In the preface to The Quest for Community, Robert Nisbet explained the theme of his work: “I have chosen to deal with the political cause of the manifold alienation that lies behind the contemporary quest for community.” (QC, vii) Although economic, religious, and cultural factors played a role in modern man’s alienation, the role of the state was preeminent in severing the ties between the individual and his kin, church, and local associations. Supplanting traditional communities, the state was able to reorganize society with its ideology of individualism, secularism, and progress that was aimed at imperial expansion.
The growing concentration of power in the state allowed it to penetrate successfully into “man’s economic, religious, kinship, and local allegiances” and dislocate “established centers of function and authority” with its own mandate and bureaucratic organization. (QC, viii) The decline of traditional communities, and the corresponding rise of individual alienation, was a direct result of the concentration of power and the complete sovereignty of the modern state.
For Nisbet, communities rather than individuals were the units of society, as best exemplified during the Middle Ages, when the “group was primary.” Honors, privileges, and immunities were attached to communities because they were prior to the individual in origin and authority: “whether we are dealing with the family, the village, or the guild, we are in the presence of the systems of authority and allegiance which were widely held to precede the individual in both origin and right.” (QC, 81) Decisions of occupation, welfare, and family were decided not by the individual but by the community. The medieval town “was itself a close association, and its members — citizens in the medieval sense — were bound to live up to its articles and customs almost as rigorously as the peasants on the manor.” (QC, 81-83) Contrary to Locke’s state of nature or Rawls’s original position, Nisbet contended that all individuals were born in a community instead of some a priori condition from which they could consent to a societal contract. Like Aristotle, Nisbet believed that the community was prior to the individual in both origin and authority because it was only in the community where the individual could find fulfillment and achieve self-sufficiency.
Not only did Nisbet reject the modern liberal premise of abstract individualism, but he dismissed the idea of equality as the basis for it. For Nisbet, a community was a hierarchal and authoritative organization where humans sought fulfillment and self-sufficiency. One was a member of a community as a “father, mother, priest, soldier, student, or professor” where hierarchy instead of equality defined the stratification of function and role in the community. (DA, 44) As Nisbet said, “Wherever two or more people associate, there is bound to be some form of hierarchy, no matter how variable, changing from one actor to the other, or how minor. Hierarchy is unavoidable to some degree.” (TA, 238) The hierarchal nature of functions and roles provided “the visible bonds, roles, statuses, and norms” for a community’s boundaries of what was acceptable and unacceptable in thought and behavior. (DA, 41) In short, social and political stability was impossible for Nisbet without some form of hierarchy and authority.
However, the stability of the community did not have to rest on exploitation and power; rather, Nisbet pointed out that consensus was the foundation for social and political order. Legitimacy of the regime was rooted in “some manifestation of consensus,” whether it resided in the “family, monastery, or university,” and was the essence of community. (DA, 43-44) The stratification of function and role in the community was based on habit, custom, and use where the individual was engaged in and part of “a pattern of authority.” (SB, 142) Similar to proponents of civil society, Nisbet believed that the legitimacy of a community should not found in the exploitation and power of the state — something which occurred when authority had broken down.1
A community’s legitimacy in some sense was voluntarily given by its members where individuals submit to a stratification of function and roles within that organization. Yet the community’s legitimacy was not entirely determined by the member’s choice because habit, custom, and tradition provided a context in which the individual found himself. As Burke had argued, the community, as prior to the individual, already has been legitimatized by members before that individual even existed. When born into a community, the member’s context was already established and therefore the member had no choice other than to engage in and be a part of that community’s “pattern of authority.”
Crucial to a community’s “pattern of authority” — its cohesive and consensual nature — was its function. As Nisbet wrote, “Nothing is so likely in the long run to lead to the decay of community than the disappearance of the function that established it in the first place, or the failure of some commanding function to take the place of the first.” Nisbet did not specify what function a community should adopt except to suggest that “a community is strong in the sense of some transcending purpose, some ideal or ideals.” (DA, 43) He also rejected utilitarian and commercial concerns as the proper function of a community: “In the community of blood, kinship cannot be assessed in terms of either material or pecuniary interests. . . . And in the traditional community of scholars, in the university, one prided himself on an aloofness to the kinds of material or dollar interests that actuated businessmen.” (DA, 45) This was not to say that utilitarian and commercial matters should be neglected; rather, these concerns should not be the highest ones for the community to seek. Again, Nisbet differed with modern liberal thinkers who placed property as the foundation for their new communal order.
