Having written yesterday about my rules of thumb for deciding what I read from the screen and what I read as marks on paper, I though I would reflect on a reading experience from the latter category that I just completed. This was Alan Wolfe's online review of the new edition of Robert Nisbet's The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom, which was published on the Web site for The New Republic. I am not shy in confessing that I am very selective in reading anything that The New Republic publishes, but I was drawn to both Nisbet's title and my respect for Wolfe as a writer. After all it was only last July that I was writing about the extent to which the sense of community identity had come under siege in the wake of the rising obsession with "social networks;" so this seemed to be a good time to bone up on some of the more traditional thoughts about community that the world the Internet has made was willing to consign to the dustbin of history.
I quickly discovered that there was more in this particular dustbin than the book itself. There was also an academic practice that would probably be dismissed as unforgiveable heresy today. Having acknowledged that The Quest for Community was "one of the major works of American conservatism" in the Fifties, Wolfe reflected on the quotation with which he began his review:
The uneasiness, the malaise of our time, is due to this root fact: in our politics and economy, in family life and religion—in practically every sphere of our existence—the certainties of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have disintegrated or been destroyed and, at the same time, no new sanctions or justifications for the new routines we live, and must live, have taken hold.
Wolfe observed that these were not Nisbet's words but a citation from the writings of C. Wright Mills, who was as much a representative of left-wing thinking in the United States as Nisbet represented the right. Here is how Wolfe described this particular meeting of minds:
As hard as it might be to imagine in our wildly polarizing times, thinkers from both the right and the left once found themselves intellectually linked. What joined them together was something called the theory of mass society. Flabbergasted by the seeming success of totalitarianism, and worried that its effects lingered on in the form of overweening state power, corporatist private institutions, and popular susceptibility to advertising and image-manipulation, writers such as Nisbet and Mills were among the many, including Hannah Arendt, Edward Shils, Joseph Schumpeter, Dwight Macdonald, and Richard Hofstadter, who put mass irrationality ahead of class interest in their understanding of their society, and turned to European thinkers such as José Ortega y Gasset and Emil Lederer for such an analysis.
That is quite a laundry list of social theorists, and it is more than a little disconcerting to realize that their very conception of mass irrationality has become rather feeble in the context of the world the Internet has made.
This brings us to what I felt was the key paragraph in Wolfe's account of Nisbet's thinking:
Nisbet can be understood as a conservative communitarian. Although he was more concerned with oppressive state power than he was with corporate dominance of society, he recognized that bigness in any form was alien to his vision of a good society. “Not all the asserted advantages of mass production and corporate bigness,” he wrote, “will save capitalism if its purposes become impersonal and remote, separated from the symbols and relationships that have meaning in human lives.” One can only imagine Nisbet’s reaction to corporations that treat human communities as ruthlessly as the natural environment. I cannot see this man as an apologist for BP or as a fan of globalization.
Indeed, one cannot imagine a better example of that alienating "bigness" than Tom Friedman's vision of globalization, which has enabled that "corporate dominance of society" on a scale far broader than Nisbet could have ever dreamed. How has that dominance (which I have preferred to call "the war against the poor") been achieved; and why do I associate it with the world the Internet has made? The reason is that focus on technology begets a focus on the objective world to the exclusion of the influences of the subjective and social worlds. Back in 2007 I summarized that focus as follows:
In Wolfe's language a world without subjects is a world without "the symbols and relationships that have meaning in human lives," which takes us back to those two major social risks that Jürgen Habermas identified in the writings of Max Weber: the risks of loss of meaning and loss of freedom. Unfortunately, things do not look any better today than they did when Habermas wrote about Weber in his Theory of Communicative Action. Indeed, if all those thinkers from the Fifties could not dig us out of the dark pit of mass irrationality, is there any reason to believe that current thinkers can do a better job?