Oh, those cultural contradictions

The now-famous raunchy Super Bowl halftime show— as well as the sexually-suggestive, tasteless and violent commercials– have got me thinking, as I sometimes do, about the cultural contradictions of capitalism.

Unfortunately I can’t take credit for that lovely phrase. It’s the title of a 1976 book by the sociologist Daniel Bell.

In the introduction, Bell describes himself as a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics and a conservative in culture– not a million miles from how I would describe myself. He argues that it is capitalism itself– not the cultural left– which has undermined the moral foundations of the original Protestant ethic that created modern capitalism in the first place.

The greatest single engine in the destruction of the Protestant ethic was the invention of the installment plan, or instant credit. Previously one had to save in order to buy. But with credit cards one could indulge in instant gratification. The system was transformed by mass production and mass consumption, by the creation of new wants and new means of gratifying those wants.

If you’re a libertarian, I imagine that the hedonistic and self-indulgent side of contemporary consumer capitalism isn’t likely to disturb you much. But what if you’re a more traditional, Cuthbertsonian conservative– a believer in capitalism but also concerned about morality, family stability and the like? Are you prepared to acknowledge that certain aspects of consumer capitalism may in fact be contributing to the breakdown of morality, personal responsibility, family life and the whole idea of delayed gratification?

After all it wasn’t insidious leftists who approved the Super Bowl halftime show and commercials. It was hard-headed corporate types who decided that these were the most effective means of attracting viewers and buyers. It’s the free market, folks. And short of a revolution– the results of which even I probably wouldn’t like– there’s not much we can do about it.