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An Exchange on Post-Industrial Society

To the Editors:

Mr. Christopher Lasch, in his review of my book, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (New York Review, October 18, 1973), was so busy nibbling away at phrases of my text, that he has performed the astonishing feat (for someone who demands theoretical rigor) of ignoring completely, and in several thousand words not even mentioning, the theoretical structure and intention of my book. Instead, with those wrenched phrases he has constructed a pastiche—which in crucial instances is diametrically opposite to what I said—and then worked tediously to shred it. Yet without confronting the theoretical framework, one cannot understand the argument. But understanding has not been Mr. Lasch’s purpose.

None of this would be important, other than to author and critic, except for two things. For certain works which set the terms of debate for the intellectual “season,” many intellectuals know an argument not by reading a book but through the statements of reviewers in favorite journals, and then are quick to take sides and even write themselves what Marcuse, Galbraith, Riesman, Bell, etc., have “said,” with a dreadful thinning of the arguments and the debasement of intellectual discourse; for this reason the reviewer has a large intellectual responsibility to at least be fair in a summary, however fierce his disagreements. Second, Mr. Lasch and his friends, in their embattled radicalism—a radicalism that may be worthy in its sentiments but has collapsed in its intellectual foundations—can only maintain their intellectual postures by fixing and labeling certain critics with caricatures of their own creation. In this instance, it is the labeling of myself as a “technocrat” which permits Mr. Lasch and his friends the double luxury of claiming a moral vision for themselves which is denied to their opponents, and claiming that these “technocrats” (or “futurologists” or “experts”) are in a self-serving way seeking to justify a “privileged” position in the new society they are forecasting…. In my present book, there is a more extended analysis—and denial of the possibilities of technocratic power, an entire chapter, in fact—but Mr. Lasch persists in his attribution and willful misreading.

What is at stake perhaps is only a small footnote to the intellectual history of the times. Yet it is a case study of myth-making by an historian, a myth that eventually becomes repeated in his next book of essays and which passes into the lore of the time. And for that reason it is worth a detailed exploration.

To set forth, first, my intention. I wrote explicitly that I was not writing a description of a future society but an analytical construct derived from tendencies, what Hans Vahinger called “an ‘as if, a fiction, a logical construction of what could be, against which the future social reality can be compared in order to see what intervened to change society in the direction it did take.” I said further that it was easy to set forth extravagant theories of large historic sweep, like the terrible simplifications of James Burnham’s managerial revolution of thirty years ago, or Wright Mills’s picture of the power elite, but these can only be distortive (p. 14; p. 487). Mr. Lasch accuses me of seeking the “lost grandeur of these systems” and “curiously abstract description of American society,” when I was doing neither.

Regarding the theoretical structure, which I believe is novel, but, more to the point, crucial for locating the concept of post-industrial society, there are three steps:

I said it is useful, analytically, to divide society into three realms: the social structure (which comprises the economic-technical-industrial order, the stratification and occupation system of the society), the polity, and the culture. This distinction goes counter to the dominant sociological theories of Marxism and functionalism. Both Marxism and functionalism, antagonistic as they may be in other respects, share a common premise: that any society is a structurally interrelated whole. This is what Lukacs has called “totality” or Parsons “integration.” Marxists believe that the society is unified through the mode of production; functionalists believe that society is integrated through a common value system. Neither view, I believe, is adequate to explain certain contradictions in contemporary society. I try to do so by arguing that each of the realms I posit is obedient to axial principles which embody these contradictions: the social structure follows the norms of functional rationality (i.e. efficiency, role segmentation, increased specialization, bureaucratization, etc.); the polity operates on the principle of formal equality (e.g. one man, one vote) and is based on representation or participation; and the culture emphasizes self-realization and self-fulfillment. Because of these contrary axial principles we have increasing strain and conflict in the society: equality vs. bureaucratization, the “whole man” versus the role demands, etc. And I believe that these discordances are bound to increase.

