The cultural contradictions of capitalism

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of Daniel Bell’s challenging book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), which, along with his The End of Ideology (1960), appeared on the 1995 Times Literary Supplement’s list of the 100 most influential books since World War II.

Bell offers the reader a compelling and insightful diagnosis of the present dilemma of American and European society, a market economy and culture largely cut off from its religious roots. He recognises the fundamentally religious character of the current crisis; but, in the end, I feel, he offers only a secular theory of distributive justice grounded in his theory of a “public household.”

The contradictions of capitalism are derived from a disjunction between the organisation and norms demanded in the economic realm and the norms of self-realisation now dominant in the culture. At the root of this disjunction is a paradox: the Protestant bourgeoisie, radical in its economic individualism, became conservative in morals and cultural taste. But over time the cultural sensibility of Europe and the United States “turned into rage against bourgeois values” such as work, sobriety, frugality, and sexual restraint.

Early in the history of capitalism, the unrestrained economic impulse was held in check by Puritan restraint and the Protestant ethic as described by Max Weber. “But the Protestant ethic was undermined not by modernism but by capitalism itself,” claims Bell, citing the invention of instalment buying and instant credit. Moreover, the system was transformed by mass production and mass consumption, “by the creation of new wants and new means of gratifying those wants.”

This transition is nicely illustrated by an anecdote from Steven Watts’s new biography of Henry Ford in which the industrialist changed a proposed advertising slogan from “Buy a Ford and Save the Difference!” to “Buy a Ford and Spend the Difference!” Today American personal savings rates are in negative numbers.

“There is no longer an avant-garde, because no one in our post-modern culture is on the side of order or tradition. There exists only a desire for the new—or boredom with the old and the new,” says Bell. Lionel Trilling’s “adversary culture” has come to dominate the cultural order—the painters, the writers, the film makers—who also dominate the audiences, rather than vice versa.

Daniel Bell’s world

Bell is a hard man to pin down in terms of his philosophic orientation. “…I am a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.” But he stoutly maintains that “socialism is not statism, or the collective ownership of the means of production. It is a judgment on the priorities of economic policy.” And in that realm, he claims, “the community takes precedence over the individual in the values that legitimate economic policy.” 

Bell taught at Harvard and Columbia and was part of a group often referred to as the “New York Intellectuals.” This circle of friends, which included the godfather of neo-conservatism, Irving Kristol, as well as Nathan Glazer and Irving Howe, attended City College of New York during the Depression where they were immersed in the leftist thinking of the day. They all went on to exert tremendous intellectual influence during the latter half of the twentieth century.

Along with Kristol, Bell co-founded The Public Interest in 1965 which, for forty years, was the premier journal of neo-conservative opinion on economic and domestic policy. Bell, who had described himself as “anti-ideological but not conservative,” resigned as co-editor in 1973.  

Besides The End of Ideology and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, he also wrote The Coming Post-Industrial Society (1973) in which he foresaw the information-based, service-oriented economy with all of its social and political ramifications. As to the first of these three books, James Nuechterlein dryly noted “that it was not long after Daniel Bell announced the end of ideology in 1960 that all ideological hell broke loose.” Well, two out of three ain’t bad, is it?

In fact, many of the predictions (Bell would say “forecasts”) in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism were wide of the mark. Richard Perlstein, in his 1996 review of the 20th anniversary edition (Basic Books), with a new Afterword by the author, for the online magazine, Slate, asked: “So how will he address the fact that nearly every one of the predictions ventured in his 1976 classic was wrong?” The free market did not yield to “state-managed societies.” Inflation did not destroy the social fabric. Neither Japan, nor any other country seriously challenged American dominance of the world economy.  

Perlstein, nevertheless, lauded Bell as “one of the most important cultural critics of the postwar era…” He rated Bell’s diagnoses of the anomie of modern society as “brilliant.” And he believed that Bell’s insistence on the “shakiness of the moral foundations of both Communist and capitalist economies” remains relevant.

Bell maintained that Western society lacked both the civitas, “the willingness to make sacrifices for some public good,” and “a political philosophy that justifies the normative rules of priorities and allocations in the society.”  

Organised religion: Bell’s red herring?

