Books: All together now

Anthony Giddens challenges the prophets of doom; Connexity by Geoff Mulgan, Chatto & Windus, pounds 16.99
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There is a popular view of society at the moment which runs something like this: 30 or 40 years ago, social life was a predictable and ordered affair. Families by and large held together and children had a stable social environment. People took pride in their local communities and there was a general sense of civic culture. The welfare state provided for the needy or those in trouble.

Today, so this view runs, much of this is in tatters. We live in a world of increasing fragmentation, where the family is under threat, children are at risk and the fabric of communal life is unravelling. There are different ideas about how this situation has come to pass, but the most common one blames excessive individualism. Put bluntly, we have accumulated too many rights and we recognise too few obligations. Many people, including many children, have lost a sense of right and wrong. For anyone who takes such a view, there is an obvious remedy. We should reintroduce a firm social morality, social discipline and punishment.

Geoff Mulgan's new book seeks to put something quite different in place of the hypothesis of social and moral decay. We don't live in a society with a one-way ticket to disintegration. Almost the opposite: we are entering a new age of interdependence and co-operation, an age of "connexity" - a word which Mulgan has plucked from old English. What Mulgan calls connexity, others term globalisation. The arrival of a cosmopolitan society increasingly links us all to one another.

Such interdependence has positive and negative aspects. Instantaneous electronic communication allow friends who rarely see each other to keep in touch from far corners of the world. On the other hand, we all face common ecological problems, from which no one on the face of the earth can escape. The key question is, can we foster the positive aspects of globalisation while containing the damage it produces? Put more specifically, how can we reconcile individual freedom with due recognition of the need for social collaboration?

Mulgan attempts a serious response to the moral-authority lobby. We should recognise, he accepts, that freedom has its pathologies. In the advanced economies - in stark contrast to the poorer regions of the world - the most difficult problems are not about material shortages but about what the author terms "disorders of freedom". The freedom to travel to work alone in a private car, for example, leads to traffic congestion, urban decay and air pollution. In an age of interdependence, the freedom of individuals may rebound upon others and themselves.

Since many of the connections which now bind us are new, we can't deal with them by reverting to traditional forms of regulation and authority. We need new concepts and new policies, Mulgan argues, if we are to balance freedom and interdependence. But most of our political ideas have come down from an altogether different era than the one we now confront.

Mulgan identifies two ways forward. One is educational - the cultivation of a mentality of partnership or co-operation. We should ask how far the family, firms, schools or universities promote mature and capable citizens. At the moment, too many such groups simply produce attitudes of dependence - as the welfare state, to some degree, has done. Dependence is the contrary of interdependence - the chief reason why a return to traditional authority is impossible.

The second factor is more structural. We need to revive the idea of public life, swamped for the moment by the high tide of free-market philosophy. Mulgan does not accept that the advent of the global age signals the end of politics. But public life can't be reconstructed merely by appealing to older models of the nation. We have to reconcile local and global interdependence. A variety of means could allow political reform to go along with the creation of a more confident and involved citizenry.

Here Mulgan mentions electronic voting, citizens' juries and other "deliberative" groups. Refreshingly, he combats the conventional view that government can do little to foster civic solidarity. City planning, for example, can encourage public spaces which are safe, accessible and promote sociability. Here, ecological concerns should be integrated with the drive to a renewed sense of civic involvement.

Mulgan borrows a phrase of the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, "ecology of mind". Ecological orders in nature are systems of interdependence between plants, animals and the physical environment. As in the physical world, we need to show how different ways of life can coexist. Consider the debate about family values. The role of government is not to defend the so-called traditional family, but to encourage the mentalities which make different forms of family life work and also allow their members to develop wider civic bonds.

All this must appear mere pie in the sky to those who feel that moral life has already more or less disintegrated. Mulgan has an answer for them. Rather than decline, he says, the dominant trend is one of moral progress. Human rights are becoming more firmly embedded in international law and many new moral concerns have surfaced, such as those to do with the plight of animals or with environmental decay. The spread of communications enlarges the scope of moral language and allows moral issues to be openly debated rather than simply sanctified by tradition. "Connexity", in Mulgan's words, "makes the universal potential of morality practical for the first time."

I have a good deal of sympathy with the ideas that Mulgan develops. His book has many virtues, not least the stand he takes against the prophets of moral despair. I think he is right to suggest that we are entering an age whose basic characteristics we as yet only partly understand and which is poorly conceptualised as the "information era".

Yet in the end, I'm not sure that the concept of "connexity" is much better. Interesting though Mulgan's arguments are, they could have been given a harder edge than one finds here. Much of his discussion is superficial, with too many difficulties skated over too easily. I don't think that those who hold different views will find themselves convinced.