Take Me to Your Leader

The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting

by Daniel Bell
Basic Books, 507 pp., $12.50

Many students of modern society have argued, usually in more or less open opposition to socialist theories, that changes in technology, the rise of new classes, the divorce between ownership and control of property, the shift from production of goods to production of services, and the growth of bureaucracy have created, in effect, a new form of society, to which the old debates about capitalism and socialism are increasingly irrelevant. The central features of this new society are usually seen to be the ascendancy of technique, the subordination of the market to bureaucratic controls, and the growing influence of scientific and technical elites. In addition, many theorists and publicists argue that these characteristics can be found in both the advanced capitalist and socialist countries; in other words that considerations of bureaucratic efficiency increasingly override ideological considerations, just as they override national and local variations, producing a homogeneous global civilization based on technological rationality.

Daniel Bell’s concept of post-industrial society, to which he has now given what is intended to be a magisterial and authoritative restatement, belongs in a long line of social thought developed by such theorists as Veblen, the early Walter Lippmann, James Burnham, John Kenneth Galbraith, David Bazelon, and Milovan Djilas. If this new book strikes the reader as not particularly original, it is because so many writers, including Daniel Bell himself in essays written over the last fifteen years, long ago made its central ideas familiar.

The Coming of Post-Industrial Society is a compendious summation rather than an attempt to break new ground. It deserves attention precisely because it promises to offer an ambitious and sweeping synthesis—a synthesis, moreover, written by a sociologist who is highly conscious not only of his immediate predecessors but of his nineteenth-century forebears as well. At a time when most academic sociologists busy themselves with trivial problems of behavioral and quantitative analysis, Bell has written a work that regards itself as standing in the grand sociological tradition of Marx and Weber. Bell hopes to rescue this tradition and bring it up to date. “My purpose,” he says at the outset, “is to restore some of the informing power of older modes of social analysis” (p. 10).

Although Bell follows Weber rather than Marx in stressing bureaucratic rationality as the key to modern society, he remains fascinated by—one might almost say fixated on—Marxian categories. Like many other commentators on Marx, he is tempted by the possibility that the “informing power” of Marxism can be restored by finding contemporary equivalents for the leading terms in the Marxian equation. Here as elsewhere, unfortunately, this procedure results in twisting Marxian terms unrecognizably out of shape. Thus Bell argues at one point, following the lead of that deep thinker Herman Kahn, that “military technology has supplanted the ‘mode of production,’ in Marx’s use of the term, as a major determinant of social structure” (p. 356). This formulation begs the question of whether military technology is not itself determined, or at least heavily influenced, by the “mode of production”—in which case we do not need an “updated” Marxism to understand the role of military technology in the capitalist economy.

Bell is particularly taken with the thought that the scientific elite may represent a new class which is destined to replace the bourgeoisie, just as the bourgeoisie replaced the feudal nobility—not, as Marx erroneously maintained, by growing up in the interstices of feudalism but by establishing an independent base, the urban communes, outside of it. So too the universities today, Bell speculates, may provide the scientific elite with “an independent institutional base outside the old dominant order”—the “necessary foundation,” he thinks, for the emergence of any new class (p. 232).

The idea that the medieval towns existed outside feudal society can be sustained only by taking a very narrow view of feudalism, and in any case Marx was trying to explain a specific series of historical events—the rise of the bourgeoisie in Western Europe—rather than proposing a general model of historical “stages,” valid for all times and places. It is both un-Marxian and quite unnecessary to rest the case for the emergence of new classes today on whatever may have happened in medieval Europe. Like many “revisers” of Marx, Bell is really revising a caricature of Marx—a mechanical, deterministic model of history that never had any “informing power” in the first place, but which has never entirely lost its seductive appeal to social scientists who grew up intellectually in the 1930s and still long for grand interpretative schema.

Yet if Bell is attracted by the lost grandeur of these systems, he is repelled by the utopian strain that runs through both “Marxism” and so many of its “reinterpretations.” Having announced that scientists are a new class with an autonomous institutional basis, he immediately draws back from the implication of this statement—that scientists will play a revolutionary role analogous to that of the bourgeoisie. He reminds himself that science, after all, has become increasingly intertwined with government and that the scientific community, accordingly, has lost much of its autonomy. The charismatic fellowship of masters and disciples, united in their single-minded devotion to the advancement of science, gives way to the bureaucratic integration of science and state. In the one-sided partnership that results, scientists may initiate ideas, to be sure, but effective power remains in the hands of the state.

