book cover imageA Retrospective Review of
The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism,
Thirty Years Later

Tthirty years and more after its appearance, Daniel Bell’s challenging book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), still merits the Times Literary Supplement’s designation as one of the 100 most influential books of the past half century, flaws and all. According to Bell, the contradictions of contemporary capitalism result “from the unraveling of the threads which had once held the culture and the economy together, and from the influence of the hedonism which has become the prevailing value in our society.”

More specifically, he notes that, “when the Protestant ethic was sundered from bourgeois society, only the hedonism remained, and the capitalist system lost its transcendental ethic,” states Bell. Work was no longer a calling, but a mere means of seeking pleasure as a way of life. Echoing Max Weber, Bell argues that the restraints of the Protestant ethic on unrestrained economic impulses and acquisitiveness were undercut by capitalism itself through such innovations as installment buying, instant credit, mass production, and mass consumption. While the business corporation wants its employees to work hard, pursue a career, and delay gratification, at the same time its products and advertisements promote the vision of pleasure, instant joy, relaxing, and letting go. In a quote which is as famous as it is dated, Bell observes that “One is to be ‘straight’ by day and a ‘swinger’ by night. This is self-fulfillment and self-realization!”

In Bell’s analysis the unity of Western society was also under attack by the “modern movement” of the last 100 years or more. He traces this trajectory from Bentham to Nietzsche, from modernism to postmodernism, up to and including Deconstruction. He highlights the many proponents of an imperious, unrestrained self (“self-infinitizing”) who sought to supplant rationality and restraint with sensation, simultaneity, immediacy, and impact. Culturally, this translated into “the eclipse of distance”—aesthetic, social, and psychic—which recognized no boundaries, no ordering principles of experience and judgment. Bell devotes a whole chapter to “The Sensibility of the Sixties” which he scathingly describes “a longing for the lost gratifications of an idealized childhood”; an “Arcadian fantasy”; and a “pathetic celebration of the self—a self that had been emptied of content and which masqueraded as being vital through the playacting of Revolution.”

“. . . I am a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture,” says Bell. But his socialism places the community over the individual through government intervention in the market, rather than owning the means of production outright.

Daniel Bell, originally part of a group often referred to as the “New York Intellectuals,” which included Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer and Irving Howe, was co-founder of The Public Interest in 1965, the premier journal of neoconservative opinion on economic and domestic policy. Bell, who had described himself as “anti-ideological but not conservative,” resigned as co-editor in 1973. He aligned himself with the “tough-minded” liberalism of an Isaiah Berlin. Bell also served on the editorial board of Fortune and as an editor of The New Leader.

Several of Bell’s “forecasts” in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism were wide of the mark. 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.

Although Bell suggests a religious answer to the cultural contradictions of capitalism, he dedicates an entire chapter to discussing the philosophic basis of a “public household” to constrain the market economy “within the explicit framework of social goals,” without elaborating on any means of resolving the religious or transcendental issues which he outlines in great detail. The public household isan idea certain to repulse conservatives, libertarians, and proponents of limited government of all stripes. It is rooted in Daniel Bell’s view that “society, in the end, is a moral order that has to justify (in sociological jargon, to legitimate) its allocative principles and the balances of freedoms and coercions necessary to facilitate or enforce such rules.”

Unfortunately, Bell seems to be tone deaf, if not outright resistant to, ideas such as federalism or subsidiarity that might have helped his analysis. Such concepts are necessary to check or mitigate government’s tendencies toward gigantism and overreaching which Bell’s own recommendations might accelerate, absent a constitutional distribution of power among different levels of government and civil society.

Although Bell claims that religion is the “fulcrum” of the book and has obvious sympathies for religious faith, remarkably, he fails to recognize any threat to religion in his expansive view of the role of government embodied in his concept of the public household. 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, he believes, “We stand . . . with a clearing ahead of us.”

