Between the 1950s and 1970s this American sociologist mapped out the intellectual terrain of the centre-leftby Anthony Dworkin / October 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
The New York stock exchange pictured in 1963 (above). Daniel Bell’s work ‘The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism’ grew out of his concern at the decline of American morals
The British political season is about to begin again. Within the next year we face the prospect of a general election-the first contest of Tony Blair’s “progressive century.” With this in mind, Labour’s party conference will be an occasion for stocktaking and thinking ahead. By all accounts, the party’s strategists are not finding it easy to put together a package of firm policies that they can hold out to the voters as their programme for a second term. But the underlying vision which sustains New Labour remains intact and overwhelmingly popular.
It is no longer fashionable to call it the third way, but the worldview which animates the Blair government is now familiar to the point of cliché. We live in a post-industrial society, where class distinctions and the old verities of left and right have lost much of their meaning. The government’s role in this new world should be to promote opportunity by enhancing people’s skills and education, and to prevent the exclusion of the disadvantaged. Above all, in Blair’s case, there is a semi-religious vision of community. While market capitalism is an unrivalled engine of prosperity, it also tends to break down the ties which bind us together. The political challenge is to reinforce solidarity without undermining growth.
The third way has had its critics, but the charges levelled against it have mostly been either of vacuity or of conservatism. On the novelty of their ideas, Blair and his favourite academic Anthony Giddens have been taken at their word. Yet the modern centre-left outlook has its genealogy; it is striking how much of it was anticipated by an American thinker, who put the basic elements in place 30 years ago.
The sociologist Daniel Bell is the unacknowledged prophet of the third way. In a path-breaking series of articles and books written between the 1950s and the 1970s, he mapped out the intellectual terrain on which the modernising centre-left has now pitched its tent. At the time, he was often an isolated figure, pilloried by both left and right. From today’s perspective, whether you agree with him or not, his work stands out as astonishingly prescient in its anticipation of the concerns and concepts which dominate political debate in both…