Between the 1950s and 1970s this American sociologist mapped out the intellectual terrain of the centre-leftby Anthony Dworkin / October 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
The New York stock exchange pictured in 1963 (above). Daniel Bell’s work ‘The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism’ grew out of his concern at the decline of American morals
The British political season is about to begin again. Within the next year we face the prospect of a general election-the first contest of Tony Blair’s “progressive century.” With this in mind, Labour’s party conference will be an occasion for stocktaking and thinking ahead. By all accounts, the party’s strategists are not finding it easy to put together a package of firm policies that they can hold out to the voters as their programme for a second term. But the underlying vision which sustains New Labour remains intact and overwhelmingly popular.
It is no longer fashionable to call it the third way, but the worldview which animates the Blair government is now familiar to the point of cliché. We live in a post-industrial society, where class distinctions and the old verities of left and right have lost much of their meaning. The government’s role in this new world should be to promote opportunity by enhancing people’s skills and education, and to prevent the exclusion of the disadvantaged. Above all, in Blair’s case, there is a semi-religious vision of community. While market capitalism is an unrivalled engine of prosperity, it also tends to break down the ties which bind us together. The political challenge is to reinforce solidarity without undermining growth.
The third way has had its critics, but the charges levelled against it have mostly been either of vacuity or of conservatism. On the novelty of their ideas, Blair and his favourite academic Anthony Giddens have been taken at their word. Yet the modern centre-left outlook has its genealogy; it is striking how much of it was anticipated by an American thinker, who put the basic elements in place 30 years ago.
The sociologist Daniel Bell is the unacknowledged prophet of the third way. In a path-breaking series of articles and books written between the 1950s and the 1970s, he mapped out the intellectual terrain on which the modernising centre-left has now pitched its tent. At the time, he was often an isolated figure, pilloried by both left and right. From today’s perspective, whether you agree with him or not, his work stands out as astonishingly prescient in its anticipation of the concerns and concepts which dominate political debate in both Britain and the US.
Daniel Bell is hardly an unrecognised thinker. In 1995, the Times Literary Supplement included two of his works, The End of Ideology and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, in a list of the 100 most influential books written since 1945. Yet in Britain, Bell’s writing is not widely known among the younger generation of politicians, intellectuals and activists.
To some extent, Bell has suffered from the fact that his intellectual style is rooted in a world which has disappeared. He came to prominence as one of the so-called “New York intellectuals”-a group of mostly Jewish, ex-student radicals who colonised the highbrow end of American journalism in the middle decades of the last century. From the Jewish tradition of textual exposition, Bell and his peers developed a love of argument and high theory. They also had vast intellectual ambition. Bell himself once defined a New York intellectual as someone “who can speak for 15 minutes on any subject in the world.”
In his work and in conversation, Bell comes across as a compulsive spinner of ideas, restlessly processing a huge database of reading and information into a sequence of elaborate constructions. He has an undoubted knack for what would now be called a soundbite-“the end of ideology” or “post-industrial society”-but anyone who sits down to read his books must be prepared for some heavy work. The writer Michael Lind, who is an admirer of Bell, once compared The Coming of Post-Industrial Society to one of those legendary Chinese examinations in which candidates were supposed to write down everything they knew. The effect is amplified by Bell’s habit of garlanding new editions of his works with successive prefaces, forewords, afterwords and codas.
If the density and erudition of his writing sets Bell apart from contemporary journalistic social commentators, neither does he fit easily into the specialised world of university sociology. Although he taught at Chicago, Columbia and Harvard, he has always seemed happier as a wide-ranging critic than as an academic technician. Most of his important writing has appeared in intellectual magazines such as Partisan Review, Commentary, Encounter and The Public Interest rather than in academic journals. According to Alan Wolfe, a leading American sociologist, Bell has always been marginal to academic sociology. “But,” he adds, “I think that says more about academia than about Bell, because for me he is easily the greatest sociological mind now living.”
Looking back on his first important work, The End of Ideology, Bell once wrote that it fused “the experiences of my generation with a judgement about human nature and history.” He was born in 1919 and grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Like many poor young Jews, he embraced socialism-joining the Young People’s Socialist League at the age of 13. He likes to tell the story of how, when he went for his bar mitzvah, he told the rabbi that he had found socialism and didn’t believe in God. “So, kid, you don’t believe in God,” the rabbi replied. “Tell me, you think God cares?”
