obvious and frequently acknowledged.) Preserving and sustaining this achievement is, or ought to be, the central project of American conservatism.
But the nature of the project must be understood correctly, Nisbets work suggests. It is not simply the defense of the individual against the power of the state, since to promote unfettered individualism is to risk destroying the very institutions that provide an effective brake on statism. (In that sense, Whittaker Chambers had it right when he scented the whiff of Hitlerism around the works of Ayn Rand.) It must be the defense of the individual and his grouphis family, his church, his neighborhood, his civic organization, and his trade union. If The Quest for Community teaches any lesson, it is this: You cannot oppose the inexorable growth of state power by championing individualism alone. You can only oppose it by championing community.
In the two decades following The Quest for Communitys publication, the statist-individualist symbiosis arguably reached a zenith. Never before had there been so much emphasis on personal liberation; never before had the welfare state (and the military-industrial complex, until the debacle in Vietnam) enjoyed so much influence over American life. Lyndon Johnson set out to create the Great Society from Washington; meanwhile, the countrys local societies began a slow eclipse. Civic organizations declined, churches emptied, neighborhoods were bulldozed in the name of progressand all the while, the state spent and regulated more and more and more.
Above all, it was the familythe backbone, from Tocquevilles day to our own, of American localism and independencethat was pulled apart from both directions, as bureaucrats supplanted parents in poor neighborhoods and middle-class marriages dissolved in the solvent of self-actualization. From the vantage point of the family-centric 1950s, this should have been surprising, but Nisbet saw it coming. Indeed, perhaps the most prophetic section of The Quest for Community is his discussion of the inherent weakness of mid-century marriage as an institutiona weakness rooted in the sharp discrepancy between the familys actual contributions to the present political and economic order and the set of spiritual images inherited from the past.
Anticipating the upheavals of the Sexual Revolution, Nisbet warned that we are attempting to make [the family] perform psychological and symbolic functions with a structure that has become fragile and an institutional importance that is almost totally unrelated to the economic and political realities of our society. Despite the ministrations of pamphlets, clinics, and high-school courses on courtship and marriage, he wrote, no social group will long survive the disappearance of its chief reason for being, and these reasons are not, primarily, biological but institutional. And so it was: Just twenty years after these words appeared, the divorce rate had more than doubled, and the rate of out-of-wedlock births had begun its steady upward climb.
Other depressing social indicators were likewise climbing by that point, and Americans remained Tocquevillian enough to recoil, temporarily at least, from some of the excesses of the statist-individualist synthesis. It wasnt just conservatives who set out looking for an alternative approach to the state-society relationship: like another right-wing communitarian, J. R. R. Tolkien, Nisbet had a considerable fan base in the leftist counterculture, and his critique of centralized power was echoed in many New Left arguments, from the early-60s attacks on the corporate university to the protests against the war in Vietnam.
Left-wing communitarianism persisted in various forms after the 60s. Figures like Robert Bellah and Michael Sandel criticized their fellow liberals for downplaying the importance of civil society, and communitarianism enjoyed a temporary vogue in the Clinton era, when Robert Putnam and Amitai Etzioni found readers in the White House. But as Brad Lowell Stone, Nisbets intellectual biographer, has pointed out, the left-wing quest for community never escaped the gravitational pull of state power. The most important community was always the national community: local associations were championed as the building blocks of national association, not as ends unto themselves. The result was a more touchy-feely form of statism, rather than a true alternative.
For a choice, rather than an echo, Americans had to look to the New Right, where the echt-individualism of Barry Goldwaters 1964 campaign was tempered, as movement conservatism came of age, by an ever-increasing emphasis on the importance of mediating institutions and associational life. By the 1970s, a Republican Party that had once opposed the welfare state on largely libertarian grounds was taking a much more Nisbetian approach, and championing the local communityfamilies and churches, local governments and school boardsagainst the aggressions of the administrative state.
Thus Ronald Reagans 1976 invocation of an end to giantism, for a return to . . . the scale of the local fraternal lodge, the church organization, the block club, the farm bureau. Thus his constant return to the themes of family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom. Thus George H. W. Bushs famous vision of a thousand points of light, rather than a single glowing governmental torch. And thus the younger Bushs vision of a compassionate conservatism, in which local churches and civic organizations, rather than a tentacled bureaucracy, would take the lead in fighting poverty.
All of this won votes, and enough political victories to curb, for a time, the expansion of the state. But of course the bureaucracy was still there, and still multitentacled. And what George W. Bush was really proposing, like many Republican politicians before him, was a partnership between state power and private initiative. Was this Nisbetian? Was it conservative? Could the state actually help rebuildor, more aptly, buildthe kind of associational life that state power had gradually usurped?
