Daniel Bell celebrated his ninetieth birthday in May. I have no idea whether he, his friends and family took the occasion as an opportunity to review his accomplishments, but if they did, they had a lot of ground to cover. Bell, who taught first at Colombia and then at Harvard, has been the best-known sociologist of his time and one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals. When the Times Literary Supplement set out to catalogue the hundred most important books published in the second half of the 20th century, only three authors merited two entries on the list: Hannah Arendt, Isaiah Berlin and Daniel Bell.
Even at his advanced age, Bell is still a living force. He may not be writing or teaching much these days, but his best-known works linger in our consciousness as we wrestle with the latest smash-up of the capitalist system. Not all of them do so equally, however. It would be unjust and untrue to say that Bell’s 1960 work, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties, is of interest only to historians, but much of it is dated. The figures whom Bell engages have long since disappeared from the scene, and Marxism as both a political force and a subject of intellectual interest disappeared twenty years ago along with the Berlin Wall. The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting (1973) remains pertinent, but its arguments, arresting and valuable as they were at the time, have long since been assessed, appropriated, criticized and digested within the general culture. But even those who have never heard of Daniel Bell can be tempted to pick up The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976). Following that temptation will not, alas, lead to any explanatory silver bullet for our current afflictions, for while Bell is often brilliant, he is nearly as often confused. But if one must succumb to temptation, one could do a lot worse.
To appreciate a man’s work it is useful to know better the man. Bell came to academe late. He was already in his early forties when he was awarded his Columbia Ph.D. in 1960. Before graduate school he had worked as a journalist, as managing editor of The New Leader during World War II and as the labor editor of Fortune from 1948 to 1958. During this period he produced a guardedly sympathetic study of the history of Marxian socialism in the United States and edited a volume on what was then the new American Right. The publication of his first major book, The End of Ideology, coincided with the end of his doctoral studies.
The End of Ideology spoke of the irrelevance of then-commonly-held political ideas, of a truncated liberalism wedded to neo-classical economics and of Marxism as well. For Bell, science and technology were what mattered, notably the way they drove social organization, politics and culture into new forms. He foresaw the rise of technocratic politics, and predicted the discontent that would follow. A former man of the Left, he was attacked with special vigor by his former colleagues for justifying the postwar status quo. Many thus confused Bell’s analysis of contemporary social reality with his presumed endorsement of its moral qualities. That seems to have stimulated Bell to formulate his best-known autobiographical aphorism, first presented in the 1978 foreword to the paperback edition of The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. “I am”, he wrote, “a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.”
Bell turned to teaching at Columbia after The End of Ideology appeared, but he also kept his hand in journalism as founding co-editor, along with Irving Kristol, of The Public Interest in 1965. His greatest period of celebrity came in the early to mid-1970s, first when The Coming of Post-Industrial Society arrived three years later. As a public intellectual based in the academy, Bell had three advantages. First, as a journalist he had learned how to write with an eye to being read. He was at his best as an essayist. He had a gift for focusing on a subject, such as racketeering on the New York docks, for making its particulars come alive in a dramatic way and then fitting it into a larger socio-economic matrix. Second, he became numerate, enabling him to assess trends with much greater precision than other pundits. But third and most important, Bell was an exceedingly well-educated man graced with intellectual curiosity in abundance. As I quickly recognized on the one occasion when I heard him deliver a paper, he had devoured every book of importance that had come within reach. I doubt there is a sociologist of comparable erudition active anywhere in the world today, and I fear we will never see the like again.
Bell seems to have understood the nature of his gifts, but he did not always limit himself accordingly. The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, which is a genuine monograph dedicated to a single subject, is ponderous and labored. On the other hand, The End of Ideology and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism are sprightly but less coherent as books; and, given their origins as essays that were refined and recombined to produce a book, in neither case does the title of the volume do justice to its diverse contents. One must read two-thirds of The End of Ideology to get to the work’s purported theme. And the cultural aspect of commercial society’s contradictions is examined only in the first part of The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, called “The Double Bind of Modernity.” Nevertheless, it is easy to see why the Times Literary Supplement singled out for praise the latter two volumes and not The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. When Bell said less and left it to his readers to complete his thoughts, he often managed to convey more.
