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Where Left- and Right-Wing Political Theories Meet
If philosophy is a reflection of its time—an ongoing and ever-shifting attempt to make sense of our world—it is no surprise that its current preoccupation is the crisis of contemporary man’s isolated condition.
Individuals have been left unmoored from the traditional communities that bound them to one another in a web of reciprocal obligation and mutual commitment. The possibility of transcendent meaning is regarded as little more than an antiquated parochialism—a childish dream from a more naive era. Gott ist tot. And even as we inhabit a world of ever-increasing material prosperity and political freedom, we cannot help but feel a profound sense of loss in His absence.
Leading theorists from across the political spectrum share a recognition of this distinctly modern problem. Even as they often diverge in their views of its root causes, modern philosophers on both the left and the right are united in their profound concern for the empty promises of late modernity.
On one level, this is a surprising commonality: political conservatives and religious traditionalists regularly deride “cultural Marxism” for its ideological bankruptcy and deleterious social effects, while leftists have recently been known to reject their conservative counterparts as dangerous reactionaries.
But there are parallels between contemporary left- and right-wing political philosophy. Even as the two schools of thought maintain profound disagreements regarding foundational questions of human nature and the limits of political possibility, both structure their politics upon a shared anxiety regarding the individuated alienation and dissolution of community in large portions of the developed world.
Nowhere is the right-wing iteration of this anxiety more perfectly articulated than in the sociologist Robert Nisbet’s seminal 1953 work The Quest for Community.
Nisbet’s influence on postwar American conservative thought can hardly be overstated, but his concern regarding the pervasive atomization of the Western individual is not dissimilar to that of many of the radical thinkers who were writing during the same period. Both Nisbet and his left-wing contemporaries were retroactively critical of the promise of Enlightenment rationalism, seeing the utopian ambition to remake society in accordance with pure human reason as bearing significant responsibility for the disenchantment of the twentieth century.
In the opening pages of The Quest for Community Nisbet writes:
How extraordinary, when compared with the optimism of half a century ago, is the present ideology of lament . . . Premonitions of disaster have been present in all ages, along with millennial hopes for the termination of the mundane world. But the present sense of dissolution is of a radically different sort. It looks to no clear salvation and it is held to be the consequence neither of Divine decree nor of fortuitous catastrophe. It is a sense of disorganization that takes root in the very conditions which to earlier generations of rationalists appeared as the necessary circumstances of progress. Where the nineteenth-century rationalist saw progressively higher forms of order and freedom emerging from the destruction of the old, the contemporary sociologist is not so sanguine. He is likely to see not creative emancipation but sterile insecurity, not the framework of the new but the shell of the old.
Nisbet saw the rise of “mass man” in postindustrial society—paired with, paradoxically, the growing political and cultural emphasis on the individual in post-Enlightenment social organization—as characterized by pervasive anxiety, insecurity, and frustration. These maladies, he argued, were recognizable in every realm of life. In religion, for example, Protestantism’s emphasis on an “individual relationship” with God has been to the detriment of spiritual community—which has in turn led to a decline in religiosity itself:
For more and more theologians of today the solitary individual before God has his inevitable future in Jung’s “modern man in search of a soul.” Man’s alienation from man must lead in time to man’s alienation from God. The loss of the sense of visible community in Christ will be followed by the loss of the sense of the invisible.
Nisbet saw this philosophical shift toward the individual manifesting itself in economics, too. Although he maintained that “the influence of capitalism” was not “the primary agent in the transmutation of social groups and communities,” he nonetheless included the rise of large-scale free market economies as one of the factors in the loss of community:
In the history of modern capitalism we can see essentially the same diminution of communal conceptions of effort and the same tendency toward the release of increasing numbers of individuals from the confinements of guild and village community. As Protestantism sought to reassimilate men in the invisible community of God, capitalism sought to reassimilate them in the impersonal and rational framework of the free market. As in Protestantism, the individual, rather than the group, becomes the central unit. . . . Philosophically, what is new in capitalism is not the pursuit of gain. This is a timeless pursuit. Rather it is the supposition that society’s well-being is best served by allowing the individual the largest possible area of moral and social autonomy.