This is the problem that the Right has confronted not only in the Bush era, but across the past three decadesand it hasnt been resolved yet. Once the bonds of community have frayed, is it enough to merely withdraw the power of the state, and watch communities reknit themselves? Will the two-parent family revive, for instance, if antipoverty programs are pared away? Are there countless versions of, say, the Mormon Churchs welfare network waiting to spring up, if only the heavy hand of the state relaxes itself? Or is it possible that once community has frayed sufficiently, the state cannot simply withdraw itself without risking disintegrationbut must, perforce, play an active role in the revival of civil society, by seeking to reduce the demand for government before it reduces the supply?
Nisbet anticipated these dilemmas, but he did not solve them. He allowed a role for wise administration in the restoration of community, without specifying how large that role should be. What we need at the present time, he wrote in the closing pages of The Quest for Community, is the knowledge and administrative skill to create a laissez faire in which the basic unit will be the group. But the specifics of what this meant were leftappropriately, if frustratinglyto policymakers to explore.
In his introduction to the 1990 edition of this book, William Schambra struck an optimistic note: American politics, he wrote, is no longer merely the party of the state versus the party of the individual. There were significant gains associated with the new politics that Schambra descried, and the broader postSexual Revolution trend in social life that Tom Wolfe memorably characterized as The Great Relearningdeclining crime rates, a more streamlined welfare system with fewer perverse incentives, a halt to the seemingly inexorable expansion of hard drugs and STDs, and a broad recognition, absent during the 1970s, of the importance of family and community life to human flourishing.
But the trials of the Bush era suggest the limits of these victories. The post-9/11 period showcased modern conservatisms statist sideits willingness to out-liberal liberalism when it comes to building new bureaucracies, empowering central authorities, and invoking the mystical bonds of the national community, so long as national security is deemed to be at stake. The financial crisis of 2008 represented the failure of both conservative approaches to community-building: a deregulated marketplace proved incapable of generating the moral capital necessary to police itself, while the attempt to build an ownership society through policies that encouraged home buying ended in disaster. Meanwhile, the cultish enthusiasm associated with the rise of Barack Obama revealed that Americans remain immensely vulnerable to a Rousseauian romance of centralized authority, in which national politics is the highest form of community, and perhaps the only kind of community worth pursuing.
Worse still, since Obamas elevation to the presidency, America seems once more divided between the party of the state and the party of the individual. Conservatives are cracking open Atlas Shrugged and shouting about socialism, but they seem to have lost the appetite for thinking through the problem of community in an individualistic agewhich is, of course, precisely the problem that make socialism so appealing in the first place.
One hopes that this is temporary; one hopes that, eventually, the American Right will return to the problem of community, however vexing it has proven itself to be. Indeed, it is precisely because the problem will never admit of an obvious or permanent solution that it provides an appropriate organizing principle for a conservative politicssince conservatives, after all, are bound to disbelieve in permanent solutions as firmly as they disbelieve in the perfectibility of man.
This is the spirit in which The Quest for Community was written, and its the spirit in which it should be approachednot as a policy manifesto for a movement or a party, but as a thoughtful, elegant, and persuasive statement about human nature, and the kind of politics thats best suited to the cultivation of our common life.
With that in mind, it seems appropriate to leave the last word to Nisbet himself, reflecting on his own works relevance for contemporary politics in a 1993 essay entitled Still Questing:
Let me repeat, and conclude here, that a conservative party (or other group) has a double task confronting it. The first is to work tirelessly toward the diminution of the centralized, omnicompetent, and unitary state with its ever-soaring debt and deficit. The second and equally important task is that of protecting, reinforcing, nurturing where necessary the various groups that form the true building blocks of the social order. To these two ends I am bound to believe in the continuing relevance of The Quest for Community.
So should we all.
Ross Douthat is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times. To read more, go here to purchase The Quest for Community.
This isn’t the kind of article I usually post. For one, it’s from a “palaeoconservative” or at least “palaeolibertarian” source (and I’m not a fan of either philosophy). But this article deals with the things we talked about in another thread on left and right, individualist and collectivist, so I’m pinging you for your interest.
Thank you; thought-provoking stuff.
One of the biggest obstacles to building real community today, I think, is the virtual community (e.g. FaceBook) and hi-tech communications that engross the younger crowd to the exclusion of building real-world relationships.
Part of the appeal of the Tea Party was actually congregating with neighbors and joining together for a deeply-held cause. It was exhilarating to realize we weren’t alone.
One of the several factors that has diminished the strength of community in the West is the introduction of large amounts of “diversity” by politicians and their immigration policies. It has been well established that homogenous populations have a much greater sense of community than heterogeneous populations.
True, but in the US the main racial divide is between two races who have lived here since the early seventeenth century. The angry, radical, intellectual Black was once the Southern, rural, fundamentalist Black. Southern planters (who are regarded almost as "gxds" by palaeoconservatives) insisted on importing huge numbers of these allegedly alien and hostile people, and then fought a war to hold onto each and every one of them. If they were so radical, so ethno-culturally alienated from the rest of the population, so potentially de-stabilizing and dangerous, then why did ultra-conservative Southern planters insist on importing and then retaining so many?
How do you solve a "diversity" problem with another people who have also "always been here?"
How did all these changes happen? What's the solution? Other than my own controversial one (everyone living under the same Divine law), what could possibly be done?
There was a great deal of fear, from the revolution in Haiti in the late 18th century onward. There were numerous efforts to end the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, not all at the hands of Abolitionists. They were brought here for the same reason the white Irish, Scotch-Irish and Scottish indentured servants whose descendants comprise the majority of your native West Virginia were brought here. Cheap labor.
“One of the several factors that has diminished the strength of community in the West is the introduction of large amounts of diversity by politicians and their immigration policies. It has been well established that homogenous populations have a much greater sense of community than heterogeneous populations.”
True; it doesn’t help that the misfits, unassimilated, and inferior (according to government policies) are rallied by targeting the dominant culture with venom and dismantling said culture with media overkill. I have total apathy for anyone in a “preferred” group; they are depriving others of their just rewards.
1)Why did not ultra-conservative Southern planters simply enslave poor whites? If they had, no one today would give a hoot about slavery. Plus the planters' descendants and apologists wouldn't have this multiculturalism they so fulminate against.
2)I have never said I am from West Virginia. I've never said I'm not, either. All I have said is that I am from the Upper South, and that's as far as I will go.
They originally paid to transport indentured whites for cheap labor, human bondage of a sort. This worked well until there was no more arable wilderness east of the Blue Ridge to grant them their head rights, land upon completion of their term of indenture, along about the 1670’s to 1680’s, at which point the head rights system of indentured servitude collapsed and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade began in earnest.
There were African indentured servants in that era as well, regarded by many a wealthy planter as being something of a status symbol, looked upon as exotic in comparison to petty criminals, commoners, crackers and Celts, transported sometimes forcibly from the British Isles. This perception changed radically with the advent of chattel slavery in the wake of indentured servitude. Some claim disease resistance to malaria and heat tolerance played a role in the rise of African enslavement as well. I have no idea about the truthfulness of that, but the claim has been made.
You’re really asking why history is as it was and is. Why is the sky blue? And you have stated that you’re from West Virginia. Try not to take the whole secession/Abolition thing to heart so, there was mixed sentiment there just as there was in Virginia as a whole, when it was whole.
It’s odd how closely you still identify with those you rail against, though. Sounds like some sort of internal conflict you’ve still got a ways to go to work out. Your people are your people, for better or worse, understand and accept this for your own good. It’s a poor frog that can’t praise it’s own pond, or so my grandmother always said.
I've always felt that there were two completely different mindsets drawn to "libertarianism." One type, as best represented by Hans-Hermann Hoppe, want limited government because the state destroys the kind of community ties (very much including loyalty and altruism within those communities) that arise organically out of religion, culture, or ethnicity by replacing them with artificial loyalties. They may oppose laws against drug use, sexual immorality, etc (though not in Hoppe's case), not because they approve of such behavior, but because the social cost of enforcing such laws is greater than the benefit to the community (I tend to agree with this view - the cost of Prohibition and the War on Drugs were/are greater than any social benefits). This form of libertarianism is inherently conservative.
In contrast, there is another school of libertarians (the more prevalent one, it seems) which wants limited government because they support an atomistic worldview in which the individual and his whims are the be-all and end-all to existence. Such "libertarians" see dismantling the state as just the first step in destroying any sense of identity and loyalty above that of the individual (for instance, the disciples of Ayn Rand who see any type of altruism and charity towards others, even when completely voluntary, as a sign of weakness and failure). This latter type of libertarianism is inherently radical, and is basically left-wing anarchism without the economic collectivism.
So you have two opposite worldviews trying to achieve completely opposite aims with similar "minarchist" policies.
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