The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (Daniel Bell)

The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism
by Daniel Bell
Basic Books – 1976 (1996)


“A consumption economy, one might say, finds its reality in appearances.  What one displays, what one shows, is a sign of achievement.  Getting ahead is no longer a matter of rising up a social ladder, as it was in the late nineteenth century, but of adopting a specific style of life – country club, artiness, travel, hobbies – which marks one as a member of a consumption community.

The fundamental assumption of modernity, the thread that has run through Western civilization since the sixteenth century, is that the social unit of society is not the group, the guild, the tribe, or the city, but the person.  The Western ideal was the autonomous man who, in becoming self-determining, would achieve freedom.  With this “new man” there was a repudiation of institutions (the striking result of the Reformation, which installed individual conscience as the source of judgment); the opening of new geographical and social frontiers; the desire, and the growing ability, to master nature and to make of oneself what one can, and even, in discarding old roots, to remake oneself altogether.  What began to count was not the past but the future. 

This is expressed in a twofold development.  In the economy, there arises the bourgeois entrepreneur.  Freed from the ascriptive ties of the traditional world, with its fixed status and checks on acquisition, he seeks his fortune by remaking the economic world.  Free movement of goods and money and individual economic and social mobility become the ideal.  At its extreme, laissez-faire becomes “rampant individualism.”  In the culture, we have the rise of the independent artist, released from church and princely patron, writing and painting what pleases him rather than his sponsor; the market will make him free.  In the development of culture, this search for independence, the will to be free not only of patron but of all conventions, finds its expression in modernism and, in its extreme form, in the idea of the untrammeled self. (16)


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 cards 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.

The Protestant ethic had served to limit sumptuary (though not capital) accumulation.  When the Protestant ethic was sundered from bourgeois society, only the hedonism remained, and the capitalist system lost its transcendental ethic.  There remains the argument that capitalism serves as the basis for freedom, and for a rising standard of living and the defeat of poverty.  Yet even if these arguments were true – for it is clear that freedom depends more upon the historical traditions of a particular society than upon the system of capitalism itself; and even the ability of the system to provide for economic growth is now questioned – the lack of a transcendental tie, the sense that a society fails to provide some set of “ultimate meanings” in its character structure, work, and culture, becomes unsettling to a system. (21-22)


The exuberance of life was summed up in a series of catchwords.  One of them was “New.”  There was the New Democracy, the New Nationalism, the New Freedom, the New Poetry, and even the New Republic (which was started in 1914).  A second was sex.  Even to use the word openly sent a frisson through the readers of the press.  Margaret Sanger, in 1913, coined the term “birth control.”  Ellen Key, the Swedish feminist, argued that marriage should not be a matter of legal or economic compulsion.  Emma Goldman, the anarchist, lectured on homosexuality, the “intermediate sex.”  Floyd Dell celebrated free love, and many of the Young Intellectuals lived in ostentatious unmarried monogamy.  And a third catchword was liberation.  Liberation, as the movement self-consciously called itself, was the wind blowing from Europe, a wind of modernism come to the American shore.  In art it was the Fauves and cubism, shown principally in the Armory Show of 1913.  In the theater it meant symbolism, suggestion and atmosphere, the acceptance of the non-realist influence of Maeterlinck, Dunsany, and Synge.  In literature there was a vogue for Shaw, Conrad, and Lawrence.  But the greatest influence was in “philosophy,” where the currents of irrational-ism, vitalism, and instinct, refracted through Bergson and Freud, spread rapidly in vulgarized form. (62)

Mass consumption, which began in the 1920s, was made possible by revolutions in technology, principally the application of electrical energy to household tasks (washing machines, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, and the like), and by three social inventions: mass production on an assembly line, which made a cheap automobile possible; the development of marketing, which rationalized the art of identifying different kinds of buying groups and whetting consumer appetites; and the spread of installment buying, which, more than any other social device, broke down the old Protestant fear of debt.  The concomitant revolutions in transportation and communications laid the basis for a national society and the beginnings of a common culture.  Taken all together, mass consumption meant the acceptance, in the crucial area of life-style, of the idea of social change and personal transformation, and it gave legitimacy to those who would innovate and lead the way, in culture as well as in production.

The symbol of mass consumption – and the prime example of the way technology has revolutionized social habits – is, of course, the automobile.  Frederick Lewis Allen has observed how hard it is for us today to realize how separate and distant communities were when they depended wholly on the railroad and horse-and-wagon for transportation.  A town not near a railroad was really remote.  For a farmer who lived five miles out of the county seat it was an event to take the family to town for a Saturday afternoon; a trip to a friend ten miles away was likely to be an all-day expedition, since the horse had to be rested and fed.  Each small town, each farm, was dependent mainly on its own resources for amusement and company.  Horizons were close, and individuals lived among familiar people and familiar things.

The automobile swept away many sanctions of the closed small-town society.  The repressive threats of nineteenth-century morality, as Andrew Sinclair has observed, relied in large measure on the impossibility of escaping from the place, and consequences, of misbehavior.  By the middle of the 1920s, as the Lynds observed in Middletown, boys and girls thought nothing of driving 20 miles to dance at a roadhouse, safe from the prying eyes of neighbors.  The closed car became the cabinet particulier of the middle class, the place where adventurous young people shed their sexual inhibitions and broke the old taboos.

The second major instrument of change in the closed small-town society was the motion picture.  Movies are many things – a window on the world, a set of ready-made daydreams, fantasy and projection, escapism and omnipotence – and their emotional power is enormous.  It is as a window on the world that the movies have served, in the first instance, to transform the culture.  “Sex is one of the things Middletown has long been taught to fear,” the Lynds observed when they revisited Middletown ten years later, and “its institutions … operate to keep the subject out of sight and out of mind as much as possible.”  Except in the movies, to which the youngsters flocked. (66-67)


The automobile, the motion picture, and radio are technological in origin: advertising, planned obsolescence, and credit are all sociological innovations.  David M. Potter has commented that it is as hopeless to understand a modern popular writer without understanding advertising as it would be to understand a medieval troubadour without understanding the cult of chivalry, or a nineteenth-century revivalist without understanding evangelical religion.

The extraordinary thing about advertising is its pervasiveness.  What marks a great city if not its lighted signs?  Passing over in an airplane one sees, through the refractions of the night sky, the clusters of red, orange, blue, and white signs shimmering like highly polished stones.  In the centers of the great cities – Time Square, Piccadilly, the Champs-Elysees, the Ginza – people gather in the streets under the blinking neon signs to share in the vibrancy of the milling crowd.  If one thinks about the social impact of advertising, its most immediate, yet usually unnoticed, consequence has been to transform the physical center of the city.  In redoing the physical topography, replacing the old duomos or municipal halls or palace towers, advertising has placed a “burning brand” on the crest of our civilization.  It is the mark of material goods, the exemplar of new styles of life, the herald of new values.  As in fashion, advertising has emphasized glamour.  A car becomes the sign of the “good life” well lived, and the appeal of glamour becomes pervasive.  A consumption economy, one might say, finds its reality in appearances.  What one displays, what one shows, is a sign of achievement.  Getting ahead is no longer a matter of rising up a social ladder, as it was in the late nineteenth century, but of adopting a specific style of life – country club, artiness, travel, hobbies – which marks one as a member of a consumption community.