PRINT December 1976


The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

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

COULD IT BE THAT MODERN art was a factor in the U.S. defeat in the Vietnam war? This question is not absurd in the context of the neo-conservative cultural critique of Daniel Bell. In his rambling but powerfully written study, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Bell seeks to analyze the current American malaise in the perspective of the history of ideas and to put forward a program for restoring “legitimacy” to the U.S. political and economic system. A great deal of the book’s analysis is devoted to “culture” and the primacy it has assumed in modern life as religion has declined. His attempt to isolate the “modernist” impulse our culture enshrines focuses on the role of the artist in modern life, and it is here, in Bell’s survey of the 1960s art scene—unusual in a book of this nature—that we have a unique opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with a neglected but persistent phenomenon, the conservative mind in action.

As a school, the neo-conservatives, who are self-styled “liberals” for the most part, believe that the decline of the U.S. as a world power is rooted in the overload placed on capitalism by escalating demands on the part of the citizenry for “equality” and “participation” in the system. For Daniel Bell and such colleagues as Irving Kristol and Daniel P. Moynihan, the result has been a massive breakdown of civic virtue and public order. As they see it, since the 1960s the U.S. has been beset by a “disease of democracy,” a paralysis of political authority so pervasive as to affect even its ability to act in its own best interests in the international arena. Some readers, especially those who see no alternative to the American system but Soviet-style communism or Third World botchery, will find the arguments of a Bell seductive and compelling; others will be repelled by the murky ideology underpinning what is probably the most dynamic political current of the 1970s—the revision of bourgeois liberalism into authoritarian conservatism.

Daniel Bell is a professor of sociology at Harvard. He is the author of a number of books, including the celebrated The End of Ideology (1960) and The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973) and is a contributor to journals like Encounter, Commentary, Daedalus, and The Public Interest.1 He is a social theorist in the tradition of Max Weber and aspires to be a cultural critic in the tradition of Lionel Trilling. Both of these are “liberal” traditions—a provenance that helps distinguish Bell and his neo-conservative colleagues from the older Right. Like Moynihan, the best known of the neo-conservatives, Bell believes himself to be a fierce defender of the true faith of liberalism against the “antinomian” heresies of radicals and counterculturists who emerged under the mantle of liberalism in the 1960s.

Despite its Marxist-sounding title, then, Bell’s book is not a political attack on capitalism, but something of a provisional elegy for it. As Bell perceives things, the gravest threat to U.S. capitalism is neither a competing economic order abroad nor a revolutionary class at home, but cultural tendencies spawned by the capitalist system itself and so widespread and ingrained in modern life that our rulers are helpless to check them. What these boil down to is the poison of hedonism—“the idea of pleasure as a way of life”—which for Bell is not only the mainspring of the “modernist” impulse but the core value of American life. In the decade of the 1960s hedonism reached full maturity in what Bell calls the the “sensibility of the sixties.” The products of that sensibility, the “psychedelic bazaar”—ranging from pornographic movies to Minimal sculpture, from the music of the Beatles to the novels of William Burroughs—are embodiments of the modernist impulse and represent for Bell not only an affront to the mind but also a threat to social order.

Bell takes the high road of rationality and bases his theory of cultural contradictions on a highly schematic division of “society” into three “realms,” an approach that founders from the outset in structural and logical inconsistencies. The three realms are the “technoeconomic structure,” the “polity,” and the “culture.” Each is a separate sphere of human life; each operates according to its own characteristic dynamic or “axial” principle. Contradictions in society arise not only from the clashing axial principles of the realms, e.g. “efficiency” for the economy versus “self-realization” for the culture, but also from conflicting modes of change for the respective realms. Thus, while change in the political and economic realms tends to be linear and progressive (that is, innovations occur, obsolete forms disappear), achievements in culture touch on “eternal concerns” and do not become outmoded but are preserved in “an enlarged repertoire of mankind, a permanent depository from which individuals can draw, in a renewable fashion, to remold an aesthetic experience.” In culture, Bell says, “there is no unambiguous ‘principle’ of change. Boulez does not replace Bach.”

