April 14, 2014

AND NOTHING CAN MATCH THE OPPORTUNITY FOR COMMUNITY-BUILDING...:

The Prospects for Community in the Age of Obama (Ross Douthat, March 17, 2014, Intercollegiate Review)

From émigré philosophers like Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin to native-born figures like Richard Weaver, the central thinkers of the emerging American Right labored to explain how "progress" and "enlightenment" had produced the gas chamber and the gulag. In the process, they often ended up reinterpreting the whole sweep of Western intellectual history, emphasizing unusual inflection points (Machiavelli, William of Ockham) and fingering unusual suspects (gnosticism, nominalism) along the way.

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 forty-year-old Nisbet published his "Study in the Ethics and Order of 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 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."

...that will be afforded by the end of labor.

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Posted by at April 14, 2014 6:58 AM
  
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