High Concept

The Prophet Motive

Daniel Bell’s take on capitalism, 20 years later.

This month, Daniel Bell’s masterwork The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism arrives in stores in a 20th-anniversary edition with a 56-page afterword by the author. Its reissue raises an interesting question: Bell has always styled himself as much a prophet as a sociologist. So how will he address the fact that nearly every one of the predictions ventured in his 1976 classic was wrong?

Daniel Bell is, simply, one of the most important cultural critics of the postwar era, though also something of an anomaly, with his uncompromising commitment to both economic equality and bedrock cultural conservatism. His 1960 book, The End of Ideology, virtually set the agenda for a generation of social analysts. His 1973 work, The Coming Post-Industrial Society, produced, along with a household phrase, a brilliant new way to characterize the kind of world we live in now–as one determined by the control of information rather than of things.

T hree years later, he wrote The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Its story begins in 16th-century Europe, when capitalists–people who used money to make money–got a new religion. By equating godliness with working hard at a worldly calling, Protestantism brought honor to the previously despised craft of profit-making by yoking it to a set of moral values: delayed gratification, enterprise, self-denial. But this Eden, Bell reported in the dolorous cadences of a modern Jeremiah, is not the world we live in now. Somewhere in the passing of the centuries, these abstemious tradesmen tasted of the fruit. Freed from want and tempted by wealth, they threw off the discipline that had allowed wealth to coexist with morality in the first place.

In our own century, a new character enters the story: the modern artist, who introduces to the world an unprecedented way of living. He searches out new sensations and identities. Soon, so do we. Following the lead of the artist, “every individual, understandably, seeks to realize his full ‘potential,’ ” Bell wrote, “and so the individual ‘self’ comes increasingly into conflict with the role requirements”–delayed gratification, enterprise, self-denial–“of the technical-economic order.” Unmoored from tradition, the “individual can only be a cultural wanderer, without a home to return to.” Hence the cultural contradiction of capitalism, borne on the wings of cubism, a boundless post-World War II economy, and easy credit with no money down.

After this history, Cultural Contradictions becomes a work of sociological prophecy. Citing the increased complexity of postindustrial societies, Bell foresaw, “inevitably,” a concomitant rise in governmental regulation and international cooperation. Citing the government’s “irreversible” commitment to redressing social inequalities, he forecast that the role of the free market would diminish. “We now move,” he proclaimed, “to state-managed societies.”

This shift, inevitable though it was, would carry dangers. From this “revolution in rising entitlements” flowed Bell’s key economic prediction: Inflation would become a permanent fixture of the modern economy, “the largely inescapable consequence of a commitment to economic growth and full employment.” Ultimately, Bell intimates darkly, the voracious sensation- and entitlement-seeking produced by capitalism will threaten the health of capitalism itself.

O f course, none of this–bigger and bigger government, permanent inflation, world government, the implosion of capitalism’s reward structures–has come to pass. Which is not to fault Bell the sociologist, whose diagnoses of the anomie of modern society remain brilliant. Rather, Bell the prophet–like most prophets–turned out wrong. That’s excusable. A science of the future, remarked Émile Durkheim, has no subject matter. Still, it seems incumbent upon Bell, having delivered to his publisher an update of his diagnosis, and at least tacitly endorsing the claim that Cultural Contradictions still has relevance, to explain how and why his predictions misfired.

One of the themes of Cultural Contradictions remains relevant: its insistence on the shakiness of the moral foundations of both Communist and capitalist economies. Of the former, Bell correctly predicted that the Soviet system’s failure to meet the legitimate desires of its constituents would spell its downfall. Of the latter, he ventured that the efficiency of the American economy in delivering on even its citizens’ most questionable desires would threaten our ability to define a consensus on matters of public morality. That wasn’t a bad prediction either, and Bell’s afterword is best when it describes the spectacle of MCA picking up a controlling interest in Interscope Records a month after Time Warner dropped the company because of its association with gangsta rap.

Yet the afterword is silent about Bell’s errant prophecy about the decline of the market, which, he predicted, would occur when the managers entrusted with its care began to indulge their cultural appetites. “A corporation finds its people being straight by day and swingers by night,” he wrote. It’s not just Bell’s slang that’s become outdated. In the decade after he wrote this, work came increasingly to be portrayed as a form of fulfilling play, so that today’s most popular management expert, Tom Peters, is pictured on the back cover of his latest book wearing a T-shirt and juggling. Play, on the other hand, became strenuous work. That it is often pursued by way of strange contraptions such as Nautilus machines, or with the hyperachieving single-mindedness of a Martha Stewart, suggests that, if anything, the ethic of impressing one’s peers by denying oneself a life of ease–the ethic of the early capitalist–has been waxing, not waning.

Meanwhile, some of the best capitalists these days are swingers. Bell dismissed 1960s counterculture–the “counterfeit culture,” he called it, “a children’s crusade that sought to eliminate the line between fantasy and reality and act out in life its impulses under a banner of liberation.” But like it or not, the counterculture ended up producing some of our most nimble entrepreneurs, from Ben & Jerry to those wacky hackers in garages who turned breadboards into personal computers.

Another of Bell’s missed calls is more portentous. Today, we find not an increase in state provision but a downscaled sense of social possibility in which citizens wish to scrap every entitlement but their own. In 1976, Bell noted that one of the puzzles of industrial democracies was that masses of voters don’t use their electoral muscle to command a more equal distribution of wealth. Thanks to the revolution in rising entitlements, Bell promised, such an effort would soon be made. Instead, a scant four years later, blue-collar workers didn’t vote themselves a raise; they voted themselves Ronald Reagan.

Bell’s manuscript was written in the immediate aftermath of America’s humiliations in Watergate and Vietnam, amid something new in the history of capitalism: the simultaneous existence, thought impossible by conventional wisdom, of inflation and stagnation. His is a tragedian’s tale of how these twin calamities were brought on by hubris–our overweening faith in ourselves and our ability to pursue social goals and self-fulfillment at the same time. And yet this vision of economic equality, along with the specter of permanent inflation, was handily dispatched by the Federal Reserve’s discovery that if you stopped pursuing full employment, curbing inflation wasn’t so hard after all.

Today we have not a tragedy of inflated expectations but the prosaic fallout from diminished ones, not an expansion of the public’s will but the privatization of society, not capitalists torn between hedonism and industry but the integration of hedonism with industry. What would Daniel Bell say? Our cultural contradictions await their Jeremiah.