MCCOTTER: The Cultural Contradictions of Progressivism: Dr. Daniel Bell Plays Nostradamus

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  • 03/02/2023

The following is the first in an intermittent series exploring the cultural contradictions of progressivism.

When attending the University of Detroit, I had the opportunity to take a directed studies course in political science. I distinctly recall reading the late Harvard professor and sociologist Dr. Daniel Bell’s 1976 opus, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.

A self-described “socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture,” Dr. Bell’s tome was no paean to the entrepreneurial class. But it was also not socialist propaganda. The thrust of the book is to reveal the tensions inherent in modern American capitalism during the 1970s and how they might manifest themselves in the future. The subtly of Dr. Bell’s analysis was often lost upon both his detractors and admirers, including the author of the book’s Amazon blurb:

“With a new afterword by the author, this classic analysis of Western liberal-capitalist society contends that capitalism – and the culture it creates – harbors the seeds of its own downfall by creating a need among successful people for personal gratification – a need that corrodes the work ethic that led to their success in the first place.”

This is most ironic, as the work intuited the rise of what would become the “woke” progressive movement; and, the blurb better applies not to capitalism but to progressivism.

One need not be a deconstructionist to gather certain of Dr. Bell’s observations of 1970s capitalism and perceive both the rise and ultimate implosion of progressivism. [I apologize for no longer having the book on hand to reference specific pages.]

First, “every society seeks to establish a set of meanings through which people can relate themselves to the world.”  Indeed, they do, and historically that has come in the form of religion. Dr. Bell asserts that “religions grow out of the deepest needs of individuals sharing a common awakening, and are not created by “engineers of the soul.”  So. what do these engineers of the soul create?  “Where religions fail, cults appear.”  In our age, these cults have devolved from the sacred to the profane, worshiping the false idol of political ideology.

Who would constitute the prospective acolytes of such cults?  Dr. Bell foresaw how “the demand for group rights will widen in the society, because social life increasingly becomes organized on a group basis.”  Within an ideological cult, which is inherently collectivist, there will still be a ritualized need for personal validation. Yet, as the alleged “rational” motivation for joining the cult is the ideology, thought is no longer required by its members. The ideology is sacrosanct and inexorable. Within this claustrophobic intellectual space, then, the only option is for the cult to stroke members’ feelings and egos. Per Dr. Bell: “The democratization of genius is made possible by the fact while one can quarrel with judgments, one cannot quarrel with feelings.”  Ergo, since the ideology cannot be questioned, one is empowered by the depth of their adherence to it. As Dr. Bell stated, “when a person is confirmed by others, there has to be some sign of recognition.”  There are few better explanations of progressives’ performative virtue signaling, such as their “We Believe” lawn signs that bear witness to the depths of their adherence to their secular commandments.

In practice, the progressive ideological cult, dependent as it is upon emotion rather than reason, inexorably roils the society with its screeds and deeds. As Dr. Bell warned: “The discussion of any society risks seduction by what is transient and tumultuous.”  And, when society – or at least an element of it – is so seduced, what occurs?  “Nihilism, then, is the end process of rationalism. It is man's self-conscious will to destroy his past and control his future.” Dr. Bell diagnosed this as “modernity at its extreme.”  Is it even necessary to cite how the woke progressives spent the past several years purging libraries and tearing down statuary, among other destructive acts, to erase history and coercively dictate the future?

Yet, the cult will be undone by its own insularity and irrationality. As Dr. Bell argued about art, the same is true of the progressive cult. “If the language of art is not accessible to ordinary language and ordinary experience, how can it be accessible to ordinary people?”  Despite the best efforts of their media and political cultist comrades, because it was manufactured in the Leftist brainwashing emporiums of academia, the progressive cult’s terms of art are almost incomprehensible to non-cultists. And, when the language is comprehensible, it reveals itself as little more than a pecking order on the Left’s sliding scale of scarcity. As such, its substance and aims bear no relation to people’s diurnal reality. Hence, progressivism equates with Dr. Bell’s judgment of 1970s culture: “Today, the culture can hardly, if at all, reflect the society in which people live.”

Thus does the woke progressive cult come full circle. By failing society due to its ability to “establish a set of meanings through which people can relate themselves to the world,” the woke progressive cult implodes under its own irrational and insular contradictions.

For those who never joined the cult, this is a beneficent development. It is less so for the woke of the progressive cult. Dr. Bell believed that “once a faith is shattered, it takes a long time to grow again – for its soil is experience – and to become effective again.”  But the progressives’ ability to rationalize away historical precedent; deny and denigrate others’ experiences based upon race essentialism, etc., while walling off their own as an unassailable “lived experience”; and, in fact, experiencing the world primarily through emotion rather than reason, lead to a depressing conclusion: while some former members may well find a truer path, likely the bulk of woke progressive cultists will seek another false ideological idol to worship – one that may prove even more extreme.

Sure, I could be completely wrong in this interpretation of Dr. Bell’s work. After all, I read it in the 1980s; and applying Dr. Bell’s 1970s sociology tome to help decipher the politics of our turbulent times is far from an exact science. Still, I did pass the directed studies course….

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