First, Nisbet called for “the revival of localism.” Perhaps especially in a nation as large as America, the spirit of localism was a defining feature for much of the nation’s history, a feature that had been noted and praised in the early 19th-century by Alexis de Tocqueville as an essential feature of democracy’s success and vibrancy. Yet, given the logic of modern liberalism, a deep hostility toward local identification that interfered with complete identification with what John Dewey called “The Great Community” of the nation informed much of progressive opinion during the 20th century. Nisbet noted that progressives of various sorts had worked for decades in portraying a more local-based form of community as stifling, narrowing and unfulfilling. – “The nation, the centralized nation freed of local regional encrustations, seemed to an ever larger extent the true repository of the spirit of progress. Suddenly, the local community became the symbol of reaction, dullness, mediocrity, and oppression of the mind…. [e.g., Babbitt, Main St., Winesburg, Ohio).” Nisbet observed that fashionable portrayals of the recidivism of local life combined with enlightened arguments of the nation’s leading experts who urged the desirability, efficiency, and opportunities of greater national identification. It’s instructive to recall that it was a socialist, after all, who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance (sans the phrase “Under God”), in keeping with the ambition on the Left that our first and only allegiance should be to ever more comprehensive “communities” at the expense of partial or local attachments. Of course, the logic behind this call to identify with ever-larger and more abstract “communities” necessarily means that eventually the nation itself will be understood to be too partial, and why on the Left today there are calls to move beyond narrowing allegiance to the nation and instead identify with a post-national global community. What’s also instructive about Nisbet’s examination of this logic is it throws into relief how far the Right has ceded ground on this issue, combating the calls to “globalism” instead with urgent defenses of “national” identification and being more apt to defend the Pledge of Allegiance than to find its origins worrisome. Conservatism is doubtless destined to playing defense against a moving target, but Nisbet helps to remind us how much ground has been ceded in the contemporary stances of conservatives who are more apt to be ardent nationalists than ardent localists.
Nisbet helps us see clearly that, as a response to contemporary calls for identification with globalism, a defense of the legitimacy of the nation-state is necessary. However, such a defense is not sufficient, and indeed, absent a stronger defense of local attachments, in fact ultimately and ironically undermines the deepest preconditions of life at the heart of the conservative understanding of the flourishing human life. Nisbet presciently argues that it is not sufficient to defend “family values” in the absence of a deep concern about the immediately surrounding conditions in which families exist, is ultimately to defend an organism without its necessary attendant ecology. Thus Nisbet wrote (with amazing prescience), “our present crisis lies in the fact that whereas the small traditional associations, founded upon kinship, faith, or locality, are still expected to communicate to individuals the principal moral ends and psychological gratifications of society, they have manifestly become detached from positions of functional relevance to the larger economic and political decisions of our society. Family, local community, church and the whole network of informal interpersonal institutions have ceased to play a determining role in our institutional systems of mutual aid, welfare, education, recreation, and economic production and distribution.” Absent a rich and interconnected set of mutually reinforcing local institutions and practices that supports the “work” of family, and are in turn supported by families, then family becomes untethered and increasingly irrelevant. With the decline of strong ties of locality, Nisbet’s analysis fully predicts the decline of family, or its replacement by easy-going relationships that reflect a dominant ethic of mobility, individual self-expression and detachment. While conservatives have been vocal in a defense of “family values,” they have been far less successful – one is even tempted to say even negligent – in defending the moral ecology in which good families thrive.
One of the main reasons for this implicates the second area of Nisbet’s concerns, namely, the Economy. At base, Nisbet holds, a good economy exists for the sake of supporting and maintaining a diversity of local communities. It exists to serve society – not vice versa. A market comes into being inside the city walls or town limits, not vice-versa. The basic presuppositions of modern economic theory – premised on the idea that economic decision-making is undertaken to increase individual profit and liberty, and undergirds a society of mobility and efficiency – contradicts the central understanding of community as a place of continuity, stability, order, and interpersonal identification. Modern economic demands of comparative advantage, mobility, efficiency and profit maximization result in a set of practices that undermine the existence of communities that, arguably, economic life was originally created to serve. Instead of serving the sustenance of those institutions, the demands of modern economic life undermine or eviscerate their existence. Human goods come to defined in almost exclusively economic and materialist terms, leading to an abandonment of informal and legal efforts to promote those social conditions in which families and communities flourish. Among other things, local businesses and institutions are displaced by industries that can offer discounts based on economies of scale, but which have no fundamental investment in the places from which they siphon money and to which they return little to nothing of enduring social value.
Nisbet perceptively argued that the very success of free-market capitalism rested upon a widespread and diverse set of local institutions and practices that the economic system not only did not create, but, over time, which it actively undermined. We can see that fact in a microcosm by observing the way in which the current financial crisis was in part precipitated by divorcing financial transactions from the places where they took place. By “upstreaming” mortgages out of the communities in which loans were made, lenders were divorced from accountability and absolved from the consequences of those loans, just as those taking loans felt no compunction or hesitation in thinking about their responsibilities and ability to repay, and later had no moral compunction in “walking away.” Throughout the system it was increasingly believed that what was being purchased was a financial asset, not a home in a community. By generating high degrees of abstraction and separation, the modern economic system actively obfuscates our economic actions from consequences, and origins from destinations. It generates massive ignorance about our daily economic life, undermining any sense that what we purchase and sell in any way contributes to the good life and continuity of our communities.
