ASKED what he specialised in, Daniel Bell replied: “generalisations”. Mr Bell lived a varied life. He grew up in New York City, so poor that he sometimes had to scavenge for food. Yet he ended his days in bourgeois comfort in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He spent 20 years as a journalist, mostly as Fortune’s labour editor, before decamping to academia. His boss, Henry Luce, desperate to keep his star writer, asked him why he was leaving. He gave four reasons: June, July, August and September.
His taste for generalisations grew with the eating. He produced three of the great works of post-war sociology: “The End of Ideology” (1960), “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society” (1973) and “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism” (1978). On the Times Literary Supplement’s list of the 100 most influential books since the second world war, two were by Mr Bell.
Many of Mr Bell’s insights remain as relevant today as when he first broached them. For example, the transition from industrial to consumer capitalism, which he chronicled in America decades ago, is now happening in China and India. Even when he was wrong, Mr Bell was wrong in thought-provoking ways. A few hours with his oeuvre is worth more than a week in Davos (and is less likely to cause skiing injuries).
“The End of Ideology” described the political landscape of the post-cold-war world 30 years before the cold war ended. Mr Bell argued that the great ideological struggles that had defined the first half of the 20th century were exhausted. The new politics, he said, would be about boring administration, not the clash of ideals. His timing could hardly have been worse: the 1960s was one of the most ideologically charged decades in American history. Nonetheless, Mr Bell was right that the ideology of communism was doomed. In China it has given way to market Leninism. In Russia it has been replaced by kleptocracy.
Mr Bell spent the next decade and a bit working on a huge book, “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society”, a term he coined and which caught on. Many of the book’s insights—about the shift from manufacturing to services, the rise of knowledge workers and the waning of the class struggle—have now become so familiar that it is easy to forget how fresh they were in 1973. However, Mr Bell failed to spot one of the revolutions that was whirling around him: the transition from the managerial capitalism that he witnessed at Fortune to a much more freewheeling entrepreneurial capitalism. Perhaps this was the price he paid for spurning Luce and moving to academia.
Many of his other insights still bite. He argued that the old-fashioned class struggle was being replaced by other, equally vexatious conflicts: for example, between the principles of equality and meritocracy in higher education. He also anticipated the current debate about happiness by pointing out that material progress cannot eliminate the frustrations inherent in the zero-sum competition for power, prestige and the attention of the sexiest person in the room. The more people are free to rise on their own merits, the more they will race on the treadmill for status.
Mr Bell’s best book was “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism”. In it he raised the possibility that the material abundance that capitalism produces might destroy the very virtues that had made capitalism possible in the first place. Capitalism, as Max Weber said, depends on the Puritan virtues of hard work, thrift and deferred gratification. But modern consumerism was stimulating the appetite for instant gratification and irrational self-expression, Mr Bell worried. The Protestant ethic was being destroyed by the shopping mall and the counter-culture.
This argument is not watertight. Despite Mr Bell’s cultural contradictions and Karl Marx’s economic contradictions, capitalism is still going strong. In “Bobos in Paradise” David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, argued that a cocktail of bourgeois virtues and bohemian values can prove economically invigorating. Some of the most successful companies in recent years have been founded by such un-Puritanical figures as Sir Richard Branson (Virgin), Steve Jobs (Apple) and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (Ben & Jerry’s). High-tech companies such as Google have no difficulty in combining the profit motive with the ethos of a campus. But in one area Mr Bell was prescient: he worried that consumerism was encouraging people to borrow more money than they could reasonably hope to repay.
He was even more prescient about what might be called “the cultural contradictions of the welfare state”. This was the subject of passionate debate in the pages of the Public Interest, a journal he co-founded in 1965 with another poor-boy-made-good, Irving Kristol. The welfare state cannot last unless someone creates the wealth to pay for it. But interest groups demand ever more from the state, and politicians jostle to promise more goodies. As the welfare state expands, it can eventually undermine people’s willingness to take risks or look after themselves.
One of Mr Bell’s most provocative insights ran throughout his work. This was the idea that, contrary to what economic determinists such as Marx said, different “realms” of society could operate according to different principles. (Always wary of the neoconservative label that Kristol embraced with such enthusiasm, Mr Bell described himself as a “socialist in economics, a liberal in politics and a conservative in culture”.) Capitalism might co-exist just as happily with Chinese authoritarianism as with American democracy, he reckoned. In this, one hopes that the great polymath was wrong.