Robert Nisbet on the origins and dangers of political communitarian monism

15 May

Chapter Three, Monism and Pluralism, of Brad Stone’s intellectual biography of Robert Nisbet is one of the most enlightening reads I’ve had in a long time.  And since I remember things by writing them, here’s the summary:

Robert Nisbet, the great sociologist who championed communitarian pluralism over against communitarian monism, places the rise of modern liberalism with its ever expanding welfare state and total reduction of society to the individual and the state, firmly upon the intellectual footing of Plato first and then especially Rousseau (he throws Hobbes in there for good measure).  How so?

First, we must understand Rousseau’s paradox, as Pierre Manent explains it: “On the one hand, society is essentially contrary to nature, on the other, it comes nearer to conforming to nature only insofar as it imposes the greatest unity possible on its members, identifying with everyone and the whole – short, only insofar as it changes man’s nature.”  The solution to the problem of society is a political community of unprecedented extent and power.  Man is free or back to nature, only in the context of “complete surrender to the omnipotent state.  The state is the liberator of the individual from the toils of society” (Nisbet’s words).  For Rousseau, society splinters and fragments the elementary and unified soul of natural man, the modern remedy for which is the general will (and its agent, the State).  Rousseau here is basically saying that man is born free, and then is enchained by civil society (church, family, custom, tradition, local associations) producing inequality and reduced liberty.  The solution is to appoint a great leveler as well as a single object of everyone’s allegiance and devotion, the State.  Then, natural inequalities of status, liberty, etc. would be eliminated.  Other social loyalties only compete with the State and are therefore unhealthy for man as an individual.  “Cults and intolerance cannot be tolerated, Rousseau says.  Nothing should compete with the sovereignty of the state.”

Of particular note, Rousseau insisted that Christianity is just such a problem for man’s freedom and equality. He wrote, “the dominating spirit of Christianity was incompatible with [State driven human equality]… the interest of the priest would always be stronger than that of the state.”

So both Hobbes and Rousseau imagined “an ideal commonwealth containing individuals and the state, without communities or intermediate associations to mediate between them.”  That is what Nisbet refers to as communitarian monism.

Against that political philosophy is the one Nisbet defends and the one most associated with the thought of Edmund Burke, communitarian pluralism.  Burke wrote against Rousseau’s entire program.  “His attack on the French Revolution sprang from precisely those principles that had underlain his defense of the American colonists and the people of India.  These principles were rooted in Burke’s profound belief in the superiority of traditional society and its component groups and associations, as well as what he regarded as its inherent organic processes of change, over centralized political power”  Whereas Rousseau believed that one could not love the whole society and work towards its good while showing partiality to particular elements within it (cults, neighborhoods, even families), Burke held the opposite view.  No Frenchman, he argued, will ever love the whole country with one heart when all local ideas and identities are eradicated.  Instead, he “will shortly have no country.  No man ever was attached by a sense of pride, partiality, or real affection, to a description of square measurement…. We begin our public affections in our families.  No cold relation is a zealous citizen.  We pass on to our neighborhoods, and our habitual provincial connections.  These are the inns and resting places… The love of the whole is not extinguished by this subordinate partiality.”  That is, the love of the whole depends upon this subordinate partiality.  Burke argued that the ultimate consequence of the French Revolution, wholly unlike the American Revolution or Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, was to create “the organic moleculae of a disbanded people.”  To disband the little platoon (civil institutions) is to foster “weakness, disconnection and confusion.”  To cast away the “coat of prejudice,” which “renders man’s virtue habit,” leaves individuals with nothing but naked reason, “skeptical and puzzled,” unable to act in moments of decision.  According to Nisbet, it was the “rationalist simplicity” of the French revolutionaries that Burke feared and despised most because of its destructive effects upon the plural social order.  Without tradition and mediating institutions, we have, Burke said, what Tocqueville would later call “individualism.”

Another consequence of the eradication of prejudice and particularistic affections Burke observed among the revolutionaries was the “new-invented virtue” – universal benevolence.  Burke had nowhere better to look for the problems with this notion than Rousseau himself, as a person.  Rousseau turned over all five of his illegitimate children to a state-run foundling home, exhibiting constantly “the stores of his powerful rhetoric in the expression of universal benevolence, whilst his heart was incapable of harboring one spark of common parental affection… He melts with tenderness for those only who touch him by the remotest relation (state to citizen), and then, without one natural pang, casts away, as a sort of offal and excrement, the spawn of his disgustful amours and sends his children to the hospital of foundlings.  Rousseau justified these decisions, Nisbet notes, by appealing to Plato’s idea of true, primary, and ultimate citizenship.

Burke predicted that when the full program of Rousseau is implemented, the results will be catastrophic, wiping out intermediate institutions in the name of liberty and equality and brotherhood, but society will be destroyed by the creature of its own making.  He wrote, “the government, be it what it may, will immediately degenerate into military democracy; a species of political monster, which has always ended by devouring those who have produced it.”

Nisbet also pointed to Tocqueville, in addition to Aristotle and Burke, as a great champion of communitarian pluralism.  Tocqueville was acutely aware of the state empowering dangers of rampant individualism.  Individualism creates a void filled by a centralized authority that enervates and stifles initiative.  “Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate.  That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild.  It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood…”

Nisbet goes on to describe what the five conditions necessary for the preservation of liberty within democracies according to Tocqueville.  First, there must be a division of authority in society.  Individual rights are obtained through diversification of authority, “not merely the overall structure of authority in America but also each of the several major institutions in American life, including religion, economy and political government itself.”  Second, the presence and appeal of local institutions is essential.  “How can a population unaccustomed to freedom in small concerns learn to use it temperately in great affairs?”  Third, freedom is advanced through the American federal system, which separates the three branches of government (executive, legislative, judicial) from one another but also the two levels of government (national and state).  This division of authority is designed to prevent the consolidation of power from the hands of a single individual or institution [we are seeing the utter dismissal of this principle today with the rise of the modern presidency, circumventing at every turn both the other branches and levels of government, as well basic constitutional procedures].  Fourth, there must be freedom of the press, “essential for an idea to be planted in enough minds for people to form associations of sufficient size to address important causes.”  Finally, there must be the freedom [and flourishing] of association.  Tocqeville was struck by the number of civil and political associations in America and their vitality, rendering a heavy-handed state unnecessary in his view.  “These associations were essential to overcome the inherent weakness of individuals within democracy and to defend against the centralization of power.  In short, voluntary associations simultaneously combated the twin evils of individualism and democratic despotism.”

To this, I would add that the most basic and essential social institution, the nuclear family, is the most important buffer from suicidal and socially destructive individualism as well as the massive welfare state that such individualism inevitably produces.  Perhaps its recent disintegration just couldn’t have been foreseen in the day of Tocqueville, but elsewhere Nisbet saw it coming along with the statism that ensues.

Amazon link to the book:

%d bloggers like this: