The uneasiness, the malaise of our time, is due to this root fact: in our politics and economy, in family life and religion—in practically every sphere of our existence—the certainties of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have disintegrated or been destroyed and, at the same time, no new sanctions or justifications for the new routines we live, and must live, have taken hold.” These words appear in The Quest for Community, which was published in 1953, one of the major works of American conservatism to appear in that decade. They were not, however, written by its author, the sociologist—yes, sociologist—Robert Nisbet. To make his point about the alienation that is pervasive in modern society, Nisbet cited the words of another figure associated with his discipline, C. Wright Mills.
As hard as it might be to imagine in our wildly polarizing times, thinkers from both the right and the left once found themselves intellectually linked. What joined them together was something called the theory of mass society. Flabbergasted by the seeming success of totalitarianism, and worried that its effects lingered on in the form of overweening state power, corporatist private institutions, and popular susceptibility to advertising and image-manipulation, writers such as Nisbet and Mills were among the many, including Hannah Arendt, Edward Shils, Joseph Schumpeter, Dwight Macdonald, and Richard Hofstadter, who put mass irrationality ahead of class interest in their understanding of their society, and turned to European thinkers such as José Ortega y Gasset and Emil Lederer for such an analysis.
But Nisbet and Mills shared more than a taste for European social theory. Both saw the powerful linkage between war and the expansion of the state. The one as well as the other rejected crude economic determinism, whether the laissez-faire purity of Hayek or the class struggle of Marx, in favor of a belief in the primacy of politics. It is not just a coincidence that they shared the same publisher or that Nisbet would eventually be hired at Columbia, where Mills, however unhappily, had taught. The two were mirror images of each other, equally firm in denouncing modernity for stripping from human beings any sense of an authentic self.
Nisbet, as Ross Douthat points out in his introduction to the re-publication of The Quest for Community, is a thinker-in-waiting as the American right searches for deeper roots than those offered by the current leaders of the Republican Party. I agree with him—up to a point. Nisbet was no former Marxist turned right-wing reactionary obsessed with the Soviet threat: the internal evils of Stalinism, more than its foreign policy, were what drew his major concern. His understanding of modern decline was not cast as an explicitly Puritan (or Catholic) jeremiad laced with the language of sin and redemption. One cannot find in his book a trace of anti-Semitism, which cannot be said of other conservatives of his day. Nisbet, in short, was not an apologist, not for anything. He was a political intellectual trying to figure out how the world took the wrong step, and while I am not persuaded by his explanation, no one can doubt his sincerity. Reading a conservative who resists animus can be as surprising as it is rewarding.
Nisbet, moreover, had an idea. While not especially original—his debt to Tocqueville is enormous—his idea nonetheless needed a contemporary re-statement. The state grows, he argued, to fill in the vacuum left by the decline of intermediate institutions. Cut adrift from ties of time and place, people still hunger for meaning and a sense of direction. The modern state offers them both. One must criticize the all-centralizing state, but one must also recognize its appeal; even totalitarian states were loved by those who supported them. It is wrong, then, to view the expansion of the state as a conspiracy imposed as an alien force on people against their will. To live together, people require authority and governance. But the state is ultimately about neither. It is a mechanism of power, serving its own aggrandizement because other potential sources of authority and governance have withered away. It is because the modern state rules that we are no longer governed.
Nisbet can be understood as a conservative communitarian. Although he was more concerned with oppressive state power than he was with corporate dominance of society, he recognized that bigness in any form was alien to his vision of a good society. “Not all the asserted advantages of mass production and corporate bigness,” he wrote, “will save capitalism if its purposes become impersonal and remote, separated from the symbols and relationships that have meaning in human lives.” One can only imagine Nisbet’s reaction to corporations that treat human communities as ruthlessly as the natural environment. I cannot see this man as an apologist for BP or as a fan of globalization.
