The almost reflexive way in which we turn to science to support political agendas or social programs suggests a deep problem within our culture: a reluctance to acknowledge that questions of value and ultimate worth might not be resolved by appeal to the imaginary referee we call science.
Exactly forty years ago, the social critic Daniel Bell published The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, an enduringly astute reading of a fateful paradox, or double bind, at the heart of modern capitalist societies. Bell argued that capitalism over time enfeebled capitalists by turning them into creatures concerned above all with personal gratification, a satisfaction they would find largely through the consumption of goods produced by an ever-expanding capitalist economy. The problem, as Bell saw it, was that the hedonic, self-gratifying impulse, encouraged by the increasingly cunning arts of advertising, would progressively undercut the very work ethic, disciplines, and virtues considered essential to the rise and maintenance of the capitalist regime. Overly simplistic? Many scholars and critics have said so. They have challenged Bell’s thesis on many of its key points, including its claim that such cultural enfeeblement would necessarily bring down the economic engine itself. (The fact that insatiable consumers continue to spur economic growth around the world does raise a question.) Yet whatever its alleged shortcomings, Bell’s provocative thesis cannot be ignored. Anyone seeking to make sense of one of the dominant institutions of the late modern world must give it its due.