The Quest for Community: Sovereignty and Association


Picture 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 on Robert Nisbet’s classic work: The Quest for Community, 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—–


The Quest for Community 
​Chapter 6: Sovereignty and Association

What can we say we’ve learned so far on our “Quest for Community”?  Let’s review:

  • There has been a fracturing, and a general loss of community over time in Western culture, particularly in the USA.
  • Community is important because it is how people lead healthy and meaningful lives and become better people.  Many have tried to avoid any and all communal interactions and failed because it doesn’t work.  Community is hard but it’s non-negotiable for most of us on some level.  It’s vocabulary and values are integration, status, security, membership, hierarchy, symbol, norm, identification, and group.  It’s opposite vocabulary and values are dissolution, abstraction, atomization and insecurity.    
  • Community has always been challenging, and has always been a problem to be solved, because men and women can’t live completely alone but living with each other creates its own set of problems.
  • There has been a gigantic displacement of belonging in modern Western culture, which has had traumatic consequences for the world we live in.  
  • History itself could be seen the decline of community.  The historical growth of individualism is not without its positives but on the whole the loss of community has caused great suffering and damage because individualism only exists in a communal setting.
  • The growth of the State’s influence, size, and power can be seen as the primary cause of the loss of community, but also a response to it.  

State Power Grows > Loss of Community > State Power Grows > Loss of Community > Repeat. 

  • The State itself can be seen as the political embodiment of revolution. The State displaces tangible, meaningful, historical, subsidiary, and concrete forms of community like families, towns, villages, parishes, churches, clans, and associations then responds by growing in influence, size, and power.  

This brings us to Chapter 6, in Robert Nisbet’s classic work: The Quest for Community, entitled “Sovereignty and Association.”

