work of the late Robert Nisbet (1913-1996), conservative and sociologist,
still goes unappreciated by many people, libertarians among them,
who could learn much from it. At a time when most practitioners
of the sociological arts were, at best, bureaucratic liberals, if
not outright Marxists and commies, it was remarkable that there
were any conservative sociologists at all. When some of those bureaucratic
liberals were "mugged" by the New Left and began calling
themselves conservatives, things became rather confused. Such "conservatives"
wanted to conserve state-worship, order, and the American empire.
who believed in order and liberty, professed
a different kind of conservatism, if that is even
the best word for it. Like some other right-wing scholars
who came to maturity during World War II – one thinks
of Richard M. Weaver and Russell Kirk – Nisbet had
a real sense of what happens to genuine community,
social order, and freedom when the state takes off
on some project of world-improvement, unification,
or social engineering. Unlike the bureaucratic liberals,
who thought the Good War proved that government could
and should do anything and everything to make life
better – unintended consequences being waived for
the moment, or for several decades at a time – Nisbet
was never a friend of centralization, militarism,
and absolutism, whether royalist or democratic.
first important work, The
Quest for Community (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1969 ) was a defense of real, rooted
communities against centralizing, democratic, bureaucratic
statism. Like Tocqueville before him, Nisbet regretted
the modern state's ongoing demolition of those "intermediate
social institutions" – family, church, friendly
societies – which gave color and meaning to human
social life. Absent those institutions, "loose
individuals" became more and more dependent on
politicians and bureaucrats for their survival. It
goes without saying that such "individualism"
was part of the problem and not the key to restoring
does not, of course, make Nisbet a "communitarian"
in the fashionable Bill and Hillary sense. Were he
here, he would doubtless pour scorn and irony all
over the notion of federal programs to create
community, much as he denounced the anti-conservative
militarism of the Reagan gang when they were in power.
privacy was a key to liberty and community. Nisbet
writes: "'All freedom,' wrote Lord Acton, 'consists
in radice in the preservation of an inner sphere
exempt from State power.' The political mystic may
boggle at this, but the proposition is, when amended
to include any type of power, political or other,
irrefutable. Both freedom and the desire for freedom
are nourished within the realization of spiritual
privacy and among privileges of personal decision.
Apart from these, any structure of authority becomes
almost limitless in its scope" (p. 246).
developed his understanding of society and history
and Revolt (New York: Vintage Books, 1966)
Change and History (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1969). The former book continues his assault
on the state-created "individualism," which
always allies itself with political power and against
natural, local social organization. Jean-Jacques Rousseau
and his modern bureaucratic liberal successors come
in for a bit of a drubbing. Rousseau, indeed, is Nisbet's
bête noire - and rightly so. Corruption
of the so-called "behavioral sciences" by
government is the subject of one essay, "Project
Camelot and the Science of Man." By taking federal
money, the good gray social scientists commit themselves
to the state's agenda, thereby fulfilling the traditional
role of the court intellectual (to use Murray Rothbard's
term). The scientists discovered, for example, "that
the Viet Cong frequently travel in village groups,
with women and children along, and that they eat their
meals at fixed times of the day. This intelligence…
made possible easier exterminatory actions
by American forces" (p. 254, my emphasis). Aside
from the waste of money – ordinary military scouts
could have learned as much – there was the small matter
of the "ethical aspects" of academic participation
in the state's projects of organized violence.
latter book, Social Change and History, stands
out because of Nisbet's denial of directional laws
of historical change in human society. Bit by bit,
he pulls down the leaning tower of progress – whether
evolutionist, functionalist, or Marxist – until nothing
is left but a 19th-century misunderstanding
of how things work. Yes, there is society and, yes,
there is change, but change is more likely to result
from accident, trade, intrusions, war, and other discrete
events than from immediately intelligible "laws"
inherent in the social process. In the end, the inevitability
of progress through bureaucratic management lies in
shambles, and the unintended consequences of that
ideology loom larger.
what has all this to do with our usual topics, war,
peace, and empire?" you might well ask. Quite
a lot, as it turns out, as shown by Nisbet's The
Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America
(New York: Harper and Row, 1988). The book starts
from the premise, credited to Max Weber, that "war
and the barracks life of warriors [are] the true cause
of communism. War communism precedes, indeed gives
birth to, civil communism" (p. 6). Quick, someone
tell the Republican Party hierarchy, if they're not
too busy putting on further displays of military
French Revolution, which liberated individuals and
made them all equal in the face of the abstract state,
made them all equally into cannon fodder, and set
Western history on its two-century path of militarism
and democratic/bureaucratic egalitarianism. US participation
in the process led to a number of debilitating myths
– "Can Do, Know How, and No Fault, myths which
abide to this minute in American and yield up such
disasters as Korea, Vietnam, Iran, Lebanon, and Grenada"
(p. 17). These paralleled the notion of "America
the Redeemer Nation" and the long-established
idea of American "exceptionalism." Actually,
it seems to me that we had been somewhat exempt from
the perils of Old World history until our leaders,
finding our happy state too bloody boring for words,
plunged us into competition for empire and Weltmacht.
great villain in bringing America the joys of military
and civil communism, or "statism" for those
who shy away from red-baiting, was in Nisbet's view,
none other than Woodrow Wilson, "the patriarch
of American foreign policy moralism and interventionism"
(p. 30). Those who fret about Joe McCarthy's persecution
of a few Stalinists ought to read Nisbet's account
of a real reign of terror, i.e., Wilson's domestic
repression of 1917-1918 (pp. 42-50). He writes: "Not
Britain, not France, not the hated Germany had the
kind of dictatorial power vested in any one figure
or office that the United States did shortly after
American participation in the war began" (p.
44). Further: "The blunt fact is that when under
Woodrow Wilson America was introduced to the War State
in 1917, it was introduced also to what would later
be known as the total, or totalitarian state"
(p. 45). In this light, I think we can quit dwelling
on Wilson's un-PC racial views or his reaction to
the film The
Birth of a Nation, and focus on more important
grandiose and inevitably self-frustrating program
of world-improvement through military/political means
was passed on to his successors, such as FDR and Ronald
Reagan. I told you Nisbet was no militarized,
kennel-fed conservative. No, indeed. He echoes Eisenhower's
critique of the Military-Industrial-(University)-Complex
and expresses skepticism that the Cold War had ever
required the enormous budgets and programs undertaken
in its name.
devotes a long chapter, "The New Absolutism,"
to the domestic consequences of imperial foreign policy,
and another long chapter, "The Loose Individual,"
to the social consequences of aggravated statism at
home and abroad. Back in the 1970s, the late Murray
Rothbard complained that libertarians are at a disadvantage
relative to the Marxists. The Marxists, after all,
can blame everything wrong with society on "capitalism,"
but we can't blame everything on statism. I
won't say Rothbard was wrong, but I will say that
as more and more decay, collapse, and social implosion
confront us, the finger points one way and one way
only. Nisbet's body of work is a very good place in
which to begin the study of the process.
Illich used to write about "iatrogenic diseases"
– those caused by the physician allegedly curing them.
For the last century or so, states have posed as the
Great Healers of Mankind. They now stand revealed
as quacks and witch doctors. Perhaps we should consider
cutting their pay or just plain firing them. My prescription:
take two aspirin, don't call me in the morning, and
don't vote. As the slogan says, it only encourages