Presidential address delivered at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, New Orleans, December 28, 1972. Published in the American Historical Review 78, no. 1 (January 1973): 1–10.

History and Cultural Crisis

About 1850 Matthew Arnold found himself “wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.” A little later Leo Tolstoy lamented that “the edifice of civil society, erected by the toil and energy of countless generations, is a crumbling ruin.” Later still, in 1889, David A. Wells, the prolific American pundit, wrote that the preceding quarter century “will hereafter rank in history as one that has no parallel, but which corresponds in importance with the periods … when the whole plane of civilization and humanity rose to a higher level, each great movement being accompanied by social disturbances of great magnitude and serious import.”1

Clearly there is nothing remarkable in thinkers of the last one hundred years or more seeing the period in which they wrote as one of unusual or critical change, and there probably is a tendency for men to see their own times as unsettled. Yet when we look back over a longer span of history it does seem possible to distinguish between periods of relative cultural stability that fostered continuity and those of social imbalance when basic cultural change occurred with relative rapidity. Proceeding on this assumption, I will offer the proposition that the period from 1960 on has been, and to some unforeseeable point in the future will be, one of unusual social problems and basic readjustments.

Compared to those of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the changes now going on in all the industrialized nations of the world appear to involve more of the entire range of social institutions. Science and technology are directly affecting education, sex, work, and income; these influences, in turn, are forcing readjustments in the relations between business, government, and labor. Because pollution is increasing at a rate that could, according to some pessimistic scientists, make our present levels of consumption impossible within less than fifty years, it is bringing into question the almost universally accepted aim of ever-increasing production. But the “cultural crisis” manifested in disregard for property, in casual brutality, in the use of strong drugs, and in the vocational uncertainty and chronic protest of youth has social and intellectual roots as well as technological ones. Obviously the sanctioning force of some basic institutions has become too weak to assure reasonably predictable and orderly behavior.

Social scientists have, of course, offered a number of reasons for this unstable situation. On the level of pure theory a distinguished anthropologist sees change in behavior as the result of perceived disparity between the cultural dimensions of the system, such as traditional values and beliefs, and the social dimensions, such as roles and institutions; or, more simply, between what we believe and what we are expected to do.2 Sociologists who have analyzed what they call “the period of cultural crisis” in the 1960s and 1970s find its origin in “the impact of general affluence and large-scale bureaucratic organization on allegiance to the ‘Protestant Ethic,’ on modes of child-rearing, on sexual identity, on attitudes toward work, property, competition and self-expression.”3

Since social scientists agree that the discrepancy between values and institutions has been widening over several decades, historical method seems the ideal instrument for analysis.4 And as data do not speak for themselves, one must select assumptions that can lead to specific and useful hypotheses.5 The assumption I will use to illuminate the mid-century cultural crisis is that to function adequately, bureaucratic hierarchies have to be supported by shared values—an assumption that will, I feel sure, be regarded as a proper analytical instrument by social scientists. Space being limited I will illustrate the trends chiefly in the institutions of business.

As late as the 1930s dictionaries defined “hierarchy” solely in terms of sacred values or the ordering of related groups in science, but by the late 1960s the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences repeatedly used the term to cover any orderly bureaucracy with lines of authority extending downward from the top. A hierarchy can be high, complex, and loosely structured, like that of the executive branch of the federal government, or low, simple, and closely knit, as in the patriarchal family.6 Such examples assume ideal types and do not preclude the reality of dominance in policy making by someone other than the president, or the running of the family by the wife or a horrible child.

Hierarchical orders differ greatly in purpose, authority, and social acceptance. Max Weber noted that “for a jurist a system of authority is either valid or it is not; for the sociologist … there is a gradual transition between two extremes of validity and non-validity and it is possible for mutually contradictory systems of authority to coexist validly.”7 This latter situation is particularly well illustrated in present-day societies where democracy and authoritarianism coexist. In any case, voluntary obedience to authority depends upon a belief that the hierarchical control is either essential or morally justifiable. Assumptions of inevitability and rightness are usually blended in the social values that support the demands of a hierarchical order, as, for example, in the minds of those who still voluntarily obey the law.

My historical hypothesis has three main elements: first, the hierarchical orders central to industrial society and their attendant bureaucracies have grown phenomenally in size and impersonality during the twentieth century; second, the initial values that justified them have crumbled away with equally upsetting speed; and third, encouraged partly by the uniformities of mass production and increased economic security, the American antiauthoritarian belief in equality has become stronger. As a result the justification of all structures of authority has been challenged. While the data I have used to illustrate the applicability of this hypothesis are taken from American history, particularly from that of business, similar developments have occurred throughout the industrial world.

