Capitalism & Its Culture
Rethinking Mid-20th Century American Social Thought
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Capitalism and Its Culture: Rethinking Mid-20th Century American Thought
A Conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara
February 28 - March 1, 2003

At the opening of the 21st century, the power and pervasiveness of American capitalism and of the equation that links open markets to democratic institutions has become so much the common wisdom of our existence that we define as irrational those who question these relationships and their worldwide cultural manifestations. Words like “reform” and “liberalization” now denote the process whereby a global market in labor, capital, and ideas replaces the regulatory regimes, either authoritarian or social democratic, that were erected during and after the Great Depression. In 1960 when Daniel Bell famously announced an "end of ideology in the West," he was noting that the debate about the viability of capitalism, which had consumed intellectuals and social theorists for two generations, had been transformed into a calculation that subordinated the market to a purposeful, yet well-constrained set of social and political compromises. But thirty years later, when Francis Fukuyama coined his now-(in)famous catch-phrase, "the end of history," he spoke for an ideologically self-confident set of policy intellectuals who saw the capitalist market itself as culturally and politically determinative. "Liberal democracy combined with open market economics has become the only model a state can follow," wrote Fukuyama in the months immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Despite such self-assurance, it is clear that the relationship between market capitalism and its cultural context, on a national as well as global scale, is as uncertain and contested today as at any moment in the 20th century. If American economic and political self-confidence reached something of an apogee during the 1940s and 1950s, the same could not be said for the social and cultural manifestations of such hegemony. This is why concepts like alienation, bureaucracy, mass society, racism, sexism, status anxiety, and modernization made up so much of the scholarly discourse and intellectual debate.

The point of this conference is to revisit those modernist dichotomies and to interrogate the ways in which writers and intellectuals naturalized the existence of a market economy. We want to ask how they put aside the political agendas prominent during the first half of the 20th century, and transposed anxieties once associated with an unstable capitalism onto a very different psychological and cultural terrain. How did this agenda shifting prepare the way for the issues that came to fore in the 1960s and the culture wars that followed? And what was lost - and won - when intellectuals moved their focus from political economy to cultural criticism?

Participants in this conference will be asked to focus their contributions on the years that lie roughly between 1938 and 1973. These dates bracket the mid-century decades, a long generation that coincided with a golden age of U.S. capitalism. These are the 20th century decades in which real income actually doubled, in which a New Deal political order remained dominant, in which the American state takes a quantum leap forward in size and ideological authority, and in which a remarkably influential generation of writers, scholars, and social theorists, most already adults in the 1930s, dominate much of the way in which we came to think about the relationship between economic institutions, political possibilities, and the cultural structures that framed and explained social existence.

This conference is both post-Cold War and post-"Sixties." It de-centers the causal import of both phenomenon, not in order to limit their significance, but to thoroughly historicize these frames of reference so as to see how and why American intellectuals projected a pre-existing set of ideas about society in and through these contestations. When it comes to the relationship between the growth of anti-Communism (or rather anti-Stalinism, which was the preferred term for many intellectuals) and the revaluation of American culture, the years just before World War II were determinative. As Alan Brinkley and Gary Gerstle have shown, after 1938 most policy intellectuals had reconceptualized the New Deal, less as a challenge to, than a means for ameliorating, the class inequalities of a market economy. Heretofore left-wing intellectuals came to feel a sense of solidarity, or at least accommodation, with key sociocultural features of their homeland. The ideas and sentiments that made the famous 1952 issue of Partisan Review, "Our Country and Our Culture," such an icon, were in explosive circulation well before Pearl Harbor.

And as for "the Sixties," much that would come to constitute that bundle of ideas and expectations was already in place in the decade right after World War II, even if such an orientation had little immediate impact within the main body of American liberalism. As historian Howard Brick has argued, the accommodation made between a generation of left-wing intellectuals and the essential features of Western capitalism did not make people like Daniel Bell, Talcott Parsons, or even Peter Drucker pro-capitalist ideologues. Rather, they came to see the hard substance of postwar capitalism as simply of far less consequence or danger than in earlier decades. When it came to a structural understanding of the political economy, theorists of the right, center, and left, men like Friedrich Hayek, David Reisman, and C. Wright Mills, worried far more about a claustrophobic bureaucratism than an uncontrolled market capitalism. Thus in the 1950s, many on the left were consumed in a furious debate over, and condemnation of, the "mass culture" that seemed such a rotten fruit of the economic success generated by postwar corporate capitalism. For John Kenneth Galbraith, Paul Goodman, Vance Packard, and Dwight Macdonald, organization expertise, and status anxiety trumped markets, profits, and social conflict.

Because many intellectuals and opinion makers saw the iron cage of Weber as a more potent guide to society's postwar pathologies than the class antagonisms of even a much reformed Marx, they helped prepare the ideological ground for the social and cultural insurgencies of the Sixties. Indeed, in the 1940s and 1950s a deradicalization of social theory, a shift away from an economic or class analysis, made possible and palatable the dramatic reinsertion of race and gender issues into the mainstream political and social agenda. Gunnar Myrdal's liberal idealist analysis of America's racial "dilemma" effectively marginalized the Marxism of men like W.E.B. DuBois, Oliver Cox, and St. Clair Drake, thus preparing the way for the patriotic, rights-conscious universalism so effectively championed by Martin Luther King and his civil rights generation. Likewise, Betty Friedan played a decisive role in legitimizing modern feminism, but only after this former left-wing labor journalist had thoroughly psychologized "the women question" and isolated it from a larger, long-standing critique of work, sex, and family in the capitalist marketplace.