In no society in the world, Robert Nisbet believed, has any people become so remote from nature as have Americans. As technology allowed him to dominate or ignore nature, the American became detached from place, having neither loyalty nor respect for the land that once nourished him…
After the rather massive and—at least to the author—unexpected success of his 1953 magnum opus, The Quest for Community, sociologist and man of letters Robert Nisbet became an icon not just to the growing conservative movement led by Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley, but also to the New Left led by such radicals as Tom Hayden. One can find much of Nisbet’s desire for true community, for example, in the statement by the Young Americans for Freedom of Sharon, Connecticut, in 1960, and in the statement by the Students for a Democratic Society of Port Huron, Michigan, in 1962. Neither Right nor New Left hid its admiration for Nisbet, however much one side or both misunderstood him. In his love of association, Nisbet spoke to Americans of all political persuasions fearful of centralization of power, conformity in culture, and regimentation in social life. The continuing military draft, the existence of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Cold War, the Military-Industrial-Educational-Complex, and suburbia portended for the thinking few a loss of creativity, and a loss of hope in a dreadfully dull and, most likely, ugly future.
Nine years after Nisbet first published The Quest for Community, his publisher asked him to revise it for a second edition, one that would address the questions of the 1960s as the first had addressed those of the 1950s. Given the chance to rethink his masterpiece, Nisbet agreed with Oxford to republish, but he demanded a new title. Rather than The Quest for Community, which now seemed too nebulous to Nisbet, he insisted on Community and Power. Interestingly enough, the third and fourth editions of the book would bear the original title again, with the one-time use of Community and Power banished to the graveyard of truly nebulous titles.
Regardless, the new title for the 1961 edition reveals much about Nisbet’s intelligent concerns and insights garnered over nearly a decade of thought and experience. In 1953, he had been thirty-nine and newly arrived as the first Dean of Arts and Letters at the University of California-Riverside. By 1961, was still at Riverside, but he was now forty-eight, and the world looked a bit different to him. Justifying the new title, Nisbet argued that one could never separate community from power or power from community. Each could be studied and “understood [only] in light of the other.” To the book as a whole, though, Nisbet made few changes. Community and Power, to his mind, should have been the 1953 title of The Quest for Community, as the book really was as much about power as it was about community.
Though changing almost nothing in the main body of the 1953 text for the 1961 edition, Nisbet did note that the book as originally published had two flaws, each an omission on his part. First, it had neglected the study of alienation. Second, it had not properly defined “authority” as something distinct from power. This second flaw must be explored in much greater detail than the present essay can allow. As to the first omission, alienation, Nisbet had come to believe that it was “one of the determining realities of the contemporary age: not merely a key concept in philosophy, literature, and the social sciences (making obsolete or irrelevant many of the rationalist premises descended from the Enlightenment), but a cultural and psychological condition implicating larger sections of the population.” In other words, the problem of alienation pervaded all of American society, but it hit especially hard among those who should be young adults but who remained adolescent in their approach to life. The rituals that had once so concretely marked the transition from childhood to adulthood had disappeared as the centrality of the family had declined. The American federal government, as well as the state governments, had come, more and more, to take the place of family in terms of what was once expected of the family. Thus, Nisbet claimed, the greater increase of governmental and political power led to a consequent as well as a commensurate decline in the role and reach of social authority. With the decline of the family, so increased alienation, as one’s first patriotism had always been to his family.
Nisbet defined alienation as “the state of mind that can find a social order remote, incomprehensible, or fraudulent; beyond real hope or desire; inviting apathy, boredom, or even hostility.” While Nisbet correctly believed the problem was concentrated in young Americans in their twenties, he recognized that alienation wove itself throughout much of American society after World War II. No longer did Americans revere churches, labor unions, businesses, and even families in the ways Americans had once done automatically as second nature and had, indeed, taken for granted as simply a part of the good and meaningful life.
Nisbet believed that alienation manifested itself in three ways.
First, it appeared as an alienation from the past. The American of 1961 thought only of himself, not his duty to parents, grandparents, or any ancestors. “Destroy his sense of the past,” he argued, “and you cut off his spiritual roots, leaving momentary febrility but no viable prospect for the future.”
Second, alienation came from losing contact with place and nature. Though man rarely revered nature, Nisbet argued, he feared and contended with it. As technology allowed him to dominate or ignore nature, the American became detached from place, having neither loyalty nor respect for the land that once nourished him. In no society in the world, Nisbet continued, has any people become so remote from nature as have Americans.
Finally, he claimed, the modern American had become alienated from things. With his loss of his land, the modern American turned to impersonal abstractions such as stock options, credit, and paper money. One unhealthy exception to this rule, Nisbet lamented, was the rise of “car culture,” itself an overcorrection by young men desirous to own some form of tangible property after the loss of agricultural society.
Again, Nisbet noted, each of these forms of alienation hit young men and young women hardest. Alienation “so obviously affects youth, and helps make the problem of coming to adulthood so widely painful and baffling,” he wrote. “How, apart from stable ties with preceding generations, can the image of adulthood be kept clear in a society?” No society could excuse itself from the rituals that accompany adulthood, but American society seemed to have lost the knowledge of this sometime after World War II.
What is astonishing in 2018, of course, is just how prophetic Nisbet was in 1961. Imagine if we in 2018 had the problems with the young that Americans in 1961 had. If only the purchasing of a car and a love of it was the scariest thing a young man might do. If nothing else, Nisbet’s warnings in 1961 should remind all of us Imaginative Conservatives that issues such as alienation should never have been forgotten by us or coopted by the Left.
And, even after all of this, there’s still the critical need to explore Nisbet’s concepts of power and authority….
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