What Future?

The future has a bad reputation. Although most of us live as if there were a tomorrow—making payments, rearing children, Deferring Gratification—tomorrow gets harder to believe in. Our innocent acts in the aggregate seem to spell disaster, not to mention our guilty acts such as keeping the thermostat too high. The future has a friend, however, in Daniel Bell. In his new book, THE COMING OF POST-INDUSTRIAL SOCIETY: A Venture in Social Forecasting (Basic Books, $12.50), Bell gazes serenely at where the main trends in contemporary life seem to him to be taking us.

The Coming of Post-Industrial Society is an almost extravagantly learned book, which includes, for instance, an informative explanation of logistic curves, a discussion of Marx’s lesser-known remarks on the subject of bureaucracy, a compact history of “Big Science,” close readings of social philosophers from Saint-Simon to John Rawls, asides on multinational corporations and genetic research, all rendered in Bell’s amply supple diction. A lavish book. Its various topics, though, are often tangential to Bell’s themes, which may be fairly summarized.

Bell is giving elaborate statement to an idea we’ve heard before, from him and others: that the society is at the start of a new stage in its development, in which the dominant activity is not the production of goods or food but the provision of information and services. Already the United States has become the first country in which more than half the work force is employed in activities other than manufacture or agriculture. And knowledge, and its votaries, multiply: in a scant ten years (1960 to 1970) the number of doctoral degrees awarded annually increased from 9829 to 29,000.

The blooming of “post-industrial society” does not, of course, presuppose the withering of industry. On the contrary. As technology transformed agriculture to reduce the number of people involved in the production of food to a mere 4 percent of the U.S. work force, so must manufacturing be similarly automated. Post-industrial society has sometimes been taken to imply “post-scarcity society” as well, in which the abundance of goods would obviate striving for material things, a world whose fundamental problem would be the wise use of leisure. Bell stops well short of this vision, but he does say: “The question before the human race is not subsistence but standard of living, not biology but sociology. Basicneeds are satiable, and the possibility of abundance is real.”

This is not a flawlessly persuasive scenario. There is, to start, the question of American industry’s onward and upward progress. As Bell mildly acknowledges, the automated future looks less halcyon than it recently did. For a more vivid description of the present difficulties of American enterprise, see Emma Rothschild’s recent book, Paradise Lost: The Decline of the Auto-Industrial Age (Random House, $6.95). Miss Rothschild remarks on the automobile industry’s entrapment in ideas that have been with it since its earliest days, and which now seem woefully inadequate to its responsibilities to the country: its dependence on assembly-line methods that appear to become all the more brutish with the aid of robots, and its faithful adherence to obsolescence and gimmickry.

A more serious defect in Bell’s argument is his rather perfunctory treatment of the possibility of environmental collapse. He acknowledges the Club of Rome Report, and offers the now standard rebuttal: that is, the failure of its authors to incorporate into their doomsaying computer the capacity for systemic change. He points out that technology has always saved the day by discovering new sources of energy, expanding “fixed resources.” Garrett Hardin has compared this technocratic optimism to the hopeful view of a man jumping from a tall building who remarks halfway down that he’s still OK. Beyond the possibility that there are ecological limits to growth, there remains the question of how much alteration of the natural and the social world the ecology of the human spirit can tolerate.

The likelihood of the post-industrial society’s arrival is not, in any case, the most interesting issue of Bell’s mind. He is more concerned with the moral content of the society he imagines for our future. There is a utopian dream, conceived not long after the industrial age itself began, with which Bell is warily entranced. The old ruling classes, whose power was based on real property, yield to a new class of men whose power rests on the earned authority of knowledge. All men benefit: all are freed from burdensome labor, and from the yoke of inherited class differences. Men are at last free to rise according to their ability. All men of course will not be “equal" in all ways, but all men will be, in the formulation of the nineteenth-century English economist Alfred Marshall, “gentlemen,” free to enjoy education and self-development to the extent of their natural gifts. Certain people benefit more than others; they are the ones who have more of the quality called “intelligence.” The ideal society described in this vision now is commonly characterized as “meritocratic.”

Unlike many people who use the term, Bell has read the book from which it comes, Michael Young’s “fable,” The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033. However, he seems not to have felt the satirical force of the tale, which burlesques the trends that Bell regards with solemnity and, in general, with approbation. (In Young’s perfectly meritocratic world, the upper class consists of all those with an IQ of 125 or over. The gifted meritocrat who narrates the book is at a loss to understand the sources of discontent that ultimately overthrow this regime.) It is curious that the term “meritocracy” should have so quickly lost its moral weight. Or perhaps it is not curious. The word flourishes in the academic community, where it serves, for some, the function that “free enterprise” serves for some industrialists: a sanctification of one’s social gains.

Bell advances the argument for a “just meritocracy,” which is a more complex proposition than the utopian ideal. He acknowledges, for one thing, the inevitable multiplicity of class structure: the lingering effect of inherited wealth and influence, of property-based power. And he asserts (somewhat ambiguously) the primacy of politics. The meritocracy, like the post-industrial society itself, represents a trend, not a fixed reality, a shift toward a culture in which power is based on knowledge. Yet it is plainly more than abstraction for Bell; if the meritocracy must always be imperfect, it nevertheless seems to him a most noble social goal.

Bell is at pains to defend the nascent meritocracy against its critics, whom he styles (apparently taking the term from the Michael Young book) “populists.” Populists appear to include everyone from Black Panthers to officials of HEW. Bell persuasively enough states the case against “open admission” and “affirmative action,” lamenting those who would substitute equality of results for equality of opportunity. Glimmers of feeling, indeed intemperance, occur here, out of place in this otherwise stately book: “The populists are for power (‘to the people’) but against authority— the authority represented in the superiorcompetence of individuals. Since they lack authority, they want power.”

In the just meritocracy, all men are to be entitled to “respect" but not to “praise” (a distinction Bell borrows from the sociologist W. G. Runciman). The meritocrat is to be judged by his peers, to be not the arbitrary but the legitimate recipient of his rewards. This makes a certain abstract sense. But it leaves unanswered the crucial question of what sort of intelligence is being valued. Bell wants to say that it is not “technocratic.” “Because the technocratic mode reduces social arrangements to the criterion of technological efficiency, it relies principally on credentials as a means of selecting individuals for place in the society. . . . Meritocracy, in the context of my usage, is an emphasis on individual achievement and earned status as confirmed by one’s peers.” But this still allows for remarkable narrowness of mind. What is the place in the meritocracy for such qualities as character, imagination, compassion? And without these, on what grounds does the meritocracy pretend to be more useful or just than a system of power and privilege based, say, on wealth, or fairness of face?

Science, Bell states plainly, is the model for the meritocratic relationship. It provides “the monad that contains within itself the imago of the future society,” an interesting figure of speech that strives to invest the idea with the authority of naturalness. What place then does the meritocracy make for the humanist? It is a question with a precise answer. Item 4 under letter A (“The professional class: the four estates”) under Roman numeral I (“Statuses: Axis of Stratification”) on Bell’s chart called “Schema: The Societal Structure of the Post-Industrial Society” is the classification “cultural,” to include “artistic and religious.” The cultural estate is here accorded co-equal status with the scientific, technological, and administrative estates. There is, though, the unsettling possibility that the cultural functionaries so honored may not be happy in their assignment.

A faint uneasy note appears from time to time in The Coming of PostIndustrial Society, a recognition that the cultural estate may not be participating in the new world with full vigor. In explanation of this “schema” Bell remarks mildly: “The cultural estate artistic and religious — is involved with the expressive symbolism (plastic or ideational) of forms and meanings, but to the extent that it is more intensively concerned with meanings, it may find itself increasingly hostile to the technological and administrative estates.” So it may.

Bell remarks more than once on the “disjunction” between culture and society. But what ought to be a major theme in the book remains a leitmotif. In fairness it should be added that, as he explains, Bell’s current work in progress addresses itself to the issue. The glimpses of his ideas that we get here are neither satisfying nor promising. He appears to feel that the culture should serve as a corporate poet laureate, singing of values consonant with the progress of the technological world. He characterizes contemporary culture in such terms as “anti-institutional.” “antinomian,” “hedonistic.” and by the close of the book he laments that “the antinomian attitude plunges one into a radical autism, which, in the end. dirempts the cords of community and the sharing with others.” What odd hostility there is in the words, an elegant Philistinism. It does not seem to occur to Bell that there are writers and artists who. far from seeking to destroy the community, seek to re-invent it.

A longing to do so lies at the heart of the recent work of Philip Slater whose new book is EARTHWALK (Anchor/Doubleday, $7.95). That Bell and Slater both travel under the name “sociologist” is evidence (more happy than not) that professional standards in that held, anyway, have not yet firmed up: that the meritocracy is being held at bay. Slater is passionate, actively contemptuous of scholarly convention. and he is wholly removed from Bell’s sanguine world view. Slater states flatly that if trends that currently dominate Western society were to continue the result could only be disaster: “I see no purpose in refusing to consider the possibility that our society is founded on pathological premises, or that our species may not be viable ... we cannot construct a humane society out of the dominant trends of our present one.”

In Earthwalk Slater treats on a global scale an idea he explored in his previous book, The Pursuit of Loneliness. He argues that American society in particular, and Western society generally, is the victim of what is taken to be one of its noblest ideals, the supremacy of the individual. Individualism, particularly in the United States, has paradoxically come to serve as a way of surrendering control over the course of our lives. Frightened of being controlled, we flee from the solidity and strength of communal experience and refuse to nourish our need for connection with others. Slater has particular animosity toward those of his profession who have celebrated the plight of the self:

No one could have done more than

the popular social critics of the

1950s (Fromm, Riesman, Whyte, et

al.) to convince people of the virtues of disconnectedness and smooth the path for mechanical responsivity. B\ raising the specter of immersion in group life—of losing one’s narcissistic consciousness— they frightened and shamed people into an ever more frantic pursuit of autonomy and self-sufficiency. Thus disconnected, more and more of the population became available for attachment to the impersonal machinery of modern life.

There is little that cannot be subsumed under the vast idea that governs this book. It is a rich. Melvillean theme: Slater is obsessed with the Ahabness he sees in us all. Technology is but an extension of our arrant individualism: it represents our need to “monumentalize” ourselves in the environment. If technology is the necessary hero of Daniel Bell’s world, it is the unqualified villain of Slater’s, it despoils social existence as well as the physical world: we no longer live. Slater remarks, in communities but in networks, our character fragmented into pieces equal in number to the relationships we maintain. Those who get along best in this world are those most adept at disconnecting themselves from others. Technology is not Slater’s only villain: the family is another. In Slater’s view’ it is the mechanism by which we learn narcissism, the quest for motherpleasing success; in short, “it does exactly what it is supposed to do: socialize children to live in an individualistic society.”

Given all the darkness in this book, the continual assertion that our problems are rooted in the depths of our culture, it would seem that Slater would think that doomsday is inevitable. But no. The book takes a sudden turn toward hope. Slater suggests that to assume our self-destructive tendencies will prevail is yet another example of human chutzpa.

What I am suggesting is that nature still heals itself — that humans are still embedded in their ecosystem, despite their grandiose fantasies, and subject to its processes that as our mechanical-mindedness reaches the danger point corrective processes begin to occur that alter our ways of thinking and acting.

But on the evidence offered, this remains a matter of faith. Both in despair and hope, Earthwalk is plainly a vulnerable book. It is modish. Slater, anxious not to be thought sexist, apologizes for using the masculine pronoun in reference to all of personhood, and he explains, “It would be equally unjust to talk about ‘womankind,’ or ‘humanity,’ when referring to the follies of patriarchal history.” He later uses the feminine pronoun when the generic person in question is clearly a victim. Earthwalk seems destined to become a cult book, and there are discomfiting signs that its author is eager for that end (consider such catchy chapter titles as “The Extensions of Man, or Say Hello to the Nice Fist”).

There are graver defects. The book is wantonly simple: for every telling aphorism there is a generality that seems merely flatfooted. Despite his bold survey of Western culture, Slater is uninterested in looking to his own intellectual past. He acknowledges his like-minded contemporaries (notably Gregory Bateson) but fails to place himself against the tradition of writers who have pursued similar themes both with more passion and more complexity. The important central idea of the book is relentlessly overstated. As is obvious, “a sense of community” means little without a sense of human difference. Forget that, and don’t you invite, not community, but fascism? Similarly, Slater chooses to forget that the invidious family can be a shelter from the larger culture.

He uses hyperbole quite consciously. He says in the preface, “Most arguments about the truth or falseness of concepts . . . are really disagreements as to their importance. Truth is relative to time, place, and person, and”—he adds in what is not purely a sequitur—“an absurd emphasis may be necessary today to make tomorrow’s truth available.” That is an idea handy to geniuses and demagogues, neither of which this book demonstrates Slater to be.

And yet. Earthwalk often seems romantic to the point of mindlessness, but something is it only the sound of Daniel Bell in one’s ears? says that this book should not be so easily dismissed. It is still another expression of a longing that is making itself known with astonishing force: a hunger for a life that is bound to the past, to the natural world, to other lives. And if our post-industrial meritocrats think they are immune to those desires, I think they are in for a surprise.