Ideas for our times

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Most of human behaviour can be explained by genes inherited from the Stone Age. The plagues, religious power and mysticism of the middle ages offer the best clues to what our future holds. The Internet is a model for a way of life. Western values - fraternity, liberty, equality - are in terminal decline and Asian values - group loyalty, fierce

competition and respect for authority will inherit the world.

These are some of the more extreme versions of the ideas which are shaping the decade. What is striking about these ideas is their range and diversity - from genetics to chaos theory, from the decline of Man to the rise of Asian values and cultures. The ideas which dominated the Eighties - a resurgent new right and a collapsing Communism - revolved around the same axis, they were contesting the same ground: intellectually shared roots in 19th-century economics. In contrast it is a sign of the openness and confusion of our times that the ideas of the Nineties come from all over the place intellectually, albeit that the main geographic source remains outstandingly North America.

Several trends stand out. One is the new-found confidence of science, particularly genetics, in providing the basis for theories that could help to explain how society works. Chaos theory, for instance, started in the chemistry lab, but now it seeks to explain everything from traffic flows to modern management. Another is that we are digging into our past much more to provide a guide to the future. The ideas of the Eighties were progressive and idealist: they believed that the future could be made much better, if not perfect. Nineties ideas are far more circumspect, even conservative. Genetics tells us that our natures are less mutable than we thought. The New Medievalists suggest that fundamental religious conflicts are still at the heart of society.

The decline of faith in individualism is a further theme. Communitarians and advocates of Asian values, for instance, urge us to make sacrifices for the sake of society. In the Eighties many assumed we were effortlessly continuing the march of progress towards ever more liberal, individualistic societies based on consumption. In the Nineties we have become more concerned about the glues that hold societies together: the bonds of community, trust, belonging. Whether this current of thinking will be powerful enough to stem the forces of social fragmentation which threaten the fabric of most Western societies is perhaps the most interesting and important question of the decade.


Director of Demos



It is 20 years since Peter Singer published his groundbreaking book, Animal Liberation. But it is in the Nineties that the idea of animal rights has begun to be taken seriously in the mainstream of politics.

In part it is an argument about the treatment of animals - veal calves being shipped abroad, chickens farmed in awful conditions, mice genetically engineered for testing cancer drugs.

But it is more than that. Vegetarians have extended the argument to encompass health and food policy. At its most radical the new interest in animal rights and the environment is an attempt to persuade human society to adopt a different perspective towards the rest of the natural world. Traditional politics has been about man's relationship with man: socialism is about engineering equality between people; conservatism about constraining the state's influence over the individual. Animal rights moves politics on to a new terrain: man's relationship with animals and the natural world.

A vital factor in this has been the growing recognition that humans are no longer so peculiar and special. A new political interest in animal rights is mirrored by the growing influence of genetic explanations for human behaviour and the presentation of humans as no more than complex animals. Scientists have shown that in genetic terms we are only a few percentage points different from chimpanzees (hence Jared Diamond's book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee).

The Great Ape Project has been one result of this, examining in detail the ethics of human relations with the great apes. Peter Singer is now trying to create a "gorillastan", a protected territory for the great apes, perhaps under the auspices of the United Nations. There seems little doubt that the ideas of animal rights will become increasingly influential. It appeals to a wide cross-section of the population - from young radicals to rural traditionalists.

It also sums up the humility and caution that is part of the mood of the times. When socialism and Communism have failed so miserably, with right-wing conservatism in such disarray and with the damage of rampant consumerism and industrialisation ever more obvious, isn't it right that we should be more humble about our role in the world? In this sense, animal rights represents a kind of cautious pragmatism: the best and most useful thing we can do is to avoid doing further damage to the world around us.


The West has long been fascinated by the East. The writings of Marco Polo, the influence of Japanese art on the Impressionists and the import of gunpowder are just three examples.

Over the past 30 years the West has carried on importing Japanese industrial techniques such as just-in-time production, Indian and Chinese cuisine and Japanese-made video games.

