Commentary Magazine


The Winding Passage, by Daniel Bell

Class, Culture & Society

The Winding Passage: Essays and Sociological Journeys 1960-1980.
by Daniel Bell.
Abt Books. 370 pp. $25.00.

“Already the sun is at mid-tierce.” So reads the inscription from Dante at the head of this book, whose eighteen essays by one of the country’s leading sociologists constitute a “winding passage” through scientific, political, and cultural disciplines. The five-part book begins with essays on technology and ends with essays on Jewish identity, memory, and the sacred. The three central parts deal with utopian thinkers (Veblen, Fourier, Marx); intellectuals and “the new class”; and four basic social changes of our time, including changes in the meaning of America, in the salience of ethnicity, in international structures, and in liberalism.

Few writers pack more esoteric but useful information into each essay. Given the talents of both journalist and academic, Bell manages consistently to be a kind of insiders’ outsider. To buttress his contention that science and technology, by means of what John Kenneth Galbraith calls the “techno-structure,” have gained an increasing hold upon business corporations and the state, he has learned a great deal about every sort of new technical development—in microcomputers, transistors, lasers—while also retaining an acute sense of the place of each development in intellectual and cultural history.

In analyzing the social changes that have occurred in our time, characterized above all by the growth of bureaucracies, Bell emphasizes process and structure while downplaying such notions as bourgeois, individual, entrepreneur, invention, and liberty. This comes out most clearly in an essay entitled “The New Class: A Muddled Concept.” Here Bell makes probably the most important analytical contribution of the book (the dust jacket calls attention to it but, ironically, the index does not): the concept of the situs. This concept is derived from the theory of elites (rather than from class theory). It points to five locations from which special interests compete for state funds: economic enterprises; the bureaucracies of government; universities and research organizations; social-welfare organizations (hospitals, social services, community organizations); and the military.

Bell’s point is that the “new class” is distributed through all five situses, each in competition with the others. “The controlling argument is this: when the state becomes the decisive arena for the allocation of resources and for the decisions that provide differential power to different activities, the situses are the major factors within the arena, because they are the claimants and the constituencies in that game.”

In contrast to others who speak of the “new class,” Bell minimizes the ideological connection between pro-statist interests and a radical, anti-institutional culture. For him, modern capitalism is also pro-statist and anti-bourgeois in culture. Modern capitalism, he argues, has been transformed in two ways. First, state power in directing the economy has grown because of defense, social welfare, the interdependence of regions wrought by technology, and a world economy. Second, hedonism has become central to “the very structure of business enterprises.” For these reasons, the “new class” is not a class “in any social-structural sense.” He writes: “The ‘new class’ consists of individuals who have carried the logic of modern culture to its end. Serious and committed, as many are, or trendy and chic, as others may be, they make up a cultural phenomenon that mirrors the breakdown of traditional values in Western society.” Chanticleer does not cause the sun to rise by his crowing. Neither, according to Bell, has the “new class” caused the structural transformation of capitalism.

This is an odd formulation. For one thing, it ignores or denies the role of ideology in legitimating a movement—the counterculture—adversarial to the bourgeois ethic and politically useful to statism. For another, it is descriptive to a fault, inflating structure and process into necessity. Yet the adversarial culture whose “logic” is now being “carried to its end” has no special heavenly mandate. Opposition to it may be mounted. Nothing obliges us to remain passively where we are. The interesting question, in fact, is how to invent, create, and nourish a new transformation of democratic capitalism.

Bell himself seems occasionally to glimpse such possibilities. On environmental issues, for example, he writes that “actual operational measures would, in a more innovative way, be left to market mechanisms rather than to cumbersome bureaucratic regulations.” This suggests a new ideal for the entire social system, closer to the capitalist than to the socialist model. But the trouble is that Bell characteristically sees little that is creative, self-renewing, or self-transforming within the capitalist principle itself. For him, that principle is empty: “Having lost its original justifications, capitalism has taken over the legitimations of an anti-bourgeois culture to maintain the continuity of its own economic institutions.” He cites Joseph Schumpeter and Irving Kristol to argue that capitalism “lacks any ‘transcendental justifications,’ since it is simply instrumental and rational, and creates no values of its own.” He further remarks that “the idea of liberty, which would guard against the centralization of power and bespeak a pluralist society, has given way in the culture to the idea of ‘liberation,’ which often paradoxically gives way to submission.”

The opposite of submission is resistance. It is simply not true that capitalism “creates no values of its own.” Capitalism is intrinsically related to some core values—to liberty in the sense of self-discipline; to invention, creativity, and cooperation, the root of the corporation; to work, savings, investment in the future; to self-reliance, etc. In cultures within which such values are not cherished, capitalism cannot take successful root. When such values fail, it cannot survive. The fundamental question of capitalism is a moral question. Capitalism is not neutral with respect to values.

Why does Bell see capitalism as morally empty? In part, this may be because the defense of capitalism has been almost wholly left to economists. As he remarks, intellectuals of both Right and Left have been united in their virtually unanimous contempt for bourgeois culture and values. In practice, Bell is not himself so contemptuous of such values, and his analysis of the intellectuals and of modernism indicates conclusively that the anti-bourgeois assault, conventional now for over a century, has been disastrous for all he holds dear. Yet since this assault has its origins precisely in the artistic and educated class, the supposed “guardians” of culture, it is subject to intellectual challenge and correction. The failure of capitalism, to the extent it has failed, is by Bell’s own analysis to be laid directly at the feet of the “new class” which, he also demonstrates, has gained so much through the growth of the state.

_____________

 

Bell is said to have quipped that he is a liberal in politics, a socialist in economics, and a conservative in culture. The single most systematic strength in his thinking—and, simultaneously, the single most glaring weakness—is that the socialist in him frequently overwhelms both the liberal and the conservative. Although in one essay he demolishes Michael Harrington’s scholastic and ahistorical reconstruction of Marx, and in another is equally severe with the sloppiness of C. Wright Mills, Bell nevertheless cites Marx far more than any other figure, and his imagination still operates within a Marxian horizon.

This is evident, above all, in the sense of fatalism which underlies Bell’s work. No determinist, he nevertheless seems so gripped by the power of social forces, structural trends, and underlying factors as to forget that the will of the single individual is the greatest force for change in the cosmos. At root, Bell is incompletely liberal. He misses the underlying spiritual power of democratic capitalism and its capacities for self-renewal. He conceives of it in too purely instrumental terms, neglecting to note the disciplines it teaches, the moral abuses it is designed to prevent, and the virtues it uniquely elicits. Capitalism may be a messy and easily despised form of economic life, but all other known forms are worse. It is, at least, powerfully self-transforming, creative, and inventive. Moreover, uniquely among economic systems, it respects the integrity both of the political order and of the spiritual order. It respects the individuality of the human person, the very basis of the sense of the sacred on which Bell’s book concludes.

Finally, even Bell’s essays on what it means to be Jewish fail to connect the deep impulses in the Jewish spirit with certain prerequisites for the emergence of capitalism: its sense of the drama of the self, of history, and of the creativity of the human mind and heart. Apart from Judaism and its tutoring of Christianity, it is difficult to imagine how either democracy or capitalism would have emerged as the most fecund social forms of the modern era. The spiritual power of capitalism is, at mid-tierce, the missing link in Bell’s thought.

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