So if we are to distinguish what is alive from what is dead in the thinking of Daniel Bell, we must turn to The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, for it is in this work that he addresses a phenomenon, as much in evidence today as it was when he wrote the book, that may be a permanent feature of commercial society. Why, he asks, are so many of those who live within modern liberal democracies discontented? Why has the prosperity generated by capitalism not brought in its train a proud sense of accomplishment and a general ethos of satisfaction? Why is there such fury, such disdain for the authorities whose traditions and discipline produced the luxury of such emotion in the first place? Why such rage against the machine?
Bell begins his book in arresting fashion: with a brief consideration of the incendiary preface that Friedrich Nietzsche sketched for his unfinished magnum opus, The Will to Power, and with a no less brief discussion of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Have either of these two works, Bell asks, correctly described “our fate?” Are we destined to face “nihilism as the logic of technological rationality”, as Nietzsche thought, or will we encounter our fate “as the end product of the cultural impulses to strike down all conventions”, as Conrad suggested?
Bell raises the question, confesses its importance, then turns Nietzsche and Conrad’s answers aside. He acknowledges that “the visions” projected by these two thinkers “are there before us, as are many of the signs which had been foretold.” He, too, believes “we are coming to a watershed in Western society.” We are, he writes,
witnessing the end of the bourgeois idea—that view of human action and of social relations, particularly of economic exchange—which has molded the modern era for the last 200 years. . . . [W]e have reached the end of the creative impulse and ideological sway of modernism, which, as a cultural movement, has dominated all the arts, and shaped our symbolic expressions, for the past 125 years.
But he cannot bring himself to accept the “seductive and simple formulations” that Nietzsche and Conrad advanced, for he regards them as “apocalyptic.” He proposes “instead a more complex and empirically testable sociological argument” rooted in the conviction that “the structures of a society—modes of life, social relations, norms and values are not reversed overnight”, that “habits, customs, and established, traditional ways” evolve slowly in response to changing circumstances. “Our fascination with the apocalypse”, he warns, “blinds us to the mundane: the relations of exchange, economic and social; the character of work and occupations; the nature of family life; and the traditional modes of conduct which regulate everyday life.”
Bell had ceased to be a Marxist long before he wrote The End of Ideology, but there is nonetheless a sense in which Marx and Marx’s intellectual milieu determined his horizon—and, in a sense, his goal. The figures to whom he alluded most often are Hegel, Marx, Weber and Durkheim. They provided the questions with which he wrestled and determined much of the framework within which he elaborated his own thinking, specifically the determination to root cultural attitudes and artifacts in some deeper structural reality—what Bell referred to as “axial principles.” Bell could freely cite Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Montesquieu and Adam Smith, and when it suited his purpose he did. But it was not with The Republic, the Nicomachean Ethics, the Summa Theologica, The Spirit of Laws and The Wealth of Nations that he engaged time and again; it was with Durkheim and with the Germans of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Like Hegel, Marx, Weber and Durkheim, he sought structural explanations for culture, but, in contrast with them, he resisted the impulse to systematize. In his opinion, the nihilist propensities identified by Nietzsche and Conrad are explicable only in terms of the fact that in modern, commercial society disjunction, not coordination, characterizes the relations of economy, polity and culture. “These are not”, he argues, congruent with one another.” They
have different rhythms of change; they follow different norms which legitimate different, and even contrasting, types of behavior. It is the discordances between these realms which are responsible for the various contradictions within society.
The first of these realms, economy, promotes “functional rationality” and “economizing.” It is the sphere of “bureaucracy and hierarchy”, and it measures value by “utility.” It is “a structure of roles, not persons”, and in it “a person becomes an object or a ‘thing.’” The second realm, politics, has as its principle “legitimacy” and its presumptive precondition is “the consent of the governed.” It promotes “equality not only in the public sphere, but in all other dimensions of social life as well—equality before the law, equality of civil rights, equality of opportunity, even”, Bell firmly insists, “equality of results.” It operates by way of “representation or participation”; and though it may be “technocratic” in administration, it ultimately reaches decisions “by bargaining or by law.”
