It's been a slow process of learning and sharing Robert Nisbet's classic work: "The Quest for Community." It has been much harder of a task than I would have thought going in, but it's been worth it. I hope you have enjoyed it, and have heard good feedback from several readers who care about the future of community in the USA.
Community health is one of the most important and under-discussed aspects of health in the US. That's why I have taken on the project of summarizing and commenting one of the best books on community ever written.
You can scroll through my blog for the other chapters to catch up, as I'm going chapter by chapter. If you like what I'm doing here on the blog, pass it along or invite me to speak. I do conferences and seminars on a variety of health topics - fitness, nutrition, and wellness.
Read on and enjoy. At the end of this series I'm going to put together a downloadable summary of the book.
Recently there has been a lot of discussion in the news about a 3.5 Trillion dollar spending bill.
Some are for it, others are against it. I’d like to look at it objectively as it pertains to our discussion on community. Let’s look at it as yet another example of government replacing community on a massive scale.
For example, looking back on it, I’m proud to say that my Mom and Dad could have raised my two brothers and I without any government assistance. Even more, I’d say that they had the knowledge, community, family, and morals to survive alone, even without banking, money, and cash. They could have lived off the land, quite easily. My Dad knew how to do it all – build, hunt, fish, repair and maintain a home, fix appliances, cars, and use other tools and fix them. You name it and he could do it. My Mom could teach, read, play the piano, farm, can and store food, clean with natural products, take care of children with home remedies, use well water and so on. Both were the first in their families to go to college and came from stable but working class backgrounds. They were and are Thomas Jefferson’s ideal Americans, completely self-sufficient. We knew every single family on the street I grew up on.
Community no longer exists in any meaningful way like that. Most everyone now relies on the government. Most people can’t pay their bills. They can’t cook anything, fix anything, play anything, can’t entertain themselves without digital entertainment, and most people don’t have a community neighborhood or nearby family to rely on. So I’m not bashing the 3.5 trillion dollar spending bill, at least not here. What I’m saying is that based on the trajectories laid out in Nisbet’s work, it is extremely predictable:
- The government grows in size and marginalizes community, family, and association.
- Because the community can no longer function in a meaningful way, government must step in as a replacement.
- Repeat steps 1 & 2.
This is the key point of Nisbet’s book. My main critique is also my main compliment as the book’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Nisbet repeated time and time again the key idea of the book, so much so that it got tedious to re-read it over and over again. But on the same hand, it could not be emphasized enough:
As the state (government) grows in power, community suffers and people become isolated, and since community association is the only bulwark against state power, state power continues to grow towards totalitarianism with the growing absence of community.
Speaking of totalitarian tendencies of growing governments, I even read recently that the FBI is investigating parents who come to school board meetings and complain. This objectively speaking, is entirely predictable too. As Nisbet predicted, the government, the state as he calls it, is not able to tolerate competitors or opposition like parents who show up at school board meetings. I would expect this dialectic to continue until there is a massive type of organized resistance.
Two Possible Future Worlds
In the conclusion, Nisbet proffers this dichotomy, this choice.
We must make the choice, while we still can, as to what type of world we want to live in.
There are Two Worlds to which we can belong in life, and only a tiny threshold is left between the complete shift towards centralization, the first, the absolute centralization of everything, a nihilistic obliteration of all personality and healthy individualism:
- The Absolute Political Community – Centralized Mono-Identity and Power
- All symbols, allegiance, sense of purpose, and responsibility have become indistinguishable from the operation of centralized political power, bureaucratic rigidity, human will anesthetized into moral passivity, monolithic systems, traditional labels and language becomes archaic (duty, honor, fidelity), despotism resting on mass acquiescence, absorptive, arts of propaganda employed on behalf of central regime, abstraction (human “rights”, “War on terror”, “war against the virus”, etc.)
- Cultural Membership – Freedom from Monopoly of Power
- The historic world of cultural membership, of loyalty to family, church, occupation, profession, local community, local interests, and pluralism of functions and loyalties, spontaneity, diversity, decentralized organizations.
Robert Nisbet’s 4 Principles of Pluralism
According to Nisbet, there are 4 Principles of Pluralism that can build a healthy future. This is the way The Quest for Community can be applied to your situation and mine.
1)Functional Autonomy- Groups of free association should be able to operate independently and privately, outside of control or management of the state.
2)Decentralization- Groups should be constituted on a local level, using the principle of subsidiarity.
3)Hierarchy- Though decentralized, groups should have a clear structure of authority.
4)Tradition- Groups should have an historical connection or historical meaning and a community over time, a vertical community of generations.
I will allow Robert Nisbet to have the last word. We all owe him a debt of gratitude. He’s written the book that all who care about the future of humanity should read.
There is a fork on the road, one leads to oppression, the other to human flourishing, it’s up to us to decide which one to take:
What are the terms by which free and unfree societies in the contemporary world may be distinguished? Merely to ask the question is to reveal the poverty of present political vocabulary in this respect. We are still operating with words and phrases drawn from a day when the lexicon of freedom bore meaningful relation to the rise of the people in politics and to the emancipation of individuals from inherited social structures. In plain fact we have no set of evocative terms at the present time that correspond to our realities in the same way the words “people,” “individual.” and “change” corresponded to the realities and aspirations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
There is the kind of State that seeks always to extend its administrative powers and functions into all realms of society, always seeking a higher degree of centralization in the conduct of its operations, always tending toward a wider measure of politicization of social, economic, and cultural life. It does not do this in the name of power but of freedom—freedom from want, insecurity, and minority tyranny. It parades the symbols of progress, people, justice, welfare, and devotion to the common man. It strives unceasingly to make its ends and purposes acceptable—through radio, newspaper, and document—to even the lowliest of citizens. It builds up a sense of the absolute identity of State and society—nothing outside the State, everything in the State.
Increasingly, in this type of State, the basic needs for education, recreation, welfare, economic production, distribution, and consumption, health, spiritual and physical, and all other services of society are made aspects of the administrative structure of political government. This process of transfer comes to be accepted by almost everyone—by businessmen in search of guaranteed production and profit, by educators in need of funds, by labor in the interests of guaranteed jobs and living wages, and by liberal reformers in the interests of housing programs or other projects. Autonomous areas of economy, education, and other spheres of culture shrink constantly. Invasions of minority rights are defended, as are invasions of social authority and responsibility, and limitations upon right of association in the name of the people, of social justice, of preparedness for war against poverty, ignorance, disease, and external national enemies. Such a State may well call itself democratic and humanitarian. All contemporary totalitarian States so refer to themselves.
Such a State may found itself upon the highest principle of virtue, even as did the Republic of Plato. There can be such a thing as democratic totalitarianism even as there can be, as we have learned in disillusion, socialist totalitarianism. The design of totalitarianism, as Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor has taught us, can be infinitely varied and in human hands can proceed from the formal veneration of God as easily as from the hatred of God. The impersonal despotism of virtue, as someone has said, is not the less despotic because it is virtuous.
But there is also the kind of State that seeks, without sacrificing its legitimate sovereignty grounded in the will of the people, to maintain a pluralism of functions and loyalties in the lives of its people. It is a State that knows that the political absorption of the institutional functions of an association, be it family, local community, or trade union, must soon be followed by the loss or weakening of psychological devotions to that association. It is a State that seeks to diversify and decentralize its own administrative operations and to relate these as closely as possible to the forms of spontaneous association which are the outgrowth of human needs and desires and which have relevance to the economic, educational, and religious ends of a culture. It seeks cultural diversity, not uniformity. It does not make a fetish of either social order or personal adjustment, but it recognizes that the claims of freedom and cultural autonomy will never have recognition until the great majority of individuals in society have a sense of cultural membership in the significant and meaningful relationships of kinship, religion, occupation, profession, and locality. It will not spurn the demands of human security but it will seek means by which such demands can be met through spontaneous association and creation rather than through bureaucratic rigidities of formal law and administration.
Either type of State may be labeled democratic and humanitarian. But the difference between the two types is infinitely greater than the differences between capitalism and socialism, or between monarchy and republic. The first type of State is inherently monolithic and absorptive and, however broad its base in the electorate and however nobly inspired its rulers, must always border upon despotism.
The second type of State is inherently pluralist and, whatever the intentions of its formal political rulers, its power will be limited by associations whose plurality of claims upon their members is the measure of their members’ freedom from any monopoly of power in society.
Nisbet, Robert. The Quest for Community . Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ORD). Kindle Edition.
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