Akron, OH. The average zip code contains almost 10,000 souls. That is far too many to form a real community governed through face-to-face relationships. What if, like many early cities, we were to subdivide populations the size of an average zip code and give those smaller divisions their share of the resources we now give to large bureaucracies for things like caring for the needy and settling disputes? David Graeber and David Wengrow in their recently published book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, argue that humans have always had the ability to handle these kinds of social concerns by subdividing into smaller groups. Graeber and Wengrow are anarchists who insist that societies have never needed rulers, and they convincingly upend conventional wisdom about early civilization’s inevitable evolution to aristocratic rule by giving example after example of early peoples who were able to live in large groups and even cities without ceding control to elites.

Like us, our ancestors were politically self-aware and lived in societies governed in diverse ways. But the ones worth emulating, like the Wendat in North America, were ruled by local associations with minimal hierarchy. According to Graeber and Wengrow, Jesuit missionaries found the Wendat in North America intellectually formidable compared to the people in France. Social coherence for the Wendat could only be achieved through reasoned debate and consensus because, as Father Lallemant explains in 1648, “they only submitted to the authority of chiefs in so far as it pleases them.” And Father Le Jeune in the 1630s observed that “the councils, held almost every day in the Villages, and on almost all matters, improve their capacity for talking.”

Participation in governance has always made possible more dynamic and interesting relations between people than occurs when political rule is the reserve of the few. The anthropologist Robert Bellah in his book, Religion in Human Evolution, writes that hunter-gatherers were egalitarian and able to form nuclear families because domineering males were restrained through socializing rituals and networks of alliances. A natural wariness of alpha males is likely the starting point for the evolution of our political consciousness, but hunter-gatherers were not above surrendering their autonomy to charismatic warriors, hunters, and religious leaders. Graeber and Wengrow argue that pre-colonial North Americans were familiar with the bureaucracies and ruling classes that were common along the Gulf Coast and the Pacific Northwest, but most everywhere else they consciously managed to avoid them. However, for the last 2,500 years people in the dominant societies of Eurasia and their colonies have been ruled to varying degrees by elites, whose privileges have usually been resented. This resentment, which has been a source of tremendous intellectual and political fervor since the Industrial Revolution, is once again bringing us towards a crisis as we become ever further removed from meaningful participation in communities. But the primal solidarity, idealized by myth, is retained in sacred rites and communal events that haunt us with intimations of a more convivial life.

Structure versus Community

Even in the most repressive ancient regimes, festivals made a mockery of authority and allowed people to imagine other political arraignments. According to Graeber and Wengrow, the most powerful rituals bring about “collective chaos, liminality or creative play” that inspire new social relationships. Similarly, rites of passage marking a change in status, such as puberty rites, were thought by the anthropologist Victor Turner to evoke an ideal community by separating initiates into small groups for a transitional or “liminal” period. During this transitional phase social hierarchies could be reversed or temporarily dissolved. Initiates in these rites have no status or property. They are humble and accept arbitrary punishment without complaint, and the prescribed ordeals temper the initiates for new responsibilities. The initiates also develop intense comradeship. According to Turner, in his classic book, The Ritual Process, this mix of lowliness, homogeneity and comradeship reveals an essential unifying human bond without which there could be no society. The solidarity evoked by ritual contrasts with the reality of the existing social structure that requires an acceptance of various classifications. However, Turner realized from his study of African tribal rites that social life tends to alternate between successive experiences of community and structure; homogeneity and differentiation; equality and inequality.

We still experience this alternating, dialectical process, but it is community that always seems more gratifying. Large institutions are static, but real community is always unique, with something magical about it that has been associated with mystical power or grace. A vibrant community has an existential quality we may have experienced on a sports team, a church choir, or at work when a group of people are collaborating especially well. According to Turner, prophets and artists tend to be liminal and marginal people who strive with a passionate sincerity to rid themselves of the cliches associated with status and role-playing so that they may enter into vital relations with other people: “In their productions we may catch glimpses of that unused evolutionary potential in mankind which has not yet been externalized and fixed in structure.”

The spontaneity and immediacy of a close community can rarely be maintained for long. Nevertheless, history’s greatest reformers and visionaries, from Buddha to Martin Luther King Jr., all had visions of an ideal society with more fully participating members. Their lasting legacies changed social structures to open up more opportunities for community. Structure and discipline may be required for survival, but structure can be reimagined to rachet complex societies into deeper, more effective communities.