The third realm, culture, is the main focus of Bell’s attention in the first part of his book. Its principle is “the expression and remaking of the ‘self’ in order to achieve self-realization and self-fulfillment.” It denies “any limits or boundaries to experience”, and within its sphere “nothing is forbidden, all is to be explored.” From the start, Bell argues, culture within commercial society was characterized by “the release of the individual from traditional restraints and ascriptive ties (family and birth) so that he could ‘make’ of himself what he willed.” In time, it came to be a sphere of “self-gratification”, and it is now “anti-institutional and antinomian in that the individual is taken to be the measure of satisfaction, and his feelings, sentiments, and judgments, not some objective standard of quality and value, determine the worth of cultural objects.” So culture comes to undermine the principles of economy and to stand athwart those of polity. It is the interplay between these three realms that constitutes the subject of the book as a whole, and Bell promises in effect a structural explanation of their incongruous interaction.
As a description of the world that Bell saw in the late 1960s, this scheme is a reasonable starting point. The market has always imposed discipline of the sort he described on those who participate in it; men have always wielded political authority in such a way as to interfere in one fashion or another with that discipline; and Bell’s depiction of the peculiar form that the interplay between the two spheres takes within modern commercial societies comes tolerably close to being accurate. Bell was also right to suppose that in the Age of Aquarius cultural anarchy loomed on the horizon in the guise of Modernism. Those who came of age in this period, as I did, will find positively bizarre the absence of any discussion of popular culture in general, and of rock music in particular, in the chapter entitled “The Sensibility of the Sixties.” But Bell is nonetheless right to claim that the explosion which took place on the popular level in that decade had roots in an adversary culture that had developed within the world of the artists and poets long before.
But if Bell’s analytical scheme has merit, the “sociological history”—the Germanic structural argument—he attempted to construct upon it is less satisfactory. Indeed, he never really follows through, at least in part one, with such a project (ironically, he does so in part two, but with different materials and to a different end). The changes that paved the way for “the bourgeois entrepreneur” were, indeed, necessary for “the rise of the independent artist, released from church and princely patron.” It was, as he says, “the market” that made the artist “free.” But it was not the spirit of commerce that implanted in the artist the desire to liberate himself from “all conventions” and “the idea of the untrammeled self.” If this were the case, the entrepreneur would not be, as Bell acknowledges he is, “conservative in morals and cultural taste.” Rather, he would exhibit the same aspirations as the artist.
To explain the disjunction between the two realms and maintain the integrity of a structural explanation, Bell is forced to import an extraneous factor: Max Weber’s Protestant ethic. Religion makes the entrepreneur a cultural conservative despite his disruptive, revolutionary social impact. Here Bell set himself up for an awkward rebuke, for by the time he penned the foreword to the 1978 paperback edition he had had his attention drawn to work by Werner Sombart and Hugh Trevor-Roper showing Weber’s “spirit of capitalism” at work in Jews and Catholics as well as Protestants, and in pre-Reformation Italy and Belgium as well as post-Reformation Holland and England. Even more important, by that time, Bell had also discovered that Benjamin Franklin, who had for Weber personified the Protestant ethic, was in truth a modern Epicurean, an adulterer, a bon vivant, and no sort of Christian—let alone a Calvinist—at all.
However, not even in the afterword he added in 1996 for the 20th anniversary editor of the book was Bell willing to jettison his reliance on Weber and start again from scratch. Had he been willing to look beyond the narrow conceptual boundaries established by modern social science, he would have discovered that part of the problem with which he grappled had already been identified by Plato in The Republic. By making his readers aware of the self-subverting character of oligarchy, Plato pointed to the propensity of those in love with the acquisition of wealth to promote on the part of their fellow citizens an ethos of self-gratification and indebtedness.
Whether one takes a cue from The Republic or from Proverbs, the self-discipline and asceticism of the profit-maximizer is no more a mystery than the spendthrift ways of the self-indulgent. Throughout human history, the children of successful profit-maximizers have tended to embrace the conduct of the self-indulgent. Relative poverty, when mixed with ambition and offered opportunity, is generally sufficient to engender the spirit of commerce, and abundance challenged by temptation is nearly always sufficient to guarantee this spirit’s abandonment. It is not the self-discipline of the entrepreneur that needs explaining; it is the antinomianism of the artist.
