The new director of the LSE provides intellectual legitimacy for Tony Blair's pick and mix politics-both men are attempting to transcend left and right. John Lloyd considers their respective journeys from the left to the radical centreby John Lloyd / April 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Anthony Giddens is the key intellectual figure of New Labour. This does not mean he is a philosopher at the court of King Tony: there is no such figure, beside the homely wisdom of Peter Mandelson. Rather, it means that his themes set a context within which New Labour thinking can operate.
At the same time, the logic of many of Giddens’ positions contradicts and runs against the practice of New Labour. In mapping out the new terrain, Giddens’ work seeks to show New Labour where to go, reveals how much its adaptation of socialism to social-ism is inevitable for a party seeking power, and defines some of the limits of what it has identified as its most urgent, albeit imprecise, task: the modernisation of Britain.
Giddens has spent all of his working life in academia, mostly in Cambridge, where he became professor of sociology and a fellow of King’s College. His output of books and articles has been immense: he has also founded and chaired Polity Press in association with the publishers Blackwell. Polity publishes a range of authors who might be loosely defined as the new political and social theorists.
In December, he was appointed director of the London School of Economics-a post which carries with it a heavy load of administrative work, which he attempts to minimise but which he already finds, three months into his tenure, is cutting into his own writing. As he began his new job, he received the accolade of a day-long conference at the Institute of Contemporary Arts dedicated to his work-a rare event for a living scholar. The choice of the venue shows how much his work is seen to intersect with a cultural agenda beyond academic sociology, more in tune with what remains of the new left, which itself intersects with New Labour, if uneasily.
He is a slightly built man with a mobile, humourous face, a pronounced London accent and a casual conversational and public speaking style, which comes as a a surprise after the density of his prose. He has none of the public gravitas of his best known predecessor at the LSE, Sir Ralf Dahrendorf, nor does he have the latter’s slate of public positions, although he may acquire some of this when Labour is in office. He is self-deprecating, ironic and elusive: when I put to him that one of his major themes was the need for more dialogue among individuals and institutions, he said rather dismissively-“well, you don’t want people to talk on all the bloody time, you have to get on with things”-leaving me feeling slightly foolish.
This article is neither a personal profile nor an appreciation of the totality of his work. Rather, it is an effort to place his more recent writing in the present political context: to support my opening gambit that Giddens’ is at once an inspiration for New Labour and a critic.
giddens has cleared a space in the ideological jungle for the politics of the “radical centre”-his phrase, and Blair’s. He believes that there is no longer, in most areas of political life, a political left and right-if these are defined as coherent, interlinked sets of beliefs. The title of his best known recent book, Beyond Left and Right, is so called because it does seek to explore terrain in which there are no presumptions about one source of ideas being untouchable or another automatically privileged. “Conservatism,” he says “…can be drawn on positively, if critically, to help us shape a radical programme.” The “us” in this is assumed to be the left, to which Giddens addresses himself and in which he considers himself at home.
Yet, there is no longer a right and left largely because the left has failed. It can no longer give the world what it once could-the ideology and organisation for a “simple modernisation” in which production could develop and expand without too much concern for the varieties of individual human taste. In the period of “reflexive modernisation,” in which demands become bewilderingly differentiated, socialism simply goes out of date. And this is the case not just for the dramatic failure of Soviet communism, but for revisionist socialism in various forms: Keynesianism is no more capable of coping than are the descendants of Stalinism. “Socialism,” he writes, “was based on a cybernetic model of social life, one which strongly reflects the Enlightenment outlook. According to the cybernetic model, a system (in the case of socialism, the economy) can best be organised by being subordinated to a directive intelligence (the state, in one form or another). While such a set-up might work in a society of fairly fixed lifestyle habits-it does not work in a highly complex one.”
In other words, modernity, or even post-modernity (Giddens uses “post-traditional,” a rather different concept), favours much of what has been the economic pillar of the right-free markets. In several places in his work, and in conversation, Giddens is explicit that we are now on neo-liberal economic ground, and are unlikely to shift off it. In that sense the right has “won”-but in that sense only. For while the left has lost an economic case which was also a moral one-and that is a very large loss indeed-the right has now reached the limit of its own neo-liberal success. It is caught in the contradictions of a politics which celebrates the uprooting vigour of market radicalism while proclaiming a fidelity to institutions of state and private life-the monarchy, the constitution, the family, Victorian morality-which are most under siege from the markets and their appetite for new customers, products and images.
Conservatism must be distinguished from neo-liberalism: indeed, the Conservative party today is in crisis because conservatism is in such open warfare with market radicalism, and can no longer be reconciled through the charismatic medium of Margaret Thatcher. Philosophic conservatism, Giddens believes, with its themes of “conservation, restoration and repair” is now the kind of stream which can be diverted to the purposes of the left-even as the society created by the neo-liberals must be tolerated.
