JEFFERSON COUNTY, KANSAS. “Community” is a recurring word and theme on this stoop, but it’s invocation can come in many undesirable forms: as a talisman against perceived ills; as a marketing device appealing to an unsatisfied self; as a spur towards nationalistic adventures; or as a way to close the door against others. Given that, what is being evoked by the word community at FPR? I certainly don’t have the last word on that question, but what follows is one answer, my contribution to the wonderful American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, edited by our own Jeremy Beer.
In the years following the French Revolution, conservative thinkers reacted with relatively unanimous skepticism or outright horror at the forces of individualism and progressivism that had erupted with such violence against ancient traditions and institutions during that conflagration. Conservatives like Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre recoiled at the new conception of the human person as an atomized and fully free moral agent, possessed of abstract natural rights to be realized unconstrained by social limits. When entrenched as a movement of the people, they argued, this radical expression of individual will would not only destroy the whole structure of moral order on which western civilization was founded, but would also result in the rise of absolutist despotism.
The optimism of the Victorian Age found little that was convincing in this dour conservative outlook. With the popular penetration of the powerful idea of progress, the autonomous individual and his freely expressed will began to seem a self-evident and unmitigated good. The values of the age of progress-the maximum attainment of personal freedom combined with the maximum attainment of efficiency, mobility, uniformity, neutrality, and objectivity in the exercise of political, economic, and social power-were likewise taken largely as articles of faith. When Jeremy Bentham claimed to be able to legislate for all of India from the comfort of his English study, it was hardly puffery or idle boasting. Rather, as Robert Nisbet has noted, it epitomized the profound confidence that the new political theorists had in the objective power of reason to solve all problems of human relations and in the individual as the universal, primary unit of social and political order. Bentham, Mill, and other nineteenth-century apostles of progressive liberalism paid little heed to conservatives such as John Ruskin who were calling attention to the social cost of rationalism and individualism: the scattering of families, increased urbanization, and the disintegration of ancient allegiances—or, in other words, the destruction of communities of belonging that had persisted for centuries. To liberal theorists, this historical process was viewed not as tragic, or even (usually) as regrettable, but rather as signaling the glorious rebirth of man as he became progressively emancipated from the tyranny and irrationality of the past.
The skeptical attitude of European conservatives towards progressivism was never quite as strongly shared by their American counterparts. America, by the very nature of its discovery, settlement, and political birth, was literally a “new world”; a place of nearly limitless opportunity constrained only by the strength of a man’s back and the sharpness of his wits. The frontier spirit, buttressed by a Puritan heritage that emphasized individual responsibility and strict moral self-discipline, made the idea of the self-sufficient, rugged individual seem a rather conservative ideal, one which did not necessarily threaten the bonds of family, church, and community. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville described the New World in biblical terms—a pristine continent provided to Europe’s castoffs as if newly risen from the receding waters of the great flood, a nearly empty and seemingly inexhaustible land in terms of both sheer physical space and material wealth. This geographic wonder imprinted itself on the American Puritan soul, Tocqueville explained, creating a new kind of man far less susceptible to the chaotic passions of his cramped and world-weary European cousins. Even so, Tocqueville warned that despite their natural advantages, should Americans ever give themselves over entirely to their private interests, the social bonds and traditional institutions necessary for a democratic republic would fail.
Democracy in America remains the necessary starting point for understanding the dynamics of community in America, and Tocqueville’s insights into the push and pull between American individualism and the need for communal ties certainly have been played out across the spectrum of American conservative thought. The dominant direction of this thought, however, has not been kind to strong defenses of community. The American experiences of Revolution against Britain, Civil War and abolition of slavery, suffrage and the political enfranchisement of women, the civil rights struggle, and the sexual revolution all have tended to promote, or be incorporated into, a view of history as the story of man’s progressive shedding of oppressive yokes-yokes usually proclaimed as necessary constraints by their defenders. American political thought has always had, and has continued to develop, a muscular theory of the individual rights of man. Conservative thinkers, to gain purchase on the American mind, have been forced to trace their policy and social prescriptions to some basis in individual rights. American conservatism has therefore developed an instrumentalist and mechanical view of community and social bonds: they exist as a means to preserve the maximum freedom and efficiency of individual action. When David Walsh, for example, argues against abortion in The Growth of the Liberal Soul (1997), he does so on rights-based grounds: abortion weakens the sanctity of all individuals, but because this idea provides the necessary foundation for personal autonomy and freedom, it must be defended.
