The Arrival of Post-industrial Society
There is a certain class of book, the members of which have the ambivalent honor of being remembered for encapsulating the era in which they were written. Such books typically straddle the line between scholarly tome and popular commentary, and are almost invariably purchased more often than read, cited more often than understood. Yet they shape the public conversation for a time, the most successful among them coming even to define an age. One thinks of Christopher Lasch's Culture of Narcissism, Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, Francis Fukuyama's End of History and the Last Man, and Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century — or even such classics as Julien Benda's Trahison des clercs (Treason of the Intellectuals), José Ortega y Gasset's Revolt of the Masses, James Burnham's Managerial Revolution, or Richard Hofstadter's Age of Reform.
The late sociologist Daniel Bell has the unusual distinction of having penned not one, but several books of this genre during the post-war period. These include The End of Ideology (1960) and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), both of which were named by the Times Literary Supplement in 1995 as among the 100 most influential books published since World War II. In between these two books, he produced yet a third that achieved similar status and has since become even better known: The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting.
Since its first appearance in 1973, the book's central idea — the emergence of a new form of society organized around knowledge and services rather than labor and manufacturing — has become so familiar as to seem hackneyed. As for the term "post-industrial" (popularized but not coined by Bell), it has long since entered the lingua franca of social, economic, and political discourse. It gained particular salience during the 1990s "dot-com" era alongside "the information age." Bell noted in a foreword to the 1999 edition that President Bill Clinton invoked the term "post-industrial society" in discussions of globalization and free trade with China.
That is not to say that the thesis was undisputed in its own time, or that it remains widely accepted in ours. Over the last 50 years, critics from across the political spectrum have taken issue with The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, frequently, though not always, mischaracterizing its multitudinous and complicated arguments. (Given the length and complexity of the book, some mischaracterizations may well have been inevitable, not to say justifiable.)
In the intervening period, the idea of a post-industrial society has been displaced by rivals — "post-modern," "neoliberal," and, more recently, "post-liberal" — that vie for preeminence among the watchwords of our age. So has the concept of post-industrialism become outmoded? Are we now post-post-industrial? Were we ever post-industrial to begin with?
While the term "post-industrial society" may have fallen out of fashion since the '90s, Bell's ideas are no less worthy of our attention today. We may now associate the term vaguely with a bygone era of techno-optimism — of dial-up internet, "irrational exuberance," and third-wave politics. But we should keep in mind that the book, though it influenced the political consciousness of the Clinton era, was itself written two decades earlier, at a time that bears striking resemblances to our own. This was a period marked by political extremism, social and racial conflict, economic and cultural anxiety, and populist backlash against science and technology — dynamics that precipitated an ideological realignment that would define American politics for the next half-century.
For this reason alone, the book provides an interesting lens through which to view the sources of our present social and political discontents. To be sure, the book is not without its flaws. And it would be too much of an exaggeration to say that we now inhabit the world Bell envisioned five decades ago. But despite, and even because of, its imperfections, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society provides a helpful touchstone for understanding not only Bell's moment, but our own — providing, at its best, a welcome corrective to the self-images of both.
CHARACTERISTICS OF POST-INDUSTRIAL SOCIETY
The core thesis of The Coming of Post-Industrial Society has four interrelated components. The first is the most straightforward and well known, if not always accurately represented — the idea that in a post-industrial society, the production of services overtakes the production of goods. "[T]he first and simplest characteristic of a post-industrial society," wrote Bell, "is that the majority of the labor force is no longer engaged in agriculture or manufacturing but in services."
This does not mean that there will be no more manufacturing in post-industrial society, any more so than industrial society signaled the end of agriculture. The point, rather, is that services would become central to post-industrial society in the way and to the degree that manufacturing was central, both economically and politically, to industrial society.
For Bell, social change is uneven, and does not proceed neatly through mutually exclusive "stages" of development (pre-industrial, industrial, post-industrial, etc.). Eschewing "monocausal theories" (more on this below), he sought instead to specify "the organizing frame around which the other institutions are draped, or the energizing principle that is a primary logic for all the others." Thus Bell's theory of "post-industrial society" is not meant to be monocausal, reducing the social whole to a single principle. Instead, it illuminates predominant trends in society while recognizing the persistence of industrial and pre-industrial forms.
