Friday, January 14, 2011


I recently read sociologist Daniel Bell’s 1973 book “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society”*; it was re-issued with an additional, updated Foreword in 1999.

I’m only going to look at the Forewords in this Post, though combined they run (in Latin, small-case numeration) to a hundred pages.

It says a lot about what’s happened and been happening for some decades in this country, that so much of what has now happened – seemingly by (catastrophic) accident or inadvertence – was actually touted as the Coming Thing and very Cutting-Edge back in the balmy days of those “many revolutions all at the same time”. That was the brave chirp of Gerald Ford around the Bicentennial Year, hoping to sound as ‘with it’ as Mao but actually demonstrating how – in quintessentially American mode - the entire Beltway was figuring that if Mao was successful with One Revolution, then the Americans would be umpty-times more successful by simultaneously turning loose umpty revolutions.

In this, I think it must now be said, the Great Helmsman has been proven right: there’s only room for one Revolution in this town and we’ve already had it. If only the Beltway had been as insightful about that thingie in 1776 and all that.

Anyhoo, here’s Daniel Bell in a book in 1973 discussing the end of Industrial Society (IS) and the coming of the Post-Industrial Society (PIS). Perhaps the average American could be forgiven in those days for figuring that what happened in the bosky groves of academe need not concern them: what was bandied about in faculty dining rooms stayed in faculty dining rooms, and thankfully, it was a given in American politics that Congressmen rarely read serious books so the giddy whackeries of the Universitat would not be loosed upon the Citizenry.


Jack Kennedy had had to come up with a solution to his experience-and-maturity problem: he was running against Ike’s VP and therefore against the aura of Ike himself. An older, mature, hugely experienced and competent man (who made his share of darkling errors while in the Oval Office), Ike presented Jack with a serious problem: Jack was none of those things.

But that’s what hired hands were for, and there were quite a few of them stabled here, there, and everywhere on the vast Kennedy spread. And a solution was soon devised: Everything ‘old’ was bad; everything ‘young’ and ‘new’ was good. (Had he not fatally mis-invested his own youthful energies 5 years before, no doubt teen-throb, angsty Young Man James Dean would have been tapped for serious political frontage in 1960.)

God knows the last thing the Boomers had to hear was a message like that but, as perhaps future historians will say, “the very stars in their courses” …

Jack’s capacity had to be spackled up: already ‘youthful’ (which Ike was not) he would also be ‘classy’ (which the Kansas-born, no-nonsense Ike was also not). But he would also be really up-to-date with the latest cutting edge thought by surrounding himself with lotsa brains. University brains. The faculty dining halls doubled as bosky hiring halls for the self-proclaimed best and brightest. The old Progressive dream from sixty years before, given a huge boost by the New Deal and the recently-concluded Second World War, would finally be brought to a burnished Ultimate Fulfillment in 1960.

Class, brains, celebrity … all sloshed together and intermingled and interbred as the White House became a stud-farm for the Great And Glorious American Future. Americans, ominously, became as familiar with the White House dining room and the Red Room and the Blue Room and the East Room and the Rose Garden as they were with the geography of the Oval Olympus itself. Ike had meetings, and stodgy state banquets for old World War 2 acquaintances like Nikita K and De Gaulle; but Jack threw parties, and held concerts and cracked wise. God had given him the Presidency – he would enjoy it.

Thus the giddy whackeries were sucked forth from their darkling groves, issued clearances and passes, and allowed to roam the Federal Triangle in free-range liberty.

Vietnam they made, and while Martin Luther King brought the Civil Rights Movement to its pinnacle, the Beltway figured to improve upon it: they were paying all these elite knowledge-types so they might as well get some bang for the buck.

For too long a Citizenry still recovering from the double-whammy of a childhood in the Depression and a youth in a world war that literally went nuclear, and hoping to make it to old-age without a thermonuclear holocaust, figured that Washington was in the hands of – or at least under the control of – adults who had wide experience of the world and human affairs, seasoned by their successful management of great affairs, and old enough not to be distracted by lotsa shiny things.

I don’t think Americans really imagined that unserious counsels could really gain a permanent foothold in the city of Washington and Lincoln. There would always be some Adult Supervision.

Alas, like the Invisible Hand that theoretically kept capitalism on track and beneficent, Adult Supervision was far more of a hope than anything else. And that was then. Nowadays, if any Adult Supervision be espied in the Beltway it’s merely a revenant or a chimera formed from the swirl of swamp gas.

