The Last Word
Daniel Bell reflects on Friends, Foes, Influences, Ideologies, the State of the Novel, the State of the Union, and the Old Neighborhood.
This interview was conducted on September 21, 2010, a few months before Daniel Bell’s death, at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Who was your adversary when you were writing The End of Ideology and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism?
I’m not sure there’s a single person. It was more against a whole current of writers, against whole ideological ways of thinking.
It goes very far back, to a crucial personal episode which defined my life when I was in City College. I had joined the Young People’s Socialist League at the age of 13. It’s crazy, but there it is. And I did so for very basic reasons: my father died when I was an infant; my mother raised me; she worked in a factory. There were two seasons in the year — busy and slack. When it was slack, my mother would be home to take care of me. In the busy season, I was in an orphanage. The orphanage was supported by the Jewish community. There were these personal ties that were important.
I grew up on the Lower East Side, which juts out into the river. Before the highways came, there were these long piers. They still remain on the West Side, these long piers. And they had these so-called “Hoovervilles” on the piers, which were tin shacks, and people living there. Everything was in the open. You could see people fornicating, fighting, everything. There were big garbage scowls which turned up, and we’d jump on the top of these to see if there were bits of food. At 11 o’clock at night we’d go to the West Side markets and we’d break open crates, and run away.
Everything was marked out by turf and ethnicity. The Italians were here, the Ukrainian kids were there, the Polish kids were there, the Jewish kids here. And there was “turf.” Before E.O. Wilson, it was about “turf.” We really believed in biological determinism, with every group having its place. There’d be fights. And — this was particularly true of the Polish kids — they’d take potatoes, and put in the potatoes these double-edged razor blades, and throw them at you. A hail of potatoes with razor blades being thrown at you! What you’d do then is you took the top of the garbage cans, and those were our shields. And then our brave socialist women would go on top of the building and throw down hot water to get the kids scattered. And that was life, life on the Lower East Side.
People talk about “rent checks” and such now. About how poor people are because they don’t have enough to get their rent check. In those days, you didn’t have anything like a rent check! We lived in backyard tenements.
So I looked around, and I said to myself: what’s going on here? Twenty percent of the country was unemployed. At that time, there was no social security, there was no government aid of any kind. No unemployment insurance, no old age pensions, nothing. As a kid of thirteen, I figured capitalism was doomed. And so, through a couple of friends, we all became socialists.
Like a number of my young comrades, we in the Young People’s Socialist League were moving towards the Trotskyists. But I had some anarchist cousins who lived in the Mohegan colony which was near Peekskill, and there was a man named Rudolf Rocker, an anarchist. Even though he was gentile, he learned Yiddish. He was the editor of a magazine called the Freie Arbeiter Stimme, the Free Voice of Labor, and my cousin took me to see him. Rocker said to me: “Look, whatever you do, don’t join the Trotskyists.” I said: “Why?” He gave me a book by AlexanderBerkman, called The Bolshevik Myth.
Berkman had been deported during the Palmer raids, during World War I. Anarchists went to Russia eagerly because, as they saw it, the anarchists had made the revolution. This wasn’t completely true, but at that time the country was still being led by the Soviets, or workers’ councils. And this is what the anarchists had always wanted: spontaneous movements by workers and peasants. So they went with great expectations.
But by 1921 sailors at Kronstadt were saying: “Look, you promised us free elections. What’s going on here?” And Trotsky said: “This is mutiny.” And that’s that. The sailors said: “We’re the ones who made the revolution in Kronstadt.” And he said: “Stop. I’ll shoot you down.” And Berkman tells this story, day by day.
He was in Kronstadt. He wrote about how he heard shouting, how he heard shots firing. “Trotsky has shot down the Kronstadt sailors! Thousands of bodies, thousands lie in the streets.” The very next day, Trotsky gave a lecture celebrating the Paris Commune. So I could never become a Trotskyist.
And yet I find myself being labeled at the end of my life as an “ex-Trotskyist.” But I was never an ex-Trotskyist — because I was never a Trotskyist!
But when you talked to Irving Howe, or people who were Trotskyites, were you unable to convince them?
We debated. We debated!
There was a group called the Shachtmanites, in City College. It was underground. The Shermanites were a group of radicals besides Irving Howe: [they] included Philip Selznick, the Berkeley academic who died just recently; there was also Irving Kristol. Marty Lipset was there — he took the name Mark Eden. And there was Marty Diamond. He was an extraordinary man who died young, who became a leading Straussian, probably the leading Straussian in American thought. And there was a man named Peter Rossi, and he took a Jewish name, Rosenthal.
There were these debates. I had read a book before the others had, by Robert Michels, called Political Parties. Michels had been a student of Weber and he wrote a famous book which Lipset used in his book on Union Democracy, about the bureaucratic tendency in every organization. That no organization is immune to the bureaucratic tendency. And it targeted the Social Democratic leadership. The Iron Law of Oligarchy. So I would debate Irving Howe, I would say — we would adopt this tone — “And you think, Comrade Sherman, that James P. Cannon is immune to the Iron Law of Oligarchy?” These were my rhetorical smashes against Howe.
Howe was a Commissar at that time. A real Commissar. His real name was Horenstein. My name was Belotsky, originally. And Howe took as his Party name Hugh Ivan. Hugh for the gentleman that he wanted to be … and Ivan for the Muzhik that he was. (Laughs.) Then when he married Arien Mack, he became humanized. Unfortunately, he was later cuckholded and that almost destroyed him.
II. A Liberal Utopian
Are you a utopian?
In a way, I consider myself a utopian. There’s a book I’ve started to write — I’m not sure I’m ever going to finish it — about the historical tension between messianism and utopianism. And it is an attack on messianism. Because I would argue that too many problems of the last two thousand years or so are due to messianism. A messiah has a great vision, usually of redemption. Messianism requires following a leader. It requires pulling everybody into the scheme of a leader. Whereas utopianism basically consists in co-opting people to build things together. There is no overall, overarching scheme.
But the historical difficulty of utopianism is precisely that it doesn’t have a messiah, or a similarly overarching, emotionally powerful actor. So that the tension between utopianism and messianism is frequently to the unfair advantage of the messianic. I believe more and more that if we can have utopian movements we’ll do better than if we have messianic movements.
Is there a place for utopianism in a liberal society?
I think utopianism is a necessary framework. People want some ideals. And that’s why in the book I’m planning the only antagonist to utopianism is messianism. Take the example of what I suspect would be one of the worst examples of messianism — the Jonestown episode, where 700 people simply drank a drug that killed them, at the command of Mr. Jones. The point about messianism is that it always leads to a system of command: you have to follow the messiah. Utopianism has no such system of command. It has only a cooperative imperative: to build.
The problem with utopianism, historically, is that it has a tinge of going back to some presumed ideal. There’s a source of utopianism which is somewhat beautiful in its way, but pulls it back — back to arcadia. Historically, the tension has been between utopianism and arcadia. What I want to do is to say: I don’t want to go from arcadia against messianism. I’d rather have utopianism. So there’s a triangulation there.
But the nineteenth-century utopians — men like Fourier — were not backward-oriented utopians. Were they somehow different?
It depends. Fourier was a madman. A real madman. A brilliant genius of a madman.
The best utopian was Saint-Simon. He had these schemes, these triangular schemes. You know how they Saint-Simonians would get dressed? They dressed with the buttons on the back of their suits. That way, you couldn’t dress yourself. You needed someone to help you. So that’s a wonderful situation, where you are creating communities because you can’t get dressed without them.
What did you take from the Saint-Simonians?
Theories of development.If you look at the theories of development, there are two streams which have never been worked out completely. One is the idea of capitalism, which comes from Marx. The other is industrialism.
