A handle on a runaway world

Beyond Left and Right
January 13, 1995

At a time when the pundits are already picking through the ruins of a rapidly disintegrating Conservative Government, anticipating the all-but-inevitable triumph of Tony Blair's seductive socialism (whatever that might be), Beyond Left and Right offers a timely critique of the inadequacy of it all. Where in our mainstream parties is the recognition that the world as we once knew it (and expects it always to be) has changed almost beyond recognition?

Anthony Giddens dwells at length on the ironies of what was to have been "the new world order". At precisely the moment that capitalism has triumphed and human knowledge advances so far as to guarantee our mastery over events, we seem to have got a "runaway world" on our hands instead. A vast and complex array of what he refers to as "manufactured uncertainties" (uncertainties created by the very triumph of industrial capitalism) have denied politicians the use of their conventional remedies. At the same time the inexorable expansion of market forces throughout the global economy has left people high and dry in a rootless, ruthlessly materialistic society.

Some of the principal victims of this neoliberal revolution are the self-same institutions (such as the family) which Conservative governments are at such pains to uphold. In encouraging the free play of market forces, the demons of "detraditionalisation" have been set loose, and many Conservatives are now aghast at the mayhem they have caused in so short a period of time.

Conservatives today conserve nothing; neither the land nor the institutions and values which once bound society together. The past has been abandoned, tradition anathematised. "Philosophic conservatism" -- a philosophy of protection, conservation and solidarity -- is effectively dead.

Not much scope, therefore, for any solutions to these problems emerging from the Right. But even less scope of them emerging from the Left. As Giddens puts it, "Conservatism become radical confronts socialism become conservative''.

I rather doubt that socialist commentators will necessarily buy his analysis of Labour's retreat from radicalism. It is less well mapped out than his account of the Conservative Party's lurch into radicalism. But what it does powerfully demonstrate is that today's newer social movements (feminism, ecology, peace, human rights, etc) cannot automatically be claimed for socialism.

At the heart of this dilemma is the Labour Party's more-or-less unthinking adherence to productivism, an ethos in which paid employment is separated out from the rest of life (providing the definitive benchmark as to whether or not individuals feel worthwhile or socially valued) and in which mechanisms of economic development substitute for personal growth. Such an ethos might once have worked well (in a society where full-time employment in the formal economy was the principal means of distributing wealth), but it makes mighty little sense in a world where "full employment" is a totally unattainable goal, and promises of achieving it are both forlorn and deceitful.

What is more, would we want it anyway if the cost of achieving it was the continued destruction of the natural world, and the life support systems we depend on? Beyond Left and Right does not duck this question, arguing that green issues have to be at the very heart of any new radicalism. As of now, it is only green politics that addresses itself to what Giddens calls the "post-scarcity economy".

The conditions out of which such an economy might emerge are admirably defined: where accumulation for its own sake becomes counterproductive, threatening or destroying valued ways of life and where "individuals or groups take lifestyle decisions that actively go against maximising economic returns''. Giddens argues this is precisely the turning point we have arrived at, a turning point of which the "new" Labour Party remains almost entirely unaware because of its productivist blinkers.

Here Giddens starts to explore the links between green thinking and philosophic conservatism. In a "detraditionalised world", where progress has become inherently destructive, the preservation and renewal of environmental resources goes hand in hand with the preservation and renewal of tradition. Building on some of the ideas expounded by John Gray in Beyond the New Right, he outlines the many convergences between conservatism and green thinking: a scepticism about progress and a critique of modernisation; a belief that economic growth for its own sake is dangerous; the conviction that individuals can only flourish within communal forms of life; a concern for the integrity of nature, for continuity (both social and ecological), for tradition and "ancient wisdom".

To confront these convergences is still as much of a shock to Greens as it is to Conservatives. The Conservative Party has spent much of the past 15 years trying to brand green issues as crypto-socialism, denying both its own political history and the contemporary salience of these issues. Having been passed the Green parcel, Labour promptly passed it on to the Liberal Democrats, who are still in the process of unpacking it tosee if they want what is inside it.

Having promised so much in this fascinating analysis of where radicalism has got us today, and where it needs to be directing us tomorrow, there is an inevitable anticlimax in Giddens's reluctance to discuss "the issue of agency''. Who exactly in the major parties is going to pick up this green gauntlet?

When you consider some of the broad thrusts that define this new radicalism -- including a thorough-going reform of the welfare state to eliminate the top-down, paternalistic notions of "dispensing welfare'' to the undeserving poor -- one reflects inevitably not just on the inadequacies of the major parties to run with it, but of the green movement to persuade these parties that they have no option but to run with it. Though this book is imbued with a very sound understanding of green ideas, there is no automatic endorsement of the organisations through which those ideas are currently transmitted.

Beyond Left and Right is a challenging book. One of the many benefits that might flow from the defeat of the Conservatives at the next election is that those who have already accepted the need to reposition the party in defeat will be able to read books like this, and reposition their own brain cells. Giddens has not made it as easy for them as he might have --the jargon count gets positively astronomical on many occasions, and the impression of an author addressing himself more to fellow sociologists than to the politicians and commentators who need to read him can be very irksome --but the book is well worth persevering with.

Jonathon Porritt is a former spokesman of the Green Party.

Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics

Author - Anthony Giddens
ISBN - 0745 61438 8 and 61439 6
Publisher - Polity Press
Price - £45.00 and £11.95
Pages - 6pp

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