The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

By Daniel Bell | Go to book overview

Afterword: 1996
NOW THAT THE moral and economic contradictions of Soviet communism have been concluded--is that the end of History or only of utopianism?--all that remains are the cultural contradictions of capitalism.This book--published twenty years ago--had three themes:
1. The tension of asceticism and acquisitiveness. Modern capitalism, according to the reiterated thesis of Max Weber, was made possible by the asceticism sanctioned by Calvinist and early Protestant thought, which exalted work as a calling and encouraged savings by the delayed gratification of impulses. To be in debt was something a frugal individual feared. Yet over time, the drive to acquisitiveness has won out. In fact, contemporary capitalism can exist only if the machinery of gratification and instant demand is well oiled, usually with cosmetic fragrance. (It is striking that in every major city in the world, from New York to Helsinki to Tokyo, every large department store one enters displays cosmetics and fragrances spread across its ground floor.)
2. The tension between bourgeois society and modernism. Though both were born in the same womb, so to speak--the rejection of the past, the commitment to ceaseless change, and the idea that nothing is sacred--the fratricide was there (as it has been in so many founding situations) from the start. Bourgeois society feared modernism in its cultural impulses to explore the tenebrous; modernism despised the cramped character of bourgeois life. Yet over time, the culture of bourgeois society (the realism of a Norman Rockwell or a Grant Wood) faded and the culturati embraced modernism (except in music, which was too difficult to listen to) and flaunted modernist products on its shelves and walls. Since the midcentury, modernism has become exhausted--in the novel, with its breakup of narrative time; in poetry, with its broken syntax; in painting, with the end of illusionism and the
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Author's Note: I wish to thank Paul Golob for his tactful suggestions and thoughtful editing.

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