If you’re new to my blog, then welcome and I’m glad you’re here. I write about all sorts of health issues- fitness, nutrition and wellness. This post is part of a series of long-form essays summarizing the classic work by Robert Nisbet, “The Quest for Community”, please see previous posts for the prior essays. Start HERE for the first one.
I’ve been focusing on this because community health has such a big impact on individual health. Just turn on the news if you don’t believe me! The State is often associated with war, for good reason. But it can also wage war on community, and has done so historically. “ There is every reason to regard the State in history……. as a process of permanent revolution.” – Robert Nisbet
In this chapter, Nisbet squarely takes aims at the State, and states that the decline of community is to blame on the growth of the state. His research shows in this chapter that as the power of the State grows it pushes aside other forms of community, causing “dislocations of social structure and uprooting of status which lie behind the problem of community in our age.
Now you may be thinking: How can we deal with the “State” categorically, as a concrete organization and historical fact?
Nisbet’s answer: “not to deal with the State categorically is to risk losing, in the varied sequences of diplomatic, military, and political events the essential unity of the State as an idea system in the modern West and, more important, the powerful and cohesive nature of the State as an institution, as a system of human allegiances and motivations.”
So we can now move forward recognizing that the State is a concrete historical fact and organization which can be dealt with, just like the family, the tribe, the church, the guild, and the corporation. The State grew while all other forms of community were pushed aside. I immediately thought of our own country where it’s been shown and proven time and time again that the social programs of “The Great Society” caused unforeseen consequences in family life of Americans, particularly African- Americans. Fathers were no longer needed, and the State became a surrogate father. This created growing divorce, single motherhood, fatherlessness, crime, unemployment, economic stagnation, particularly in minority communities. So even here in our time, in a process which began with this legislation in the 1960s, community in the form of family was marginalized by the State.
This is a historical process of centralization which has been going on for some time, for example at least mentioned as far back as in Ancient Greece in the teachings of Plato, but which also picked up steam after the Reformation, and also even more during these social engineering programs of the 1960s.
“If we look not to imaginary beginnings in the never-never land of ethnological reconstruction but to historically connected sequences of change in such specific areas as ancient Athens, Rome, or modern England and France, we discover that the rise and aggrandizement of political States took place in circumstances of powerful opposition to kinship and other traditional authorities.”
Nisbet likens this process to culminating in the “people in unity ruling over the people as multitude.” Reading this made me think of many current debates over:
How much freedom people should have?
How much group independence people should have?
What constitutes the public space and what is allowed there?
Where do my rights end and yours begin?
Our founding fathers set up an ingenious system in its foundation. Government was to be limited, and subsidiarity (local control) was to be primary. The idea that a colony of pagans in California, or that Mormons in Utah, or Conservative Christians in Alabama shouldn’t be left alone and left to live how they choose is foreign to the US founding. Our forefathers were very intelligent. They knew about this historical process of centralization and could see the dangers of an unchecked state. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, even envisioned an agrarian republic of small, independent communities. We’ve strayed so far from even articulating that ideal now that it’s no wonder community is suffering, and people are dying of loneliness, drug addiction and suicide. The State is in constant revolution against community. If we consider how much power the Medieval King had, in comparison to the modern State it isn’t even close. Nisbet points this out. The King couldn’t listen to your phone conversations, break into your home anytime without notice, redefine words and concepts, prohibit religious expression, or tax his people at will. The modern State can almost do anything it wants. A yearned-for global State, the most scary thing of all, is even less accountable and more all-encompassing. The writer Walker Percy called this process “Los Angelization” where everything homogenizes and everything eventually looks the same. Nisbet puts much of the blame on the political philosopher Rousseau (1712-1778), who teaches that in order for you to “really” be free, you have to put all forms of community aside so that the state “can make you free.” He saw the traditional society as in need of destruction because to him it was holding people back from being free.
There is some truth in how confining traditional society can be, but we can see now that it’s false to say that is completely confining. The way we find our individuality is with respect to other people and in community. I’ve written about this many times over the last few years. Status is belonging, and having meaning. When you are a child of God, for example, you have status. Same if you’re a son, daughter, mother, father, or friend. We only have individuality through community. So even though it can be constraining, the modern idea, starting way back with Rousseau, that people need to do abolish all community other than the state has been proven wrong, even by scientific research. Children for example, do better in life when raised by two parents a Mom and Dad. The effect of the State in history has been to level out, in a revolutionary way, prior forms of community.
The real conflict in history has been not between the person and the State, as many might believe, but between the group and the state. The person is too small to oppose the state, or to even matter to it. But the group is bigger and more substantial and can rival the state’s power. An excellent illustration of this comes in distinguishing medieval subjects and citizens. In medieval times, a person was a citizen of the town, but a subject of the faraway king. In modern times, we are only citizen – subjects of the State, which is much different. There is no competition for authority in modern times. The State rules supreme.
In older times, our allegiance to the remote authorities were weak, and local ties were strong. Now the opposite is true, by law our allegiance is to the remote state, while our local ties are weak. This may not sound bad, but when you consider that the CDC now places loneliness on its list of top diseases, you see why it’s a problem. Weak communal ties causes big problems, physically, morally, spiritually. There have always been conflicts between individualism and the community, going back to Plato and in the Roman Republic and beyond. It’s inherent to human life. What makes the current era so fascinating is the march of time, which has only sped up the revolutionary process. People are trying to resist it, the Leviathan but it’s hard. There’s a constant revolution humming along in the background, called the State, some of us are aware, some of us are not. Mostly, people just feel something isn’t quite right. No one seems to know how it happened, what’s happening, and what to do about it. But the first step seems to be to recognize that the State exists as revolution, overthrowing community.
“This, in conclusion, is the revolutionary essence of the State: the combination of social dislocation and political reassimilation; of liberation with power; of loss of old status with the gaining of new. Who can doubt that from this conflict of State with other associations in society have come some of the most important humanitarian gains and personal liberties in Western culture? But who can doubt, either, that from this same conflict, from this same, still ongoing process of revolution, have come problems of balance of authority in society and problems of associative and personal freedom which are very nearly overwhelming at the present time?”
Nisbet, Robert. The Quest for Community . Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ORD). Kindle Edition.
And remember…there’s never been a better day than TODAY to make it happen!
Read Next: There’s Only 1 Subject: The Debt Edition
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