Disjunction and Analysis

Ralf Dahrendorf

  • Sociological Journeys: Essays 1960-1980 by Daniel Bell
    Heinemann, 370 pp, £12.50, December 1980, ISBN 0 435 82069 9

The proof of a theory may lie in its application, but application means very different things in different corners of the universe of the mind. Expecting an eclipse of the sun at a certain time and place, and for a certain duration, is one kind of application. Producing a silicon chip which programmes certain operations is another kind. But in the social sciences there are no such tangible applications (and we all pay the price for the fact that some seem to believe that economics is different). It is true, I have sometimes dreamt of the weatherman after the television news being followed by a ‘social processes man’ who points at various parts of the globe and describes the unstable and thunderous condition in the Middle East, the stable high-pressure area over the Soviet Union, and the disturbing influence of Atlantic depressions on Europe. However, this is not going to happen, and if it were, it would still be different in kind from the application of theory in astronomy. It would be an exercise in Verstehen rather than straight application.

This is why social analysis is the queen of the social sciences. Pure theory, in most social sciences, remains strangely barren. To be sure, nobody should be precluded from playing the glass bead game, even if it leads to a conceptual salad of Parsonian irrelevance: but the game does little to bring social processes to life. Analysis, on the other hand, combines at the best of times three elementary virtues of human understanding: immersion in the facts and figures of a case; thought about their structure and dynamics (‘theory’); and a sense of direction which probably has to have a normative component.

Social analysis cannot be taught other than by example. Moreover, since it requires the ability to embrace a subject without merging with it – an ability which comes with experience – social analysis is an unlikely method for writing a dissertation. There are the great examples of the past, of course – Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, Durkheim’s Suicide, Weber’s Protestant Ethic. The social analysis of total societies may be almost too much to try. Today, it has in part fallen into the hands of charlatans, who do little more than invent yet another name for the world in which we are living. Serious scholars, like Norbert Elias or Reinhard Bendix, have turned to the past as the key to the present. Some try to develop what they like to call Marxism, though Jürgen Habermas is one of the very few who do so with any degree of originality. Raymond Aron’s name must be mentioned, but his great analyses – though not Clausewitz and certain other books – are now somewhat dated. In this distinguished company, Daniel Bell has an undisputed and well-deserved place. Long before The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, he had established himself as one of the world’s foremost social analysts; since then, he has taken his analysis further in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. The collection of essays written between 1960 and 1980, and published under the title Sociological Journeys, offers a welcome opportunity to follow his paths and encounters during a crucial period.

In the twenty years in question, Bell had two main subjects of concern: the (rise of the) technology of the electronic age and its ‘engineers’, and the (decline of the) culture of modernism and its ‘new class’. (Some of the 17 essays are about socio-political analysis, but they are less strikingly original.) It is worth noting that the twenty years straddle what may well be one of the most significant periods of change in modern times: the évènements de mai, which did not remain confined either to Paris or to 1968; the withdrawal of the United States from its role as Ordnungsmacht, with consequent internal and international uncertainties, including 15 August 1971 – that is, the end of the convertibility of the dollar into gold, and of the post-war certainties of economic exchange; then, in 1973, the Yom Kippur war, with its multiple ramifications, among which the series of oil price increases, the consequent condemnation of the poor to starvation, and of the rich to an apparently everlasting recession, are the most important. It is difficult to think of another quinquennium which has cast doubt on so many assumptions; and one would like to know what a master of social analysis makes of such changes.

The answer is curious. Daniel Bell has thought hard about every one of the events mentioned, and about the chains of development in which they have to be seen. Sometimes, though rarely, he even hints at the possible ‘axial’ significance of the changes of 1968-1973. There is a change of mood in his Post-Industrial Society, about two-thirds along the way; and one remembers that the book was completed just before the Yom Kippur war. In the present volume, ‘The Future World Disorder’ refers explicitly to the structural changes since 1973 and not only, like Schumacher, advocates ‘appropriate scale’ but also ‘the use of the market principle for social purposes’ as remedies. ‘Ethnicity and Social Change’ is another essay in this category. Yet, in comparison with the great essays on technology, on intellectuals, on religion, these more topical ones look like pale, almost hesitant concessions, as if made to a reality of secondary importance. Bell’s central concern is with trends which remain strangely unaffected by more recent changes in the political economy and international context of modern societies. This need not be wrong: it could be argued that, on the contrary, the secular exaggeration of the immediate is one of the sins of instant social analysis. Yet Bell’s reticence raises questions, including that of whether his own toolbox of Verstehen fails in the face of certain processes.

One of his fascinations is with modern technology, and he conveys this fascination in his piece on ‘Teletext and Technology’. He starts with the process of ‘miniaturisation’ and its wonders (from four to 40,000 electronic components per square inch in a mere decade), then proceeds to computer communications, or ‘compunications’, and suddenly stops himself: ‘Information is power. Control over communication services is a source of power, and access to communication is a condition of freedom.’ Clearly, this is an important question. But apart from the fact that Bell contributes little to its solution, it is not the only one of its kind. Thus Bell calls it a ‘sociological truism’ that ‘all Americans (or all “moderns”), given as they are to enthusiasm, expect almost instant results once a technological process is discovered.’ But is there not an increasing and increasingly explosive disparity between technological possibilities and people’s ability, as well as readiness, to accept them? And is this not one of the differences between a period of happy growth and one of doubt and stagnation? It may well be that the resistance of London printers to automation, or that of German politicians to cable television, is just a losing battle with Luddite overtones. But there is the more difficult question of whether nuclear energy programmes have not been significantly delayed by popular reactions. Also one wonders whether Bell is right that the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Library of Congress will actually become obsolete – replaced by new information systems.