And so, speaking of chimeras, to the Post-Industrial Society.

Reading it now, and imagining that its ideas were being bandied about as True and Good decades ago, in all the nooks and crannies, dark or glittering, secretive or convivial, where the Beltway peristalsis grinds endlessly … it’s hard not to wonder what might have happened if somebody had said to the Citizenry: This stuff is actually being talked about seriously in some verrrry influential places and you’d better look closely at it.

But no.

Bell opens his second, 1999 Foreword by quoting a 1998 article about Glasgow (the one in Scotland): gone were its smokestacks and shipyard cranes and all those who had served them; now the city was “a successful post-industrial centre for tourism, services, and shopping”. (xi)

Bell, it has to be noted, was writing in 1999: the last year, perhaps, when one could still party like it was 1999. The dot-com revolution, spun off from the amazing progress of desktop computing in the very early 1980s, was still steaming along briskly, like one of those gaudily-gilded Royal Navy battleships of 1899.

You might have asked yourself, certainly as late as 1999 but perhaps even as early as 1973, just where the money was coming from with which all these customers were paying for the tourism, the services, and the shopping. But that would have been thinking too much.

Bell divides up society’s core activities into Primary/pre-Industrial and agricultural, Secondary/Industrial and manufacturing, Tertiary/Transportation and Utilities, Quarternary/Trade and Finance, and Quintenary/Health, Education and Entertainment. (xiv)

The core was moving into the Quartnernary and Quintenary now, he said. The first two (and the Transportation and Utilities that would transport the products (grown and manufactured) and power the machines) were rapidly passing away. The Coming Age would belong to the Quarternary and Quintenary sectors.

Being a sociologist and not an economist – or perhaps not realistic at all – Bell doesn’t ask how a nation of almost 200 million (1973) was going to support itself by shuffling papers and working in hospitals, schools, and amusement parks.

But Bell is not merely predicting what he would like to see happen. He is reporting what is already happening: in the quarter-century between 1971 and 1996, that percentage of the American workforce engaged in manufacturing declined from 26 percent to 15 percent, and among them many were working in the sterile labs of computer-assembly plants rather than in smokestack factories. Manufacturing was providing less than 20 percent of GNP in 1973, while Services (verrry broadly defined, to include government jobs)) were providing 50 percent or better. (xv)

Correspondingly, among occupational categories professional and technical careers were increasing, and the skilled and semi-skilled work careers of Manufacturing’s realm were declining.

In what has now proven ominous, Bell notes that where Manufacturing required an infrastructure of Transportation (roads, bridges, tunnels), Post-Industrial society would require only serious commitment to a communications infrastructure. Thus suddenly in the mid-late 2000s, governments at all levels were taken as if by surprise as bridges collapsed onto the decaying roadways beneath them. Elite visions had not considered them necessary any longer.

Labor was no longer key; Knowledge was (or at least, having the credentials that implied the possession of same). (xvii)

The role of the “political order” (xix) in all of this was merely to “manage the disruptions” that would be consequent upon such “changes”. This would mean the disruptions to all those Americans somehow tied to the old Industrial, ‘smokestack’ economy, who ‘labored’ instead of ‘generated ideas’: it was a huge political challenge, ESPECIALLY if this task were to be carried out in a deliberatively democratic polity.

Which is not to say that the de-Industrialization, which Bell envisions as a force of History and Events that’s happening according to its own dynamics whether We like it or not, is something that the government should have merely ‘accepted’. Surely it promised a lethally dangerous challenge: not only shifting the ground under an entire nation’s livelihood, but also demanding the most vital and profound dislocation of lives.

A genuinely democratic political class would have brought the matter up for a wide public airing: many heads are better than one and, anyway, that’s the American Way.

But it is not the elite way and the centralized Beltway had started to become kind of full of itself. Not even Ike – the decline in America’s Industrial jobs from their all-time high actually had begun to manifest as early as 1947 under Truman – had really come to grips with it. But then, Americans themselves kinda hoped for a ‘better’ life for their children, and those Boomer children presumed that ‘better’ would mean with less of that messy ‘sweat of your brow’ type stuff.

But sitting on top of the world, and certainly on top of its own chartered corporations, the American government would have had the power to generate options as to how to manage this trend.

