The American sociologist Daniel Bell (born 1919) greatly influenced American political and economic thought through his books The End of Ideology and The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society.
Born in Brooklyn in 1919 to Jewish immigrant parents, Daniel Bell was raised in New York's Lower East Side. Bell's early childhood was difficult. His father died when he was six months old and Bell's mother worked long hours in a factory to support herself and her son. She was forced to put Bell in a day orphanage. Bell's childhood was spent in a world characterized by poverty and the hopes and frustrations of a Jewish immigrant population drawn largely from Eastern Europe. For a variety of historical and sociological reasons, this population maintained a clear and persistent association with Socialist politics.
At the age of 13 the then Daniel Bolotsky joined the Young People's Socialist League, a youth organization of the Socialist Party. Particular components of this heightened political environment had a powerful effect on Bell's later views about leftist politics. Debates with the militant Young Communist League and the frustration of using non-violent means to advance the cause of American trade unionism in an age of union-busting made Bell sensitive to extremism on both the right and the left. It was the insights born of these experiences that later made Daniel Bell a prominent and astute observer of the American labor movement, first as a staff writer and editor of The New Leader and then as labor editor of Fortune.
Until he left Fortune in 1956, Bell wrote articles about the changing face of the American labor movement. He emphasized the declining role of ideology—specifically Marxism—in the movement. These articles became the working models for his controversial book The End of Ideology (1960). Bell's thesis in this book was that Marxism no longer evoked the passions of American intellectuals because it had become irrelevant to the American experience. Marxism emphasized righting the social and economic inequalities produced by capitalism. However, as Bell wrote, in America these inequalities were resolvable through existing political and administrative structures.
The development of these themes—the "exhaustion of the political left" and the irrelevance of ideology in American political thought—occupied Bell throughout his career as an American sociologist and policy analyst. They led him to construct his theory of the postindustrial society, which was a theory of social change. He identified the United States, Germany, and Japan as societies undergoing major structural changes. The most significant of these changes were the displacement of the traditional market economy, the growing preeminence of the public sector in sponsoring basic scientific research, and a new reliance on stochastic methods and abstract thinking in the planning process.
In The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society (1973), Bell characterized this society as an arena in which the working political, cultural, and economic principles were contradictory and in conflict. Politically, there was an emphasis on democracy. Culture was undergoing both deinstitutionalization and radicalization. In economics, there was an emphasis on rationalism and efficiency. This view constituted Bell's non-Marxist conflict theory of social change and was the first significant challenge to Talcott Parson's structure-functionalist view of contemporary American society. Bell's theory calls for a new philosophy of welfare state liberalism. Bell called it the philosophy of the "public household."
The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society and the call for a new philosophy of the public household were the fruits of Bell's work as chairman of the Presidential Commission on the Year 2000 (1966-1968). He helped articulate an agenda of social welfare and political problems which challenged the basis of American liberalism. His publications earned him a reputation as something of a futurist. Also cementing his stature as a futurist was his 1976 book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. In this work Bell presages such later predominant theories as the relationship of capitalism and culture as modes of production and consumption, post structuralism, deconstruction, and quite accurately as Bell puts it, "The underlying problem.. (of the) ..breakup in the very discourses—the languages, and the ability of a language to express an experience."
Bell's futurism was of a specific kind. His task was to ask the questions which Western society must answer if there is to be domestic peace and stability in the future. Implicit in Bell's asking was the admonition to move slowly; to eschew extremism. This grew out of Bell's early experiences in the American trade union movement and out of his own intellectual struggle to reconcile the "Hellenistic" world view of Karl Marx and John Dewey with the "Hebraism" of Rheinhold Niebuhr. "Hellenism" has faith in the inevitability of social progress through science and reason. The "Hebraic" world view emphasizes the limits of planning and reason in human affairs.
Bell also earned the reputation of being a neoconservative precisely because of his predisposition to move slowly and to be wary of extremism. He shared the neoconservative designation with such peers and colleagues as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, and Irving Kristol. The applicability of such labels is always debatable. What was not debatable was Bell's place in the social sciences. He was a relevant and challenging sociologist whose critical analyses of contemporary economic theory and American capitalism defied simplistic categorization. His self evaluation served well. Bell claimed to be "a liberal in politics, a conservative in culture, and a socialist in economics."
Beginning in 1969, Bell served as Henry Ford Professor of Social Science at Harvard University and in the late 1980s as a Pitt Professor at Cambridge University, England. In 1988 he traveled to the former Soviet Union, a place very close to his heart, to give a series of lectures at various universities. Together with Irving Kristol Bell founded and edited Public Interest, a social policy journal.
For information on Bell's earlier career as a journalist, see his autobiographical essay "The Moral Vision of the New Leader" in New Leader (December 24, 1973). For further information on Bell's development and on neoconservatism see Irving Kristol's "Memoirs of a Trotskyist" (New York Times Magazine (January 23, 1977). For discussions of Bell's theory of postindustrial society and neoconservatism, see Benjamin S. Kleinberg, American Society in the Post-Industrial Age (1973); Nathan Liebowitz, Daniel Bell and the Agony of Modern Liberalism (1985); and Peter Steinfel's, The Neoconservatives (1979). A Bell interview on his historic trip to the former Soviet Union can be found in the journal Society (September/October 1989) and an overview of several of Bell's reissued books appears in The New Leader (December 16-30, 1996). Bell's own major works are listed above and are joined by his anthology The Winding Passage: Essays and Sociological Journeys, 1960-1980 (1980).