Second, I said explicitly (p. 13) that the concept of post-industrialism deals primarily with changes in the social structure, but that these changes—from a goods-producing economy to a service economy, the centrality of theoretical knowledge for innovation, the change in the character of work, from a game against nature and a game against fabricated nature to a game between persons—do not determine corresponding changes in the polity or the culture, but pose questions of various kinds. The political structures of post-industrial society will vary just as one could find industrial society (with common technological features) in such totally diverse political systems as Nazi Germany, democratic capitalist USA, totalitarian collectivist Stalinist Russia, and would be modified by historic cultural differences, just as Japanese corporate management almost completely contradicts the Weberian model of bureaucracy.

Yet nowhere does Mr. Lasch take into account my restrictive ordinance, and almost all of his nattering about the new class and politics is meaningless and misleading for that reason. (He chides me for saying that the central role of scientific knowledge in post-industrial society, makes the university a central site, and says, what, not the Pentagon, the White House, the CIA. Yes, Virginia, there are many devils in a devilish world, but those kitchen sinks belong in another room, and please keep them there.)

Third, because I was creating an “analytical construct,” a conceptual scheme to organize diverse phenomena, I also said, explicitly, that no single conceptual scheme could wholly exhaust a social reality, and that one needed to create multi-conceptual schemes on the same space-time frame. The difficulty with Marx’s idea of the “mode of production,” I tried to show, is that it combined two different—and even divergent—concepts when he tried to create a single social system out of these. These two were the idea of the “social relations of production” and the “forces” of production. Yet if they were looked at in analytically distinct ways, one could see two different axes of social development. Along the axis of property (social relations), one could see a sequence of feudalism, capitalism, and socialism. Along the axis of technique or knowledge (“forces”) one could identify a different sequence of pre-industrial, industrial, and post-industrial.

The point, thus, is that a post-industrial society is not conceptualized in “contrast” to capitalism; nor does it “succeed” capitalism. One can have capitalist and collectivist post-industrial societies, as one has the United States and the Soviet Union as industrial societies, even though there are radical differences in the political system and the property relations.

Yet none of this, which is the central theoretical framework of the book (see pp. 9-12, 112-119) appears in Mr. Lasch’s discussion. Instead, he writes as if I were positing some simple sequence of social development in which post-industrial society replaces capitalist society and proceeds to make hash of his own mish-mash.

Much of Mr. Lasch’s discussion turns on the question of the validity of the theory of a scientific elite as a new ruling or power elite. He locates me at the end of a long line of writers who had sighted a new class in the offing and said, in effect, “so what’s new?” What’s new was that after discussing the possibility of the emergence of such a new class and testing the idea in a variety of situations, (which is why by phrase-wrenching, Mr. Lasch can find “contradictions”) I found the concept wanting.* For two reasons:

One, that the political actors in a society, not the technocrats or scientists, would rule, and that the political system was not reducible to the social structure or derived from it.

The second was the emergence of situs as an important consideration in the attachments and identifications of people in a society. Mr. Lasch sneers at “jargon” but is obviously unaware that the term situs is a transposition of Max Weber’s notion of Stände, and denotes the vertical differentiation of a society as against stratum, which is a horizontal differentiation. In feudal or estate society, as Tocqueville, Weber, and Durkheim recognized, there were vertical orders such as the ecclesiastical, military, legal, economic, and political orders, but in industrial society, particularly in its capitalist version, the economic order “swelled up,” so to speak, to encompass almost the entire society, and the horizontal or class differences within the economic order became paramount. My speculation was that in post-industrial society one would see the resumption of such vertical differentiation, or situses, and that loyalties or attachments would be to the particular functional enterprise, and less to a corporate class consciousness. This is a theme that is overtly recognized by socialist theoreticians in Yugoslavia, and quietly by sociologists in the Soviet Union.

