One way of understanding the recent spree of looting and rioting seen on the streets of England is in terms of a clash of two ‘cultures’ first identified by the American sociologist Daniel Bell in his book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.
Published in 1976, Bell’s study mapped out two antagonistic cultures. One consisted of consumption, of instant gratification, of wanting as much and as good by way of possessions as those around you have (or, if you can, more and better). A culture in which capitalist society is ‘the institutionalisation of envy’. The other culture comprised hard work and delayed gratification, of building up a business through reinvestment, of selling or producing the things that others want to buy. For profit, of course, but profits that normally go to developing the business further.
Sound familiar? In light of recent events Bell’s book deserves a revival for there he suggests why we may have come to this impasse, and sketches the wider cultural malaise that it may signify.
Bell was an interesting character. Born Belotsky (the family name was changed when he was 13), his Eastern European parents worked in the New York garment industry, and Bell’s father died when he was just eight months old. Like many from that background, Bell initially embraced socialism, and although he migrated to a version of cultural conservatism, he maintained the view that capitalism was prone to contradictions, although unlike Marxists he placed the key contradiction as that between the ‘techno-economic’ sphere and the ‘cultural’ sphere. In his view the work ethic on which capitalism depends would ultimately be undermined by the desire for consumption and instant gratification, and this is entirely due to the nature of capitalism itself.
In brief, the argument runs something like this – early capitalism developed within the framework of a puritan ethos (here Bell follows the German sociologist Max Weber). Within such a framework notions of hard work and delayed gratification come to individuals quite naturally – they fit entirely within the everyday religious framework to which nearly all individuals relate. Furthermore, although luxury goods are produced for a small, wealthy elite, for most people consumption revolves around the sphere of need – and needs are limited and their satisfaction relatively envy-free (as long as I can satisfy my basic needs I don’t envy you being able to satisfy yours).
However, as capitalism becomes more productive, it moves beyond the satisfaction of need towards the meeting of wants. As Bell says, ‘Wants are psychological, not biological, and are by their nature unlimited’. They are also highly comparative, meaning that we see the ‘institutionalisation of envy’ in the sphere of consumption. Capitalism now has to increasingly turn its attention to the stimulation of demand – to promoting consumption, to developing lines of credit to allow individuals to buy what capitalism creates. Forget delayed gratification, as an advert for bank loans recently had it ‘why wait?’. In promoting consumption capitalism itself destroys the protestant ethic that had limited ‘sumptuary’. And with that gone only hedonism remains.
With this change Bell expected to see the rise of nihilism, the erosion of the traditional values that have held capitalist societies together. As he wrote: ‘Today what is there left in the past to destroy, and who has the hope for a future to come?’
Bell’s cultural pessimism provides a framework for making sense of recent events. Looting represents the apogee of nihilistic consumption. This is no campaign for positive political change, but an opportunity for some to temporarily assuage that institutionalised envy of those who have more in a world where people’s identities are largely framed by what they possess. Those coming together to defend their businesses are operating in a different, disjunct sphere, where nihilism is a threat to the value they have developed over a working lifetime. We will hear much more of the fatuous notion of ‘community’ in response to the riots, but these people merely share the same geographical space, whilst inhabiting separate subcultures which clashed, with tragic consequences, last week.
There is of course much one can take issue with in Bell’s analysis. His call to return to something like religious values seems quixotic in the face of his own analysis, and it is not clear that the productive power of capitalism has been undermined by these changes in the way he thought it might be. Furthermore the particular focus of his analysis was the ‘counter-cultural’ movements of the late 1960s and early 70s.
Bell nonetheless points us toward a source of tension in contemporary capitalist societies that comes directly out of the competing imperatives to be both producer and consumer. We still need to find better ways of living with the cultural contradictions of capitalism.