The great reformers and visionaries during the Axial Age all deepened community in diverse ways. According to Bellah, they were teachers who offered a vision of divine justice that emphasized equality and a return to broader participation in religion, whose function had been appropriated by elites. Through the ages there have been many prophets of a heavenly kingdom on earth that is likened to an imagined primal community, but for the last 200 years, no one has offered a more powerful or problematic vision of an ideal community than Karl Marx. He foretold the end of class conflict through the elimination of private property. The structure required for communism proved unworkable, but his prophetic voice, even now, has great appeal: “Then the world will be for the common people, and the sounds of happiness will reach the deepest springs. Ah! Come! People of every land, how can you not be roused.”

Lasting communities with engaged members are not easily established, and the inequities social structures require can never be completely overcome. The history of communism has taught us that inequality cannot be eliminated even with the fiercest repression of individual liberty. But a vision of the ideal community is the inner motivation of all political parties, and the pursuit of a more equal society, while retaining as much individual autonomy as possible, is the noble and easily understood vision of those in America who call themselves “liberals” or “progressives.” Even those who call themselves “conservatives” must concede to the merit of this vision, and conservatives generally agree that the economic playing field should be tilted in favor of the masses, that no one should be denied healthcare or education, and that no one should be discriminated against on the basis of race or sex. Differences arise from how each side understands the cause of our societal distress. For liberals, social unrest arises from inequality that must be remedied by government action. The conservative vison, on the other hand, sees our social ills as being caused by the scale of our institutions that usurp what should be done locally. At the “romantic core” of conservatism is a nostalgic desire to bring back what has been lost but in a reimagined form. This is why liberals are disheartened and conservatives are hopeful about the broader public’s distrust of government.

Decline of the Conservative Vision

There was a time just a few decades ago when the goal of the right was to conserve what was good. Conservatives thought that community and prosperity were self-generating through the “common sense” of the people if only the government would get out of the way. Ronald Reagan waxed eloquent about the city on the hill and limited government. Conservatives and liberals on the street and within families were able to discuss politics and even, on occasion, agree on policy.

But the conservative vision has become less compelling because conservative ideas were not as successful as promised. The two most prominent efforts to revitalize communities, the Clinton-era welfare reform and the school voucher movement, have had mixed results. It was thought by conservatives and moderate Democrats that a reduction in welfare dependency would reunite families and allow communities to remake themselves. But welfare reform and work requirements did not appreciably improve poor communities. The voucher movement, on the other hand, does empower the families of children in low performing schools, but private schools accepting vouchers are not uniformly better than public schools, and they are generally no more participatory in their administration or in the classroom than public schools.

The conservative theory that healthy communities of free individuals are self-generating when government is limited appears discredited, and many conservatives now argue that excessive individual autonomy has broken the bonds of community with devastating consequences. While there are numerous reasons for the decline of local associations, there is a growing consensus across the political spectrum that communities rather than individual autonomy must be championed. Localism and community have been buzzwords for nonpartisan movements to change things like zoning, architecture, and food production in positive ways.

Public/private partnerships have been continuously promoted since the first Bush administrations. However, these initiatives rarely transfer much authority from large institutions to smaller groups, and our societal decline continues unabated. The underlying challenge, as Robert Nisbet explained decades ago in his book, The Quest for Community, is that people do not come together in significant and lasting associations unless they are doing something that cannot easily be done in individual isolation. Families, religious institutions, and local associations serve little purpose compared to the past when these groups were indispensable intermediaries for the social problems of birth and death, courtship and marriage, unemployment and recreation, as well as for the care of the infirm, the young, and the elderly. The dissolution of the rich web of relations and associations that once supported us has spurred the launching of thousands of professionally run nonprofits that help many people; however, they rarely rebuild social capital or facilitate relations between local residents. Client/service-provider relationships that are not membership driven with local administration cannot contribute meaning or a sense of belonging to a community.