The conservative veneration of individual autonomy as the central truth that must be vindicated by the social and political order reached its height with the twentieth-century development of libertarianism, and in particular with that strain of euphoric libertarianism preached in the writings of Ayn Rand. In both her nonfiction essays and especially in her fictional characters, Rand elevated the uncompromising, self-sufficient, immensely capable individualist and capitalist into a conservative hero. For the Christs of Rand’s gospel of selfishness, communal restraints and the demands of personal, concrete relationships and small social groups were evil impediments to be overcome on the way to a cross of self-actualization. This vision of conservative virtue as something utterly opposed to communal belonging gained considerable influence on conservative thought during America’s postwar struggle against the Soviet ideology of collectivism, and it continues to exert a strong influence on the conservative tradition today. Not all postwar conservatives, however, were so blinded by their hatred of communism that they abandoned all concepts of true community. Conservative traditionalists like Russell Kirk decried the influence of libertarianism on traditional communities and the networks of social obligations inherent in words like kin, church, village, class, caste, and craft. Kirk’s broadsides against libertarian individualists were passionate: he denounced the “decadent fervor” (Marion Montgomery’s term) of the libertarians, and declared that any cooperation between libertarians and conservatives was akin to advocating a “union of fire and ice.” Two of the most thoughtful defenses of traditional community as a conservative ordering principle were published within a year of Kirk’s Conservative Mind (1953): Nisbet’s The Quest for Community (1952) and Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics (1953).
Nisbet begins his study on the place of community in American political and social life by examining the failed promises of progress. By the postwar period, America had filled up. A sense of dread and ennui had spread through society, and the dominant tropes of psychospiritual expression were no longer found in terms like optimism, progress, change, and reason, but rather alienation, disintegration, decline, and insecurity. Americans, according to Nisbet, no longer seemed to trust or valorize the selfish Randian hero. The problem, he thought, was not technological tyranny or consumer greed or increasing secularism, but the distribution of political power. Modern man’s nervous preoccupation with finding meaning in community is a manifestation of the profound social dislocation caused by the unique power structure of the Western political state. As Western political power had become increasingly centralized, impersonal, and remote, it had atomized the individual and relegated communal interests and relationships to the realm of private personal preference. Nisbet locates the profound unrest in the American soul not so much in the disappearance of communal relationships but in the utter dissociation of those relationships from the exercise of real political and economic power. Traditional communities and the religious, familial, and local ties that bind them have not so much been lost, in Nisbet’s view, as they have become irrelevant at the deepest levels of meaning. It is here, in the unmediated exposure of the individual will to the impersonal power of the state (and to a lesser extent, the market), that Nisbet finds the root cause of man’s spiritual crisis.
Voegelin’s New Science tracks a similar course, providing conservative thought with a powerful analytical tool for understanding the spiritual dimensions of the phenomena Nisbet so clearly describes. For Voegelin, modernity could be summarized as a heretical commitment to Gnosticism, or in other words, a fundamental dissatisfaction with the uncertainties and limits of existence. Impatience for moral meaning and certainty beyond the humble limits of traditional communities leads the Gnostic thinker to imbue human existence in the here and now with the ultimate meaning reserved by traditional Christianity for the next life. By “immanentizing” the Christian eschaton, Voegelin explains, modern man took on the project of remaking existence according to the dictates of political ideology.
Both Nisbet and Voegelin note the paradox that modernity is both marked by nearly continuous warfare and a universally declared desire for peace. Nisbet persuasively argues that with the dissociation of traditional communities from the centers of political power, the modern disciplines of war, mechanization, bureaucracy, and mass communication become invested with a strong sense of moral identity and belonging. Voegelin described how the ardent commitments once reserved for local religious communities had been transferred to mass movements which stood as surrogate moral communities and provided an otherwise missing sense of historical purpose.
During the latter stages of the Cold War, and especially since its end, American conservatism has taken up the mantle of optimism and regained some of its earlier confidence in the rugged individual. Ronald Reagan’s seemingly single-handed defeat of the Soviet empire is a powerful symbol in contemporary conservative thought of the moral worth of one individual’s iron will. Taking their cue from Reagan, many conservative institutions and publications today seek a new conservative synthesis between the primacy of individual freedom and the need for social belonging. The ideals of this synthesis are put on display in the presidency of George W. Bush, who has managed to conjoin strong religious convictions and a stated commitment to preserving the traditional family and prepolitical communities with an underlying progressivism and a nearly Gnostic commitment to creating unrestrained political and economic freedom abroad.
Whether such a synthesis can successfully be maintained remains to be seen. There is good reason to be skeptical. With one of the most unique, eloquent, and deeply conservative voices of the late twentieth century, Wendell Berry has fashioned from his career a kind of long, poetic lament for the final passing of rural America and of its people, places, rites, and rituals. Community, for Berry, is ultimately about membership: it is a group of people embedded in a place and a network of memory who belong to one another. Within such a community, even individual moral decisions must account for that belonging. As a brilliant essayist and naturalist, Berry has offered in works such as The Unsettling of America (1978), The Gift of Good Land (1981), and Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (1993) a stinging critique of the false communities of war, international markets, and sexualized consumerism. A central theme throughout is the way in which modern structures break apart that which authentic communities bind together: consumption and production, sex and fertility, freedom and responsibility. Berry demonstrates persuasively that no amount of moralizing will check the corrosive character of abstract freedom, especially economic freedom. As a result, even in a political period of supposed conservative ascendancy, local familial, religious, and rooted communities continue to suffer decline because they are unable to provide a plausibly authoritative account for, not to mention enforce, those norms rooted not in law, markets, or choice, but in tradition, faith, and a deep respect for the particularity of place.