Bell later said that socialism gave him a way out of his immigrant neighbourhood into a wider world: “It revealed a world of ideas, a world of experience, a world of imagination… one became almost greedy in reaching for this.” At City College of New York, he found himself in the company of a group of bright and ambitious fellow students from similar backgrounds. Many of them would go on with Bell to form the core of the New York intelligentsia of their generation; among them Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, and Irving Howe. All four, at that time, were socialists or Trotskyists, and they conducted a running battle with the communist students who gathered in an adjoining alcove in the college cafeteria.
Bell and his friends were already fervent anti-Stalinists, but their views evolved after the US entered the war against Hitler and the true nature of Nazi and Soviet rule came to light. “Living through the 1930s and 1940s was a heartbreak house,” Bell later wrote. “There had been the Nazi death camps, barbarism beyond imagining; and the Soviet concentration camps, which cast a pall on all utopian visions. How was one to explain them?” In his twenties, Bell turned away from the idealistic dreams of his early years and, under the influence of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, embraced a more sceptical view of human nature. “Ours is a generation that finds its wisdom in pessimism, evil, tragedy and despair,” he concluded.
Despite the gloom of Bell’s intellectual outlook, he continues to display-even in his eighties-a certain irrepressibility of spirit. According to him, “Optimism of the will, pessimism of the heart, has been the unresolved tension of my temperament.” Nevertheless, for Bell and many of his intellectual cohort, the evident bankruptcy of socialist utopianism brought a new appreciation of the checks and balances of the American liberal tradition during the 1950s. Distrustful of “emotion in politics, and of the politics of passions and hatreds,” Bell argued that the grand ideological visions of the 19th century had been exhausted. At the same time, he detected “a rough consensus among intellectuals on political issues”-by which he meant an acceptance of the welfare state, a mixed economy and political pluralism. Together, these arguments furnished the central thesis of The End of Ideology, which was published in 1960.
Bell admits that the notion that ideology had ended was by no means his alone. “I was part of a whole milieu in which these ideas were percolating,” he told me. He lists Tony Crosland, Raymond Aron and Ralf Dahrendorf as influences. Nevertheless, it was Bell who gave the concept its sharpest and most effective formulation. He captured an emerging sense that politics in western societies was becoming a debate about means rather than ultimate ends, and that the questions that remained to be solved were mostly technical. It was now accepted, he wrote, that “the dream of organising a society by blueprint was bound to fail,” and that the focus of government should be “within a framework of liberal values, on problem-solving as a means of remedying social ills.”
Rather like Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man-which 30 years later raised the argument to a global level-Bell’s book was controversial. It was seized on by the student radicals in the early 1960s as a symbol of what they were fighting against. “He got hammered,” recalls Todd Gitlin, who was then a leader of Students for a Democratic Society and now teaches sociology in New York. “In the New Left we were proud to be ideological… Bell was seen as complacent.” In fact, as Gitlin now admits, much of the criticism was unfair. Bell was not a defender of the status quo, but an advocate of incremental social change. His outlook matched that of the liberals who gathered in the Kennedy and early Johnson administrations: they sought to expand opportunity without any large-scale redistribution of wealth or challenge to the underlying structure of society.
During the upsurge of the New Left and then the New Right, it was easy to make fun of Bell’s argument. But the radicals of the 1960s never came up with a plausible economic programme, and the market fundamentalists of the 1980s never won popular support for an all-out attack on the state. Now, once again, we are said to live in a “post-ideological” age. Based on consensus and guided by task-forces, Blair’s technocratic reformism (and Clinton’s bite-sized public policy) is the embodiment of Bell’s prediction. When I asked Bell what he thought about Anthony Giddens’s 1994 book Beyond Left and Right, he chuckled. “The argument is a pretty good one,” he told me. “It’s just 30 years behind the times.”
