From Ross Douthat’s generally excellent introduction to Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community:
What was Nisbet’s insight? Simply put, that what seems like the great tension of modernity—the concurrent rise of individualism and collectivism, and the struggle between the two for mastery—is 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 desirable—the yearning for a feeling of participation, for a sense of belonging, for a cause larger than one’s own individual purposes and a group to call one’s 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irrational, patriarchal, and tyrannical: as sources of political and economic power, they would be dismissed as outdated, fissiparous, and inefficient.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 can’t find that community on a human scale, then he’ll look for it on an inhuman scale—in 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 it’s 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. (Nisbet’s 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, Nisbet’s 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 group—his 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.
This is easier to state in theory, though, than to actually apply to modern politics. Many politicians and pundits have grasped (or half-grasped) Robert Nisbet’s insight. Fewer have successfully put it into practice.
In the two decades following The Quest for Community’s 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 country’s local societies began a slow eclipse. Civic organizations declined, churches emptied, neighborhoods were bulldozed in the name of progress—and all the while, the state spent and regulated more and more and more.
Above all, it was the family—the backbone, from Tocqueville’s day to our own, of American localism and independence—that was pulled apart from both directions, as bureaucrats supplanted parents in poor neighborhoods and middle class marriage dissolved in the solvent of self-actualization. From the vantage point of the family-centric 1950’s, 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 institution—a weakness rooted in “the sharp discrepancy between the family’s actual contributions to the present political and economic order and the set of spiritual images inherited from the past.”
The Quest for Community is available here: