12 Jun

The obligation of prodigality

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 06/12/21

Daniel Bell on the logic of the “new capitalism”

“The erosion of traditional American values took place on two levels. In the realm of culture and ideas, the withering attack on small-town life as constricting and banal was first organized in the 1910s by the Young Intellectuals as a self-consciously defined group, and this attack was sustained in the next decade in the journalistic criticism of H. L. Mencken and in the sketches and novels of Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis.

“But a more fundamental transformation was occurring in the social structure itself: the change in the motivations and rewards of the economic system. The rising wealth of the plutocracy, becoming evident in the Gilded Age, meant that work and accumulation were no longer ends in themselves (though they were still crucial to a John D. Rockefeller or an Andrew Carnegie), but means to consumption and display. Status and its badges, not work and the election of God, became the mark of success.

“This is a familiar process of social history with the rise of new classes, though in the past it was military predators whose scions went from spartan to sybaritic living. Yet such parvenu classes could distance themselves from the rest of society, and such social transformations often developed independently of changes in the lives of the classes below. But the real social revolution in modern society came in the 1920s, when the rise of mass production and high consumption began to transform the life of the middle class itself. In effect the Protestant ethic is a social reality and a lifestyle for the middle class was replaced by a materialistic hedonism, and the Puritan tempered by a psychological eudaemonism. But bourgeois society, justified and propelled as it had been in its earliest energies by these older ethics, could not admit easily admit to the change. It promoted a hedonistic way of life furiously — one has only to look at the transformation of advertising in the 1920s — but could not justify it. It lacked a new religion or value system to replace the old, and the result was disjunction.

“In one respect what we see here is an extraordinary historic change in human society. For thousands of years, the function of economics was to provide the daily necessities — the subsistence — of life. For various upper-class groups, economics has been the basis of status and a sumptuary style. But now, on a mass scale, economics had become geared to the demands of culture. Here, too, culture, not as expressive symbolism or moral meanings but as lifestyle, came to reign supreme.

“The ‘new capitalism’ (the phrase was first used in the 1920s) continued to demand a Protestant ethic in the area of production — that is, in the realm of work — but to stimulate a demand for pleasure and play in the area of consumption. The disjunction was bound to widen. The spread of urban life, with its variety of distractions and multiple stimuli; the new roles of women, created by the expansion of office jobs and the freer social and sexual context; the rise of a national culture through motion pictures and radio — all contributed to a loss of social authority on the part of the older value system.

“The Puritan temper might be described most simply by the term ‘delayed gratification,’ and by restraint in gratification. It is, of course, the Malthusian injunction for prudence in a world of scarcity. But the claim of the American economic system was that it had introduced abundance, and the nature of abundance is to encourage prodigality rather than prudence. A higher standard of living, not work as an end in itself, then becomes the engine of change. The glorification of plenty, rather than the bending to niggardly nature, becomes the justification of the system. But all of this was highly incongruent with the theological and sociological foundations of nineteenth-century Protestantism, which was in turn the foundation of the American value system.”

— from Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (Basic Books, 1976)

Read more from Bell’s book here.

12 Jun

The moral imperative of having fun

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 06/12/21

Daniel Bell on the sovereignty of fun

“Van Wyck Brooks once remarked about morality in Catholic countries that as long as heavenly virtues are upheld, mundane behavior may change as it will. In America, the old Protestant heavenly virtues are largely gone, and the mundane rewards have begun to run riot. The basic American value pattern emphasized the virtue of achievement, defined as doing and making, and a man displayed his character in the quality of his work. By the 1950s, the pattern of achievement remained, but it had been redefined to emphasize status and taste. The culture was no longer concerned with how to work and achieve, but with how to spend and enjoy. Despite some continuing use of the language of the Protestant ethic, the fact was that by the 1950s American culture had become primarily hedonistic, concerned with play, fun, display, and pleasure — and, typical of things in America, in a compulsive way.

“The world of hedonism is the world of fashion, photography, advertising, television, travel. It is a world of make-believe in which one lives for expectations, for what will come rather than what is. And it must come without effort. . . .

“Nothing epitomized the hedonism of the United States better than the State of California. A cover story in Time, called ‘California: A State of Excitement,’ opened:

“‘California is virtually a nation unto itself, but it holds a strange hope, a sense of excitement — and some terror — for Americans. As most of them see it, the good, godless, gregarious pursuit of pleasure is what California is all about. The citizens of lotusland seem forever to be lolling around swimming pools, sautéing in the sun, packing across the Sierra, frolicking nude on the beaches, getting taller every year, plucking money off the trees, romping around topless, tramping through the redwoods and — when they stop to catch their breath — preening themselves on-camera before the rest of an envious world. “I have seen the future,” says the newly returned visitor from California, “and it plays.”’

“Fun morality, in consequence, displaces ‘goodness morality,’ which stressed interference with impulses. Not having fun is an occasion for self-examination: ‘What is wrong with me?’ As Dr. Wolfenstein observes: ‘Whereas gratification of forbidden impulses traditionally aroused guilt, failure to have fun now lowers one’s self-esteem.’ [The quote is from Martha Wolfenstein, “The Emergence of Fun Morality," in Mass Leisure, ed. Eric Larabee and Rolf Meyerson (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1958), p. 86.]

“Fun morality centers, in most instances, on sex. And here the seduction of the consumer has become almost total. . . .

“What this abandonment of Puritanism and the Protestant ethic does, of course, is to leave capitalism with no moral or transcendental ethic. It also emphasizes not only the disjunction between the norms of the culture and the norms of the social structure, but also an extraordinary contradiction within the social structure itself. On the one hand, the business corporation wants an individual to work hard, pursue a career, accept delayed gratification — to be, in the crude sense, an organization man. And yet, in its products and its advertisements, the corporation promises pleasure, instant joy, relaxing and letting go. One is to be ‘straight’ by day and a ‘swinger’ by night. This is self-fulfillment and self-realization!”

— from Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (Basic Books, 1976)

Read more from Bell’s book here.


12 Jun

The legitimizing role of hedonism

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 06/12/21

Daniel Bell on what replaced the Protestant Ethic

“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.

“The cultural, if not moral justification of capitalism has become hedonism, the idea of pleasure as a way of life. And in the liberal ethos that now prevails, the model for a cultural imago has become the modernist impulse, with its ideological rationale of the impulse quest as a mode of conduct. It is this which is the cultural contradiction of capitalism.”

— from Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (Basic Books, 1976)

Read more from Bell’s book here.

12 Jun

The restless vanity of the untrammeled self

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 06/12/21

Sociologist Daniel Bell on the rise of “the idea that experience in and of itself was the supreme value”

In the winter of 1969–70, sociologist Daniel Bell (1919–2011) wrote an essay called “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.” Portions of the essay were soon published in The Public Interest, a journal then edited by Bell and Irving Kristol. That essay later became Chapter 1 in a book with the same title, published in 1976. The “contradiction” in the title referred to the tension between the limits — the demands and disciplines — necessary for economic productivity in modern societies, and the celebration of the promises of unlimited pleasures available in the goods on offer to modern consumers.

In retrospect, “paradoxes” may be a better word to describe this tension than “contradictions,” since even the production side of a capitalist economy requires entrepreneurs who are motivated by the dream of new possibilities that break old molds. Behind the innovative energy of the entrepreneur and the hedonistic restlessness of the consumer, Bell recognized a common drive: the modern creation ex nihilo of the autonomous self. He even uses the term “idolatry of the self” to identify the organizing principle in modern societies.

Bell’s description of the logic of consumer capitalism helps to explain a phenomenon that many have found perplexing: the active sympathy of many modern corporations with various progressive social causes. Below are some excerpts from the Introduction to The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.

“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.

“The impulse driving both the entrepreneur and the artist is a restlessness to search out the new, to rework nature, and to refashion consciousness. As Marx wrote, in an almost hyperbolic paean to the bourgeoisie in The Communist Manifesto:

“‘The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces that have all preceding generations together. Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground — what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor? . . .

“‘The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. . . . All fixed, fast, frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profane, and man is at last compelled to face with his sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.’

“For the artist, the restless vanity of the untrammeled self is best expressed by Byron, whose impetuous romanticism imprinted itself on the page:

“‘The great object of life is Sensation — to feel that we exist — even though in pain — it is this “craving void” which drives us to Gaming — to Battle — to Travel — to intemperate but keenly felt pursuits of every description whose principal attraction is the agitation inseparable from their accomplishment.’

“Both impulses, historically, were aspects of the same sociological surge of modernity. Together they opened up the Western world in a radical way. Yet the extraordinary paradox is that each impulse then became highly conscious of the other, feared the other, and sought to destroy it. Radical in economics, the bourgeoisie became conservative in morals and cultural taste. The bourgeois economic impulse was organized into a highly restrictive character structure whose energies were channeled into the production of goods and into a set of attitudes toward work that feared instinct, spontaneity, and vagrant impulse. In the extreme Puritanism of America, laws were passed to constrain intemperate behavior, while in painting and literature bourgeois taste ran to the heroic and banal.

“The cultural impulse — I take Baudelaire as its exemplary figure — thus turned into rage against bourgeois values. ‘To be a useful man has always appeared to me as something quite hideous,’ Baudelaire declared. Utility, rationalism, and materialism were barren, and the bourgeois had no spiritual life and no excesses. The ‘cruel implacable regularity’ of industry was what the modern business house had created: ‘Mechanization will have . . . Americanized us, Progress will have well atrophied us, our entire spiritual part. . . .’

“What is striking is that while bourgeois society introduced a radical individualism in economics, and a willingness to tear up all traditional social relations in the process, the bourgeois class feared the radical experimental individualism of modernism in the culture. Conversely, the radical experimentalists in the culture, from Baudelaire to Rimbaud to Alfred Jarry, were willing to explore all dimensions of experience, yet fiercely hated bourgeois life. . . .

“In the history of bourgeois society, a number of sociological ‘crossovers’ took place which radically transformed both the cultural and economic realms. In the culture there was a radical change in the meaning of the individual from a being to a self. Of equal import, there was a shift from the hold of restraint to the acceptance of impulse. In the economy, there was a crucial change in the character of the motivations which lead a man to work and to relate himself positively and negatively to work.

“Classical philosophy had a metaphysical theology, as [Arthur] Lovejoy puts it, which thought of beings that had a nature, and therefore a common quality. As Plato wrote in the Timaeus, ‘a “good” being must be free from “envy,” that that which is more perfect necessarily engenders, or overflows into, that which is less perfect, and cannot “remain within itself.”’ There was a hierarchy of virtue, in which the lower derived from the higher. But in the modern consciousness, there is not a common being but a self, and the concern of this self is with its individual authenticity, its unique, irreducible character free of the contrivances and conventions, the masks and hypocrisies, the distortions of the self by society. This concern with the authentic self makes the motive and not the action — the impact on the self, not the moral consequence to society — the source of ethical and aesthetic judgments.

“But the larger context was the crossover from religion to secular culture in the way expressive conduct is handled in modern society. In the history of society, particularly of Western society, there has always been a dialectic of release and restraint. We find in the great historical religions a fear of the demonic, of human nature unchecked. And these religions have been religions of restraint. The shift to release occurs with the breakup of religious authority in the mid-nineteenth century. In effect, the culture — particularly modernist culture — took over the relation with the demonic. But instead of taming it, as religion tried to do, the secular culture (art and literature) began to accept it, explore it, and revel in it, coming to see it as a source of creativity. In the cry for the autonomy of the aesthetic, there arose the idea that experience in and of itself was the supreme value, that everything was to be explored, anything was to be permitted — at least to the imagination, if not acted out in life. In the legitimation of action, the pendulum had swung to the side of release, away from restraint.”

21 May

Desire desires desire

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 05/21/21

Zygmunt Bauman on being a consumer in a consumer society

“Our postmodern society is a consumer society. When we call it a consumer society, we have in mind something more than the trivial and sedate circumstance that all members of that society are consumers — all human beings, and not just human beings, have been consumers since time immemorial. What we do have in mind is that ours is a ‘consumer society’ in the similarly profound and fundamental sense in which the society of our predecessors, modern society and its industrial phase, used to be a ‘producer society.’ That older type of modern society once engaged its members primarily as producers and soldiers; society shaped its members by dictating the need to play those two roles, and the norm that society held up to its members was the ability and the willingness to play them. In the present late-modern ([Anthony] Giddens), second-modern ([Ulrich] Beck), or postmodern stage, modern society has little need for mass industrial labor and conscript armies, but it needs — and engages — its members in their capacity as consumers.

“The role that our present-day society holds up to its members is the role of the consumer, and the members of our society are likewise judged by their ability and willingness to play that role. The difference between our present-day society and its immediate predecessor is not as radical as abandoning one role and picking up another instead. In neither of its two stages could modern society do without its members producing things to be consumed, and members of both do, of course, consume. The consumer of a consumer society, however, is a sharply different creature from the consumer of any other society thus far. The difference is one of emphasis and priorities — a shift of emphasis that makes an enormous difference to virtually every aspect of society, culture, and individual life. The differences are so deep and multiform that they fully justify speaking of our society as a society of a separate and distinct kind — a consumer society.

