Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Cultural Contradictions Of Daniel Bell

I just finished reading 20th Anniversary Edition of The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism; I'm not quite sure what to make of it. On one hand it reads like a standard conservative tract, bemoaning the loss of tradition and warning of the attendant downfall of society. And yet, if we value a theory by its predictive power, it appears that Daniel Bell was on to something since he foresaw many of the social shifts which have occurred since the book's publication. Finally, though he clearly believes that something should be done about the state of affairs we find ourselves in, he is unable to offer much in the way of concrete suggestions.

Bell seems to acknowlege that there's something about the tone of the work which invokes images of old men grumbling about kids these days. In the foreward to the 1978 edition he discusses how he's been called as a "neo-conservative", but defends himself by saying that this is a facile categorization and that his critiques "transcend the received categories of liberalism"1. I'll buy that; I don't know what it meant to be "neo-conservative" in 1978, but he certainly wouldn't merit the title now. When writing of things which are empirically verifiable his views are generally well-reasoned, grounded in history and, as he claims, not easily reducible to "left" or "right".

At the same time, however, he longs for the high culture of the traditional canon and doesn't bother to hide his disdain for Modernism, Post-Modernism, and the cultural anarchy which followed. Sure, there was (and is) a lot of unadulturated intellectual garbage associated with the postmodern era; one need look no further than Sokal's infamous prank to know that something is rotten in Denmark. But it doesn't necessarily follow from there that the blurring of boundaries and disregard of traditional forms is A Bad Thing; part of the joy of contemporary culture is watching people do interesting things with this new liberty. Bell may not have cared much for Burgess, Vonnegut, or Kesey2 but to state, at this remove, that those writers had nothing of interest to say seems indefensible.

The good news is that this particular prejudice (or, to be charitable, "reflexive blind spot") doesn't detract much from the work as a whole. The bulk of its value can be found in the theory of "cultural contradictions" that Bell puts forward to explain how society in the West came to be in the state it was in circa 1976. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism might have been written of as another Just So Story except for the fact that it made a number of predictions which subsequently turned out to be true. Bell foresaw the coming insecurity of the middle class3 and the rise of interest-group politics4 which, as I alluded to above, suggests that he was on to something. His predictions have long since passed their "due by" date, so the book's utility as a guide to the future is limited, but the fact that he got some of them right tends to validate his underlying theory.

The Cultural Contraditions of Capitalism shines as an explanation of the origin of some of the ills of modern society but fails to offer a coherent prescription for how they might be addressed. Bells sees the root of all evil in the dissolution of behavioral boundaries and calls, in the Afterword to the 1996 edition, for a return to boundaries set by a sense of the numinous:

For me, religion is not the sphere of God or of the gods. It is the sense, a necessary one, of what is beyond us and cannot be transgressed. ... One of the charges I made against capitalism and modernism is that in their insatiable bursting of all bonds, there was "nothing sacred". The failure of capitalism and now postmodernism to establish the boundaries of transgression - which is what a doctrine of "natural law" would provide - indicate that the cultural contradictions of the two modes remain.

Setting aside obvious problems with the statement above (what if you think "the sacred" is a complete fabrication?) there remains the problem of squaring Bell's recommendation with his stated commitment to political liberalism. He quotes, with seeming approbation, Isaiah Berlin:

The notion that there must exist final objective answers to normative questions, truth that can be demonstrated or directly intuited, that it is in principle possible to discover a harmonious patern in which all values are reconciled, and that it is towards this unique goal that we must make; that we can uncover some central principle that shapes this vision a principle which, once found, will govern our lives - this ancient and almost universal belief, on which so much traditional thought and action and philosphical doctrine rests, sems to me invalid, and at time to have led (and still to lead) to absurdities in theory and barbarous consequences in practice. (p. 279)

To me that looks an awful lot like the motivating spirit of postmodernism itself, albeit dressed up in slightly nobler clothes. If Truth is unknowable, and that the only things which can be known with any certainty are brute, material facts, where does that leave us? Bell would have us live our lives bound by an arbitrary truth intuited through some sense of the sacred, which seems an odd thing to say for someone who otherwise behaves like a rationalist. I might go so far as to say that its an act of intellectual cowardice; Bell surely knows that The Void is there and is just trying to find some way to avoid looking into it. Much better to acknowlege that we're making it up as well go along and then try to find a means (natural law or something else) to live with that reality.


1 P. xi
2 P. 138. Though I'm with him in thinking that Thomas Pynchon might be an elaborate joke that got carried away.
3 P. 189 - 190
4 P. 197 - 198
5 P. xi

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow - couldn't agree more. I actually couldn't get more than 1/3rd of the way through the book because Bell came off like my cantankerous grandfather when it came to his critiques of contemporary culture. I do agree with him in some regard - a society spoiled with abundance will likely abandon the disciplined work ethic that brought forth that abundance (although this does neglect the cheap, i.e. free, labor and natural resources that built american wealth, but that's another story). However, failing to see that pop art, post modern literature, etc.. has value is myopic and old and cranky.

I will agree with you regarding the fraud that is Pynchon. I prefer my post modern lit minus the excessive use of the word "vectors"

1:30 PM  

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