Read on for more…..
Sovereignty and Association
In this chapter, Nisbet gives us a timeline of philosophical and political writings which track the radicalization of the State against community and in favor of an atomized individualism.  First, Bodin (1529-1596) writes about and promotes the State as a separate entity, and for the first time the State (in the form of a sovereign) emerges as a distinct unit outside of civil and social society.  
Secondly, the political philosopher Hobbes (1588-1679) places the sovereign into a submerged position, submissive to the State and the State for the first time ascends into a leadership role, above that of the ruler himself.  Still, for these two philosophers, the social groups which people belong to are still antecedent, still before the power of the sovereign or the State at least in historical time, if not in practical significance.  
Finally, it isn’t until Rousseau (1712-1788) comes along that we see the State propagated as an omnipotent and omnipresent “will of the people” better known as the “general will.”  To Rousseau, the State had a duty to “liberate” the individual from their own local forms of community.  Be free, in other words, or else!  This was the forced liberation to be done for the good of those liberated.  Rousseau’s idea of liberation brings to mind the recent failed wars in the Middle East to “promote democracy.”
With Rousseau we see truly  modern forms of discourse, modern dialectics of violent revolution, and understand how difficult it is to fight against this pervasive ideology.  It spins out of control and is constantly running in the background.  State – sponsored revolution against the community owns the airwaves, the institutions, and the dialectic. It chooses the premises and creates the framework of allowed debate.  
If you reject the premises, then you aren’t allowed at the table.  We see it in the French Revolution, The Russian Revolution, and the Spanish Revolution.  And we certainly see it in the United States, we’ve even seen it in the last few months in mid-2020, where cultural forms of identity and belonging are abstracted, criticized, and destroyed.  A writer I really like says that “America is in constant revolution.  It’s like the refrigerator running in the background. It’s been on and running so long you don’t even know it’s on.”  So there we have it- a timeline from Nisbet for permanent revolution through these 3 political philosophers.  
So what else does Nisbet offer us here about “Sovereignty and Association”? 
Let’s take a closer look at the details of this chapter through the lens of these 3 philosophers:
Bodin (1529-1596): The Limited Sovereign
Bodin, interestingly enough, wanted to push the church aside as a check on state power.  This was a logical step towards a marginalization of the church’s influence.  The church at this time did have a significant amount of power and influence in the social and political realm.  It’s easy to see why some wanted to limit it.  When many protestant revolutions nationalized religion in Western Europe this only served to eventually limit even further the power of the church to check the state’s power.  Because it was no longer separate, but rather an internal bureaucratic department of the State, the church in the places where it became one with the State became even less influential in the end.  We can see this today, with the protestant churches of northern Europe reduced to an ignored, embarrassing,  and unattended status, more like baggage and museums than any real ethical voice or form of community outside the state.  
“Only that authority is legally binding which stems from, or is countenanced by, the king. Gone is the doctrine of the two swords, gone also the conviction that only through religious mediation can the power of the State be made morally right. For Bodin the State has its own justification directly from God. Like the Protestants whom Bodin detested in most respects, he makes the State ethically autonomous. In all these respects Bodin belongs logically with the moderns.”
That being said, Bodin still recognized the role of social groups outside the state:
“But there is another side to Bodin’s theory that places him much more securely among social philosophers of earlier centuries. And this is, first of all, his sharp distinction between State and society, and, second, his devotion to the moral and social qualities of all intermediate associations ranging from family to corporation. Only in the philosophy of Althusius in the century following Bodin do we find an appreciation of intermediate association that matches Bodin’s. And Althusius was scarcely recognized. For, as we shall see, the whole tendency of social thought down to the time of Burke in the late eighteenth century was to deprecate, even dissolve, all forms of association that could not be rationalized by natural law or by the will of the State. 
But in Bodin’s thought there is a keen and frequently brilliant insight into the sociological aspects of human association—status, membership, custom, and moral control. His impatience with legal diversity and his profound devotion to the king did not cause him to lose sight either of the moral or the historical properties of the society in which he lived. We see this in his meticulous distinction between legal and social authority. The family, the civil associations, the corporations and fraternities are all, in his mind, logically and historically antecedent to the state. It is impossible to read the long discussion which Bodin offers on social groups without realizing the value he ascribes to them as agencies of solidarity and control. 
The associations, for purposes of trade, religious worship, security and fellowship, were the bonds of human society before any political ties were established, and they have continued to perform functions indispensable to social life. It is this distinction between social and political relationships that marks Bodin as a transitional figure.”
Unlike Roussea or later Hobbes, Bodin saw the intelligence in more primary forms of community, and how necessary they were to maintain.  Hobbes on the other hand believed that no form of order ever existed, or could exist, outside of the State.  Bodin did not wish to obliterate or minimize subsidiarity, or local community, only to boost the sovereign power of the ruler, in those times most often the King. 
Hobbes (1588-1679): The Ascendant State or “Leviathan”
It is in Hobbes that we start to see what looks like modern culture in plain sight.  Leviathan was a book Hobbes published in 1651, deriving from the biblical Leviathan, a sea monster mentioned in the book of Job.  This book concerned the structure of society and is notable for what’s called “social contract theory.”  It promulgates the idea that relationships should be viewed as contracts, something people enter into and out of, and these contracts are then enforced by the State.  Hobbes’ circular argument was that men were brutes, naturally engaged in a war of “all against all” and that only a powerful and dominant (and violent) State could keep people from living brutal existences.  Violence by the State, according to Hobbes, keeps men from being violent!
We can see the influence of Hobbes’s social contract theory, particularly in how we now view marriage: as contracts we move in and out of with relative ease, and crucially, done for the benefit of the signees.  This would contrast with a more classical view of marriage as a communal covenant (vs. contract) between man and woman and God, on behalf of society and children.  This is two different and opposing views of marriage. 
One is focused on the fulfillment and momentary satisfaction of the contract signees, whereas the other is aimed towards the opposite: renunciation of the individual’s desires and wants on behalf of the community.  If we look at Hobbes’s ideas on the social contract theory we start to see why marriage doesn’t make sense to many modern people, particularly those with no religious or communal roots.  
