Jenny Andersson is professor in the history of ideas and science at Uppsala University. She is on leave as research professor at the CNRS and affiliated with the Centre d’études européennes et comparées de Sciences Po. She works on the transformation of social democracy and Third Way policies, future research and the economy of knowledge. In 2018, she published “The Future of the World: Futurology, Futurists, and the Struggle for the Post Cold War Imagination” with Oxford University Press.

Andersson spoke with contributing editor Jonas Knatz about her essay “Planning the American Future: Daniel Bell, Future Research, and the Commission on the Year 2000,” which has appeared in the current issue of the JHI (82.4).


Jonas Knatz (JK): Comparing the social transformation of the 1960s to that of the 1930s, the American social scientist Lawrence K Frank considered it imperative to renew what he deemed  the “traditional culture” of the United States and to reorient the “social order as a deliberately planned process.” Taking up this idea, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences initiated the Commission on the Year 2000 under the chairmanship of Daniel Bell in 1964. Your article “Planning the American Future: Daniel Bell, Future Research, and the Commission on the Year 2000” traces the history of this working group that featured illustrious members of neoconservative and New Left background alike, such as Samuel Huntington, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Hermann Kahn, Erik Erikson, Daniel P. Moynihan, and Margaret Mead. Yet, despite its widely-received report Toward the Year 2000: Work in Progress (1967), you argue the Commission never really finished its task and that its trajectory instead illustrates the transformation that the concept of future planning underwent. What was the concept of planning at the commission’s onset, and how did it develop over the course of the following eleven years?

Jenny Andersson (JA): In 1964, it was still widely thought that social developments could be planned, in ways that also seemed to suggest that the results or the outcomes of the planning process were predictable to at least some extent. Future research boomed in the 1960s, which is when it was transferred from military planning structures and technological research to civilian affairs and public administrations. There are equivalents of the Commission on the Year 2000 (CY2000) in many Western countries at this time, and across Eastern Europe five-year plans were complemented with attempts to think about the future of the ‘system’ more broadly. But in several ways, the mid-1960s mark the apex of future research as a concern for social science and planning, and the history of the Commission illustrates the limits embedded in such research. If I add a comparative argument here, I would remind the reader that in Eastern Europe, many attempts to think and plan the future were crushed after the Prague revolt in 1968, because the idea that the future could be opened up into an inherently pluralistic space explicitly challenged political regimes. The American context was wildly different—but interestingly, the CY2000 ran into exactly the same problem in terms of the profound plurality of  social developments. Value change in the American 1960s was such that it left many of the intellectuals on the Commission bewildered, and they reacted with proposals that oftentimes contained suggestions for more control, for instance a pharmacological ‘treatment’ of the Beatniks or ways of cybernetically considering feedback loops between politics and social reactions. In other words, the Commission started with the idea that social change could and should be planned toward expected outcomes, but it ended up with the conviction that certain forms of change were deeply undesirable and that forms of foresight were needed to avoid them. That was a very different idea of planning from that which marked the early 1960s—it was cautious of social change and concerned with protecting a certain, and increasingly conservative, idea of the American future from developments that were understood as carrying a transformative potential.

JK: In your article, you trace the work of the Commission through a particular focus on Daniel Bell. Taking him as a representative of US Cold War liberalism, you argue that the failure of the commission illustrates that this theoretical strand had “no ideological or epistemic space for understanding the fundamental divergence in future horizons of the late 1960s.” What characterized this historical moment in the late 1960s and made it so difficult for Cold War liberals to navigate? And how was this liberal helplessness related to the ascent of neoconservatism?

