Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, published in 1953, was a vital component in the resurgence of an intelligent conservatism in America. When Nisbet wrote, the world was seemingly divided into two hostile camps. On the one hand, the communist world represented the ascendency of the centralized state along with a planned economy. The individual was subordinate to the needs of the state and, to many observers on both sides, freedom was replaced by an all-encompassing bureaucracy intent on controlling every aspect of existence. On the other hand, the free world stood for individual liberty and free markets wherein the scope of individual choices were given their greatest latitude.
The majority of Americans, and all who thought of themselves as conservatives, clearly saw the danger presented by the Soviet Union and its imperialistic impulse. In fact, perhaps this threat more than anything else served to solidify the right into a more or less coherent collection of political allies. Less obvious, however, was the threat posed by liberal individualism that, in the minds of many, represented the heart of all that was good about the west. Nisbet’s concern was this less obvious threat.
Like many mid-century social observers, Nisbet detected a significant change in the air. Where in the nineteenth century discussions were peppered with words like individual, change, progress, reason, and freedom, in the wake of two world wars and the ensuing social dislocation the optimism had dissipated and other words gained dominance: disorganization, disintegration, decline, insecurity, breakdown, and instability.
This shift suggests a sea change in the self-understanding of Americans and their perception of the challenges besetting them. Nisbet understood that inherent in all humans is a longing for community. This longing is key to Nisbet’s analysis, for it is his contention that secondary associations—the locus of community in healthy societies—have been steadily eroding and in many contexts have ceased to provide the kind of belonging and stability that they once did. The so-called age of the individual proved more costly than many imagined, for individualism, according to Nisbet, serves to eviscerate the strong ties of secondary associations. The mobile, unfettered individual may be better equipped to take advantage of the economic opportunities created by a dynamic market economy; however, with the erosion of strong communities, the individual finds himself alone. The only community that remains undamaged and shows itself stronger than ever is the state itself. The result is a curious dynamic, one that is at first counter-intuitive: the isolated individual finds himself drawn steadily into the bosom of the state, for despite protestations to the contrary, the individual nevertheless longs for community and the state appears to be the only viable candidate.
Nisbet lays out his thesis in succinct terms:
It is the argument of this book that the ominous preoccupation with community revealed by modern thought and mass behavior is a manifestation of certain profound dislocations in the primary associative areas of society, dislocations that have been created to a great extent by the structure of the Western political State. As it is treated here, the problem is social—social in that it pertains to the statuses and social memberships which men hold, or seek to hold. But the problem is also political—political in that it is a reflection of the present location and distribution of power in society.
Thus, while many of Nisbet’s contemporaries were wringing their hands over the communist threat, Nisbet identified a more insidious avenue to the same statist end, for the breakdown of secondary associations, including the family and the church, opened the door to the growth of the centralized state that was all too willing to fill the void. Nisbet is unequivocal on this score: “It is, I believe, the problem of intermediate association that is fundamental at the present time.”
In 1988, Nisbet published The Present Age. This book brings some of the key themes in The Quest for Community into a clearer light as he focuses on the prevalence of war that has continued quite steadily from WWI. War is, according to Nisbet, a primary means by which secondary associations are broken down and power is centralized. Nisbet also describes what he terms “the new absolutism” by which he means the steadily expanding reach of the national government into virtually every aspect of life. The evidence he marshals in support of his thesis helpfully brings the arguments from The Quest for Community into the context of the late twentieth century.
Nisbet clearly owes a significant intellectual debt to Alexis de Tocqueville, who was concerned about democracy’s tendency to promote individualism and with it the centralization of state power. But where Tocqueville’s work is sweepingly broad, Nisbet is more narrowly focused in the history of political theory. Furthermore, because he writes more than a century after Tocqueville, Nisbet is able to take into account the dramatic social and political changes since Tocqueville’s day, changes that include the steady expansion of the warfare state and the welfare state along with the continued emancipation of the autonomous individual. With the steady growth and general acceptance of these factors as a normal part of the American scene, our situation today is even more suited to Nisbet’s analysis than when he wrote. It would not surprise Nisbet in the least that in the decades since The Quest for Community was published, the power of the state has expanded dramatically.
As with many similar books, this one is, perhaps not surprisingly, long on diagnosis and rather short on prescription. The solution, however, is as obvious as it is difficult to systematize. Following Proudhon, Nisbet insists that the key is to “multiply your associations and be free.” The social space necessary for the development and flourishing of secondary associations must be created. This suggests the need to limit the scope and reach of the centralized state. This is an obvious problem that is much easier to describe than to remedy. While Nisbet does not fully develop this line of thought, he does argue that the old laissez faire of individualism has proven inadequate, and a new laissez faire is needed, one that acknowledges the freedom of autonomous groups. Ultimately, his description sounds strikingly similar to Madison’s argument in Federalist 51. Here Madison argues that each branch of government must be given “the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others.” Madison takes it as a given that power seeks to expand, and this expansion is only limited when it is opposed by a roughly equal power that is capable of protecting its prerogatives. The result will be a perpetual power struggle between various centers of power.
As Nisbet puts it:
It is the continued existence of this array of intermediate powers in society, of this plurality of ‘private sovereignties,’ that constitutes, above anything else, the greatest single barrier to the conversion of democracy from its liberal form to its totalitarian form….The most notable characteristic of this whole array of social authorities in European history has been the ceaseless competition for human allegiance that goes on among them.
Two important concepts emerge. First, liberal democracy bereft of a robust array of secondary associations will likely evolve into a form of government that, while retaining the outward trappings of democracy, will be at heart totalitarian. While the language of totalitarianism seems a bit hyperbolic to us living in a post-Soviet world, Nisbet was not alone in his concern that liberal democracy could, in fact, deteriorate into totalitarianism. Writing roughly at the same time, Eric Voegelin employed similar language. He argued that liberal progressivism represents a gnostic set of ideals that would eventually slide toward totalitarianism. In the field of economics, Friedrich Hayek argued that the modern liberal welfare state was a subtle road to serfdom. While notions like totalitarianism and serfdom do not strike the same visceral fear they once did, Tocqueville himself was not primarily concerned with the boot-in-the-face oppression of the power-grasping tyrant. The kinder, gentler despotism of the benevolent, all-encompassing nanny state was his ultimate worry. To the extent that Nisbet follows Tocqueville, we should assume this creeping statism is the true implication of his thought, and perhaps we can forgive him for his promiscuous use of the language of “totalitarianism” as merely a product of the general worries of the Cold War.
Second, competing centers of power are a necessary guard against the centralized state; however, since the modern nation state has achieved a virtual monopoly on power, the “ceaseless competition” between secondary associations has been replaced by a ceaseless competition among groups to seize the power of the state for their own ends. Thus, according to Nisbet, “a great deal of the peculiar character of contemporary social action comes from the efforts of men to find in large-scale organizations the values of status and security which were formally gained in the primary associations of family, neighborhood, and church.” As a result, “family, local community, church, and the whole network of informal interpersonal relationships have ceased to play a determining role in our institutional systems of mutual aid, welfare, education, recreation, and economic production and distribution.”
The implication of this line of argumentation is clear: liberal democracy cannot survive apart from a thriving network of secondary associations. However, to the extent that the logic inherent in liberalism points to an emancipation from all constraints, vital secondary associations will suffer, for associations both enable action even as they limit the range of possible actions. The tension is obvious, and as the precarious nature of the liberal project comes into focus, the difficulty of inaugurating a new era of laissez faire that emphasizes the autonomy of groups rather than the autonomy of individuals is only heightened. Nevertheless, this is precisely the task Nisbet sets before his readers in the concluding pages of his book. Significant work is needed to flesh out this new vision, yet to the extent that Nisbet’s description of the statist tendencies inherent in liberalism is correct, his tentative alternative merits serious consideration.
This line of inquiry continued to occupy Nisbet throughout his career. In his book, Twilight of Authority, published in 1975, Nisbet develops some of the same ideas he treats in The Quest for Community; however, he dedicates a substantial final chapter to solutions, including such notions as the recovery of pluralism, functional autonomy, hierarchy, kinship, localism, and voluntary associations. This chapter, then, provides a helpful complement to the rather sparse suggestions made in the final pages of The Quest for Community, and at the same time indicates the degree to which the problems first identified in that book vexed Nisbet for decades.
Fortunately, the edition of The Quest for Community recently published by ISI Books includes a superb introductory essay by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, which aptly places the book in its historical context and within the on-going story of American conservatism. Furthermore, three critical essays serve to refine Nisbet’s argument and suggest ways that it is limited even as they show Nisbet’s continued relevance to American politics. If nothing else, these critical essays stimulate further reflection on the accuracy of Nisbet’s diagnosis even as they force readers to creatively consider avenues for revitalizing a plurality of vibrant autonomous communities in an age characterized by the monolithic nation state and animated by an enthusiasm for globalization.