Skip to content

Daniel Bell, an eloquent defender of modernity, dies at 91.

By DANIEL BELL [The Public Interest] – What I am arguing is that a stable social order, within a modern Western society, can only be maintained through a principle of liberalism, one that seeks to emphasize the diversity of individual and group beliefs, one that balances the particularism of the constituent groups and the universalism of common rules.

The reaction against modernity, which I believe to be excessive, can only be contained, paradoxically, by the restoration of authority – the earned authority of the professional classes and the moral authority of a political elite. In the past, the break-up of old authority, unsettling though it might be, could warrant a guarded optimism, for the old authority tended to be frozen in its ways, and the new movements, waiting in the wings, heralded a new political or aesthetic vigor. Does anyone think that such a renaissance is possible today?

Yet such a situation is unsettling, for in any society (other than a small one of peers) the loss of authority leads to a reliance on power, and power rules through the implicit threat and the explicit use of force. In all societies, institutions are shaped initially by power, direct or indirect, and by modes of coercion, naked or subtle. Yet power is mitigated when there is authority–an   authority based not only on consent (for consent often only bends its knee to power) but on respect. The failure of elites and establishments – for they are intrinsic to every society – to exercise moral authority is, I believe, the most troubling residue of the legacy of the 1970s. Equally troubling is the populist flattering of the “multitudes,” and the attack on elites. The present reaction against modernity which carries forward that attack on authority, and which cannot guarantee toleration and pluralism, only invites power or deceit as the principle on which its own reactionary rule would be based. And that is the threat I fear.

From The Revolt Against Modernity, in The Public Interest archive at National Affairs | More Chronicle & Notices.

Daniel Bell died yesterday at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was 91 years old. A New York Times obituary is here.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *