Introduction & Preface
*In case you're new here, we're covering a set of essays on Robert Nisbet's classic work, The Quest for Community. Scroll through the feed for previous essays. When finished they'll all be compiled into a complimentary PDF.
In "The Quest for Community" Nisbet offers us a definition of community:
“The product of people working together on problems, of autonomous and collective fulfillment of internal objectives, and of the experience of living under the codes of authority which have been set in large degree by the persons involved.”
He follows up his definition by reminding us that people come together because things can’t be done in isolation. I’m reminded of even Thoreau’s assistance by friends and family members when he set out to live at Walden Pond alone for over 2 years. All human achievement is done through community. Roads are built, inventions are created, buildings are constructed, cities exist and people survive through communities of various kinds. Even languages exist because of community. It could be no other way.
Social order exists only through the basic building blocks of community- family, religion, arts, politics, professions, and government. Where other forms of community breaks down, the government must expand and take over all power, and thus grow exponentially. So ironically, the more individual “freedom” is touted, the more the traditional forms of community are discounted, the more the government must step in with programs, deficits, and rules, to fill the void of authority. The goal of community rightly considered is to have healthy groups, based on freedom of association, but also unchosen obligations and duties where people put limits on themselves individually to achieve certain goals together– safe cities, generational stability, stable economies, and good places to live with a vibrant culture, for example.
Modern American culture can be characterized by one word- alienation. Of course this varies from place to place, but the overall sense is that the social order is:
- Beyond hope or desire
- Inviting apathy or boredom
Manufactured symbols of togetherness, like the Super Bowl, big Hollywood movies exist, along with programs of political correctness, patio festivals, political media spectacles, concerts, and new consumer product launches but these are ephemeral ways of being together and don’t have any overall effect. We might get into these things temporarily, but the substantial and concrete means of community, of accomplishing things together, like the local governments, the political party, local business, churches, labor unions, and even families, which normally carry on over countless generations, are slowly fading away. They’re still there, but rarely do they inspire our loyalty or devotion.
Nisbet gives us 3 ways modern people are alienated, weak and rootless:
- From the past- from our history, our national traditions, our ancestors.
- From physical place and nature- from a hometown, personal ties, a region, a local culture, and from the outdoors and natural creation.
- From things- from property, hard, material property, things one can touch or even be debased by.
Even though Nisbet recognizes those 3 types of alienation, he says that the two most important parts of community are:
- Social function- extended family, neighborhood, apprenticeship, social class, & parish, which give people roles to play.
- Social authority- not power, which is external and rooted in force, but in statuses, functions, and allegiances, given by the associated members of the community.
Power, Nisbet states, arises only when authority breaks down. One immediately thinks of the constant battles with crime in the inner cities. Families no longer exists, and fathers as authority figures no longer exist in these communities, so the state steps in as a power broker, with guns, bullet-proof vests, cameras, and all-out efforts to restore order where this is no authority. Power seeks homogeneity, regimentation, and manipulation, and Nisbet likens this to a war environment and a military state of affairs. Compare this state of affairs to the famous quote by Proudhon:
“Multiply your associations and be free.”
Multiple associations at the basic level create healthy authority and community. Where there is no longer authority, power steps into the vacuum.
Interestingly, Nisbet points out a different problem in Suburbia:
“But what we get in many sections of the country is a kind of suburban horde. There is no community because there are no common problems, no functions, no authority. These are lacking because….effective control is vested elsewhere in boards, councils, offices of counties, districts, or adjacent cities.”
Could this be why so many mass shooters happen to come from the suburbs? This sense of alienation and remoteness, the non-existence of community life? Could it also be why so much depression, addiction, and suicide takes place in seemingly healthy and affluent suburbs? It’s something to think about. On a positive note, it seems as though the incorporation of many suburban areas into cities, I’m thinking of places like Alpharetta and Brookhaven, GA as well as others, is a step in the right direction.
Two other thoughts. Mercia Eliade, in his classic book The Sacred and Profane, a favorite of mine, discusses the world “coming into being, into existence.” Someone’s hometown or place of birth, where they came into the world, where they were born, is to them a sacred place. It is where they entered into this world. Without a concrete sense of place, existence itself is limited in this sense.
If there is no sacred home, there is no existence or “being” as the philosopher of religion or the anthropologist would say. With no place which existence began, life can’t have much concrete meaning. This could also apply to the entire universe itself, coming into existence. If it wasn’t founded or started, then it doesn’t exist. We need a home of some type. The world must be founded before it can exist. This is a broad topic falling under the philosophy of religion, which we’ll save for a later time.
Secondly, the efforts to build more community in the suburbs, both with architecture and the way suburbs are built, as well as with incorporation, are good efforts. I hope these efforts will continue to improve community in the suburbs. I recommend checking out the work of Charles Maron at Strong Towns. www.strongtowns.org
Read Next: The Quest for Community, a Call to Public Health