Power, in and of itself, has become an “ideology,” according to Robert Nisbet. It is, by its very nature, incapable of understanding nuance…
As I had the opportunity to write in my previous essay for The Imaginative Conservative, Oxford University Press gave the grand sociologist and historian of ideas, Robert A. Nisbet, a chance to review his 1953 masterpiece, The Quest for Community. As a part of the republication, Nisbet demanded a new title. Not The Quest for Community but, as Nisbet thought more accurate and appropriate, Community and Power. As Nisbet himself later admitted, however well reviewed his 1953 edition was—and it was—it wasn’t until this 1961 paperback edition that the book became a part of the national consciousness, vocabulary, and conservation. It was, as Nisbet himself admitted, nothing but a “slow burner” between 1953 and 1961. In 1960, however, the so-called student New Right as led by William F. Buckley, Annette Kirk, Stan Evans, and Lee Edwards, embraced much of what Nisbet had written in their famous Sharon Statement. In 1962, with the drafting of the New Left’s Port Huron statement, Nisbet became an icon among the Students for a Democratic Society. As a consequence of each, the 1961 paperback edition of The Quest for Community/Community and Power soared.
As I mentioned in the previous essay, Nisbet did not change the main text of the book as much as he added to it a list of things missing that should not have been missed—especially by him. In particular, Nisbet worried that he should have written more about “alienation” and also about “power.” As I dealt with alienation in the previous essay, I will deal with Nisbet’s understanding of power in this one.
Nisbet, following upon a theme that he would dedicate himself to over the next thirty-five years of his life, brilliantly juxtaposed authority with power. In essence, authority served ordered liberty, while power destroyed it. Power, Nisbet wrote, exists as “something external and based upon force.” Power, unlike authority, comes from a distant region, imposing itself upon numbers and numbers of people it will never know, nor want to know. As such, it seeks the destruction of difference, often cloaking its own language in the celebration of equality or diversity. When it cries “equality,” though, it really means uniformity, regimentation, conformity, and mediocrity. Not surprisingly, Nisbet’s arguments come directly from Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville. As Burke wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France, power is the law that can be enforced only by its “own terrors.”
Authority, however, arises necessarily from a free people in a variety of ways. Indeed, types of authority will arise in as many varied ways as there are communities and persons. “Authority, like power, is a form of constraint, but, unlike power, it is based ultimately upon the consent of those under it; that is, it is conditional.” No one should ever mistake authority for its perversion, “authoritarian.” Real authority arises with parenthood, with education, with business, with social networking, and, especially, with religion. Indeed, for Nisbet, the ultimate expressions of authority within a free society come from the family and the church.
No community, Nisbet argued, can avoid structure and hierarchy. What it can choose, however, is how many authorities, what kind of authorities, and how many levels in the hierarchy. More often than not, though, these choices are not mechanical or regulated, but organic and spontaneous. In a free society, the human person belongs to a myriad of communities: some competing, some compromising, some overlapping, some conflicting, and some merely concentric. It is in the space between these concurrent communities, that the human person finds real freedom. As such, “authority and liberation, convention and revolt” form the very essence of history, “the creative rhythms of civilization.” These rhythms “are as vivid in the history of politics as in the histories of art and poetry, science and technology, education and religion.” After all, Nisbet wisely asks, “if there is not a recognized authority or convention, how can there be the occasional eruption of revolt and liberation that both the creative impulse and free mind require.”
Since the French enlightenment—but especially from the thought of Jean Jacques Rousseau and its manifestation in the horrors of the French Revolution—the cult of power has grown to gargantuan proportions. Power, in and of itself, has become an “ideology,” according to Nisbet. It is, by its very nature, incapable of understanding nuance. Rather than even attempting to discover the real diversity from person to person, group to group, it desires only one group, one community, one nation in which all personhood is lost, as the individual human person is stripped of his relations and made a naked individual, equal to all other naked individuals, held together only by Leviathan, the resulting monster. Not only does it blur distinctions, Nisbet argued, but it desires that which is bland and sealing. Whatever its rhetoric, the cult of power has regimented society in militaristic fashion. Or, if one wants to stick to the comparisons with nature, the cult of power best reflects a society of ants or other insects based around a queen.
By closing off nuance and distinctions, power also shuts off cultural adaptation and evolution. “And it is power in this same sense that has destroyed or weakened many of the established contexts of function and natural authority—and, by its existence, choked off the emergence of new contexts and thus created a great deal of the sense of alienation that dominates contemporary man.”
In the American context, Nisbet offered the example of “slum clearance,” not only as an abuse of power, but as a destruction of natural authority and nuance, resulting in alienation and social decay. Using the language of “bettering,” the government brings down an entire neighborhood, labeling it a slum. This “slum,” though, possessed “a culture and more or less natural gathering places.” With clearance, the government creates “an architecturally grim, administratively monolithic housing project.” While power might very well have “sanitized” some decay, it has rendered generations of habits, norms, and customs obsolete. Natural and spontaneous authority decays, and power replaces it with distant bureaucracy. But because power cannot understand nuance, the citizens who would have naturally led through the authority earned over a lifetime of experiences have been diminished, and those who would have accepted that authority at one time turn to group thinking, creating gangs, as they seek security for themselves. Thus, the slum might now be clean, but it is also extremely dangerous.
Nisbet did not direct his ire merely toward power’s interference with the poor. The same could be argued, he noted, of the middle class as they moved to their cookie-cutter suburban tapioca communities.
After all, Nisbet wrote, “Community is the product of people working together on problems, of autonomous and collective fulfillment of internal objectives, and of the experience of living under codes of authority which have been set in large degree by the persons involved.” Because of the rise of housing projects and suburbia, Nisbet lamented, power was truly and finally creating “masses” or “hoardes.”
Real community, Nisbet noted rather wittily, “thrives on self help and also a little disorder.”
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