If the scientific and technical elite is not to be a new ruling or power class, what then is their importance and why spend so much time analyzing future roles? The reason is two-fold: one, the emergence of a post-industrial society transforms the character of the labor force, shrinking the industrial working class and bringing into new occupational importance a technical class; second, because of the centrality of theoretical knowledge technology now works in a new way in the creation of new industries and products. Mr. Lasch is clearly ignorant of the new technology and has no sense of the different character of the “nineteenth-century” industries (in their patterns of innovation), such as steel, electricity, telephone, auto, aviation, and the new science-based latter-20th-century industries—electronics, optics, polymers, computers, etc. And Mr. Lasch is simply incomprehensible when he says (how trendy he is) that the rise of the service sectors is due to the transfer by American manufacturing of jobs abroad. The numbers in that shift are tiny, in the magnitudes of an eighty-million-person labor force; the shifts to services began forty years ago and, in origin, are explained by Engels’s law of the changing composition of national income; the rise of the new service sectors are in business, professional and human services, which accounted for the net new jobs of the last two decades (and while the 1950 and 1960 decades showed major spurts, there is no turnaround but a decline in the rate of growth in the 1970s); and, most important, if he would consult the I.L.O. and O.E.C.D. tables on pp. 16-17, he would see that the shift to services is characteristic of all advanced industrial economies, including the Soviet Union….

Mr. Lasch is not only tendentious, he is mendacious. In caricaturing my brief discussion of culture he remarks that I blame “everything” (sic!) on the “literary intellectuals” and “disregard the contributions of advanced capitalism to hedonistic culture.” While I believe that literary modernism constitutes an “adversary culture,” in Lionel Trilling’s sense, the heart of my long essay “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism” (The Public Interest, Fall, 1970, reprinted in Capitalism Today) was that capitalism had dug its own grave by the furious promotion of a hedonistic society, which undercut all of its original legitimations. (And this is referred to on page 477.)

This mendacity is more evident in the recurrent theme underlying Mr. Lasch’s essay, the accusation that I am a technocrat and, in effect, an apologist for the “new class.” Mr. Lasch writes: “…he proceeds to make a plea—one of many—for centralized social planning by experts (pp. 259-262).” For one thing, pp. 259-262 are only a discussion of research-and-development spending, nothing else, and the footnote reference is spurious; and I challenge Mr. Lasch to cite one passage where there is a plea for “centralized social planning by experts.” There is one chapter, entitled “Social Choice and Social Planning,” which deals with the theoretical difficulties of these questions and argues for the development of a system of social indicators and social accounts so we would have some measures of where we stand in social mobility, in providing access and opportunity for individuals in the society, in assessing the adequacy of health care, etc. These were suggestions I first put forth in the section I wrote in the government document on Technology and the American Economy (1966) and have been embodied in the “Full Opportunity” bill introduced several times by Senator Walter Mondale. To derive from this the lurid image Mr. Lasch does is ridiculous. Further, the chapter in which that entire discussion takes place concludes with the statement: “in the end, the problems of the communal the post-industrial society are not technical, but political, for even though in the nature of the new complexities a large kind of new social engineering is involved, the essential questions are those of values.”

In fact, the major problem that I forecast for the post-industrial society was the limitations of its technocratic character: “…a technocratic society is not ennobling…one of the deepest human impulses is to sanctify their institutions….A post-industrial society cannot provide a transcendent ethic….” (p. 480).

How explain Mr. Lasch’s willful and perverse misreading? I think the answer is implicit in his own remarks. He has abandoned the “deterministic” elements in Marxism; he wants to supplement it with the “cultural” analysis of Weber. But in plain fact, he has no intellectual ground for societal analysis. He has no framework for understanding the complicated nature of social development in industrial societies, or the societal structure of the Soviet Union, and how it changed as it did, or even the complicated character of American capitalism other than “hedonism” and “irrationality.” He has a rhetoric and a faith; anything that challenges these and asks him to formulate some conceptions about the changing character of industrial society creates a state of acute anxiety and obsessive tinkering with phrases out of context…

Daniel Bell

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Christopher Lasch replies:

I shall not attempt to outdo Daniel Bell either in wordiness or in vituperation. It is enough to comment on the three points he makes about the theoretical structure of his book, which he claims I have misunderstood.