The 1960s were difficult years for Bell’s rationalist welfare liberalism. Alarmed by the anti-authority gestures of the counter-culture and the breakdown of the social fabric in America’s big cities, many of his fellow-thinkers drifted to the right. Bell’s old college friend Irving Kristol, with whom he had founded the journal The Public Interest in 1965, was a leading figure in the movement which became known as neo-conservatism. Neo-conservatives argued that activist social policy was subject to a “law of unintended consequences” and tended to do more harm than good. Kristol once described a neo-conservative as “a liberal who’s been mugged by reality.”
Bell himself has often been labelled a neo-conservative, but he rejects the description. He shared many of his friends’ concerns about ill-thought-out public policy and about the hostility of the 1960s sensibility to tradition. At the same time, he continued to mount an anguished defence of some disputed liberal programmes, including affirmative action for minorities, which was to become a touchstone for neo-conservatives. In the watershed 1972 election, when many former liberals gave their support to Richard Nixon, Bell voted with reluctance for the left-wing Democrat, George McGovern. He argued that the neo-conservatives were letting their distrust of ideology turn into an ideology in itself. Nevertheless, the debates of the period spurred him to refine his thoughts about social and cultural change and led to the two books which constitute his most important legacy.
The first of these was The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, sub-titled “A Venture in Social Forecasting.” In the book, Bell posits a theory which has since become a commonplace: that the processing of knowledge was replacing the manufacture of goods as the characteristic activity of advanced societies, and that this would have far-reaching social consequences. Instead of manipulating tools, the new worker would be engaged in “a game between persons.” Building on his earlier writing, Bell argued that traditional class distinctions had less relevance in this new context. In a post-industrial society, what would count was educational attainment and access to knowledge. He predicted that a new knowledge class would come to occupy the top rung of the social ladder.
Where the old left attributed social disharmony to a shortage of resources, Bell suggested that post-industrial society would see new kinds of scarcity: scarcity of time, and scarcity of information. Technological change would bring rising standards of living, but not necessarily greater equality. Against the egalitarians of the left, he argued that a technical society required mobility based on merit and skill, and “a more differentiated and intellectual educational system.” Politics in the future would not be about redistribution but about community and “the inclusion of disadvantaged groups.” A truly Blairite formulation.
Bell followed The Coming of Post-Industrial Society with a look at the link between economics and culture. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, published in 1976, grew out of his concern at the decline of American morals. It was a pessimistic book, and accounts for Bell’s reputation as a modern Jeremiah. But his analysis offered no comfort to the declinists of the right. Instead of blaming the moral laxity of modern society on liberalism, he argued that it was inherent in capitalism itself.
Bell followed Max Weber in attributing the take-off of capitalism to the protestant ethic, with its emphasis on asceticism and discipline. But there was always another strand to the capitalist mentality-a restless, striving, individual acquisitiveness. The two halves of the divided bourgeois soul were in tension with each other. Gradually, the traditional values which had given meaning to the capitalist economy came to be overwhelmed by the desires it had unleashed.
There were a number of stages in Bell’s diagnosis of decline. One was the advent of cultural modernism, which drew on the same individualist energies as business enterprise. It broke the bonds of artistic tradition and asserted the centrality of the self. Modernist culture promoted “the idea of boundless experiment… of unconstrained sensibility, of impulse being superior to order, of the imagination being immune to merely rational criticism.” At first these were the values of the avant-garde, confined to an urban elite. However, the coming of mass society in the 20th century allowed them to permeate popular culture and led to the excesses of the 1960s.
At the same time, social changes such as urbanisation, mass communication and easy credit were turning the US into a consumer society. People came to define themselves through spending as much as working, and consumerism encouraged them to gratify their every desire. The deferred gratification of early capitalist production yielded to the instant gratification of later capitalist consumption. Thus, cultural and economic forces conspired to undermine the restraint and morality that had given birth to capitalism and were needed to hold it together. Social values were no longer concerned with “how to work and achieve, but how to spend and enjoy,” Bell wrote. “When the protestant ethic was sundered from bourgeois society, only hedonism remained… the elements that provide men with common identification and effective reciprocity”-family, church and community-lost their hold, and people’s “capacity to maintain sustained relations with each other” was destroyed.
