On Fraternity, Social Capital and the American Community

By Scott London

A quarter century has passed since the publication of The Idea of Fraternity in America, Wilson Carey McWilliams's sweeping study of community in American political and intellectual history. Though it was enthusiastically received by both the mainstream press and the academic world when it appeared in 1973 (the New York Times described it as an "eloquent, insistent, probing ... lament for the lost idea of fraternity," full of "luminous passages" and "hauntingly suggestive apercus"), it nevertheless faded into relative obscurity by the end of the 1970s.

Any attempt to build and strengthen our communities — which must surely be one of the defining challenges of our time — has to begin with a reassessment of the idea of fraternity.

It's a sad thing, for what McWilliams succeeded in doing was not only to provide a history of the idea of fraternity in America, but to trace the roots of our eroding civic culture. It makes for especially interesting reading today in light of Robert Putnam's recent work on America's declining social capital, the groundswell of interest in communitarian ideas, and even the fledgling "neo-Luddite" movement which is taking a new look at the hidden social and psychological costs of technology. The fact that McWilliams's analysis anticipated these contemporary concerns to the extent it did suggests the book was ahead of its time.

Fraternity, as McWilliams defined it, is "a bond based on intense interpersonal affection." Like all such bonds, he said, "fraternity is limited in the number of persons and in the social space to which it can be extended." It is based on shared goals and values and "implies a necessary tension with loyalty to society at large." Traditional societies had a more expansive understanding of fraternity than we do today, he observed. They saw it as a means to the ends of freedom and equality. The ancient Greeks, too, regarded fraternity as a vital component of political life. They conceived of the human condition as one suspended between two laws, the law of custom and the law of nature. The challenge, as they saw it, was to reconcile these laws in the "good life" — that is, "to translate that abstract, partly understood vision of goodness into the language of a world resistant to it," McWilliams wrote. "Bound to respect the lesser law on which life depends, men owed a new duty to another." The Greek philosophers quarrelled with democracy because they understood that liberty, when it becomes a first principle, subverts fraternity.

McWilliams insisted that the idea of fraternity, as the Greeks understood it, did not survive the Enlightenment intact. The liberal tradition rejected the premise that man is a political animal who required a civic identity for his perfection. Liberty and equality were now seen as means to fraternity, rather than the other way about. In their call for "liberty, equality, and fraternity," the Enlightenment thinkers inverted the older tradition, conceiving of fraternity as the distant goal of political action rather than the starting point. As a result, McWilliams argued, they succeeded in destroying many proximate and imperfect fraternities in the hopes of creating a more perfect society.

McWilliams went on to trace the idea of fraternity from the New England Puritans to the current day. He identified two currents running through the American past: the liberal-Enlightened and the Judeo- Christian. While the latter had not always proved uniformly beneficial, he said, it had done more to preserve the idea of fraternity than the Enlightenment view. But as the liberal, secular ideal gained ascendancy in America, the older idea of fraternity gave way to a mechanistic and impersonal counterpart.

The advent of industrialization and urbanization further hastened the decline of fraternity. This was exemplified by the breakdown of the old town democracy in New England (Boston abolished its town meeting in 1822) and the failure of the western towns and cities to replicate the New England institutions, so that the "the individual was left to his own devices." By the end of World War I, McWilliams noted, the only institution left in the United States capable of conferring a sense of fraternity was the conjugal family, though by this time "it was radically destabilized."

The loss of a sense of community is virtually inevitable in a society committed to individual freedom and rights above all, McWilliams concluded. While liberalism still holds out the promise of the "brotherhood of man," he said, it is by its very nature hostile to closed groups and coherent loyalties. Political fraternity "is impossible in the great industrial states, and even more limited brotherhood is difficult." All the same, if we acknowledge the need for political fraternity and the fact that modern society makes it impossible, we can "attempt to provide the greatest approximations possible; [we] can make communities and fraternities more possible, more likely rather than less. And there may for some be the possibility of political fraternity in a different sense and a different polity."