Our stark alienation from community should provide fertile ground for the conservative vision, but conservative proposals to heal our social disfunction have become contradictory and unconvincing. Among the more prominent conservative writers, Rod Dreher calls for communities with shared values to self-segregate, and Yuval Levin in a recent book argues that institutions can be revitalized when elites identify with their institutions instead of using them as platforms for self-promotion. Like Levin, many conservatives pin their hopes on the emergence of a conservative, elite class dispensing the necessary leadership to a grateful and obedient citizenry. Social conservatives, rightly frustrated with the liberal order and the reality of worsening social ills, have long sought religious renewal with traditional values to be imposed by the government. However, these reactionary strategies of the new “post liberal” right, like the prior conservative hope for self-healing communities, are no longer plausible because communal values cannot replace egotism when members of a community are not fully engaged participants. Only meaningful participation in institutions can instill the values civilization requires because, as Levin rightly explains, participation requires one to be “embedded in relationships of commitment, obligation, and responsibility, and to grasp the privileges that such embeddedness provides.”

Unfortunately, conservative intellectuals, such as Levin, who advocate for participation in community tend to think in terms of passive shepherd/sheep relationships instead of more egalitarian and mutually beneficial interactions. Obedience can be a fine virtue for children or novices learning a tradition, but grown men and women, quite reasonably, expect to think and act for themselves. The natural desire that all people have to realize their potential and share their gifts is frustrated by elites on both the right and the left who cannot imagine poor and working-class people successfully governing themselves because the masses are thought to lack either the necessary expertise or a sufficient civic ethic. This condescension is a failure to fully appreciate the dynamic character of well-ordered communities. The principle that should unite all Americans is that egalitarian communities alive with participation are better than hierarchical ones that impose order and expect obedience. Transforming values may come from the most sublime source, but they will never remake a modern society that does not have engaged, contributing members, who share responsibility for outcomes.

We live in an unsettled state with demagogues inciting violence. But the underlying cause is an institutional loss of legitimacy because the public knows they are being excluded from making meaningful contributions to society by elites and their functionaries who, even with the most sophisticated analytics, can never successfully rule unengaged communities. Americans have become more susceptible to conspiracy theorists and calls for a nationalist community because the conservative vision no longer has prominent defenders in the national conversation. Conservatives’ bumbling attempts to express themselves are mocked by those on the left, who push their advantage and no longer see value in the right’s poorly described vision. So on one side of our partisan divide we have glib liberals, enthusiastic about their vision of equality, who see conservatives as irrational and motivated by prejudice. And on the other side, we have frustrated and bitter reactionaries, who fail to express their deepest convictions, but who know the liberal vision is incomplete. The ensuing debacle can only be overcome if conservatives learn to articulate their vision of the ideal community in a way that allows both the right and the left to acknowledge the value of each other’s convictions.

Renewing Communal Life

There is, admittedly, skepticism about the romantic core of conservatism. Thoughtful liberals may agree that the scale of modern society is soul-deadening but do not see an alternative. Many of our most important challenges require great scale and federal legislation; however, small groups are often far more effective than large bureaucracies because they contain an immediacy and a trust that allow local associations to operate with more life-affirming communal values. This was something noted long ago by Alexis de Tocqueville when he wrote that his European contemporaries found their citizens weak and incapable, but the “reciprocal action” of free people in American associations made for better citizens. Within the innumerable local associations that seemed to spontaneously arise in the northern states, Tocqueville said, “sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed.”

The voucher experiment teaches us that the empowerment of communities must include a framework for creating effective groups that corresponds to the bonding traditions of our earliest ancestors. For instance, local associations need to be able to expel disruptive or domineering members. They require shared values, a consensus on goals, and an ordered forum for open conversations and debate. Decades ago corporate America learned the power of teamwork within small groups when competition forced many companies to flatten aspects of their hierarchy. This dispersal of power with its dynamic benefits must be carried out more broadly.

The conservative vision does not require nationwide policy. Small successes can be duplicated. But it does require elites to experiment with rules of governance when they delegate power and resources. The obvious place to start is where we have most failed poor communities: educating children, keeping the peace, and caring for the needy. There are many ways the social fabric can be reknitted, and our working lives should not be exempt. For instance, tax incentives, like those used by savings and loans, could be given for the formation of more egalitarian, locally owned business entities. Ultimately, local associations must be remade so that they are as participatory as those Tocqueville saw in the 1830s. But it is not enough to just look to the past. If the local associations, religious institutions, and schools of the 1950s are the touchstone for communal revitalization, there is no hope. Without broad participation, institutions necessarily become more bureaucratic and decline.

