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Trouble in Freedonia

In reading the first part of The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism I wondered why, confronted with Professor Bell’s catalogue of the “distinctive statements” of contemporary culture, I only embarrassed myself by noting that we heard nothing, or next to nothing, of the few really serious “modernist” artists of whom “the society” had genuine cause to boast in the years he discusses: Joseph Cornell, or Robert Lowell, or Jim Dine, or Elizabeth Bishop, or Elliott Carter. (Even Rothko is referred to only as the destroyer of “aesthetic distance,” which for Professor Bell is one of the inviolable canons, not just of Western classicism, but of Western art.) Yet, when I read Professor Bell on the basic passion of American life, I felt the desire to inflict on the world my experience, which is that, though some of my friends in America make much of the orgasm, and some did so even before (as it now appears) sociology licensed them, others don’t, and yet others would probably be too reticent even to deny that they do.

How were these rather primitive reactions on my part to be explained? Both, I concluded, pointed to the sense of the somnambulistic that Professor Bell’s writing inspires. So that, whereas it could only be ridiculous to engage him with specific counterexample, the temptation to let a little reality into the dream sequence in which he seems enfolded was irresistible.

Of course, I would agree with Professor Bell that the various cultural symptoms that he catalogues in the first part of his book are disturbing, and they are no less disturbing if one interprets them (as I have suggested) as promotion rather than cultural reality. For roughly what has happened in America in the period since World War II, and also, though to a lesser degree, in Europe, is that there has been a huge eruption of interest in, or curiosity about, culture, on a scale unprecedented in modern history. How this new appetite was formed is a matter for speculation; but what is clear is that the lucrative possibilities it opened up did not go long unrecognized. The profits to be derived from culture as a growth “leisure” activity having been perceived, a vast campaign attempted to maintain the volume of demand by making certain adjustments in its nature. The interest in culture has been deflected into an interest in what is provided under the name of culture.

Against those awkward spirits who were ready to draw attention to the lack of identity between the bread asked for and the plastic received, a number of devices have been resorted to. One, always popular, and never failing to receive intellectual support, is an appeal to relativism; “culture is what is called culture,” “works of art are what is hung in galleries, what is bought by museum directors, what is shown by dealers, etc.” Another is to counterattack and accuse one’s critics of elitism. It must be said that those who use these devices and others have by and large been successful.

The irony of The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism is that, if these promoters need a further ally, they have found one in its author. For by projecting a view of contemporary culture coincident with that, say, of the back pages of Time magazine, or of a modish director of a museum of modern art, Professor Bell lends support to the distinctive cultural disease of our times: a disease which he diagnoses as the triumph of the culture over the economy, but which I would diagnose as yet another savaging of the culture by the economy, a savaging whose characteristic instrument has been a corruption in our view of culture.

Unlike Professor Bell, I do not think modernism is a spent force. I think that certain serious artists work within it. Unlike Professor Bell, I think they are right not to find in the “new sensibility” the premises of modernism carried through “to their logical conclusions.” However, I think that these artists have a hard time, for though it is evidently much easier for them to live, it is very much harder for them to work. And so the question must arise whether it is within the resources of the society Professor Bell describes and of other advanced industrial societies to assure the culture the protection that it needs.

For anyone who seeks an answer to this question the relevance of the second and third parts of The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism must be evident. Professor Bell’s appeal in the second part of his book for a revival of religion, originally addressed to the technocrats of Haifa, is really an appeal for a revival or updating of taboo. Departing from Durkheim, Bell argues that we must find a new place in our lives for the sacred; we should recognize that certain topics, certain issues, are too deep for human fingering. The progress of the human mind can, indeed must, continue in the realm of the profane, but before the sacred it should preserve a reverential silence. The threat that the new sensibility poses to culture is precisely that it holds nothing sacred.