It seems that all three realms since the Renaissance have shared the assumption of the autonomy of the individual human being. Indeed, this ideal, the equation of self-determination and freedom, involving “repudiation of institutions” as well as the “opening of geographical frontiers, the ability to master nature and to make of oneself what one can, and even—to remake one’s self altogether,” is the basis of what Bell calls “modernism.” Yet, the powerful expression of this modernist impulse in the parallel emergence of the bourgeois entrepreneur and the independent artist is responsible for a “disjunction of realms” now 150 years old. The cultural contradiction of capitalism, then, is rooted in a now-permanent “adversary” relationship between the economic and cultural realms. As Bell puts it:

While bourgeois society introduced a radical individualism in economics, and a willingness to tear up all traditional social relations in the process, the bourgeois class feared the radical experimental individualism of modernism in culture. Conversely, the radical experimentalists in the culture, from Baudelaire to Rimbaud to Alfred Jarry, were willing to explore all dimensions of experience, yet fiercely hated bourgeois life.

In the very next sentence, Bell reveals that the arbitrariness of his scheme has limited the possibilities of his imagination: “The history of this sociological puzzle, how this antagonism came about, is still to be written.” In turning history on its side to establish his categories, Bell disregards the obvious: the mutual hostility of artist and entrepreneur is a pale reflection, and expression of, the real antagonisms at work—entrepreneur versus entrepreneur, artist versus artist. At any given time, the disjunctions within the realms are far more explosive than any among them.

Nevertheless, for Bell the belated effect on American society of the adversary relationship between cultural and economic realms has been most extreme because of a special feature of American economic and cultural development:

In the early development of capitalism, the unrestrained economic impulse was held in check by Puritan restraint and the Protestant ethic. One worked because of one’s obligation to one’s calling, or to fulfill the covenant of the community. But the Protestant ethic was undermined not by modernism but by capitalism itself. The greatest single engine in the destruction of the Protestant ethic was the invention of the installment plan, or instant credit. Previously one had to save in order to buy. But with credit. . . one could indulge in instant gratification. The system was transformed by mass production and mass consumption, by the creation of new wants and new means of gratifying those wants.

In the suddenly hospitable soil of America, then, modernist culture not only takes deep root, it actually “triumphs” over the other realms. The role model of the autonomous individual shifts from that of the capitalist entrepreneur to that of the artist, whose uncompromising pursuit of innovation and whose refusal to submit to any “limits or boundaries to experience” best respond to the enthusiasm of society “to provide a market which eagerly gobbles up the new, because it believes [the new] to be superior in value to all older forms.”

In the 1960s American artists carried out the logic of the modernist impulse and its mission of an “official, ceaseless search for a new sensibility” to their logical extreme, in what Bell characterizes as a systematic attempt to break down the barrier between art and life. He plots the “trajectory” of modern art, beginning with action painting in the 1950s, as a movement

. . . . to dissolve the work of art as a “cultural object,” and to erase the distinction between subject and object. . . . Nowhere was this more apparent than in sculpture, or in the fusion of sculpture and painting and the dissolution of both into spaces, environments, motions, media-mixes, happenings, and “man-machine” interaction systems.

Ignoring the possibility that such a tendency might express parallel developments in the techno-economic realm, Bell identifies it as a rebellion against physical reality. Whereas, as he sees it, sculpture “classically dealt preeminently with objects,” the sculptors of the 1960s removed the base “so that sculpture fused with its surroundings. Mass dissolved into space and space turned into motion. Thus the ‘Minimal sculpture’ (of Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Dan Flavin) abandoned imagery altogether.” Works exhibited at the Whitney Museum’s “Anti-Illusion: Procedures and Materials” show (1969) and the Museum of Modern Art’s “Spaces” show (1969) are cited as evidence for Bell’s contention that “environmental art erases the boundary between the space and the person,” just as Happenings “erase the distance between the situation, or event, and the spectator.” Thus he can glibly conclude of modern art:

The expressive content becomes dissolved in the literal, and the meanings as metaphor or emblems disappear. Even the idea of the evocative loses meaning because the event does not represent or picture something—it is. The emphasis on the literal is part of the attack on metaphysical expression.

Moreover, Bell dresses up the old philistine view of modern art—that anyone can do it—in new clothes as follows: “If there was a democratization of culture in which a radical egalitarianism of feeling superseded the older hierarchy of mind, there was also, by the end of the 1960s, a democratization of ‘genius.”’ That is to say, “authenticity” in a work of art was no longer identified “with authority, with mastery of craft, with knowledge of form, and with the search for perfection, whether aesthetic or moral,” but with “immediacy, both the immediacy of the artist’s intention and the immediacy of his effect on the viewer.” Nowhere does Bell explain why the categories of authenticity and immediacy should be mutually exclusive. And it is ironic that the Minimalist esthetic is in general accord with his own antimodernist definition of “art”—a process of “purification,” “a purging away of all accidental elements. . . . in the quest for that essence which signifies completeness of form. . . . a matter of pattern and structure, and the relationships among its separate elements [which] had to be perceivable for a work of art to have meaning.”

