Friday, November 28, 2014

Bedtime for Bobos

Florentin Moser (Germany), The Descent of Man (2010).
You know that picture of the "Descent of Man", of the march of human evolution as a literal march of ever more erect and hairless male hominids? The concept of David Brooks writing about the "cultural contradictions of capitalism" as he does in today's column calls to mind one of those "Descent of Man" parodies that invert it into a picture of degeneration, from heroic ancestors to wretched present, where such is the bathos of the penultimate phase, the bent-over Cubicle Man, that there's nothing for it but to revert at the end to the knuckle-dragging chimp: muscular Marx, spiritual Weber, anxiety-ridden Daniel Bell, and Bedtime-for-Bonzo Brooks:
In 1976, Daniel Bell published a book called “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.” Bell argued that capitalism undermines itself because it nurtures a population of ever more self-gratifying consumers. These people may start out as industrious, but they soon get addicted to affluence, spending, credit and pleasure and stop being the sort of hard workers capitalism requires.
Bell was right that there’s a contradiction at the heart of capitalism, but he got its nature slightly wrong. Affluent, consumerist capitalists still work hard. Just look around.
You'll find them clustering around the pine-nuts-and-goat-cheese section at the Applebee's salad bar, if you know what I mean, and I'm pretty sure you do.

That's actually pretty much an adequate Shorter for Brooks's first book, Bobos in Paradise (2000 and fulsomely praised in the New York Times Book Review by Mr. Kurt Andersen), the work that got people started calling him an "intellectual". Arguing against what he took to be Bell's thesis, that capitalism might be destroyed by good bourgeois turning into beastly bohemians, he showed that according to his field research (conducted in imaginary salad bars), you could be bourgeois and bohemian, bo and bo, at the same time, working your little tail off in the cubicle and then consuming to beat the band on your off-hours. So it was all good!

Only there were a couple of things wrong with this formulation, including (as Dr. Google and I have been finding on our recon mission today) its picture of what Bell was saying, in his 1976 book or the 1970 National Affairs essay of the same title that serves as its opening chapter. Not least in the cartoon-conservative picture of how capitalism never fails but only is failed, by those no-good lazy humans.

As a socioeconomic liberal, watching the transformation of American society after 1945, Bell felt sure that Marx's idea of the inevitable collapse of capitalism due to its internal economic contradictions was plainly wrong; but as a (fairly grotesque) cultural conservative, he claimed there was a corollary set of cultural contradictions, in that in order to sustain the system the new general "middle class" would have to absorb an unlimited amount of excess industrial production, and to do this they would have to sacrifice the values out of which capitalism had been created in the first place:
the real social revolution in modern society came in the 1920's, when the rise of mass production and high consumption began to transform the life of the middle class itself. In effect the Protestant Ethic as a social reality and a life-style for the middle class was replaced by a materialistic hedonism, and the Puritan Temper by a psychological eudaemonism.
But bourgeois society, justified and propelled as it had been in its earliest energies by these older ethics, could not 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 1920's--but could not justify it. It lacked a new religion or a value system to replace the old, and the result was a disjunction.
For Bell, the issue wasn't the possibility that the middle class would cease to work, but that they were already, however hard they might be working, ceasing culturally to be middle class, lured into a nihilist, atheistical modernism that he could only regard with horror:
it is increasingly evident that for a significant proportion of the population the relation of social position to cultural style---particularly if one thinks in gross dimensions such as working class, middle class, and upper class--no longer holds. The question of who will use drugs, engage in orgies and wife-swapping, become an open homosexual, use obscenity as a political style, enjoy "happenings" and underground movies, is not easily related to the "standard variables" of sociological discourse. Age and education may be more relevant discriminators; but in the expansion of mass higher education, even education alone is no longer an easy predictor of behavior. One finds many children of upper-middle-class families joyfully embracing what they think is the "freedom" of working-class or black, lower class life-styles...
(Disclosure: I performed in a happening once, in Buffalo, in a piece where my part was to sit 15 or 20 feet in the air on a ladder holding a hose, inflating a weather balloon, for narratological purposes that I no longer recall, if I ever knew them, and was and still am acquainted with numerous open homosexuals, and may on occasion have used some drugs, but never as far as I know indulged in wife-swapping, although some wives back in the day, including one of my own, may well have attempted to swap me.)

Anyway Brooks, who has now moved on from the cheerful standpoint of 14 years ago to start worrying intensely about our society's lack of spiritual moorings, has no idea that Bell was worried about the same thing:
The real contradiction of capitalism [in contrast to the imaginary position ascribed to Bell] is that it arouses enormous ambition, but it doesn’t help you define where you should focus it. It doesn’t define an end to which you should devote your life....  Capitalism on its own breeds people who are vaguely aware that they are not living the spiritually richest life, who are ill-equipped to know how they might do so, who don’t have the time to do so, and who, when they go off to find fulfillment, end up devoting themselves to scattershot causes and light religions.

To survive, capitalism needs to be embedded in a moral culture that sits in tension with it, and provides a scale of values based on moral and not monetary grounds.
So his entire career as a "public intellectual" is based on his reading of a book in which he evidently did not get all the way through the first chapter!

Plus, do we really need an economic system to define the end to which we should devote our lives? As opposed to the practice of "light religions" (which I imagine are religions like light opera, with a touch of that Gypsy harmony, an obligatory drinking song, and spoken dialogue)? I don't think Bell (who was deeply pessimistic at this point in his career and not proposing any solutions) would have thought so.

What we need to do, I think, is realize that there's a downside to preaching the "end of ideology", as Bell did in the 1950s and Deng Xiaoping in the period of "Reform and Opening Up" after 1979 or so, with the saying that "it doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice" but "to get rich is glorious": that that itself can become an ideology, as in the cases Brooks cites from Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China (2014). That includes you, Pragmatist-in-Chief President O. Where Bell saw nihilism in those hophead beatniks, abstract expressionists, and practitioners of "black life-styles" in the 1960s, he might instead have looked at the coming businessmen of the era, and the belief in a maximized profit as an outward sign of inward grace, and understood that they did have a religion, just a particularly awful one.

As for Brooks, never mind, you know. One of the best things about studying him as I've been doing for the last couple of years is the number of things you can learn by examining what he's mishandled and trying to figure out how he's mishandled it (under the safe assumption that he must be wrong about something), and I'm pleased to have read all this Bell.

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