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Why Daniel Bell Keeps Getting It Right

THE COMING OF POST-INDUSTRIAL SOCIETY, A Venture in Social Forecasting By Daniel Bell; BasicBooks: 508 pp., $17.50 paper

August 15, 1999|MICHAEL LIND | Michael Lind is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the Washington editor of Harper's magazine

Today it has become commonplace to observe that we live in a post-industrial society in which the old ideologies of left and right are moribund. None of this was obvious in 1973, when Daniel Bell published "The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting." Reissued by BasicBooks, with a new, 30,000-word foreword by the author, "The Coming of Post-Industrial Society" is that rarest of things, a book the passage of time has made more timely and cries out for a fresh consideration on the eve of the 21st century.

Of the once-influential New York intellectuals of the mid-20th century--a cohort that included Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer and Lionel Trilling, among others--Bell is the only one whose work has outlived its moment. Though most of the New York intellectuals dissipated their energies in ephemeral journalism, Bell edited or wrote 17 books, including "The End of Ideology" and "The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism." "The Coming of Post-Industrial Society" is his magnum opus--a treatise that Bell has amended several times since it first appeared. The 1973 edition comes sandwiched in later commentary, like additions to an old building: a 1999 foreword, a 1976 foreword, a preface and an introduction. The book is the social science equivalent of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," which the poet modified and expanded until he died.

Even the original core of Bell's tome consisted of several books in one: discussions of trends in economics, politics and society in the United States and similar countries; short courses in the thought of social philosophers like Rousseau, Mill, Marx, Veblen and Burnham, and, not least, substantial chunks of raw data. In praising Milton's "Paradise Lost," Samuel Johnson observed that no one ever wished it longer. The same might be said of Bell's epic treatise, which is burdened by footnotes like this: "Thus, in 1964, the average number of persons in the labor force was 74 million, with about 70 million employed and 3.9 million unemployed. . . ." Bell's encyclopedic ambition in "The Coming of Post-Industrial Society" brings to mind the fabled Chinese examinations in which the candidates were supposed to write down everything they knew. When I add that the book has grown into 500 pages of small print, most readers may be tempted to flee.

They shouldn't. If one were to read only one book of social science this year--or in a lifetime--it should be "The Coming of Post-Industrial Society." Bell's masterpiece of sociological analysis is a success in a field littered by the ruins of titanic failures. Most grand sociological narratives have succumbed either to a specious scientism or to a quasi-religious utopianism; both fallacies are united in Marx's "Kapital." Bell's passion for empirical fact prevents him from being enthralled by any tidy theory or offering a neat system of his own. And his wisdom--a trait rare among great social thinkers--prevents him from believing that human beings or societies can be remade according to a plan. In the original conclusion to the book, he wrote that "what does not vanish is the duplex nature of man himself--the murderous aggression, from primal impulse, to tear apart and destroy; and the search for order, in art and life, as the bending of will to harmonious shape."

To say that Bell offers neither pseudoscience nor a secular religion is not to say that he is without ambition. On the contrary, his understanding of contemporary society is as comprehensive as those of Mill and Marx--with the added benefit of being essentially correct. Like Max Weber, another erudite and skeptical polymath, Bell rejects the idea that human history can be explained in terms of a single cause. Rather, "society can be divided into three parts: the social structure, the polity, and the culture." His purpose in "The Coming of Post-Industrial Society," Bell writes, is to examine "changes in the social structure, the way in which the economy is being transformed and the occupational system reworked. . . . But I do not claim that these changes in social structure determine corresponding changes in the polity or the culture." Thus Bell rejects the Marxist notion that feudalism was the automatic by-product of agrarian economics--and the idea, popular today, that capitalism in countries like China will somehow automatically produce a democratic polity or a liberal culture.

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