Bell is on no safer ground in denouncing Judith Malina’s (and the Living Theater’s) intention “to do away with illusion in the theater, as the painters have eliminated it in art.” He says: “to forgo the ‘representation’ . . . is to deny the commonality of human experience and to insist on a false uniqueness of personality . . . .[It] is to repudiate memory and to discard the past.” Here he is overlooking the mid-1960s avant-garde’s highly self-conscious (if not quite successful) attempt to achieve a ricorso (to use a favorite term of Bell’s) to the roots of theater in prehistoric religious ritual via a kind of tapping of racial memory (Richard Schechner’s Dionysus in 1969 and the Open Theater’s The Serpent).

Similarly, Bell’s tendency to take the “literalism” of modern art literally blinds him to the reverence many 1960s artists pay in their works to the industrial and technical achievements of advanced capitalism with their painstaking attention to materials, manufacturing finishes and processes. Had Bell been alert, he could have taken this art to task for nothing else than being pathetic imitations of the real thing—e.g. Earthworks being the cultural equivalents of the massive accomplishments wrought by combined techno-economic and political operations on the landscape of Indochina, Conceptual art a parody of the paperwork disgorged routinely by the bureaucracies of the “other” realms. The closest Bell can come to a valid socio-political critique of art is to cite Lawrence Alloway’s definition of Pop art as reflecting the “aesthetics of plenty.” But in calling Pop the “appropriate cultural style” of “a hedonistic age,” he violates his own laboriously constructed canon, by which Pop, because of its representational nature, must be barred categorically from consideration as a form of modern art.

Bell’s treatment of art criticism is no less muddled. Not surprisingly, he believes that the sensibility of the sixties, with its ideals of “the redemption of the senses from the mind” (in order that “thought should not mediate spontaneity”), was expressed in the writings of critics. As he sees it, “each work of art, whether painting, novel, or film” became “a pretext for ‘another’ work of ‘art’—the critic’s declaration of his feelings about the original work. ‘Action’ art thus brought ‘action’ response, and every man became his own artist. But in the process all notion of objective judgment went by the board.”

No doubt it is out of tender regard for his readers’ sensibilities that Bell chooses not to substantiate this sweeping assertion with even a single example of what he is talking about. Instead, he quotes Hilton Kramer to remind us that high art is necessarily elitist since it requires talent, training, and dedication, or, as Kramer puts it, “It requires exceptional individuals.” But we have only Bell’s word, no proof, that anyone is seriously contending otherwise. Yet, for Bell, the serious critic is in a dilemma:

The “public” is now so culturally voracious that the avant-garde, far from needing defenders among the critics, is in the public domain. The serious critic, then, must either turn against high art itself, thereby pleasing its political enemies, or, in John Gross’s phrase, “resign himself to being the doorman at the discotheque.” This is the trajectory of the democratization of cultural genius.

Complicating his position even further, Bell finds that there is nothing really new about contemporary art anyway. What he finds striking about the 1960s is that:

With all the turbulence, there was not one noteworthy revolution in aesthetic form. . . It was a decade, despite all the talk of form and style, empty of originality in both. But in sensibility, there was an exacerbation of tone and temper, the fruits of an anger, political in origin, which spilled over into art as well. What remains important for cultural history was a mood which turned against art, and an effort by a cultural mass to adopt and act out the life-style which hitherto had been the property of a small and talented elite.

With Bell, “mass” is invariably negative; “elite” a positive mood. Of far greater importance to Bell than the question of modern art per se—its forms, whether it is or should be elitist, whether or not it is even “art”—are the mechanisms by which “culture” has become “supreme” and the implications of this for American society. He considers the reception of the New York School of painters in the 1950s emblematic of the process. Despite the difficulty of their work, the failure of professional critics to understand it, and the disbelieving response of the public to it, the New York painters became major figures almost overnight. Within a few years their work “dominated the museums and galleries. Their conceptions of art now set the taste for the public.” What this meant was that “the middle-class audience, the wealthy buyer” had lost control of art. This had passed into the hands of “culture” itself, that is, an amalgam of artists and larger followings of fans—those who are steeped in the “adversary” values that are “the congenital condition of modern art,” left over from the old days when modern art was systematically rejected by the middle class. Thus it is that:

The adversary culture has come to dominate the cultural order, and this is why the hierophants of the culture—the painters, the writers, the filmmakers—now dominate the audience, rather than vice versa. Indeed, the subscribers to this adversary culture are sufficiently numerous to form a distinct cultural class. . . . Even though tiny by comparison with the numbers of the total society, the present cultural class is numerous enough for those individuals no longer to be outcasts, or a bohemian enclave, in the society. They function institutionally as a group, bound by consciousness of kind.

