Radio: It might be wise to listen to this chap

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The Independent Culture
The latest series of Reith Lectures (R4) started again on Wednesday. This is a more or less compulsory event for pundits and we all filed in dutifully, in spirit if not in body, to the Royal Institute. Reith Lectures have "important" stamped all over them on one side, and "of global significance" stamped on the other, so it was very appropriate that this time the subject was Globalisation. The speaker: Professor Anthony Giddens, director of the LSE, coiner of the phrase "The Third Way" and - as Melvyn Bragg, John the Baptist to Giddens's Messiah, put it in his brief introduction - Tony Blair's favourite guru. To be fair, this last phrase was, however faintly, in inverted commas.

Globalisation is a term that Giddens himself concedes is inelegant and unattractive. Indeed it is, but it's the only one we have, and it isn't a bad time to start talking about it either, as, on the one hand, we become intimately involved in Balkan politics (again) while, at the other end of the global scale, the bits at the end of mainland Britain seek to become independent (again). Personally speaking, the term itself, and the very idea of "Tony Blair's favourite guru", give me the willies. But if the first lecture was anything to go by, Giddens would seem to be no fool, and it might be wise to listen to what he has to say in future weeks: not quite in the way that it was once wise to read Mein Kampf, but only in the sense that it is wise to see what the prevailing orthodoxy is, or is going to be, if only for the purpose of being able to pick fights with it in the future.

It was an introductory talk, so it would be a bit mean to pick on odd phrases which rankled. Giddens is, after all, only trying to get us fired up. But when he said, "We live in an age of transformations, affecting almost every aspect of what we do", I was not only reminded of what Dean Inge imagined Adam said to Eve ("My dear, we live in an age of change"), but wondered how globalisation affected the grinding ordinariness of life, how it had affected, say, doing the washing-up while listening to the radio, compared with 10 years ago.

Which placed me, for the moment, among a group of people Giddens called "the sceptics", who are largely old-left types, and believe that all we are seeing is more of the same old thing that has gone on for generations, except that the rich are getting even richer and the poor even poorer. Globalisation is a fancy euphemism for cutting back on welfare systems and any state infrastructure that has nothing to do with weaponry or surveillance. Against this lot are what Giddens calls "the radicals", who say that the nation-state is a dead duck, a fiction in fact; that politicians have been finessed out of practical existence; and the only realities are economic ones.

Giddens thinks the radicals are right, largely because of the huge amounts of money being turned over every day in the global financial markets. A trillion dollars a day - what we used to call a billion (a million million) until globalisation and vocabulary compelled us to adopt American usage. And it all happens at, in his phrase, "the click of a mouse". (An irritatingly inaccurate way of putting it, as it takes thousands of such clicks to shift all that dosh, and besides, it differs little in essence from the tap of a morse key that commanded similar transactions a hundred years ago).

Such instant, global influence means that the value of the currency in our pockets fluctuates all the time, and can suddenly destabilise seemingly solid economies, "as happened last year in East Asia". That currencies have shifted in value through the day before, and that apparently solid economies have collapsed long before the invention of the satellite or microchip, seem for some reason not to be relevant to his argument.

He went on to say: "When the image of Nelson Mandela may be more familiar to us than the face of our next door neighbour, something has changed in the very nature of our everyday experience." I would put it to Giddens that, 36 years ago, the faces of JF Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles if it comes to that, were similarly famous; what would signal a truly significant shift in our everyday experience would be if we were more likely to borrow a cup of sugar from Nelson Mandela than from our next door neighbour (I tried: he's fresh out).

Giddens got better when he started talking about hard facts rather than gee-whizzery: for example, the way that the rich really are getting richer and at the poor's expense (well, who else's?), and that this could be a function of the way nations are (in the American socialist Daniel Bell's formulation) becoming both too small to deal with big problems, and too large to deal with small ones.

That this might have something to do with the way that almost all notionally powerfully politicians have rolled over in the face of money's supremacy is something we hope he will address in the coming weeks. If he doesn't, then perhaps some light will have been shed on why exactly it is that he is considered to be "Tony Blair's favourite guru".