Trouble in Freedonia

The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

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

Daniel Bell
Daniel Bell; drawing by David Levine

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…

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