Cultural Contradictions of Global Capitalism

By O'Hara, Phillip Anthony | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Cultural Contradictions of Global Capitalism


O'Hara, Phillip Anthony, Journal of Economic Issues


In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Daniel Bell (1976) found that the decline of the bourgeois value system was brought about largely by the bourgeois economic system itself. In his opinion, the traditional values of American capitalism associated with the puritan temper and the protestant ethic were, from perhaps the 1960s onward, in conflict with the rising postmodern temper of the avant-garde and the "different." He believed that the economic system promoted avant-garde cultural values into the mainstream of the realm of cultural industries and that this was in conflict with the spirit of work, trust, and stability. The capitalist economic system, therefore, necessarily propelled a cultural fabric that was against capitalism, and this was said to lead to many problems of system reproducibility. Advances in hedonism, "being all that one can," a consumption ethic, sexual liberty, and status emulation were in contradiction with the old values of frugality, industry, justice, modesty, and humility; and this would lead to many problems for capitalism. As a consequence, capitalism is said to have no coherent moral or philosophical doctrine to spur the system into motion as a positive motivational and inspirational force.

The ideas for this book were developed before the contradictions started to impact materially on the system, an early version of the idea emerging in 1969-70. Since Bell wrote this work others have proffered an account of the dominant cultural contradictions of capitalism (e.g., see Stanfield 1995), but Bell was one of the first to analyze such contradictions in the late twentieth century. However, his threefold dichotomy between social structure (economy), polity, and culture hardly helps comprehend the generalized cultural contradictions of the system, since for him culture is defined primarily as the industries associated with art, theatre, film, advertising, and so on. A far better view of culture is that developed by institutionalists, for instance by Anne Mayhew, as follows:

   [C]ulture [is] the whole of a people's patterns of regular and
   recurring behaviour.... The idea [is] that human behaviour, belief,
   thought and artefact [are] all cultural patterns.... [E]mphasis
   [is] placed on the interrelatedness of component parts of culture,
   and upon cultural change as a consequence of that
   interrelatedness.... For all institutionalists who have followed
   the precepts of Veblen, Commons and Mitchell, culture has remained
   a central focus.... For institutional economists, with the concept
   of culture as their foundation, ... studies of economic processes
   must, therefore, be holistic in approach. Change in economic
   institutions is always part of more general socio-economic change,
   always involves cumulative causation and is always path-dependent.
   (Mayhew 1994, 115-117; emphases added)

The cultural contradictions of global capitalism, therefore, must be holistically engrained in the system. They are complex, following the general lines of cultural evolution of the times, forever changing yet always emanating from the complex interactions that are the hallmark of global capitalism. They must be able to penetrate the dominant institutions, interact with other aspects of culture, and manifest to varying degrees through historical time. It is in this vein that we investigate the contemporary cultural contradictions of global capitalism.

The Dominant Contradictions

So what are the dominant cultural contradictions of global capitalism in the contemporary environment? First we need to comprehend the notion of contradiction. A contradiction is something endogenous to a complex system that is both central to its positive operational dynamics and a necessary negative outcome of its modus operandi. Central to the notion of contradiction is that there are positive and negative aspects that simultaneously emerge from the dynamics of change and evolution. …

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