And the requirement to conserve connects to Giddens’ belief that we live in a world full of a new sort of risk-“manufactured risk,” where the problems we face come from what we have done to nature, rather than from nature itself. Manufactured risk is the Enlightenment project turning upon itself: in the exhaustion of the environment and in the perverse side effects which spin off from scientific or market advances, as BSE did from the faster processing of animals through abbatoirs.
This cannot continue indefinitely. The assumptions of growth, built alike into socialism and capitalism, are probably no longer sustainable. The world may be warming dangerously. Its population may be increasing too rapidly for its resources and food growing capacity to cope. We do not know these things, but we no longer trust the airy waving away of such fears with the assurance that science always turns up a solution.
giddens’ central political concept, and in many ways the most uncomfortable for New Labour, is the “post-traditional” society. For Giddens, this means a society in which the anchors of the past have been pulled up, and in which a new sort of decision making and a new sort of public and private morality must be practised in the absence of generally accepted truths. Post-traditional society is one in which tradition cannot be given any kind of privileged place whatsoever-something which is difficult for a political party to accept, whether New Labour or neo-liberal conservatism before it.
Like Larkin with sex, so Giddens dates post-traditional society as beginning sometime in the 1960s. From then on, a “runaway world” as Edmund Leach put it, has run away from an order in which things were done in a certain way because they were always done in a certain way. It became a world of invention: from the invention of products for which no need had ever been felt, to the invention of relationships for which no previous social or religious sanction had been given in western society.
This meant that all decisions had to be conscious: that it could never be enough to say that an order was sanctioned by time, or that a state of affairs was sacrosanct because it had served a previous era well. It meant a world in which production techniques could come from Japan, marketing strategy from the US, equal opportunity codes from Scandinavia. Nothing was actually “British” any more, nor “German,” nor “Russian”-everything was at least potentially open to being a palimpsest composed of everything else. “In many situations,” he writes, “we cannot choose but to choose among alternatives-even if we should choose to remain traditional.”
But if tradition is gone, and with it the guiding, if sometimes invisible hands of religion, or secular religions such as communism, on what can decisions be based? Why is one better than another? Indeed, in the former Soviet states, cast into a “post-traditional” world instantly, without the slow decompression of the western societies, we can see the political, philosophic and moral chaos which has erupted from the crash of old structures of belief. It is as if we had moved from puritanism to hedonism in a decade.
Giddens has a kind of answer. “Where the past has lost its hold,” he writes, “we need to generate in its place active trust-trust in others or in institutions, including political institutions.” Negotiation and dialogue-another G-phrase is “dialogic democracy”-are the media through which trust is generated. If everything is subject to human reason and to consent, then the world must be composed of areas in which negotiation is carried out. And this must be done, as far as possible, on equal bases. Indeed, securing these equal bases, rather than an illusory search for equality itself, becomes a major task of post-traditional politics. This assumes devolution and decentralisation of political power, and the use of “top down” politics to bring about its own disappearance. “Top down” politics should increasingly be about creating spaces in which people “at the bottom” sort out things for themselves. This means that “they” get out of our hair, something to which most would assent. It also means that “they” cease to take responsibility for a variety of social crises.
The largest motor behind the creation and re-creation of post-traditional societies is globalisation-a process which Giddens sees as an omnipresent effect, infusing every part of our public and private lives. It is not some entity which can be embraced or refused: it is the social, economic and political air we breathe, even if we feel it is poisoning us.
Globalisation is a highly contested area-some of the arguments have been rehearsed in the pages of this magazine. Giddens is a leading figure in the group which thinks that globalisation is revolutionising our world, and is not merely a repeat of the expansion of trade seen before the first world war. There is an even more keenly felt dimension to globalisation: “My decision to purchase a particular article of clothing or a specific type of foodstuff, has global implications. It not only affects the livelihood of someone living on the other side of the world but may contribute to a process of ecological decay which itself has consequences for the whole of humanity. This extraordinary, and still accelerating, connectedness between everyday decisions and global outcomes, together with its reverse, the influence of global orders over individual life, form the key subject matter of the new agenda. Intermediate collectivities and groupings of all sorts, including the state, do not disappear; but they do become reorganised or reshaped.”
