Wednesday Books: Where society is not a dirty word

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The Independent Culture
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.