But then came the Sixties. The weapons-industries became, almost by default, indispensable, and increasingly so as other industries allowed themselves to fall behind other nations (automobiles for one example) or other nations were allowed to surpass Us (the Japanese in electronics, say, under Nixon, in support for Japanese government acquiescence in the Vietnam misadventure).

And as Identity Politics raised the art of the ‘deal’ to be the only actual role of government (forget sober and mature Adult Supervision or democratic acknowledgement of the role of The People rather than reliance on elites and ‘those who get it’) then this already monster thread in the national experience was interwoven, in a neat two-fer, with feministical concerns: the Industrial smokestack age was soooo ‘masculine’ (and they meant it in the worst possible way) and the Post-Industrial Age would be soooo feminine: requiring people skills and ‘relating’, emotion rather than reason, youthy experimentation instead of prudent analysis and balancing, ‘knowledge’ and ‘service’ rather than labor.

The new society would be based on Abundance and on Consuming that Abundance in ever-intensifying ways. The old Culture of Scarcity – requiring virtues and characteristics such as denial or postponement of gratification, self-discipline and self-application … was to be shed like an old snake-skin, to be replaced with ‘change’, ‘transgression’, and the old Rousseauian anti-civilizational disdain for whatever ‘is’ in favor of the ‘hope’ and ‘dream’ of what most surely will wondrously and natural come about if you just broke through all the old ‘walls’.

Deals were made as the pols tried to keep as many new demographic Identities as happy as possible, while also allowing Big Money to buy them off with PAC contributions while it sought cheaper labor elsewhere around the planet.

The Citizenry – most of whom not only ‘just didn’t get it’ but were also doomed to obsolescence by the coming Marvelousness – could be ‘managed’ until they finally gave up and sank into the lumpish torpor of thorough cultural defeat or had the decency to die off. It was urban-renewal on a societal scale, only the old buildings and neighborhoods were now entire swaths of human beings and – not to put too fine a point on it – Citizens (nor were the newly-reclassed members of favored Identities necessarily to benefit largely from the Great Leap Forward – but they would be ‘happy’ and for the pols that was becoming Good Enough).

The initial student revolts against War were joined by a revulsion against Industry in a too-simple acceptance of Ike’s warning about the ‘military-industrial complex’, and then the mutation was exponentially speeded-up by the stunning cultural Deconstruction demanded by feminism in its more radical forms.

But for too long too many Citizens figured that the government that managed to win World War 2 – pretty much single-handedly, with Britain playing Robin to America’s Batman, to hear the mythmakers tell it – could be relied upon to ‘win the peace’ and ‘manage things’. That the government was going to do a world-historical re-enactment of Phaeton stealing the Chariot of the Sun and taking it out for a joyride didn’t enter many minds.

Not even Ike could manage to come to grips with the challenge; and Jack Kennedy had his hands full with the Soviets and Civil Rights and the Israelis scheming to get their own Bomb and then he was gone and the Sixties began to explode.

The ‘old Left’ of the 1930s was declared obsolete as early as the Port Huron Statement of 1962, put together as the mother of all manifestos by Tom Hayden and the SDS; there would have to be a ‘new Left’. Tom Joad was going to morph into Archie Bunker and ‘ordinary people’ would be architects with computers (At home! On their desk!) and bosky big homes and European sports-touring sedans.

The university would become “a living model of the struggle for a new society” (xxi) – and THAT probably should have been a red-flag right there.

Society was entering a “post-economic” stage (xxi) and nobody thought to ask how the Golden Eggs were going to keep coming if the Goose were to become extinct. Americans didn’t MAKE their money; they HAD their money, like the old Boston Victorian dowager and her hats.

And that would commit the government to making sure that lotsa ‘money’ and ‘wealth’ was somehow kept flowing, even if only in appearance, in order to prove to the world – and to the increasingly obsolescent revenants of the Industrial culture – that you could indeed have a Politically Correct and Post-Industrial Knowledge-and-Service society without losing your shirt.

Reagan borrowed; Clinton sold off public assets and ‘privatized’ while erecting the Flight of Industry into  an economic philosophy of ‘globalization’; Bush the Second went abroad in search of monsters to destroy while allowing the descent into fiscal Bubbledom. The Financial Sector – a major element in the Post-Industrial society – became a hall of smoke and mirrors, built upon the illusory foundation of presumption that America could do what it wanted because America made History while the rest of the world followed (which came to a strange and dark fruition in 2008 as America made fiscal History that will keep historians shaking their heads for centuries).

