The Epitaph of an Ideologue

The January 25 death of Daniel Bell, one of the United States' most prominent sociologists, and the effusive eulogies that have accompanied his obituaries, highlight the importance of ideological utility over scientific rigor. Typical of the mass media's write-ups is the obituary in the Financial Times (2/12/11), which claimed that, "Few men are given the gift of seeing into the future, but Daniel Bell…was one of them…with uncanny accuracy…. Few thinkers in the second half of the 20th century managed to catch the social and cultural shifts of the times with such range and in such detail as he did."


No doubt there are some important reasons why Bell warrants such effusive praise, but it certainly is not because of his understanding of the political, economic, and ideological developments which transpired in the United States during his intellectual life. An examination and analysis of his major writings reveals an "uncanny" tendency to be consistently wrong in his analysis of ideological developments and of the central features of the U.S. economy, its class structure, and propensities toward permanent war and deepening economic crisis.  


One of Bell's earliest and most influential books, The End of Ideology (1960), argued that the U.S. was entering a period when ideology was disappearing as a motor force of political action. In his analysis, pragmatism, consensus, and the decline of class and social conflict characterized the future of American politics. The End of Ideology was published just before a decade when American society was riven by anti-war and anti-imperialist movements, which saw the early exit of President Lyndon B. Johnson, massive popular mobilizations at home, and the erosion of any sense of "political consensus." It also saw major African American urban uprisings and social movements erupt in hundreds of cities, often leading to violent confrontations and harsh repression by the National Guard and police. Ideologies flourished, including Black Power, Marxism in many forms, variants of a New Left "participatory democracy," feminism, and environmentalism. Instead of reflecting on the realities of the 1960s and rethinking his misguided prophecies, Bell holed up at Colombia and later at Harvard where he merely sneered at the protagonists of the new ideologies and social movements.


Meanwhile, the rebirth of ideology as a guide and/or rationale for political action was not confined to the Left and the environmental movements by any means. Eventually, the ideological neo-liberal and neo-conservative Reaganite right emerged to dominate politics in the 1980s and redefine the role of the state, leading to a full-scale assault on the welfare state and corporate regulation, while justifying a massive revival of militarism.


Never has a social scientist so decisively misread the historical times, made such myopic predictions, and been refuted in such a brief time frame. This monumental disconnect with reality did not prevent Bell from going forward with another bit of prophecy in The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973). In this book, Bell argued that class struggle and manufacturing activity were being replaced by a new service economy based on information systems and "new principles of innovation, new modes of social organization and new social class." He went on to argue that class struggle was being replaced by "meritocracy" based on education and a politics of personal self-interest.



Even a cursory reading of the period would reveal that this was a time of intensified class struggle—this time from above rather than below—entailing a successful political onslaught by both the Reagan administration and the major corporations against the rights of labor, including massive firing and jailing of striking air-traffic controllers and the beginning of a national campaign to roll back wages, salaries, and job protection in auto, steel, and other key industries.


Secondly, the relative decline of manufacturing and the rise of the service industry did not lead to the growth of better paid white collar work for the children of displaced industrial workers. The vast majority of new service workers were poorly paid (averaging less than 60 percent of the unionized factory workers income) and were engaged in menial manual labor.


What Bell dubbed the postindustrial "knowledge society" was, in fact, the growing predominance of financial capitalism, which increasingly defined the primary use and function of the information systems—the development of new software for speculative financial instruments. Rather than "merit" as the basis of social mobility, especially at the top, it was the links to the big investment houses that served as the principle vehicle for success. This relationship undermined the domestic manufacturing economy and stable employment.


It is hard to believe that Bell, a former labor editor for Fortune, a business publication, was not aware of the massive shift from industrial to finance capital.

Bell's last big book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, was a celebration of capitalism as a great success story—though, he warned, it carried within its breast the seeds of its own destruction, where the Puritan value of hard work had been eroded and replaced by instant gratification, consumerism, and counter-culture, leading inevitably to a moral crises. Bell once again diverted attention from the most obvious structural contradictions by focusing on marginal behavior patterns, themselves the byproduct of an increasing global-imperial power. The most flagrant "contradictions" that Bell ignored were between the disappearing "republican" tradition in the U.S. and the dominant drive toward empire building, and between the decline of the domestic economy and the growth of overseas militarism. Bell's post-industrial rhetoric failed to recognize that the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs was not due to corporate America's conversion to an "information economy," but rather to its relocation overseas (Asia, Caribbean, and Mexico), either via subcontracting or foreign investment. Rather, Bell attributed the decline of the American domestic economy to the morality of the middle class and lower-income U.S. consumers instead of presenting an objective analysis of the structural features of globalized capital.


Even more perversely, this "exceptional thinker" and "paragon of our time" failed to capture the essential deepening class contradictions of "our time." Comparative statistical studies have demonstrated that the U.S. now has the worst inequalities of any advanced capitalist country and the worst health system among the top 50 industrial countries. Moreover, like so many of New York's affluent intellectuals, Bell failed to confront the inescapable fact that the inequalities in Manhattan were as bad or even worse than those in Guatemala, Calcutta, and Sao Paulo. Such are Bell's "cultural" contradictions—the contrast between the pronouncements of our celebrated academics and the reality which exists just outside the academic grove.


James Petras is a Bartle Professor (Emeritus) of sociology at Binghamton University, SUNY and author of more than 62 books in 29 languages and over 600 journal articles. He writes a column for the Mexican newspaper, La Jornada.