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What we’ve see unfold here in Nisbet’s classic work, the Quest for Community, is a gradual decline in community as the state (the modern bureaucratic government) has grown in power. The two feed on each other in a symbiotic relationship. The state grows and community declines. As the state steps in as “mother” and “father”, actual mothers and fathers recede in importance or increasingly in many cases cease to exist at all. What is left is not the organic, local, natural, historical community, but rather the abstract and ideological “political community” which has pushed neighborhood, village, parish church, trade guild, family, extended family, and fraternal and civic clubs aside.
In recent years, this is an obvious historical fact on display loudly in many ways. For example, many Americans are rabidly interested in national elections or some amorphous global political agenda with messianic fervor but don’t know who the mayor of their own town is, or who their neighbors are, and more Americans than ever live alone and struggle with mental illness. People are willing to literally kill each other over who becomes president of our declining Republic, or over the death of a drug dealer 1000s of miles away, but pass countless nameless homeless people lying around in ditches literally in their own neighborhoods and will never lift a finger to help them, and have no idea who is on their own city council. This is the modern world. Modern people are ironically both extremely connected to fake community online, and extremely isolated from real community in their daily lives. This is the irony of modern life:
Extreme ideological and virtual anti-community masquerading as real community while real community continues to decline.
Nisbet’s work tracks how this came to be. As we have tracked along and summarized from this book, this loss of community has been a very slow but gradual process. Life has become an abstraction, and real community has suffered many setbacks, while political quasi-community on a global scale seems to be all that’s left.
In Chapter 7, Nisbet remarks that the totalitarian movements of the 20th Century, mainly in Europe but other places as well, were a logical outcome of the growth of the “political community” and the loss of other grounded and historical communities. To Rousseau’s thinking, which has become dominant, only the state can secure this new status of anti-community. Status was historically a sense of belonging to something larger than oneself- a religious communion, mother, father, citizen, etc. Status in the modern world has no real meaning outside of consumerism- brand names.
The Irony of Modern “Community”
The modern community, as exemplified by the political community Nisbet writes about, is ironically an anti-community. It is a community of rootless people committed to work against real community. So in that sense, in an odd twist of fate, those committed to oppose community have formed a community. This is what Nisbet call the “political community.” Those who are committed to oppose real community are relying on the state’s power to ensure no real community. So then, to be clear, the conundrum is this:
The modern state, the modern government, is opposed to and actively works against community.
What is the modern Political Community?
“The political community in this regard is the belief that the normal plurality of authorities and functions in society (church, family, village, guild, club, etc.) must be supplanted by a unity of authority and function arising from the monistic state.”
– Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community
The Characteristics of the Modern Political Community (which is really an anti-community)
- The political community is freedom from other institutions and equals participation in the Leviathan- the all- encompassing, omnipotent, omnipresent state.
- Equality is the leveling action of Leviathan, whereby opponents such as families and clans which compete for loyalty are opposed. Equality is a euphemism for power.
- The camouflaging of power within the rhetoric of freedom.
- This camouflage is the most important factor here. The new form of political community we have, as the one created in the French Revolution was, is always sold as freedom, even if it’s tyranny. We see this in modern times, with more and more “freedom” equaling more and more loneliness, social isolation, depression, obesity, addiction, debt, and so on- freedom to be addicted to vices which others profit from. This is tyranny masked and sold as freedom. As mentioned in the previous chapter, the new form of “freedom” becomes a situation of the “controllers” and the “controlled.” The famous novel “A Brave New World” by Alduous Huxley covers this.
- Only through force could this type of “freedom” in the new political community be born.
- The French Revolution is the historical example par excellence of the new political community, where “freedom” is sold but which ends up as tyranny.
- A competition emerges, between the state on one hand, and the spiritual and social associations on the other.
- Totalitarian and extremist political movements emerge as a form of replacement community.
- The psychological vacuum created by revolution and loss of authentic community leads to an increase in state power and nationalism.
- Leviathan has created:
- Anarchy, so the state steps in even more to create a quasi-culture.
- Lawlessness, so the state steps in to restore order.
- A spiritual vacuum and existential angst, so the state steps in to offer a political community.
- Leviathan has created:
- Karl Marx touted the political community as the ultimate goal of his communist revolution, with a centralized and absolute state ruling supreme.
- As far as authority, every man would become his own priest, lawyer, and judge and monarch.
- There has been a repugnant historical relationship between “social justice” and nationalism and totalitarian movements.
- Napoleon Bonaparte’s revolution and his “Bonapartism” were a logical and rational outcome of this process, of forcing people to be “free.”
The Bottom Line: The Arsonist and the Fire Department
As a way of summing up the political community, the Leviathan, in other words, let me use a metaphor. The modern political community is both the arsonist and the fire department. It’s the arsonist because it’s revolutionary, it destroys the natural communities that make life healthy, happy, stable, meaningful, and most importantly provide the framework for agency, and it’s also the fire department because it steps in with bureaucratic programs, courts, law enforcement, social justice crusades, laws, welfare programs, oversight, and regulations, to fix the problems it caused in the first place. This system feeds upon itself so much that the livelihood of countless numbers of bureaucrats, managers, and specialists depend on it not being fixed!
This is the absurdity of the political community. Some of these services that the state offered, though they may have been helpful or well-meaning, ended up causing a lot of harm. The modern political community destroys real community, and then tries to fix the problems it created by offering more in state power and growth, destroying real community even further. Unfortunately, this leads to more chaos and eventually conflict. That’s what we see in the news now every day. The tragedy is that the ideology of political community started not as a means of raw state power, but ended up that way. People really believed that utopia and paradise on earth was possible. That was the tragic mistake, to believe heaven on earth was possible with man’s efforts alone.
“The modern State and the whole ideology of the political community have become significant, influential, not through the worship of naked power but because of the promise which seemed to lie in political power for the salvation of man- for the attainment of moral goals that had eluded mankind for 1000s of years.”
Tragically, the quest for political community, in place of real community, took on a messianic and cultish fervor the last couple centuries. It’s still with us. As a result, millions have died from various ideologies like socialism, communism, and fascism. Political community is ideology, a chosen abstraction, while real community is tangible, local, traditional, and often unchosen, the rejection of ideology and starting at home with face to face interactions. When modern political community crowds out the other, older, prior forms of community, society suffers tremendously by breaking down, leading a vacuum for ideologies, demagogues, and totalitarianism.
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