The Cultural Contradictions In Modern Capitalism Cultural Studies Essay

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Cultural Contradictions in Capitalism" by Daniel Bell is regarded as an inspiring work of genius which has the power to redefine how we think about the relationships amongst culture, social change and economics. Born on May 10th 1919 in Brooklyn New York City, Daniel Bell is a renowned sociologist influencing American political and economic concepts through his books "The End of Ideology" and "The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society" and is acknowledged as the "prophet of the emergence of a new society" (Walters 2003).

First published in 1976, Bell foretells such later predominant theories as the relationship of capitalism and culture as modes of production and consumption, post structuralism, deconstruction, and nevertheless quite accurately "The underlying problem... (of the) ...breakup in the very discourses - the languages, and the ability of a language to express an experience" (Bell 1978). Likewise he argues that modernism has reached its crisis point, and that the values that supported capitalism in the first place will eventually disappear.

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The aim of this essay is to assess whether Bell was correct in arguing that there are "Cultural Contradictions" in modern Capitalism.

In his book 'Cultural Contradictions in Capitalism', Daniel Bell maintains that the unbounded drive of modern capitalism undermines the moral foundations of the original Protestant ethic that ushered in capitalism itself. In other words, Bell contends that late capitalism undermines the very values that in actuality spawned it. Fundamentally, the prosperity produced by America's market economy had become its undoing. The unprecedented affluence of the 1960s had generated hedonism that undermined the classic Protestant virtues of self-restraint and patience, which had long underwritten capitalism. (Siegel 2007). Bell noted that "the culture was no longer concerned with how to work and achieve, but with how to spend and enjoy". Moreover, he continued to claim that by the 1950's, American society had become fundamentally hedonistic, focussed with "play, fun, display and pleasure - and typical of things in America, in a compulsive way (Bell 1978: 70).

Siegel noted that for Bell, "the Marxist democrat, the moral heritage of the bourgeois tradition was apparently exhausted. It seemed that capitalism had, in ways unforeseen by Marx, chopped down the tree in which it had nested. Except, to the surprise of many liberals and conservatives, the tree not only continued to stand, it grew taller and thicker as new branches sprouted in the post-1989 globalized economy" (Siegel 2007).

In addition, this analysis asserts that capitalism and the culture it creates harbours the seed of its own downfall by creating a need among successful people for personal gratification - a need that corrodes the work ethic that led to their success in the first place. Fundamentally, it notes that there is indeed a contradiction in the centre of capitalism. In the past there was unity and culture which provided a clear guidance. However, in contemporary culture not only is there no longer a moral code but it is merely opinionated, faddish and self-indulgent. In order to full grasp and answer this essay question, it would mean I would have to firstly understand capitalism, what the term means and entails and in addition I would have to look into Bells writings and his ideas on Culture in order to assess if he was correct in arguing that there are "Cultural Contradictions in Modern Capitalism".

It has often been noted that Sociology as an academic discipline began largely as a critical commentary on capitalism. The emergence of modern, society-wide capitalism in Western Europe in the later parts of the eighteenth century was accompanied by "deep social transformations, including a dramatic rise in urban, and therefore highly visible, poverty. In addition, the rise of capitalism is inseparable from the Industrial Revolution (Ritzer, 2007).

Capitalism is defined by Giddens as "an economic system based on the private ownership of wealth, which is invested and reinvested in order to produce profit (Giddens, 1989: 735).

Contradiction is a term used by Marx to refer to mutually antagonistic tendencies in a society (Giddens, 1989: 337).

Defining culture is complex nonetheless due to the fact that it has different interpretations and meaning. Sociologists and anthropologists alike use the term 'culture' as "a collective noun for the symbolic and learned, non biological aspects of human society, including language, custom and convention by which human behaviour can be distinguished from that of other primates" (Abercrombie et. al 1988: 59). On the contrary, Billington et. al in Giddens identified "at least two everyday, commonsense meanings" of culture which included the 'best' achievement and products in literature, art and music. The second was "the artificial growth or development of microscopic organisms or species of plans, a meaning deriving from a much older usage of the verb 'to cultivate': meaning husband, and originally referring to agricultural techniques" (Giddens. 2004:17). It is worth mentioning Bells interpretation of what Culture is:

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-"Culture, for a society, a group, or a person, is a continual process of sustaining an identity through the coherence gained by a consistent aesthetic point of view, a moral conception of self, and a style of life which exhibits those conceptions in the objects that adorn one's home and oneself and in the taste which expresses those points of view. Culture is thus the realm of sensibility, of emotion and moral tempter, and of the intelligence, which seeks to order these feelings." (Bell. 1978: 36)

Bell claimed that society was divided into three realms: Techno-Economic, Polity and Culture. Techno-Economic he noted "is concerned with the organization of production and the allocation of goods and services. It frames the occupation and stratification system of the society and involves the use of technology for instrumental ends". The polity "is the arena of social justice and power: the control of the legitimate use of force and the regulation of conflict". Culture was explained as the "arena of expressive symbolism: those efforts, in painting, poetry and fiction, or within the religious forms of litany, liturgy, and ritual which seek to explore and express the meanings of human existence" (Bell 1978.11-12).

For most of Modernity the Techno-Economic System was the source of change.

The Cultural system operated to support the Techno - Economic System was underpinned by Protestantism as Protestant Ethic was regarded as work as an end in itself and the Puritan Temperament was the commitment to an orderly and ascetic way of life.

In addition there was a Transformation of art -which meant people drifting away from telling truths about the human condition but then reproducing tradition. This meant that art now constantly seeked innovation and sensation, which can be described as the shock of the new.

The primary contradiction as well comes between the requirements of the Techno-Economic system for the acceptance of rationalised work discipline & the Cultural realm based on personal hedonism and immediate gratification. The cultural contradiction of capitalism is that capitalism merely started of as a radical and severe form of Protestantism, with a definitive and imperative emphasis on rejecting the collective Catholic dogma which dominated in the past.

Protestantism developed a new attitude towards wealth, in relation to its beliefs and ideas. Protestants stressed the importance and necessities of pursuing excellence and perfect standards with relentless individualism and drive. But this severity made the originally radical concept of capitalism eventually become conservative in terms its morality.

Mass consumption, which commenced during the 1920's, began due to the advances in technology "principally the application of electrical energy to the house hold tasks" - this included appliances such as irons, Hoovers, washing machines. The development of marketing "rationalized the art of identifying different kinds of buying groups and whetting consumer appetites". In addition, mass production on an assembly line made it possible for cheap cars. Credit and the availability of credit and instalment buying were central to mass consumption due to the fact that credit undermined the orderly and ascetic life. Instalment buying more than anything "broke down the old Protestant fear of debt". (Bell 1978: 66)

Bell noted that advertising and marketing cultivated the consumers taste. Advertising is a powerful tool in marketing brands, products, people and ideas. America was more likely one of the first large scale countries to build cultural change into its society.

Advertising redefines achievement in terms of capacity to consume rather than capacity to produce. Bell noted that advertising also worked in different ways.

-"The advertising in the woman's magazines…was to teach people how to dress, furnish a home…. Though at first the changed were primarily in manners, dress, taste…sooner or later they began to affect more basic patterns: the structure of authority in the family, the role of children and young adults as independent consumers in society, the pattern of morals, and the different meanings of achievement in the society" (Bell 1978:69).

There were new forms of communications due to the developments of technology, which included the cinema, or motion picture as Bell referred to it as and the radio. Bell also distinguished the Transformation of self-consciousness, which meant that ones identity no longer came from their family origins or home life but from personal experience, reflection and orientation. Bell suggested that vehicles, the motion picture, and radio were all technological in origin. Nonetheless, advertising, planned obsolescence, and credit were too all sociological innovations and he regarded that the most extraordinary thing about advertising was that it was so pervasive. (Bell 1978: 68).

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The Protestant work ethic is most attributed to the work of Max Weber and in his writings which include The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1902. For Weber, religion was a source of cultural meanings, which people constructed their identities in attempt to find meaning to their existent. He distinguished the trends to rationality in modern society, unintentionally encouraged by Protestantism, as leading to a growing sense of 'disenchantment with the world' (Taylor et. al 2004: 507).

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is founded upon the notion that the Calvinist emphasis on the necessity for hard work is proponent of a person's calling and worldly success is a sign of personal salvation. It has been argued that Protestants had reconceptualised worldly work as a duty which benefits both the individual and society as a whole Protestantism emphasized the autonomy and independence of the individuals rather than the dependence on the Church priesthood and rituals (Abercrombie et. al 1988: 198). Thus, the Catholic idea of good works was transformed into an obligation to work diligently as a sign of grace.

In the book, Weber traced the origins of the Protestant ethic back to the times of the Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church assured and promised salvation to individuals who accepted the church's sacraments and those who respected and obeyed the clerical authority. However, the Reformation had effectively removed such assurances and with it brought a range of beliefs and ideas which challenged the Catholic notion of salvation.

'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism' is purely an insight and understanding of Weber's ideas on religion and economics. Weber argued that Puritan ethics and ideas influenced the development of capitalism. Nonetheless religious devotion was usually accompanied by a rejection of worldly affairs which included such things which were regarded as 'sin' or immoral such as the pursuit of wealth and possessions. Weber stated that capitalism in northern Europe evolved when the Protestant ethic influenced a large amount of people to engage in work, in the process building up their own foundations and possibilities and engaging in trade and the accretion of wealth for investment. Likewise, the Protestant ethic was a force behind an unplanned and uncoordinated mass action that influenced the development of capitalism. This idea can also be referred to as "The Weber thesis". Weber, however, rejected deterministic approaches, and presented the Protestant Ethic as merely one in a number of 'elective affinities' leading toward capitalist modernity.

Bell noted that the Protestant ethic "emphasised work, sobriety, frugality, sexual restraint, and a forbidding attitude towards life". The source of the contradiction of capitalism in American life he attributed it to "the breakup of the traditional bourgeois value system" which was "brought about by the bourgeois economic system - by the free market" (Bell 1978: 50).

Concluding this essay, it is evident to acknowledge that Daniel Bell's "The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism" was originally published in order to criticise the dominant American assumption that capitalism promoted individualism.

It is necessary to point the fact that "The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism" was written during the 1970s, soon following the social upheaval of the 1960s. Bell was trying to make sense of the new social changes which were taking place and additionally what they meant for the newly emerging society. Nevertheless, his work has been criticised, claiming that he disregarded and did not properly examine how the problems for example arising in government would affect other dominions. Citing from the article, Abraham declared that "cultural contradictions in modern capitalism is naïve in its explorations of how cultural systems operate" (Abraham 1977).

Bell argues that there is an indeed a contradiction in the centre of capitalism. He understood that capitalism had come to promote standardization and had created corporate bureaucracies as powerful as churches or state bureaucracies of the past. Moreover, Bell alleged that the countercultural reaction to capitalism was also misguided, as capitalism had begun with the Protestant work ethic, and its spirit of individualistic austerity, Puritanism, and the freedom from Church institutional authority.

This wave of Protestant freedom and independence slowly eliminate, and this value was taken over by the Modernists, and then feebly by that of the 'counterculture'. Counterculture is a sociological term used to depict the norms and values of behavior of a cultural group, or subculture, that opposing ideas of those of the social mainstream and established culture, in this case youths.

In relation to America, Bell noted that the America's capitalism had lost its transitional legitimacy, which had been based on a moral system of reward rooted in the Protestant sanctification of work. (Bell 1978: 84).

This progressed to create the imposed standards of large corporations and state bureaucracies. In response to what came to be seen as the bourgeois values, the cultural beliefs of Modernism began to respond against capitalist values and celebrated the function of culture as a kind of misrule, rather than a capitalist order. Even so, Capitalistic Protestantism came to deny its original individualistic ethos, and this worth of individualism was taken over by artists and even anti-capitalism.

To answer this question and conclude this essay, Bell was correct in arguing that there were cultural contradictions. In his own words "The interplay of modernism as a mode developed by serious artists, the institionalization of the those played-out forms by the "cultural mass", and the hedonism as a way of life promoted by the marketing systems of business, constitutes the cultural contradiction of capitalism" (Bell 1978: 84).