The obligation of prodigality
by Ken Myers
“The erosion of traditional American values took place on two levels. In the realm of culture and ideas, the withering attack on small-town life as constricting and banal was first organized in the 1910s by the Young Intellectuals as a self-consciously defined group, and this attack was sustained in the next decade in the journalistic criticism of H. L. Mencken and in the sketches and novels of Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis.
“But a more fundamental transformation was occurring in the social structure itself: the change in the motivations and rewards of the economic system. The rising wealth of the plutocracy, becoming evident in the Gilded Age, meant that work and accumulation were no longer ends in themselves (though they were still crucial to a John D. Rockefeller or an Andrew Carnegie), but means to consumption and display. Status and its badges, not work and the election of God, became the mark of success.
“This is a familiar process of social history with the rise of new classes, though in the past it was military predators whose scions went from spartan to sybaritic living. Yet such parvenu classes could distance themselves from the rest of society, and such social transformations often developed independently of changes in the lives of the classes below. But the real social revolution in modern society came in the 1920s, when the rise of mass production and high consumption began to transform the life of the middle class itself. In effect the Protestant ethic is a social reality and a lifestyle for the middle class was replaced by a materialistic hedonism, and the Puritan tempered by a psychological eudaemonism. But bourgeois society, justified and propelled as it had been in its earliest energies by these older ethics, could not admit easily admit to the change. It promoted a hedonistic way of life furiously — one has only to look at the transformation of advertising in the 1920s — but could not justify it. It lacked a new religion or value system to replace the old, and the result was disjunction.
“In one respect what we see here is an extraordinary historic change in human society. For thousands of years, the function of economics was to provide the daily necessities — the subsistence — of life. For various upper-class groups, economics has been the basis of status and a sumptuary style. But now, on a mass scale, economics had become geared to the demands of culture. Here, too, culture, not as expressive symbolism or moral meanings but as lifestyle, came to reign supreme.
“The ‘new capitalism’ (the phrase was first used in the 1920s) continued to demand a Protestant ethic in the area of production — that is, in the realm of work — but to stimulate a demand for pleasure and play in the area of consumption. The disjunction was bound to widen. The spread of urban life, with its variety of distractions and multiple stimuli; the new roles of women, created by the expansion of office jobs and the freer social and sexual context; the rise of a national culture through motion pictures and radio — all contributed to a loss of social authority on the part of the older value system.
“The Puritan temper might be described most simply by the term ‘delayed gratification,’ and by restraint in gratification. It is, of course, the Malthusian injunction for prudence in a world of scarcity. But the claim of the American economic system was that it had introduced abundance, and the nature of abundance is to encourage prodigality rather than prudence. A higher standard of living, not work as an end in itself, then becomes the engine of change. The glorification of plenty, rather than the bending to niggardly nature, becomes the justification of the system. But all of this was highly incongruent with the theological and sociological foundations of nineteenth-century Protestantism, which was in turn the foundation of the American value system.”
— from Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (Basic Books, 1976)
Read more from Bell’s book here.