But writing the second Foreword in 1999, Bell didn’t have to deal with this. Everybody was still partying like it was 1999 and ‘wealth’, real or illusory, casts a Siren-like enchantment (and then there’s the bit about Circe’s Island and the bit about being turned into farm animals – but Greek mythology had preceded the smokestack culture into the dustbin of history and anyway, the only mythology applicable to America, it has for so long been believed, is American mythology).

In his 1976 Foreword, Bell had ticked off a long list of characteristics of the PIS: the ascendancy of theoretical rather than practical knowledge; the creation of ‘intellectual technology’ (computers and such); the rise of a new ‘knowledge class’; the change in the character of work from producing stuff to relating-to-people; ‘science’ as the controlling paradigm of life; the change in political units from the old corporate and Party structures to more functional accretions: scientific, technological, cultural (the Identities and Identity Politics) and to different institutions: government bureaucracies, universities, social service complexes and the military [!]; information industries (formerly the ‘free press’). (xciv-xcvii)

And generally, the expansion of service at the expense of [productive] industry.

All of which, clearly, would be dear to the feministical heart. Everything ‘men’ were good at would be rendered obsolete, and everything women were claimed to be good at would become the new national Way. And if that demographic – or at least its most organized and vocal advocacies – were happy, then in the eyes of the deal-making car-salesmen in the Beltway what was not to like?

And all this in the Bicentennial Year.

This is not to say that Bell didn’t sense some issues beyond the purely sociological. The USSR, he thought, was going to be facing a major problem because if that behemoth too entered a Post-Industrial phase, then the “proletariat” – those masses engaged in mostly urban, factory work – would no longer be a significant class … and the Revolution (over there anyway) was based on (though not in) the workers and the proletariat. That, Bell rightly realized, would be constitute a formidable, perhaps lethal, challenge to the USSR.

In America, however, such a dethronement of the ‘blue-collar’ class could simply be ‘managed’; nor does he allow himself much political speculation as to what effect all of this would have on the structural and dynamic integrity of the American polity and the American Vision.

Identity Politics was still a newish phenomenon in 1976, and Multiculturalism (and its consequences for immigration policy) was still in its infancy.

He’s only concerned with changes of a sociological nature – “the social structure” and the “techno-economic order” – and thus “only indirectly with the polity and the culture, which comprise the other major realms of societal structure”; but he senses that all of the change is going to “widen the disjunction between the realms, since each now operates under axial principles that are contrary to the other”. (xcix)


Here is the technician allowing as how the internal dynamic stresses on the integrity of the overall American ‘thing’ are going to be increased exponentially and with contradictions that, logically at least, might be irresolvable ... but not to worry because hopefully this will all happen without losing core structural integrity. When they start talking like this about buildings or aircraft or ships, they are using nice words for ‘possible catastrophic failure’, which is itself a nice phrase for … it ain’t gonna stay up or stay afloat.

He explains (all of this is on page xcix). Capitalism at its birth was possessed of “a tenuous unity”: its ethos was individualism; its political philosophy was liberalism; its culture a bourgeois misch of utility and realism (hugely fraught and somewhat vague concepts themselves); and a “character structure” that valued “respectability, delayed gratification, and the like”. (You have to wonder at that “and the like” … character is not something sociologists really spend much time on.)

Now (1976) “many of these elements have withered or remain as pale ideologies”.

Roll THAT around in your mind a bit.

In the Year of the Bicentennial, and of the independence of the United States the two-hundreth, he’s pretty much declaring – by the by – that individualism, liberalism, the dominant culture, and the long-established (perhaps for a reason) characterological Trellis of the Citizenry … are all withered or merely pale shells, revenants and ghosts of a vanished time.

If you’ve ever wondered how it could be that ‘Liberalism’ seems to have mutated into something else altogether; how the national politics have been reduced to kabuki shows; and how the very fabric of American maturity – individual and societal – seems to have dissolved, leaving a chaotic, melted play-dough ooze to be ‘valorized’ as ‘transgressive’ and ‘progressive’ (but never RE-gressive) … if you’ve ever wondered about that, you have something to think about here.