The whole stream of “industrial society” begins with Saint-Simon, and from there you have Auguste Comte; then you have the positivism which develops from that, and then in modern times you have Raymond Aron, and finally someone like myself, following from Aron. Instead of capitalism, which in its own way is based upon notions of exploitation, and industrialism, which is based on the idea of technology, one can think of the development of society; of a positive scheme. It is only in the last 50 years or so that the theme of “industrialism” has come forward, and it is largely through the efforts of Aron.
I’m curious to hear you say this, because I don’t see you fitting in with this French line. There’s a deep Weberian pessimism in your work, and a sense of history that seems to owe more to Vico than to these enthusiastic Frenchmen.
That’s completely true. I think you are right that Weber is the lynchpin of my ideas. But no ideas are ever simply lineal. You always have a variety of influences. In a way, the other sort of pole is Durkheim, because Durkheim at bottom had a religious foundation.
III Literature and Politics
We haven’t talked about literature.
Well, I haven’t really kept up with contemporary novels.
But there’s a bunch in your office upstairs.
No one writes today about the larger element of society. Not Paul Auster, not any of the others. Everything is a falling away from the whole emphasis of social realism. But this is a pulling away.
Take this new book of Franzen’s. At the most it is about the family, and the hidden tensions within a family.
It is interesting that with the collapse of the psychological movement you get more emphasis on psychology. But no one talks about society anymore. Instead they talk about human rights. Because human rights then covers everything. The problem with human rights is that it doesn’t have boundaries.
Isn’t that Hannah Arendt’s criticism?
Hannah is a more complicated element. I knew her very well, particularly during the year I spent at Chicago. But I would say that Hannah’s book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, was wrong. Very few societies have ever been totalitarian, at least for long. You can’t simply smash everything. There’s always something left. No society can ever live that way.
The one thing the theory of totalitarianism never confronted is the family. People live by the family, and there’s no mention of families in The Origins of Totalitarianism. So that the idea that you smash a society… — but she changed her mind, interestingly enough, during the Hungarian Revolution. If you look at the introduction to the reissue of the book, you’ll see she changed her mind.
You speak very affectionately about communities and families, in particular of the ones you grew up in. Were you ever attracted to the communitarians?
Well, not in the way communitarians have developed. When I think of communitarianism, I think of two people. I think of Amitai Etzioni and Michael Sandel. As I used to say to Michael: “The trouble with your view is that I’m a Jew. And your communitarianism never mentions the right of Jews to be Jews.”
We’re a community, and yet the communitarian movement exists with respect to a national polity. And by existing in relation to a national polity, it tends to put aside the particularity of real communities, like the Jewish community. So communitarianism to me has always seemed an abstract option. And to the extent that it is a doctrine, it is related to a national polity, so that… — to some extent this reflects my anarchist background, that I want to diminish the national polity. Abolish it as a polity, not as an economy. I’ve written, as you probably know, that I’m a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.
And you’ve never had any trouble reconciling those?
Not in the least! I’m against the idea of totality, which is a whole Marxist concept. I believe there are different logics in the different realms. The economy is, more or less, a system in which interdependence is established through the different variables of supply and demand. The polity is not a system, it is an order, held together by coercion and consent. Culture has two dimensions. One is the dimension of forms that exist, and the other is the dimension of meanings.
Two things broke me away from Marxism. One is the fact that if you look at the great historic religions, going back to what Jaspers called the Axial Age, the cores are still recognizable today — Judaism, Christianity, Confucianism. Economies have disappeared, political empires have crumbled, yet the greatest religions remain. The question is: how can this be, if the mode of production determines the superstructure? How come they remain? So to me, the very nature of these great historic religions is a repudiation of Marxism.
The second is the idea of substructure and superstructure — the idea that the substructure determines the superstructure. Well, that’s silly. Look at Germany from the eighteenth century to the present. You have a Wilhelmine Empire, a Federal Republic, you have a Nazi period, you have the new Federal Republic — yet the substructure is basically still capitalist. Now how can that be? How, on a Marxist view, can you have a single substructure and yet such a variety of superstructures?
Ok, so the realms may be autonomous. But do you not think they are intimately related? In Cultural Contradictions, you write of how America’s crumbling cultural values threaten the economic realm.
Let me go back for a minute because this is crucial. If there’s no single dimension that runs across these different realms, then what is so special about them? I’m a socialist in economics because I believe that every human being has a right — if you want to put it that way — to a decent living standard. It goes back to Aristotle. If a man is not a member of the polity, he is either a beast or a God. So that there ought to be a “right” to give everybody a decent standard of living. Being a member of the society gives rise to a claim on the economy.
I’m a liberal in politics because I believe in merit. And I therefore believe that one’s position in society ought to be determined on the basis of merit.
In culture, I’m a conservative because I believe in judgment, forms, and meanings.
So that’s why I can assume a certain logical coherence to the idea of being a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.
But in Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism you precisely describe a contradiction between an economy that requires people to work and to save, and a cultural ethic that tells people to enjoy leisure, and to consume.
Well, here there is a contradiction between production and consumption. Go back to the original theories of Weber. Capitalism requires delayed gratification, savings, not going into debt, saving up for tomorrow. Whereas a modern society is a consumer society.
The beginning of the story of capitalism in the last century is a story of the 1920s. It was invented by a man named Paul Mazer. It is called the installment plan. Instead of saving up for it, you can get it now and pay later. This is an invitation to expand the market.
So there are always these little contradictions. Nothing is ever seamless. That’s one of the problems with the Catholic Church — it believes everything is seamless.
Do you think that in some ways the present financial crisis has vindicated your theory? Public and private debt in the United States are now three times GDP …
The financial crisis violates the most fundamental theorem of Weber: the only time that you go into debt is if you buy land in order to buy a house. But you can’t go into debt for other things. So that this tension of savings versus debt has always been there.
In this country, for the last 10-15 years or more, there’s been almost no savings. You go into debt. The debt was leveraged, because the notion was that house prices would always go up. One of the problems with the foreclosure thing today is that no one knows how many people speculated and flipped. If 10 per cent of people bought a house on speculation, with the idea of flipping it, they are stuck. And that’s a typical thing, if you try to deal with the issue of foreclosures: these people were buying just to flip it. So why the hell should you save them? No one had the courage to say: “Let’s see how many people bought extra houses to flip them.”
But the real question is: how can people, very smart people at Goldman Sachs and others, go on with the idea that you can leverage a whole society? They are living by leverage, and not realizing that there is a simple law in statistics: that we have a growth pattern that is an S curve. It goes up, and then you reach a midpoint, when it begins to come down. All these people are mathematical. So they’d have to say: “Hey, how can this thing keep going up?”
The answer, I suspect, is that enough people behind the scenes are saying: “That’s how I’ll make my money, at their expense. I’ll get out in time!” But they themselves then got trapped.
I have a former father-in-law, through a previous marriage, who wanted me to come into the family business. His name is Benjamin Graham. Benjamin Graham, you probably know, was the founder of value analysis. He said: “I have a bright young man here, named Warren Buffett. I’ll pair you with Warren Buffett!” And I said, Ben, the problem is, I have no stomach for the “timing,” and that’s crucial in this business. Well, anyhow, I worked for Ben, and I made some money with it. I do understand the markets.
IV. Past and Future
You used to serve on the Commission on the Year 2000. Some of that work came through in The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, which was really futurology: looking forward and trying to predict where society will be in 20 or 30 years.
There’s a misunderstanding to some extent, which is probably my fault. The Commission on the Year 2000, when I was involved in organizing it, was never really interested in the future. There is something called the Encyclopedia of the Future, which came out of a group in Washington, for which I wrote a long essay, attacking the idea of the future.
You mean attacking futurology?
