The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.
by Daniel Bell.
Basic Books. 301 pp. $12.95.
This book, a sequel to The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), rounds out Daniel Bell’s panoramic picture of the present condition and probable future of Western civilization. It is an important book—erudite, articulate, and in large part persuasive—and it deserves to be widely read and discussed.
The main thrust of Bell’s argument is very clear (despite a number of intriguing sidelines), and it revolves around what Bell calls “the disjunction of realms.” There are three such “realms” in society—the techno-economic structure, the culture, and the polity. When these three are respectively characterized, as they are today in the West, by advanced capitalism, by modernism, and by liberal democracy, the result is a condition of mounting and increasingly explosive tensions.
As bell points out, the techno-economic structure of advanced capitalism has produced unprecedented affluence. Its very success, however, has also given birth to forces that are profoundly subversive of the capitalist economy itself—not, as Marx thought, on account of inherent class contradictions, but on account of developments in Bell’s second “realm,” the realm of culture. The culture of contemporary capitalist societies in the West has been shaped by modernism, and its ruling principles have increasingly become the ideal of self-realization, the radical rejection of restraints, and an unremitting hostility toward the bourgeois ethic on which capitalism rests. (The developmental relation between the first and second “realms” is pithily summed up by Bell in one subheading: “From the Protestant Ethic to the Psychedelic Bazaar.”)
In its advanced stage, the ideal of self-realization is bound to clash head-on with the functional rationality on which the continued existence of a technologically sophisticated economy depends—this, according to Bell, is what in fact happened, climactically, in the United States in the late 1960’s with the triumph of Dionysian counter-reason in a variety of cultural spheres. But the fact that modernism has triumphed in virtually all respectable areas of the culture, that it now constitutes the cultural establishment and controls most cultural institutions, has not at all changed its essentially “adversary” posture toward the bourgeois ethic. And in the face of challenge, the corporate elite in charge of the economy has shown itself helpless; capitalism has proved unable to articulate for itself a plausible ideology of legitimacy.
The conflict between the techno-economic structure and the culture is further aggravated by the peculiar features of a liberal-democratic polity. Under one or another form of authoritarianism, the political order might serve as an arbiter between the demands of functional rationality and those of self-realization, and between the social groups embodying these conflicting aspirations. Under liberal democracy, this arbitrating task of the polity is made near-impossible. As Tocqueville long ago predicted, liberal democracies have come increasingly to be governed by the radical and radicalizing principle of equality, and are faced today with an accelerating “revolution of rising entitlements”—entitlements not just to bigger and better slices of the economic pie, but to politically guaranteed happiness. No political order can meet such grandiose expectations, a democratic order least of all.
Not only, then, has the legitimacy of capitalism been undermined, but the legitimacy of liberal democracy has come to be undermined as well. What then of the future? Whether Bell intends it or not, it is hard to resist the conclusion that, given these historical forces, we are in either for a collapse of the economic system or for the end of democracy, or possibly both. One reads on with the hope that, by the end of the book, Bell will at least give some hint of a way out. But the hope is in vain. The book does conclude with “a reaffirmation of liberalism,” but following as it does on nearly 300 pages of devastation, this strikes an almost desperate note. Nor does Bell say how such a “reaffirmation” is sociologically imaginable. Which social groups would be its bearers? What institutions could help bring it about? What new ethos might result from it? The only institution Bell mentions in this connection is the Supreme Court (heaven help us), and the only attitude he appeals to is the revival of a “tragic sense of life.”
It seems to me that this disappointing conclusion is related to a surprising inconsequence in Bell’s argument (in which, incidentally, he closely resembles Robert Nisbet in his recent Twilight of Authority). Early on, Bell maintains that an important cause of our current crisis is the breakup of religious authority. At one point he even says that “the real problem of modernity is the problem of belief,” and goes on to risk the “unfashionable answer” that Western civilization needs “the return . . . of some conception of religion.” Yet there is not a word about religion in his final reaffirmation of the liberal creed (except for a negative reference to traditional Catholicism). I myself would be the first to reject any notion of a reversion to some updated version of Christendom (in the unlikely case that such a project had any chance of being realized). But there are other religious possibilities in our society, possibilities that affirm pluralism and freedom of conscience, and that are fully compatible with the liberalism supported by Bell and, indeed, by most Americans. 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.