Almost 70 years has passed since the publication of The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom.
In what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat called “arguably the 20th century’s most important work of conservative sociology,” Professor Robert Nisbet described how individualism and political centralisation had advanced hand-in-hand, and how the institutions which had bound societies together had been progressively weakened.
Nisbet’s work was extraordinarily prescient and profound, and yet he is little-known.
As Douthat makes clear in his introduction to a recent edition, Nisbet was hard to pin down politically and was not personally close to other right-of-centre luminaries. Nor did he court fame as a public intellectual.
Alas, this has resulted in Nisbet and his magnum opus being overlooked.
The book was first published during a period of immense tension. In 1953, Communism was on the march, and Europe was still recovering materially and psychologically from the most destructive conflict in human history.
Something had gone badly wrong. While Nazism had been defeated, its deformed twin was still being looked upon as the wave of the future.
Elsewhere, more moderate socialists were also calling for increased state ownership and control, while conservatives and classical liberals fought to resist this concentration of power.
Beyond left and right
In his analysis of modern history, Nisbet suggested a different way of looking at the great changes which had been taking place, one which went beyond the battle of left and right over who got to control the direction of their societies.
“We are prone to see the advance of power in the modern world as a consequence, or concomitant, of that diminution of individual freedom,” Nisbet wrote. “But a more useful way would be to see it in terms of the retreat of authority in many of the areas of society within which human beings commonly find roots and a sense of the larger whole.”
As the State had grown in size and scope, it had gradually absorbed the functions of other bodies: those of the Church, the guild, the community and the family. As a result, people had grown more detached and isolated.
This had not just weakened these social institutions, it also inevitably increased the risk posed by a powerful centralised State, as it was this “competition of authorities within society at large that … keeps a society mobile and free.”
The growth of the State and corresponding diminution of the non-State institutions brought with it all sorts of baleful consequences.
Nisbet cites the writings of the French sociologist Émile Durkheim on social alienation in the early 20th century.
Durkheim had discovered that the highest rates of suicide and insanity were recorded in areas where individualism was strongest, and suicide was more common “among Protestants, among urban dwellers, among industrial workers, among the unmarried, among, in short, all those whose lives are characterised by relative tenuousness of social ties.”
Nisbet outlined how alienation in an atomised world extended far beyond the direct social element and had serious political repercussions. In a world where family connections meant less and the usual social restraints were diminished, the “intolerable aloneness” gave rise to violent temptation.
Religion was less and less important in people’s lives, and so instead many now sought fulfilment in secular belief systems which they hoped would help them to connect with their fellow man. Again, this increased the danger posed by the political extremes.
All of this, the author maintained, was interconnected:
“We are forced to the conclusion that a great deal of the peculiar character of contemporary social action comes from the efforts of men to find in large-scale organisations the values of status and security which were formerly gained in the primary associations of family, neighbourhood and church.”
When examining how institutions had declined so precipitously, Nisbet pointed to the close connection between an institution’s ”functional” significance and its “psychological” significance.
In the case of the key social institutions, that functional significance had decreased over time as the centralised State assumed an ever-greater importance.
Although this sometimes brought with it an increased standard of social support (provided by the welfare state, government-sponsored education and so forth), it came at a considerable cost as institutions which had been stripped of their social roles soon lost their relevance as well, and no longer had the same psychological or symbolic importance in the lives of people who would now look only to the State.
Living with Leviathan
One of the most impressive aspects of the book is how skilfully the author wove together the sociological analysis of modern history with his overview of how the evolution of political philosophy had reinforced this shift away from the community and towards the State.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, unsurprisingly, was a key driver of this process through his advocacy of eliminating the supposedly oppressive influences of church, family and community and replacing them with the simple dictates of the “General Will”.
“Each citizen,” the Genevian philosopher argued, “would then be completely independent of all his fellow men, and absolutely dependent upon the state…for it is only by the force of the State that the liberty of its members can be secured.”
Rousseau was not the first influential thinker to make this kind of argument. A century earlier, the strong and undivided model of government which Thomas Hobbes proposedallowed no middle ground between the individual and the all-powerful Leviathan.
Revolutionary France of the late 18th century showed what would happen if such ideas were implemented.
Heavily influenced by Rousseau’s writings, the instigators of the Reign of Terror waged war on civil society.
Guilds were banned, along with charitable and cultural societies. The family was attacked with legislation weakening marriage and parental authority. Great efforts were made to eradicate the Church’s influence, or at the very least, to bring it completely under the government’s control. Similar steps were later taken by the Nazis and the Communists of the 20th century, and for the same reason: the establishment of complete control.
What Nisbet identified as being important in allowing totalitarian movements to prosper was the fact that modern political leaders were not constrained in a way their predecessors had been.
For totalitarianism to triumph, Nisbet argued, there needed to be an ideology, but more importantly there needed to be masses of people waiting to be led, and these “masses” of lonely and disconnected people could not exist were it not for atomisation.
Although Nisbet was not a religious conservative, his analysis of the role of religion in these seismic shifts was particularly astute.
Nisbet described how the Protestant Reformation had involved an attack on the social aspect of religion and an increased focus on the individual; Luther had welcomed the takeover of these functions of the Church by the various princes who approved of his preaching, and these princes were only too happy to gain control over the Lutheran churches operating within their borders.
Not only did this policy weaken faith at the expense of individualism, it represented a definitive break from the unified and community-oriented faith which had shaped all of Europe up till then.
To counteract the threat being posed to individual freedom, Nisbet echoed Montesquieu and Lord Acton by emphasising the need for decentralisation of power and sought a new “laissez faire” model centred around the social group, rather than the individual.
How stands his analysis all these decades later?
The greatest collectivist threat — Soviet Communism – is now gone, and thankfully we are some distance away from the world in which he wrote this.
In other ways, though, the situation is even more dire now.
The decline in the role of the family which so troubled Nisbet in the 1950s has accelerated rapidly.
Secularism is more dominant than ever, to the point that organised religion plays a very limited role in the lives of most people in the West. Rates of community participation have also plummeted.
Nisbet’s advice on the need to focus on the social group over the individual or the centralised State has also been ignored by both Left and Right, which tend to differ only by degrees in terms of how powerful Leviathan should be allowed to become.
In place of civil society, governments have increasingly come to rely on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other state-funded groups which have the form of independent groups, but which operate on behalf of their paymasters.
Meanwhile, there are ominous parallels between the increasingly dominant “Woke” movement and the extreme ideologies of the past. In this set of beliefs, many lost souls in post-Christian societies appear hellbent on trying to discover a meaning in life and a cause to fight for, no matter how illogical it is.
It is hard to deny that political centralisation is stronger than ever and people in advanced Western democracies are most isolated than ever.
The Quest for Community provided an invaluable insight into what had gone wrong when it was first published, and it is no reflection on its authority that his warnings went unheeded.
Now, more than ever, it is time for readers to rediscover the great wisdom contained in Nisbet’s work, and to seek to apply his lessons in our own troubled times.