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Nisbet and the tyranny of liberation

I just finished reading Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom. I had never read it before, I suppose because the name made it sound a bit platitudinous. In fact, though, it’s a frighteningly acute study of the close relation among (i) the modern absolute state, (ii) the totalitarian impulse to identify with the absolute state, (iii) the drive to liberate the individual from immediate social connections for the sake of libertarian, humanitarian, egalitarian, and rationalizing goals, and (iv) the profound weakening of such connections due to the reduced practical function of family and local community in industrial society. As such it shares a great deal of common ground with The Tyranny of Liberalism.

Some differences:

  • Nisbet published the book in 1953. While the basic principles that have led to the present situation were all in place then, and Nisbet presents them very clearly, their practical implications hadn’t been worked out and applied to the same degree. In particular, the demand for nondiscrimination and universal inclusiveness wasn’t what it has since become, a supreme standard that all legitimate discussion must comply with and all truly legitimate people must accept as the very ground of their moral being.
  • It was therefore still possible for someone intelligent who knew what was going on and expected to participate seriously in mainstream discussion to suggest that nonrationalized local connections, identitities and particularities are OK and serve a necessary function, that their decline is a big problem, and that it would be better if government respected them and worked with them in accordance with some principle of subsidiarity. In fact, Nisbet says that a lot of people were saying things consistent with that at the time, and even that the liberationist impulse had evidently had its day.
  • Nisbet is often called a traditionalist but in this book he seems to be a sort of intelligent proto-neocon. He seems to see liberal standards like freedom, equality, neutrality and democracy as the highest and noblest standards, but thinks they won’t work unless some sort of rooted social connection and context is stuck in there somewhere. That, of course, is the basic move that once made the neoconservatives seem to have something to say about social issues. Maybe the vague impression he had some such outlook is another reason I never read much of him. That impression was reinforced, of course, by his vehement opposition to legal restrictions on abortion (as stated in his 1982 book Prejudices).

It’s definitely a book worth reading. Aside from its intrinsic merit, it shows, like other books of social analysis written and accepted as worthy of public note in the ’50s, what an unbelievably stupid regression the ’60s were and how the legacy of the ’60s has been the effective end of intelligent discussion of serious public topics.

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