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!