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Trouble in Freedonia

The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

by Daniel Bell
Basic Books, 301 pp., $12.95

To the tardy reviewer each new notice that comes his way may offer a temptation to revise his estimate, up or down. Keeping up with the critical acclaim that has greeted Professor Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, I have had to ask myself, over and over again, what it is that anesthetized me to the various merits that writers of intelligence and reputation have found to praise in it. Or is it that, though the appearance of the book happened to catch me out at the start of a busy term, there has been something singularly opportune about its timing? Rereading the book I failed to find answers to these questions.

Two preliminary points should be made about The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. The first is that it isn’t a book, but a collection, in parts a distillation, of essays. If the tone seems to vary, or the argument to recur, the explanation, is not that the reader has lost his place, but that the author has calculated with some justice that not all the participants in the Arden House conference of the Columbia University School of Business and the Institute of Life Insurance will be regular readers of Daedalus, or that the prevailing mood at the anniversary celebrations of the Haifa Technicon might differ from that generated at a CIBA Foundation conference in London. Secondly, these essays are, by and large, about one particular country, the United States, and not about the world. This can be overlooked because of Professor Bell’s habit of referring to his own country, colloquially, as “the society” or sometimes as “post-industrial society.” But unless this parochialism of reference is borne in mind, some of the book’s observations about the decline of the nineteenth century into the twentieth may seem phantasmagorical.

The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism falls into three parts in a way not fully reflected in the formal organization of the book. The first part, from which the book takes its title is the fullest and the weakest. The middle part, which calls for a revival of religion, is the briefest, the most elusive, and, I would say, the most intriguing. The third addresses itself to the current condition of liberal theory and calls for a revival of that too. This final section is intellectually the most ambitious, but it suffers from a lack of clear organization and direction. My reading of reviews suggests that this part of the book has attracted, and will probably continue to attract, the least attention.

Professor Bell begins his discussion with the plausible assumption that “the society” is divided into three distinct realms: the “techno-economic” realm, the polity, and the culture. Each of these realms respects a different and indeed distinctive “axial principle.” The first is concerned with the organization of production and the allocation of goods and services. The second is the sphere of social justice and power, and coming within its scope is the legitimate use of force and the regulation of conflict under the law. The third includes—and Professor Bell, very understandably, feels obliged to take more than one bite at the cherry—well, it certainly includes painting, poetry, fiction; but it also includes various participatory ways of life, and is probably best thought of as those imaginative forms in which a people, or its more articulate members, try to explore and express the meanings of human existence. Now, according to Professor Bell, the crucial feature of “the society” today is that these three different realms, or their axial principles, are not simply discrete, they are in conflict. They stand—in Professor Bell’s phrase—in “an adversary relation.”

Of the three adversary relations that this diagnosis identifies, Professor Bell, in the first part of his book, concentrates on one: that between the technoeconomic realm and the culture. This Bell states in very simple terms. The axial principle of the economic realm asserts the values that practical rationality demands: analysis, efficiency, effort, self-discipline, and the delay of gratification are to be cultivated. By contrast the axial principle of the culture asserts the values that an immediate or unreflecting hedonism demands: the savoring of sensation, the freedom from restraint, the totally uncommitted and experimental attitude to life, as well as a variety of anti-intellectual and apocalyptic tendencies—these the culture seeks to promote. The principle of the economic realm is in effect the traditional morality of Protestantism, the old “work ethic,” whereas the cultural principle is the descendant of modernism, a phenomenon whose arrival upon the scene of capitalism (“Enter Modernism” is one of Professor Bell’s subtitles) he dates somewhere in the first half of the last century.

The descendant of modernism.” For—or so his thesis runs—so complete has been the victory of modernism in our century that not only has official or conservative culture disappeared, virtually without a trace, but by thus eliminating the opposition upon which it so self-consciously fed, “true” modernism (as we might think of it) is, and has been for the last fifty years, a spent force. That which dances on its grave, the “porno-pop culture” as he calls it, is a ragged Jacobin movement, gaudily dressed, foul-mouthed, swaying to the accompaniment of many decibels, which attempts to act out what its more elitist predecessors had believed in their heart of hearts.

In one of those reverberative phrases to which Professor Bell seems partial, he sums up the cultural history of “the society” over the last two hundred years or thereabouts as “From the Protestant Ethic to the Psychedelic Bazaar.” This phrase serves to raise another point: when Professor Bell talks of the cultural contradictions of capitalism he has in mind not only conflicts between the culture and something else, but also conflicts within the culture. On Professor Bell’s analysis the psychedelic bazaar is not in itself a happy place.

