The Transition to Capitalism as a Cultural Problem Václav Bělohradský
Throughout the past decade discussions have been going on about the book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism by the American sociologist Daniel Bell. In it, late capitalism is described as a system whose key spheres mutually contradict each other because they are governed by contradictory imperatives. Bell gave this process the Shakespearean title “disjunction of realms.” The key spheres of modern capitalist society are economics, politics, and culture. In the economic sphere, the imperative of maximum efficiency and profit, which requires specialization and the widespread use of technology, governs without mercy. People must function well in this sphere and be useful in some way. If nothing stood in the way of this imperative, it would subjugate the whole of society and economic power would automatically also be political power.
The imperative of politics is different, however: to guarantee equality to all citizens regardless of their economic power, so that they can participate in collective decision-making to the same extent and thus have a share in the self-determination of society. A collective decision is only rational if it has resulted from a dialogue between equals in which every viewpoint was heard and in which every citizen exercised his or her voice. If decisions were only made by the rich (or only by the poor), society as a whole would be subordinated to an overly one-sided, and thus unreasonable, viewpoint. If we silence the voices of some, we lessen the hope that everyone might discover a more general viewpoint than that which is imposed them by their individual interests. Rationality, reasonableness, is precisely this ability to find a more universal viewpoint when in a dispute with others. The universality of our viewpoints is guaranteed neither by wealth, nor poverty, but only through the openness of society, the visibility and audibility of its diversity.
In the cultural sphere, the governing imperative is “self-expression,” self-realization, the will to experience and to be something. Everything here revolves around searching for new experiences, new trends, new forms of self-stylization. This obsession with self-realization has gone beyond all ethical boundaries—that is Bell’s thesis. These three key spheres of society are in increasingly clear contradiction: they impede each other, denying each other’s legitimacy. This rift within the system is the decisive process of the late stage of capitalism: all critical phenomena in contemporary society are consequences of it.
Capitalism arose from the spirit of Protestant ethics, it is a kind of “internally secular austerity”: humans do not do business in order to be wealthy rich and indulge in luxury, but because success and wealth are signs of God’s grace.
Disney comics’ “fantasticatrillionaire” Scrooge McDuck, also known as Uncle Scrooge, is a parody of this ascetic capitalist spirit: he only eats cheese crusts, wears an old mantle, and has devoted his life to the accumulation of money, which excites him into a state of religious ecstasy. Capitalism is rationalization, or rather the conviction that every goal can be achieved through diligence and the effective organization of means of production, and that profit is proof of this work ethic and efficiency. This rationalization would be unthinkable without Protestant culture, which gives work and money a new, salvation-bearing meaning. Later, the social democratic government programs emancipated the concept of the “citizen” from that of the “owner,” but otherwise they in no way disrupt this concept of work. Capitalism held together thanks to this culture.
The hallmark of late capitalism is that both the salvation-bearing interpretation of wealth and work and “internally secular austerity” ran out of steam. Is Bell’s analysis still valid now, after almost 15 years of profound changes in the structure of capitalist societies? The economic sphere in particular has even more markedly uncoupled itself from the nation state: A planetary economy has arisen which gives everything around us the same appearance. Advertisements, consumer objects, icons of mass communication are all identical. Nothing is determined territorially any more, by its place on earth, but only by its function in the planetary system of production and consumption. A long time ago, everything national and local was lost from all decisive economic processes. Even the political sphere has been transformed. It is no longer governed by the imperative of equality, but rather by the imperative of identity: the political system is under pressure from a new requirement—the need for identity. Traditional political parties are increasingly unpopular; the ensuing vacuum of the need for identity is being filled by groupings that are local, national, based on function or interests. The Lombardy League in Italy, for example, has attained a majority in some towns and cities in Lombardy. In any case, the major political parties are trying to incorporate these tendencies in some way, to answer to the need for identity, and as a result they are changing. The shift from the imperative of equality to the imperative of identity is an important tendency of this epoch. The most visible shift, however, is in the cultural sphere. The theme of the environment has emerged, which is entering into a radical dispute with the anthropocentrism of Western culture. The principle of dialogue, which is a guarantee of reasonableness in liberal democracies, is expanded here to other beings, animals, the Earth, life in its wholeness. In order to stop the Earth from being destroyed, a voice must also be given to the life residing in other creatures. Bateson expressed this in his famous syllogism: grass dies, men die, men are grass. We are compelled by mortality, which we share with all living things. This solidarity with life on Earth is a life sentiment shared universally by postmodern youth.
Nonetheless we see that Bell’s diagnosis remains correct: the contradiction between the key spheres of our society has become even more intense, even though the imperatives which govern in it have changed.
The transition to a market economy which is supposed to be one of the aspects of the Czech and Slovak return to Europe is a major cultural problem for me. Which political culture will provide it with the necessary legitimacy? What kind of religious ecstasy will motivate our domestic Scrooge McDucks to do business? After all, returning to Europe means that we will be exposed to the same contradictions in which Western democracies are currently floundering. From what new Protestantism should the “market mentality” of Czechs and Slovaks grow at the end of the second millennium? After all, we have belonged to Europe for a long time; we are part of its culture, its sensibility, and thus we are as impacted by its cultural contradictions as every other country. The fact that we are Europeans, that we are part of the West, is precisely the reason why we cannot allow a market religion in contradiction with European cultural development to suddenly break out here.
Personally, I do not have an answer to the question “what kind of culture will legitimize the market economy?” But I am surprised that no one is looking for one.
Václav Bělohradský, “Přechod ke kapitalismu jako kulturní problem,” Kapitalismus a občanské ctnosti, Československý spisovatel, Prague 1992, p. 25–28.