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CONSIDERING CAPITALISM IN AMERICAN SOCIAL THOUGHT

  • MARK PITTENGER (a1)

Extract

Triumphant capitalism seems nowadays to be a fact of nature, requiring no name and admitting, as Margaret Thatcher famously put it, of “no alternative.” Neither American Capitalism nor Transcending Capitalism shrinks from “naming the system,” as perplexed New Leftists once struggled to do when trying to articulate their own alternative. But having named it, neither book takes as its primary task to define or fully describe that economic and sociocultural system. Rather, both are concerned principally with how twentieth-century American intellectuals, broadly construed, oriented and addressed themselves to the idea of capitalism in light of their respective historical moments’ shifting economic and social realities. Some reformist thinkers came to deny the efficacy of “capitalism” for describing a political–economic order which they believed to be rapidly passing away; their rivals to the right, meanwhile, mounted a reinvigorated defense of the term and its classical implications. While Daniel Bell announced in his 1960 essay on “The End of Ideology in the West” that post-World War II intellectuals had achieved a “rough consensus” on the desirability of the welfare state and political pluralism, the essays in American Capitalism suggest a more complicated picture. The “age of consensus,” that favorite punching bag of recent historians of the United States, takes a few more ritual knocks in the Lichtenstein volume. But the book's essays, in conjunction with Howard Brick's monograph, do establish that the lively discourse on the future of American society which proceeded in the aftermath of World War II was also part of a continuous debate that ran across most of the century's course. Bell suggested one theme of that debate when he argued that Western intellectuals must turn their attention away from political economy in order to address “the stultifying aspects of contemporary culture,” which could not be adequately framed in traditional right-versus-left terms. If Bell's generation, along with the younger New Left thinkers who were soon to appear, found the contradictions of capitalism to be decreasingly pressing, they would find sufficient challenge when they engaged instead with the knotty social and cultural issues of modern America.

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1 Quoted in Brick, Transcending Capitalism, 246.

2 Bell, Daniel, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties, revised and expanded edn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 402–3, 404.

3 Especially influential have been three articles by Brick: “Optimism of the Mind: Imagining Postindustrial Society in the 1960s and 1970s,” American Quarterly 44 (Sept. 1992), 348–80; “The Reformist Dimension of Talcott Parsons's Early Social Theory,” in Haskell, Thomas L. and Teichgraeber, Richard F. III, eds., The Culture of the Market: Historical Essays (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 357–96; and “Talcott Parsons's ‘Shift Away from Economics,’ 1937–1946,” Journal of American History 87 (Sept. 2000), 490–514.

4 Mills, C. Wright, The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), chap. 2; Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Dell, 1974), 121–2.

5 Friedan, Feminine Mystique, 122.

6 Fred Block made this observation.

7 White, Morton, Social Thought in America: The Revolt against Formalism (New York: Viking Press, 1949).

8 Brick is likewise not shy about saying that by contextualizing and historicizing, we can understand “what [past thinkers] actually meant” (249–50).

9 I confess to finding this a troubling term, and not only because I date to the era of Spiro Agnew. For those who are old-fashioned enough to think that “radicalism” implies a more thoroughgoing transformation than liberalism can countenance, “radical liberalism” will seem incoherent. Mattson explains the usage's historical provenance and his own deployment of it in Intellectuals in Action: The Origins of the New Left and Radical Liberalism, 1945–1970 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002), 17–18, and chap. 5.

10 Signs that such attention is growing include Kimberly Phillips-Fein, “American Counterrevolutionary: Lemuel Ricketts Boulware and General Electric, 1950–1960,” in this volume, 249–70; and also Eugene McCarraher, “‘An Industrial Marcus Aurelius’: Corporate Humanism, Management Theory, and Social Selfhood, 1908–1956,” Journal of the Historical Society 1 (Winter 2005), 79–116.

11 The other author who addresses religion in this volume is Jennifer Burns, who does so backhandedly by way of Ayn Rand's atheism in “Godless Capitalism: Ayn Rand and the Conservative Movement.”

12 Denning, Michael, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 1996).

13 McAuley, Christopher A., The Mind of Oliver C. Cox (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004).

14 That Immanuel Wallerstein belatedly acknowledged Cox's prescience seems a fairly weak link. Indeed, the author consigns this information to the endnotes (337, note 52).

15 Hayek's political heterodoxy was apparently no secret on the right: Burns notes that Ayn Rand distrusted Hayek precisely because he was too ready to justify “limited planning” (276).

16 An effort in this direction is my “What's on the Worker's Mind: Class Passing and the Study of the Industrial Workplace in the 1920s,” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 39 (Spring 2003), 143–61.

17 Modern Intellectual History 1 (November 2004), 359–85.

CONSIDERING CAPITALISM IN AMERICAN SOCIAL THOUGHT

  • MARK PITTENGER (a1)

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