In the Nineties, the influence of Asia has taken another turn. If, in the Eighties, Britain and America convinced themselves that an Anglo-Saxon free-market model was superior to the rest of the world, in the Nineties this confidence has evaporated and the West has become more interested in understanding what makes the East tick.

The result is a surge of interest in Asian culture (Jung Chang's bestseller Wild Swans is a good example) in the exploding variety of martial arts, and in the lessons of economics.

There is now a lively trade in interpretations of Asia and its success. Francis Fukuyama's Trust offers accounts of the different cultures of Korea, Japan and China. Charles Hampden-Turner's The Seven Cultures of Capitalism is also helpful in delineating just how distinct business cultures are around the world.

Ezra Vogel's The Four Tigers is probably the best simple introduction to the tiger economies of Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong.

These studies raise similar questions: how much of the Asian success is due to state promotion of industry and how much is it due to fierce competition? Are distinctively Asian values, derived from Buddhism and Confucianism, responsible for the Asian economic miracle or is it more mundane things like the amount they invest in education? Most of these societies are economically successful, but relatively authoritarian, conformist and do not give a high priority to individual civil liberties. Would the West be prepared to pay this cost for the sake of higher economic growth? Even if the West wanted to follow the Asian example, could it import it wholesale, or can it only borrow a few obvious techniques such as just- in-time production? The countries of Asia vary considerably - the formality of Japan is quite unlike the fierce competitiveness of China. So it is unlikely there is a single Asian model and much more likely that there are several.


Chaos theory has become a favourite of bar-stool philosophers. It is also a prime example of one of the strongest intellectual currents of the decade: the crossover of ideas from science into social thinking. For decades sociologists have defended the idea that the science of society is different from, say, physics or chemistry. Now, however, there is a growing traffic between scientific and social modes of thought; increasingly, we are prepared to borrow from science to explain the way society works.

The simple idea is that small changes can have big effects (the classic example is that the flapping of a butterfly's wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world). As a result, we face great uncertainty, unpredictability and a world in which fixed positions get swept away. It resonates with the public sense of things being out of control.

Chaos theory is less about chaos and more about understanding complexity - how fluids flow, how the weather changes, how stock markets work. Instead of simply revelling in the unpredictability of the modern world, complexity theorists are trying to get a grip on these phenomena precisely so that they can be analysed and predicted.

Chaos theorists attack the commonly held assumption that everything will come back to a natural, balanced equilibrium. One of the pioneers of chaos theory was the Belgian biochemist Ilya Prigogine. The ideas in her book, Order Out of Chaos, have been applied in very diverse areas, from corporate management, especially by American management guru Tom Peters in his book Thriving on Chaos to traffic systems and economics.


Community has become one of the buzzwords of the Nineties - in part as a reaction against the individualism of the Eighties and in part a reaction to a fear of social fragmentation and divisiveness. The heart of the communitarian argument is the reassertion of the idea that individuals must take responsibility for their actions and the well-being of society rather than insisting on exercising their rights.

Communitarians stress the importance of "middle level" institutions such as the family, voluntary organisations, schools and churches, which come between the individual and the state. These provide the vital social cement and solidarity that society needs.

Like the Greens, the communitarians argue that we have paid insufficient attention to the needs of the social and moral environment in the pursuit of economic growth and consumerism. Communitarians argue, by contrast, that we need to be far more careful in nurturing community level institutions and institutions that teach and encourage moral behaviour - such as the family.

Leading communitarians, such as the American philosopher Amitai Etzioni, believe parents should be encouraged to take time off work during the early years of their children's lives to care for them and nurture their moral sensibilities. Communitarianism is not cosy: it demands sacrifices from individuals for the sake of maintaining the social fabric.

The communitarians range widely. At one end of the spectrum are purists such as the philosopher Alastair MacIntyre, whose vision of the good life resembles that of a monk. At the other are "communitarians" such as Etzioni who want to depend on persuasion to make people behave better towards each other.