The dream of an orderly society run by men of knowledge, obviously attractive to Bell, therefore has to be rejected. “Some constraint or other…keeps him from a pure technocratic apologetics,” Norman Birnbaum writes in a recent review.1 The source of this constraint is Bell’s wish to present himself as a realist, a man who rejects the hubris of modern utopianism for the “classic conception” of life—whatever that is. A writer who regards himself above all as a pragmatist cannot allow himself to take refuge either in the socialist utopia or in the technocratic fantasies that have so often replaced it. Society, Bell concludes with a great show of hardwon wisdom, cannot be made into a work of art; “given the tasks that have to be solved, it is enough to engage in the sober construction of social reality” (p. 489).

Highly selective in his approach to Marx, relying more on Marx’s “reinterpreters” than on Marx himself, Bell is equally selective in his borrowings from Weber. It is the Weber of Talcott Parsons who presides here—the theorist of bureaucracy and “structural differentiation,” the author of “Science as a Vocation,” with its insistence on a strict separation of fact and value, science and politics. The student of religion, culture, and character structure, who spent most of his career analyzing the relations between culture and society, is not much in evidence in these pages. Indeed one of Bell’s leading ideas—that “post-industrial society” is characterized by a disjunction between culture and social structure—can be plausibly defended only by ignoring most of what Weber had to say on the subject.

Bell admires Weber not as a theorist whose writings on culture deepen and extend Marx but as the “adversary” of Marx, who allegedly understood that “socialism and capitalism,” in Bell’s words, “were not contradictory systems but, from the imperatives of functional rationality, two variants of the same social type, bureaucracy” (p. 41). Weber is important to Bell, in short, because his name can be invoked in support of Bell’s own concept of post-industrial society.

So much, then, for the attempt to “restore the informing power” of classical social theory. Bell has not so much restored that theory as dismissed it, leaving us with a work that is not grand theory at all but a mass of journalistic observations, some of them penetrating, others obscure and confused, which disguise themselves as theory and insist on their own importance by repeatedly referring to the masters.

The heart of the book is a discussion of the “new class,” the alleged rise of which is central to Bell’s contention that we have entered a new epoch. Yet his treatment of this crucial issue never achieves theoretical coherence. He demonstrates, at unnecessary length, that service industries have greatly expanded, that modern technology often depends on theoretical knowledge, and that new elites based on knowledge and planning have recently emerged. The question, however, is just what significance should be attributed to these developments. Do they add up to a new mode of production? Do the new elites constitute a class?

Bell admits that the new scientific and technical elites “are not bound by a sufficient common interest to make them a political class” (p. 362). Elsewhere, however, he claims that “there has been a shift in the slope of power as, in key institutions, technical competence becomes the overriding consideration…. Increasingly, the newer professional occupations, particularly engineering and economics, become central to the technical decisions of the society” (p. 426). Yet his own evidence tends to undermine this contention. For example, he provides a brief account of the role of scientists in the development of the atomic and hydrogen bombs—one of the best things in this book—which shows that at every point it was the military men and the politicians, not the scientists, who made the important decisions.

If the “new class” has no political importance—if indeed it can hardly be considered a class at all—what sociological significance can its advent have? It is not enough to argue that although they have neither common interests nor political power, the technical and scientific elites have “common characteristics.” The possession of common characteristics does not distinguish them from any other occupational or status group. Nor does it explain why the technical elites can be expected to play a pivotal role in post-industrial society, especially when it cannot even be convincingly shown that they “initiate” policies, as Bell claims, even if they do not decide them (p. 481). The account of the development of nuclear weapons seems to show the contrary—that the exigencies of war and diplomacy, not the activities of scientists, “initiated” the series of events leading to the explosion of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo.

Nothing in Bell’s account of those events or in any other evidence he provides entitles us to conclude that “the ‘technicians’—using that word in the broad sense of those having specialized knowledge—will be the main source of innovation because of their professional expertise” (p. 481). True, the government could not have built the atomic bomb without the help of scientists; neither can General Motors build cars without the help of workers. In both cases, however, it is clear that “professional expertise” does not automatically translate itself into political power or even into “the main source of innovation.” Bell’s version of the “new class” theory, like other versions, simply deduces political power from functional indispeneability without demonstrating the influence of “expertise” on actual decisions.