Attacking futurology, yes, and in particular attacking Alvin Toffler, and what I called “future shlock.” (Laughs.)
There are two problems with futurology. One is that no one can do prediction. Why? Because predictions are point events, and you never know the internal dynamics. I think of my erstwhile colleague Zbigniew Brzezinski,withwhom I taught at Columbia. During a debate on television he was asked: “Professor Brzezinski, are you a Kremlinologist?” And he said: “Well, if you like, though it is an ugly word.” “So you are someone who studies the Soviet Union? If so, Professor Brzezinski, how come you failed to predict the ouster of Khrushchev?” And Zbig said: “Tell me: if Khrushchev couldn’t predict his own ouster, how do you expect me to do it?!”
So you can’t predict. What you can do is deal with structural change. If you move from an agricultural to an industrial economy then there are obvious changes you have to make in the educational system, and various other places. That’s why I make a distinction between prediction and forecasting.
The other problem is that we weren’t interested in the future, per se. We were interested in the fact that once you make a decision it becomes binding and lays out the lines for the next time period. If you build a city, and build it on a grid pattern, then it becomes a constraint on how you build in the future. Whether you build in a circular pattern or a grid pattern affects the lives of people in the future. So we’re not only interested in forecasting the future, but in saying: let’s pay attention to how we make decisions now, because they are going to affect our legacy in the future.
What do you make of the confrontation between rival forms of capitalism, between state—directed capitalism in China, and whatever it is we have in the West?
Well, the story of the West begins in 1453.
The fall of Constantinople?
Yes, the fall of Constantinople. Good for you. (Laughter.)
What the fall of Constantinople meant was a shift to the Atlantic littoral. Holland, England, Spain, and Portugal became the main actors.
Now, there are certain kinds of large-scale, cyclical elements. In the nineteenth century, to the extent that there is any single indicator, and it is a difficult one, it would be steel. England based its industrial revolution on steel, and on the availability of coal. Eventually the United States overtook Britain on steel, and we became dominant. And then Japan, and Korea, who were able to undercut us on price. The only way you can avoid that, the way the Italians avoided some of it, is to move to specialized and niche production, as opposed to mass production. The Italians lost out on textiles, but then they began to specialize in a niche market, as did Benetton and others.
When the Russians managed to increase their productivity it was for the same reason the Chinese are now increasing their productivity: the movement of people off the land and into cities. The urbanization process. The Chinese have these huge internal migrant populations. Now, of course, the Chinese are beginning to get worried about countries like Vietnam undercutting them in turn.
So these large-scale shifts are taking place, and we’ve lost out almost completely. What we have to do is either go into niche production, or find new areas. I think in the next 20-30 years, maybe longer, space will be a major area, undersea resources, biology, some elements of basic research.
I think the U.S. is in a difficult position. The recent recession is a blip. It is a consequence of overleveraging, speculation and so on — but it doesn’t really have anything to do with the fundamental structural problems confronting this society.
The recession was a blip?
It might not have been a blip. The financial system is responsible for shifting money into resources. It overdid that, and failed. The question is whether you can really recreate a viable financial system. But all of that is secondary.
The real issue for leadership is that very few people pay attention to fundamental structural changes. We can identify fundamental structural changes, and that is the only defense we have against cyclical changes.
But in this country now, unfortunately, nobody really looks at trying to find out what the historic precedents and trends might tell us. There is no sense of history in these matters.
Daniel Bell was a sociologist and Professor Emeritus at Harvard University. He served as managing editor of The New Leader (1941–1945), labor editor of Fortune(1948–1958) and later co-editor (with Irving Kristol) of The Public Interest (1965–1973). Among his best-known books are The End of Ideology (1960), The Coming of a Post-Industrial Society (1973), and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976). His book, The Reforming of General Education: The Columbia Experience in Its National Setting, has recently been republished by Transaction with a new introduction.
Roberto Foa is a PhD Candidate at Harvard University.
Thomas Meaney is an editor of The Utopian.