They have already achieved considerable influence in practical politics in America over politicians such as Bill Clinton and Jack Kemp, in Europe over Helmut Kohl and Rudolf Scharping, and in the UK over Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair. Blair stresses responsibilities as well as rights, including the recent Labour plan for unemployed people to earn their benefits by working.

However, the communitarians have also been subject to an extraordinary range of attacks. Many see the idea of community as inherently oppressive and constraining of individual choice. Traditionalist feminists have argued that the emphasis on the role of the traditional family threatens to reverse women's rights.

Critics from the rightargue that communitarians are leftists in a new guise seeking a new justification for socialised education, healthcare and social policies. In fact, few communitarians see the state as the way to solve social problems. However, this distrust of the state and communitarian interest in voluntary institutions makes them unpopular with traditional left-wingers.

Communitarians overlap with another group who could be termed the new moralists - writers such as James Q Wilson and David Selbourne. They have reasserted the importance of moral codes in restraining individual desires.

In the years ahead communitarianism is likely to fragment into its component parts - those who emphasise a better balance between the individual and community, and those seeking to reimpose a fixed set of moral rules to restrain individualism.

Key books: Amitai Etzioni, The Spirit of Community; Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue; Christopher Lasch, True and Only Heaven; David Selznick, The Moral Commonwealth; James Q Wilson, The Moral Sense.


The sociobiologists, or "evolutionary psychologists", are probably the most confident group selling their wares in the marketplace of ideas. At their most confident - some would claim extreme - these neo-Darwinists claim to be able to show not just how the human mind works, but also how it was shaped by evolution. Robert Wright, one of the discipline's high priests, claimed in his book The Moral Animal last year that the insights of evolutionary psychology "... can alter entirely one's perception of social reality".

The sociobiologist who has made the greatest impact on public debate is the Oxford-based zoologist Richard Dawkins. His book The Selfish Gene helped to popularise the idea that it is the desire to replicate our genes that drives us to reproduce. However, Dawkins also insists that evolution does not mean the crude competition of the survival of the fittest; animals can and do show altruism, sometimes even sacrificing their lives for kin or unrelated members of their social group.

The theory that Dawkins popularised so vividly in his bestseller sprang from the work and creative thinking of Professor George C Williams in the United States. Williams has led the way for biologists to shift their focus from the physical evolution of bodies to the more controversial area of Darwinian explanations for animal behaviour - including human behaviour.

Williams argues that there is a complex interaction between genes and the environment and that changes in the environment can highlight genetic deficiencies, while other environments can bring out strengths.

The rise of neo-Darwinism and genetic explanations of behaviour have worried many people. Most controversially, some social commentators have sought social ends in Darwinism, notably the American academics Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in their book The Bell Curve, which suggested that the American poor and black population are genetically preordained to form a social underclass. With research under way on the genetic causes of unwelcome forms of behaviour - from criminality to alcoholism - it is almost certain that genetics will cause yet more controversy.


After feminism, we are in the midst of the rise of mannism: the reassertion of men's right to be men. There are several - sometimes contradictory - sources for this trend. The most popular account was written by Robert Bly, who has spawned a small industry of followers. In his book, Iron John, he argued that men needed to rediscover the warrior side to their natures. Since then, tens of thousands have gone out into the woods in the US to follow his ideas, camping out, dancing around fires and hunting small animals.

In the UK, mannism has also taken other forms. There is a pile of male self-help books and the growing men's health and fitness movement; then there was the "backlash" against feminism and political correctness in books by people such as Neil Lyndon (No More Sex Wars) and David Thomas (Not Guilty: In Defence of the Modern Man).

The central themes to this work are first the portrayal of men as victims - victims of feminism, stress and long hours, their own emotional inarticulacy - and second the idea that traditional male culture is one of the main weaknesses of modern society.

The men-as-victim school point to the small, but rising numbers of men now suffering from domestic violence or sexual harassment (helped by the fictional portrayal of a case in Michael Crichton's Disclosure). They claim that antidiscrimination laws are now undermining men's position and forcing them into a second-class status in the labour market.

This backlash against affirmative action programmes has been particularly powerful in the United States. In Britain, one of the main rallying points for the nascent men's movement has been the Child Support Agency: its critics portray the agency as a direct threat to male rights.

The men-as-problem school is much broader in scope. Adherents to this school point to the wide range of social problems that can be attributed to men behaving badly: the preponderance of young men involved in crime; family break-up caused by men; men who are unemployed because they are less flexible than women about what jobs they are prepared to do.

In addition, there is a growing group of feminist revisionists, such as the American Naomi Wolf in her book Fire with Fire, who assert that women are now powerful enough to leave behind many of the traditional tenets of old-fashioned feminism. Most young women now do not regard themselves as feminists, just as the inheritors of past feminists' struggles for greater equality. It seems that this decade will witness a historic shift: women ceasing to think of themselves always as victims and men coming to think of themselves in that way.

Interestingly, all this thinking is heading in roughly the same direction: men will only change with support, guidance and encouragement.


It's virtually inescapable. It's getting everywhere. Its fans regard it as the most fun since train spotting was invented. Its detractors regard it as a form of hi-tech pollution.

The spread of the Internet has been accompanied by the spread of ideas promulgated by the new philosphers of the Net. These people - mainly from America - believe the Net can be not just a form of communication, but also a way of life - liberating, non-hierarchical, the enemy of nation states and tradition.

Earlier writers pioneered these ideas: Alvin Toffler, even Marshall McLuhan. Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalogue gave them a home, and exemplified the mixture of hi-tech, green thinking optimism and New Age philosophy that has become distinctive. Its main pitch is to combine new technology with individual rights, to argue for radical freedom of information and freedom from state censorship. This new Nettism defies political categorisation. In many ways these people believe they are part of a new virtual community and are inspired by hippyish ideas from the 1960s. In other ways they seem to have more in common with the radical individualism and anti-statism of the new right. And it is all dressed up in the nerdish vocabulary of computers.

The most articulate advocate of the Net is Kevin Kelly, editor of Wired magazine. His strength is to link together information technologies and the new biological thinking. He argues that modern machines are much more like living organisms, able to organise themselves and adapt to a changing environment without constant human interference. So in future we will have to draw far more heavily upon complex biological and environmental models rather than images of robots on production lines.


For a society blessed with instant global communications, widespread consumer affluence, hi-tech medicine and the wizardry of the Internet, the Middle Ages might not seem the most obvious place to go looking for useful ideas. But many new thinkers believe the brutishness of the Middle Ages provides the best guide to the forces shaping modern society.

The clearest advocate of this "new medievalism" was the French thinker Alain Minc. Twenty years ago he was writing of the computerisation of society, but with Le Nouveau Moyen Age he set out a bleak picture of a world descending into disorder.

Consider the parallels. We are suffering from new plagues such as Aids and face the threat of diseases such as the ebola virus which has been unleashed in Africa by commercial forestry. The world is rent by religious and ethnic disputes, fired by ancient rivalries. Traditional religion is declining but cults and mysticism are on the increase. The affluent parts of developed societies - whether middle-class housing estates or rich companies - are increasingly like fortresses protecting those inside from the hordes of poor people outside. The Holy Roman Empire once held a multinational Europe together. Now that role is being played by the European Union. In culture, Umberto Eco, the Italian novelist and academic, has developed an elaborate theory comparing medieval icons with those of computer software.

Neo-medievalism offers a vivid forecast of a return to tribalism, breakdown of social order, violence and force replacing the rule of law, and perhaps even the replacement of nation-states by transnational empires and independent rich city states.



Almost two decades after Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan promised to roll back the frontiers of the state, the inefficiencies of central government are still one of the main concerns of politics.

In the Eighties political leaders often promised radical solutions to pare back the state: taxes would be cut, civil services slimmed down and public enterprises sold off. The ideas of Friedrich Hayek, Robert Nozick and Milton Friedman dominated. But things didn't turn out as they expected. Instead, even Thatcher and Reagan failed to cut the share government took from the national wealth. Taxes rose, and even though privatisation was a success, government showed little sign of disappearing.