On the subject of traditional religion as a means of overcoming the cultural contradictions of a libertine society, Bell is provocative, but ultimately unsatisfying. At the very beginning, he claims that religion is the “fulcrum” of the book. He insists that “Religions grow out of the deepest needs of individuals sharing a common awakening, and are not created by ‘engineers of the soul’.” He continues: “I believe that a culture which has become aware of the limits in exploring the mundane will turn, at some point, to the effort to recover the sacred.” Thus, “We stand…with a clearing ahead of us.”

What confounds this reader, however, is Bell’s parting words at the end of the Afterword written for the 1996 reissue. He notes that religions “can be cruel and unyielding” -- citing the Inquisition and the Ayatollah Khomeini. All religions assert a claim “to absolute and exclusive truths... But the fundamental fact is that we do not know to whom God speaks.” 

In the final analysis Bell really does not embrace religion as an answer to man’s quest for a transcendent reality. His ideas regarding both religion and transcendence appear to be minimalist at best and he retreats into a vague, non-theistic form of ethical culture or a kind of Kantian categorical imperative, thin gruel by the standards of Judaism and Christianity, the primary religious traditions of the West. The clearing ahead, which he originally identified as a metaphor for a new openness to religious awakening, appears to be a black hole.

What lies ahead: is Bell culturally contradicting himself?

What are we to make of Daniel Bell’s exposition of the cultural contradictions of capitalism? His diagnosis of the plight of much, if not all, of America and Europe cannot be doubted. By almost any objective criteria, our respective cultures, as evidenced, say, by the state of families and children, in terms of moral, social, and mental health, are in a death spiral. Birth rates are below replacement levels. Rates of imprisonment in the United States are skyrocketing in the absence of fathers to form and discipline young boys. Out-of-wedlock births, which correlate closely with poverty rates, are common phenomena. 

These disturbing social trends continue, at least for the time being, in the face of unimagined economic performance and technological innovation. The amount of money available to even low-income citizens for clothes, electronics, entertainment, drugs, and fast food is startling in comparison to vast areas of the planet. Workers, including both parents in most households, are working longer and longer hours, leaving the raising of children and the transmittal of the culture to low-paid, immigrant nannies and housekeepers.

In a perceptive review, the English writer and historian Paul Johnson recognized Daniel Bell’s contributions on culture and capitalism. He ventured the opinion that our understanding of the economic and cultural dynamics might be helped if we jettisoned the word “capitalism” -- or at least quit viewing it as an ideology. Capitalism is something that happens naturally unless you affirmatively act to stop it. He also thinks that the seeds of recovery inhere in the very freedom and self-transforming processes of a capitalist and free society. Thus, in an open and vibrant social system, there are eras of moral decline and those of Great Awakenings in the religious sphere. 

Astounding as it may seem to Europeans, almost two million children are home schooled in American because of dissatisfaction with the social and academic condition of public schools. Whether this is the cutting edge of change and renewal, or just another discrete, cultural enclave, remains to be seen. Nevertheless, there do seem to be signs of religious renewal in America at least.

Returning to Daniel Bell and the internal logic of his argument, he is unable to ground his theory of a public household in a robust understanding of religion which, according to his own assessment, is the means of reconciling individual liberty with a general regard for the community as a whole.

In a 1976 review inthe magazine Commentary, Peter Berger noted that Bell put more faith in the Supreme Court as a mediating institution than in religion. In a parenthetical comment, Berger exclaimed “heaven help us.” He also referenced Bell’s comments pertaining to the break-up of religion and the problems of belief, but finds his treatment of the subject to be anaemic: “Yet there is not a word about religion in his final reaffirmation of the liberal creed (except for a negative reference to traditional Catholicism),” said Berger.

It is a measure of the challenge facing the West that one so learned and wise as Daniel Bell experiences such a desolation of spirit. The reader can only speculate as to how he would judge the closing passage of Alasdair MacIntyre’s great book, After Virtue (1981), in which he draws a parallel between our time and the time “when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium.”

“What they set themselves to achieve instead -- often not recognising fully what they were doing -- was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming age of barbarism and darkness,” said MacIntyre. In his view, we too have reached this turning point.

MacIntyre is very clear as to our situation: “This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another -- doubtless very different -- St. Benedict.”

G. Tracy Mehan, III, an attorney, was Assistant Administrator for Water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in President Bush’s first term. He works as a consultant in Arlington, Virginia.


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