Daniel Bell's Prophecy

A new public philosophy will have to be created in order that something we recognize as a liberal society may survive.

-- Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, 1976

Last January, just as the new Republican-led Congress arrived in Washington intending to shrink the federal government, the great sociologist Daniel Bell -- with whom I studied at Columbia in the 1960s -- passed away. The coincidence was poignant: almost 40 years earlier, Bell had anticipated the tax crisis that resulted in the ascendance of the Tea Party. Before the Reagan Revolution and the end of welfare as we know it, Bell predicted that our society would grapple with the question of taxation for decades to come.

Progressives often dismiss Bell as a neoconservative, but Bell himself never adopted the label, choosing instead to describe himself, until his last days, as "a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture." This trinity annoyed almost everyone, but Bell's heterodoxy may have helped him to see what others could not: the deepening ambivalence of the American public toward paying taxes and the government. Bell recognized that Americans would become increasingly reliant on entitlements and increasingly disinclined to pay taxes or make the productive investments that society needs.

Today, American politics is dominated by budget fights, calls for ever-deeper austerity measures, and continuing reluctance to pay taxes. City and state budgets have been slashed while the federal deficit continues on an unsustainable course. In December of 2010, President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress agreed to extend the Bush-era tax cuts, including those for the wealthiest two percent. Earlier this year, the government nearly shut down as Democrats and Republicans fought over cuts to a relatively small portion of the budget. These bitter fights over budgets and taxation are certain to continue at least through the presidential election in 2012.

While the rise of the Tea Party was much heralded in the news this past January, Bell's passing was scarcely acknowledged. His books, considered indispensable in the 1970s, today collect dust in university libraries. And yet Bell's analysis of the main tensions in US society and politics was prescient. In order to deal with the crisis facing liberal society, we must attend to Bell, confront the problems he identified many years ago, and begin the work of creating a new public philosophy.

Born into an immigrant, Jewish, working-class household in New York City, Bell came of age in the midst of the fervid socialist politics of the 1930s. As an adolescent, he joined the Young People's Socialist League and stumped for the Socialist presidential candidate, Norman Thomas. After graduating from Stuyvesant High School, he became a denizen of Alcove 1 -- home to the anti-Stalinist Left -- in the City College Cafeteria along with Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, and Seymour Martin Lipset.

In the years after the war, Bell was among an influential cadre of formerly Socialist intellectuals who embraced social democracy and the social welfare state while vociferously rejecting communism. Bell famously declared "the end of ideology" in 1960, meaning that the totalizing ideologies of the 19th and early 20th centuries no longer guided policy making. A few years later he and Irving Kristol started the journal, The Public Interest, to explore the problems and limitations of New Deal liberalism. Kristol went on to become the founding father of the neoconservative movement, but Bell never joined. Bell's refusal to fit himself into the standard political categories probably contributed to the marginalization of his work over the last few decades of heightened partisan polarization.

Among Bell's enduring contributions are two remarkable books that he carved out of a single lengthy draft he produced while in residence at the Russell Sage Foundation during the 1969-70 academic year. The first, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), charted the key transformations in the economy that marked an end to the industrial era. The second, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), explained how these economic transformations were likely to create deeper and more intractable cultural and political conflicts.

Historians identify the 1970s as the critical turning point in contemporary US history. That decade was the hinge between the liberal hegemony that prevailed between 1933 and 1968 and the ascendance of political conservatism, which lasted from 1981 until at least 2008. Religious and social conservatives -- mobilized by a backlash against the 1960s -- joined with business conservatives to create a powerful electoral coalition. But before that decade had begun, Bell foresaw this transformation and predicted correctly that taxation would be one of the critical issues that upended political liberalism.

Driving this shift, Bell argued in The Coming of Post-Industrial Society,1 was the decline of manufacturing's centrality to the economy and the rise of services, especially knowledge production. Science and technology were being systematically integrated into production -- an insight vindicated by the last three decades of computer-led economic growth. This change, in turn, places increasing demands on government to fund education, provide for the development and diffusion of technological expertise, coordinate processes of technological change, and build some of the key infrastructure required by new technologies. While the government had long been fulfilling these functions, sometimes under the cover of military necessity, Bell argued that the scale, complexity, cost, and duration of such public sector efforts would rise dramatically.