I find myself increasingly responsive to the idea that modern man cannot, without very real danger to himself, continue to endure vast changes in the material environment; continuity in the shape of the city or the landscape has become something of a psychological necessity. But I do not believe that these same considerations or anything like them can be transferred to the intellectual environment; and, for reasons similar to those Freud advanced in The Future of an Illusion and elsewhere, I think that silencing questions in one domain has a rapid, crippling, and pervasive effect on the human mind.

Of course I agree with Professor Bell that there are subjects whose meaning for human nature is so deep that they must be treated with respect, though not necessarily with solemnity. But I would put a great deal of what he finds irreverent in contemporary culture in the same category as pious and edificatory Victorian literature: both can be seen as attempts to evade profound inquiry and its implications.

So the second part of The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism does not provide an answer to the question about the protection of culture that was implicitly raised by the material purveyed in the first part. What about the third part, on liberal theory? For should not any liberal theory that maintains continuity with its historical roots try to establish a secure and adequate place for culture in the kind of society it promotes? Such a theory will be likely to do so because—or in the degree to which—it looks upon culture as an essential ingredient in the development of the individual.

I am afraid that here too the answer is negative, though for different kinds of reasons. I have already said that Professor Bell’s attempt to revive liberal theory lacks organization. In part this comes from the heavy and to my mind unnatural constraints that he lays upon liberalism, and in part from the looser rein that he keeps upon his argument.

The reader anxious to assess this last point is advised to turn to the section entitled “Liberty and Equality,” which runs from page 260 to page 269 and is vital to Bell’s position, and to see if he can summarize the argument. Here is an example of the difficulty he will find himself in. Professor Bell is discussing the principle of “relevant differences”: i.e., if in some distribution of goods or privileges two people receive shares of different size, then, for this to be justified, there must be some respect in which the people differ, and in a way appropriately related to whatever is being distributed. One must be more “deserving” than the other. At one point Bell suggests that attempts to produce a greater equality of income or status within a society, however desirable they may otherwise be, must fall foul of this principle.

But why? For all the principle says is that if two people are treated differently, then…. It provides no argument for difference of treatment as such. For instance, there might be so much of whatever is being distributed that the “less deserving” can get as much of it as the “more deserving” deserve. To this it might be replied in Professor Bell’s favor that, being a sensible man, he presumes scarcity; though he is ready enough to concede that in an ideal world there would be ideal conditions. But this reply won’t work. For he has described the situation so generally that it is far from clear that to presume abundance is always utopian. Is there, for instance, a natural shortage of status? And if Professor Bell is simply being “a realist,” why does he, only two pages later, criticize the present British government’s policy of “phasing out” certain forms of private medicine by saying that what really should be done is “to upgrade the services for all”? Or doesn’t he think there is a scarcity of medical resources?

This example serves to illustrate not only the relaxed character of much of Professor Bell’s argument here but also the very cautious expression that he gives his evidently powerful feelings for social justice. Professor Bell’s brand of liberalism is much like that which was in favor with one section of the British Labour Party about fifteen or twenty years ago. Central to this position is a very sharp distinction between those egalitarian measures which involve the distribution of new goods and those measures which also involve the redistribution of existing goods. Whereas the first altogether commend themselves, the second do so either not at all or only moderately. Now, if one were committed to individual rights, and in particular rights to property in some very strong sense, one might justifiably make such a distinction. Since neither Professor Bell nor his “Gaitskellite” predecessors seem to be so committed, why the emphasis on equality as something to be provided only out of future growth? The answer is to be found—as I have already suggested—in three heavy constraints that Professor Bell imposes on liberalism. These constraints are placed on what he takes to be liberalism’s method, its scope, and its aims.

According to Professor Bell, the principal method of social policy should be the state budget. It is through taxation, and changes in the level and incidence of taxation, that the claims of growth and of distribution are properly adjudicated.