The second aspect of Bell's thesis is that post-industrial society would be shaped by a new productive force — no longer human labor power so much as scientific knowledge. Here Bell had in mind not only the application of scientific knowledge and techniques to industrial processes, but the development, beginning in the late 19th century and culminating in the second half of the 20th, of science-based industries, especially chemistry, pharmaceuticals, electronics, computing, nuclear energy, and communications (to name a few). The point, again, is not that human labor ceases to be important, but that with these new sources of innovation, scientific knowledge becomes essential to industrial production and economic growth in a way and to a degree that it had not been before.
This idea might seem so obvious to us today that it risks passing by unnoticed. And this aspect of Bell's thesis does indeed get short shrift from many recent commentators. In an age of biotechnology and artificial intelligence, we take for granted the idea that science is fundamentally linked to innovation and economic growth. Today, we think of science and technology as so intimately connected that the very distinction between them has become obscure. As for science's role in economic growth, we identify a nation's economic advantage with its scientific capacity as a matter of course. But the point was decisive for Bell — and rightly so. What he saw in the decades following the Second World War — when the science of nuclear energy was harnessed to create the atom bomb — was the emergence of a fundamentally new and symbiotic relationship between science and technology, which portended enormous changes for society.
Scientific and technical expertise would become key to post-industrial society in yet another way — the third aspect of Bell's thesis. With the integration of science into ever more domains of society, from weapons development to industrial processes to transportation to education, experts become essential for planning and policymaking. According to Bell, this is both a technical and a social imperative. Technical expertise is needed not only to implement scientific and technological processes in the private and public sectors, but also to assess the effectiveness of these processes and evaluate their unintended effects. Here Bell highlighted the growing prevalence of then-new quantitative methods — including systems analysis and cost-effectiveness techniques — in defense policy and corporate decision-making. He also pointed to the increasing importance of "science policy" and "technology assessment" in national policymaking.
Recent critics have argued that in highlighting these trends, Bell mistook a short-lived post-war emphasis on rational planning for permanent features of the coming post-industrial society. But these criticisms don't stick. Bell was not just talking about the kind of central planning that was the hallmark of pre-war socialism, or even New Deal or Great Society liberalism; he was talking about something subtler and more widespread — namely, the "shaping of conscious policy, be it in foreign policy, defense, or economics," which leads to an increased "role of technical decision-making."
Take, for instance, science policy, which is concerned with such issues as "the degree of support for science as a proportion of GNP, the relative allocation among fields, the statement of priorities in research, and so on." This process was no more a form of centralized planning in Bell's day than in our own. Our system of research and development was then and remains to this day highly decentralized (some would say fragmented), with various government institutions — including the Congress, the White House, and several executive agencies and sub-agencies — responsible for policy decisions. Yet this process, however decentralized, is highly dependent on scientific experts to inform or make policy — from the scientists who advise the White House to the scientist-administrators who oversee and staff federal science agencies to the domain experts whose peer review informs agency funding decisions.
While not centrally planned, this system is nevertheless a far cry from the small-scale, informal, largely non-governmental enterprise that American science had been up until the early to mid-20th century. It was really only after World War II that the modern federal research establishment — including many of the science agencies familiar to us today, from the National Science Foundation to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — came into being. There thus arose a need to coordinate and set priorities for the vast array of research activities conducted or supported by the federal government through contracts and grants. At this point, Bell observed, "instead of self-direction" in science, "there arises 'science policy,' which inevitably becomes another name for the 'planning' of science."
To be sure, many of the particular analytical and quantitative methods Bell discussed in describing the role of expertise in planning and policymaking have long since gone by the board or been replaced or refined. But some, such as cost-benefit analysis and environmental-impact assessments, remain fixtures of federal regulatory policy, or became so after 1973. Methods of central planning may be the exception rather than the rule in liberal democracies today, but the very idea of using technical expertise — including quantitative techniques — to forecast, plan, formulate, or assess policy remains ubiquitous, both within and outside government. That is probably why we don't notice it: Like the role of science in innovation, we simply take it for granted.
The increasing importance of scientific and technical knowledge in post-industrial society is closely linked to the fourth aspect of Bell's thesis — the empowerment of a new class in society, neither proletarian nor capitalist: a technical-professional elite. This class includes scientists, engineers, technicians, professors, doctors, and other medical professionals, as well as corporate managers, civil servants, and administrators and private consultants of all kinds. This social group gains status because of technical expertise's preeminence in society — for technological innovation as well as in the management of these new "scientific" forces of production. This last aspect of Bell's thesis is important and complex enough to merit consideration in its own right.