The argument for the existence of a new class, moreover, is contradicted by Bell’s own analysis of “Big Science.” Increasingly dependent on the government for financial support and confronted with demands that science serve national needs, the scientific community, according to Bell, finds that “state intervention is inevitable,” that its autonomy is compromised, and that the pursuit of science is itself increasingly bureaucratized (p. 408). But if that is the case, what becomes of the “new class”? We should expect a rising class to be confident of its power and eager to govern in its own right. Instead we find scientists either becoming servants of power or fighting a rear-guard action to preserve what remains of their independence.

Bell’s book is full of sweeping assertions about the central role of scientific knowledge in the new society. “In the post-industrial society,” he writes, “the chief problem is the organization of science, and the primary institution the university or the research institute where such work is carried out”—not, mind you, the corporation, the Pentagon, the White House, the CIA, the FBI, the courts, the legal profession, but the university! (P. 116.) “Scientists and engineers…form the key group in post-industrial society” (p. 17). “The major problem for the post-industrial society will be adequate numbers of trained persons of professional and technical caliber” (p. 232). “The central point about the last third of the twentieth century…is that it will require more societal guidance, more expertise” (p. 263).

Merely repeating these statements does nothing to demonstrate their validity. Nor are we likely to be convinced by masses of figures showing expansion of expenditures for research and development, growth of the knowledge industry, expansion of higher education, and so forth. The fact that all these areas are now contracting suggests that the academic boom of the Fifties and Sixties reflected shortterm political decisions, not underlying sociological tendencies. Similarly the vogue of “systems analysis” in the early Sixties seems to have been followed by disenchantment, the application of these techniques to war and diplomacy having produced not the brilliant successes that were promised but the disaster of Vietnam. In the highest circles of government, planning—such as it was—has given way to paranoia.

As for the growth of the service sector, on which Bell places great emphasis, this growth largely results from the corporations’ attempts to shift much of their production to countries where labor is cheap, not from a basic transformation of the industrial system itself. Although white-collar workers, “technicians” in particular, make up a larger and larger proportion of the American work force, it does not follow that power has shifted to this group or that scientists and engineers have become in any sense the “key group” in advanced industrial society.

The theory of the “new class,” then, disintegrates under analysis, and with it the whole “theory” of post industrial society—at least insofar as the latter rests |on the former Part of the trouble with Bell’s argument however is that it is inconsistent in assigning priority to any single set of developments. The case for the transition to post-industrial society cannot easily be refuted, because it was never stated with any precision to begin with.

The argument slides imperceptibly from one set of assertions to another. Thus although we are told that the central feature of post-industrial society is the primacy of knowledge, we are also told, elsewhere in the book, that “the decisive social change taking place in our time…is the subordination of the economic function to the political order,” meritocracy replacing property as the decisive principle of social stratification (p. 373). Nor is this another way of saying, as one might suppose, that “technicians” are replacing “capitalists” as the dominant class; for “the question of who manages the political order is an open one,” according to Bell.

But if political control is still up for grabs, and the contenders for power include “capitalists” as well as “technicians,” it is no longer clear that anything has really changed. Bell appears to acknowledge this possibility when he writes that “in one respect, what the change may mean is that traditional social conflicts have simply shifted from one arena to another”—that is, from the economic to the political (p. 377). This is confusing enough, with its suggestion that formerly the economic and political realms were somehow divorced; but it is even more confusing to be told, a few lines further on, that organizations are becoming more important than classes (in Bell’s jargon, “the situses rather than the statuses [will] be the major political-interest units in the society”) and that this particular shift, indeed, is even more important—“structurally more pervasive”—than the shift from economics to politics (p. 377). Only a few passages earlier the shift from economics to politics had been described as “the decisive social change” of our time.

The contention that meritocracy is replacing property is itself open to question, of course; and since this contention in turn becomes the basis of the argument that “the chief problem of the emerging post-industrial society” is the conflict between meritocracy and “populism”—another of Bell’s contradictory formulations about the defining characteristics of the new society—it is important to analyze his claim that “the post-industrial society, in its initial logic, is a meritocracy” (pp. 44, 409). On what evidence does this claim rest?

