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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.

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    New York Times Book Review, July 1, 1973.

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