12 Jun

The legitimizing role of hedonism

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 06/12/21

Daniel Bell on what replaced the Protestant Ethic

“In the early development of capitalism, the unrestrained economic impulse was held in check by Puritan restraint and the Protestant ethic. One worked because of one’s obligation to one’s calling, or to fulfill the covenant of the community. But the Protestant ethic was undermined not by modernism but by capitalism itself. 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.

“The Protestant ethic had served to limit sumptuary (though not capital) accumulation. When the Protestant ethic was sundered from bourgeois society, only the hedonism remained, and the capitalist system lost its transcendental ethic. There remains the argument that capitalism serves as the basis for freedom, and for a rising standard of living and the defeat of poverty. Yet even if these arguments were true — for it is clear that freedom depends more upon the historical traditions of a particular society than upon the system of capitalism itself; and even the ability of the system to provide for economic growth is now questioned — the lack of a transcendental tie, the sense that a society fails to provide some set of ‘ultimate meanings’ in its character structure, work, and culture, becomes unsettling to a system.

“The cultural, if not moral justification of capitalism has become hedonism, the idea of pleasure as a way of life. And in the liberal ethos that now prevails, the model for a cultural imago has become the modernist impulse, with its ideological rationale of the impulse quest as a mode of conduct. It is this which is the cultural contradiction of capitalism.”

— from Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (Basic Books, 1976)

Read more from Bell’s book here.