In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Bell added another critical step to his argument: the rise of a consumer culture from the 1920s to the 1960s had effectively undermined the historic Protestant sanctification of work and replaced it with a hedonistic pursuit of pleasure. Because pleasure is defined in individualistic terms, the pursuit of it results in an erosion of the moral bonds that have historically held society together.2

Bell elaborates the last step of the argument in the final chapter of The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, entitled "The Public Household." On the one side, postindustrial trends position the state to play a significantly more central role in society, necessitating an increase in public expenditures and taxation. The problem is intensified by "a democratic polity which, increasingly and understandably, demands more and more social services as entitlements..." But just as communal needs are expanding, citizens are increasingly likely to see taxes as a direct interference with their own pursuit of happiness. Where these two trends converge, Bell foresaw an ongoing fiscal crisis in which the state would have difficulty raising necessary tax revenues and politicians who sought to strip the public of entitlements were likely to be punished at the polls. "How much the government shall spend, and for whom," Bell wrote, "obviously is the major political question of the next decades."

Two years after Cultural Contradictions was published, California voters overwhelmingly supported Proposition 13 -- a ballot initiative that placed severe limits on local property taxes. As Isaac Martin has argued, this victory made opposition to taxation the central tenet of the new national conservative majority and began a "permanent tax revolt" that has not yet lost its potency.3 Bell called for the creation of a new, liberal public philosophy to justify taxation to finance the public sector. Thirty-five years later, we still lack this public philosophy.4

What is distinctive about Bell's argument is that he identifies the critical problem as occurring at the level of culture or public philosophy. Many Americans today do not see why they need to turn over a substantial share of their earnings to the public sector. People often willingly give to a charity of their choosing, but they recoil at the idea of paying taxes to the government. Ardent Christians may acknowledge they are their "brothers' keepers" and give to their churches every Sunday, but they insist on a fundamental moral distinction between tithing to a church and taxation. The former is legitimate because it is the result of a compact between the individual and a deity; the action has been freely chosen by a sovereign individual. Taxation, on the other hand, depends on coercion and is therefore an affront to the sovereignty of the individual.5

This cultural emphasis makes Bell's argument different from many analyses of the fiscal crisis on both the left and the right that emphasize political-economic contradictions. A number of scholars, including James O'Connor, a leftist economist, have argued that the fiscal crisis was a contradiction of capitalism. Bell admired O'Connor's work, but he insisted that the fundamental problem of how to justify government outlays would persist even under socialist arrangements.

Bell's argument is also different from the "excess of democracy" argument that conservatives have made for decades. They argue that politicians in search of votes offer social programs and entitlements (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, etc.) whose costs far exceed what the nation can afford. Thus, the fiscal crisis is perpetuated by politicians who pander to the public rather than admit the hard truth that our society needs to live with less. One version of this argument holds that the additional tax burden of entitlement programs puts firms at a disadvantage in international trade, pushing the United States into economic decline as a price for living beyond its means. What's needed, House Republicans and their allies today argue, are drastic cuts to entitlements to avoid certain and devastating economic decline.

Bell had little truck with such arguments because he recognized that many types of government programs were, in fact, productive -- including the entitlement programs so detested by market fundamentalists. In fact, Nordic social democracies (Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark) continue to have generous entitlements: antipoverty programs have reduced the child poverty rate to about 5 percent (compared to over 20 percent in the United States), and the citizenry continues to be protected from income shocks caused by unemployment, ill-health, or old age.6 Meanwhile, all four of the Nordic social democracies were recently ranked amongst the most competitive economies in the world by the World Economic Forum. Rather than eroding their economic position, well-financed public programs have made Nordic nations more competitive. Substantial investments in higher education have resulted in a highly skilled labor force, and income supports have nurtured, not undermined, a risk-taking culture of entrepreneurialism and innovation.

