POLITICAL IDEAS: by Ross DouthatNews Weekly
How individualism can beget totalitarianism
, May 12, 2012
Today’s political debates often set up a simple tension: the individual versus government. Certainly individual liberty and limited government are fundamental principles of a free society, but such a polarised perspective overlooks the ways we actually live our lives — in families, as part of neighbourhoods, in church communities, in civic groups, and so on.
In this insightful reflection on Robert Nisbet’s classic 1953 book The Quest for Community, New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat examines the human impulse toward community and its connection to the rise of statism. This essay is adapted from Douthat’s introduction to ISI Books’ new critical edition of The Quest for Community (available from News Weekly Books).
The intellectual conservatism that flowered unexpectedly, like a burst of tulips from a desert, in the aftermath of the Second World War was preoccupied above all else with revising the story that modernity told about itself.
Twenty years of totalitarianism, genocide and total war had delivered hammer blows to the Whig interpretation of history: after Hitler, and in Stalin’s shadow, it was no longer possible to be confident that the modern age represented a long, unstoppable march from the medieval darkness into the light. Instead, there was a sudden demand for writers who could explain what had gone wrong, and why — and just how deep the rot really ran.
Postwar conservative thought derived much of its energy from this project. From émigré philosophers like Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin to native-born figures like Richard Weaver, the central thinkers of the emerging American Right laboured to explain how “progress” and “enlightenment” had produced the gas chamber and the gulag.
All of these efforts looked backward and forward at once, explaining the Western past to illuminate the dilemmas of the future. But few of them did so more persuasively than Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community.
No prophet or futurist could have anticipated all the twists and turns that American political life has taken since 1953, when the 40-year-old Nisbet published his The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom. But his Eisenhower-era analysis of the modern political predicament looks as prescient as it’s possible for any individual writer to be.
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 19th-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 centralised political power”.
But from the Protestant Reformation onward, individualism and centralisation 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 totalising 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 centralisation, 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 defence 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 defence of the individual and his group — his family, his church, his neighbourhood, his civic organisation 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.
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 organisations declined, churches emptied, neighbourhoods 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 neighbourhoods and middle-class marriages dissolved in the solvent of self-actualisation.
Once the bonds of community have frayed, is it enough to merely withdraw the power of the state, and watch communities re-knit themselves? Will the two-parent family revive, for instance, if anti-poverty programs are pared away? Are there countless versions of, say, the Mormon Church’s welfare network waiting to spring up, if only the heavy hand of the state relaxes itself?
Public opinion has recoiled, again and again, from even modest attempts to curb entitlements, and many conservative politicians have been better friends to big business — ignoring Nisbet’s warning that “decentralisation is just as necessary in the operation of the other great associations of modern society” — than they have been foes of big government.
The financial crisis of 2008 represented the failure of both conservative approaches to community-building: a deregulated marketplace proved incapable of generating the moral capital necessary to police itself, while the attempt to build an “ownership society” through policies that encouraged home-buying ended in disaster.
Worse still, since Obama’s elevation to the presidency, America seems once more divided between “the party of the state” and “the party of the individual”. Conservatives are cracking open Atlas Shrugged and shouting about socialism, but they seem to have lost the appetite for thinking through the problem of community in an individualistic age — which is, of course, precisely the problem that make socialism so appealing in the first place.
It seems appropriate to leave the last word to Nisbet himself, reflecting on his own work’s relevance for contemporary politics in a 1993 essay entitled Still Questing:
“Let me repeat, and conclude here, that a conservative party (or other group) has a double task confronting it. The first is to work tirelessly toward the diminution of the centralised, omni-competent and unitary state with its ever-soaring debt and deficit.
“The second and equally important task is that of protecting, reinforcing, nurturing where necessary the various groups that form the true building blocks of the social order. To these two ends I am bound to believe in the continuing relevance of The Quest for Community.”
So should we all.
Ross Douthat is a conservative American author, blogger and New York Times columnist. This edited extract from his foreword to the latest edition of Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community is reproduced by permission of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), Wilmington, Delaware, USA.