Before I turn to the institutions of business, it should be noted that major hierarchies have preindustrial European origins. If national distinctions can be made, one might say that at the beginning of the present century in parts of Europe hierarchy justified by ancient agrarian property relationships was stronger than in the United States, where the major justifications were the “laws of the market” and the Christian religion. Because the pace of change had been relatively slow in earlier times, many people in the nineteenth century could assume that the orders of authority in religion, the family, business, government, and the general social structure accorded with laws of nature, which the devout equated with the laws of God. This assumption made successful resistance immoral and ultimately impossible. God’s order would return, just as the self-regulating economic system would always seek equilibrium.

While industrialism, by making for more equal consumption of similar goods and creating a mass rather than a class society, has everywhere placed added weight on equality and democracy, it has, in this respect, probably had its strongest influence in America. One might say that here society adjusted itself to industrialism, while in Europe the new economic forces were adjusted to a more rigid society. In America the strength of traditional authority, save for the laws of the market, appeared weaker than elsewhere because of the widespread assumption that the Revolution had eliminated the hierarchical heritage of Europe and made political democracy the major national value. Belief in equality was further strengthened because on American soil some of the European orders took different and often less obvious forms: more quickly than in other nations money displaced land as the most widely recognized basis for social prestige, making the “laws of nature” more concerned with the market; the diverse Protestant sects were structurally less hierarchical than the Catholic or Anglican churches; and state and local politics appeared to be more democratic than their provincial counterparts in England or on the Continent.

Yet, in contradiction to ultimate democratizing tendencies, as industrialism progressed new authoritarian systems merged with the old. In the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries American bureaucratic hierarchies grew in both the public school system and in higher education and on all levels of government, while in the twentieth century an enormous military hierarchy arose within, but somewhat separate from, political government. By the 1960s federal bureaucracy had come to seem remote, unapproachable, and slow in adjusting to emerging social issues.

In the conduct of business there had never been any legal doubt regarding the autocratic rights of the proprietor. The good manager established clear lines of authority and expected employees using his property to be his obedient servants. While corporation charters and laws in the nineteenth century vested ultimate authority in the stockholders, control was exercised by a board of directors. And although the directors were usually elected annually, stockholder democracy seldom, if ever, functioned. In fact the directors soon became self-perpetuating trustees exercising absolute authority. In 1950 Winthrop Aldrich, chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank and one of the sagacious moral leaders of American business, proclaimed the death within the big corporation of even the concept of democracy: “The management of this institution is in the hands of the … directors…. The stockholders have no right to intervene.”8

The directors in turn came to be dominated by the men active in management. In some big twentieth-century companies all directors were also managers charged with running the company, and hence they were their own employees. Normally some one or two men at the top of the managerial hierarchy made the ultimate decisions. When Charles Percy of Illinois left a large corporation to become a United States senator he said, “It’s a terrible plunge into an icy bath to jump from business, which is essentially an autocracy, into government, which is a democracy.”9

As the twentieth century went on, some of these bureaucratic autocracies became very large and highly impersonal. General Motors in 1971 had 700,000 employees and perhaps 500 upper-level executives, while Ford had over 400,000 employees and General Electric nearly that many.10 Another statistic gives a perspective on these figures: the number of employees of state and local governments, other than teachers, averaged just under 100,000 per state.11 Since many people regard business as America’s most powerful and important social institution, the continued growth of such big hierarchies, never adequately justified by democratic concepts, threatened to create severe tensions between social values and social reality.

A remote, impersonal hierarchy may need more justification through widely shared values than does a simpler, more direct agency of control. Yet the major values that underlay the original social acceptance of hierarchical, authoritarian business were weakening or disappearing. In the nineteenth century, development of the country had become a justification or social sanction exerting a religious type of force. There were doubtless more professed atheists than open opponents of rapid economic growth. By the 1840s the ever-higher standard of living had also become part of the cherished “American way of life.” Continuing economic growth and distribution of the resulting gains to improve real personal income made the dictatorial character of business acceptable to, at least, the middle class.

But a century later, as European and American productivity increased rapidly, a point was rather suddenly reached when to many Americans these older values no longer seemed sufficient justification for the authority and social power of business. Members of the younger generation who had been reared in relative affluence called for protection of the natural environment from further exploitation and assumed that the economic goal should be, not a higher standard of living, but more even distribution of income. The broad horizons toward which America had led the rest of the world contracted sharply; for a farsighted gaze at a glorious future, the young substituted a more pessimistic, short-range view. In this new age of uncertainty the Calvinist or Protestant ethic increasingly lost its invigorating and sanctioning force.

