The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism


The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, by Daniel Bell, New York: Basic Books, 1975, 301 pp., $12.95

This work brings together numerous articles by Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell, who is a prominent figure within the so-called neoconservative group of American intellectuals. The essays are dense, to say the least, and they convey a breadth of knowledge and familiarity with intellectual history that could scare the most erudite among us.

The essence of Bell's message is that the classical liberal era produced too much confidence in man's inevitable progress and stressed our pleasure-seeking, self-centered inclinations far out of proper proportion. The current faith in Marxism is but a mild extension of this classical liberal, secular faith. (Incidentally, it is not only Marxists, but such liberals as John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer, who believe in inevitable progress.) And classical liberalism, Bell complains, like other secular creeds, simply has no room for a consideration of values. The value-free stance is inherent in the liberal approach, be it individualist or collectivist.

Bell illustrates these tendencies in modern society with hundreds of quotations. But he essentially just pleads his case. He never gives the critics the slightest chance; he never considers interpretations of his sources that might lead to conclusions different from his own. Bell does not argue his case but claims that history demonstrates it beyond reasonable doubt.

And what solution does he offer? For, needless to say, Bell regards both classical and modern liberalism quite mistaken. He finds the very idea of a secular analysis of human affairs wholly unsatisfactory, considering the reductionist, hedonist frame of reference destructive to some of the best ideas of liberalism, including political liberty itself.

Bell offers us religion. Joining such notable conservatives as Ernest van den Haag, Walter Berns, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Peter L. Berger, Bell believes that religion needs to be resurrected; then a sense of virtue will develop in our midst and will effectively counter the reductionist tendencies and give us a chance for spiritual recovery.

Pace Bell and his cohorts, however, religion does not have a chance. Nor does it any longer differentiate them from the Marxists. Religion is at heart a view of the world that takes reality to be fundamentally mysterious, inaccessible to human understanding—now or ever. But with people no longer in slavery to a ruling elite, or at least no longer accepting this as the norm, they want answers, not fairy tales. And with the Marxists changing their historical materialist pseudoscience into just another utopian faith, Bell & co. will simply echo the collectivists, who are already taking us to hell in a hand-basket, with or without theology.

It never occurs to Bell and his colleagues that the secular framework need not be wedded to materialism, reductionism, or the value-free approach. Granted, many secular systems are, but that is not decisive. The needed spiritual recovery is available from a careful investigation of nature and human nature.