Bell confers on this minute stratum the designation of “cultural mass.” The power he attributes to it, all out of proportion to its size, reflects several conditions. On one hand, the bourgeoisie is in disarray: the capitalists who transformed society by undermining the Protestant ethic were “never able to develop successfully a new ideology congruent with the change”; the “majority” in society “has no intellectually respectable culture of its own—no major figures in literature, painting, or poetry—to counterpose to the adversary culture.” On the other hand, members of the cultural mass “substantially influence, if not dominate, the cultural establishments today: the publishing houses, museums, and galleries; the major news, picture, and cultural weeklies and monthlies; the theater, the cinema, and the universities.”

If Daniel Bell’s analysis is beginning to sound familiar, it should. It is one of several updated versions of that most venerable of canards—the treason of the intellectuals.2 Though these anti-intellectual arguments may differ somewhat in their interpretation of the historical origins of what they take to be the alienation of American young people from the blessings of the capitalist system, they agree that mass education has been instrumental in the process. As Bell puts it, “The expansion of higher education, and the growth of a semiskilled intelligentsia” have brought about a situation in which “large numbers of people who might previously have been oblivious to the matter now insist on the right to participate in the artistic enterprise—not in order to cultivate their minds or sensibilities, but to ‘fulfill’ their personalities.” One could question the distinction he makes here between cultivating one’s mind or sensibilities and fulfilling one’s personality (he does not explain it). But there can be no question that things are in a critical state when increasing numbers of people want to participate in culture!

Bell seems unaware of the efforts, underway since the early days of the Nixon administration, to remedy this deplorable situation, efforts which are now bearing fruit in the dismantling of certain types of higher education, narrowing the poor’s access to what remains of it, and reinstilling a spirit of competition among those who do have access. It remains to be seen whether the attack on education and the overall disciplining of the American people that the prolonged recession is engineered to accomplish will have the ultimate desired effect of rebuilding the nation’s morale to the extent that Americans once more will be willing to fight in wars abroad. Bell, of course, knows how high the stakes are when he says, in conclusion to his reflections on the problems the Vietnam war posed for the polity: “The war produced an estrangement of a large section of the future elite from the society. Whether that estrangement can be overcome is one of the large questions about the future strength—and will—of the United States as a great power.” In this is reflected the conceit that the U.S. could have defeated the Vietnamese if its “will” had not been sabotaged by the “cultural mass.” And this raises another question: if the “adversary culture” is as powerful as Bell says, then why has it not mounted even a token resistance to the purging of its bases in the educational and social service bureaucracies?

In his lengthy exploration of the economic and political realms, Bell has few prescriptions for our ills other than generalities: We must become more aware of the nature and specifics of our problems and approach them in a cooperative way. Rather than take apart the “public sector” (here again we are to distinguish the neo-conservatives from the traditional Right with its horror of Big Government), we should use it more efficiently, first learning to limit our demands on it. He proposes our setting ourselves up as a “public household” based on expectations tempered by a sober assessment of our resources. In the cultural realm, we should place more emphasis on the virtues of civility and restraint; we should ease up on our adoration of the new, develop more of an understanding of and appreciation for the old. Indeed, Bell hungers for the “return in Western society of some conception of religion.”

The obstacles to building this “household” are formidable and complex, Bell concedes, and he is not all that optimistic about the possibility. After all, he says, “The major sociological difficulty is that the United States, so strongly individualist in temper, and so bourgeois in appetite, has never wholly mastered the art of collective solutions, or of readily accepting the idea of public interest, as against private gain.” In other words, the cultural contradiction of capitalism is not just going to go away. Of course, Bell cannot entertain the possibility that the failure of the U.S. to master the art of collective solutions in the public interest may be more a question of regime than national character.

Neither is he sanguine about the direction of American culture. Without apologies to W.B. Yeats and Henry James, he asks: “Is cultural modernism exhausted, or will there be one more turn in the widening gyre, one more turn of the screw in which further inhibitions (against incest, against pederasty, against androgyny) are leveled?” For Bell, even if modernism as a force for innovation in esthetic terms is exhausted, its poison persists. Leaving off his survey of the visual arts circa 1969 with examples of Hermann Nitsch and Jean-Luc Godard incorporating the slaughter of live animals into their works, he gives the impression that worse is to follow. This is the fallacy of composition—forcing the uninformed reader to identify the part as the whole. Bell ignores the vital fact that the overt political content of art (which was never as prevalent as he implies, artists’ statements to the contrary notwithstanding) declined as the U.S. withdrew its troops from Vietnam. Nowadays, whatever there was has virtually disappeared.

