The Rediscovery of Civil Society - Conservative Persuasions

The Rediscovery of Civil Society

There must be in any stable culture, in any civilization that prizes its integrity, functionally significant and psychologically meaningful groups and associations lying intermediate to the individual and the larger values and purposes of his society. For these are the small areas of association within which alone such values and purposes can take on clear […]

Matthew Continetti

There must be in any stable culture, in any civilization that prizes its integrity, functionally significant and psychologically meaningful groups and associations lying intermediate to the individual and the larger values and purposes of his society. For these are the small areas of association within which alone such values and purposes can take on clear meaning in personal life and become the vital roots of the large culture.

—Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community1

Sometimes it takes a young person to unearth an old idea. Robert Nisbet was a student at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, in 1935 when he enrolled in a course called “Progress and Civilization” taught by the historian Frederick J. Teggart. Nisbet was captivated. He found his intellectual role model. “I heard, for the first time in my life, the names of Ibn Khaldun, Vico, Turgot, Comte, Bagehot, Flinders Petrie,” he wrote in his 1986 book The Making of Modern Society, “and also, in fresh contexts, names of those students of history, from Herodotus to Spengler, I was familiar with in some degree at least.”2 Teggart inspired Nisbet to pursue a life of teaching and scholarship in sociology. Nisbet earned his doctorate in three years. Two classes shaped his thinking. One dealt with the relationship between family and state in ancient Rome. The other was on Roman law. Nisbet became interested in the

whole panoply of conflicts between the political state, on the one hand, insisting upon its absolute sovereignty over all who live within its borders, and on the other, all the associations and groups which lie intermediate to the individual—subject or citizen—and the state.3

Then Nisbet stumbled upon earlier thinkers who had covered similar ground. “By sheer accident in my regular combings of the stacks,” he wrote, “I had come across a body of thought virtually unknown in American scholarly writing: the European conservative school of the nineteenth century constituted by such minds as Haller, Bonald, de Maistre, and others.”4

The European conservatives took direction from Edmund Burke. Nisbet followed their lead. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke wrote that

to be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.5

Burke’s subdivisions insulated the individual from state power. They created overlapping spheres of authority. The result was political freedom. Another of Nisbet’s favorite authors, Alexis de Tocqueville, made a similar argument. The French aristocrat noticed that the American talent for voluntary association accompanied limited and decentralized government. The more Americans did for themselves, the less they relied on the state. And where the state was absent, associations were strong.

Burke and Tocqueville were not fashionable during the 1930s. That was the time of the New Deal, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to combat unemployment and low economic growth through expanding the federal government. At first, Nisbet supported Roosevelt. But his enthusiasm dimmed over time. “It seemed to me then, as it still does today, that the New Deal had immersed itself in an impossible combination of political centralization and administrative bureaucracy,”6 he wrote. Nisbet continued his research into the institutions that lie in between the individual and the state—what is otherwise known as “civil society”—when he joined the UC Berkeley faculty as a professor. World War II had just started. Nisbet opposed American intervention. He wrote,

I had read most of the revisionist historical volumes about the secret treaties, the broken promises and the profiteering—diplomatic and political as well as economic—that had been the real story, or so we thought, of the First World War.7

The attack on Pearl Harbor did not change his mind. By late 1942, however, he was convinced that the war was just and that he should play a part in it. He enlisted in the Army in 1943. Before he left for duty, Nisbet asked several book publishers if they wanted to put out a new edition of Tocqueville, but there was little interest.

It might come as a shock to 21st-century readers that not much attention was paid to Burke and Tocqueville during the first half of the 20th century. But texts and ideas can remain dormant for years until someone picks them up and begins to spread them. It was through the work of figures such as Nisbet that the insights of Burke and Tocqueville became crucial to theoretical and practical discussions of political philosophy and public policy. The notion of civil society as an alternative to expressive individualism and government paternalism did not appear out of nowhere. It had to be rediscovered.

That work began in earnest with the publication of Nisbet’s The Quest for Community in 1953. Like Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and Richard Weaver, Nisbet wanted to understand why individuals came to believe in the political religions of Nazism and Marxism-Leninism. Nisbet’s method was synthetic. He brought works of social science, literature, history, philosophy, and theology under the same roof. He concluded that political and economic emancipation unintentionally weakened the institutions of civil society—such as family, church, neighborhood, or club—that provide direction and meaning to people’s lives.

“The modern release of the individual from traditional ties of class, religion, and kinship has made him free,” he wrote, “but, on the testimony of innumerable works in our age, this freedom is accompanied not by the sense of creative release but by the sense of disenchantment and alienation.”8 Without the social bond, the human quest for community leads to the embrace of totalitarian ideologies and dangerous cults.

Nisbet defined institutions as “structures of function, authority, and allegiance.”9 Family and faith are the backstop to the creeping encroachment of centralized power. “The real conflict in modern political history has not been, as is so often stated, between State and individual,” he wrote, “but between State and social group.”10

Nisbet argued that the strength of a social institution is related to its functional capacity:

Family, church, local community drew and held the allegiances of individuals in earlier times not because of any superior impulses to love and protect, or because of any greater natural harmony of intellectual and spiritual values, or even because of any superior internal organization, but because these groups possessed a virtually indispensable relation to the economic and political order.

The social problems of birth and death, courtship and marriage, employment and unemployment, infirmity and old age were met, however inadequately at times, through the associative means of these social groups.11

When a social institution cannot function, it loses its legitimacy and authority. It invites transgression and rebellion. Since the early modern era, Nisbet wrote, the centralized and bureaucratic state has assumed or annexed the function of one social institution after another. Its social transfer programs are substitutes for employment. Its safety net disincentivizes large, extended, and intact families. The pageantry and propaganda of socialist and nationalist authoritarianism replace the ritual and ceremony of the church.

Nisbet witnessed the process himself. The role of a university like UC Berkeley was once the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Then the state moved in. “It was the war, total war as it quickly became, that lifted research to a level of prestige it had never known before in its history, not even in the bitterly fought First World War,” he wrote in Teachers and Scholars: A Memoir of Berkeley in Depression and War. “In the interests of quick and total destruction of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, we made research—only for duration, it was thought—the arch function of academe.”12

The university earned its authority through its reputation as a home for disinterested study and debate. Such respect vanished when the academy became entangled with government-sponsored research into economics, social planning, and war. The upheavals on campus during the 1960s, in Nisbet’s opinion, were thus inevitable. “It was not the student revolution that brought down the university’s system of authority,” he wrote many years later. “It was the prior collapse, or grave weakening, of that authority that brought on the student revolution.”13

The Quest for Community provided a vocabulary for analysis that was institutional rather than economic. It clarified the differences separating conservatives, liberals, and radicals. It inaugurated the strand of modern conservatism that thought socially. It focused on intermediary institutions rather than on a priori philosophy or budgetary projections. The book found a receptive audience. “There was a splendid review by Russell Kirk whom I had not yet met, some excellent newspaper reviews, chiefly in the West and Midwest, and congratulatory letters from, among other notables, T. S. Eliot and Reinhold Niebuhr,” Nisbet wrote.14

In the 1960s, when New Left activists confronted liberal professors disruptively and sometimes violently, they tended to leave Nisbet alone. They had read The Quest for Community and agreed with many of its arguments. They too preferred small, face-to-face interactions rather than the large, impersonal, and manipulative instruments of government and big business. They too loathed war—if not always for the same reasons as Nisbet. Their response demonstrated that the idea of civil society appealed to both right and left. Support for nongovernmental institutions could unite all parties in a fractured America. Or so it seemed.

Nisbet was given to pessimism. He saw the advance of the state and its preferred method of growth—war—as close to unstoppable. “During the past two centuries mankind has undergone the most traumatic social change it has experienced since the beginnings of settled culture in the Neolithic Age,” he wrote in The Twilight of Authority. “I refer to the decline—even disappearance in spreading sections—of the local community, the dislocation of kinship, and the erosion of the sacred in human affairs.”15

The great thinkers have understood that human beings derive their deepest satisfactions and joys from the commitments and responsibilities of membership in intermediary institutions.