And yet, there is also a paradox in the Nordic cases that would not have surprised Bell: though social democratic policies have been remarkably successful, social democratic parties have fared poorly at the ballot box. The pattern is particularly evident in Sweden, where the Social Democratic Party was once dominant, governing almost uninterrupted from 1932 to 1976. The party has lost two consecutive elections since 2006, and in 2010, its percentage of the total vote fell to 30 percent, as compared to 45.3 percent as late as 1994.

There are multiple reasons for this electoral decline. One factor affecting multiple European nations is that the politics of immigration has led some traditional social democratic voters to defect to anti-immigrant parties. Another factor specific to Sweden is that the largest conservative party, the Moderate Party, has abandoned some of its historic criticisms of the Swedish model as a way to attract votes from those who want to preserve their entitlements.

But consumerist individualism remains a key element in the declining fortune of social democratic parties. No less than the United States, the Nordic countries have become consumer societies in which people are continuously encouraged to pursue their own uniquely individual paths in life. In fact, certain social democratic policies such as the emphasis on gender equality have reinforced this individualism. With a solid safety net, the family is less and less an economic unit: for example, many couples cohabit rather than marry because they see no reason to subordinate their individual development to someone else or to a long-revered social institution.

Social democracy in the Nordic nations, like New Deal liberalism in the United States, is no longer a hegemonic political philosophy that can legitimate the government's right to tax or adjudicate disputes over its spending priorities. Instead, consumer culture has nurtured a focus on the sovereignty of the individual and effectively corroded the solidaristic foundations that provide the basis for liberal democracy.

To date, the most politically successful response to the fiscal dilemma Bell identified has been proffered by anti-tax conservatives. In response to the 1978 success of Proposition 13 in California, this anti-tax movement launched a decades-long "permanent tax revolt," that seeks to cut taxes at all levels of government. As Grover Norquist, one of the movement's key strategists, once told Mara Liasson on NPR, "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." The consequences of the tax revolt are now being felt across the nation as state governments make deeper cuts in spending for education, health care, and basic social services on which significant sectors of the population depend.

While riding the tax-revolt tiger has been a great political strategy for the Right, it leaves their political leaders with no effective means of governing postindustrial societies. Former President George W. Bush tried the approach of cutting taxes and increasing public sector spending, but the economy blew up on his watch and his own political popularity cratered. Yet the recent experience of the Conservative Government in England shows that the opposite tactic -- cutting both taxes and spending-- tends to produce a weak economy and high voter dissatisfaction. Moreover, as we have seen in the United States since 2008, both large deficits and slow growth work to push conservative voters further to the right as they embrace ever more radical schemes for slashing state spending. The intensification of the Right's anti-government ideology constitutes the deep threat to a liberal society about which Bell warned because of its potential to engender years of destructive political stalemate.

The Center-left largely ignored Bell's warnings until a long series of electoral defeats in the 1980s forced them to search for solutions. We can identify three distinct strands of response, each with a mixed and uneven history. The first are reframing efforts designed to persuade the electorate that the public sector is worthy of support. For example, former President Bill Clinton campaigned in 1992 by emphasizing the need for "public investment" to get the economy going again, and President Obama used similar rhetoric in the 2008 election. While the framing was helpful in both elections, neither president persuaded the public that an expansion of government efforts was necessary. Both times, Republicans were able to use familiar anti-tax and anti-spending rhetoric to make dramatic gains in the very next election cycle.

Outside of the framework of presidential campaigns, efforts to change the discourse have been similarly ineffective. A number of progressive think tanks and consultants have tried to find fresh ways to make the public sector sound better to the public, but such efforts have not deterred conservative politicians from demonizing schoolteachers, firefighters, and police.