All these, however, are minor points compared with the much bigger question of what exactly the role of technology is in modern societies, and whether it is undergoing significant changes at this time. Bell asserts, indeed almost assumes, that technology continues to be a great productive force which progresses unstoppably and informs the ‘techno-economic realm’. Could it not be that technology, from having been a great productive force of modern societies, has now become part of their relations of production, and that new forces are to be found outside the laboratories of AT&T and ICI? Is not one of the profound changes marked by the quinquennium around 1970 perhaps the discovery of the first stirrings of new social forces – nameless as yet, but if anything anti-technological? Could it be that there is something in Bell’s approach that makes it difficult for him to notice such changes?

One need only raise the last question to realise that Bell has an uncanny way of being at least one step ahead of any reviewer: of course he is aware of changing attitudes to technology and economic development. When he describes the ‘new class’ as less a class than an attitude, he makes the point for us. His sensitivity is too great for him to miss any important social phenomenon. Time and again one gasps with the excitement of discovery as one follows Bell’s rich analyses. Often, they are so condensed, so full of evidence and thought about both sides of the picture, that one wonders for which side a case is made. But of course great analysis is not about making cases all the time: it is about understanding. In his ability to understand complex socio-cultural processes, Bell is surely unrivalled in contemporary writing. All this is not to say that the earlier questions about technology as a productive force are answered satisfactorily by him: but it is to say that his style of thinking and writing somehow seems to leave these questions by the roadside as he gets on with his sociological journeys.

No one can get on without some sense of direction, and these essays enable us to find out where Bell is going. The piece on ‘The “Intelligentsia” in American Society’ contains moving passages about the gradual integration of New York’s Jewish intellectuals into the society of their choice. That they were, among other things, a clique, Bell makes clear both deliberately and involuntarily. If Bell attacks Harrington for having followed Fromm in charging him with misquoting Marx, which Bernstein knew could not be true, then the comment has an unintended irony: ‘Old factional habits never change.’ But this is only one side of the genealogy of New York’s intelligentsia. The other is political. It is marked by the gradual transition from radical socialism through the vacuum of ‘the end of ideology’ to the new conservatism of today’s Commentary, and to a new confidence in one’s religious and cultural origins.

Does one explain the Soviet Union by history or theology? For many of us, the answer lay not in history, but in the nature of man. It was the end of a belief in much of Marxism. The fact that the opportunity for murder arises when a man is unrestrained by law became an important consideration in the thoughts of those who began to return to Judaism.

Here, the vital core of Bell’s thinking begins to appear.

It is reflected in his view of culture and modernity. This he pursues in a series of essays on ‘American Exceptionalism’, on ‘Modernism’, on ‘Jewish Identity’, but, most clearly, in the well-known paper, ‘The Return of the Sacred?’ ‘Will there be a return of the sacred, the rise of new religious modes? Of that I have no doubt.’ It is fascinating to follow Bell to his ‘retreat from the excesses of modernity’. There are, he says, needs of morality, of redemption and of mysticism which suggest the return of the sacred, but there is above all ‘the resurrection of Memory’: ‘We stand, I believe, with a clearing ahead of us. The exhaustion of Modernism, the aridity of Communist life, the tedium of the unrestrained self and the meaninglessness of the monolithic political chants all indicate that a long era is coming to a close.’ What will follow? Bell admits ignorance, yet adds: ‘I am bound, in the faith of my fathers, to the thread, for the chord of culture – and religion – is memory.’

The resulting picture oscillates in intriguing ways. At one moment, it appears perfect, and perfectly plausible: a society which rediscovers memory while organising its worldly affairs in the most rational possible manner; a society, perhaps, which has regained time by invention and technology; a society, to be sure, which may or may not succeed in its new ventures. Then the picture falls apart, and ‘compunication’ does not tally with ‘the return of the sacred’. Bell, plausibly, does not like the built-in imprecisions of ‘dialectical’ thinking. But his own prescription leaves similar doubts. ‘At most times,’ he says, ‘societies are radically disjunctive.’ By that, he means that ‘the techno-economic realm’, ‘the polity’ and ‘the culture’ can follow their own contradictory paths. In the introduction, he even asserts that, in fact, ‘each realm has a different rhythm of change.’ Whereas technology and economy progress, culture is circular, returning time and again to the same questions. It is thus wrong to claim any determinism of culture by economics, or vice versa. Bell seems to make a theory of abandoning all theory, even that element which could, and perhaps should, be a part of social analysis. Disjunction means, after all, that the world falls apart, or rather that it is left in as many pieces as appear to the non-analytical eye. But then, Bell’s eyes are anything but non-analytical, and, mysteriously, his anti-theory of disjunction does not prevent him from turning seemingly disparate facts into a plausible whole: a supreme example of social analysis in which immersion in the subject, stunning knowledge about anything that might be relevant to it, and a sensitivity that is sharpened by a profound cultural, not to say religious commitment, seem to make theory altogether unnecessary.