Robert Nisbet’s ideas, as put forth in his 1953 book The Quest for Community, are still relevant today, writes Peter Waterman
I shall not be taking the advice of Jill Lepore and returning my copy of Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community to the public library, though they should all have a copy, as it contains views that she did not emphasise in her important article (Is society coming apart?, 25 November).
Lepore uses the word “voluntary” only once, and there is no reference to the voluntary sector at all. Nor is Nisbet’s emphasis on “association” mentioned – he wrote that “spontaneous associations of men [and women] are the primary sources of freedom and order”. Nisbet ends, in my copy of his book, with the three conditions in which liberal democracy will thrive: “diversity of culture, plurality of association and division of authority”.
Nisbet also believed the example of the Tennessee Valley Authority demonstrated that “central planning is not inconsistent with local and associative autonomies”. That is also our experience in Milton Keynes, where after only a decade of development, a paper to the government-appointed board stated that “the voluntary sector is an integral element in the creation of a varied and strong social fabric”.
The Milton Keynes master plan included a section on social development which stated that support, buildings, grants and advice were vital to encourage people to meet not only each other but also their own personal, social and recreational needs and ideals. The danger of the state using the voluntary sector only for its own objectives should be recognised. It must also be listened to and its independence guaranteed, as it has been in Milton Keynes by the creation of a community foundation.
Since Nisbet we have the benefit of the “social choice theory” – as expounded by Amartya Sen and others – that decisions should always take account of their effect on people and society as a whole. Sen also believes that in every place and time we have to continue to work to oppose the individualism in rampant capitalism and collectivism in political, ethnic, cultural and religious dogmas.
Lepore is right to warn of the dangers we face and to list in her final paragraph those amenities for social life that we must support. I would add our “associations”.
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