The restless vanity of the untrammeled self
by Ken Myers
In the winter of 1969–70, sociologist Daniel Bell (1919–2011) wrote an essay called “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.” Portions of the essay were soon published in The Public Interest, a journal then edited by Bell and Irving Kristol. That essay later became Chapter 1 in a book with the same title, published in 1976. The “contradiction” in the title referred to the tension between the limits — the demands and disciplines — necessary for economic productivity in modern societies, and the celebration of the promises of unlimited pleasures available in the goods on offer to modern consumers.
In retrospect, “paradoxes” may be a better word to describe this tension than “contradictions,” since even the production side of a capitalist economy requires entrepreneurs who are motivated by the dream of new possibilities that break old molds. Behind the innovative energy of the entrepreneur and the hedonistic restlessness of the consumer, Bell recognized a common drive: the modern creation ex nihilo of the autonomous self. He even uses the term “idolatry of the self” to identify the organizing principle in modern societies.
Bell’s description of the logic of consumer capitalism helps to explain a phenomenon that many have found perplexing: the active sympathy of many modern corporations with various progressive social causes. Below are some excerpts from the Introduction to The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.
“The fundamental assumption of modernity, the thread that has run through Western civilization since the sixteenth century, is that the social unit of society is not the group, the guild, the tribe, or the city, but the person. The Western ideal was the autonomous man who, in becoming self-determining, would achieve freedom. With this ‘new man’ there was a repudiation of institutions (the striking result of the Reformation, which installed individual conscience as the source of judgment); the opening of new geographical and social frontiers; the desire, and the growing ability, to master nature and to make of oneself what one can, and even, in discarding old roots, to remake oneself altogether. What began to count was not the past but the future.
“This is expressed in a twofold development. In the economy, there arises the bourgeois entrepreneur. Freed from the ascriptive ties of the traditional world, with its fixed status and checks on acquisition, he seeks his fortune by remaking the economic world. Free movement of goods and money and individual economic and social mobility become the ideal. At its extreme, laissez-faire becomes ‘rampant individualism.’ In the culture, we have the rise of the independent artist, released from church and princely patron, writing and painting what pleases him rather than his sponsor; the market will make him free. In the development of culture, this search for independence, the will to be free not only of patron but of all conventions, finds its expression in modernism and, in its extreme form, in the idea of the untrammeled self.
“The impulse driving both the entrepreneur and the artist is a restlessness to search out the new, to rework nature, and to refashion consciousness. As Marx wrote, in an almost hyperbolic paean to the bourgeoisie in The Communist Manifesto:
“‘The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces that have all preceding generations together. Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground — what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor? . . .
“‘The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. . . . All fixed, fast, frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profane, and man is at last compelled to face with his sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.’
“For the artist, the restless vanity of the untrammeled self is best expressed by Byron, whose impetuous romanticism imprinted itself on the page:
“‘The great object of life is Sensation — to feel that we exist — even though in pain — it is this “craving void” which drives us to Gaming — to Battle — to Travel — to intemperate but keenly felt pursuits of every description whose principal attraction is the agitation inseparable from their accomplishment.’
“Both impulses, historically, were aspects of the same sociological surge of modernity. Together they opened up the Western world in a radical way. Yet the extraordinary paradox is that each impulse then became highly conscious of the other, feared the other, and sought to destroy it. Radical in economics, the bourgeoisie became conservative in morals and cultural taste. The bourgeois economic impulse was organized into a highly restrictive character structure whose energies were channeled into the production of goods and into a set of attitudes toward work that feared instinct, spontaneity, and vagrant impulse. In the extreme Puritanism of America, laws were passed to constrain intemperate behavior, while in painting and literature bourgeois taste ran to the heroic and banal.
“The cultural impulse — I take Baudelaire as its exemplary figure — thus turned into rage against bourgeois values. ‘To be a useful man has always appeared to me as something quite hideous,’ Baudelaire declared. Utility, rationalism, and materialism were barren, and the bourgeois had no spiritual life and no excesses. The ‘cruel implacable regularity’ of industry was what the modern business house had created: ‘Mechanization will have . . . Americanized us, Progress will have well atrophied us, our entire spiritual part. . . .’
“What is striking is that while bourgeois society introduced a radical individualism in economics, and a willingness to tear up all traditional social relations in the process, the bourgeois class feared the radical experimental individualism of modernism in the culture. Conversely, the radical experimentalists in the culture, from Baudelaire to Rimbaud to Alfred Jarry, were willing to explore all dimensions of experience, yet fiercely hated bourgeois life. . . .
“In the history of bourgeois society, a number of sociological ‘crossovers’ took place which radically transformed both the cultural and economic realms. In the culture there was a radical change in the meaning of the individual from a being to a self. Of equal import, there was a shift from the hold of restraint to the acceptance of impulse. In the economy, there was a crucial change in the character of the motivations which lead a man to work and to relate himself positively and negatively to work.
“Classical philosophy had a metaphysical theology, as [Arthur] Lovejoy puts it, which thought of beings that had a nature, and therefore a common quality. As Plato wrote in the Timaeus, ‘a “good” being must be free from “envy,” that that which is more perfect necessarily engenders, or overflows into, that which is less perfect, and cannot “remain within itself.”’ There was a hierarchy of virtue, in which the lower derived from the higher. But in the modern consciousness, there is not a common being but a self, and the concern of this self is with its individual authenticity, its unique, irreducible character free of the contrivances and conventions, the masks and hypocrisies, the distortions of the self by society. This concern with the authentic self makes the motive and not the action — the impact on the self, not the moral consequence to society — the source of ethical and aesthetic judgments.
“But the larger context was the crossover from religion to secular culture in the way expressive conduct is handled in modern society. In the history of society, particularly of Western society, there has always been a dialectic of release and restraint. We find in the great historical religions a fear of the demonic, of human nature unchecked. And these religions have been religions of restraint. The shift to release occurs with the breakup of religious authority in the mid-nineteenth century. In effect, the culture — particularly modernist culture — took over the relation with the demonic. But instead of taming it, as religion tried to do, the secular culture (art and literature) began to accept it, explore it, and revel in it, coming to see it as a source of creativity. In the cry for the autonomy of the aesthetic, there arose the idea that experience in and of itself was the supreme value, that everything was to be explored, anything was to be permitted — at least to the imagination, if not acted out in life. In the legitimation of action, the pendulum had swung to the side of release, away from restraint.”