Daniel Bell and the fiction of post-industrialism

What does post-industrial mean? Of course, answering this question requires first answering what industrial means, but this does not tell the entire story. I will concern myself solely with the post-industrial, as in it I identify something of a semiotic container which contains subsequent periodizations and proposed epochal shifts of a socio-technological nature: the Information Age, the Age of Artificial Intelligence, the Digital (or Third) Industrial Revolution, semiocapitalism/cognitive capitalism, surveillance capitalism, and the Anthropocene, to name just a few. (If there’s one thing to be sure of, the declaration of new historical eras seems to be profitable for one’s academic prospects, if nothing else.) It is my position that the declaration of the post-industrial necessarily preconditions or is isomorphic with all the above epochal shifts in that it is a subject without an object, a form without an object, a fabricated truth that attempts in the first instance to provide handholds and propulsive force to the societal totality. It is worth noting here that the only thing that can be said to discursively challenge this expansive definition of the post-industrial in terms of planetary-historical ramifications may be neoliberalism—which, I will argue later, effectively can be viewed as the political-bourgeois manifestation of a post-industrial weltanschauung insofar it is isolable at all. And above it all, the post-industrial age is itself a phantasm, just another tactic of capital’s spectacular tendency towards naturalization (particularly, post-industrialism’s insistence on its own Pyrhhic victory, making is so “old debates about capitalism and socialism are increasingly irrelevant”), and a specific reaction to political unrest and the collapse of the Euro-American economic base. (Lasch 1973) However, I will use the term—though with some distaste, and for the purposes of analysis only.


Even in the triumphalist, reactionary circles which spawned post-industrialism as process/product, there is significant disagreement with the specifics of the post-industrial age: when it began, what it entails, and so on. That said, Daniel Bell’s 1974 The Coming of Post-Industrial Society is largely taken to be the touchstone of this new designation, and Bell as its prophet, having popularized Alain Touraine’s phrase from a few years prior. Bell’s sketch of post-industrialism’s anticipated social form has some generic features, including the change “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”.[1] In the face of this description, Bell’s caveat that “A post-industrial society cannot provide a transcendent ethic….” almost goes without needing to be said.[2] I follow from Christopher Lesch’s assertion, in his review of The Coming of Post-Industrial Society for The New York Review of Books, that Bell’s declaration of the dawn of the post-industrial age is ageless, predicated on not just various other thinkers but also Bell’s own essays predating his book by 15 years. Of course, the novelty of Bell’s work is not at stake. What is, however, of immense importance, is the fact that the concept of the post-industrial has come not to inform but to dominate: power functions in a post-industrial manner, bearing in mind Marx’s statement that theory which gains material form by gripping the masses. However, in a grotesque perversion, the masses are made to dance, as ever, to the steps provided by an elite that styles itself as post-industrial: post-industrialism, along with any epochal designation more broadly, does not exist outside the minds and actions of power. Beyond any discussions of the service economy, innovation, or development of work’s character, it is simply a social-economic relation—specifically one of hierarchical power.


By choosing to remain oblivious to both the primacy of social-economic relations insofar as they constitute the totality of society, Bell could not help himself but to “rebel” (if you could call it that) against what he perceived as the monomyths of both a vulgarized Marxist “econocentricism” and a functionalist-positivist moral standard. “Marxists,” Bell wrote, “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”.[3] Bell positions his own account of the disunity of society specifically against Lukács’ totality, as an alternative view, thus begging the question (where did the perceived atomization come from?) and then seeking to plot out the ramifications of a social metaphysic of his own construction.


Bell placing his own account of the post-industrial in relation to the totality opens up a particularly withering line of critique by Lukács from History and Class Consciousness, bound up in his own definition of what the totality is—a heuristic by which to observe and comprehend the fitful interaction and laws of motion of capitalist society in toto. To begin, Lukács draws out Marx’s statement: “The relations of production of every society form a whole”.[4] This is also where Bell begins, and which he turns aside in favor of a fitful plurality defined by contradiction (it is to Bell’s paltry credit that he can detect these). Lukács goes on, admitting that “This dialectical conception of totality seems to have put a great distance between itself and reality, it appears to construct reality very ‘unscientifically’”.[5] However, the unscientific appearance of the totality is only when juxtaposed against bourgeois “royal science”: “The rightness of this view [of the totality] only emerges with complete clarity when we direct our attention to the real, material substratum of our method, viz. capitalist society with its internal antagonism between the forces and the relations of production [emphasis mine].”


So—Lukács’ totality is not a monomyth at all, but rather a method by which to collapse the above and the below, the macro and the micro, into a subject of analysis which nevertheless does not eliminate contradiction so as to construct a closed, teleological system. Bell’s own claim that Post-Industrial Society is an attempt to reckon with “changes in the social structure” falls flat, as by his own admission that, yes, his analysis comes with gaping holes and contradictions of its own. (When pressed on his claim that the promotion of knowledge to a primary role in production characterizes post-industrial society and thus “makes the university a central site” fails to take into account geopolitical intelligence regimes such as the CIA, he can only say that “there are many devils in a devilish world, but those kitchen sinks belong in another room, and please keep them there”. It is here that the true value of the totality becomes clear, as a method of working with and through contradiction. What in Bell’s fetishistic science appears as the limit of its logic and a space in which the goalposts must be moved back could be and in fact is resolved easily by an understanding of the totality as a gestalt. Contradictions are not overwhelmed or transcended; contradictions belong to the nature of capitalist reality. These contradictions are constantly shifting and transitory—they are themselves conditional to the particular, peculiar logic of capitalism itself.


By synthesizing his post-industrial framework, Bell has made an ideological argument that not only seeks to provide a gloss for capitalism’s inherently contradictory structure, but further performs a crude sleight of hand by admitting that capitalism’s relations are conditional (in a vulgar theodicy: industrialism is dead, long live capitalism!) while at the same time promising that capitalism in itself is “predestined to eternal survival by the eternal laws of nature and reason”. Post-industrialism, in Bell’s view, happened to capitalism—not the other way around; it reigns supreme, indomitable, and the most Bell can humbly do is take its pulse and try to paper over its excesses and its crises. Thus, the problem of accumulation and the annihilation of urban fixed capital in the 60s and 70s becomes a promising pivot towards a world in which neither matters, where value can be conjured out of thin air.

[1] (Bell and Lasch, An Exchange on Post-Industrial Society 1974)

[2] (Bell and Lasch, An Exchange on Post-Industrial Society 1974)

[3] (Bell and Lasch, An Exchange on Post-Industrial Society 1974)

[4] The Poverty of Philosophy

[5] (Lukács n.d.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s