Daniel Bell’s intellectual obituary writers will rightly focus on his three most important books, The End of Ideology (1960), The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976). Scholars from an assortment of disciplines frequently cite these three books not only as intellectual signposts, but also for the theoretical and historical insights that they offer, many of which persist in seeming fresh. But in this post, my small attempt to memorialize Bell, who died at the age of 91 earlier this week, I will focus on a much less famous Wilson Quarterly essay, “The Cultural Wars: American Intellectual Life, 1965-1992” (1992). This essay gives the historian of the culture wars much to ponder. It exemplifies Bell’s qualities as both a theorist and a protagonist of the late twentieth century battles over intellectual position.
The purpose of Bell’s article was to reflect on why the universities were torn by conflict. The year of the essay’s publication, 1992, was the apex of the culture wars in the universities. “Political correctness” was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Bell argued that this particular battle represented the decaying of the detached, public intellectual. In short, Bell echoed Russell Jacoby’s famous lament, elaborated in his bestseller, The Last Intellectuals (1987), that large institutions (otherwise known as universities) increasingly dominated the life of intellectuals, sapping them of their critical spirit. Setting aside the important critique of this contention, made by David Hollinger and others—that the ideal of the detached intellectual is a romantic reading of the past—Bell was in a good position to comment on this shift in intellectual life, since he occupied both positions, as one of the celebrated New York intellectuals, and also as a longtime professor at Harvard. For Bell, the institutionalization of intellectual life walled intellectuals off from the rest of America.
Arguing that intellectual life had changed was not to argue that intellectuals lacked influence. Quite to the contrary, intellectuals came to “constitute the institutional life of the society, and their wars—over positions in the institutions, especially the universities—and their conflicts over the definitions of what is salient in the culture (such as feminism and multiculturalism), constitute the ‘cultural wars’ that are taking place in American life today.”
In the passage below, Bell combined theoretical and historical insight with an implicitly partisan take on university intellectuals:
I begin with an arbitrary yet perhaps useful distinction between a culture and a society, the culture being the regnant attitudes and traditions that are the wellsprings of belief, the society denoting common attitudes and interests that define a people.
In this light, Bell thought culture and society diverged in contemporary U.S. history:
The United States today is a bourgeois society but not a bourgeois culture. It is a bourgeois society in its emphasis on individualism and materialism. But it is, at the “advanced” level, a modernist culture in its acceptance of experiment, new design, and complex forms. The culture of the United States today is permissive in its ethos (especially on moral and sexual issues) and modernist in its willingness to accept new and innovative and trendy expressions in the arts and literature. It is, to use the phrase of Lionel Trilling, an “adversary culture,” in its opposition to the prevailing societal attitudes. Yet that adversary culture is increasingly entrenched within the institutions of the society, especially the universities, and enjoys a cozy nonconformity in parading its new snobbishness, often on the pretense of still being persecuted. Inevitably, those attitudes have produced a reaction within the culture of what Sidney Blumenthal has called “the counter-intellectuals,” or, in the political arena, of the “neoconservatives,” men and women who have come forward strongly in defense of “bourgeois society” and its values. And uneasily between the two is a current of “political liberalism,” which, in separating the public and the private realms, defends the permissiveness in culture, but is more concerned to rectify the deficits of “bourgeois society,” especially on the issues of equality and redistributive justice. In effect, we have a new set of “cultural wars,” or Kulturkämpfe which are not the romantic visions of the intellectuals against the society, but intense disputes between—and within—enclaves of intellectuals whose arguments only occasionally (as now with the debate about “political correctness”) reach the larger public.
This passage demonstrated Bell’s mastery of “new class” thinking, perfected by the neoconservatives (which I previously wrote about here). “New class” thinking, I argue, was both theoretically astute, and partisan hackery. Bell’s genius was making such a contradictory combination possible.