The inadequacy of reframing is especially evident in California. Over the last 20 years, the state's electorate has become reliably Democratic. With higher rates of union density than most other states and growing voting blocs of Latinos and Asian Americans, the state has produced a series of strongly liberal political figures. But despite a real shift in the state's political debate, the same electorate that routinely returns Democrats to all statewide offices still votes down most ballot measures that threaten to increase taxation. While the permanent tax revolt no longer leads to the election of Republicans, it still has enough power to block tax increases and thereby force the state to enact draconian budget cuts.

Other liberal responses rest on the idea that the legitimacy of the public sector is directly connected to a sense of civic engagement and the vitality of "civil society" -- the institutions that lie between the individual and government. This theory has been elaborated most fully by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone and in other writings.7 Putnam argues that belief in and support for the public sector depends on building thick networks of civic groups, including veterans' organizations, bowling leagues, fraternal organizations, and other voluntary associations. The implicit claim is that as people come to involve themselves more in such activities, they learn to be a little less selfish, a little less focused on their own needs, and more respectful of the public sector's need for resources. While many initiatives to rebuild civic engagement, particularly in poor and minority communities, are admirable, there is little reason to imagine that such efforts provide a real solution to the problem Bell identified. As Tea Party groups demonstrate, those who "bowl together" can simply reinforce one another's deep conviction that taxation is an illegitimate appropriation of resources that belong to the individual.

A third strand of response is intellectually more serious but has had even less resonance or impact than the other two. This approach builds on arguments that Bell developed in the introductory chapter of The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism called, "The Disjunction of Realms." Bell suggests that our political difficulties are rooted in our ways of understanding society.8 According to Bell, we are still seeing the world through the lens of 19th century thought that understood society in holistic terms -- a unified entity in which culture and politics are fundamentally shaped by the prevailing economic institutions.

Bell attacked the view, common to both market liberals and Marxists, that our society is inevitably structured by production arrangements -- the imperative to maximize economic output. Market liberals insist that we need limited government in order to allow the private market economy to deliver goods and services efficiently, while Marxists argue that only a transition to socialism will allow humanity to make the best use of the productive forces built up over decades of industrial growth. Both sides envision a harmonious society in which politics and culture are properly aligned with the demands of a productive economy.

Bell rejects this view and posits that if we are to understand contemporary society we need to discard these unitary and deterministic frameworks. He insists that economics, politics, and culture are separate realms; each operates according to quite different axial principles. Creating a good society is not a question of subordinating two of these realms to the imperatives of the third; it is rather a question of finding ways to allow the realms to coexist while each retains a significant degree of autonomy.

In his book, Spheres of Justice,9 the political philosopher Michael Walzer builds on this argument. While Walzer elaborated his argument in response to John Rawls and other theorists of justice, he, like Bell, incorporates the idea of multiple social realms or spheres into his philosophy. He argues that the economic reward system is only one of a number of separate social spheres, and each distributes resources according to different principles. Walzer insists that even in a highly market-oriented society, we do not simply allocate political offices or Nobel prizes or social esteem to the people with the most money. In politics, offices are distributed to those who get the most votes. In science and fine art, those who are seen to be most creative are showered with status and awards. In health care, we have at least a theoretical conviction that those with the greatest need should get the most health care services. Walzer's argument is that a new political philosophy could be grounded in the need to preserve the precarious integrity of each of these separate spheres of distribution.

In place of the old socialist ideal of equality wherein everyone receives the same resources, Walzer argues for "complex equality" which means that those who have the most money or political power will not be able to dictate the distribution of resources in the other spheres. To use the most obvious example, public financing of political campaigns could significantly reduce the capacity of the rich to translate their money into political influence and power. Or the idea of complex equality could provide the grounding for what social democratic societies already do -- prevent people with money from getting their children into better schools or jumping the queue in the health care system.

One strength of Walzer's argument is that our society already has these different distributional principles. Most people understand that there are certain things that should not or must not go to the highest bidder. Imagine, for example, what would happen to our judicial system if lawyers could change sides in the middle of a case when the other side offered them a larger fee. The separation of various spheres is also conceptually similar to the separation of powers enumerated in the American Constitution, in which the executive, legislative, and judicial branches are interdependent while operating on quite different principles.

