The Quest for Community: The Problem of Liberalism


Apologies for a delay in blogging.  I have been taking some continuing education courses and have also been trying to finish a book I’m working on.  So there hasn’t been a lot of free time to keep up blogging.

I am enjoying the slow process of learning and sharing Robert Nisbet’s classic work: “The Quest for Community.”   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.  

This is not a political book, per se, but it does discuss social ideas regarding community and the state.  

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 guide to improving community health.  Picture The Problem of Liberalism Can be Illustrated by a Desert Road- No Map, No Signs, No Guideposts, No Orientation Chapter 9: The Problem of Liberalism
“The real tragedy of existence is not the conflict between right and wrong, but between right and right.” – Friedrich Hegel
There are many things to celebrate about modern life, like our individual freedoms, our rights, and our social independence and democratic equality under the law.  But there have also been downsides.  To people who value loyalty, a sense of place, honor, duty, community, patriotism, religion, and tradition, not all of the changes we live with in modern life have been positive.  As we’ve covered in previous sections, to many people, especially in the USA, life has become atomized and nihilistic, devoid of belonging and meaning. Our biggest problem is disintegration. 
The causes for this are complex, but can be traced throughout history.  As the faceless bureaucratic state has grown, community and belonging have suffered and declined.  As a result, depression, mental illness, and social disintegration are characteristic of our age.  The tragic thing about the situation we find ourselves in, is that we sincerely do value the type of individual freedoms we have now, freedom from compulsion and the innumerable rights, but most of us mourn (f not consciously) the loss of belonging, culture, and meaning of past times.   
“The basic values of modern liberalism have been two—the individual and the moral sovereignty of the people. As values they are as noble today as they were when they were first brought into existence as the elements of modern liberal democracy.   –  Robert Nisbet
What we have is the “Problem of Liberalism” and this is the name of Chapter 9.   We’ve been “liberated” but now what?  That’s the problem.  We aren’t any happier, and we may even be less happy. The problem is that we’ve become “liberated”
Now what?  That is the problem.  
“He is now free-in all his solitary misery.” – Robert Nisbet
Even in the field of history, the past in our “progressive” liberal society is considered “evil” and so the possibility of historical community diminishes further with each passing year.  As the “immoral “past is edited, and removed, the famous Orwell book “1984” increasingly becomes a daily reality. Without the past, without culture or history or tradition, there is only left as Nisbet calls it, a “supremacy of technique” and “instruments of power.”  
In other words, the managers and the managed are all that is left. 
“Is it not again to use the words of Rousseau, “forcing men to be free”? – Robert Nisbet
The Soviet Union
A more obvious example of what our society has become in 2021 can be seen explicitly, since it’s not our own, by looking at the history and experience of the Soviet Union.   They used the same slogans we use – Equality! Justice! as the propaganda machines of the politburo in Russia churned out slogans and stories in past decades, so do the USA’s newspapers, TV Shows, social media sites, radio stations, churn out similar cant.  Equality! Equity! Liberty! Freedom! Justice!  But what does it mean, concretely?  Concretely it means that the atomized individual, the pawn, is increasingly vulnerable to totalitarian forms of control, without even knowing it, or worse, by digging his or her own grave. She or he is isolated, and cannot resist.  
Low-Wage Fast Food Work: A Case Study in Liberation
I think about the “problem of liberalism” when I visit Dunkin Donuts. The problem can be vividly illustrated in any trip to a fast food restaurant.  There every day, every week, every year, stands some poor miserable woman, or more likely a whole host of single women, making junk food for minimum wage, while her children’s care are paid for by the state.  Or her kids wonder the neighborhood or peruse the internet alone.  “Liberated” and “free” she works for years.  
I’m not disparaging fast food workers.  I used to be one so I know firsthand.  They work hard and nobly, but they are emblematic of what Nisbet is writing about in this chapter.  I’m going out on a limb here, but I imagine many of them would trade their minimum wage job at Taco Bell for a decent and stable family life.  But very few of these liberated people have it.  
The problem is that we are all pawns in a game we aren’t aware of.  The technocratic elite profit, and live out utopian liberal fantasies, while masses of people like the women working at fast food joints pay the price. They are the emblems of modern society- broken homes, obesity, diabetes, fatherless children, debt, dependency, drugs, and a whole host of other problems.  
Decision Making- An Individual Responsibility?
Thomas Jefferson’s ideal for the USA was a country of strong local communities, solid in social institutions and memberships, not a country of “disunited, despairing masses”.  But for Jefferson’s ideal to happen, people needed to live in strong communities.  Communities are built by people with similar beliefs and values living and working and making wise decisions together to accomplish a shared vision.  
All people are decisions makers, even the least educated and least well-off. Everyone has free will to make decisions, but most decisions we make we aren’t aware of.  They’re a result of our programming.  Culture and community are the most important factors in decision making and the key factors underlying decision making are:

  • Social context – Social world and embedded culture
  • Pre-judgement – Unconscious cultural biases
  • Judgement – Conscious decisions

Nisbet lays out a key thesis in this chapter:  
The centralizing effect of the state has sterilized and mechanized the social context, pre-judgement, and judgements of masses of people, leaving it increasingly difficult for people to function.  

The formal, overt judgments of liberalism have rested, historically, not merely upon processes of conscious reason and verification, but upon certain prejudgments that have seldom been drawn up for critical analysis until the most recent times. 
And these prejudgments have, in turn, been closely linked with a set of social relationships within which their symbolic fires have been constantly kept lighted through all the normal processes of work, function, and belief. It is the disruption of the relationship among judgment, prejudgment, and social context that confronts us at the present time—a disruption caused in very large part, as I believe, by the cultural mechanization and sterilization that have accompanied modern centralization of power. 
When we consider either the “individual” or the “people,” we are dealing, plainly, with ideal types. They are moral abstractions. This in no way lessens their potential efficacy, but it does call attention to the fact that their actual efficacy as symbols depends on the means by which they are translated concretely into the goals and actions of day to day living.
Nisbet, Robert. The Quest for Community . Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ORD). Kindle Edition.
Now liberated from social contexts, cultures, communities, from given pre-judgements, we are all left to make judgements on our own, in regards to the decisions we make.  For the first time in history, we liberated people are being asked to make wise, healthy, and functional decisions with no cultural or communal support.  We are being left to the managers, who market to instincts.  This ends up hurting the poor the most.  I heard someone call this “limbic capitalism”.  The limbic system is our system of primal urges.   Since the moral community no longer exists, only the urges are left.  Most people have a hard time controlling their urges.  

There is no context in which modern people are guided to make wise decisions- stay in school, control yourself, be disciplined, delay gratification, save money, live below your means, love your neighbor, and other traditional guideposts.  To lay it out bluntly, the problem of liberalism is that it often displaces people from the social context in which they can succeed and have a good life.  This is not a political statement, it’s certainly not a left or right statement, only a true and objective statement.  

This is a tough topic, but one worth learning about.

I write about 3 things:

Fitness- What we do, how we train, etc.
Nutrition- What and how we eat.
Wellness- Lifestyle, culture, and everything else.  

And remember…there’s never been a better day than TODAY to make it happen!
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