Daniel Bell: socialist, liberal and conservative

Sociologist Daniel Bell– who, among other things, predicted the Internet in 1967– died last month at the age of 91.

Bell’s 1976 book “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism” explored how the hedonism and instant gratification encouraged by modern consumer capitalism undercut traditional bourgeois values such as delayed gratification. It’s a point I’ve written about in previous posts.

In a Foreword to the book Bell wrote:

Since an author’s point of view is relevant to the understanding of his intentions, I think it not amiss to say that I am a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture. Many persons might find this statement puzzling, assuming that if a person is a radical in one realm, he is a radical in all others; and, conversely, if he is a conservative in one realm, then he must be conservative in the others as well. Such an assumption misreads, both sociologically and morally, the nature of these different realms. I believe there is a consistency to my views which I hope to demonstrate in this Foreword. I will begin with the values I hold, and deal with the sociological distinctions in the following section.

… For me, socialism is not statism, or the collective ownership of the means of production. It is a judgment on the priorities of economic policy. It is for that reason that I believe that in this realm, the community takes precedence over the individual in the values that legitimate economic policy. The first lien on the resources of a society therefore should be to establish that “social minimum” which would allow individuals to lead a life of self-respect, to be members of the community} This means a set of priorities that ensures work for those who seek it, a degree of adequate security against the hazards of the market, and adequate access to medical care and protection against the ravages of disease and illness.
The social minimum I support is the amount of family income required to meet basic needs. And, since this is also a cultural definition, it will, understandably, change over time? And I am a socialist, also, in that I do not believe wealth should be convertible into undue privilege in realms where it is not relevant. Thus it is unjust, I argue, for wealth to command undue advantage in medical facilities, when these are social rights that should be available to all. In the realms of wealth, status, and power, there are principles of just allocation that are distinctive to each realm.

Yet I am a liberal in politics—defining both terms in the Kantian sense. I am a liberal in that, within the polity, I believe the individual should be the primary actor, not the group (be it family or corporation or church, or ethnic or minority group). And the polity, I believe, has to maintain the distinction between the public and the private, so that not all behavior is politicized, as in communist states, or left without restraint, as in the justification of laissez-faire in traditional capitalist societies.
I believe in the principle of individual achievement, rather than the inherited, or prescribed allocation of social positions… Once a social minimum is created, then what people do with the remainder of their money (subject to the principle of illegitimate convertibility), is their own business, just as what people do in the realm of morals is equally their own business, so long as it is done privately. And, if universalism prevails in social competition, then the criterion of merit, I believe, is a just principle to reward individual achievement in the society.

I am a conservative in culture because I respect tradition; I believe in reasoned judgments of good and bad about the qualities of a work of art; and I regard as necessary the principle of authority in the judging of the value of experience and art and education.

… Culture, for me, is the effort to provide a coherent set of answers to the existential predicaments that confront all human beings in the passage of their lives…

The emphasis on judgment is necessary to fend off that indiscriminateness which regards all “meaningful” experience as good, and which insists that each group’s “culture” is as valid as any other. The debasement of modernity is the emphasis on “self-expression,” and the erasure of the distinction between art and life, so that the acting out of impulse, rather than the reflective discipline of the imagination becomes the touchstone of satisfaction…

The triune positions I hold do have a consistency in that they unite a belief in the inclusion of all people into citizenship through that economic minimum which allows for self-respect, the principle of individual achievement of social position on the basis of merit, and the continuity of the past and present, in order to shape the future, as the necessary conditions of a civilized order.