Getting It Right

Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting, Special Anniversary Edition (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

Like the term "post-Cold War era", the phrase "postindustrial society", coined by Daniel Bell over twenty-five years ago, was for many years more notable for defining an age in terms of what it was not rather than what it was. Back in 1973, when the first edition of The Coming of Post-Industrial Society was published, people had a sense that the industrial world in which they had grown up was undergoing profound change, that giant factories, manufacturing and labor unions were becoming passŽ, and that the class antagonism that such an economy produced was no longer the defining issue in politics. Bell's book was enormously influential in helping people understand that these changes were not small ones at the margin; rather, they represented the shifting of an entire economic paradigm.

Today we can define this new era in positive rather than negative terms: we speak of living in an "information society" rather than an industrial one. Indeed, futurist Alvin Toffler holds that this transition is as consequential as the shift from agriculture to industry. It is a mark of Daniel Bell's great insight about the age that was just passing, and his prescience about the one to come, that we can now fill in many of the details that he sketched out. It is therefore quite appropriate that Basic Books has brought out a third edition of Bell's famous book, together with a long new preface by the author that picks up where the second edition left off in 1976. Re-reading the book in 1999 makes one realize just how right Bell was in his social forecasting.

Bell's new preface begins by noting that many of the trends evident back in 1973 have continued apace. Manufacturing constitutes only 15 percent of the labor force in the United States, compared to 26 percent a generation ago. Occupations have shifted: today, more than 74 million people, or 60 percent of the U.S. labor force, are either professionals, managers or else in lower skill, white-collar jobs. Educational levels have risen dramatically: 81 percent of the population today has completed high school, compared to only 41 percent in 1960, while nearly a quarter of the population has graduated from college (against 7.7 percent in 1960).

What is driving these changes is ultimately technology. What it means to live in an information society is not simply that there is now an information technology sector and a personal computer on every desktop. The phenomenon is much broader and refers to the marginal substitution of information for material product in every sector of the economy: today's low-skill worker no longer breaks rocks in an open-pit mine, but operates a sophisticated rock crushing machine or passes a package of Pampers over a bar code reader at Wal-Mart. This has important consequences for social stratification: increasingly, the rewards go to the smart, educated designer of the rock crushing equipment or bar code reader rather than to the worker who operates them. Cognitive ability and education have become the keys to social mobility.

Much of the new introduction to Post-Industrial Society is devoted to bringing this story up to date. Bell is better at describing the forest than the trees, and gets some of the details wrong: he confuses bits and bytes, and credits Netscape with the invention of the web browser. But it is clear that he got the essence of the story right twenty-six years ago. Information technology, and behind it information itself, has become ubiquitous. This has drastically reduced the importance of geography, decreased the value of natural resources, and unified the world into a single market for capital, goods and services that we today label the "global economy." The old struggle between capitalists and the industrial proletariat that spawned communism and ultimately the Cold War has been made irrelevant by the "death of class"--the division of society into large blocks based on shared economic interest. There are too few workers to sustain a proletarian movement; all of the occupations comprising what is generically labeled the service economy, from clerical workers and teachers to bankers and software engineers, have few common interests and relate to one another via a myriad of complex and ever-changing identities. In the meantime, Bell notes, there is an increasing division of the political, economic and cultural into separate spheres.

Some of the hopes and fears entertained twenty-six years ago have proven to be unfounded. Bell recounts that predictions of technology producing an end of scarcity failed to take account of the fact that people often covet positional rather than distributional goods--i.e., relative status in a rat race that can never end. On the other hand, some of the fears expressed by Joseph Schumpeter, and by Bell himself in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), namely, that postindustrial societies would produce elites hostile to the very economic sources of their existence, have so far not panned out in the manner expected. Though Bell does not quite put it this way, the Reagan-Thatcher revolution has left its mark: the elites who are likely to pierce body parts or seek medical benefits for their same-sex partners also spend a great deal of time these days worrying about their stock portfolios and day-trading on the Internet. Outside an increasingly small working class, economic hostility to capitalism has all but disappeared in the United States; what remains is a cultural contempt for traditional values.