Listening to Daniel Bell

The visionary social scientist predicted the risks for a post-modern America cut loose from its moorings

On reading recently of the forced resignation of NPR news chief Vivienne Schiller to appease Tea Party Republicans, I thought fondly of the brilliant social scientist Daniel Bell, who died in January at the age of 91.

Bell, you can be sure, would have done no such thing: He was a liberal, and didn’t care who knew it.  That is, politically liberal. In cultural matters, he was a conservative, and in economics, a socialist – at a time when the former was considered reactionary and the latter close to treason.

But from where he so clearly stood, Bell saw post-modern America with dazzling clarity, a country increasingly disjointed, drenched in consumer-capitalism, its moral focus dissolving in a love affair of self invention and a distain for the past.

Thus it had been a huge relief to me when Bell’s Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism fell into my hands in 1976, a book that put into words the profound uneasiness I felt with ‘70s America, the one in which I was (awkwardly) coming of age and which everyone else seemed so proud of.

During those years, there was change on every side. Movements for civil rights, then peace, then feminism – we were being swept along, while at the same time we were breaking from a march into a dead run, trying to keep up.

All the while, there was a deeper malaise that I was unable to explain, and found few willing to talk about. Maybe I was hanging around in the wrong circles; in retrospect, I imagine I was.

Daniel Bell was professor of Social Sciences at Harvard and a (neo) Marxist, and in the world I came from, liberal as it was, this was like being a heretic in the Vatican.  In my family, social change was extremely important, but it had been made possible, everybody knew, by the 30-year post war economic boom, that had made the United States the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world.

With all its flaws (said without a hint of irony), American democratic capitalism was the best system in the world, the one everyone not living in it was struggling to emulate.

That was, of course, before everything started to fall apart, before the 1970s oil shocks, the run away inflation, the spiraling interest rates and the Reagan-Thatcher mantra of deregulation that dismantled the restraints on the Anglo-American free-marketeers and paved the way for the financial crisis of 2008.

And of course the painful clarity of hindsight in 2011.

Bell’s profound insight was that cultures, like people, generally muddle through with their collective heads full of cognitive dissonance, with belief systems that conflict, yet reside more or less placidly side-by-side.

The pictures of reality societies draw for themselves are selective and tidy, and even inspiring, but very incomplete.

Bell saw three central contradictions: first, the tension between asceticism and acquisitiveness (the values of hard work and delayed gratification vs. self-indulgence and consumerism); second, the pull between bourgeois society and modernism; and third, the separation of law from morality.

The first read like a users manual for the mixed messages of my childhood, while helping me pick my way through the perils of the counter culture; and the second gave voice to my dismay with the soullessness of modernism, with Bauhaus architecture (“Whereas Mies van der Rohe had proclaimed that ‘Less is more’,” commented Bell, “Robert Venturi retorted ‘Less is boring!’ ”) and atonal music (“that nobody could listen to”).

And while all of this is compelling, it is the third, then and now, that resonates the most. In the separation of law from morality, Bell described an America where “the market has become the arbiter of all economic and even social relations, and the priority of legal rights of ownership and property [prevail] over all other claims, even [those] of a moral nature.”

A separation of law from morality? This is not how Americans thought of their system – we had long seen ourselves as “the good guys,” a just nation, who stood on the moral high ground as a model for the world.

Yet Bell’s logic was hard to challenge: From a separation of church and state, and the cherished value of privacy – to be free from government intrusion – and a belief that no single group should have the right to impose its morality on the entire society, we had developed an adversary legal system that insists not on the ideal of justice, but only the better argument…

And a society whose values are set by the market.

Morality has to come from culture, if it comes at all. But when that culture is a value-free version of capitalism, Bell saw grave danger, asking, “Can we set a limit to hubris?”

Wouldn’t it be great if we listened to him now.

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