BELL CONTRA MARXISM
Bell had a knack for placing himself at the center of the major intellectual and political debates of his day. For that reason, his views may be too easily assimilated to the thematically parallel arguments of the contemporaries and predecessors with whom he was critically engaging. The idea of the "end of ideology," for instance, was in the air when Bell was writing about it in the late 1950s, as was the theme of a crisis in capitalism when he wrote about the cultural contradictions of capitalism in the 1970s. Something similar can be said about the concept of "post-industrial society."
As Bell himself observed, the theme of the post-industrial society was not new in 1973. On the contrary, it had already "appeared in the writings of a number of European neo-Marxist theoreticians" — among whom he mentions French sociologist Alain Touraine, who deployed the term in a 1969 book of that title, as well as Czech philosopher Radovan Richta. These ideas spawned "a variety of theories that, in one way or another, emphasize the fusion of science and technical personnel with the 'advanced' working class." But while linking into existing intellectual debates, Bell characteristically offered distinct points of view, which can be fruitfully contrasted with their rivals — one rival, in particular.
Like many intellectuals of his generation, Bell first cut his teeth on Marxism. Along with the "New York intellectuals" with whom he was associated, he was initially attracted to the anti-Stalinist currents of Marxism popular among Western intellectuals during the 1930s. But he quickly moved to a more moderate social-democratic viewpoint (ironically more quickly and of a more moderate stripe than his longtime friend Irving Kristol, who remained a Trotskyist until later). But his theory of post-industrial society, like many of his ideas, can and must be understood in the context of — and as a critical dialogue with — Marxism, a dialogue that was therefore at once intellectual and biographical.
According to classical Marxism — at least in its "vulgar" form — social developments are determined by the economic "mode of production," including what Marx calls the "forces" and "relations" of production. Thus the capitalist mode of production is made up of productive forces, including human labor power and the tools, machines, and techniques of manufacturing, as well as the social and economic relations that obtain between wage workers and capitalists, characterized by the institution of private property. This economic "base" determines the "superstructure" of society, which includes just about everything else: religion, culture, the law, and the state. According to this account, then, the dynamics of society — including those aspects of culture and politics that appear to have no direct relationship to economics — are ultimately only understandable in relation to, and as "ideological" expressions of, deeper economic forces. Of particular importance to Marx was the conflict between the two new classes elevated by the capitalist mode of production.
With industrialization, the working class (or proletariat) comes to displace craftsmen and artisans as the economically predominant group within the laboring classes. Capitalists, meanwhile, are representative of the bourgeoisie, which comes to displace the old landed gentry and aristocracy as the societal elite. The conflict between these two classes, according to Marx, is rooted in a basic "social contradiction": Although the workers wield material power — the "means of production" — the capitalists, not the workers, own the means of production. They enrich themselves by "appropriating" the "surplus value" of the workers' labor and transforming it into profit. The theory was that as the proletariat became conscious of itself as a class, the industrial stage would give way to socialism and, ultimately, communism. At this point, private property and the division of labor would be abolished and class conflict would come to an end.
One of Bell's principal critiques of Marxism concerns its totalizing nature. Marxism, for Bell, is a "monocausal theory" that ultimately reduces all social dynamics to a single (economic) principle. Bell's theory, by contrast, does not purport to encapsulate an entire society, but rather to illuminate predominant trend lines. Interestingly enough, this critique bears a resemblance to those of some neo-Marxists of the period who sought to temper classical Marxism's economic and technological determinism. The French philosopher Louis Althusser, to take one example, articulated a "structuralist" variant of Marxism according to which society was composed of semi-autonomous structures, rather than giving expression to a single all-determining economic base.
But Bell's divergence from Marxism goes even deeper. He argued that social structures are basically disunited, being composed of three distinct realms — economic, political, and cultural. (It is on the basis of this tripartite structure that Bell was able to give his famous self-description: "I'm a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.") This disunity was admittedly less apparent in industrial society, when the conflict between labor and capital defined so much of public life. But the disunity is revealed, Bell asserted, as post-industrial society begins to emerge, when the economic, cultural, and political spheres begin to pull apart.
As evidence, he pointed to the fact that the process of post-industrialization appeared to be taking root concurrently in countries that differed dramatically in their political and cultural forms: the United States and the Soviet Union. How could two countries undergo fundamentally similar economic transformations while nevertheless remaining so divergent in their politics and culture if not for the fact that these three realms are distinct?
One answer — popular among many leftist intellectuals of the post-war period, such as C. Wright Mills — is that these two rival systems are not really divergent at all. Instead, the two countries are becoming superficially distinct yet fundamentally identical expressions of an emerging brand of "state" or "bureaucratic capitalism." An important precursor here was the sociologist Max Weber, who saw "rationalization" — of which bureaucratization was a key expression — as an overarching process of social change and disenchantment characteristic of all modern societies, capitalist and socialist alike.
Bell, however, rejected this "convergence thesis," at least in its Marxist guise. Like classical Marxism, it risks becoming monocausal, taking bureaucratization to be the all-determining force of social change. The "idea of convergence," he wrote, "is based on the premise that there is one overriding institution that can define a society." In fact, however, "few societies...can be defined completely around a single institution as Marx believed." So for Bell there could be — and indeed appeared to be — convergence between countries at the level of "social structure" (Bell's somewhat confusing name for the economic realm of society). But "this in no way guarantees a common or like response" to the process of post-industrialization.
Instead, Bell argued, different countries' responses to socioeconomic change will differ "relative to the different political and cultural organization of the specific society." Hence we can expect, for instance, a post-industrializing society with a liberal political order, as in the United States, and a post-industrializing society with an illiberal political order, as in Soviet Russia. This account contrasts with a deterministic one, wherein the process of post-industrialization inevitably produces the same cultural and political "superstructures," just as industrialization, on the classical Marxist view, inevitably produced the cultural and political superstructures of bourgeois liberalism.
In the end, therefore, Bell's account fundamentally diverges from Marxism, both in its classical and reconstructed variants — but in a clever way. His argument, in effect, is that Marxism — the historicist theory par excellence — is insufficiently historical. It mistakes the class conflict characteristic of industrial society for a basic feature of capitalism itself, uncritically universalizing what turns out to be one stage of historical development on the way not to communism nor to bureaucratic-state capitalism, but to post-industrial society, which may be liberal or illiberal in its politics. This process of development, moreover, is not deterministic: "[T]here is no guarantee," said Bell, that a society's underlying "tendencies" will "work themselves to their logical limits." Besides the ever-present possibility of "wars and recriminations," the tendencies themselves "may provoke a set of reactions that inhibit change."
THE "NEW CLASS"
Like the "post-industrial society," the idea of an emergent new class — of professionals, managers, knowledge workers, etc. — was already in the air when Bell formulated his account in the 1960s and '70s. In 1956, for instance, C. Wright Mills, who was Bell's colleague at Columbia, described what he called the new "power elite," a concept that permeated the social and political consciousness of the post-war decades. The idea of a "new class" was also popularized by the Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas in The New Class (1957). The book, which he managed to smuggle abroad despite his pending imprisonment, describes a new class society emerging under Communist Party rule thanks to its expanding state bureaucracy.
The concept would be echoed by later social theorists, from left-wing critics of professionalism to neoconservative critics of the liberal "knowledge elite." Similar ideas are even traceable to the pre-war era. For instance, James Burnham's influential book The Managerial Revolution, published in 1941, argued that a new hybrid system of bureaucratic or managerial capitalism was emerging that decouples ownership — the hallmark of the bourgeois ruling class in industrial society — from administration and management. As a result, there arises a new class of administrative or managerial elites that displaces the old capitalist class of "owners" and imposes its own economic and ideological interests onto the rest of society. This idea, too, had a Marxist pedigree.
It is no coincidence that Burnham, who would become a leading figure in post-war American conservatism along with William F. Buckley, Jr., began his intellectual journey as a Marxist. Like the New York intellectuals, he was initially attracted to the anti-Stalinist left, and was a leading member of the American Trotskyists. During the 1930s, Trotsky and his followers — including the somewhat obscure figure Bruno Rizzi, whose ideas may have influenced Burnham — formulated a critique of Soviet communism as a form of "bureaucratic collectivism" that enthroned a new ruling class.
According to Bell, these theories — like the convergence thesis described above — pick up on a genuine and important social transformation. But they, too, go astray in their totalizing reductionism, risking, in their "historical sweep," becoming "caricatures" rather than serious sociological theories. The basic problem is that they treat the emerging "new class" as a homogeneous social group with a shared economic interest, analogous to the ruling bourgeoisie of classical Marxist theory. In so doing, they miss what is so distinctive about the social transformation they represent — its fundamental shift away from the kind of social structure Marx identified. And this, in turn, signals yet another basic inadequacy of Marxist and neo-Marxist social analysis.
With the rise of post-industrial society, Bell argued, the working class is no longer the overriding economic force. Nor is the old capitalist class the primary or only societal elite. Instead, the service sector becomes predominant — on both the "top" and "bottom" of the economic and social ladders — creating a new kind of division within society that bisects the service sector itself. That so many and varied types of employment — from janitorial, transportation, and clerical work to engineering, science, and medicine, not to mention teaching, finance, journalism, and entertainment — are all categorized as "services" only goes to show the inadequacy of the categories inherited from the industrial age for describing post-industrial society.
This does not mean that either the old industrial working class or the old capitalist class will cease to exist or have influence. But it does vitiate the Manichean logic of classical Marxist theory. No longer the polar forces of industrial class conflict, the workers and capitalists begin to take their place within a variegated society composed of a range of different social types. Inequality as well as social and political conflict may continue, of course. But in a post-industrial society, social and class divisions no longer track the economic interests that defined so much of industrial society; the new dividing lines are drawn along ethnic, racial, and other axes.
One predominant line of socioeconomic division does emerge: education. The well educated and well credentialed are increasingly able to join the emerging technical-professional elite, since the post-industrial society increases demand for technical expertise and interpersonal skills. And these are precisely what the institutions of higher education bestow. Meanwhile, those lacking educational opportunities are left to fill low-skill and low-wage service jobs and a diminishing number of industrial blue-collar jobs. Yet there is no longer a single working class bound by a shared economic interest, nor is there any longer a unified ruling class.
Indeed, the new technical-professional class is itself highly heterogeneous, according to Bell. It includes corporate managers and executives; teachers, whether adjunct lecturers or tenured professors; artists and writers of varying degrees of prominence; journalists, including rank-and-file reporters as well as prominent editors and television celebrities; medical professionals, including family practitioners, surgeons, and academic researchers; scientists and engineers, from moderately paid post-doctoral researchers to well-established principal investigators to highly compensated industrial researchers and private-sector consultants to government advisors and federal administrators. All of these differ significantly not only in their skills, but also in economic power, social status, and institutional context.
Thus Bell proposed a new schema for categorizing the emergent technical-professional class: He distinguishes between professional "estates" and their "situses." The estate — a term he borrows from Don Price's Scientific Estate — refers to the kind of skill set for which a given member of the professional class is employed: "the scientific, the technological, the administrative, and the cultural." The situs — an awkward term he borrows from the law — refers to the employment locations of those within these estates, such as "business firms, governments, universities, and social services." Hence, for instance, both a natural scientist and an administrator with a non-technical background, though differing in skill sets, could equally be "situated" in a research university, a public high school, a federal agency (civilian or military), or a private corporation.
Note that these forms of employment vary considerably in their financial compensation, social standing, cultural connotations, and even, to some extent, their cultural values. As a result, those members of the technical-professional class with divergent skill sets who occupy the same institutional context — e.g., an electrical engineer, an administrator, and a classicist all employed by a major research university — might nevertheless share some economic interests or cultural values. Conversely, those members of the same technical-professional estate who occupy different situses — e.g., a professor of data science, a data scientist working in a federal regulatory agency, and a data scientist working for a Silicon Valley startup — might differ in their economic prospects or political values but nevertheless share a common academic culture.
What is distinctive about this new class, according to Bell, is not only its complexity; as a result of its heterogeneity, it does not possess a unified economic or ideological class interest. Bell put it this way: "While the estates, as a whole, are bound by a common ethos, there is no intrinsic interest that binds one to the other, except for a common defense of the idea of learning; in fact there are large disjunctions between them." Here he points out how members of the applied technological estates, such as engineers, tend to be more politically conservative, or at least less politically engaged, than those in the scientific estate, who are in turn less politically radical than those in the cultural estate, whose values tend to be openly hostile to traditional bourgeois morality and the "functional" rationality of the economic sphere.
