There recurs, from time to time, a strange nostalgia for Robert Nisbet and his form of conservatism. Strange is this nostalgia because it comes from Progressives who claim to pine for some endangered species of Republican or some extinct communitarianism. These Progressives are disingenuous, at best. A recent example comes from an increasingly addled E. J. Dionne Jr. His essay follows a trend among liberal writers to characterize the current Republican Party as radical and to do so by suggesting that the party has fallen away from its long tradition of moderation. These writers profess great respect for the moderate version of the GOP, now morbid, and argue that the party has been hijacked by “extremists.” According to this story, a new breed of conservatives destroyed the great American tradition of centrist parties, thereby leaving only one truly moderate, sane, and even “American”, political party. These Progressives feign lament for the death of this bi-partisan tradition and pledge to make the Democratic Party the sole protection in America against extremism. The Republicans have now become the “other” against which Democrats must define themselves.
To give historical heft to this narrative, Dionne and others conjure up dead “communitarians” like Nisbet as proof of an erstwhile American conservatism that cared about community, that warned about excessive individualism, and that endorsed a positive role for the federal government. The historical and philosophical distortions perpetuated by this narrative are part of an effort to “frame” contemporary political issues and to declare for the Progressives the all-important middle ground of American politics. I’m sure that Dionne has read some of Nisbet’s work. He is either very stupid or he is willing to deceive in order to create an ersatz history that allows the left to claim to be the center.
At the heart of Dionne’s framing of American conservatism is a deep confusion about the meaning of community and communitarianism. Indeed, the distance between Nisbet’s and Dionne’s species of communitarianism is greater than that separating Dionne and his contemporary Republican targets—the label supplies a convenient cover to hide vast differences in meaning. Left communitarians envision communities organized by government and having as their moral justification the public crusade against private vices. At the heart of this vision of community is the protection of the individual from social forms of authority—family, church, or any number of local and face-to-face social networks—in order for individuals to stand as equal clients before the state. This liberated individual is educated by the state and toward the ideals of the state; is provided extensive protections through laws and bureaucratic regulations against any and all non-governmental institutions; and is supplied with economic and health protections by the state. The state as community becomes an expression of the will of the “people” and the individuals of this political community are supplied with the meaning of this public will through the therapeutic and coercive means of the state
If contemporary Progressives dismiss this characterization of their vision of community, it is worth noting how frequently they rhetorically conflate “society” and government and how much they think of government institutions as serving public purposes despite having no meaningful public (non-administrative) check on their function (public schools are the best example of this as government schools are responsible to state-level administrators rather than local citizens—the very people they presumably serve). Consider how often these Progressives speak of government (public) in terms of community values that private institutions threaten. For all Progressives, the attack on “individualism” is really an attack on economic systems that are insufficiently regulated or controlled on the belief that private individuals and institutions ought to be checked by public power in the service of the public good. For this species of communitarian, community really means public provision and public virtues should always be understood in contrast to private vices
Against this conception of community Robert Nisbet took his stand. Rather than the state being the remedy for individualism, Nisbet understood the state to be a major cause for that atomization of modern life. While many other forces have eroded the complex network of social institutions to which people had loyalty and in which they could develop their distinctiveness, since World War I the destruction of mediating institutions has been overwhelmingly a project of the state. The modern presumption of the ethical superiority of the state over society (as well as over more localized forms of government) has spurred a relentlessly more bureaucratic, more centralized, and a more legal-centric political community. Such a conception of community can only develop when the mediating institutions have been pulverized, leaving individuals separate and apart, equal and vulnerable. Political community is not the solution to individualism but the perverse expression of deracinated citizens
However much the rise of the political community in the West was the product of a monistic political vision that wished to transform all human relationships into equal, interchangeable, and legal or contractual relationships and sought to impose a socially just and equal distribution of goods and power on the public, the project of a political community must rest on public resources to satisfy the demands of the citizens. At some point in the development of a political community it must cease being essentially political and become administrative. An administrative state retains legitimacy only insofar as it has the economic resources to satisfy its citizens. Once the state has reached this stage it cannot easily tap into the patriotic sentiments of the people since they have largely separated from the institutions that supply them with the values, purposes, and higher goals that loyalty and patriotism produce. When disconnected from relationships that require small and regular duties and when people become undifferentiated individuals who stand equally before the administrative state, citizens turn into clients.
