One of Russell Kirk’s many strengths came from his uncanny ability to criticize the culture but to do so as one in and among the very culture he criticized. And, when he did criticize, he did so as one who lived and breathed what he believed. When he wrote, he did so with immense conviction. Even at his most strident, Kirk avoided the abrasive in favor of the humane. While he always recognized the uncertainty of the future, he also knew that within each of us are incalculable possibilities.
In contrast, one only has to look at the smug and cynical, if not outright wrong and unconscionably offensive criticism of a Daniel Bell. In the twentieth anniversary of his most (in)famous work, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (original, 1970), he made a number of claims about America, most of which have been proven wrong by time.
Before getting into his arguments, I must make a personal note. I’ve disliked Bell since I first encountered his work in the mid 1980s, researching for high school debate. Even as a teenager, I considered him the worst type of scholar: arguing merely for the sake of arguing; writing merely because he could do nothing else; and merely shifting with the prevailing winds. Bell seemed pretty “mere” to me, and certainly not in the way C.S. Lewis had embraced the term.
In 1955, Bell lambasted nearly every person not on the American left in his edited work, The New American Right, a slapdash diatribe against anyone who happened to disagree with him. He and his fellow authors, such as the equally unappealing Richard Hofstadter, claimed that all conservatives were racist, paranoid xenophobes who couldn’t think their way out of a paper bag. Nastily, the authors claimed that men such as Russell Kirk (named directly) appealed only to the uneducated rich. By 1970, Bell, so very conveniently, found himself aligned with a number of former leftists who now styled themselves “neoconservatives,” not to be confused with the so-called New Conservatism of the 1950s.
Reading Bell in 1955 or 1970 or 1990 makes one realize that neoconservatives had to shift their efforts to foreign policy, for they had less than nothing to say about domestic policy.
Here’s a sampling from his Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism: “When the Protestant ethic was sundered from bourgeois society, only the hedonism remained, and the capitalist system lost its transcendental ethic.” Even if the market lessens poverty and raises the standard of living, which Bell doubts, it would not attenuate the fact (as Bell sees it) that capitalism undermines its own existence by its constant disruptive forces (creative destruction). Devoid of a serious Protestantism, the market has “substituted a hedonism which promises material ease and luxury.”
While any defender of the market can criticize its products and its results, Bell’s arguments are untenable. First, in what way was the American economy only built on the Protestant work ethic? Yes, this ethic mattered. But so did all the traditions of the West: Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, and pagan. Second, whereas Protestantism might have seemed on its way out of the world in the late 1960s, no legitimate scholar could continue to make that claim in 1990 or 2020. Protestantism thrives as it nears its 500th anniversary, only two years away. Third, whatever its faults, the economic system of the West has—since 1970—undermined all socialist serious systems and, just as importantly, has allowed the standard of living, the population of the world, and the longevity of each individual life to advance exponentially since 1970, since 1990, and, indeed, since the year 2000. In almost every way, Bell has been proven wrong. As Niall Ferguson has so effectively argued, even China’s immense economic growth over the past generation has been tied intimately to the rise of evangelicalism within the Asian giant.
This is not to suggest that Bell has nothing to offer. Certainly, as a friend of mine, Mark, pointed out, Bell understood that soft and easy credit in the United States would lead to huge distortions in the market. And, of course, subprime loans for homes did exactly this in 2008, and, most likely will again when it comes to the default on education loans and the almost near certain collapse of higher education in America during the next decade.
But we don’t need Bell to know any of this. A basic understanding of traditional morality and honesty quickly reveals that a house cannot escape a debt beyond its ability to sustain! This is not rocket science. When a house overly borrows, it will collapse. This is as true of a home as it is of a country.
Reading Bell in 2015 is almost worse than having had to read him in 1985. He is, as Russell Kirk once wrote of many liberals, “smugness incarnate.” Not only was Bell titillated by his own brain, but his crafty switching from one group of allies to another speaks not of his honesty, but of his manipulative duplicity. Reading The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism is a painful and suffocating experience. He offers no escape from the hellish maze that is his mind, and he traps himself as well as his reader in a labyrinth of academic jargon and meaningless labels.
If you want a great critique of the market, read Russell Kirk or Robert Nisbet. Read Wilhelm Roepke or John Paul II. Even radical free marketeers such as Milton Friedman recognize the deficiencies of the market. Skip Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, and their ilk. They have nothing to say, and they have nothing to offer. No wonder they left cultural criticism of America to the professionals and hitched their fortunes to the imperialism of the post-Reagan State Department. What they argued never worked in America. Maybe it will work in Afghanistan.
Well, probably not.
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