As a general phenomenon, bohemianism is peculiar to recent times. Renaissance Venice and Florence, 17th-century Holland, and 18th-century England were all commercial polities, but there is no evidence in any of them for the “rage against bourgeois values” that became so visible in artistic circles in 19th-century Europe and in 20th-century Europe and America. Something of profound importance took place in the interim; and though structural changes certainly made straight for it the way, they did not dictate the shape it would take. To get at it one must vault over Hegel, Marx, Weber and Durkheim back to the 18th century, and switch from German to French.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the first to speak with contempt of “the bourgeois”, and his books sold like hotcakes. The citizen of Geneva seized upon an inchoate discontent, already identified by Montesquieu, which typifies commercial society. Rousseau gave it form and focus, and we have had to cope with it ever since.
Rousseau was a legislator of sorts, supremely capable of fabricating mesmerizing images. The miseries and bitterness spawned by bourgeois society; the simple pleasures that purportedly sufficed for primitive man; the joys attendant on romantic and paternal love; the potential inherent in an education of the sentiments; the glories inspired by the intense patriotism that characterized the ancient republics; and the satisfactions associated with an aesthetic loss of self—he depicted them all. In crafting and projecting these arresting images, he fired the imaginations of subsequent artists and thinkers. With their assistance, he worked profound and lasting changes in the mores, manners and opinions of future generations.
In every generation since, commercial society has had as its Doppelgänger a powerful bohemian counterculture grounded in a vulgarization of one or more aspects of Rousseau’s thinking. Every radical movement of both Left and Right—from Jacobinism at the time of the French Revolution to communism and fascism in the 20th century to the anti-globalists, environmentalists and Islamist jihadis characteristic of our own time—has wittingly or unwittingly taken as its starting point a variation on the powerful critique of bourgeois society first suggested in the Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, first fully fleshed out in the Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men, and then summarized again and again in Rousseau’s subsequent works. And every such movement has served up as a remedy a program inspired in one fashion or another by the vision of revolutionary transformation and integral community that Rousseau intimated in those works and projected most fully in the Discourse on Political Economy and The Social Contract.
These images and arguments are still very much with us today. Within our world, wars and revolutions come and go. They occupy us for a time, and when they are over, we find ourselves right back where we began. Rousseau’s diagnosis of our plight and the various palliatives he suggested somehow retain their purchase. His panoramic vision may seem preposterous and outlandish, but it cannot be ignored. It speaks to the felt needs of untold millions, many of whom have never even read a line of his work. It exercises a profound and largely uncharted influence within the culture at large, shaping attitudes toward religion, the environment, the family, child rearing, education, gardening, music, art, literature, romantic love, politics—indeed, any conceivable domain in which one can forget that a longing for the perfect can be the enemy of the good. Despite all his shortcomings (and they are legion), Rousseau is the one who untethered an idealism heretofore bound to the sacred and unleashed it on our earthly modern imagination. This has had real consequences: It is one thing to yearn for a heavenly ideal, quite another to pursue it on terra firma.
Daniel Bell has a better instinctive understanding of this than is apparent in the actual arguments of The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Toward the end of the first part of that work, in the course of a full-throated attack on Modernism, he remarks,
Despite the shambles of modern culture, some religious answer surely will be forthcoming, for religion . . . is a constitutive part of man’s consciousness: the cognitive search for the pattern of the ‘general order’ of existence; the affective need to establish rituals and to make such conceptions sacred; the primordial need for relatedness to some others, or to a set of meanings which will establish a transcendent response to the self; and the existential need to confront the finalities of suffering and death.
If “the sacred is destroyed”, Bell warns, “then we are left with the shambles of appetite and self-interest and the destruction of the moral circle which engirds mankind.” Bell seems most insightful when he is at his least “axial.” To tame the cultural contradictions of capitalism one need not resort to sociology or to structural arguments of any kind. One need only keep faith and hope in balance and in proper perspective, each in its own domain.
There is a testament to this proposition, and it is a wonder that in his three major books Bell never saw fit to mention it. Lincoln once remarked that when Americans
look through that old Declaration of Independence, they find that those old men say that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that the moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principles in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.
The Declaration—with its emphasis on divine creation, on rights sanctioned both by nature and nature’s God, and on sacred honor—once provided Americans with an answer to the question that is always eventually posed, the question that is prelude to the fury. That answer provided a moral foundation both for democratic government within a limited sphere and for a free economy. That is an answer we are free to embrace again, in these troubled times as well as in better days to come. If our capitalism is indeed contradicted, it is nonetheless in our power to set it straight.