EDITOR’S NOTE: This review ran in the Nov. 21, 1975, issue of National Review. (You can dig into NR’s archives anytime here).
Twilight of Authority, by Robert Nisbet
Nisbet’s thesis is that the West is in a state of decline, a “twilight age,” characterized by a loss of social authority and hierarchy, and a decline in attachment to political values, coupled, perhaps not paradoxically, with the spread of an oppressive state machinery. As the state, in the name of equality, attempts to ensure not equality of opportunity but equality of result, and is supported in this effort by a “clerisy of power” (including “the greater part of the intellectual, especially academic, class”), it necessarily becomes an engine of leveling. Private power centers and institutions that mediate between the individual and the state are weakened so that ultimately the state will face only a mass of individuals. In that lies the prospect of tyranny.
Indeed, Nisbet predicts that the future lies with military socialisms presiding over masses of persons unsupported by intermediate institutions, barbaric regimes ruling in the name of equality.
If our problem were only a world scene increasingly dominated by the military socialisms or only a domestic setting of combined political centralization and social erosion, there would be reason for doubting that America will, like other Western nations, turn increasingly to a variant of the war state. But the fact is, both of those conditions are present, and in mounting intensity, and against them any thought of arresting or reversing the processes of militarization of society seems rather absurd.
This is an impressive book, an erudite book, a necessary book, and none of that is intended to be diluted by the observations that in a few places the chain of logic seems fragile and that one wishes it had been a heavier book. As Nisbet acknowledges, parts of his book have appeared in very different form in magazines and newspapers and, while there is no doubt that this is a book rather than a collection of articles, there remains something of the quickness of style and ellipsis of argument characteristic of the shorter forms. This would not be worth mentioning were it not also true that Nisbet’s style is trenchant, his message important, and his insights often brilliant.
Nisbet can be taken at two levels. The first, which is perhaps a dispensable overlay, consists of the concept of a “twilight age,” which parallels previous periods of decline, and the prediction of the militarization of society and the rise of a line of Caesars. I do not say this may not be accurate, only that it is not necessary to the argument, that it may be overly dramatic, and that the demonstration of coming militarization seems rather weak.
But all that may be laid aside and the remaining argument is still compelling and disturbing. Despotism is hardly more welcome if the new governors turn out to be not a clutch of colonels but a supposedly benevolent governmental bureaucracy operating in the name of equality of condition and imposing uniformity because of bureaucracy’s own dynamic and requirements. And it is here that Nisbet is at his best: demonstrating the connection between centralization of power and the ideal of equality of condition as contrasted with equality of opportunity; pointing out the affinity of modern left-liberal intellectuals for both central power and egalitarianism; showing the increasing legalization of our culture and our individual relationships, which is a way of replacing social forces with state coercion; delineating the growth of state power in new, softer, and hence less resistible forms; linking the current wave of subjectivism and irrationality, manifested in occultism and the state of the arts, to the decline of the political community; showing the reciprocal relationship between the degradation of language, which is essential to the social bond, and the spread of state power. In these and a dozen other things, Nisbet is insightful, provocative, and, sad to say, probably quite right.
Though pessimistic that the forces of political centralization and social disintegration can be reversed, Nisbet closes with a plea for pluralism and the rescue of the social order from the political order, and he identifies some faint causes for hope. The reader will not be much heartened.
Early reaction to his book appears to confirm part of Nisbet’s thesis. A lengthy review recites with approval Nisbet’s analysis of the ominous trends in governmental power and abuse but takes offense at his perception that one driving force in these developments is the intellectual’s appetite for an equality of condition that can be implemented only through a pervasive and stifling bureaucracy. So long as Nisbet denounces government deception and intrusion, he is a “social analyst and prophet”; when he identifies the particular source of the evil, he descends at once, in the reviewer’s estimation, to the status of “ideologue.” Yet as long as we do not see the connection, so long academic intellectuals will assist in creating the results they deplore. If they were alone in the boat, it would be first-rate farce.
But there does seem to be an encouraging, though still small, counter-trend against left-liberalism among intellectuals. Nisbet’s book is an example, as is the posthumous book The Morality of Consent, by Alexander Bickel. Other names come to mind. The counter-trend, which one hesitates to call conservative because of the danger of being misunderstood, tends to cite the tradition of Burke and Tocqueville. Its emphasis is social and historical, as in the case of Nisbet, or constitutional, as with Bickel, and appears not terribly at ease with economics. (The few times Nisbet traverses economic terrain are among the book’s weaker passages.) Should this counter-trend incorporate elements of the free-market tradition, an intellectual force of really major proportions would appear to challenge the “clerisy of power” now driving us toward centralization and uniformity. The makings are there.