JA: It is old news, of course, that the events of the 1960s shook up the relationship between social science and the future. What I show in my article is that the Commission is representative of something broader than Cold War liberalism—really, of a central heritage in American social science—namely the idea that a defining purpose of social science is to make an active commitment to an overarching idea or image of American society. To many of the liberals on the Commission, who were properly speaking Cold War liberals in the sense that their idea of liberalism was profoundly shaped by the confrontation with the USSR, this image was a self-evident ideal and they saw themselves as its custodians. But in the late 1960s, many of the things that to them were the pinnacles of that ideal came under scrutiny. For instance, it became questionable whether there was in fact a privileged link between a certain notion of rationality (in many ways deduced from Cold War social science) and a specific idea of individual freedom. Their hope that a future consensus, a new image of the future American society, could be found, was rooted in the feeling that this link was self-evident, and so their shock when this particular link between social science and freedom was questioned is palpable. The question of race relations is very important here, because to many of the intellectuals on the Commission, desegregation did not just mean the end of Jim Crow: they were concerned that racial integration and equality of opportunity threatened the assumed link between rationality and freedom. The late 1960s were a time of fragmentation in the social sciences, in which some came to back more narrow views on the social, political or cultural sphere while others pursued much broader and reflexive engagements. Within the Commission, it rapidly became impossible to hold these different stances together, and so from 1967 and 1968 onward, there really was no shared idea of the American future. This put Bell in a probably quite difficult position as chair, and he consequently played a really interesting role by constantly trying to reconcile divergent views and hold afloat what surely sometimes felt like a sinking ship. I think that this idea of bridging different views and identifying the common ground is central in Bell’s social theory, which was often shaped by first considering one alternative and then the other. But by the early 1970s, it became clear that Bell did not really believe that any kind of societal consensus was possible anymore; he rather perceived a complete breakdown in societal rationalities and a gulf between social science and popular values. This impression corresponded to an increasingly pessimistic and culturally conservative stance, as he described a lot of the cultural changes of the 1960s as hedonism and rejections of bourgeois culture, even though he rejected the label neoconservatism in terms of political identification.

JK: The economic sciences underwent a development that seems to resemble the trajectory of the Commission, albeit a few years later, as recently traced by Quinn Slobodian in Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. In the late 1960s, reformists tried to scale up the idea of Keynesian planning to world level and Wassily Leontief won the 1973 Nobel Prize in economics for his model of the world economy. Only one year later, Friedrich August von Hayek won the Nobel Prize and used his acceptance speech for a rejection of the very idea of economic planning: “To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm.” Is there a connection between the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s and the change that the concept of planning underwent in the Commission on the Year 2000?

JA: Yes, in a broader sense, there is. It would make no sense to call the CY2000 neoliberal, but I do argue that the Commission moves onto a terrain that, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is marked by debates on the end of foreseeability and the crisis of planning that only some years later turn to the topics of ungovernability and malaise. It also seems to me that the Commission is a central site for introducing certain themes into a wider policy-oriented American debate, such as the idea of individual rational choice or the idea that all decisions have negative consequences and that social policies create ‘stakeholders’ in a feedback effect that must be taken into account for planning purposes. It is important to remember that the shift from Keynesian thinking to neoliberalism was not clear-cut or sudden but happened on many fronts, in many in-between spaces, and through gradual evolutions. There were no Hayekians on the Commission, but several intellectuals on it were keenly interested in rational choice and Bell himself was deeply concerned with how a new welfare statist logic in American society could be made compatible with the preeminence of individual rational choices. This, I argue, is at the root of his ideas about social forecasting. And that, finally, is a very different type of planning than the one that the Commission started out with in 1964, because the idea of social forecasting contains a certain notion of temporal control but also the sense that welfare statism had no simple outcomes, and that all political decisions would have unintended consequences. A developing welfare state logic in American politics therefore had to be curtailed, so that one could be sure that its consequences did not disturb the idea of freedom. If one could find ways of integrating an awareness of future consequences into the logic of political decision-making, then there would be a sense of limitation to welfare statist ambitions. This is not per se neoliberal, but it is infused with a latent critique of public action, and so the idea of planning in the CY2000 really bridges a new New Deal world of American welfare statism and the neoconservative revolution. Actually, the methods and technologies of future research intersect with the history of neoliberalism on several noteworthy occasions – the scenario technique, for instance, was important for developing the idea that setting an image of desirability and outlining a set of expectations was a better way to think ahead than trying to plan an increasingly volatile economic cycle. One of the scenarios developed by Herman Kahn at the Hudson Institute in the early 1970s, which is where he went after the development of his nuclear scenarios at RAND, was called the “Belle Epoque,” and it was about reinstating the market at the center of new and harmonious economic relations—with the US at the heart of the global economy. 

Jonas Knatz is a PhD Candidate at New York University’s History Department. He works on a conceptual history of the automation of work and Modern European Intellectual History more generally.

Featured Image: Cover image of Toward the Year 2000 : Work in Progress, edited by Daniel Bell, 1969.