As to the scope of liberalism, in regulating growth and distribution, social policy is ultimately concerned with the satisfaction of wants, not the satisfaction of needs. (It may be, for example, that many people “want” automobiles while “needing” other forms of transport in cities that will be ruined by more automobiles.) Satisfaction of wants is, for Bell, what social policy takes account of, and its success or failure can be judged only by whether it secures the correct pattern of satisfaction of wants. But the correctness of the pattern is something further to be determined.

(Now this might seem manifestly unfair to Professor Bell’s position, since on the last page of his book he goes out of his way to assign needs priority over wants. But for him needs are not really separate from wants: they are simply wants that have been socially designated as worthy of special attention. Bell’s version of liberalism precludes any greater theoretical claim for needs by his commitment to moral relativism—which he believes to be integral to liberalism. For to assign needs their place in social theory one has to accept norms that derive from human nature, and this in turn demands that we abandon relativism.)

So far as aims are concerned, social policy, as we have seen, has to produce the correct pattern of “want-satisfaction.” It will do so, in Bell’s view, if the pattern serves to restore to the modern state what it conspicuously lacks: legitimacy. Professor Bell, it should be noted, tells us that it was the triumph of Max Weber over Marx in contemporary social thought that he made legitimacy “the key question for any political system.” If we now ask what legitimacy is, the answer is acceptability. A political system acquires legitimacy not through being just but through being thought to be just. Once again, the hand of relativism reveals itself.

Now it is not hard to see that a form of liberalism is bound to be rather unadventurous if its mode of practical operation is through a budget voted upon in a representative assembly, if it has no criterion for discriminating among different consumption demands except by their stridency, and if it aims at acquiescence from well-entrenched interest groups whose powers to influence and cajole semi-informed opinion remain unchallenged. I respect Professor Bell’s desire to remain within democratic procedures. But the question arises whether we have such procedures at all, and not just the mere semblance of of them, unless the circulation of opinion ceases to be controlled by those who have a vested interest in it, unless social policy is no longer envisaged as the balancing of different groups whose initial powers and resources are grossly unequal, and unless a conception of justice is advanced in which the notion of need occupies a prime position.

It would be wrong to close a review of The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism without a discussion of the book’s style, which has been widely praised, and which I suspect has had a large part in securing for the book the reception it has received. One characteristic feature of Bell’s prose is the grandiloquent expression. Wherever the subject matter threatens to become either dull or menacing he resorts to such tags as “Toward the Great Instauration,” “The Diremption of Culture,” “The Hinge of History,” “The Public Household,” “The Dionysiac Pack,” “The Double Bind of Modernity.” Since these expressions do not aim to capture any particular fineness of perception, opinion on them is, and not in the nicest sense, a matter of taste.

Secondly, it would be little exaggeration to say that The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism has been put together in the manner of a phone-in radio show, with such a turnover of talent “on the line” as Suzi Gablik, Susan Sontag, Ibn Khaldun, Sidney Hook, Gertrude Stein, and Isaiah Berlin. Whenever Professor Bell has a point to make, he first edges one of his distinguished guests into making an approximation to it for him. The technique lends much vivacity to the discussion, and not a little absurdity; when I was asked to hold on for the voice of Edward Shils, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, to be told what genius is, I reached for the knob.

But this same eclecticism has also a deeper, more expressive role, which (I suspect) directly contributes to the appeal of the book to its admirers. For when the book is full of wrath and doom, and when it inveighs against the corruption and squalor of our day, then the multiplicity of voices adds to the excitement, intensifying the drama. But when the book turns from the present to the future and considers proposals and remedies, then the rising swell of chat has a comforting effect upon the reader, it puts distance between him and the reality of decision, and drains away the sense of urgency that the earlier denunciations were calculated to arouse. The apocalypse, the reader may feel, has given him a provocative evening, but it need not cost him a night’s sleep. “Contradictions” are like a good murder story: nice to unravel, but not calling for the intervention of justice.

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