“Ideally, all acquired habits should ‘lie on the shoulders’ of that new type of consumer just like the ethically inspired vocational and acquisitive passions used to lie, as Max Weber repeated after Richard Baxter, ‘on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment”.’ And the habits are indeed continually, daily, and at first opportunity thrown aside, and never given the chance to firm up into the iron bars of a cage (except one meta-habit: the ‘habit of changing habits’). Ideally, nothing should be embraced by a consumer firmly, nothing should command a commitment forever, and no needs should be seen as fully satisfied, no desires considered ultimate. There ought to be a proviso ‘until further notice’ attached to any oath of loyalty and any commitment. It is the volatility, the inbuilt temporality of all engagements that counts, and counts more than the commitment itself, which is not allowed to outlast the time necessary for consuming the object of desire (or the desirability of that object) anyway.

“That all consumption takes time is in fact the bane of the consumer society and a major worry for the merchandisers of consumer goods. The consumer’s satisfaction ought to be instant and this in a double sense. Consumed goods should bring satisfaction immediately, requiring no learning of skills and no lengthy groundwork, but the satisfaction should end the moment the time needed for consumption is up, and that time ought to be reduced to a bare minimum. The needed reduction is best achieved if consumers cannot hold their attention nor focus their desire on any object for long; if they are impatient, impetuous, and restive; and above all if they are easily excitable and predisposed to quickly lose interest. Indeed, when the waiting is taken out of wanting and the wanting out of waiting, the consumptive capacity of consumers may be stretched far beyond the limits set by any natural or acquired needs or designed by the physical endurability of the objects of desire. The traditional relationship between needs and their satisfaction is then reversed: the promise and hope of satisfaction precedes the need promised to be satisfied and will be always greater than the extant need — yet not too great to preclude the desire for the goods that carry that promise.

“As a matter of fact, the promise is all the more attractive the less the need in question is familiar; there is a lot of fun in living through an experience one did not know existed. The excitement of a new and unprecedented sensation — not the greed of acquiring and possessing, nor wealth in its material, tangible sense — is the name of the consumer game. Consumers are first and foremost gatherers of sensations; they are collectors of things only in the secondary and derivative sense. As Mark C. Taylor and Esa Saarinen put it, ‘Desire does not desire satisfaction. To the contrary, desire desires desire.’ Such is the case with the ideal consumer. The prospect of the desire fading off, dissipating, and having nothing in sight to resurrected, or the prospect of a world with nothing left in it to be desired, must be the most sinister of the ideal consumer’s horror (and, of course, of the consumer-goods merchandiser’s horrors).

“To increase their capacity for consumption, consumers must never be left to rest. They need to be constantly exposed to new temptations to keep them in the state of perpetual suspicion and steady disaffection. The bait commanding them to shift attention needs to confirm the suspicion while offering a way out of disaffection: ‘You reckoned you’d seen it all? You ain’t seen nothing yet!’ It is often said that the consumer market seduces its customers. But in order to do so, it needs customers who want to be seduced (just as to command his laborers, the factory boss needed a crew with the habits of discipline and command-following firmly entrenched). In a properly working consumer society, consumers seek actively to be seduced. They live from attraction to attraction, from temptation to temptation — each attraction and each temptation being somewhat different and perhaps stronger than its predecessor. In many ways they are just like their fathers, the producers, who lived from one turn of the conveyor belt to an identical next.

“This cycle of desire is a compulsion, a must, for the fully fledged, mature consumer; yet that must, that internalized pressure, that impossibility of living one’s life in any other way, is seen as the free exercise of one’s will. The market might have already selected them as consumers and so taken away their freedom to ignore its blandishments, but in every successive visit to the marketplace, consumers have every reason to feel that they are the ones in command. They are the judges, the critics, and the choosers. They can, after all, refuse their allegiance to any one of the infinite choices on display — except the choice of choosing among them.

“It is the combination of the consumer, constantly greedy for new attractions and fast bored with attractions already had, and of the world in all its dimensions — economic, political, personal — transformed after the pattern of the consumer market and, like that market, ready to oblige and change its attractions with ever-accelerating speed, that wipes out all fixed signposts from an individual map of the world or from the plans for a life itinerary. Indeed, traveling hopefully is in this situation much better than to arrive. Arrival has that musty smell of the end of the road, that bitter taste of monotony and stagnation that signals the end to everything for which the ideal consumer lives and considers the sense of living. To enjoy the best this world has to offer, you may do all sorts of things except one: to declare, after Goethe’s Faust: ‘O moment, you are beautiful, last forever!’”

— from Zygmunt Bauman, “Tourists and Vagabonds: Or, Living in Postmodern Times,” in Identity and Social Change, edited by Joseph E. Davis (Transaction Publishers, 2000). Bauman was interviewed on Volume 48 of the Journal, discussing his book, Liquid Modernity (Polity Press, 2000).