Many of Nisbet’s insights were shared by leftists in the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School, whose philosophical innovations—generally referred to as “critical theory”—served as a primary inspiration for New Left student radicals in the 1960s and continue to exercise considerable influence in the university today.
The question of why the modern predicament has occurred is complex—in many ways, it is the central focus of both Nisbet’s and the Frankfurt School’s body of work—but both the conservative sociologist and his leftist counterparts saw the growth of rationalist ideology, propagated by the state and a variety of cultural institutions, as having invaded the fragile ecosystem of associations and civic community ties that had previously ordered and mediated the individual’s relationship to his world.
Same Emotions, Different Languages
Nisbet saw the growth of the modern state, in particular, as having subsumed much of traditional civil society under a uniform rationalist plan, which had the effect of radically “increasing [the] functional importance of political relationship[s] in the lives of many human beings,” causing a host of previously private affairs to become matters of public concern and displacing traditionally autonomous institutions’ roles as a locus of meaning rooted in the lives of a citizenry.
In this regard, he was aligned with Jürgen Habermas, a German critical theorist whose widespread influence undoubtedly makes him one of the most important thinkers from the Frankfurt School—and who decisively shared Nisbet’s alarm regarding this intrusion of the public into the private.
In much of his work, Habermas describes a remarkably similar process to the one outlined by Nisbet, albeit in altogether different language: whereas Nisbet described a rationalist modern state’s “accumulation of effective functions” as diverting “allegiance” and “authority” from “other spheres of life,” Habermas describes the “instrumental reason” of public “systems” that are engaged in “colonizing” the modern individual’s “lifeworld.”
In essence, the two are describing the same phenomenon. The “lifeworld,” for Habermas, is a horizon of sociocultural understanding, transmitted and reproduced through “communicative action”—or conversation—and imbuing individuals with a sense of rootedness, familiarity, and a mutual understanding toward and between one another. The maintenance and reproduction of these lifeworlds play a crucial social purpose:
The cultural reproduction of the lifeworld ensures that newly arising situations are connected up with existing conditions in the world in the semantic dimension: It secures a continuity of tradition and coherence of knowledge sufficient for daily practice.
And it is through the lifeworld that individuals are acculturated into being capable of living with together:
What binds sociated individuals to one another and secures the integration of society is a web of communicative actions that thrives only in the light of cultural traditions, and not systemic mechanisms that are out of the reach of a member’s intuitive knowledge. The lifeworld that members construct from common cultural traditions is coextensive with society.
It is for these reasons that Habermas was concerned with what he described as the “colonization of the lifeworld” by the public instrumental-rational “systems” of corporate market capitalism and administrative welfare-state bureaucracies alike. This “colonization” is described as “the attempt by the system, with its instrumental logic, to replace communicative action as the coordinating agency of the lifeworld. . . . System penetration into the lifeworld destroys traditional forms of life and contributes to the appearance of unique problems associated with identity formation, anomie, psychopathologies, and the loss of meaning.”
In so many words, Habermas was arguing that the rationalism of modernized systems—which reduce everything to terms of scientific quantification and “instrumental” means and ends—had cleared away the traditional institutional structures that previously occupied a prominent role in the psychological formation of the acculturated individual.
Understanding the effect of this development, he writes, is at the very heart of the task of critical theory: “The basic concepts of critical theory placed the consciousness of individuals directly vis-à-vis economic and administrative mechanisms of integration, which were . . . extended inward, intrapsychically.”
Thus, according to one of its foremost progenitors, the foundational observations of critical theory are largely the same as that of Nisbet’s traditionalist conservatism.
Where the Sidewalk Ends
The two schools of thought begin to diverge, however, on fundamental questions of human nature and its relationship to political and social organization.
Conservatives like Nisbet tend to see human nature as largely static and irreparably flawed, and therefore see the order provided by traditional institutions as a crucial prerequisite to human flourishing, particularly in dynamic modern liberal societies.
Critical theorists, while not always explicitly utopian, take a more open-ended view of human malleability, viewing society’s defects as resulting from power relationships and structures of domination—and subsequently seeking to “liberate” the individual from the oppressive nature of these conditions.
This difference is most clearly visible in the two traditions’ contrasting conceptions of culture. Whereas conservatives seek to preserve long-standing civic institutions and traditional cultural norms and mores (even as many on the contemporary right celebrate the various political achievements of modernity), critical theorists view many cultural constraints with a distinct suspicion, seeing them as part of a larger system of domination that has arisen in the process of modernization. In this way, paradoxically, contemporary conservatives are actually more reconciled to modernity than many of their leftist compatriots.
Michel Foucault’s writing on sexuality and the family—which argued that oppressive power was deployed through the very cultural norms and traditions that conservatives seek to defend—is perhaps the most obvious iteration of this divergence. In stark contrast to Nisbet’s view of the family as an important institutionalized mode of social organization, Foucault saw it as a structure of domination designed to regulate and constrain sexual expression:
The family [is] an agency of control and a point of sexual saturation: it was in the “bourgeois” or “aristocratic” family that the sexuality of children and adolescents was first problematized, and feminine sexuality medicalized; it was the first to be alerted to the potential pathology of sex, the urgent need to keep it under close watch and to devise a rational technology of correction.
The organization of the “conventional” family came to be regarded, sometime around the eighteen-thirties, as an indispensable instrument of political control and economic regulation for the subjugation of the urban proletariat: there was a great campaign for the “moralization of the poorer classes.”
Nisbet would likely agree with Foucault that one of the family’s core purposes is, in fact, to constrain and direct our sexual passions toward productive ends. But Nisbetian conservatives see this constraint as a positive social good, providing the background of ordered virtue that serves as a cornerstone to the functional exercise of human freedom; Foucauldian critical theorists, alternatively, see it as a threat to true freedom, which is suppressed by power structures that control and regulate human bodies to sustain capitalist modes of production.
“This power over life,” Foucault writes in the first volume of his The History of Sexuality, “centered on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls, all this was ensured by the procedures of power that characterized the disciplines: an anatomo-politics of the human body.”
Both traditional conservatives and critical theorists are united in their opposition to the ever-increasing regulation of human association at the hands of instrumentalized reason. This opposition is rooted in the same basic observation—the role of Enlightenment rationalism in the alienation of the contemporary individual—but the two schools of thought arrive at entirely different ends.
Conservatives see the intrusion of a rationalist state—and, to a lesser but not insignificant degree, an instrumentalized market economy—as diminishing the role of crucially important formative institutions in the modern West. Critical theorists make similar critiques of overpowerful bureaucratic structures but extend those critiques to the various cultural traditions and institutions that conservatives value most, seeing them as collectively part of the larger “system” of modernity that must be rejected outright.
Finally, conservatives are primarily distinguished from critical theorists in their subscription to what has been described as the “constrained” vision of human society, which does not offer—implicitly or explicitly—a dream of utopia in response to the recognition of the profound challenges within a present order.
This is not to say that all critical theory is necessarily utopian; but it remains distinct from the conservative account of things in that, even as it avoids openly advocating for a utopian program, its prescriptive solutions remain vague, and its critiques of the liberal democratic capitalist order are therefore made without offering any material alternative. Critical theorists thus smuggle implicitly utopian assumptions into their political philosophy, as the late British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton wrote in his book Thinkers of the New Left:
[The critical theorist] does not explicitly say that the “alternative” to the capitalist system and the commodity culture is Utopia. But that is what he implies. And Utopia is not a real alternative. Hence his alternative to the unreal freedom of the consumer society is itself unreal—a mere noumenon whose only function is to provide a measure of our defects.
Conservatives, alternatively, are more humble in their aims; they seek order and equilibrium over perfection or the total eradication of injustice, and do not take the presence of human suffering in a society as proof of revolution’s necessity.
“Conservatism starts,” Scruton famously wrote, “from the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.”
In contrast, critical theory sees a horizon of endless possibility in the promise of a postmodern world; its problem, as its adherents often readily acknowledge, is that it has not yet quite figured out how to get there.
About the Author
Nate Hochman (@njhochman) is a rising senior at Colorado College and an associate contributor for Young Voices. His work has appeared in National Review, City Journal, Spectator USA, Quillette, the American Conservative, and many other outlets.
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