The question remains whether Bell could have an objective view of modern art, since his expectations of what it should be are so contradictory. On the one hand, like other conservatives, he deplores what he takes to be the tendency of art to replace religion in our culture; on the other hand, he longs for art to perform the upbeat role that religion had in the good old days of the Protestant ethic. It is one thing for a critic to raise questions about an art that is barely intelligible to an audience wider than the relatively few who have been conditioned to discriminate the formal issues with which the art is concerned. It is quite another to interpret the dynamism of this art as a threat to the economic system that it so faithfully expresses.

Had Bell paid closer attention to the history of modern art, he might have realized what the State Department and other supervisors of our national destiny realized decades ago—that our culture, including contemporary high art, far from being a contradiction of capitalism, is America’s best selling point. Indeed, the great message of American culture, summed up as political propaganda, seems to be: In America, you can do what you please. As such, American culture, in the largest sense, is a powerful contributing factor to the instability of foreign societies. The point is that Americans are not alone in wanting American culture. Unfortunately, the State Department’s travel brochure does not carry the cautionary of the above slogan: except if you don’t have the money. But then, neither does it carry the saving grace: But if you know the right people, you can get the money.

Tim Yohn is a book editor and writes unpublished fiction.



1. The Public Interest, a quarterly, seems to be the principal organ of the neo-conservatives. Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer are its co-editors. and Bell is chairman of its Publication Committee, which includes Daniel P. Moynihan, James Q. Wilson. among others. The 10th anniversary issue of The Public Interest, subtitled “The American Commonwealth—1976,” included contributions by Moynihan, Bell, Kristol, and Samuel P. Huntington, who has written elsewhere: “Al Smith once remarked that ’the only cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy. Our analysis suggests that applying that cure at the present lime could well be adding fuel to the flames. Instead. some of the problems of governance in the United States today stem from an excess of democracy” (The Crisis of Democracy [Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission], N.Y.U. Press. 1975. p. 113). For an entertaining though impressionistic account of the neo-conservatives and their growing influence. see Kirkpatrick Sale, “Old Whine in New Bottles”, Mother Jones, June 1976.

2. Two other versions are worth noting. In analyzing the evolution of the traditional American “progressive-reform” movement into an “anti-Liberal Left” à l’européenne, Irving Kristol writes,

Mass higher education has converted this movement into something like a mass movement proper. capable of driving a President from office (1968) and nominating its own candidate (1972). The intentions remain “elitist,” of course; but the movement, under the banner of “the New Politics.” now encompasses some millions of people. These are the people whom liberal capitalism had sent to college in order to help manage its affluent. highly technological, mildly paternalistic. “postindustrial” society.

More than Bell’s “cultural establishments.” Kristol is talking about a “new class” of scientists. lawyers. planners. social workers. educators, and others. a large number of whom “find their careers in the expanding public sector rather than the private. They are, as one says, ‘idealistic’—i.e. far less interested in individual financial rewards than in the corporate power of their class” (“On Corporate Capitalism in America,” The Public Interest, No. 41. Fall 1975 [“The American Commonwealth—1976”1, pp. 133, 134]. Patrick J. Buchanan, an unabashed Old Rightist who wrote speeches for Nixon right into the Final Days. is hardly bemused by the motives of the “new class.” For Buchanan, it is a simple matter of historical fact that ever since the French Revolution, when they knocked off the Old Regime, “intellectuals” have lusted for power, which traditionally had eluded them in the U.S. “a society and system where all the world beats a path to the door not of the man who writes the better poem, but the man who builds a ’better mousetrap.”’ But since the era of the New Deal, things have changed:

The numbers. influence and power of those who share. or sympathize with the intellectuals’ views toward the nation’s economic system, has grown exponentially. The reasons are at hand: mass education and the mass media. There are hundreds of thousands. perhaps millions, who consider themselves “intellectuals.” or who share the peculiar biases of that ethnic group [!]. The adversary culture.which some of them soaked up during their college years. they have taken with them into their careers(they have) become dominant in .publishing and the arts. in the academic community and the big foundations. in the public policy institutes, and the traditional media which [are] rapidly concurring in the verdict upon Big Business handed down long ago by the intellectual.

(Patrick J. Buchanan, Conservative Votes, Liberal Victories, Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 1975, pp. 35, 37–38)