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The Man Who Foresaw the West’s Fantasia

While he couldn't predict selfies, multiculturalism, or Oprah, Daniel Bell sensed the rage against bourgeois order would eventually lead to crisis.

The eminent sociologist Daniel Bell (1919-2011) accomplished many things in his long and active life. He was a prominent editor at Fortune magazine, a Columbia and Harvard University sociologist, and, with Irving Kristol, founder and editor of The Public Interest, a public policy quarterly that redefined conservative thought during the 1970s and 1980s. Bell’s predictive powers were dazzling, especially in his forecasts of an emerging, post-industrial, information-based economy. His analysis and speculations still provide an invaluable schematic of the nation’s social dynamics over the past half-century.

Bell’s masterwork, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, was published in 1976. This collection of six essays elucidates what he perceived to be the expansion of a culture that undermines its own moral basis. Society’s three interwoven realms—polity, economy, and culture—had grown in his word disjunctive. The requirements of the technical-economic order and mood of Western culture, prodded by mass consumer tastes, contradicted one another. One depended on merit and sobriety; the other sought self-actualization and release. “The contradiction is, in the longer run, the most fateful division in the society,” Bell said.

As Bell saw it, economic welfare and social order depended on wide allegiance to Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic, steady investment, and capital maintenance. It required logical thinking, delayed gratification, and prudence. Yet the modernist ethos, born at the end of the 19th century and conventionalized by the 1970s, encouraged pleasure, letting go, questioning authority, self-realization, and novelty. Distressing to Bell and any number of conservatives, Protestant codes of vocation and behavior were fading as dominant social authorities. Bell believed he was “witnessing the end of the bourgeois idea,” and sought to explain the “deeper cultural crises, which beset bourgeois societies,” and “devitalize a country, confuse the motivations of individuals, instill a sense of carpe diem, and undercut its civil will.”

What if modernism and luxury encourage the breakup of values that make bourgeois comfort and order possible, Bell asked. Liberalism approves reflexively of permissiveness but “cannot with any certainty define the bounds,” he noted. “And this is its dilemma.” For solutions, Americans were embracing a “revolution of rising entitlements” and suspicious therapeutic ministries. The contest would ultimately be between reason and anti-rationalism, Bell decided. Forty-two years later, it sometimes seems that the crazy train has arrived at the station.

Rage against bourgeois order and embrace of Dionysian expression, said Bell, furthers the “loss of coherence in culture, particularly in the spread of an antinomian attitude to moral norms and even to the idea of cultural judgment itself.” What Bell called a consumption ethic, grafted to a life unregulated by church, family, or school, and a fun morality, were blooming into a new zeitgeist. Bell could not perfectly foresee universal smartphones, multiculturalism, or Beyoncé, for example, but he surely glimpsed the appeal of their antecedents.

Today, social media and celebrity culture have an iron lock on the public household. Coarsened, showy self-display—Bell’s imperial self—has animated the Obama and Trump White Houses. Political and belief systems based on race, gender, disability, religion, and sexuality consciously try to discredit, minimize, or destabilize (“transform”) what is left of the established order, which is commonly perceived as inherently oppressive or unjust, and by some accounts worthy of punishment. What suasion that remains in mainline Protestant denominations is channeled mainly into social redemption and works.

Administrative officers who run public and private institutions insist that multiculturalism is “our” greatest strength, policing operations carefully to make sure no deviations occur. From Google to the Air Force Academy, such predispositions are not just expected, ingrained, advanced, and catechistic. They are essential to individual advancement and institutional practice.

In a sharply observed essay for The American Conservative, Benjamin Schwarz captured the disposition of today’s cosmopolitan idea and style manufacturers. The “anywheres,” as Schwarz called them, travel light, with few serious institutional or community loyalties. Label-conscious even in their moral judgments, with few convictions beyond material satisfaction and self-advancement, they seek above all to be on the right side of style. As Bell forewarned 42 years ago, “aesthetic disaster itself becomes an aesthetic.” These elites profess fantasies that let them feel virtuous and superior. Meanwhile, the burden of their social confections rests on unwilling, less privileged yeomen, rarely on themselves or their children.

Just what do today’s purveyors of progressive global capitalism believe in? Technology and science? Pure equality? Eradication of Western civilization? The National Football League? Anything? “The real problem of modernity is the problem of belief,” Bell wrote. “To use an unfashionable term, it is a spiritual crisis, since the new anchorages have proved illusory and the old ones have become submerged. It is a situation which brings us back to nihilism: lacking a past or a future, there is only a void.” Systems of reference and belief were very much up for grabs, Bell realized, in a nihilistic setting. Something in time will fill the void; never-ending culture wars are feuds over what might someday be scripture.

“Despite the shambles of modern culture, some religious answer surely will be forthcoming,” Bell asserted. Religion is a “constitutive part of man’s consciousness.” It grows out of the “primordial need” for “a set of meanings that will establish a transcendent response to self; and the existential need to confront the finalities of suffering and death.” What that religion might be or become going forward cannot yet be known. The grand Western traditions were Antiquity and Church, both of them now compromised and slandered. In the contemporary culture of spectacle and disbelief, entertainers and news barkers act as bishops.

Bell was nominally and cerebrally a socialist, but by no means an egalitarian. “Tradition becomes essential to the vitality of a culture, for it provides the continuity of memory that teaches how one’s forebears met the same existential predicaments,” he wrote. Far removed emotionally from the Bronx ghetto of his youth while also sentimentally attached to it, the mature Bell was an outspoken anti-Marxist, staunch guardian of bourgeois propriety, Cambridge mandarin, and Bildungsbürger.

The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism is not an easy read, and sometimes that’s Bell’s own fault. Long, florid passages weary the reader as do lapidary pronouncements and diction. Hey, slow down, come back to earth, the reader finally begs, and to his credit Bell—the journalist and phrasemaker—usually complies, making his point crisply and clearly in summation.

How long America and the West’s fantasia can endure—a bit of Disney here, a little Nero there—is an unanswerable question. Many exogenous forces—let’s begin with East Asia, Africa, and the Mideast—enter the picture. But the nation’s root social problems are domestic, longstanding, and misconstrued. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism explains why this is so, and why Americans live, think, and behave as they do, decades after Bell first outlined their predicament.

Gilbert T. Sewall is co-author of After Hiroshima: The United States Since 1945 and editor of The Eighties: A Reader.