Hence the technical-professional class may be a "class" in a broad sociological sense, but it is not a class in the Marxist sense, possessing neither a shared economic interest nor a unifying ideology. In stark contrast, Bell argued, theories of the new class bag together all of these diverse social types into a single ruling class, whether Mills's "power elite" or Burnham's managerial elite. (For similar reasons, Bell would later dismiss his friend Irving Kristol's notion of a "new class" as a "muddled concept.") This allows these theories to preserve the Marxian logic of class conflict. But it comes at the cost of reproducing the totalizing reductionism of classical Marxism — and thus overlooking what is so distinctive about the emergent post-industrial order.
THE POLITICS OF POST-INDUSTRIAL SOCIETY
According to Bell, the rise of a new technical-professional elite in post-industrial society points to social and cultural trends that he believed would shape the politics of the new era. The first concerns the increasing importance of higher education as a mode of social advancement. As educational status begins to supplant the old industrial-class divisions as the primary means for establishing social rank, universities will become central institutions in the politics of post-industrial society as sites of social and class conflict. The second is the growing prospect, real or imagined, raised by the integration of technical expertise into ever more domains of political and social life — that of tyrannical "rule by experts," or technocracy.
In response to both of these trends, Bell contended, we can expect populist discontent, including increasing calls for wider public participation in both political and cultural institutions — and especially for "democratic" governance of science and technology and the institutions of higher education. We can also expect attacks on the very idea of meritocracy as unfair and harmful, especially to racial minorities and other marginalized groups. Accordingly, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society closes with an extended reflection on the politics of affirmative action, minority representation, and the growing emphasis on "equity" over "equality."
Here Bell offered a defense of "just meritocracy" which, he maintained, must be distinguished from technocracy. He understood the meritocracy as comprising "those who have an earned status or have achieved positions of rational authority by competence." If so, then "[i]nevitably it leads to distinctions between those who are superior and those who are not." A meritocracy is just, according to Bell, when its members have in fact earned their status, and unjust when these distinctions become "invidious," demeaning those below. A technocracy, by contrast, because it "reduces social arrangements to the criterion of technological efficiency...relies principally on credentials as a means of selecting individuals for place in the society." But, as Bell pointed out, "credentials are mechanical at worst, or specify minimum achievement at best."
The key to the distinction between meritocracy and technocracy for Bell was yet another distinction — between authority and power. He defined power as the capacity to effect a change, to "command, which is backed up, either implicitly or explicitly, by force." Authority, on the other hand, is earned and therefore legitimate. It is a "competence based upon skill, learning, talent, artistry or some similar attribute." To recognize the latter is to recognize that not all persons are equally competent in all things. If so, then the effort to equalize outcomes in society — rather than equalizing opportunities for individuals to pursue their own forms of excellence — is fundamentally wrongheaded.
So, too, however, is the populist impulse to tear down all authority — an impulse that today we tend to associate more with the right than the left. Bell wrote:
Contemporary populism, in its desire for wholesale egalitarianism, insists in the end on complete levelling. It is not for fairness, but against elitism; its impulse is not justice but ressentiment. The populists are for power ("to the people") but against authority — the authority represented in the superior competence of individuals. Since they lack authority, they want power.
As examples, he described the movement to subject the "authority of doctors" to "decisions of a community council" and the push for "participatory democracy" in the universities.
Populism is right to reject technocracy, according to Bell, which seeks to replace politics with technical expertise. In so doing, technocracy, like populism, conflates authority and power, thereby misconstruing both. Bell also conceded that technocracy becomes a particular temptation in post-industrial society. Indeed, he provided a deep sociological explanation for why: "The rise of the new elites based on skill derives from the simple fact that knowledge and planning — military planning, economic planning, social planning — have become the basic requisites for all organized action in a modern society." The temptation grows, then, to implement the old dream of technocracy, whether Thorstein Veblen's "soviet of technicians" or Henri de Saint-Simon's "new men," who will replace the "governing of men" with the "administration of things."
But the correct response to this is not to commit the same error in reverse. Populism does not seek merely to separate political power from expert authority. Instead, it wrongly tears down all authority in its own grasp for power. In reality, argued Bell, "there cannot be complete democratization in the entire range of human activities." To deny this is not only to deny any distinctions between persons based on merit — between those who possess legitimate authority in a given domain and those who do not — but also to abolish the distinction between those who have authority and those who exercise political power, including those who cloak their political power in the guise of expert authority. Populism, in other words, goes astray by mistaking technocratic ideology for political reality.
Bell contended that however much influence and prestige expertise gains in post-industrial society, there nevertheless remains a fundamental difference between technical experts, whose knowledge is vital to the socioeconomic structure and even to policymaking, and those in the "cockpit of politics," who ultimately make political decisions. He conceded that the "'power' to innovate" possessed by the new technical class "does not fit the classical categories of power or influence, and it is a real force in the society" — particularly post-industrial society. But it remains distinct from the "power to say 'yes' or 'no,' which is where real power lies."
Here Bell pointed out that the "technical intelligentsia" possesses an ambivalent dual role in post-industrial society. On the one hand, members of this class are exclusive possessors of a form of expertise that is increasingly vital to the economy, politics, and indeed society as a whole, whence comes their influence and prestige. On the other hand, "[t]o the extent that it has interests in research, and positions in the universities," this class "becomes a new constituency...a claimant, like other groups, for public support (though its influence is felt in the bureaucratic and administrative labyrinth, rather than in the electoral system or mass pressure)." In this sense, members of the "technical intelligentsia" take their place among many in the give and take of national interest-group politics, undercutting their influence.
Whatever one makes of Bell's argument here, the present-day reader cannot help but recognize its almost uncanny prescience. To be sure, the anti-meritocratic trends he highlights were not new in 1973; Bell was writing after the student protests of the late 1960s (with which he was involved at Columbia) and the popular backlash against the "military-industrial complex." Indeed, as early as 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower — who coined the phrase "military-industrial complex" — had warned of the "danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite." By 1973, debates over affirmative action had been in full swing for years, as had populist critiques of the new meritocracy — Michael Young's dystopian novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy, had appeared 15 years earlier.
But what Bell did see, presciently, was that the social and political discontents of his time were not one-off occurrences, but early indicators of long-standing trends driven by deeper socioeconomic changes. These trends have indeed continued to shape American politics — and have recently exploded back onto the scene — suggesting that we still live in the wake of the structural changes Bell identified 50 years ago.
POST-INDUSTRIAL SOCIETY HALF A CENTURY ON
So what did Bell miss? Critics have pointed to several potential blind spots in his analysis. The first is that he overlooked the importance, both socially and economically, of women's entry into the workforce — something he later admitted and tried to rectify in subsequent editions of his book and in other writings. Some have also argued that Bell was overly optimistic in his prognostications, ignoring the growing economic inequalities and other downside effects of post-industrialization. Paul Starr, for instance, contends that Bell mistakenly believed that the social-democratic impetus of the post-war decades would carry on into the post-industrial society, mitigating the economic and social dislocations of post-industrial capitalism. This is closely related to another criticism: that Bell missed the rise of neoliberalism, which would foment an assault on the welfare state, exacerbate economic inequality, and tear at the fabric of society.
But here Bell's critics seem blinded by their own political biases. To be sure, Bell failed to anticipate the political revolution associated with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. And he was certainly far less enthusiastic about that political development than his neoconservative friends. But does this pose a substantive challenge to his analysis?
A central thesis of The Coming of Post-Industrial Society is that both the cultural and political spheres are separable from — and can even act in opposition to — the "social" structure. So there is no reason in principle why a post-industrial society might not have a more conservative or "neoliberal" political order than that which prevailed in Bell's day. The political contrast between the United States in 1973 and today is surely less stark than that between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1973. If there was a common socioeconomic substructure between these two rival nations in Bell's day, it's hardly outlandish to posit a common socioeconomic substructure between the United States in 1973 and the United States of today.
Indeed, the continuing plausibility of the notion of a new managerial, bureaucratic, or technical elite to many political observers — even after the rise of neoliberalism in the intervening decades — suggests that the ascendance of the technical-professional elite is not directly tied to the changing political dynamics of post-industrial society. Instead, it appears to derive from something much deeper and more enduring. This, of course, is precisely what Bell had argued in The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: that insofar as there was a "new class," it could be explained by the transition from a goods-producing industrial economy to a post-industrial society in which scientific knowledge had become an essential productive force. He argued, moreover, that populism was a predictable, not to say inevitable, counteraction to this social transformation.
Bell may not have fully anticipated the conservative counteraction to welfare-state liberalism that came to define the last decades of American politics in the 20th century. But he was hardly Pollyannaish about the future prospects of the post-war welfare state — or the leading edge of progressive ideology. On the contrary, he was critical of prevailing progressive orthodoxies, especially when it came to such contentious issues as race and affirmative action. Toward the end of The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, he wrote:
The purpose of inclusive representation of all minorities is to reduce conflict, yet the history of almost all societies shows that when polities polarize along a single overriding dimension — be it class, religion, language, tribe, or ethnic group — there is bound to be violent conflict....Can the principle of quota representation in the polity, defined along communal or particularistic lines, escape either the polarization or the fragmentation of the polity, and the fate of ataxia for the society?
