The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism
Daniel Bell is one of America’s foremost sociologists. In addition to being the author or editor of almost a dozen serious books in his field, he has been for many years a professor of sociology, first at Columbia and later at Harvard University. He is also a co-editor of a highly respected periodical, The Public Interest, for which he frequently writes. This book, a series of six essays, contains material which, although rewritten for this publication to provide a continuity of theme and argument, appeared earlier in various publications, primarily periodicals, including The Public Interest, Social Research, Daedalus, and Encounter. In an earlier book, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, Bell describes how technology, including intellectual technology, and the use of the codification of theoretical knowledge reshape the techno-economic order and the stratification system of society. In the present series of essays, which he planned to have a dialectal relationship to his previous book, he turns to examining culture, especially the idea of modernity, and the problems of managing such a complex polity as the United States when social values stress unrestrained appetite. As he views it, contradictions do exist in contemporary capitalistic society and result from two sources, the dissolution of the connections between culture and economy, and the influence of hedonism, which he regards as the prevailing value in contemporary Western society.
In his Preface to The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Bell points out that present-day social scientists think of society as a unified system organized around a single major principle, a principle which seeks to reproduce itself through the dominant institutions of that society. On a theoretical level, Bell seeks in his essays to show that a better way of analyzing society is to view it as a combination of three distinct realms: the social structure, principally the techno-economic order; the polity; and the culture. His point is that the whole idea of our era as being a post-industrial period of history is limited to changes in the techno-economic order, while changes in the social structure do not determine the polity or the culture in our time. As he views the condition of the contemporary Western world of capitalism, the political order has become the true control system within that society.
His thesis, then, is that the three realms of society are ruled by diverging, perhaps contrary, principles. His analysis suggests that the economic realm is ruled by the principle of efficiency, that the political realm is ruled by the principle of equality, and that the cultural realm is ruled by the principle of self-realization, which might be more accurately termed self-gratification. The disjunctions resulting from the operation of the three principles have, then, produced tensions and conflicts in capitalistic society, not just in recent decades, but for a century and a half. The six essays in this book, as the author sees his work, make a coherent statement about the present interrelated economic and cultural elements in capitalistic society, as well as about the exhaustion of cultural modernism. Although he sees the essays as coherent, Bell does not regard them as complete. Although the essays present what he calls the general ground, he hopes in a number of future volumes to develop his themes more fully and to show a more formal theoretical structure in his work.
Central to understanding Bell’s book is the belief that we are coming to a kind of watershed in Western society, in that today we are witnessing the end of the bourgeois idea that has molded our culture for two centuries. Also important to an understanding of his book is the idea that today we are witnessing the end of the creative impulse and power of modernism, the cultural movement which has dominated all the arts and our general symbolic expression for more than 125 years.
Equally important to understanding Bell’s work is his division of society into three realms. The first of these realms, which he consistently labels the techno-economic order, is that part of society which concerns itself with the production and distribution of goods and services. In this realm the axial principle is functional rationality, with an accompanying regulative mode being economizing in materials and activity. The structure of this realm is hierarchical and bureaucratic, because of...
(The entire section is 1823 words.)