  1. In order to explain “certain contradictions in contemporary society,” it is unnecessary, in my opinion, to invoke a theory that attributes these contradictions to the disjunction between society, culture, and politics. The major contradictions in our society derive from a single overriding fact—that the system of large-scale production for private profit, having long ago reached the point where its technology was capable of satisfying the material needs of society many times over, survives today only by means of war, colonialism, the creation of artificial scarcity, and the creation of an endless series of new “needs,” all of which are presented as indispensable to personal fulfillment. Mass culture seeks to portray the joys of consumption in their most attractive terms. The state, controlled by the owner-managers of the leading corporations and by men whose fortunes depend on them, both serves corporate needs (by socializing the costs of education, research and development, highway construction, etc.; regulating the market; attempting to guarantee a stable political climate for investment abroad; large-scale defense spending; and outright subsidy) and, on the other hand, tries to contend with the accumulating consequences of corporate dominance—wars, riots, poverty, unemployment, gross inequality, deterioration of the environment, urban squalor, crime, a general sense of helplessness and futility.

The leading “contradictions” in our society do not concern the relations between the social, cultural, and political realms; they spring from the increasing irrationality of capitalism itself.

  1. It is true, of course, that changes in social structure do not necessarily determine changes in politics or culture, but it hardly follows that these areas are autonomous. While it would be foolish, for example, to minimize the importance of our democratic political traditions or the degree to which they reflect “historic cultural differences,” it would be equally foolish to overlook the degree to which those traditions have been dangerously attenuated as a result of thirty-five years of war and near-war—more generally, of the enormous expansion of the executive branch of the state in response to corporate needs.

Bell’s cavalier statement that “those kitchen sinks belong in another room” implies either that political changes have no relation to social changes or that these particular changes are of no consequence compared with the momentous revolution in “knowledge.” Either position seems to me untenable. A third possibility also has to be rejected—that Bell is not even attempting, in this particular book, to pass judgment on these issues, having intended merely to analyze certain changes in technique without speculating about their broader implications.

In the face of theoretical and empirical criticism of his book, Bell now shows a tendency to argue that the scope of his analysis was much more limited than anyone had suspected. But even in the course of making this new claim, he cannot refrain from reminding us that his book attempts to do nothing less than “explain certain contradictions in contemporary society.” If he had confined himself merely to filling in a neglected gap in our understanding of the role of theoretical knowledge in production, none of these regrettable “misunderstandings” would have arisen—but neither would the book have attracted a great deal of attention.

  1. Marx, we are told, should have been more careful to distinguish between the social relations of production and the “forces of production”—that is, technique. Unfortunately for this line of argument, Marx was not only a theorist but a historian. He did not propose to outline a highly schematic “sequence” of historical stages. For such purposes, indeed, one could resort to any number of possible “axes”—why stop with two? But since Marx was attempting above all to understand a series of events specific to the West, it was important for him and his followers to show the interconnections between social relations and technique; between changes in production and changes in law, art, and the family; between changes in social relations and the way social relations were perceived; between the rise of the bourgeoisie and the rise of science, and so on. Why should we sacrifice what is most valuable in Marx—the analysis of a specific historical complex in all its intricacy—for the sake of a false sociological precision, a precision merely of definition?

Even if we agreed to define industrialism as a purely technological development, which it was not, it would still be essential to understand, say, the difference between the introduction of industrialism in Western Europe and America, where it had been preceded by a revolution in the “social relations of production,” and cases where industrialism was imposed by fiat on peasant countries lacking both capitalism and democratic political institutions—a commonplace but important example. It would be essential, in other words, to analyze not just the transition from “preindustrial” to industrial conditions, but the whole nexus, political, social, and cultural, in which industrialism grew up at different times and in different places.

To abstract the various components of a specific historical situation is an exercise of purely scholastic interest. It tells us neither where we have been or where we are going, especially since it is always so tempting to mistake the part for the whole and to argue, as in the present instance, that changes in technique—“knowledge”—have had profound effects on practically everything else.

Those effects, in any case, remain almost entirely undemonstrated.

  1. *

    It is almost incredible to be accused of favoring a triumphant “new class” theory of the future when a review of the history of the idea—chapter of sixty pages—made it plain that I was rejecting the different variants of the notion. Other reviewers, e.g., Dennis Wrong in The New Leader, have made that plain.

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