Re-read many years later—I first came across Nisbet while in college in the early 1960s—The Quest for Community has serious flaws. Like others of his era, Nisbet treated the theme of alienation as self-evidently one of the truest and most significant ideas of the modern era. Now, I think it fair to say, alienation, like the theory of mass society with which it was associated, proved to be too broad and imprecise a concept to do any serious work of social analysis. More a historian of ideas than a social scientist, moreover, Nisbet wrote about such thinkers as Rousseau and Hobbes as if their theories about how society ought to work were factual descriptions of how it actually did work. For Nisbet, totalitarianism was nothing less than a metaphor for the modern condition; but in reality, as we are lucky enough to know now, totalitarian states were more decayed and more vulnerable than almost any writer of the 1950s recognized. The Quest for Community is too much the product of its time to be a timeless classic. It is filled with references to thinkers whose ideas seemed so important then—Susanne Langer, Harry Stack Sullivan, Franz Oppenheimer—but who are, for better or worse, rarely assigned a seminal place now.
So rereading Nisbet is certainly rewarding, especially in contrast to his more ideological and unpleasant contemporary Russell Kirk—but I must report also he, too, fails the great test that any serious conservative ought to pass. Let us concede, for purposes of discussion, that traditional ways of life have a certain organic integrity that powerful states level and destroy. Anyone holding such beliefs, I would think, is under an obligation at least to discuss both the most traditional way of life the United States ever produced and the most intrusive reliance on state power it ever considered. I refer, of course, to slavery and the massive assembly of arms, deployment of troops, and restrictions on personal freedom—otherwise known as the Civil War—required to end it. Perhaps Nisbet believes that slavery was not really traditional and that the Union Army was a necessary evil. But one will never know, because in The Quest for Community he never brings up the subject.
Slavery, for Nisbet, is a metaphor for what modernity does to all of us, not a description of a mode of production that, however much defended as honorable by its Southern apologists, was as evil as can be imagined. There are conservatives who make these questions central to their analysis; the Straussian political philosopher Harry Jaffa is one. But I continue to be surprised by how many look away from a question that might force them to complicate their assertions. There is no better example for the case that state power is necessary to insure individual freedom—an argument that Nisbet resolutely rejects—than the Fourteenth Amendment.
One thing, though, should be said in ringing defense of Nisbet. Mass society assumes the existence of masses. No current conservative politician would ever utter such a term—at least not in public. The alienated, the frustrated, the paranoid, the neurotic: for Nisbet, they were the stuff of the modern condition. But for the leaders of today’s Republican Party, angry mobs susceptible to demagogic manipulation—as so many of the adherents of the Tea Party can be pithily described–are to be praised for their wisdom and virtue. Nisbet has read too much Tocqueville to ever fall for that nonsense. Not only does his thinking fall into a European rather than an American tradition, he is at heart also an elitist—in the best, that is to say the Arnoldian, sense of the term. For today’s Republicans, the best that has been said and thought in the world has been said and thought by Joe the Plumber.
“One hopes that, eventually, the American Right will return to the problem of community, however vexing it has proven itself to be.” So Douthat writes in his introduction. For those such as myself, who believe that virtual communities are not quite the same as communities of interest and affection, Nisbet’s voice is one that genuinely deserves to be heard. No matter how mobile we are, no matter how cosmopolitan our friends and our lifestyles, no matter how liberated from traditional moral norms we may be, we still need to be something more than rootless free agents and something less than administrative conveniences. “People do not come together in significant and lasting associations merely to be together,” Nisbet pointed out in the preface to the 1970 edition of his book. “They come together to do something that cannot easily be done in individual isolation.”
Unlike Nisbet, I believe that there are times—many times, in fact—when what we need to accomplish together requires the help of a state, and a powerful one; I do not doubt that Nisbet would have been an eloquent opponent of the Affordable Care Act. States accumulate power but they are also empowering. Any viable conception of the good society appropriate for modern times requires the exercise of state power. Society can be a very cruel place, and the state may protect people from a great deal of its cruelty. If we nonetheless find its power oppressive, our best efforts should be devoted to improving how states function rather than mischievously denouncing their very reason for being.
The striking thing about the anti-statist Nisbet is that he is anything but a libertarian. Radical individualism, for him, is not the opposite of state power, but a consequence of the state’s growth. For this reason, Nisbet recognizes what all too many on the libertarian right fail to see: human beings live for purpose, and their best chance of realizing their purposes lies in intentionally directed cooperation with others. “Conservatives who aimlessly oppose planning, whether national or local,” he remarked, “are their own worst enemies.” Amen.
Alan Wolfe is writing a book about political evil.