new concept of the human person as an atomized and fully
free moral agent, possessed of abstract natural rights to act unconstrained
by social limits…

this radical expression of individual will …

 autonomous individual …

—the maximum attainment of personal freedom

 combined with the maximum attainment of 

efficiency,
mobility,
uniformity,
neutrality,
objectivity
in the exercise of political, economic, and social power
—were likewise taken largely as an article of faith.

profound confidence the new political theorists felt in

 the objective power of reason to solve all problems of human relations
 and in the universal quality and stability of the individual

as the primary unit of social and political order.

the costs rationalism and individualism would impose on
the social fabric: the scattering of families, increased urbanization, and
disintegration of ancient allegiances to place, church, and craft.

 the destruction of communities of belonging

as transcendent and unchanging forms which existed prior to any individual
and to which man owed his loyalty and fidelity.

To the liberal theorists,
this historical process was viewed not as tragic,
or even as regrettable though necessary,

 but rather as a glorious rebirth of man
 as he became progressively emancipated
 from the tyranny and irrationality of the past. 

Entry on “Community” for the forthcoming *Encyclopedia of American
Conservatism* (ISI Books) by an “authentic conservative:”

In the years following the French Revolution, conservative philosophers
reacted with relatively unanimous skepticism or outright horror at the
forces of individualism and progressivism which had erupted with such
violence against ancient traditions and institutions during that
conflagration. Conservatives like Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre
recoiled at the new concept of the human person as an atomized and fully
free moral agent, possessed of abstract natural rights to act unconstrained
by social limits. When entrenched as a movement of the people, they argued,
this radical expression of individual will would destroy the whole structure
of moral order on which western civilization was founded, and would result
only in the exercise of absolutist despotic power.

The optimism of the Victorian Age, however, did not bode well for the
dourness of the conservative outlook. With the advent of the powerful idea
of progress—material progress of industrialism and intellectual progress of
scientific rationalism—the autonomous individual and his freely expressed
will began to seem a self-evident and unmitigated good. The values of the
age of progress—the maximum attainment of personal freedom combined with the
maximum attainment of efficiency, mobility, uniformity, neutrality, and
objectivity in the exercise of political, economic, and social power—were
likewise taken largely as an article of faith. When Jeremy Bentham claimed
to be able to legislate for all of India from the comfort of his English
study, it was hardly puffery or idle boasting. Rather, as Robert Nisbet has
noted, it was representative of the profound confidence the new political
theorists felt in the objective power of reason to solve all problems of
human relations and in the universal quality and stability of the individual
as the primary unit of social and political order. Throughout the 19th
Century in Europe, Bentham, Mill, and other apostles of progressive
liberalism paid little heed to conservatives such as John Ruskin who were
calling attention to the costs rationalism and individualism would impose on
the social fabric: the scattering of families, increased urbanization, and
disintegration of ancient allegiances to place, church, and craft. In
short, the destruction of communities of belonging which had persisted for
centuries and which conservatives viewed not as external functions of man
and his freedom to choose whatever relational arrangements he saw fit, but
as transcendent and unchanging forms which existed prior to any individual
and to which man owed his loyalty and fidelity. To the liberal theorists,
however, this historical process was viewed not as tragic, or even as
regrettable though necessary, but rather as a glorious rebirth of man as he
became progressively emancipated from the tyranny and irrationality of the
past.

The unanimous skepticism towards progressivism expressed by European
conservatives was never quite as strongly felt by their American
counterparts. America, by the very nature of its discovery, settlement, and
political birth, was literally a “new world;” a place of nearly limitless
opportunity constrained only by the relative strength in a man’s back and
the relative sharpness of his wits. With the frontier spirit, buttressed as
it was by a Puritan heritage that emphasized individual responsibility and
strict moral self-discipline before God, the idea of the self-sufficient,
rugged individual was turned for the first time into a conservative ideal
which did not necessarily threaten the bonds of family, church, and
community. In his landmark work on the American spirit, Democracy in
America, Alexis de Tocqueville described the New World in Biblical terms—a
pristine continent gifted to Europe’s castoffs as if newly risen from the
receding waters of the great flood; a nearly empty and seemingly
inexhaustible land in both its sheer physical space and its material wealth.
This geographic wonder imprinted itself on the American Puritan soul, de
Tocqueville explained, creating a new kind of man, far less susceptible to
the chaotic passions of his cramped and world-weary European cousins. Even
so, de Tocqueville warned that despite their natural advantages, should
Americans ever give themselves over entirely to their private interests, the
social bonds and traditional institutions necessary for a democratic
republic would fail.