Robert Nisbet’s critique of modern atomization and the corresponding loss of the kind of social life in which a person can find meaning, purpose, and direction, has attracted people from a wide variety of political perspectives, but especially from those who find something deeply disturbing about centralizing, bureaucratizing, and unitary government. Many from the New Left found Nisbet’s critique compelling and the new conservatism of the fifties and sixties owes a great deal of its intellectual power to his defense of localism, pluralism, mediating institutions, and hierarchy. Nisbet keeps coming back. But an emerging crisis in the West (there have been many and of different sorts)—in Europe and in America—makes this return of Nisbet more compelling and, no doubt, more radical.
In the 1970s Nisbet wrote about a “twilight age” in which the political community, and its “whole fabric of rights, liberties, participations, and protections,” are threatened because the structure of authority it represents is decaying. In America, after the Great Society and Watergate, the nation and its government did not serve well as the source for deep patriotism or the inspiration for a political crusade that might supply the people with a sense of collective purpose. If there was some truth in Nisbet’s claim that the West was entering a twilight age and that the political community was at risk, how might we understand the deep political and economic strains of the European Union and the contemporary American debate about the role and size of government? If we face a crisis of the administrative state in the West, what does Nisbet offer in the way of remedy?
One of Nisbet’s most famous claims is that the human desire and need for community is ineradicable and that if people cannot find healthy community then they will gravitate toward unhealthy communities. He made this claim in the 1950s in light of the totalizing communities of Nazism and Communism—but the principle applied to liberal states as well. The problem that Nisbet faced throughout his career was how to think forward to alternative social forms that would serve human need well after people have become disenchanted with the existing forms of power and authority. Because his examples of previous social forms all emerged out of circumstances in which they grew out of need (the medieval forms of monastery, village community, manor, fief, guild, university, for instance, were functional social orders that emerged out of needs and resources peculiar to that era), there is no going back to pre-existing social forms or to social patterns that fit a different era. Moreover, the very nature of organic social relationships precludes an abstract, universal, intellectualized approach to solving this problem. One cannot design a society complete with the necessary institutions, obligations, loyalties, and authority
Today, in the United States, one of the most visible political expressions takes the form of suspicion of political community and of government provision. It is this expression, I think, that drives commentators like Dionne to intellectual conniptions. But one cannot invoke Nisbet as an antidote to the Tea Party or other forms, left or right, of disillusionment with the administrative state. Beyond any policy agenda, Nisbet would see these as symptoms of the twilight of authority as expressed in the political community. The way forward cannot be, Nisbet asserted, directed by the state. Rather, he called for a “new laissez-faire” in which we recognize that the “human need for community [could] be met through ways other than politics—political action, political crusade, political Leviathan.” He called for opening up new space for “social invention”—the creative capacity of humans who need and yearn for associations, institutions, and relationships that help constitute individual identity, supply forms of authority, and provide persons with a sense of purpose and meaning
Nisbet’s general guidelines are instructive but vague. We must recover social pluralism, stress localism, accept and embrace some forms of hierarchy, and allow social institutions to have real functions that can’t be abridged by a single governing power. Perhaps most important and difficult, Nisbet argues that we must rely on tradition. The contrast—or part of it—that he wishes to make here is between formal law and administrative regulation, on the one hand, and, on the other, the “mechanisms of social order, custom, folkway, and all the uncountable means of adaptation by which human beings have proved so often to be masters of their destines in ways governments cannot even comprehend.” The obsessive drive to uniformity of power and authority, to legal standardization, to the modern notion of fairness and equality and of justice based on that notion, is the greatest enemy of a healthy social order. The administrative state promises to give us what we want, but when the means of satisfying wants as determined by a political community of atomized individuals are no longer adequate to the task, we can expect the rise of alternative understandings of human need that challenge the state’s monopoly. Only then can we hope that the legal and administrative uniformity of the state might vacate space for social pluralism and tradition. The return of Robert Nisbet in such a time as this helps us think afresh about social inventions not dreamt of in the philosophies of our guardians
This is not the Nisbet that Dionne wanted, but perhaps the Nisbet that we need.