Despite the bitter recriminations from the right and mockery from the left, the day will come when parents in the poorest communities will be able to say that they cannot imagine a better place to raise their children than in their neighborhoods surrounded by family and friends. This will not happen because government bureaucracies finally use the correct metrics and better redistribute the nation’s wealth. Meaningful reform will change lives for the better when the vision that conservatives have long advocated spurs a popular movement to make government and other large institutions radically cede power to local associations in ways that encourage the kind of participation necessary to rebuild society. Then the world will be for the common people, and the sounds of happiness will reach the deepest springs. Ah! Come! People of every land, how can you not be roused!

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8 COMMENTS

  1. “The conservative theory that healthy communities of free individuals are self-generating when government is limited appears discredited”
    I have no idea at all how you can claim this. There is nowhere in America where government is “limited” in any historical sense, not even slightly. Look at all the decimated downtowns across the country, that were thriving a few (ok, more than a few by this point, more like several) decades ago, many of which were literally destroyed by government imposed “urban renewal” programs. And as time has gone on “government” has grown bigger, and more centralized, and downtowns of cities and towns of all sizes have continued to decay, with rare exceptions, and I cannot imagine where you think we’ve tested, let alone proved, that it is “limited government” that is somehow the discredited notion.
    (I actually don’t think “limited government” is an answer to anything. I think local is what’s needed, not limited, but since we can’t have either, I want a big government that will do what I want, pour money into small towns, and crush my enemies…)

  2. Like Brian, I raised the eyebrow, at this sentence: “The conservative theory that healthy communities of free individuals are self-generating when government is limited appears discredited”.

    I’m going to risk being accused of succumbing to the old canard that Marxism has never been disproven because it’s never been tried, and argue that no “discrediting” of this thesis has happened at all. How could such a thesis even be established? This presupposes the kind of mechanistic social-scientific view of society that actually has been discredited. (Name me one non-trivial “law” with empirical evidence and predictive power) that sociology has ever “discovered…).

    The reality, I think, is that we shouldn’t want governements (local or otherwise) to have too much power, and that this is true regardless of consequences. It’s up to us as individuals to form communal bonds that will sustain our relationships with each other, and if we don’t, well, that’s too bad, but chaos of my own making is always preferable to chaos of somebody else’s making.

    I’m all for broadly participatory localism. I’d argue that the “failures” of limited government (if such a thing has existed) are actually our own failures. Per the welfare reform example: That wasn’t a failure of the strategy of (a minor) government pullback. It was a failure of communities with poverty problems to deal with the actual causes of those endemic problems.

    • To be fair the “sentence” you quote is really only half a sentence, and therefore should be interpreted not only in the context of its second half, but in that of the paragraph in which it appears.

  3. Yes, the “limited government” fantasy sounds a lot like the “noble savage” meme when projected back into past civilizations by anthropologists.

    There are other problems with this ramble, which seems to address “glib liberals” by mimicking one. I get the impression that Willis is trying to “make nice” with conservatives by assuming he knows their viewpoints, and then pairing those assumptions against liberal ones to concoct “balance”.

    Let’s look at the praise of “prophets and artists” being helpful outsiders. Yes, they are, until they become professionals. The essay’s preceding paragraph (#4) made the excellent point that social life alternates between equality and inequality. This could be generalized as a well-known recognition that innovators and revolutionaries become conservatives to protect what they won. You don’t need to read Animal Farm to grasp this point.

    I agree with Willis that there is a cyclical aspect to social, historical, and political life (a circulation that the old voter meme “throw the bums out” prevents from stagnating). In that sense, what exactly does “progressive” mean? The denotation is movement toward something, which is presumed beneficial. The ideologues who get on that bandwagon seem to believe the “something” is already known, in all of its 50-50 straitlaced details, so everyone who is fairminded should “Get on board!”

    A few years ago, it occurred to me that the notion of “progressive” is very much like a secular religion. The “inevitable progress toward a beneficial set of governing principles that is already known” is basically what advocates of sharia are saying. They, too, believe that the imaginary “arc of history” is on their side.

