Monday, July 08, 2019

Nisbet: the quest for community

Robert Nisbet
I'm reading The Quest for Community by the American sociologist Robert Nisbet. The book was published in 1953 which serves as a reminder that the problems besetting the West go back further than some are willing to acknowledge.

The first chapter is titled "The Loss of Community". It begins,
Surely the outstanding characteristic of contemporary thought on man and society is the preoccupation with personal alienation and cultural disintegration. The fears of the nineteenth-century conservatives in Western Europe, expressed against a background of increasing individualism, secularism and social dislocation, have become, to an extraordinary degree, the insights and hypotheses of present-day students of man in society.

This is put very clearly. Nisbet believed that the thought of his age was focused on the problems of personal alienation and cultural disintegration.

What had brought society to such a point? Nisbet continues by noting that in the nineteenth century, the age of individualism and rationalism, words such as individual, change, progress, reason and freedom carried great symbolic value:
All of these words reflected a temper of mind that found the essence of society to lie in the solid fact of the discrete individual - autonomous, self-sufficing, and stable - and the essence of history to lie in the progressive emancipation of the individual from the tyrannous and irrational statuses handed down from the past.

He is pointing here, in part, to the "anthropology" of liberal modernity, i.e. its framework for understanding man and society. Liberal moderns based their framework on the "discrete individual", i.e. man considered alone, separate and unrelated. It was then fitting, as a perfecting of society, that history would gradually liberate this self-sufficient and autonomous individual from a pre-modern past that emphasised instead a vision of man fulfilling his nature within a network of communal relationships.

Nisbet adds:
Competition, individuation, dislocation of status and custom, impersonality, and moral anonymity were hailed by the rationalist because these were the forces that would be most instrumental in liberating the individual from the dead hand of the past and because through them the naturally stable and rational individual would be given an environment in which he could develop illimitably his inherent potentialities. Man was the primary and solid fact; relationships were purely derivative. All that was necessary was a scene cleared of the debris of the past.

Again, it was assumed that man was to be understood as a discrete individual, not as someone whose nature was expressed and fulfilled in relationship to others. And so these traditional relationships were thought of negatively as limitations holding back the potential of individuals, rather than as the social framework allowing the individual to reach toward his better and fuller nature. (Nisbet seems to have thinkers like J.S. Mill in mind when describing nineteenth century thought.)

Those who pointed to the costs of "individuation" were met with the response that progress required periods of disorder (an argument still heard today):
If there were some, like Taine, Ruskin, and William Morris, who called attention to the cultural and moral costs involved - the uprooting of family ties, the disintegration of villages, the displacement of craftsmen, and the atomization of ancient securities - the apostles of rationalism could reply that these were the inevitable costs of Progress. After all, it was argued - argued by liberals and radicals alike - in all great ages of achievement there is a degree of disorder, a snapping of the ties of tradition and security.

Nisbet's next point is interesting. He argues that the nineteenth century had faith "in the harmonies of nature", in the sense that the "natural man" - freed from "artificial" constraints of traditional social relationships and conventional morality - would then release his true natural potential and forge more authentic relationships. Therefore, the individual was right to follow his natural interest, guided by reason:
This was the age of optimism, of faith in the abstract individual and in the harmonies of nature. In Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, what we are the matchless picture of a child of nature revolting against the tyrannies of village, family, and conventional morality...In the felicities and equalities of nature Huck finds joyous release from the cloistering prejudices and conventions of old morality. Truth, justice and happiness lie in man alone.

In many areas of thought and imagination we find like perspectives. The eradication of old restraints, together with the prospect of new and more natural relationships in society, relationships arising directly from the innate resources of individuals, prompted a glowing vision of society in which there would be forever abolished the parochialisms and animosities of a world founded upon kinship, village, and church. Reason, founded upon natural interest, would replace the wisdom Burke and his fellow conservatives had claimed to find in historical processes of use and wont, of habit and prejudice.

Let's stop there for a moment. If Nisbet is correct, there already existed in the 1800s a framework of thought in which it was tremendously difficult to defend traditional society. What was inherited was thought to artificially restrict a self-sufficient, "natural" autonomous individual. Restraints on behaviour did not exist to secure a common good, but were irrational limitations on a pursuit of individual "natural interest". (I criticised this type of thinking in an earlier post Every Eve knows and follows the best path?)

And how was "reason" understood? Things get worse here: our particular loyalties and attachments were thought to be based not on reason but sentiment. Reason was connected instead to general principles which would govern abstract social groups, with these groups ever expanding in composition. Nisbet quotes the observations of the nineteenth century Russian sociologist Ostrogorski that,
Henceforth, man's social relations "were bound to be guided not so much by sentiment, which expressed the perception of the particular, as by general principles, less intense in their nature perhaps, but sufficiently comprehensive to take in the shifting multitudes of which the abstract social groups were henceforth composed, groups continually subject to expansion by reason of their continual motion."

An Australian Prime Minister of the early 1900s, Alfred Deakin, was torn by this idea that the particular was to be rejected in favour of a constant expansion toward the universal (see Deakin's strange contradiction). On the one hand, he thought that the loss of the particular would lead to a flattening of identity; on the other hand, he associated the "expansion" to the universal with a vision of progress.

Nisbet explains the nineteenth century mindset further:
Between philosophers as far removed as Spencer and Marx there was a common faith in the organizational powers of history and in the self-sufficiency of the individual...Both freedom and order were envisaged generally in terms of the psychology and politics of individual release from the old.

We see this in the social sciences of the age. What was scientific psychology but the study of forces and states of mind within the natural individual, assumed always to be autonomous and stable? Political science and economics were, in their dominant forms, concerned with legal and economic atoms - abstract human beings - and with impersonal relationships supplied by the market or by limited general legislation.

Above everything towered the rationalist's monumental conviction of the organizational character of history - needing occasionally to be facilitated, perhaps, but never directed - and of the self-sufficing stability of the discrete individual.

It's important to grasp the importance of this view of history. If historical movement has a direction of its own, one with an organisational power that is a guarantor of social stability and progress, then it logically becomes wrong to uphold a traditional way of life - as this would then disrupt the proper organisational power of history.

So if Nisbet is right about all this, there were a number of features of nineteenth century thought which were dissolving of traditional society:

1. An anthropology based on the discrete individual, rather than man embedded in society.

2. A view that the individual was self-sufficient and that his potential was therefore restricted by traditional social relations and moral conventions.

3. The idea that relations flowing from the innate resources of the discrete individual were "natural" in opposition to the "artificial" relationships associated with traditional family and community life.

4. The notion that individuals should act according to "natural interest" rather than a common good.

5. The belief that particular loyalties and attachments were based on mere sentiment and that this was inferior to the "rational" formulation of general principles to regulate ever expanding abstract social groups.

6. The faith in the organisational power of history as a guarantor of progress.

If such ideas hold for too long they will inevitably have an effect - so we should not be surprised at the hollowing out of culture that afflicted most Western nations by the mid-twentieth century.

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.

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