American involvement in Vietnam and Richard Nixon’s attempted cover-up of the Watergate break-in deepened Nisbet’s tragic sense of life. Crime, divorce, welfare rolls, and illegitimacy were rising. “I know of no principle in history more often validated than that which tells us that social health and political power are inversely related,” he wrote. “If, as this book suggests, social anemia is the necessary consequence of political hypertrophy, it is evident that renewal of strength in the social order demands a fundamental change in present uses of power.”16

Nisbet’s aim was to preserve “the autonomies and immunities which are the true hallmarks of liberty.”17 He contrasted social pluralism with political uniformity and state coercion:

Pluralist society is free society exactly in proportion to its ability to protect as large a domain as possible that is governed by the informal, spontaneous, custom-derived, and tradition-sanctioned habits of the mind rather than by the dictates, however rationalized, of government and judiciary.18

Institutional autonomy, decentralization, a diversity of social roles, and traditional authority limited the state’s reach and promoted order, justice, and peace. Nisbet hoped for the creation of “social inventions” that would provide human beings with security and connection without the ministrations of government.

Labor unions, ethnicity, and even professional and amateur sports were where, as he put it elsewhere, “the individual can find a sense of relatedness to the entire culture and thus become its eager partisan.” The institutions of civil society do not just grant persons autonomy from the state. They are the ligatures of community.

And maybe they could be more. Near the end of The Twilight of Authority, Nisbet proposed that intermediary institutions might also serve as “an indirect means of administration” for social programs.19 This idea caught on. In a 1977 book, Peter L. Berger and Richard John Neuhaus coined the phrase “mediating structures” to describe “those institutions standing between the individual in his private life and the large institutions of public life.”20

Berger and Neuhaus built on Nisbet’s findings. Such institutions, they continued, were “alternative structures” to government. They also could “provide welfare-state services.” Neighborhood, voluntary association, church, and the family “are essential for a vital democratic society,” they wrote. And “wherever possible, public policy should utilize mediating structures for the realization of social purposes.”21

Hopeful that the personalized aid of mediating structures might achieve better outcomes than bureaucratic administration, Berger and Neuhaus also recognized that government interference in civil society carried risks. “The goal in utilizing mediating structures is to expand government services without producing government oppressiveness,” they wrote.22 What Berger and Neuhaus wanted above all was, as they said in their title, To Empower People.

The semantic distinction between “intermediate institutions” and “mediating structures” is subtle but important. In the former term, the adjective modifying “institutions” is merely descriptive. In the latter, the adjective is active. The institutions are not just in-between. They are in the process of doing something—of acting upon an object.

When Nisbet began his study of civil society, he thought of it as independent from government. It performed separate functions. It was an island unto itself. Now scholars were beginning to conceive of civil society as a means to government’s ends. Civil society became more than a unique and valuable sphere of life that deserves preservation. It turned into a potential cure for a variety of social pathologies.

Nisbet himself was skeptical of efforts to use civil society in this way. He did not anticipate the revival of intermediary institutions. His pessimism bordered on despair. “Framers of the Constitution who may steal back to look at the bicentennial of their labors in Philadelphia, will find a colossus, a giant,” he wrote in The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America. “But it is a deeply flawed giant; not yet moribund but ill-gaited, shambling, and spastic of limb, often aberrant of mind.”23

War, commercialism, and the withering of the social bond heralded national decline:

In structure, our giant is a horde of loose individuals, of homunculi serving as atoms of the giant’s body, as in the famous illustration of Leviathan in Hobbes’s classic. There is little sign of organic connection among the tissues and organs.24

At best, America was in a transitory period. Perhaps it was on the cusp of a revolution in ideas that would revitalize associational life. Or perhaps the twilight would continue to linger.

Nisbet died in 1996. By then, it was clear that civil society was a far more complicated and vexing concept than many of its champions assumed. No one was closer to figuring out how to protect mediating structures “from the fatal embrace of government regulation,” Berger and Neuhaus wrote. “Unless that problem is solved, when such institutions are first ‘discovered’ and then funded by government, the very vitality that originally distinguished the institutions from government agencies is destroyed. Indeed they become government agencies under another name.”25 (Emphasis in original.)

The popularity of civil society among politicians and intellectuals threatened to rob the idea of its very substance. “If some of the proponents of civil society find it difficult to make the hard choices that limit liberty and individuality, others find it equally difficult to make choices that limit the power of the state,” observed historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. “For them—and this is true of a large number of those who profess to adhere to the idea of civil society—civil society has become virtually a euphemism for the welfare state.”26

So many people understood the concept in so many ways that it may have outlived its usefulness. “Maybe we should approach our problems in a much more pragmatic way, piecemeal, on a case-by-case basis, without the overarching principle of society,” Himmelfarb thought.27

If we did so, however, we would deny ourselves a compelling explanatory framework for understanding human flourishing. From Burke to Tocqueville to the Catholic theorists of subsidiarity, the great thinkers have understood that human beings derive their deepest satisfactions and joys from the commitments and responsibilities of membership in intermediary institutions. Social patterns are warped, and individual happiness is diminished, when the state intrudes on these institutions’ operations. Conservatives appreciate this insight. “If there is one identifying element of the conservatism that began with Burke in the late eighteenth century,” Nisbet wrote, “it is opposition to the extension of political power into the social order.”28

The advocate of civil society must balance an appreciation for intermediary institutions with an understanding that not all these institutions are voluntary or liberal. The advocate of civil society must recognize the separate functions of government and mediating structures, the value to be drawn from government and society, and how one can influence the other for better or worse. The advocate of civil society must prioritize family, religion, and neighborhood and shelter these institutions not just from their opponents but also, on occasion, their friends. And the advocate of civil society must figure out how to disentangle mediating structures from the vast and complex apparatus of the federal government.

The questions facing America and the world could not be more complicated. The need for answers could not be more pressing. It is time for another young scholar, working alone in the stacks of a library, to rediscover these old ideas.


  1. Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953).
  2. Robert Nisbet, The Making of Modern Society (New York: New York University Press, 1986), 6.
  3. Nisbet, The Making of Modern Society, 24.
  4. Nisbet, The Making of Modern Society, 8.
  5. Edmund Burke et al., Reflections on the Revolution in France (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, December 2003).
  6. Robert Nisbet, “Still Questing,” Intercollegiate Review 29, no. 1 (Fall 1993): 44.
  7. Nisbet, The Making of Modern Society, 9.
  8. Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 10.
  9. Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 106.
  10. Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 127.
  11. Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 71–72.
  12. Robert Nisbet, Teachers and Scholars: A Memoir of Berkeley in Depression and War (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1992).
  13. Robert Nisbet, The Twilight of Authority (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 155.
  14. Nisbet, “Still Questing,” 42.
  15. Nisbet, The Twilight of Authority, 94.
  16. Nisbet, The Twilight of Authority, 11.
  17. Nisbet, The Twilight of Authority, 216.
  18. Nisbet, The Twilight of Authority, 256.
  19. Nisbet, The Twilight of Authority, 294.
  20. Peter L. Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, To Empower People: The Role of Mediating Structures in Public Policy (Washington, DC: AEI Press, 1977).
  21. Berger and Neuhaus, To Empower People.
  22. Berger and Neuhaus, To Empower People.
  23. Robert Nisbet, The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).
  24. Nisbet, The Present Age, 137.
  25. Peter L. Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, To Empower People: From State to Civil Society (Washington, DC: AEI Press, June 19, 1996), 150.
  26. Gertrude Himmelfarb, “The Demoralization of Society: What’s Wrong with the Civil Society,” in The Essential Civil Society Reader: The Classic Essays, ed. Don E. Eberly (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 97.
  27. Himmelfarb, “The Demoralization of Society,” 99.
  28. Nisbet, The Twilight of Authority, 66.
Show More