In some respects Cultural Contradictions reads like a product of its times. Bell’s discussion of the 1960s counter-culture overstates the importance of some silly attitude-striking on the part of over-privileged youth. He also seems insensitive to the gains in social tolerance which grew out of the challenge to authority. There is a stodgy quality to his analysis which blinds him to the idealism and vitality of the social movements of the time. In that respect, Todd Gitlin argues, “Bell’s view of the counterculture was always very thin. You could say that he never really ‘got it.'” However, Gitlin concedes that Cultural Contradictions “turns out to have been a very smart book,” and that with hindsight, its central idea about the inherent tensions in capitalism “seems to be basically right.”
Indeed, in most ways, the book seems prophetic. In the 25 years since it was published the impact of an aggressively hedonistic ethos has become far more pervasive in parts of the west. In an Afterword to the latest edition of the book he quotes the example of a gangsta rap record label, condemned for the violence and obscenity of its lyrics, that was dropped by its corporate owner-only to be quietly signed up by another one. Even if one does not share his concern about rap lyrics the implications of his argument reach far beyond the culture wars of the last 20 years. Today it seems indisputable that the difficulty of maintaining the values of social solidarity and decency in an individualistic consumer society is the political problem of our time-echoed in Blairite discussions about “social capital” and “civil society.” Most of the communitarian strand in centre-left politics is an elaboration of the questions Bell raised. According to Alan Wolfe, “the idea that people’s lives are somehow up in the air, that the economic transformations of our time have left a cultural gap that we need to address, that all comes out of his work.”
If there is one thing that Bell failed to anticipate, it is the decline of the big organisation. The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, for all its insight into the coming information age, still envisages a largely bureaucratic economy. Similarly, Cultural Contradictions portrays a conflict between disciplined, hierarchical producers and hedonistic, acquisitive consumers. In fact, the libertarian ethic of the new economy has produced a blurring of categories: computer-age yuppies who turn up to work in T-shirts and work out obsessively at weekends. The American writer David Brooks labels this new class “bourgeois bohemians” or “Bobos.” Brooks claims that the “counter-cultural capitalists” have constructed a new ethos which approaches work as a spiritual vocation and favours environmentalism over ostentation. They have resolved the contradictions of capitalism.
The idea that these new age knowledge workers are the pioneers of a more cohesive capitalism seems a little glib-they seem rather to exude a kind of spiritual narcissism. And while the flexible economy may have given the US a new surge of prosperity, for most workers it remains a source of risk as much as opportunity. This accounts for the striking fact that in this year’s presidential election, Al Gore has improved his standing in the polls by running against Bill Clinton’s legacy from the left. Bell’s diagnosis of capitalism’s vulnerability remains more convincing than Brooks’s celebration of its new vigour.
Asked about his political views, Bell says that he remains “a social democrat in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.” He believes every society has an obligation to give people “that degree of decency to allow them to feel that they are citizens.” At the same time, he believes in the liberal principle of individual rights, and “the individual achievement of social position on the basis of merit.” Finally, he argues that there is a moral basis to social cohesion and that some element of continuity with tradition is “essential to the vitality of a culture.”
In his personal style and tastes, Bell is much more old-fashioned than today’s third way politicians. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have more than a touch of the Bobo ethos themselves. Nevertheless, his three-part formulation, in its aspirations and ambiguities, captures something essential about the values of the modern centre-left. For his part, Bell looks on New Labour and the New Democrats with a kind of paternalistic approval. “In principle I do sympathise with their approach,” he told me. “The issue of how do you accept the market, but absorb it within a social framework, is clearly the right one to be thinking about.” He also endorses their rejection of egalitarian redistribution in favour of an opportunity-based approach.
The questions begged by Bell’s politics and the third way are similar. With his lifelong distrust of “emotion in politics,” he tends to ignore the value of political passion in creating a broad constituency for reform; popular participation remains essential to democratic politics. The intrinsic conflict between meritocracy and an inclusive society may also be greater than Bell, or the third-wayers, admit. And what happens when the social values of the majority impinge on the rights of the few? Bell the liberal has always rejected political interference in people’s private lives; but such a stance may not be consistent with his ambition to reverse the supposed decline of decency. Bell’s own life has been lucky enough for him to believe that these tensions are bearable, even if they can’t be resolved. His pessimism of the heart remains balanced by his optimism of the will. n