While Walzer does not directly take on the citizenry's willingness to pay taxes, his argument suggests that the idea of complex equality could help legitimize government. Both public policies and public provision of certain goods are necessary to protect the integrity of spheres that might otherwise be corrupted by distribution to those with the most dollars. At the same time, the idea of complex equality should appeal to those preoccupied with fears of governmental tyranny since both political and economic elites would be blocked from using resources in one sphere to claim a disproportionate share of resources in other spheres.

Walzer's ideas are important, but his contribution still does not constitute the new political philosophy that Bell had in mind. That would require more work to explain how complex equality is, in fact, the best way to fully empower the individual citizen. As discussed earlier, even in those social democratic societies that have successfully limited the ability of those with the most money to tilt distribution in other spheres, support for social democratic parties has been declining. In short, even there, the idea of "complex equality" cannot easily be turned into a persuasive bumper sticker.

Thirty-five years ago, Bell correctly identified the issue that has become the pivot of our politics ever since and, as Bell suggested, solving the problem requires nothing short of a fundamental paradigm shift in how we think about society. This paradigm shift requires two steps. First, we need to move beyond the 19th century idea that society is a unitary entity that necessarily revolves around the organization of the economy. As Bell realized, it is vital that we transcend market liberalism with its insistence that we live in a market economy and have no choice but to obey its commands. Unfortunately, in the years following the publication of Cultural Contradictions, those market liberal views have become ever more dominant, surviving even the 2007-2009 financial meltdown that they were instrumental in creating.

Bell's view is that we live simultaneously in a polity, in a culture, and in an economy, and each of them makes different and conflicting demands on us. But preserving a liberal society requires that no single one of these realms be dominant. Dominance by politics gives us the totalitarian regimes of the mid-20th century. Dominance by the economy looks like Dickensian England with its dark satanic mills. And dominance by culture produces theocratic regimes with virtually no personal freedom.

But this is only the first step. The second and even more difficult step is to articulate a political philosophy that tells us how we can give each of these realms their due without allowing one of them to dominate over the others. Bell urged us to take up this task over three decades ago. We have already paid an enormous price for ignoring his counsel. As he predicted, the survival of a recognizably liberal society could depend on our ability to rise to the challenge. /

Further Reading

"The Hedonistic Roots of the Tea Party," The Breakthrough, Winter 2012

1. I touch on postindustrialism only briefly here because I have discussed it at length elsewhere, See Fred Block, Postindustrial Possibilities (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990). (back)

2. Bell's distaste for the "sensibility of the sixties" gives this part of his argument a culturally conservative twist; at times individuals and radical social movements are faulted for their assaults on traditional moral codes. At other times, however, he clearly defines the cultivation of consumerist individualism as an elite project designed to sell more products. (back)

3. Martin, Isaac William. 2008. The Permanent Tax Revolt. Stanford: Stanford University Press. (back)

4. The problem that Bell identifies is more acute in the United States because a substantial portion of tax revenues are used to finance the defense and national security apparatus that produce few immediately visible results for the electorate. But similar fights over fiscal policy are being felt across all developed societies. (back)

5. Block, Fred. 2009. "Read Their Lips: Taxation and the Right-Wing Agenda." In The New Fiscal Sociology: Taxation in Comparative and Historical Perspective, eds. Isaac William Martin, Ajay K. Mehrotra, and Monica Prasad. New York: Cambridge University Press (68-85). (back)

6. Pontusson, Jonas. Forthcoming. "Once Again a Model: Nordic Social Democracy in a Globalized World." In What's Left of the Left: Democrats and Social Democrats in Challenging Times, eds. James Cronin, George Ross, and James Shoch. Durham: Duke University Press. (back)

7. Putnam, Robert. 2000. Bowling Alone. New York: Simon and Schuster. (back)

8. Bell cites favorably an earlier article by Walzer that began to develop this argument. (back)

9. Walzer, Michael. 1983. Spheres of Justice. New York: Basic Books. (back)

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