    Willis even advocates excommunication: “expel disruptive or domineering members”, which is in fact what a purge is, or in modern terms cancelling and deplatforming. Here he seems to fall into the familar trap of conflating unity and unanimity, which even highly educated people are prone to do.

    He tries to be civil when declaring: “a conservative, elite class dispensing the necessary leadership to a grateful and obedient citizenry” but he seems completely oblivious to the fact that Covid lockdowns were more severely imposed in blue states, where a liberal elite class relied on the obedience of a frightened citizenry.

    Frankly, it seems out-of-touch to wave the flag of “communities” as if the draconian “stay home, save lives!” demands were somehow not a form of communities imposing control on individuals. If we want to find a coherent vision related to this essay’s incoherent one, then we need to stop using “community” as a catchword and start looking closely and specifically about what can unite us.

    • Indeed. Utopian prescriptions to remedy all the ills of a society always seem to depend on a particular type of humanity to (re)populate the earth. Not a real person, to be sure, but one which is especially designed to inhabit their Utopia.

      The Russians strove mightily for decades to fabricate the New Soviet Man who would fill into their conception of society like a well-oiled cog. They found that as in every schematic of a Brave New World, there are no such people to inhabit it.

      Not humans, at any rate. Perhaps they should try Rossum, and his Universal Robots? (Darn, that didn’t work either. Oh well.)

      • Unsettlingly, they did in fact find some people to inhabit the “New Soviet Man” category. Perhaps not enough for the utopia to survive in the long run, but enough who were willing to “speak Bolshevik” long enough that the distinction between true believers and cynics is hard to quantify.

        Aaron

  4. There are any number of things which might be said about this article, but I should like to look at only a few.

    Firstly is the confusion as to what makes a “community”. “Communities” are not fabricated from whole cloth out of a collage of individuals, but from families. Not the nuclear family, or the half-nuke, where Dad and Mom both have to work long hours to keep a roof overhead and food on the table, and the kinder get shunted off to the loving supervision of a professional specialist in childcare. Families in the sort of “community” envisioned are extended, with grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and great grandparents all living in walking distance of the historic family gravesite. Any attempt wo crate a “community” out of atoms always ends like the utopian experiments of the 18th and 19th Centuries. (The only utopian experiment which succeeded was the Mormons, who included the extended family in their plans.)

    Secondly, even if one has the “community” deciding on actions and collectively taking them for the good of all, who will want to participate? Who will have the time, or energy, to come home, usually late, after a day of being drained of every physical and mental resourced which one has in working to service the Machine? Now, Academics will have, because Academics swim like fishies in the sea of words, debates, forums, councils, committees, and panel discussions. It is their natural habitat. Working people, not so much.

    In order to have “community”, and not indulge in a boutique nostalgia trip, the Machine must first be “disempowered”. Not “capitalism”, lest any confuse the issue, but what happened to it, the rise and dominance of the Machine which coerces every human who lives in it to play its game, to limit one’s responses to what is listed on the checkboxes, to be a good little cog which never impedes the flow of the Spice.

    And that undertaking is, for the foreseeable future, simply impossible. (Now if we somehow fell into a world in which “Trekonomics” was the norm, perhaps, but those who have a vested interest in keeping on top would likely find some way of twisting even Paradise to their control.)

    Until the Millennium arrives (oops, passed it, darn) people will simply have to find ways and means of getting out from underfoot of the marching morons who think the Machine is just spiffy. (There is a William Tenn short story about human rats in the wainscoting of the world which has minor relevance here.) And since the essay mentions Dreher’s Benedict Option, it did look interesting, at first, until the artificiality of its contrivance became evident. Organic solutions tend to endure, but the Ben Op if anyone even really tries, will likely be one with those aforementioned utopian experiments of several centuries back.

    And if not, well, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

    • For something like the BenOp to work it has to start on the level of the individual or the family, and it must involve a certain commitment to “the simple life” — what someone has called “everyday asceticism.” Given the nature and history of American Christianity such a thing is an extremely hard sell, which is one reason Rod’s book got a better hearing in Europe than here in North America. It seems that quite a few Europeans somehow missed the evident “artificiality of its contrivance.”

      We silly Americans can’t even make the BenOp work at the family level. Expecting it to do so in larger sections of society is thus something of an unfortunate pipe dream. In that sense it’s only artificial because we can’t see our way out of our own ubiquitous artificiality.

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