It rests exclusively, one discovers, on the proposition that educational certification is a condition of “higher employment” (p. 414). An accumulating body of evidence, however, seems to show, first, that acquisition of educational credentials depends more on class (specifically on family background) than on merit; and second, that these credentials are by no means decisive in the acquisition of wealth and power.2 Confronted with some of this evidence, in the form of the recent study by Christopher Jencks, Bell characteristically transforms a dispute about the interpretation of evidence into a debate about policy.3 He neither attacks Jencks’s data nor attempts to reconcile it with his own view that post-industrial society is governed by the principle of meritocracy. Instead he attacks Jencks’s recommendation that if it is equality we want, the state should attempt to equalize incomes directly instead of trying to equalize access to education.

Discussion of the evidence itself is relegated to a footnote, and even there it is given short shrift. Not only does Bell, like many other commentators on Jencks, exaggerate the stress Jencks places on “luck,” but he slides once again, in the same paragraph, from a dispute about evidence to a dispute about abstract political justice.

It may be that there is much more luck to the occupational system than…meritocrats would like to admit. Yet “common observation”…would indicate that—again on the professional level at least—hard work is a necessary condition for success, and that if a rough equality of opportunity has allowed one man to go farther than another, he has earned the unequal reward…which goes with that success. [Pp. 432-433 n.]

The important question raised by Jencks (who, incidentally, by no means dismisses the contribution of “hard work” to economic success) is not whether the successful man has a right to his reward but whether academic credentials played a decisive part in his winning it. Bell does not confront this question; he simply asserts that “a meritocratic society is a ‘credentials society’ in which certification of achievement…becomes a condition of higher employment” and “education thus becomes a defensive necessity” (p. 414).

Bell’s polemic against the “populist” attack on meritocracy, with which the book concludes (and to which it seems to have been leading all along), further confuses the issue by expanding the definition of meritocracy in a way that completely deprives it of sociological significance. Populism, according to Bell, is based on ressentiment, an irrational hatred of authority. It wants to level all distinctions, deprive the able of the just fruits of their ability, and bring about a situation in which society will lack any effective leadership. Against the populists Bell upholds what he calls the principle of meritocracy; but this “principle” turns out to be no more than a very general statement to the effect that a society should make sure that positions of leadership are occupied by its best men.

There is no reason why a university cannot be a meritocracy, without impairing the esteem of other institutions…. And there is no reason why the principle of meritocracy should not obtain in business and government as well. One wants entrepreneurs and innovators who can expand the amount of productive wealth for society. One wants men in political office who can govern well…. A society that does not have its best men at the head of its leading institutions is a sociological and moral absurdity. [P. 454]

These are sentiments with which almost anyone can agree; elsewhere Bell has explained that they merely paraphrase Aristotle and Thucydides. But they tell us nothing about meritocracy in the sense in which Bell elsewhere uses the term. Surely Aristotle and Thucydides were not talking about a system in which educational credentials are indispensable to advancement. If “meritocracy” means no more than that a society should be led by its best men, there is obviously nothing new about the ideal of meritocracy; but then it can no longer be claimed that the displacement of property by the “principle of meritocracy” signals the coming of post-industrial society.

For the rest, the argument about meritocracy concerns not the abstract principle that the best men should lead, but the question whether this objective can be attained under any system of class rule and specifically under a meritocracy—that is, a system of advancement based on academic credentials; a system, moreover, in which the correlation between academic credentials on the one hand and wealth and power on the other turns out to be far looser than we had supposed.

By this time it should be evident that Bell’s concept of post-industrial society lacks any theoretical rigor. It consists of little more than a series of astonishingly casual assertions, themselves imprecise and often contradictory. The central terms of the argument—meritocracy, the “technical elite,” the subordination of economics to politics—are so slippery that they elude close analysis. Short-term tendencies are confused with long-term tendencies. Statements that begin as historical or sociological generalizations end in polemics. Insofar as the argument lends itself to empirical analysis at all, it collapses.

Instead of the definitive synthesis he set out to write, Bell has produced a work in which catchy phrases are substituted for analysis, in which the “evidence” obfuscates the argument instead of clarifying it—a work that constantly invites the suspicion that its real purpose is to uphold the “meritocracy” and in particular to defend the university against its critics on the left; indeed, to present the university as a model of rationality that might well be adopted by society as a whole.

When he comes to cultural questions—which he promises to treat more fully in a forthcoming study—Bell drops all but the barest pretense of sociological analysis and inveighs against the literary intellectuals and the “antinomian” culture they have allegedly popularized. Even though he recognizes that capitalism itself, “through mass production and mass consumption, [has] destroyed the Protestant ethic by zealously promoting a hedonistic way of life,” Bell insists that post-industrial society is characterized by a “widening disjunction between the social structure…and the culture.” Whereas the former is “rooted in functional rationality and efficiency,” modern culture expresses “the antinomian justification of the enhancement of the self” (p. 477).