Similar changes were occurring in the other rich industrial nations, but not with as much force as in the still prosperous and democratically oriented United States. Because of American traditions authority within business shared with other American hierarchies a particular vulnerability to democratic attack. Alongside commitment to God and the development of the country, Americans had been taught to revere the antiauthoritarian words of the Declaration of Independence, the dedication at Gettysburg “to the proposition that all men are created equal,” and a myriad of other political pronouncements extolling the power of the people, while in daily life this tradition was reinforced by egalitarian manners in personal relations.

As more and more Americans found employment in business, the contradiction in using the language of freedom and democracy to support essentially undemocratic institutions became increasingly obvious. Peter Levi in Mary McCarthy’s The Birds believes the whole world is haunted by equality because no society has ever given it a chance, but in none of the other Western nations was the discrepancy of ideal and reality more obvious. Nowhere in the Western world was oligopoly more strongly defended as free enterprise or remote and secretive government more often excused by the needs of freedom and democracy.

In the 1920s particularly, older American values were being eroded by new scientific ideas. Among these were psychological theories that improved morale among workers and lower or “first-line” administrative employees could lead to higher productivity. In the old system of values managerial authority, like parental control, was based on the operation of natural or divine laws, which for managers prescribed that success proved virtue and failure to rise from the lower ranks showed a lack of either intelligence or proper moral qualities. “Democracy” meant not so much equality as an absence of impediments to success. The new psychological insights tended to replace these inexorable mandates of universal law by highly tentative and vulnerable theories of management. By mid-century the interested section of the public came to regard management as largely responsible for the productivity of labor and to occupy its position of authority on the basis of family, influence, superior educational opportunities, and the ability to succeed in an organization rather than on hard work and moral superiority. Such a change in attitude by managers themselves, as well as by their critics, sapped the strength of the traditional justifications for the rigidly authoritarian quality of business hierarchies.

The weakening of the belief that success was self-justifying had profound ramifications outside of business. One was in attitudes toward poverty. Stimulated by the obvious facts that many of the unemployed in the Great Depression were not morally responsible for their plight and that the successful might lack superior virtue, Americans began to shift responsibility for poverty from the poor themselves to the governing social elite. By the late 1950s the concept of poverty had changed from an ineradicable evil that the morally unfit inflicted on themselves to a stigma on the leadership of an affluent society.

Each of the threatened bureaucratic hierarchies has reacted protectively in ways appropriate to its functions. In business the managerial hierarchy losing support from religious or Social Darwinian values has sought new sanctions for its authority in mathematical or other systematic schemes. Turbulence within its ranks has been less obvious than in the more open and public bureaucracies. Except for occasional crises that lead to abrupt changes in management, legislative hearings, or legal action, the managerial problems of corruption, poor morale, and confused leadership are not easily discerned from the outside.

Dissent from traditional practice in business has taken different forms at different levels. Workers have protested what they considered unjustified, arbitrary treatment by means of absenteeism, wild-cat strikes, or quitting the job in favor of unemployment insurance and relief. Routine work has become less attractive and less necessary for personal support. Another threatening specter is that of the paralyzing work stoppage; it is no longer to be assumed in the leading democracies that the power of either management or government can in fact end a labor dispute in a way that is not damaging to the public interest.

The great increase in higher education from 1947 on, which created a mass intelligentsia for the first time in history, was both a response to business needs and a potential challenge to its authoritarian hierarchy. It not only created new thousands of citizens who, if aroused, had the knowledge necessary to condemn poor business performance, but it also menaced managerial authority and efficiency by filling the larger firms with specialists often more devoted to their field of knowledge than to the company that employed them. In previous times the company had a claim to loyalty on the basis of providing secure careers; now the increasing substitution of computer and other machine-made answers for routine human decisions on the middle level menaces this security—a menace compounded by the gradual shift from manufacturing to service, which has on occasion changed highly educated engineers into motel clerks.

Education also produced a younger and soon a middle generation aware that existing power structures lack justifying values. It was not accidental that the rebellion of students started at the institutions with the highest educational levels, where teaching made most clear the anomalies of society. College graduates seeking jobs in business became more interested than before in the company climate of social relations, in the chance for self-realization, and in other noneconomic aspects of positions.12 To create better morale as well as to facilitate administration some big companies decentralized decision making and put more emphasis on participation through conferences and committees at all levels. In spite of such gestures toward democracy a big plant executive writes that young managers “question to an ‘alarming’ degree the amount of authority and control held by top management.”13

Resulting managerial gestures toward democracy have been somewhat artificial. A team of social scientists from Berkeley studying managerial attitudes in the Western world in the mid-1960s found that “to direct has better connotations than to persuade,” that the latter “is closer to making a mistake.” “Managers show little faith in the capacity of others for initiative and leadership” and “seem consistently to endorse authoritarian principles, vis-a-vis organizational structure.” As a portent of possible change, the team found that young, high-level managers in large companies were most likely to be democratic. For themselves, young executives wanted “autonomy and self-actualization.”14 But no one familiar with the history of management can expect such changes to occur easily.

Many graduating seniors have elected not to enter the authoritarian business hierarchy at all, save in the role of specialized advisers. In years when academic and other professional jobs have been reasonably plentiful, corporations have complained loudly of their inability to recruit some of the most promising young men. It still seems too early, however, to see a new level of consciousness in recent career preferences, since they can be explained strictly on the basis of affluence and a more educated assessment of alternatives.

Women and ethnic groups protested against unequal treatment by all the major social bureaucracies, including corporations and labor unions. On the initial levels of hiring, these protests could probably be met through more equitable practices on the part of business, education, labor, and government. But equality throughout the stages of the respective hierarchies posed problems arising from both real circumstances and custom. There were proportionately not as many highly trained blacks or women as there were white males, and hence few or none among the dissatisfied groups might be qualified for a particular upper-level position. In business, especially, there were traditional views that top management should be a team or group able to belong to the same clubs and to develop intimate social relationships. The problems involved here are obvious.

The loss of justification for authority, the decline of morale, and the rise of equalitarian protest could, of course, be illustrated in the history of other major social institutions. The same process of mounting skepticism and loss in the force of generally accepted values covers the whole social panorama from art to organized religion.15 But perhaps nowhere has the conflict between an old authoritarianism and the new equalitarianism, or its nonacceptance, been more sharp and dramatic than in business management.

Had American business continued to lead the world and been able legitimately to boast of outstanding achievement, it might have better withstood the mounting criticism from both within and without. From 1950 on, however, the rate of growth of the United States gross national product per capita was substantially below the average of Western Europe.16 This apparently poor performance can be partly explained by the fact that the United States started from a higher base and a more mature stage of industrialism that emphasized service more and cheap goods less, but it was contributed to by elements that were easy for the public to criticize. For example, a large part of the manufactured product and most developmental research were in industries related to national defense. So while Europe and Japan perfected better ways of making consumer goods, the United States concentrated on planes, missiles, and aerospace. Except for military equipment, American goods began to fail in the competition for world markets.

Since, in spite of the slowing down, the United States in 1972 still had, by a fair margin, the highest level of civilian expenditure and the largest need for cars, trucks, and buses, its automotive industry was the first to come under severe criticism for polluting the environment. To many the automobile had first conquered the nation and then laid it to waste. Cars twice as large and many times as powerful as necessary posed corresponding problems of contamination.

Nations may have existed for generations with grave social problems and severe imbalances between generally held attitudes and the power structure, although perhaps never for long with so many new hierarchies of all types, so strong an emphasis on democracy, and such a lack of traditional justifying values. In the words of Kenneth Keniston, “Never before had so many who had so much been so deeply disenchanted by their inheritance.”17 Historically “crises” seem usually to occur when previously well-supported institutions undergo pressure from a period of malfunctioning, such as the one that has afflicted the Western world and particularly the United States in the 1960s and 1970s—a period in which it has become clear that greater affluence has failed to cure relative or “psychic” poverty, or necessarily to increase happiness; that democratic slogans have failed to end racial or sexual discrimination; that enlightened governments have failed to control inflation or the business cycle; and—most aggravating of all to American youth—that vast military power has failed to prevent compulsory service in a long and unsuccessful foreign war, which negated traditional morality and trained men to kill.

As violent minority discontent arising at both ends of the social scale became a matter of grave concern, the great majority of Americans, not fully realizing the extent to which they have shared in the loss of values, reacted to preserve existing institutions. Recognizing democracy as the respected common value, those representing hierarchical authority made conciliatory gestures in the form of granting more democratic procedures. Even in the army, the most authoritarian structure, new attention was paid to complaints from below. In fact permissiveness in the forces engaged in a foreign war reached a point where orders were often disregarded and, on occasion, effective action could not be commanded. Time, a journal presumably representative of the opinions of upper-income groups, reported in 1971 that “according to an army study, there may well exist such a profound crisis of discipline that the Army’s ability to function is in doubt.”18

But even if it were to be completely accepted, is democracy or equalitarianism the kind of value or belief that can by itself cure antisocial behavior and loss of social morale? Since some hierarchy seems inevitable in the conduct of human affairs and since equality can never be complete, what is required is the justification of gradations, not the virtual elimination of them. Democracy as commonly practiced is only a process desirable for the realization of fundamental values. A cure for the cultural crisis must be some compelling doctrine that will lead Americans to play their roles with the orderliness necessary for the operation of a good society. Walter Lippmann has called this the need for a public philosophy, but psychologists are inclined to think that, to be effective, new values must attain the force of religious belief. The major tenets of the “religion” may, of course, be secular, such as the biological and psychological improvement of man; they may be concerned with relations between man, society, and nature, as well as with a renewal of emphasis on love, sensitivity, and spirituality.

A colleague has noted that “periods of transition and stress are ill-suited to reflection—and hardly to systematic use of historical or comparative method”; yet unfortunately these are the times in which perspective is most valuable.19 While not providing clear solutions, any more than do other types of social analysis, historical study indicates the strength and persistence of some of the forces involved in current stress and the anachronistic basis of some strongly asserted positions. By using a system of analysis reaching well back into the past, history can suggest a range of potentially workable solutions for current social problems.

Thomas C. Cochran (1902–April 29, 1999) was a pioneer in the field of American economic history. Cochran received a BS and MA from New York University, before earning his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1930. He taught at NYU for almost 25 years, rising to the rank of full professor in 1944, before joining the University of Pennsylvania in 1950 as professor of the history of the American people. Cochran opened new areas of research in the history of business and industrial production. He also opened up new methodological approaches to the field, drawing on the social sciences and focusing new attention on the importance of social and cultural factors in the history of business. During his long and distinguished career, he wrote numerous books that remain standards in the field, including Railroad Leaders: The Business Mind in Action (1953) The American Business System (1957), A Basic History of American Business(1959), Business in American Life (1972), and Frontiers of Change: Early Industrialism in America (1981).



  1. For the quotation from Arnold, see “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse”; for Tolstoy, see the quotation in David A. Wells, Recent Economic Change (New York, 1889), 329; and for Wells’s own opinion, see ibid., 465. []
  2. See Evon Z. Vogt, “On the Concepts of Structure and Process in Cultural Anthropology,” American Anthropologist, Jan. 1960, pp. 18–33. []
  3. Milton Mankoff and Richard Flacks, “The Changing Social Basis of the American Student Movement,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 395 (1971): 62. []
  4. Mankoff and Flacks, “The Changing Social Basis of the American Student Movement.” []
  5. Michael Polanyi states this as a rule of logic: “It is impossible to represent the organizing principles of a higher level by the laws governing its isolated particulars.” The Tacit Dimension (New York, 1966), 36. []
  6. For a discussion of the inevitability of hierarchy, see Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (New York, 1950), 140–41. []
  7. Max Weber, Basic Concepts, tr. H. P. Secher (New York, 1962), 73. []
  8. Quoted in Time, Feb. 13, 1950, p. 82. []
  9. Quoted in Herman E. Kroos, Executive Opinion: What Business Leaders Said and Thought on Economic Issues, 1920’s–1960’s (Garden City, 1970), 252. []
  10. Fortune, May 1972, p. 191. []
  11. Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1970 (Washington, 1970), 430. []
  12. See Renato Taguiri and George H. Litwin, eds., Organizational Climate: Exploration of a Concept (Boston, 1968). []
  13. William McNay, “Industrial Management” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1972), 173. []
  14. Mason Haire, Edwin E. Ghiselli, and Lyman Porter, Managerial Thinking: An International Study (New York, 1966), 171–74. []
  15. See David Mandel, Changing Art, Changing Man (New York, 1967), 14–15. []
  16. Edward F. Denison, Why Growth Rates Differ: Post War Experience in Nine Western Countries (Washington, 1967), 319. []
  17. Kenneth Keniston, Youth and Dissent: The Rise of the New Opposition (New York, 1971), ix. []
  18. Time, Aug. 9, 1971, p. 21. []
  19. Charles E. Rosenberg, “Our Medical System,” Science, May 1972, p. 901. []