Susan McWilliams offers an excellent appraisal of "Robert Nisbet’s conservatism of community against the state" — Hometown Hero. An excerpt:
- It was at Berkeley, under the tutelage of the iconoclastic Frederick J. Teggart and his department of social institutions, that Nisbet found a powerful defense of intermediate institutions in the conservative thought of 19th-century Europe. Nisbet saw in thinkers like Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville—then all but unknown in American scholarship—an argument on behalf of what he called “conservative pluralism.” Against an ever-centralizing modern state, these thinkers saw small, partial, and local centers of authority as vital to human freedom and any genuine sense of community.
For Nisbet, conservatism is premised on protection of the social order—“family, neighborhood, local community, and region foremost”—from the politically centralizing and socially atomizing effects of the modern state. This involves more than a single-minded commitment to order or liberty—and it certainly doesn’t mean privileging one of these goods at the expense of the other. Nisbet criticized libertarians who think unfettered markets should lie at the center of conservative doctrine. “There has never been a time when a successful economic system has rested upon purely individualistic drives,” he wrote. Yet he was more trenchant about those conservatives for whom order implied militarism. Military statism, he wrote, contributes to the “brutalization of cultural standards” and a disabling “bureaucracy and regimentation.”
Order has to be built from the ground up, nurtured and reinforced within the structures of a local community. When centralized authorities try to impose it from a distance, the result is actually disorder: individuals become increasingly isolated, cut off from participation, and convinced of the meaninglessness of the political process. Liberty, too, is realized most fully in social groups. “The individual alone is powerless,” he wrote. “Individual will and memory, apart from the reinforcement of associative tradition, are weak and ephemeral.” Even what we tend to think of as individual greatness depends on a healthy social sphere: Nisbet emphasized that the figures we call “founders” and “geniuses” were not solitary creatures but social animals embedded in communities marked by shared memory.