Hyperindustrial vs. Postindustrial Society

by Frank Elwell 
Rogers State University

Are we living in a "postindustrial" society?  According to many contemporary social scientists industrial society has been transformed by the introduction of new technologies that have profoundly changed our relationship to our environment.  This new mode of production, they assert, has profoundly affected all sectors of society, transforming our work, politics, family life, education, and values. As a result of postindustrialism, the true believers assert, we are more egalitarian, more democratic, less hierarchical, more powerful, less stratified, and information has become the dominant form of wealth. While many social scientists reject the more utopian pronouncements of post- industrialism, most do believe that American society has moved beyond industrialism into a qualitatively different mode of production.  Many date the transition from industrial to postindustrial at about the middle of the twentieth century. 

The case for postindustrialism is seriously weakened, however, by a failure to offer any agreed upon explanation as to what this new mode of production entails.  Variously described as a mode of production based on information, services, knowledge, computers, and more recently biotechnology, the postindustrialists simply paper over this lack of agreement by labeling their vision as "postindustrial," that is "after industrialism."  The lack of definition is an excellent  indication that the term is almost devoid of any real meaning. 

While postindustrialists can point to an explosion of new technologies, they fail to specify how these technologies have changed our social-technological relationships to the environment.  We still take our energy and material needs from the environment through extractive activities.  We still practice agriculture with industrial machinery and the liberal use of oil.  We still engage in mass production, we still do the bulk of our manufacturing within the factory system.  While new technology is employed to make all of these industrial processes more rationalized and efficient, such use of technology has been part of the very definition of industrialism from the beginning.

One of the main reasons given in support of the idea that we are now a postindustrial society has been the recent changes in the occupational structure of modern societies.  In the 1950s the number of service jobs in the U.S. economy had actually overtaken the number of manufacturing jobs.  Since that time, the service sector of the American economy has remained the dominant source of employment. Another rapidly growing sector of employment has been in what the postindustrialists like to refer to as the "information sector." Concurrently, the number of manufacturing jobs in modern society have remained stagnant or have actually been in decline. Since industrial society is closely identified with manufacturing in the popular imagination, what occurs after 1950 must be some new form of society, something after industrialism. 

What many failed not note, however, is that growth in service and information occupations has been a part of the industrialization process from the beginning.  Service jobs have been growing at a faster rate than manufacturing jobs in the United States since the 1860s (Kumar, 1978).  The growth of services in industrial society is related to the decline of the extended family and community as a provider of such services as child care, counseling, and social security. "Information sector" jobs have also been part of industrialization from the beginning, such jobs being closely associated with the growth of both public and private bureaucracies. 

While it is true that the number of manufacturing jobs in this country have not experienced significant growth in recent years, the amount of goods manufactured in this country has been steadily increasing every year.  The virtual stagnation in manufacturing jobs has been due to the integration of ever more sophisticated technology into the manufacturing process or, if that is not economically feasible, shipping these jobs to third world countries where labor and environmental restrictions are less costly. The integration of technology into work processes to make them more efficient is part of the very definition of industrialism.  Surely no one would seriously argue that globalization, or the spread of industrialism around the world,  is a sign that industrialism is in decline?

Not realizing that the growth of the services and bureaucracy are an integral part of the industrialization itself, many "futurists" seized on these trends, extrapolated them into the future, and forecast a society based on services and information.  Calling their vision a "service society," or an "information society" futurists failed to recognize the continuity of the present with the past.  Identifying what they took to be new trends, they extrapolated these trends into the future without any regard for system limits.  They wrote as if a society could be based on the provision of child care, medical services, managerial consultants, and education, apparently forgetting that people working in such industries still eat food, live in homes, drive cars, buy stereos, and consume resources. 

With an imperfect understanding of history, futurists posited an industrial society some 200 years old that was on the verge of transforming itself into a society based on something other than industrialism.  In fact, while the industrial revolution is some 200 years old, industrial society--a society that is "fully" organized around industrial production--is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Krishan Kumar (1978) argues that the first real industrial society did not appear until about 1900, when Britain had slightly less than half of its population involved in agriculture.  It could even be argued that the first true industrial society did not occur until 1945, when the United States emerged from World War II.  

Since the beginnings of industrialism, at ever increasing speed, American institutions, values, and ideology have been undergoing change to accommodate the needs of an ever intensifying industrial mode of production.  Since the 1950s the pace of industrial change has been massive, economic growth has been averaging 3 percent per year, effectively doubling the industrial infrastructure every 23 years.  Social and cultural change to accommodate that growth has been both rapid and severely disrupting of traditional institutions, norms and values.  Post- industrialists have mistaken this rapid change as the beginnings of a new type of society when it can be more readily understood as as an massive intensification of past trends and processes, as "hyperindustrialism." 

Given the weaknesses of postindustrial "theory," some important questions to ask are why has it gained so many adherent; why has it become an almost unquestioned assumption on the part of many business and political leaders; why is it a staple in introductory sociology books, a cliché in almost every graduation speech of the last 30 years?  

There is no doubt that Western civilization is presently undergoing profound change within industrial infrastructures.  No doubt this change is affecting our social structure and culture.  By viewing recent changes as the intensification of industrialization itself, as hyper- industrialism, we have a wealth of social theory and historical experience to help us understand and guide these changes.  Much of this theory and history urges us to be skeptical of progress, to consider the environmental, social, and human costs to industrialization.  But viewing recent changes as the emergence of a new form of society has very different consequences.  It gives us a new vision and a new ideology of technological and social progress.

As people in the West began to lose faith in the ideology of industrial progress, postindustrial theorists began to sell us on the idea of a glorious society based on a different mode of production.  This new society would not have huge disparities in wealth.  This new society would be much more democratic, less bureaucratic, much more productive, and provide a multitude of life-style choices and rewarding careers to its inhabitants.  All we need do to achieve this future, they claim, is to put our faith in the new technologies and let social development take its course.  

Rather than a social theory, postindustrialism can be understood as an elaborate ideology developed to justify the status quo, capitalism and the path we are presently on (or as Bill Gates would have it, The Road Ahead).  It is a simple update of the idea of progress and a paean to technological development.  As such, it is a modern expression of the technological world view, the idea that technology can be relied upon to solve human problems.  It is by positing a new mode of production--a qualitative break with the past--that post- industrialists disconnect our future from our past.  It is by ignoring human history (as they often ignore ecology and social organization) that they can herald their brave new world.

©2002 Frank Elwell

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