By means of this striking but puzzling formulation—How can there be such a radical “disjunction” between culture and society? What peculiarities of modern civilization give rise to it?—Bell attempts to solve a problem entirely of his own making. The problem arises from his still undemonstrated assertion that modern society is in fact “rooted in functional rationality and efficiency.” Without this assumption the problem would disappear, and the culture of hedonistic self-indulgence would be seen for what it is: the inner logic of advanced capitalism, a social and economic system that is based not on “functional rationality” at all but on the promise of individual enrichment and the satisfactions of an empty leisure, by means of which the masses are expected to compensate themselves for political impotence, the trivialization of work, the impoverishment of public life, and the general meaninglessness of the social order itself.

Since Bell cannot admit into his argument evidence which suggests that our social, political, and educational structures contain many elements of irrationality, he has to disregard the contributions of advanced capitalism to the hedonistic culture he deplores and to blame everything on the “literary intellectuals”—as if it were literary intellectuals who finance and control the advertising industry, the travel industry, the machinery of credit, and the production of consumer goods; as if the entire consumption apparatus, with its ceaseless summons to “enjoy, enjoy!” were merely the latest expression of avant-garde culture.

Chronically discontented, the literary intellectuals, according to Bell, purvey hedonism, utopian ideologies, nihilistic fantasies, visions of apocalypse—the indictment is familiar, and it did not originate with Bell. His contribution is to raise these shopworn platitudes to the level of sociological principles. Let no one be deceived, however, by the scholarly trappings, the charts and tables, the ponderous jargon with which Bell has surrounded his attack on the left, or for that matter by the genuine erudition that Bell can invoke, usually in support of points that are peripheral to his argument. The Coming of Post-Industrial Society is a technocrat’s reply to radical criticism, the reply of the academic establishment to demands for university reform, and a bid for attention and official patronage on the part of a would-be elite of social technicians, social forecasters, and futurologists—all in the name of “science.”

So long as the so-called private corporation remains the dominant influence in the country’s economic and political life, there will continue to be a brisk demand for expertise of all kinds, including “social forecasting.” The corporations have rationalized production and instituted long-range planning in the sectors of the economy they control, and they therefore have a strong interest in predicting not only market trends but the general shape of society in decades to come. It hardly follows, however, that we live in a “knowledge society” in which the university has become the central institution or that the producers of knowledge play a crucial role in the economy and the state. The production of technical knowledge remains subordinate to the corporation’s drive to enlarge itself and expand its influence.

In pursuing these objectives, the great corporations rely not only on engineering, economics, and science, but also, when the need arises, on the more traditional methods of bribery, intimidation of political opponents, espionage, the subversion of democratic procedures at home, war and counterrevolution abroad. Nothing in Bell’s curiously abstract description of American society helps to explain or even leads us to expect such events as Watergate or secret bombing of Cambodia; but if we remember that corporate growth remains the controlling interest in American society, we can understand why these things occur and why they occur not fortuitously but in the normal course of events—everyday political practice.

  1. 1

    New York Times Book Review, July 1, 1973.

  2. 2

    In addition to the studies mentioned in my review of Christopher Jencks’s Inequality (NYR, May 17, 1973), the reader might consult Murray Milner, Jr., The Illusion of Equality (Jossey-Bass, 1972), which contains further arguments and data in support of these conclusions.

  3. 3

    Bell repeatedly tries to get out of difficulties in this way. For example, his discussion of the expansion of research-and-development expenditures in the Fifties and Sixties, which is supposed to reinforce the case for the centrality of theoretical knowledge in post-industrial society, runs into the objection that most of this spending was dictated by the requirements of the cold war and therefore reflects not the rise of new elites, but the old elite’s attempt to extend its military power. Instead of answering this objection, Bell shifts the grounds of the argument. Complaining that “the research and development pattern in the United States was badly skewed,” he proceeds to make a plea—one of many—for centralized social planning by experts (pp. 259-262). Such passages led Birnbaum to conclude that in Bell’s book “social analysis [is] ancillary to a political statement” (The New York Times Book Review, “Letters to the Editor,” August 12, 1973, p. 23).