In the Nineties the focus has shifted. The new slogan is that government should be "reinvented" to make it more efficient, effective and responsive. The book that set out these ideas, Reinventing Government by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, was published in 1992. It brought together dozens of experiences from American state and local government to argue that governments should concentrate on "steering" not "rowing".

The authors' central recommendation was that government should be responsible for simply setting the overall framework of policy but devolve the actual delivery of services (an approach taken up in Britain with the transfer of many state services, such as the running of prisons, to an agency separate from the Home Office). They also recommended that parts of the state machine be encouraged to become more entrepreneurial and imaginative in the way they delivered services. In the Eighties the focus was more on cutting back the state; the ideas of the Nineties focus on remodelling it to make it more effective and financially viable.

Many countries have been putting ideas of this kind into effect. The reforms led by Roger Douglas, the Labor finance minister in New Zealand, arguably went furthest, turning state agencies into free-standing corporations, setting civil service salaries according to performance and slashing jobs in public industries. In the US, Al Gore set in motion an initiative to cut red tape and improve services.


At first sight it seems unlikely that a word as ordinary and unassuming as trust could be the starting point for one of the Big Ideas of the decade. It hardly compares with the grandeur and claim of Communism, Darwinism, or even Thatcherism. Yet the value of trust to make societies more stable and more productive is likely to be one of the themes of the second half of the decade.

Most Western societies are riddled with chronic distrust. The main reason for this distrust is a mounting feeling that tried and tested institutions - the monarchy, the health service, schools - cannot be relied upon any more to deliver the goods. The most obvious examples are the institutions of government and political leadership. Trust in them in most societies - not just Britain - has fallen to an all-time low.

Trust in politics has fallen because politicians are widely seen to have failed the electorate - failed to deliver on their promises, failed to uphold standards in public life. Another major source of distrust is uncertainty about what the future might hold, especially in our working lives. Most companies are under relentless pressure to maintain their competitiveness in markets which are international in scope. Previously safe and protected middle-class white-collar jobs are increasingly vulnerable. With that vulnerability comes distrust by employees of the companies that employ them.

Rising fear of crime is the most visible sign of a widespread sense of the distrust that people feel about the safety of everyday life. We employ burglar and car alarms because we do not trust other people not to break into our property while we are away from it.

So the decline of trust in the West is central to the sense of malaise. But it is more than that: a new wave of social thinkers believes that the high levels of trust in East Asian societies helps to explain why they have been so stable and economically successful in the past three decades.

They put trust at the centre of a web of relationships which helps to explain why these economies have been successful. The idea is that trust is vital to building long-term relationships between companies and their customers, employees and employers, and producers and suppliers. As a result of the trust that builds up through these relationships, people are more prepared to act together and take risks together to achieve economic success. So, for instance, if an employee can trust his employer to keep him in a job he might be prepared to do extra training, inject extra effort, share more of the risks of the enterprise. Trust is the most vital component in promoting co-operation and competition.

Japan is the most striking example of the idea that trust is central to economic success. In Japan people are so trusting of their neighbours that they leave their front doors open. Traditional institutions such as the monarchy and the company are still revered. This also highlights the difficulty with the idea of trust: it implies an acceptance of traditional forms of authority. Low-trust societies such as Britain increasingly rely upon material incentives and the fear of failure to motivate people; high- trust societies use encouragement and moral pressure in addition to material incentives.

Most of this new thinking about trust has come from studies into Japan and other Asian societies, but more recently it was used by Robert Puttnam to explain why some Italian regions seemed to be so much more successful than others. It has reached its intellectual apogee in Francis Fukuyama's recent book.

Key books: Robert Puttnam, Making Democracy Work; Francis Fukuyama, Trust: the Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity; Diego Gambetta (ed), Trust; Jane Jacobs, Systems of Survival.