Globalisation transfers to the global arena much of what had been captured by the state. It does not mean rule by global corporations-another comforting bugaboo of the left which Giddens casually knocks aside with the observation that “the celebrated propensity of capitalist production towards monopoly probably depended in fact upon collaborative connections between the state and capital which are now being undermined.” Global companies’ power can be awesome-it can also be fragile or at least reversible, given local mobilisation. Many of the parables of our time, which have provided the fodder for Hollywood sentimentalism over the past decade, concern the successful struggle of a threatened community against the mighty corporation, which hovers darkly over them like the alien spacecrafts do in Independence Day-and then, with pluck, courage, humour and daring, are pushed back as the community and human life is saved.
At the symposium in his honour, Giddens was taken to respectful task by Will Hutton, editor of the Observer and a Savonarola against the right, for playing down the problem, which was, said Hutton, basically still capitalism. It is easy to see Hutton’s point: the reconciliation to the liberal economic agenda, the puncturing of leftist beliefs, the straining to transcend leftist labels-all could be seen as adding up to a super-sophisticated sojourn to the right of the kind taken by many leftists. In fact, Giddens believes in much of what leftists have always believed: he believes that class distinctions are deepening, not disappearing, although on a global rather than purely national basis; he believes that poverty is more difficult to eradicate in some ways, as the rich and the educated become one and the same class, a globally organised and very powerful stratum which has less and less interest in their native countries, let alone the poor who were once at the rich man’s gate and thus got a few alms. As Zygmunt Baumann observed at the symposium, the poor are no longer needed for the good of the soul, nor indeed as a reserve army of labour-the roles which the two great western ideologies of the past century reserved for them. Giddens acknowledges the force of this, but has no belief in the competence of the old nostrums to do much about it, except cosmetically and temporarily.
this is the most stripped down version of a body of work which has matured over decades. It is clear, though, from even such a brief rehearsal how Blair- friendly much of it is. Both are searching for a rewriting of the old labels, not merely a representation of them. Both revel in invention, although the academic is much freer to do so than the politician, especially since the latter must take on established and entrenched interests in the course of the re-invention of his party. Giddens says that he was never a marxist-although he does say he wanted to place Marx alongside with Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, as a key social theorist and one whose analysis of class can still be fruitfully used and explored. In this sense, although not one of the New Left core group with Perry Anderson, Robin Blackburn, Anthony Barnett and others, Giddens was regarded as allied to them, sharing their academic and to some extent political space. His coming in to New Labour-and he heartily endorses “the project”-is thus a sign that part of that grouping does not dismiss Blairism as a fashionable heresy, as Eric Hobsbawm has done.
The usefulness of his work to New Labour lies in the cluster of insights around his concepts of globalisation and post-traditional society, but above all in his ideological brigandage-the transcendence of the old ideological categories and their replacement by a commitment to be “radical” in pursuit of both economic efficiency and greater social justice. Most commentators, and many politicians, see a yawning contradiction between these two aims: the adoption of neo-liberalism’s main tenets, it is held, must cancel out any but rhetorical obeisance to “social-ism.” But Giddens’ work says this is not necessarily so.
His resolution of the issue lies in another coinage-“utopian realism,” or the pursuit of realistic solutions through an apparently utopian vision. For example, if it is clear that the richer and more populous countries are being choked by cars to the point where car driving is slower than almost all forms of transport other than walking, then proposals thought utopian, such as the banning of cars from cities, become reasonable. Who is going to give up the luxury of a car? But if the present order is shown clearly to be no longer sustainable, and no longer part of what the modern world could aspire to, then both the practical and moral supports for it could be whittled away by a “dialogic politics.”
New Labour, at its best, operates in precisely this area. The constitutional change which constitutes the most radical and ambitious part of the programme is utopian in the depth of change it will usher in. To propose at least one separate parliament for the first time on the British mainland in nearly three centuries, an end to hereditary peers, a right to see information held on oneself, an incorporation of the European charter of human rights into British legal practice, as well as a revival of local government and education, is sweeping in its scope-even if this has been obscured by the inner party grumblings about the rightward drift of economic policy.
But one of the reasons why the Conservatives cannot get a proper handle on Labour is because the utopian has become, or could become, realistic: that which was deemed unpopular, or irrelevant to common concern, has become desired. Tradition, to which John Major has appealed and will again in the next two months, has lost its hold; it is seen as just one consideration among many, and often not a powerful one. The modernising politician, picking his moment and issue, can indeed be a utopian realist.
In a different sense, the New Labour leadership has overseen a change in the party constitution and practice which seemed utopian until a few years ago-and indeed, was pushed aside by John Smith, the leader before Blair, as a change too far (or even a change not wanted). Yet the rewriting of clause four to incorporate a commitment to free enterprise, the adoption of a centrist or even (in conventional terms) rightist economic programme and the progressive marginalising of the trade unions have been accomplished with a speed and determination which was realistic, given the need to modernise to win.