When the members of the community began to say “I” instead of “we,” “one may trace the phases of dissolution of a community.” (DA, 44) For Nisbet, the sixteenth century was the beginning in which individuals became steadily more detached from their “close confinements of kinship, church, and association.” (QC, 86) The modern individual who emerged from the sixteenth century understood communities as particularistic, exclusive, and egalitarian in an ideology of individualism, secularism, and progress. This progressive emancipation of the individual was a direct result of the decline of the traditional communities from which he has been emancipated. Although this transition contained a variety of economic, religious, and cultural factors, the role of the political state was preeminent in this transformation of the modern individual. (QC, 97)
The War State
For Nisbet, the state was an artificial construct that was opposed to traditional communities and arose out of force in the conditions of war. (QC, 100) The state’s expansion of power during times of war was especially evident to Nisbet, “Everywhere the state, as we first encounter it in history, is simply the institutionalization, and projection to wider areas of function and authority, of the command-tie that in the beginning binds only the warrior-leader and his men.” (AF, xxi) The rise of the state was often at the expense of kinship, as illustrated by Homer, whose epics painted “Greek society just beginning to face the pangs of conflict between its age-old kinship structure and the pressing needs of war.
Eventually the political state won out.” (AF, xxi-xxii) In Athens itself, the state’s victory was assured with the Cleisthenean Reforms that abolished kinship and replaced it with the polis, individualism, and contract. Roman history was no different than Greek when it came to the “conflict between patria potestas, the sacred and imprescriptible sovereignty of the family in its own affairs, and the imperium militiae, the power vested in the military leaders over their troops.” (AF, xxxiii) When the empire replaced the republic, the state triumphed over traditional kinship. Civil and religious life became one when Augustus was anointed Pontifex Maximus, and the Institutes of Justinian codified the sovereign as the sole source of law and above it. As Nisbet described the Roman family during this period, “By the fifth century, the once-proud Roman family had been grounded down by the twin forces of [the state’s policies of] centralization and atomization . . . .” (AF, xxxiii)
The rediscovery of the Institutes of Justinian during the early modern period greatly influenced the re-militarization of society; and with this re-militarization came war, which in turn assisted in the state accumulating more power at the expense of traditional communities. (TA, 167) Under the conditions of war, these communities became subordinated to the state, and “Only through the State’s penetration of traditional social authorities to the individuals who live under them can its authority be said to be manifest.” (SB, 385) Individuals were to express their loyalty and identity first and foremost to the state rather than to their kin, church, or local association. As Nisbet had observed, war provides the most intense sense of community among its members, “the kind of community that is brought into existence by emergency and then reinforced by shared values and emotions which reach the depth of human nature.” (P, 309) But this new sense of community was at the price of the traditional ones, with innovation and invention replacing custom and tradition. (P, 309-11)
Over time, “we see the passage of the State from an exclusively military association to one incorporating almost every aspect of human life.” (QC, 101) Besides the state’s penetration into traditional communities, the condition of war also promoted the democratization of society: “Democracy, in all its variants, is the child of war.” (P, 312) As Nisbet recounted, the Cleisthenan Reforms created the first democracy, imperial Rome furnished entitlements to its citizens, and the first mass infantry was formed during the late Middle Ages and had a direct affect on modern democracy’s notion of egalitarianism. Once a society had become democratized, it had an affect on the nature of war, with twentieth conflicts identified with popular and moral aspirations. As Nisbet observed, “When the goals and values of a war are popular both in the sense of mass participation and spiritual devotion, the historic, institutional limits of war tend to recede further and further into the void.” (QC, 39) War now had become a type of crusade in the name of the nation, with its martial character more intense and reach greater in range because it had become more popular.
The affinity between the conditions of war and the democratization of society led to the state’s centralization of power. The state’s removal of intermediate political and civil institutions created a condition in which men were equal in role, status, and function. In Nisbet’s words, “the very centralization of monarchical and State power could not help but create the conditions for a growing interest in personal equality.” (QC, 107) By restricting the authority and power of intermediate institutions, the state can stress “upon the impersonality and equality of the law, to create a scene in which many traditional medieval inequalities had to be diminished.” (QC, 108) The state’s centralization of power promoted a passion of equality among its citizens where “[a]ll that has magnified equality of condition has necessarily tended to abolish or diminish the buffers to central power which are constituted by social classes, kindreds, guilds, and other groups whose virtual essence is hierarchy.” (TA, 209) The flattening of hierarchies in traditional communities resulted in a national community of equality where the state becomes the sole source of power and authority.
The disappearance of traditional communities coincided with the rise of alienation among citizens: the individual was “uprooted, alone, without secure status, cut off from the community or any system of clear moral purpose.” (ST, 265) People felt powerless to influence their own lives or the lives of others and therefore withdrew from social and political organizations. (SB, 264-65) Lacking institutional resources, the individual had to rely upon his own subjectivity to direct his life, which often collapsed either into a philosophical relativism or hedonistic calculations. Instead of cultivating genuine individuality and creativity, the individual took “mechanical roles he is forced to play, none of them touching his innermost self but all of them separating man from this self, leaving him, so to speak, existentially missing in action.” (ST, 266) Without any intermediate institutions, the individual viewed the state’s impersonal bureaucratic institutions as remote, incomprehensible, and fraudulent.
In addition to acting as barrier to the state’s power, intermediate institutions served as the venue to cultivate values such as love, honor, and loyalty that cannot be taught effectively by the vast, distant, impersonal state. In fact, when the state attempted to indoctrinate such values into its citizenry, the result was a degradation of traditional dogmas, traditions, and values. (TR, 130) Humans learn and acquire meaningful skills and values in concrete contexts which only intermediate institutions, like the family or churches, can furnish. Without such groups that point to higher purposes, humans reduce their relationships to contractual ones, with property or currency being the common denominator.
Values of honor and loyalty become replaced with what Nisbet referred to as the “cash nexus”: “Every act of service, responsibility, protection an aid to others is an act presupposing or calling for monetary exchange, for cash payment.” (PA, 86) It should come to no surprise that the state’s centralization of power preceded and made possible the existence of capitalism. Capitalism required the context of “a single system of law, sanctioned by military power, to replace the innumberable competing laws of guild, Church, and feudal principality.” (QC, 105) The vast power of the state, and therefore its attractiveness, was its ability to standardized objects and men, whether it was currency, property, or rights. The imposition of uniformity upon both objects and men “provided a powerful political stimulus to the rise of capitalism.” (QC, 105)
It was in this homogenous environment where capitalism could emerge and thrive. Of course, the great irony for Nisbet was that the continual expansion of state power had undermined and even threaten capitalism: capitalism needed intermediate institutions — its moral capital and cultured order — in order to survive. As Nisbet observed, “Most of the relative stability of nineteenth-century capitalism arose from the fact of the very incompleteness of the capitalist revolution.” Capitalism required the “the continued existence of institutional and cultural allegiances which were, in every sense, precapitalist” in order to exist. (QC, 237)
The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom by Robert A. Nisbet (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1953; San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1990). (QC)
“Foreward” to The American Family and the State, edited by Joseph R. Peden and Fred Glahe (San Francisco: Pacific Research Institute, 1986). (AS)
“Conservatism and Sociology,” The American Journal of Sociology 48 (September 1952), 167-175. (CS)
The Degradation of Academic Dogma: The University in America, 1945-1970 (New York: Basic Books, 1971). (DA)
“The French Revolution and the Rise of Sociology in France,” The American Journal of Sociology 49 (November 1943), 156-64. (FS)
History of the Idea of Progress (New York: Basic Books, 1980). (HP)
The Making of Modern Society (New York: NYU Press, 1986). (MM)
The Present Age: Progress and Authority in Modern America (New York: Harper and Row, 1988). (PA)
Sociology as an Art Form (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976). (SA)
The Social Bond: An Introduction to the Study of Society (New York: Knopf, 1970). (SB)
Social Change and History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969). (SC)
The Social Philosophers: Community and Conflict in Western Thought (New York: Washington Square Press, 1982). (SP)
The Sociological Tradition (New York: Basic Books, 1966). (ST)
Twilight of Authority (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975). (TA)
Tradition and Revolt: Historical and Sociological Essays (New York: Random House, 1968). (TR)
1. I prefer the term intermediate institutions rather than civil society because it seems closer to Nisbet’s description of this reality. The modern usage of civil society often denotes a political or ideological connotation instead of an analytical and empirical one that Nisbet had used. Some examples of the modern usage of civil society are Jeffrey C. Alexander, The Civil Sphere (Oxford University Press, 2006); Ernest Gellner, Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals (New York: Penguin, 1994), 3-4; and Robert Putnam, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Journal of Democracy 6 (1995): 65-78.
2. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2 vols., Phillips Bradley, ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1945). Citations are volume and page number.
This article was originally entitled, “War, Progress, and Sociology in the Age of Ideology,” in The Political Science Reviewer 36:1 (2007): 311-43.