The cultural contributions of capitalism?


Until I heard Radio 4’s Last Word yesterday evening I didn’t know about the recent death of Daniel Bell, the pioneering sociologist and futurist (although he didn’t like that label).

As someone who is both an internationalist and enthusiastic about decentralising power, I have been fond of quoting Bell: ‘the national state has become too small for the big problems of life, and too big for the small problems’.

But the phrase for which Bell will probably be most remembered comes in the title of his book ‘the coming of post-industrial society’. Bell was both fascinated and troubled by changes in the nature of capitalism and the culture which those changed spawned. He returned to those themes in 1978 a book – which despite its mixed record in terms of prediction – I would strongly recommend.

In ‘The cultural contradictions of capitalism’, Bell argues that the values such as industriousness, responsibility and deferred gratification necessary for the emergence of industrial capitalism (an idea taken from Weber) are now being undermined by the 'naughty but nice'/'because your worth it'  (neither campaign existed in 1978 but you know what I mean) culture of consumerism  

Glancing this morning at Bell’s foreword to the book, I came across this statement:

‘I am a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics and a conservative in culture’.

In the early nineties an American political strategist (I have never been able to source the quotation) said something like ‘in modern politics the left has won the social argument, the right has won the economic argument and the centre the political argument'. This may have seemed true through the nineties as the Democrats and New Labour embraced the free market and the right reluctantly endorsed social liberalism, but in 2011 I suspect Bell’s combination of perspectives may look a lot more enticing.

The credit crunch, the slow and uneven recovery, high levels of economic inequality, and our continued dependence on the naked and unaccountable interests of finance have all undermined the popular legitimacy of modern capitalism.  The excesses of statism under the last Government have led to a reassertion of liberalism in the political sphere shown for example in support both for strengthening civil liberties and decentralising power. Meanwhile concerns about the weakening of social norms and bonds and clashes of cultures and religious values in a shrinking world have given new voice to social conservatives on the left and right.

These thoughts touch on the emerging topic for my 2011 annual lecture. Bell's values triptych provides part of the background against which companies are facing higher expectations – and in some cases setting themselves more ambitious objectives - for social engagement.  The hypothesis is that citizens need in aggregate to change their ways and companies can use their brand-based relationship with customers to encourage better ways of living.

I suggested last week that ‘organisations need to be aiming for a sweet spot…which combines their competitive edge with levering their brand and relationships for social good. I then came across this piece in the Guardian

I suspect a hard headed scholar like Bell would have been quite sceptical about the ability of consumer capitalism to foster individual and civic virtue. Whether the benign behaviour change encouraged by Flora or Nike can be real and long lasting, whether it’s a strategy open more generally to companies and what such a strategy means for the way a company organises itself are issue I intend to explore further.  Perhaps as a tribute to Bell I should think about calling my lecture ‘the cultural contributions of capitalism’?

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