New Labour knows it operates in a post-traditional world. It knows this because the most tenaciously guarded tradition it has taken on and beaten was the Labour party itself. In carving away great chunks of it, New Labour has caused a deep grief, which is only partly allayed by its success in the opinion polls: the hunger for traditional ideological and moral comforts exists in a separate compartment from the desire for power, and may even be at war with it.
New Labour also knows it lives in a world already globalised, rather than one in which it can choose how globalised it wishes to be. Blair has reiterated the Thatcherite mantra of “there is no alternative”-one of the saddest political mottos of our times, but one of the most solid. The realisation allows New Labour to see Britain much more for what it is than previous administrations or oppositions, arguably more than the present government. It is behind the much criticised modesty of the election promises. New Labour knows that globalisation means constraint, the acceptance of the outside world in every area of political life.
New Labour has also come to its own kind of dialogic democracy. It has extended open dialogue with groups and institutions which were assumed to be outside the Labour universe, at least in opposition-principally business leaders. It has in some ways extended dialogue with the general public: focus groups are a substitute for an impossible public conversation, clearly used for short run, even cynical motives but at the same time rather more respectful to real worries, desires and aspirations than either the hearty 40 seconds on the doorstep or the curt yes/no responses of the opinion polls. The complaint that a great political party should not be driven by focus groups-by the carefully revealed thoughts of a range of people ordinarily not involved in the political process-is a strange one: is it prima facie better that it be driven simply by the driven people who are its active members?
but where giddens and New Labour part company is in those areas where the party has judged it best to stay with tradition, or to invoke it to cover its real or potential radicalism, or because it has nothing else but the traditional to say. I asked Giddens what he thought about the use of religion by Blair and others in Labour’s leadership as a moral guide to society and as a symbol of his and their own probity and respectability. He replied-“I think that’s no good.You can’t use it in the way it is used in politics now, and I don’t like to see it.”
An adjunct to the delicate insertion of religious themes into the policy debate and into the leaders’ profile is the lack of interest in constructing a basis for a new morality: the old one will do. The defence of the traditional family and of traditional discipline flies against Giddens’ belief that relationships have moved beyond the traditional. In one of the most luminous sections in Beyond Left and Right, he slips into a discussion of personal relations. He posits the concept of a “pure” relationship which is, he says, characteristic of our times: a “pure” relationship is one entered into and sustained for its own sake-for love, for companionship, for sex. It undercuts the traditional relationship, in which marriage was seen as simply a state of nature, within which men and women had assigned roles. Marriage thus becomes identical with living together, and can be entered into (and left) for the same reasons.
New Labour is balanced between two eras in politics-the modern and the post-traditional. It tries to pick and mix from both. It will invoke wholly new themes and propose solutions which are free floating, owing little or nothing to either British or Labour tradition because they are no longer judged to serve the purpose; it also often dives for cover into the traditional when threatened. Because the defence of the welfare state is so central to Labour’s view of itself and its reason for existence, the shadow ministers often speak in terms of restoring it to a completeness which it never had. Giddens has called for a recasting of the welfare state to reflect both the need and the desire of people to shape their own insurance against the risks of the world; so, sometimes, does Labour, but it is mixed with the view that the state should still do these things for us.
The contradiction to which Giddens constantly returns in conservatism-between a neo-liberalism which demands constant upheaval and a desire to conserve, to protect and to cherish the traditional-runs through New Labour, too. By being more monetarist than thou-in aspiration at least-it puts in constant doubt those parts of its social justice agenda which call for significant spending. It has seen that there is no economic alternative presently available, but it has not been able to face the consequences in practical politics and is thus doomed to be battered by them in government.
Giddens thinks this inevitable. A purely post-traditional party, basing itself on the logical consequences of living after tradition is still impossible-certainly unelectable. New Labour has gone an impressive distance down the road. Government itself will be the test of how far it can cleave to a new politics, how far it takes refuge in old nostrums, much as the Conservatives now scurry for the cloak of the nation in their confusion over the country’s European identity.
But, as Giddens insists, the old nostrums do not exist any more, neither does tradition. We left it behind at some point in our unceasing quest for progress, and it is unforgiving in abandonment: it will not have us back. The more it is used to wrap a political party or a politician, the more absurd it looks. Or, where not absurd, dangerous.
Thus New Labour may indeed be-as Blair says to his party-more radical in office than in opposition. He does not mean that it will hit the rich for whopping tax increases. He may mean that it will be post-traditionalist: that it will use power to devolve power, propose utopian solutions with the hard headed realism which has characterised Blair’s reform of the party, and try to give people at least an equal footing on which to argue through the solutions to the world’s inequalities. If so, New Labour would give the phrase “radical centre” some meaning-and put flesh on much else which now lies in the pages of Anthony Giddens’ books.