Why Daniel Bell Keeps Getting It Right

Michael Lind is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the Washington editor of Harper's magazine

Today it has become commonplace to observe that we live in a post-industrial society in which the old ideologies of left and right are moribund. None of this was obvious in 1973, when Daniel Bell published "The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting." Reissued by BasicBooks, with a new, 30,000-word foreword by the author, "The Coming of Post-Industrial Society" is that rarest of things, a book the passage of time has made more timely and cries out for a fresh consideration on the eve of the 21st century.

Of the once-influential New York intellectuals of the mid-20th century--a cohort that included Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer and Lionel Trilling, among others--Bell is the only one whose work has outlived its moment. Though most of the New York intellectuals dissipated their energies in ephemeral journalism, Bell edited or wrote 17 books, including "The End of Ideology" and "The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism." "The Coming of Post-Industrial Society" is his magnum opus--a treatise that Bell has amended several times since it first appeared. The 1973 edition comes sandwiched in later commentary, like additions to an old building: a 1999 foreword, a 1976 foreword, a preface and an introduction. The book is the social science equivalent of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," which the poet modified and expanded until he died.

Even the original core of Bell's tome consisted of several books in one: discussions of trends in economics, politics and society in the United States and similar countries; short courses in the thought of social philosophers like Rousseau, Mill, Marx, Veblen and Burnham, and, not least, substantial chunks of raw data. In praising Milton's "Paradise Lost," Samuel Johnson observed that no one ever wished it longer. The same might be said of Bell's epic treatise, which is burdened by footnotes like this: "Thus, in 1964, the average number of persons in the labor force was 74 million, with about 70 million employed and 3.9 million unemployed. . . ." Bell's encyclopedic ambition in "The Coming of Post-Industrial Society" brings to mind the fabled Chinese examinations in which the candidates were supposed to write down everything they knew. When I add that the book has grown into 500 pages of small print, most readers may be tempted to flee.

They shouldn't. If one were to read only one book of social science this year--or in a lifetime--it should be "The Coming of Post-Industrial Society." Bell's masterpiece of sociological analysis is a success in a field littered by the ruins of titanic failures. Most grand sociological narratives have succumbed either to a specious scientism or to a quasi-religious utopianism; both fallacies are united in Marx's "Kapital." Bell's passion for empirical fact prevents him from being enthralled by any tidy theory or offering a neat system of his own. And his wisdom--a trait rare among great social thinkers--prevents him from believing that human beings or societies can be remade according to a plan. In the original conclusion to the book, he wrote that "what does not vanish is the duplex nature of man himself--the murderous aggression, from primal impulse, to tear apart and destroy; and the search for order, in art and life, as the bending of will to harmonious shape."

To say that Bell offers neither pseudoscience nor a secular religion is not to say that he is without ambition. On the contrary, his understanding of contemporary society is as comprehensive as those of Mill and Marx--with the added benefit of being essentially correct. Like Max Weber, another erudite and skeptical polymath, Bell rejects the idea that human history can be explained in terms of a single cause. Rather, "society can be divided into three parts: the social structure, the polity, and the culture." His purpose in "The Coming of Post-Industrial Society," Bell writes, is to examine "changes in the social structure, the way in which the economy is being transformed and the occupational system reworked. . . . But I do not claim that these changes in social structure determine corresponding changes in the polity or the culture." Thus Bell rejects the Marxist notion that feudalism was the automatic by-product of agrarian economics--and the idea, popular today, that capitalism in countries like China will somehow automatically produce a democratic polity or a liberal culture.

In his 1999 foreword, Bell notes that the range of ways in which the term "post-industrial society" has been used (by the manifesto-writing Unabomber, among others) "is revealing, sometimes amusing, and sometimes astounding." As Bell uses the phrase, the post-industrial refers to societies like our own in which most people are employed in occupations unrelated to growing food or making things. "In the daily round of work," he writes, "men no longer confront nature, as either alien or beneficent, and fewer now handle artifacts and things. The post-industrial society is essentially a game between persons." As a result: "Now reality is primarily the social world--neither nature nor things, only men--experienced through the reciprocal consciousness of self and other."

With a mixture of erudition and insight, Bell explores the consequences of the shift from a manufacturing society to a knowledge society. The class struggle between factory workers and factory owners, far from being the driving force of history as Marxists claimed, is replaced by a new emphasis on widespread education and human capital. Though living standards in the post-industrial society are higher than ever before, social conflict does not cease. Instead, now conflicts arise--for example, the tension between meritocracy and populism in higher education. Bell observes that though technological progress may reduce material scarcity for most people, progress cannot change the inherent scarcities in the zero-sum realms of power and prestige. Only one person at any time can be president of the United States or the top Hollywood star. The abolition of aristocracy and caste merely frees more people to compete for status. Bell writes of "the enormous expansion in the numbers of people who move up the consumer ladder, and lacking experience wonder where they stand in the social ladder. For many, consumerism becomes a way of life. . . ."

In addition to enlarging the number of participants in the age-old struggles for power and celebrity, Bell argues, progress produces "new scarcities." One is a scarcity of relevant information: "The sheer amount of information that one has to absorb because of the expansion of the different arenas--economic, political and social--of men's attention and involvement." Another is time, which, as Bell observes, tends to be experienced as more limited in highly productive societies with elaborate leisure activities than in poor agrarian or industrial communities. "In cruel fashion, Utopia thus stands confounded because in a high-tech society, the average person was supposed to have more free time, not less."

When Bell first published "The Coming of Post-Industrial Society," most utopians were found on the left. To the extent that there is any utopianism in our disillusioned post-ideological age, it is situated on the libertarian right, in the optimistic futurism of Newt Gingrich and his allies Alvin and Heidi Toffler. Conservatives who argue that the service economy or the Internet have made government regulation obsolete will find no support from Bell: "The simplistic notion that one should be 'free' to follow one's individualist impulse comes into conflict with the increasing pressure for communities to regulate the material conditions of life including the development of recreation, of access to beaches or wild lands, or the multifarious ways in which the increasing interdependency of life forces each individual to subordinate his desires because they have an adverse effect on others."


"The Coming of Post-Industrial Society" is a book as worthy of rereading as it has been worthy of re-writing. The fact that it is a masterly explanation of the trends shaping our time makes it a pity that in many ways it is a product of a time that has passed. Bell, an encyclopedic polymath, resembles today's academic specialists less than he does the 18th century philosophes or the 19th century philosophers. In a university system captured by pedants and ideologues, it is unlikely that any prestigious university would hire a brilliant generalist like Bell or publish books as ambitious as his. In a media market increasingly subordinate to the entertainment industry, it is unlikely that major trade publishers could be found for the contemporary equivalents of Bell's major works. Bell, who foresaw our own time so accurately, reminds us of an earlier more serious and thoughtful age.

Writing in 1999, Bell introduces his summa with a summary of what he has learned in a long and productive life: "Like many advances in human history, post-industrial developments promise men and women greater control of their social destinies. But this is only possible under conditions of intellectual freedom and open political institutions, the freedom to pursue truth against those who wish to restrict it. This is the alpha and omega of the alphabet of knowledge."

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