De Tocqueville remains the necessary starting point for understanding the
dynamics of community in America, and his insights into the push and pull
between American individualism and the need for communal ties have been
played out across the political spectrum of American conservative thought
over the past century. The dominant direction of this thought, however, has
not been kind to notions of community. The American experiences of
revolution against Britain, civil war and the abolition of slavery, suffrage
and the political enfranchisement of women, the civil rights struggle, and
the sexual revolution, all tend towards a view of history as the story of
man’s progressive casting off of oppressive yokes—yokes usually proclaimed
as necessary constraints by their defenders. American political thought has
always had, and has continued to develop a muscular theory of the individual
rights of man. Conservative thinkers, to gain purchase on the American
mind, were forced to trace their policy and social prescriptions to some
basis in individual, personal rights. Hence, the development in
conservatism of an instrumentalist and mechanical view of community and
social bonds: they exist only as a means to preserve the maximum freedom and
efficiency of individual action. Thus, for example, when David Walsh argues
against abortion in The Growth of the Liberal Soul, he does so on the
rights-based grounds that abortion weakens the sanctity of all individuals
which is the necessary foundation for personal autonomy and freedom.

The conservative adoption of individual autonomy as the central truth that
must be vindicated by the social and political order reached its height with
the early-century development of libertarianism, and in particular, with
that strain of euphoric libertarianism preached in the writings of Ayn Rand.
In both her non-fiction political work, but most especially in her fictional
characters, Rand elevated the uncompromising, self-sufficient, immensely
capable individualist and capitalist into a conservative hero. For the
Christs of Rand’s Gospel of Selfishness, communal restraints and the demands
of personal, concrete relationships and small social groups were evil
impediments to be overcome on the way to a cross of self-actualization.
Rand’s vision of conservative virtue as something utterly opposed to
communal belonging and membership gained a strong purchase on conservative
thought during America’s Cold War struggle against the Soviet ideology of
collectivism, and it continues to exert a strong influence on the
conservative tradition today.

Not all postwar conservatives, however, were so blinded by their hatred of
communism that they threw off all of the old traditional loyalties.
Conservative traditionalists such as Russell Kirk decried the influence of
libertarianism on conservatism, and by extension, on traditional communities
and the networks of social obligations inherent in words like kin, church,
village, class, caste, and craft. Kirk’s broadsides were particularly
passionate as he denounced the “decadent fervor” (Marion Montgomery’s term)
of the libertarians, and declared that any cooperation between libertarians
and conservatives was akin to advocating a “union of fire and ice.” Two of
the most thoughtful defenses of the role of traditional community as a
conservative ordering principle were published within a year of each other
in 1952 and 1953: Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community and Eric
Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics.

Nisbet begins his study on the place of community in American political and
social life by examining the failed promises of progress. By the postwar
period, America had filled up. A sense of dread and ennui had spread
through the social fabric, and the dominant tropes of psycho-spiritual
expression were no longer found in terms like optimism, progress, change,
and reason, but rather alienation, disintegration, decline, and insecurity.
Americans, according to Nisbet, no longer seemed to trust or valorize the
selfish Randian hero, but instead were seeking a sense of membership and
belonging that could give meaning to their personal, social, and political
commitments. Nisbet approaches the problem not in the popular terms of
technological tyranny or consumer greed or increasing secularism, but in
terms of political power. His principle argument is that modern man’s
nervous preoccupation with finding meaning in community is a manifestation
of profound social dislocation caused by the unique power structure of the
western political state. The degree to which political and economic policy
has become concerned with the atomized and abstract individual and stresses
the impersonal connections of political, economic, and personal contract, is
the degree to which western political power takes on and works through
centralized, impersonal, and remote structures. Nisbet locates the profound
unrest in the American soul not so much in the disappearance of traditional
relationships—the family, church, and community still appear functional on
the surface of American life—but in the utter disassociation of those
personalist, concrete relationships from the exercise of real political and
economic power. Traditional communities and the religious, familial, and
local ties that bind them had not so much been lost, in Nisbet’s view, as
they had become irrelevant at the deepest levels of meaning. It is here, in
the unmediated exposure of the individual will to the impersonal power of
the state and the market, that Nisbet finds the root cause of man’s
spiritual drift.

Voegelin’s New Science tracks a similar course, and provides conservative
thought with a powerful analytical tool for understanding the spiritual
dimensions of the phenomena Nisbet so clearly describes. For Voegelin,
modernity could be summarized as a heretical commitment to Gnosticism.
Gnosticism in Voegelin’s work defines modern man and his fundamental
dissatisfaction with the uncertainties and limits of existence. Impatience
for moral meaning and certainty beyond the humble limits of traditional
communities leads the Gnostic thinker to imbue human existence in the here
and now with the ultimate meaning previously reserved for the next life by
traditional Christian forms. By “immanentizing” the Christian eschaton,
modern man is willing and required to take on the project of remaking
existence according to the dictates of political ideology. Souls weakened
and confused by their revolt against the natural rhythms of birth and decay
and against God and the transcendent become willing to throw over the more
difficult quest for authentic community in favor of a Gnostic quest for
absolute moral certainty and a reordering of existence as heaven on earth.

Both Nisbet and Voegelin noted the odd fact of nearly continuous warfare in
the modern age at a time when nearly everyone declared a desire for peace.
Nisbet persuasively argued that with the disassociation of traditional
communities from the centers of political power, the modern disciplines of
war, mechanization, bureaucracy, and mass communication became invested with
a strong sense of moral identity and belonging. Voegelin described how the
ardent commitments once reserved for local religious communities were
transferred to mass movements which stood as surrogate moral communities and
provided the missing sense of historical purpose.

During the latter stages of the Cold War, and especially since its end,
American conservatism has again taken the mantle of optimism and regained
some of its prior confidence in the rugged individual. Ronald Reagan’s
seemingly single-handed defeat of the Soviet Empire is a powerful symbol in
conservative thought today of the moral worth of one individual’s iron will.
Taking their cue from Reagan, many conservative institutions and
publications today—notably The Claremont Institute, The Acton Institute, The
American Enterprise Institute, William Buckley’s National Review, and
Richard Neuhaus’s First Things—seek a new conservative synthesis between the
primacy of individual freedom and the need for social belonging. The ideals
of this synthesis are put on display in the presidency of George W. Bush and
his strong religious character and commitment to preserving local
communities and families at home in conjunction with his progressivism and
nearly Gnostic commitment to unrestrained political and economic freedom
abroad.

Whether such a synthesis can successfully be maintained remains to be seen.
There is, however, good reason to doubt. With one of the most unique,
eloquent, and deeply conservative voices of the late 20th Century, Wendell
Berry has fashioned from his career a kind of long, poetic lament for the
final passing of rural America and of its people, places, rites, and
rituals. Community, for Berry, is ultimately about membership: it is a
group of people embedded in a place and a network of memory who belong to
one another. And within such a community, no moral decision may be made
unless it first accounts for that belonging. As a brilliant essayist and
naturalist, in works such as The Unsettling of America, Sex, Economy,
Freedom & Community, and The Gift of Good Land, Berry offers a stinging
critique of the false communities of war, international markets, and
sexualized consumerism. A central theme throughout is the way in which
modern structures set apart that which authentic communities bind together:
consumption and production, sex and fertility, freedom and responsibility.
Berry demonstrates persuasively that no amount of abstract moralism will
check the corrosive character of abstract freedom, especially economic
freedom. As a result, even in a political period of supposed conservative
ascendancy, local familial, religious, and rooted communities continue to
suffer decline due to an inability to enforce norms rooted not in law,
markets, or choice, but in tradition, faith, and a deep respect for the land
and its cycle of fertility, growth, and reclamation of the dead.

Last edited by g.   Page last modified on March 29, 2005

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