Here — as in his defense of merit — Bell sounds a lot more like a neoconservative than he himself might have liked to admit. (This may be the real reason Bell's liberal epigones prefer to downplay these aspects of his analysis.)
Something similar could be said about his analysis of the politics of the modern welfare state. As in his discussion of the politics of meritocracy, Bell presciently saw many of the potential conflicts and contradictions of the emerging "communal society." As he put it:
Inevitably, the politicization of decision-making — in the economy and in the culture — invites more and more group conflict. The crucial problem for the communal society is whether there is a common framework of values that can guide the setting of political policy....Politically, there may be a communal society coming into being but is there a communal ethic? And is one possible?
Far from being a naïve apologist for the welfare state, then, Bell wondered aloud in the final pages of The Coming of Post-Industrial Society if the emerging "communal society" was a viable idea.
He also feared a fundamental cleavage between the "economizing" logic of capitalist society and the increasingly libertine ethos that prevailed in the cultural sphere. This was a theme he developed in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. "The paradox," he wrote, "is that in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries we had, in America, individualism in the economy and regulation in morals; today we have regulation in the economy and individualism in morals." Much of the conservative counteraction in the years that followed could be understood as a response to this state of affairs.
Unlike his neoconservative friends, Bell did not abandon his socialistic inclinations as a result of these misgivings. And those who do not share those inclinations — or his liberal politics, or his cultural conservatism, for that matter — will surely disagree with him on key points. But unlike those liberals today who look back with nostalgia on the post-war decades, Bell at least did not allow his own commitments to blind him to the intractable social, economic, and political problems into which the modern welfare state was running in the 1970s. These problems are precisely what precipitated the divergent political responses of the New Left, which Bell witnessed, and the New Right, which he failed to anticipate — about both of which he admittedly remained more than a little ambivalent.
Bell's worldview did have blind spots of its own. For instance, his account of politics — and of the American political tradition, in particular — was essentially liberal, prioritizing bargaining and consensus over deliberation or dissent. His was a time when historians and political theorists were forging new — or, as some of them would have said, recovering older — pre-liberal conceptions of politics, whether republican or communitarian. Bell's inattention to these developments may have prevented him from recognizing that a "communal" society need not be — and perhaps should not be — a national one consisting primarily in the bargaining between interest groups over the spoils of the welfare state.
Other avenues of thought, opened up at the time by such diverse thinkers as Robert Nisbet, Michael Oakeshott, Hannah Arendt, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Jürgen Habermas, lead toward a politics that unfolds in the space between individuals and the bureaucratic institutions of the modern nation state. From this point of view, the nationalizing of politics characteristic of the modern welfare state, though it does invite "group conflict," should not necessarily be seen as a form of "communal society" at all. Rather than "politicizing" decision-making in economics and culture, as Bell suggested, one might argue that this process in fact depoliticizes public decision-making by substituting the bureaucratic logic of the nation state for the authentic practice of politics.
Bell's liberalism also clearly colored — and arguably weakened — his critique of technocracy, and for similar reasons. The "hallmark of technocracy," he wrote, is the "substitution of rational judgment for politics." "Politics," by contrast, "in the sense that we understand it, is always prior to the rational, and often the upsetting of the rational." For this reason, "the technocratic mind-view necessarily falls before politics." Bell seems not to have considered the possibility that technocracy fails not because politics is irrational, but because politics operates in a different mode of rationality — what the ancients called practical reason. This is reducible to neither technical rationality nor bargaining among individuals, consisting instead in judgment and deliberation among citizens.
Going beyond liberal individualism might have allowed Bell to sharpen his critique of technocracy and, perhaps, to formulate a more adequate alternative. But such considerations take us beyond the scope not only of Bell's own liberalism, but also his project in The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, which was to trace the outlines of an emerging social structure. That our political problems today resemble those of Bell's era as closely as they do despite the intervening half-century suggests that we may indeed be living in a society very much like the one he envisioned. At the very least, determining the extent to which Bell forecast our situation today remains a fruitful way to understand our own historical moment — and to chart a path forward.