Monday, January 31, 2011

Daniel Bell — Cultural Conservative, Political Liberal, & Economic Socialist — RIP

On January 25, 2011, Daniel Bell died in Cambridge, MA at age 91. His contributions and influence were wide and varied. [This blogger's favorite book by Daniel Bell was The Radical Right 3e (1963, 1997, 2001) because the blogger loves Dumbos and Teabaggers. Not!] If this was a (fair & balanced) complex life, so be it.

[x Cronk Review]
Daniel Bell (1919-2011)
By Kevin Mattson

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In the spring of 1979, shocked by polling that showed Americans deeply distrustful of their government, Jimmy Carter summoned prominent intellectuals for a dinner. Over lamb chops and asparagus, Daniel Bell, with other guests, discussed with the president the renewal of religious faith, the difference between "needs" and "wants," the loss of civitas, and the language of public compact. The president, who speed-read Bell's The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976) , included the sociologist's ideas—about "wants" perpetuated by consumer culture and the covenant tradition—in his famous "malaise" speech of July 15, 1979.

Such was Daniel Bell. He had ideas as big as their influence. He belonged to an older generation of nonspecialized writers, the "New York intellectuals," or, when we're in a more nostalgic and self-lacerating mode, "public intellectuals." A professional sociologist, yes, but who never completed a Ph.D. program and who read literature and philosophy more than statistical studies ("I specialize in generalizations," he told an early instructor).

I just reread "Technology, Nature, and Society" in The Winding Passage (1980) and found references to Marx, Hegel, ancient Greek philosophers, Prometheus, Aeschylus, Galileo, Descartes, Arthur Koestler, and Thomas Aquinas, all in about seven pages. Bell was like Max Weber or Thorstein Veblen (both sociologists he admired), posing big questions about character, politics, and economic organization. He was on a par with Talcott Parsons (except that Bell could write clearly) and C. Wright Mills (whom Bell despised, in part because he deemed Mills's sociology of power vulgar and reductionist). Like David Riesman, whom he admired, Bell wrote sociology for general readers but never descended into the superficial pop sociology of William H. Whyte, Tom Wolfe, or David Brooks.

Bell began his career, which eventually included teaching at major Ivy League institutions (Chicago, Columbia, and Harvard), as a kid socialist on the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In 1932, when 13, he joined the Young People's Socialist League. He learned to argue on city soap boxes and then in the noisy lunch alcoves of City College of New York, where Trotskyists screamed at Stalinists during the 1930s and 1940s.

If his first vocation was socialist agitator, his second was journalist. He spent the war years at The New Leader (during which time he married Pearl Kazin, sister of the literary critic, Alfred) and wrote for the flitty Politics editor Dwight Macdonald. He dissected, as Macdonald's biographer put it, "a liberal, monopolistic, corporate state that absorbed labor into its orbit and ran an economy to serve the interests of... international firms." He started a book from these essays. Then, as he explained later, "having written about 150 pages... I thought, What do I know about this? Who am I kidding? This is silly. ...I abandoned it." The act reflected Bell's intellectual humility and his desire to transcend clich├ęd radicalism.

About 15 years later, Bell would write a book that showed how he could, during the next two decades, define and swim with major intellectual currents. He was not the first to use the phrase "end of ideology," but he codified it in a book in 1960. He heard the phrase in meetings of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the international group of writers and artists whom he worked with who were combating Soviet Communism in Western Europe. The End of Ideology assembled punchy essays, "written for audiences not specialized but educated." That was Bell's forte, as it was many New York intellectuals'. The End of Ideology (1988, 2000) ranged from the "discontent" of working in bureaucratic organizations, crime in America, and "status" politics.

But the book will mostly be remembered for its rejection of chiliastic, utopian politics on the left. Bell joined autobiography with observation: "The ideologist... wants to live at some extreme, and criticizes the ordinary man for failing to live at the level of grandeur." Here was a foreshadowing of student radicals about to hit the scene (Tom Hayden, in fact, visited Bell for advice around this time). "What gives ideology its force," Bell went on, "is its passion," as well its danger. He hoped as Americans entered the placid 1950s that they might develop a politics of "pragmatic give-and-take." Like other writers who announced a "consensus" during the 1950s, Bell fudged whether his was a normative or empirical argument. He talked of "a rough consensus among intellectuals on political issues: the acceptance of the Welfare State; ...a system of mixed economy and of political pluralism." Rereading those words today, I remembered another of Bell's favorite judgments: "Nonsense." He was more accurate in a book of essays that he edited, The Radical Right (1963, 1997, 2001), where he talked about the populist passions swirling through Joseph McCarthy's followers and foresaw, knowingly or not, the passions of student New Leftists who would take over his own institution, Columbia University, in 1968.

From 1965 to 1973, Bell co-edited The Public Interest with Irving Kristol, an association that some believed symbolized a drift toward neoconservatism. But Bell really drifted toward his own thinking about a "postindustrial society," a concept that animated sociological thinking throughout the 1960s and 1970s. "In capitalist society, the axial institution has been private property and in the postindustrial society it is the centrality of theoretical knowledge," Bell wrote. He explored ways education and professional training worked as a new "axis" of power (a term he loved) and how technocrats and wonks gained power. Like Veblen before him, Bell rejected Marxism for ignoring the pluralities of power operating in modern (and postmodern) society.

The culmination of Bell's life work came in 1976 with The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Here was a book that nailed the ethos of the 1970s while offering insights about the nature of postmodern capitalism. Bell analyzed the "disjuncture of the realms," especially between consumption and work. The Protestant work ethic Weber analyzed years ago still operated, except in leisure where hedonism dominated.

Consider the popular movie "Saturday Night Fever," released one year after Bell's book: John Travolta's character works at a hardware store by day but lives for disco at night. Capitalism had destroyed the postponement of gratification. Bell explained, "The rise of a hip-drug-rock culture on the popular level ...undermines the social structure itself by striking at the motivational and the psychic-reward system which has sustained it." Unlike other neoconservatives who had nothing but good to say about capitalism, Bell believed capitalism was kicking out the legs under its own table. He took his cultural conservatism seriously but joined it to his liberalism in politics and socialism in economics.

That too was Daniel Bell: a man who thought big and embraced complexity and nuance at his core. He followed ideas where they led him. He was as large as the contradictions and multitudes he held within his own mind. And for that and much more, he will be missed. Ω

[Kevin Mattson is the Connor Study Professor of Contemporary History at Ohio University and teaches American intellectual history there. His most recent book is What the Heck Are You Up to, Mr. President?": Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country (2009). Mattson received his B.A. from the New School and his Ph.D. from the University of Rochester.]

Copyright © 2011 The Chronicle of Higher Education

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