History 104: Western Civilization since 1648

Lecture: 1985 to Now


Postindustrialism marks deep changes to the economic system. One change is the shift from primary production (farming, harvesting raw materials) and secondary production (manufacturing) to tertiary production (service industries). It also marks a shift away from industrial society. Industrial society is based on the factory, the source of large-scale production. Workers in an industrial society require only a minimal education, and their concept of community is based upon geography, often the factory and surrounding city or suburbs.

In Workgrouppostindustrial society, smaller elements of production are created by smaller groups of people, for example management teams, workgroups, or individuals grouped temporarily for a single project. With advances like the Internet , it's even possible for such groups to meet only virtually, as this class is doing now. In fact, education itself may have to change as a result. British home-schooling proponent Mike Fortune-Wood notes,

The very idea that teaching young people in groups of 30 or more (let alone schools of up to 1500) is an acceptable preparation for adulthood will fall into ridicule as it becomes more of an anomaly. Even now there are fewer and fewer situations outside the education system where people work in groups of more than a dozen or so.

Politics and Culture

Postindustrialism can also find expression in art and culture, and even in political decision-makingGorbachev. Mikhail Gorbachev became President of the Soviet Union in 1989. Faced with a nation in economic distress, involved in hostile stand-offs with the United States, Gorbachev (like Dubçek in 1968 Prague) believed in socialism with a human face. I know a scholar who claims that each political system contains the seeds of its own destruction (a theme, yes?). Nowhere is this more true than with Gorbachev. Removing decades of oppression against Soviet citizens led to extensive uprisings and ultimately the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The Berlin Wall fell when people realized that the Soviets would not back East German enforcement of the borders. The Cold War dissolved.

book Workbook document: Mikhail Gorbachev: The Last Days of the Wall (1994)

Dubcek and Havel
Dubcek and Havel

In the same year, 1989, Czechoslovakia rebelled, and Dubçek himself was released from prison. In your workbook, revolutionary leader Václav Havel parallels postindustrial ideas, which he considers as transitioning from the modern (industrial) to the postmodern (postindustrial). He emphasizes a new spiritual connection that is now free to develop, almost as if we move away from scientific positivism into something else.

book Workbook document: Václav Havel: The Need for Transcendence in the Modern World (1994)

His argument includes several elements that should sound familiar: the Antropic Principle (akin to Intelligent Design theory perhaps?) and the Gaia Hypothesis (the concept reflecting our current ecological sense). It counters the isolation portrayed by Douglas Coupland in Microserfs, where the postindustrial workers seem to be psychologically divorced from the rest of the culture.

book Workbook document: Douglas Coupland: Microserfs (1994)

Handmaid's Tale coverFor those believing in sex equality, a postindustrial society could provide more opportunity for women, or less. On the one hand, postindustrial work patterns de-emphasize hierarchy, which can be of advantage to women in democratic societies. But the focus on spiritual and anti-rational goals could also lead to the creation of systems restricting women. Margaret Atwood creates such a world in The Handmaid's Tale, where women within a fascist-style state are assigned tasks according to their biological capabilities. The novel is set in the future in the United States.

book Workbook document: Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale (1985)

French (and English) Riots

At the end of 2005, much of the world was shocked by rioting in Paris. It seems to have begun with the death of two teenagers who electrocuted themselves running from non-existent police. The riots focused mainly on the destruction of property, particularly blowing up automobiles. Since some riots featured Arab and African immigrants to France, much discusssion has ensued regarding the French policies of integration and social services. The American press was horrified by the calm response of French government and press. Weren't such riots a sign of total catastrophe, the failure of the French system? Wouldn't they spread across Europe? Weren't they part of a huge Muslim or terrorist conspircy? Didn't the French know they were racist? (Much of this, of course, was an overreaction to France refusing to support the U.S. in the invasion of Iraq.)

France's response was one of introspection and an effort to understand rather than jump to conclusions, but the riots were also seen as a pattern in western history, not an isolated event. An excellent analysis of the 2005 riots can be read here. One of the most interesting aspects is the way the riots have thus far been isolated to certain areas, rather 2006 riotersthan spreading. If the post-industrial model is focused on neighborhoods, this makes sense.

The riots and demonstrations continued sporadically throughout 2006, and took on a focus toward labor, with strikes and battles over working conditions. Many young people participated, angry about their lack of employment. In August 2011, youth rioted in London and other cities in England after a man was shot by police, but the riots took on a larger significance which social scientists are still trying to analyze. A number of riots have begun after a police action against an individual, suggesting a larger political concern.


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