Tuesday, January 09, 2007

How Did the US Lose "Community"?

In recent posts I've pointed out the central value that genuine conservatives place upon local, face-to-face, decentralized groups: family, school, church, local government, etc. These are what make up a true sense of "community." Robert Nisbet (1913-96) was an American sociologist and conservative who was invited by President Reagan to give a prestigious lecture in the late 1980s as recognition of his conservative contribution. I haven't read enough Nisbet yet to determine if I'd categorize him as a genuine conservative or pseudo-conservative but I'll be reading more soon. Probably his most famous book was published in 1953 as The Quest for Community which he later republished as Community and Power (1962, Oxford UP). As I said in a previous post:
Usually such analyses [of the loss of face-to-face community] (see Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, first published in 1953) have emphasized the state as sucking up the powers of localities and creating the mass society. I suspect this is because in America it is relatively rare to read mainstream academics who are willing to criticize American industrialization leading to huge centralized corporations as a primary factor in creating atomized ‘mass’ individuals whose primary function is to consume in a self-indulgent fashion.
Let's examine what it was in American life that led to the loss of face-to-face community? In 1957 American historian Samuel P. Hays published a rather popular book entitled The Response to Industrialism: 1885-1914. This is an excellent look at this period. Hays' (pp. 1-2) opening paragraphs stated:
The history of modern America is, above all, a story of the impact of industrialism on every phase of human life. It is difficult for us today fully to imagine the implications of this change, for we did not know an earlier America firsthand.... Looking backward scarcely more than forty or fifty years, [the American of 1914] fully recognized that his country had changed rapidly and fundamentally.... Seldom, if ever, in American history had so much been altered within the lifetime of a single man.... Formerly, perhaps, he had resided in the intimate surroundings of his town or rural community. If he remained there in 1914, he had encountered with some fear the expansion into the countryside of a new urban culture that threatened the familiar order with strange, even dangerous, ides. Or moving to Chicago, one of the nation's rapidly growing urban centers, he had experienced the indifference of city people toward each other, which contrasted sharply with the atmosphere of the small community from which he had come.... If he had been especially sensitive to personal values, he would have looked with horror upon the way in which the impersonal forces of industrialism seemed to place one at the mercy of influences far beyond one's control. In such an atmosphere how could personal character count for anything; how could anyone exercise personal responsibility?
And these are from the first two paragraphs of a 193 page book. I find it difficult to understand how writers like Nisbet can blame the centralized government for the atomization of local communities into mass urban societies where local authority based upon small face-to-face groups has been lost. Industrialization in the 19th century created a 'social revolution' possibly comparable at least in part to the French Revolution. However, since our social values are so partial to business, economic progress and industrialization, I think some writers pass over this because it would seem to attack the very foundations of American values; rather it is so much easier to blame it on the central government because anti-government feeling is almost equal to pro-business feeling in the American ideology.

I am NOT saying that we ought to roll back the clock to a pre-industrial age or any such thing. My point is a descriptive one: if we are trying to understand the breakdown of local 'autonomous' social groups and the trading of local community and local authority for modern atomized 'mass society' then let's be accurate about what the primary cause was; it was industrialization.

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