Still, Hobbes makes good points on the need for the State to maintain order.  Plus, older more primary forms of community really could be repressive to individual needs, desires, and wants.  Hobbes has no desire to abolish society, only to give the government more power than they ever had, and to his telling for the good of the individuals subject to it.  
“The State that Hobbes gives us is an aggregate of individuals, each free to pursue his proper interests through contract and intellectual agreement, each free from the artificial constraints of class, church, guild, or any other form of intermediate association. association. And in view of the still ascendant authorities cast over the lives of individuals by such bodies as the legal corporations, the boroughs, the monopolies in trade, not to mention the whole tissue of traditional relationships of church, family, and local community, Hobbes felt, not without some justification, that only with an absolute sovereign could any effective environment of individualism be possible.
Nisbet, Robert. The Quest for Community . Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ORD). Kindle Edition.
Rousseau (1712-1788): The Dominant State
It is in Rousseau where things start to get scary.  Reading Nisbet’s comments on Rousseau’s theories sends chills up the reader’s spines because they point to the revolutionary movements which were to come in the next several hundred years, in the Soviet atrocities, the World Wars, and the holocausts.  100s of millions would die at the hands of impersonal state actors.  Nisbet opens this chapter:
“By far the most rigorous and revolutionary theory of sovereignty is that of Rousseau.4 Like Bodin and Hobbes, Rousseau takes his departure from perceptions of social disorder. Where Bodin had defined the role of the State as that of a referee among competing groups and associations, and where Hobbes had described the major purpose of the State as that of providing an impersonal environment for the release of individuals from the confinements of class and religion and for the creation of a morality based upon individual virtue, Rousseau sees the State as the most exalted of all forms of moral community. For Rousseau there is no morality, no freedom, no community outside the structure of the State. Apart from his life in the State, man’s actions are wanting in even the minimal conditions of morality and freedom. The State and the people are basically one. Only the State can provide the environment of equality, freedom, and tranquillity for which man’s nature calls. 
Rousseau is the first of the modern philosophers to see in the State a means of resolving the conflicts, not merely among institutions, but within the individual himself. The State becomes the means of freeing man from the spiritual uncertainties and hypocrisies of traditional society. It is a spiritual refuge even as the Church was a refuge from life’s uncertainties in earlier ages of Europe. We cannot understand the structure of Rousseau’s ideal State, or the immense appeal his political vision has continued to exert in subsequent decades, except by recognizing the moral and social conditions that Rousseau took for his point of departure. And these he epitomized under the word uncertainty.
Rousseau’s theory of “the general will” can be summed as forcing people to be free.  It would be hard to find a more revolutionary idea than this one in the history of political thinking.  This type of thinking is a recipe for what nonstop revolution, and the history of the last few hundred years seems to prove as much.  Every few decades a foment erupts, and things get out of hand.  Sometimes these revolutions turn violent, very violent, and often they have no internal logic of their own, other than the pursuit of a yet-undefined “freedom.” 
Ironically, Rousseau ideas can never abolish authority, only transfer it to state authorities.  The problem with these new authorities, whether they be the Govt. schools, the cozy corporate – govt. organizations, the govt. courts, or other State agencies, is that they have remote and abstract authority, not to mention often unaccountable authority.  In modern times, we don’t know these people who rule over us.  And we often don’t know each other.  Other forms of authority, the older forms, were often very difficult, but it was concrete authority and it was a known entity.  Community existed.  When community authority fails to exist, the State steps in as an authority to fill the vacuum.  Nothing has really changed except that you and I don’ t know the new authorities, and we may or may not share the same goals and values in life.  When you read through these 3 philosophers, and understand what they promoted and believed in, it’s easy to see how we’ve ended up in the predicament we’re in.  
We have to have community and we will always have authority.  The question is- which type of community and authority do we want to have? And once we decide, we then need to decide an even more important question:
Do we want to live in a society, not of incremental change, reform, or progress, but in a state of constant revolution?
“Not without reason has the theory of the General Will been called a theory of permanent revolution. It was Rousseau’s subtle achievement to clothe the being of the absolute State in the garments of the terminology of freedom. By his paeans to the individual he has been known as the apostle of liberty. By his insistence upon popular sovereignty he has become classified as one of the minds who have helped free the civilized world from despotism. The state is, in Rousseau’s mind, the only sphere of liberation from the tyrannies of society. Here the individual may achieve a higher morality and freedom. The individual renounces the social loyalties of traditional society, surrenders to the state the rights of association which are the fundament of religion, family, and community, and by so doing becomes free for the first time. Herein lies the lure of Rousseau’s philosophy for absolutists and here too is the essence of the confusion of freedom and authority that underlies contemporary totalitarian philosophies.
Nisbet, Robert. The Quest for Community . Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ORD). Kindle Edition.  
* footnote on Rousseau:
In another book I’ve been reading “Nation of Bastards: Essays on the End of Marriage”, the author Douglass Farrow details some of the sorted (for the time at least) personal history and morals of the philosopher Rousseau.  Apparently, he was abandoned by his father after his mother died, and then later growing up, after being aided by the church (ironically the same church he later loathed) he landed on his feet as an adult.  
Rousseau went from mistress to mistress and then abandoned his own children, who then became wards of the state.  Considering that he saw primary social institutions like church, family and marriage as “enslaving social conventions” to be freed from.  I guess it’s no surprise he would abandon his children to be raised by others for his “freedom”.  In a sense, and I get this idea from Farrow’s work, we are becoming the modern bastard children of Rousseau, disconnected from real community, but connected to each other as rootless wards of the state as atomized individuals.  This brings to mind another literary figure, Macbeth, through whom Shakespeare tried to warn us of how the seemingly small choices and decisions of leaders and influencers can reverberate down through the generations, particularly when they keep rationalizing their own misbehavior.  Could the modern all-encompassing state be a historical rationalization of Rousseau’s guilt for abandoning his children? It’s difficult to prove but interesting to think about. 

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