The Roots of the Arab Spring   /   Fall 2011   /    Book Forum: The Cultural Contradictions Of Capitalism By Daniel Bell

The Cultural Harmonies of Capitalism

David T. Courtwright

The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, a big, discursive book of the sort that dominated cul- tural criticism in the mid-1970s, envisioned the West’s malaise as part of a general crisis of moder- nity. Predicated on individualism, modernity gave rise to two revolutionary types, the bour- geois entrepreneur and the independent artist. Together they destroyed the old social order of rank and status, making possible unprecedented freedom, mobility, and prosperity. But the artists, who despised bourgeois values, championed an ethic of spontaneity and self-gratification—the emotional foundations of an “adversary culture” that came to dominate mass media and thus mass opinion. Economic innovations, like the install- ment plan, similarly undermined the virtues of self-discipline, delayed gratification, and sensual restraint inherited from the bourgeois ascendan- cy but now unhinged from mass-cultural trends. Daniel Bell saw chronic inflation as a manifesta- tion of the same crisis. Impatient voters selfishly demanded jobs, rising wages, and entitlements at the price of monetary stability.

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