Capitalism and the Human Spirit

By Novak, Michael | The Public Interest, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Capitalism and the Human Spirit


Novak, Michael, The Public Interest


I DOUBT that neoconservatives have (or ever had) a creed, but I am willing to commit myself to the truth of the following propositions: Economics is fundamental, and yet prior to economics is politics; prior to politics is culture; and at the root of culture lies formal public worship, embodying beliefs about God and man in dramatic form (cult, in its primary sense).

In our current cultural fog, David Bosworth's "The Spirit of Capitalism, 2000" is a danger sign at the edge of a cliff, and not a few people are likely to be alerted by it. Still, I note that every time Bosworth mentions capitalism, he veers off to stress "its scientific methods" and "strict rationalism." His real target is less economics than culture--less the economic functions of a capitalist order, which are compatible with several kinds of culture, than the scientific rationalism of our age.

Bosworth draws upon a venerable tradition in seeking out "a fatal flaw" in capitalism. He leans heavily upon Daniel Bell's magisterial The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism and Max Weber's angry "specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart"--the pin-striped bourgeois businessman who pales in comparison with the chivalrous Teutonic Knight. He might also have cited (as Gertrude Himmelfarb does in One Nation, Two Cultures) Josef Schumpeter's view that the "creative destruction" practiced by capitalism is eventually turned by its intellectual class against its own walls, flying buttresses, and very foundations, bringing "the whole scheme of bourgeois values" crashing down.

Each of these three analysts of capitalism diagnoses a different flaw. Bell argues that the success of one generation's asceticism tempts a later generation into hedonism. Weber imagines that the central form of reason in capitalism is that of the assembly line and the locomotive track: standardized, abstract, logical, calculated, confining man to an "iron cage." Schumpeter argues that the essential note of capitalism is the corrosive acid of criticism and novelty, eating away at everything fixed and solid.

Bosworth's analysis draws upon these authorities. He argues that our post-industrial habits of producing and consuming are no longer checked by the old Protestant ethic and civic spirit of the Founders. Today, these habits jump the banks of economic activities and flood into all aspects of life--the home, child-rearing, family life, and leisure. To achieve seemingly noble goals--self-fulfillment, sufficient economic well-being for the good things of life, even those spiritual pursuits such as education and appreciation of the arts--modern men and women race like rats on a treadmill. We don't have time or space for the true, the good, the beautiful. Our lives have become instrumentalized, banal, petty, and even selfish.

IN my view, Bosworth's essay is itself proof that our culture is about to turn in a new direction. The unease Bosworth is records is evidence of the creative possibility in capitalist life that its critics consistently overlook. If I am correct, what we will increasingly reject in the near future is the spiritually empty secular culture that Bosworth justly lampoons, precisely because it is as humanly inadequate as he describes. What will thrive, inspired by a different and more humane culture, will be the modest functioning of capitalism rightly understood.

Capitalism, we must continually remind ourselves, is the name of an economic system. This economic system has historically been mated to several different kinds of political systems and to an even wider array of cultural systems. Bosworth's complaints are directed (or should be) against cultural phenomena, not economic procedures in themselves. Capitalism is compatible with a far more humane culture than the dehumanizing childishness of the present age. As he himself notes, the destructive cultural traits he now opposes were once upon a time

largely avoided in America because our own version of rational materialism, "scientific capitalism," was preceded by, and (at first) politically allied with, strong traditions of both local governance and religious freedom--i. …

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