Wednesday Books: Where society is not a dirty word

CONVERSATIONS WITH ANTHONY GIDDENS: MAKING SENSE OF MODERNITY BY ANTHONY GIDDENS AND CHRISTOPHER PIERSON, POLITY PRESS, pounds 12.95 PAROXYSM: INTERVIEWS WITH PHILIPPE PETIT BY JACQUES BAUDRILLARD AND PHILIPPE PETIT, VERSO, pounds 11

IF BLAIRISM is about anything, it is about saying - contra Thatcher - that there is such a thing as society. Which means that there must also be such things as sociologists. Indeed, New Labour seized Middle England by employing the essential tools of sociology. It used observational fieldwork (or "focus groups"). It crunched endless columns of attitudinal statistics. And it had a working hypothesis which presumed, at least, that there was a "social" to which "social-ism" could refer. Out of that came electoral victory - and victory, too, for an intellectual discipline that had been almost as much of a New Right folk devil as striking miners or sponging immigrants.

Yet it's still a slight surprise that, of all the sociological gurus who might have contended for the Prime Minister's attention, it was Anthony Giddens who got the airline ticket to go wonking with Tony in the White House a few months ago. The recent one-off edition of Marxism Today was almost entirely composed of those social thinkers - Hall, Hobsbawm, Held - whose long years of reformist speculation had been snubbed by No 10. Yet while these reborn socialists wait for the next totter of world capitalism to bring the party to its senses, Giddens is already in the thick of it, turning his prodigious learning into the common sense of a new political order.

Read this illuminating book of conversations with Giddens, and you realise exactly why he has succeeded. For his understanding of what constitutes the "social" is, to use his own terminology, well beyond left and right - and certainly beyond the sentimental collectivism of the old Marxism Today crowd. Society, in Giddens's view, is complex, tangled, seethingly unpredictable. We inhabit a "runaway world", a "risk society". If any government wanted a justification for the choice of nudging pragmatism over strict planning, then Giddens's thinking is ready-made for the task.

His interviewer, Christopher Pierson, is a dogged socialist of the old school. He spends most of this book trying to get Giddens to worry about problems - class struggle, welfare benefits, technological determinism - which the director of the LSE seems only too relieved to leave behind. Yet Giddens's confidence comes not just from his proximity to power, but from the prophetic nature of his writings.

A chapter entitled "Structuration Theory" - Giddens's big news of the Seventies - may not seem like the most promising ground. But there it is: an understanding of the relationship between individuals, and the conditions which bear upon them, which is so fiendishly difficult to grasp (particularly for his interviewer) that it's almost mystical. Giddens was talking about a Third Way, between individual "agency" and social "structure", decades before Blair got round to it - and, one must say, before Giddens started turning his own theories into rah-rah pamphlets. This book also shows that Giddens understood globalisation and the networked world much earlier than his contemporaries. What used to be regarded as his conceptual cloudiness on matters of power and money now turn out to be modest descriptions of reality. What else are our convulsive financial crises, or our remote-controlled Gulf Wars, other than the "disembedding" of social structures - as he puts it - from the constraints of time and space?

Giddens's diagnosis is sharp, but his remedies are still unconvincing. Will an idea of "positive welfare" link the contented middle classes to the poor who claim their taxes? Will we be able to rein in rampant markets and ecological disasters with "world governance"? Is the answer to a world endemic with risk and insecurity a turn towards "cosmopolitan democracy"? There's sometimes a sense that Giddens, self-confessedly a theoretician, is happy to keep minting bright new concepts, hopeful that politicians will eventually rally behind them.

Yet as structuration theory says - or is it Buddhism? - you make reality as it makes you. No wonder Giddens is interested in 12-step therapy plans.

After such diligence, it's mildly relieving to turn to a book of interviews with someone who "never" thought there was such a thing as society anyway. But if Giddens's star is rising in the can-do culture of Blairism, the French thinker Jean Baudrillard's star is shooting to earth. All that semiotic nihilism - all those shoulder-shrugs of blank despair at the way our sense of reality has evaporated behind a billion media moments - seem so very Eighties. Don't we have National Grids for Learning now - not to mention the Creative Industries Committee - in this best of all possible worlds?

Yet between the elegant ennui of Baudrillard (beautifully translated here by Chris Turner) and the cautious system-building of Giddens, the same void lies. Whether you constitute it anew, or lament its disappearance, it's still the case that "society" is surely the most unreliable and elusive of realities. If we wish to invoke it, we need our shamans to raise the vision. So bring on the sociologists - for as long as they're needed, of course.

Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments