Communities versus the State
By Arnold Kling
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 2010, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute published a new edition of Robert Nisbet’s 1953 book, The Quest for Community.1 It includes a useful introduction from Ross Douthat, from which I have taken the quotation above. It also includes three “critical essays” by other authors that pale in comparison to Nisbet’s original work.
Nisbet, like Friedrich Hayek in The Road to Serfdom, warned about creeping statism. Both Hayek and Nisbet wrote at a time when Nazi and Soviet tyrannies were very much on people’s minds. Today, their warnings are often dismissed by those who view the success of democratic welfare states and the fall of the Soviet Union as proof that there is a superior middle way between laissez-faire capitalism and totalitarianism.
However, The Quest for Community is not a Cold War anachronism. Reading it for the first time in 2016, I found it highly relevant and thought-provoking. Nisbet’s description of the conflict between the central state and the communities within it offers an insightful perspective on current events.
For example, in a discussion of alienation resulting from loss of community ties, Nisbet wrote,
By alienation I mean the state of mind that can find a social order remote, incomprehensible, or fraudulent; beyond real hope or desire; inviting apathy, boredom, or even hostility.
Nisbet warned that weakening of ties of work, family, and religion would give people a sense that they have lost control of their destinies, producing this sort of alienation. It seems to me that the support in this year’s Presidential primaries for the socialist politics of Bernie Sanders and the caudillo politics of Donald Trump, which shocked many observers, would not have surprised Nisbet. Nor would the recent work of Robert Putnam2 or Charles Murray3 on cultural decay.
The discussion of alienation is one of many tangential topics on which Nisbet offered interesting asides. Here is another.
[Consider]… the 1920s and 1930s when so-called social science, was all too often a witches’ brew of moralism, social work, and philosophy of history.
In recent decades, this propensity appears to have returned.
And in yet another aside, Nisbet wrote,
The oftentimes absurd worship of the female, especially the mother, in contemporary American society has frequently been interpreted by ardent feminists as a reflection of her recent rise to eminence after centuries of subordination to the male. But it reflects rather an unconscious overcompensation for the historical fact of her release from any clear and indispensable social role within the family. (emphasis in the original)
Even in 1953, Nisbet recognized that the wife as a home-based producer was an anachronism, and that this would reconfigure male-female relationships.
Although these tangential insights are fascinating, Nisbet’s central theme is that people need to sense that they belong to a community.
In one age of society, for example in the early Middle Ages, this quest may end in the corporate church, or in the extended family or village community. But in the present age, for enlarging masses of people, this same quest terminates in the political party or action group. It is the image of community contained in the promise of the absolute, communal State that seems to have the greatest evocative power.
“Nisbet pointed out that both individualism and the central state are modern concepts that would not have been comprehensible to someone living in the Middle Ages.”
Nisbet pointed out that both individualism and the central state are modern concepts that would not have been comprehensible to someone living in the Middle Ages.
The reality of the separate, autonomous individual was as indistinct as that of centralized power. Both were subordinated to the immense range of association that lay intermediate to individual and ruler and that included such groups as the patriarchal family, the guild, the church, the feudal class, and the village community… the epic of Modern European history is composed in very large part of the successive extrications of both individual and State from the fetters of medieval group life.
While he certainly did not argue that we need to restore the groups that prevailed in the Middle Ages, Nisbet insisted that the quest for community is best satisfied by groups that function below the state level.
For these are the small areas of association within which alone such values and purposes can take on clear meaning in personal life and become the vital roots of the larger culture.
… [These are] the kind of social groups which create a sense of belonging, which supply incentive, and which confer upon the individual a sense of status.
Nisbet saw Modernity as liberating the state along with the individual.
Fundamental among all the “emancipations” of modern history has been the emancipation of the State from the restrictive network of religious, economic, and moral authorities that bound it at an earlier time.
The consequences of this were far-reaching.
The argument of this book is that the single most decisive influence upon Western social organization has been the rise and development of the centralized territorial State… The conflict between the central power of the political State and the whole set of functions and authorities contained in church, family, guild, and local community has been, I believe, the main source of dislocations of social structure and uprootings of status which lie behind the problem of community in our age.
Nisbet claimed that the central state helped to pave the way for capitalism.
The State’s development of a single system of law… its deliberate cultivation of trade in the hinterland; its standardized systems of coinage, weights, and measures… [created] a scene increasingly impersonal and calculable—a scene in which businessmen might operate as individuals rather than as members of a traditional group.
Nisbet pointed out that the state does more than simply issue regulations that narrow the scope for people to act on their religious beliefs or to raise children as they wish. It also eviscerates other institutions by taking away their economic and social functions. When the state provides education, health insurance, and financial support in times of need, there is less reason for people to join organizations that otherwise would have provided such services. Nisbet pointed out that:
In vast rural areas, until quite recently, the family was the actual agency of economic production, distribution, and consumption. Even in towns and cities, the family long retained its close relation to these obviously crucial activities. Organized living was simply inconceivable, for the most part, outside the context provided by kinship.
Nisbet argued that over time individuals have been able to free themselves, with the assistance of the state, from reliance on families.
Our systems of law and education and all the manifold recreational activities of individuals engaged in their pursuit of happiness have come to rest upon, and to be directed to, the individual, not the family.
As the state triumphed in its conflict with intermediate organizations, people became motivated to participate in politics.
If the individual is prevented, by law or public opinion, from participating in ordinary associations, and if he feels, as men commonly do, the need to belong to something larger than himself, he will seek close membership in the one association that is open to him.
Nisbet saw mass politics as a vice, not a virtue. He wrote of
… the heart of totalitarianism—the masses; the vast aggregates who are never tortured, flogged or imprisoned, or humiliated; who instead are cajoled, flattered, stimulated by the rulers; but who are nonetheless relentlessly destroyed as human beings, ground down into mere shells of humanity…
… Totalitarianism is an affair of mass attitudes. Its success depends on incorporating into new structures of power those values with the widest appeal to a population…
… There is no single spiritual or cultural value inherently incapable of being made into the central image of a totalitarian society. It can as well be racial equality as inequality, godly piety as atheism… What is central is not the specific image held up to the masses but, rather, the sterilization and destruction of all human relationships to the central power that contains this image.
As I look around today, I still see totalitarian governments that originally enjoyed mass appeal. Venezuela and Iran are examples that come to mind.
Even in a democracy, the attempt to find community at the level of the central state is of little value to individuals, in Nisbet’s view. He cited Bertrand Russell to the effect that voters in a highly centralized state will come to see the rulers as a malevolent “they,” as if the people were living under a dictatorship. He cited Lewis Mumford, who argued that true civic participation can only take place in smaller cooperative groups and organizations.
Nisbet described the way rulers justify a totalitarian state.
There is the kind of State that seeks always to extend its administrative powers and functions into all realms of society, always seeking a higher degree of centralization in the conduct of its operations, always tending toward a wider measure of politicization of social, economic, and cultural life. It does not do this in the name of power but of freedom—freedom from want, insecurity, and minority tyranny.
Although few would describe the United States as totalitarian, contemporary events are filled with examples of Washington successfully engaging in conflicts with smaller units. Are state laws that limit the availability of early voting discriminatory? Then the central state can void them. Are there small firms unwilling to bake cakes for gay weddings? Then the central state can prohibit discrimination (with the agreement of Libertarian Party Presidential candidate Gary Johnson, much to the consternation of many libertarians4). Do families wish to allow their young children to walk home by themselves? The state can arrest them. Does a restaurant owner wish to allow smoking in her establishment? The state can outlaw that.
Although each of these individual infringements on local autonomy may appear to be justified, they serve to strengthen the central state at the expense of intermediate institutions. And Nisbet warned that libertarians should take little comfort in the survival of some nominally capitalist markets.
But to weaken, whether from political or individualistic motives, the social structures of family, local community, labor union, cooperative, or industrial community, is to convert a culture into an atomized mass. Such a mass will have neither the will, nor the incentive, nor the ability to combat tendencies toward political collectivism. The transition from free capitalism to forced collectivism is easy and will hardly be noticed when a population has lost the sense of social and moral participation in the former.
Nisbet emphasized that focusing on individual rights would not be sufficient to protect a free society.
To be sure, liberals strive earnestly to maintain the rights and equalities of individuals before the rising structure of legislative and executive power. They appeal to the courts, but not even the American judicial system can remain for very long untouched by the drive toward political uniformity and centralization… it is the liberal concentration on the interest of the individual, rather than upon the associations in which the individual exists, that serves, paradoxical as it may seem, to intensify the processes that lead straight to increased governmental power.
I came away from reading The Quest for Community feeling quite pessimistic. It seems to me that the central government in the United States today is much stronger than it was in 1953, and the intermediate institutions are much weaker. Just in the past eight years, we have seen a sharp rise in consolidation and regulation in the industries of finance and health care. Banks and health insurance companies today are treated somewhat like public utilities.
Libertarians can celebrate increases in individual freedom, notably the reduction in racial discrimination and the further emancipation of women. However, Nisbet’s point is that there is no inconsistency between progress in these areas and aggrandizement of centralized state power.
For libertarians, Nisbet’s lesson is that we should concentrate on ensuring that government does not succeed in crushing all forms of intermediate association. Perhaps the Internet will provide a means for associations to form that satisfy our need for community and have the power to resist government control. Perhaps alternatives to government schooling will be able to take root, thrive, and come to dominate in the field of education. We will need to fight hard for freedom in these realms.
Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2010.
Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Simon and Schuster, 2015.
Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Random House, 2012.
See for example Gary Johnson’s Religious Freedom Position Needs Some Critical Analysis by Scott Shackford. Hit and Run Blog, Reason.com, July 29, 2016.
For more articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.