Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bell - The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

Bell, Daniel. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. New York: Basic Books, 1976.

The post-industrial society is suffering from a crisis of hedonism (unlike Lasch, Bell does not use Freud/narcissism). The shift of employment to the service industry, and other post-WW II socio-economic trends have led Americans (though at times Bell talks about all post-industrial societies) into a sense of entitlement of a certain level of quality of life. Although he doesn't say it, Bell is sensing the end/failure of the New Deal state.

Most interesting, at least for me, is the evidence of hedonism Bell uses from culture. Abstract-expressionism and pop art, theatrical productions that break the separation between audience and performers, modern musical trends, pop music, and modern poetry are all signs of shifting sensibilities that Bell doesn't like. In deliberately undermining the critic's ability to differentiate between good and bad art, these developments have made it harder to have an intelligent conversation about art at all.

The second part of the book moves away from culture almost entirely to discuss government's role in modern capitalism and, more broadly, the perceived role of the state. The government is expected to help provide what the people believe they are entitled to, but the recent failures have left Americans disillusioned with their state. Ultimately, (ch.6) Bell argues (p.281-2) America needs "the reaffirmation of our past [meaning traditional and/or religious values]...recognition of the limits of resources and the priority of needs, individual and social, over unlimited appetite and wants; and agreement upon a conception of equity which gives all persons a sense of fairness and inclusion in the society and which promotes a situation where, within the relevant spheres, people become more equal so that they can be treated equally. [Bell is opposed to affirmative action quotas, arguing they are as arbitrary as the racism they seek to amend.]

Great Quote
p. 142 "Traditionally, violence has been repugnant to the intellectual as a confession of failure. In discourse, individuals resorted to force only when they had lost the power of persuasion by means of reason. So, too, in art the resort to force - in the sense of a literal reenactment of violence on the canvas, on the stage, or on the written page - signified that the artist, lacking the artistic power to suggest the emotion, was reduced to invoking the shock of it directly. But in the 1960s violence was justified not only as therapy but as a necessary accompaniment to social change."

The best critique of this period's [1960s] radical (and, indeed, popular) art I have ever read. I'm not totally convinced violence is all there is to it, but Bell makes a great point.

The Morgan Memorial "Deja Vu - You've Seen this Before"
Lasch - The Culture of Narcissism: These books are quite similar in their high intellectual style and substance, their ambivalence towards the New Left, and their critique of narcissism/hedonism. They are both, in some ways, dated; Bell, in particular, goes so far as to spend most of chapter 5 imagining the direction of America in the next 25 years (intriguing yet largely useless to read 35 years after it was written). The tone of both reflects the moment in time in which they were written - post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, during the 70s economic struggles. In a way, this is a cautionary tale for me, as I attempt to write recent history.

Putnam - Bowling Alone: Bell would be disappointed with the trends Putnam sees since Bell wrote this book, but Bell believes strong leadership is the key to American success whereas Putnam calls for a more grassroots solution.

Bell calls his chapters essays, which is apt because the book jumps around from culture to politics to economics. It is difficult, until the final pages, to cull a clear argument, although this is no small part due to the depth of intellectual thought the reader must wade through - not my strong point. As much as I liked his chapters on culture (particularly ch. 2), I prefer Lasch's similar book. Chapter 5 could've been skimmed, as it dealt mostly with musings about America's future.

For Follow-up Reading...
Bensman, Joseph, and Arthur J. Vidich. 2000. "The Cultural Contradictions of Daniel Bell". International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society. 12, no. 3: 503-514.

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