AND if you further imagine that Bell’s ideas were the stuff of cutting-edge thinking in all those nooks and crannies of the Beltway, where the elite meet and greet and biddy-biddy-boom to make the History that later brassy neocon bumpkins would attempt to impose on other parts of the world … well, you can see where the Beltway was growing away from what any reasonable person would imagine to be maturely and ideally American.

And yet The People were simply told that this was all cutting-edge and that they ‘just didn’t get it’ and needed to shut up and stay off the flight deck while the elites launched their assorted ‘missions’.

Stay at home and watch it on TV, where you will see what you are wanted to see.

You either ‘got it’ or you were Archie Bunker. (And no, my idea of an enjoyable evening is not sitting around a neighborhood pub quaffing cheap beers and talking about ‘dem Bearss’ or ‘da Yankees’; but that’s not to say that those same people can’t rise to their role within The People when the necessity arises. Of course, the whole idea of Political Correctness and the manipulation of the news has been to ensure that nobody wakes up and realizes that the necessity has arrived.)**

Bell continues with a becoming equanimity that “[I]t is not at all clear that science, as a ‘republic of virtue', has the power to provide a new ethos for the society; more likely it is science itself that may become subverted. What this means is that society is left with no transcendent ethos to provide some appropriate sense of purpose, no anchorages that can provide stable meanings for people.” (xcix)

Somebody, no doubt, should do something about that before the Eighties roll around.

It’s as if you have technicians saying that Granted this amazing vessel is losing integrity on the molecular level, yet its design and technology are reeely reeely kewl and let’s have a walk around, shall we? The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – previously presumed to be a movable feast held in bosky faculty salons – is now the national Event, reproduced here, there, and everywhere, with the spirit of the Red Queen always hovering. Although, since the Year of Grace Two Thousand Eight, the lotus blossoms have run out.

“In effect”, continues Bell, “what a post-industrial transformation means is the enhancement of instrumental powers, powers over nature and powers, even, over people.” The uses to which such powers will be put – and by whom – “depend upon the values of a society”. (xcix)

Which values, he has already intimated, are already (1976) in profound and lethal disarray. (And this is before the effects of decades of vigorous, government-enable Deconstruction of the culture and its values.)

He concludes his Foreword, in a tone somewhat different from his prior thoughts: “A post-industrial transformation provides no ‘answers’. It only establishes new promises and new powers, new constraints and new questions – with the difference that these are now on a scale that had never been previously imagined in world history”. (c)

You’d have to go over the last 35 years kind of very carefully to find any sustained high-level engagement with what Bell, at the very end of his 100 pages of Forewords, warns of.

And now American failure – not success – is unfolding on a scale and with a relative rapidity “that had never been previously imagined in world history” for a hegemonic power in the absence of outright catastrophic war.

As Ike said half a century ago this weekend, at the end of his own insufficient tenure: “So much remains to be done.”


*The copy I will quote from is the Basic Books paperback edition: ISBN 0-465-09713-8.

**In a recent (2010) Hollywood sorta-kids flick having to do with a modern-day human child of Poseidon (by a human mother) going on a quest to prevent cosmic war by recovering Zeus’s stolen thunderbolt (entitled “Percy Jackson and” something something) there is as neat an image of Circe’s Island as I have seen recently: the eponymous hero-ling finds himself in a Casino (nicely named Circe’s) where the customers – all of them late teens and 20-somethings – are continually plied by the staff with tray-fulls of flowers (lotus blossoms, which they consume like mini-burgers). Percy starts to sense something is wrong, and eventually finds himself standing next to somebody almost his own age, but dressed kind of oddly, and with a familiar but long out-of-style haircut. The guy is playing a game or some music that is very dated, and Percy strikes up a conversation, during which he asks the kid What year do you think this is? To which, with ominous simplicity, the kid reveals all when he responds Duh, it’s 1971, man, I just got here and this place is great. At which point, of course, it dawns on Percy just what the scam in this Casino really is. (Neatly, ever-vigilant ‘security’ has noticed that he is refusing to eat from the tray of blossoms and the tastefully-dressed goons with the ear-pieces are ordered to converge on his location.)

The American lotus-blossom has been the oodles of seemingly endless cash and credit, appearing to be ‘wealth’. Spackled up with the conventional threat ‘You just don’t get it’ and enforced by elites who can always be counted upon to send around a server with a tray, and a lapel-camera to distinguish the sheep from the still-human. And deal with the latter forthwith.

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