In propounding the adversary relations among and within the different realms, Professor Bell is in effect trying to make a twofold contribution to sociology, the two contributions occurring on rather different levels of generality. He is, of course, trying to describe American society today as he sees it, as lucidly as he can. But he is also concerned to make an offering, if of a negative kind, to theory. For in describing America as he does, he is also attempting to drive yet another nail in the coffin of those overambitious sociologies—those of Marx, Talcott Parsons, and Pitirim Sorokin are cited—which present society as a unified system and aim at an over-all or integrated interpretation of its different components.

The first thing to be said is that in his theoretical aim Professor Bell does not, he cannot, succeed. To claim—as he does—that different parts of a given historical society are out of gear with one another is not to refute a holistic theory of society: for though a holistic theory may well propose an equilibrium among various parts as a norm, it does not have to claim the various parts are actually in that equilibrium.

After all—and the point is perhaps embarrassingly obvious—Professor Bell’s choice of title for his book would not be the exercise in impish humor that it is if the most eminent of his adversaries had not attempted to derive from his holistic theory precisely the conditions under which contradictions do break out in society. One can go even further: for one can ask how it would be possible to regard the relations among the different realms of a given society as contradictory—rather than as, say, complementary or coherent—without some general theory of society or some representation of it as a unified system.

This last point is no mere debating point. For when one comes to fill in the actual theory of society that Professor Bell, and indeed most of the rest of us, might be expected to have implicitly in mind—that is to say, some loosely constructed, charitably interpreted, form of functionalism—then it becomes far from clear that the disjunction that he sees between the techno-economic realm and the culture deserves the name of “contradiction.” If we employ some such commonsense theory of society, it is far from clear that the relations among the realms are even “adversary.” Indeed, as one reviewer (Raymond Williams) has already remarked, what more natural cultural counterpart could there be to an economy geared to the voracious consumption of goods and services than the unfocused, self-generating kind of hedonism in which, according to our author, “the society” is currently engulfed?

But this thought sets up another. Suppose we take Professor Bell as our guide, and we follow him into the labyrinth of the hedonistic culture he claims to know so well, trying to take in the varied wares and stuffs he points out to us. Soon, I suggest, the suspicion will enter our minds that this picture is too good (or too bad) to be true. For once we regard what he so lavishly displays not as a cultural contradiction but rather as the cultural consequence of capitalism, we have to ask ourselves this: could the fit between what capitalism requires culture to be like and what the culture is actually like—could it really be so perfect? In ordinary life capitalism is clumsy and inept. It is only in the world of the advertisement that it waves its wand. My suggestion is that our author, setting out to prepare a documentary of his society’s culture, has somehow finished up with all his footage borrowed from commercials.

I have already contended that the particular use to which Professor Bell puts his description of American society undermines his more theoretical aim; and now, if I am right in my claim that the description itself is really no description at all, but is the reflection of crude myth and cruder fantasy, then he must be judged also to fail in his more particular aim. But am I right?

The issue is, of course, to some degree obscured by the difficulty in arriving at a convincing conception of what culture is. And there certainly is in circulation a very generous conception that would defuse my criticism of Professor Bell. This view holds that the culture of a society includes every piece of cultural rhetoric, blandishment, or ideology. But there is much to suggest that Professor Bell’s view of culture is different from this, and more selective. If we conceive of culture as running (roughly) from specific achievement at one end to general attitudes at the other, we can surely say that his description of his society’s culture contains grave distortions at either end. And in each case the distortion tends toward the journalist’s, the impresario’s, the dealer’s, the mass-producer’s view of cultural matters.

For instance, in a chapter entitled “The Sensibility of the Sixties” the artifacts and events to which Bell gives pride of place (e.g., “happenings,” the works of Warhol, “air sculpture”) are just those which would capture, or have captured, a headline in the newspaper or the full gossipy treatment that the back pages of the glossy weeklies mete out to the latest virtuoso of self-promotion. And the critical thinking through which such cultural artifacts are filtered on their way to the printed page is that which lets the sensational run through its mesh and holds back whatever might have been distinctive or expressive in the originals. When he comes to write about prevailing mores, in behavior or in sentiment, Professor Bell seems content with generalizations of such artificiality that it is difficult to imagine a real world that they could be true of. Not even a professor of sociology could convince me that, “In the 1950s and the 1960s, the cult of the Orgasm succeeded the cult of Mammon as the basic passion of American life.”

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