McWilliams's was certainly not the first to chart the decline of community in American public life. His argument follows a familiar pattern in American political theory. The value of his analysis lies in his keen understanding of the role played by kinship — the bonds of interpersonal affection and responsibility — in social systems. As Robert Putnam has showed in his recent work on "social capital," networks, norms of reciprocity, trust, high levels of cooperation, and a sense of mutuality are the lifeblood of civil society.

Like McWilliams, Putnam's concern is with America's declining social capital. In "Bowling Alone," his much-discussed 1995 article, Putnam observed that membership in associations — from labor unions and women's groups to sports leagues and parent-teacher associations — has been on a steady decline over the last decade or two. This trend, he said, is especially troublesome in the light of Tocqueville's observations in the 19th century about Americans' great affinity for associations. The trend is also disquieting on economic and political grounds: not only do networks of relationships of trust promote the growth and development of the economy in a given region, they also allow issues to be discussed more rationally than is possible when politics is conducted primarily though large, impersonal intermediaries such as national membership organizations and the mass media.

One of the most pressing questions for the future, in Putnam's view, is how to reverse America's declining social capital and restore civic engagement and trust. It's a pressing question, he says, because stocks of social capital tend to be self-reinforcing and cumulative. As he wrote in Making Democracy Work, "virtuous circles result in social equilibria with high levels of cooperation, trust, reciprocity, civic engagement, and collective well-being." But the reverse is also true: "the absence of these traits in uncivic community is also self-reinforcing. Defection, distrust, shirking, exploitation, isolation, disorder, and stagnation intensify one another in a suffocating miasma of vicious circles."

While Putnam and McWilliams are both concerned with the element of trust and mutuality in public life, they come at it from different angles. Putnam sees the loss of social capital as a threat to civil society and, by extension, to democratic life. McWilliams is more concerned about what the loss of a sense of fraternity means for the individual in society. Without the bonds of affiliation and trust, he finds, the individual is incapable of participating meaningfully in public life. McWilliams is concerned with normative questions of identity and citizenship, whereas Putnam's takes a more pragmatic approach by looking at what makes communities work.

This difference becomes apparent on the issue of scale and the problem of place. McWilliams finds that fraternity is limited in the number of persons and in the social space to which it can be extended. While he acknowledges the potential dangers of insulated communities, he finds that a sense of mutuality is best fostered in small, close-knit communities. Putnam agrees but finds that social capital can also be developed across the boundaries of time and space by means of networks. (Francis Fukuyama, who has also written extensively about social capital, goes even farther: he maintains that social capital is not dependent on place at all but can be fostered among and between multinational institutions and in the realm of cyberspace.)

This debate has taken center stage among communitarian thinkers in recent years. Some feel that as communities have disappeared, so too has the true meaning of the word. "Community" now commonly describes any rootless collection of interests: the "business community," the "arts community," and even the "virtual community." But for all the discussion about the global village, electronic "communities" can never replace what real communities provide: a home where people of disparate views can speak face to face, reconcile their differences, and reach agreements on action to be taken up by all. "Self-governing communities, not individuals, are the basic units of democratic society," as Christopher Lasch pointed out in The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. "It is the decline of those communities, more than anything else, that calls the future of democracy into question."

Today, as we know, most Americans believe that important aspects of our society have taken a turn for the worse. As William Galston, the well-known communitarian thinker, wrote in a recent article, "we've spent the past 30 years squandering the social capital we inherited from our parents. To do our part to rebuild our society, we must reexamine the ideal of unlimited freedom that for so long has been our polestar."

McWilliams would no doubt agree. Any attempt to revitalize smaller, more stable communities and build civic infrastructure must begin with a reassessment of the idea of fraternity. If we find, as he did, that a sense of neighborliness and mutuality is the starting point for healthy communities — rather than the product of them, as the liberal tradition would have it — then we would do well to build and strengthen those "neighborhood networks" which Jane Jacobs, in coining the phrase, called a community's "irreplaceable social capital."

This essay was featured on IntellectualCapital.com, April 1999.