Monday, March 17, 2014

The quest for community

Radical individualism and an omnipotent state are not enemies but, rather, the former leads inevitably to the latter. Robert Nisbet made the argument that "human-scale associations" were essential to liberty in The Quest for Community in 1953. A new edition of the book has been published with an introduction by Ross Douthat. From that introduction:
.... 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.” ....

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irrational, patriarchal, and tyrannical; as sources of political and economic power, they would be dismissed as outdated, fissiparous, and inefficient.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. ....

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. .... [more]