For Daniel Bell the coherence of culture in modern society is a central issue along with the question of whether it, rather than religion, “can provide a comprehensive or transcendental set of ultimate meanings, even satisfactions in daily life.” A “pervasive sense of disorientation” has spread through the culture “attributable to the lack of language that can adequately relate one to transcendental conceptions—a philosophy of first causes or an eschatology of final things,” says Bell. He regrets the loss of religious terminology and symbols “which soaked our poetic and rhetorical modes.” He compares the King James Version to the New English Bible and finds the latter wanting.

He raises the “existential questions which confront all men in all times and places.” How, for instance, does one meet death? What is the meaning of courage? Neither nature, nor history can answer these questions. “There is, then the unfashionable, traditional answer: religion, not as a social ‘projection’ of man into an external emblem, but as a transcendental conception that is outside man, yet relates man to something beyond himself.” But religion has been declining. Secularization is on the march. There are hardly any taboos left to transgress. “Where religions fail, cults appear,” observes Bell. This is exactly the reverse of early Christian history. Magic trumps theology. The guru or group supersedes the creed. The quest for a “society without fathers,” to use the phrase of Alexander Mitscherlich, is basically a rejection of authority other than the peer group itself. Bell opines that “Despite the shambles of modern culture, some religious answer surely will be forthcoming. . . . It is a constitutive part of man’s consciousness. . . .”

Religion, continues Bell, is part of the cognitive search for patterns of the order of existence and the need to establish rituals, to make them sacred. It involves the primordial need for relatedness to others and to meaning in order to establish a transcendent response to the self. Finally, it addresses “the existential need to confront the finalities of suffering and death.”

What confounds the reader is Bell’s parting words at the end of the Afterword written for the 1996 reissue of the book. Bell 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,” says Bell, and continues: “For me, religion is not the sphere of God or of the gods. It is the sense, a necessary one, of the sacred, of what is beyond us and cannot be transgressed.” The “failure of capitalism and now postmodernism to establish boundaries of transgression—which is what a doctrine of ‘natural law’ would provide—indicate that the cultural contradictions of the two modes remain.” Bell leaves us with a natural law without God or religion, without any compelling answer to the most important question of all: why be ethical in the first place?

What are we to make of Daniel Bell’s exposition of the cultural contradictions of capitalism? Certainly, he discerned a great paradox in our modern, capitalist society. The cinema, the magazine rack, and the Internet are swamps of pornography and misogynist obsessions. You can find upscale varieties of titillation in the local mall at Victoria’s Secret, perhaps the quintessential example of the cultural contradictions of capitalism. Americans’ rate of savings is in negative numbers, and a decline in marriage and fertility are masked only by immigration, legal and illegal. The federal deficit is ballooning under “conservative” party control of all three branches of government.

Yet, American economic productivity is at an all-time high despite a mediocre educational system, a weakened family structure, and widening income disparity. For the moment American affluence appears to obviate the need to resolve the cultural contradictions Bell articulates—at least for those wealthy enough to live the life fantastic. Volunteer soldiers fight our wars with valor and sacrifice without interfering in the lifestyles or consumption of the vast majority of their fellow citizens. Whether such dispensations will continue indefinitely for North America and Europe is open to question. At some point, history will revoke its free pass and challenge these societies which benefit from the economic bounty of a market system severed from its cultural, social, and religious roots.

In a 1976 review in Commentary Peter Berger referenced Bell’s comments pertaining to the breakup of religion and the problems of belief, noting that he said nary a word about religion in affirming liberal beliefs, except for some negative comments about Catholicism. Berger perceived the weakness in Bell’s argument: “As Bell himself indicates so well, secularism has been the Achilles Heel of the liberal creed.”

“It would seem to follow from his own analysis that the crisis of the liberal democratic polity is not likely to be resolved until this secularist animus has been checked and reversed,” asserted Berger. Recall that Berger did not have the benefit of reading Bell’s problematic statements on religion in the 1996 edition of The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism which actually reinforces Berger’s critique.

Daniel Bell offers a powerful diagnosis of our current predicament, but he proffers remedies which suffer from the same contradictions at the heart of the culture which he describes with such precision. He suffers from a void or chasm in the soul which afflicts both the United States and Western Europe. He lacks faith in those same religious traditions which he claims to admire and cherish.
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 is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and is an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.