Nisbet observed not only was the logic of free-market capitalism undermining local communities and their constitutive associational life, but that in the end its logic would end up undermining free-market capitalism itself. Presciently he wrote, “Ultimately, human institutions depend for their preservation on the strength of the allegiances which such institutions create in human beings. To divorce economic ends from the contexts of social association within which allegiance to these ends can be nourished is fatal…. Economic freedom cannot rest upon moral atomism or upon large-scale impersonalities. It never has. Economic freedom has prospered, and continues to prosper, only in areas and spheres where it has been joined to a flourishing associational life.”
Most stunningly, Nisbet recognized that the temptations proffered by imperialistic tendencies toward atomism and the destruction of associational life within free-market capitalism would culminate not in perfect liberation of humans, but profound bondage. Again, I quote: “But to weaken, whether from political or individualistic motives, the social structures of family, local community, labor union, cooperative, or industrial community, is to convert a culture into an atomized mass. Such a mass will have neither the will, nor the incentive, nor the ability to combat tendencies toward political collectivism. The transition from free capitalism to forced collectivism is easy and will hardly be noticed when a population has lost the sense of social and moral participation in the former. Everything that separates the individual from this sense of participation pushes him inevitably in the direction of an iron collectivism, which will make a new kind of participation both possible and mandatory.”
Here again, we see how far contemporary conservatism has departed from a necessary defense of local and associational life in response to positions taken by the Left. Against the specter of Soviet communism and creeping socialism, American conservatives became ardent proponents of free-market capitalism – understandably in that context – but in the process, lost sight of the more fundamental and necessary context in which any such free market system must exist in order to serve the goods of human community, rather than to destroy them. In urging free-market values shorn of these more fundamental concerns and ends, modern conservatism ironically contributed to its own undermining and contemporary defeat. Losing sight of the fundamental nature of society that is required in the conservative vision of human life in its passionate response to liberalism, modern conservatism ended up serving as a great if unintentional contributor to the advance of modern liberalism.
Lastly…both of these conditions (the destruction of localism and the destructive expansion of the logic of free-market capitalism) have been served by the modern educational system – particularly the universities. And this has been the case not so much in spite of opposition by conservatives, but with their active support. The modern university system has arisen with the consent of those on the Right and Left alike, particularly in its guise as the modern research university aimed toward the end of “creating knowledge” and providing educations that allow our students to “succeed” and to “solve problems.” Both have actively assented to a national, and increasingly international educational system that becomes annually more homogenous and standardized (This is just as true of supposedly “conservative” administrations, one of which gave us “No Child Left Behind” and Margaret Spellings). Nisbet saw these developments in their earliest stages, and lamented the loss of variety and diversity of the nation’s many institutions that derived from their origins and characters as primarily local (and one could add, religious) institutions and thus as defenders and conservators of particular ways of life and particular values. “The situation is hardly different in the university. It would be difficult to list accurately all the once-small, once-local colleges and schools which, after WWII, were swept into large, unified, centralized systems of university administration in the various states, all in the name of educational progress and efficiency.”
Students and parents alike now largely view a college education as a necessary credentialing process, acting increasingly like consumers of a product and demanding, for high dollars spent, high grades dispensed. Faculty increasingly see their primary duty as research and publishing their findings which will be read by less than a handful of people. Trained at the small number of increasingly identical Ph.D. granting institutions, future faculty are actively oriented to view their career as driven by their success in research; that teaching is a secondary activity; and that the aim is to put oneself into a position always to be moving to a better, more prestigious institution. The idea of inculcating or encouraging a sense of institutional or local loyalty, and measuring one’s success by how deeply one’s roots are settled at an institution in a particular place, and how well one’s teaching helps advance the cultural and even religious commitments of a college, does not come into the picture. As a result – even as the word “diversity” is on every academic’s lips these days – there is a rush among our rich patchwork of liberal arts colleges to be completely identical, beginning earlier last century in their rush to disaffiliate from the religious traditions in which they had been founded, and more recently in the widespread change their name from “College” to “University” (in order to signal their seriousness as a research institution – and, that they are no longer a “collegium,” (a word that means “community” or “association of colleagues.”).
Let me conclude: what Robert Nisbet teaches conservatives today is a valuable lesson about the inherent dangers of conservatism. Conservatism was born in early-modern times as a reaction to the radicalism of political ideology. It was reactive, and in that sense defined itself in reference to liberalism. In modern American history – in reaction to the radicalism of the Left on the world stage, particularly given the threat of Communism – American conservatism reacted by occupying space that had recently been vacated by the Left. In responding to calls for global citizenship, conservatism defended the nation-state – while losing sight of a deeper allegiance to localities. In responding to the threat of economic socialism, conservatism defended the free market – while losing sight of a deeper allegiance to the associational life that an economy was brought into being to sustain and preserve. In responding to the dogmatic “multiculturalism” on college campuses, conservatism defended a form of rationalist universalism that contributed to the deracination and homogenization of our colleges – while losing sight of a defensible form of true diversity, a diversity of places, localities, and actual cultures. Nisbet, finally, is an invaluable teacher for today’s conservatives because he teaches us that, more than a simple reaction against, conservatism must always be for something, and that something must be finally more than merely “the quest for community,” but the reality and flourishing of community itself.