European Affairs

Worldly Optimism of a Third Way "Guru"     Print Email

Reviewed by Reginald Dale

It becomes clear right from the start that the author of this book is a man with a high opinion of himself. Hardly has Anthony Giddens started his preface than we find him conferring on himself "a certain distinction" for having been chosen as the last Reith lecturer of the 20th century.

The Reith lectures are the prestigious series of annual talks broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation in memory of its founder Lord Reith. And it is from the 1999 lectures, which Mr. Giddens delivered, that this book is drawn. For the record, the BBC says there is no special distinction in being the 1999 lecturer.

The point is a small one, but it provides a clue to the nature of this volume and its author. Mr. Giddens is a self-made man, a sociologist and a workaholic who rose from a British working-class background to become Director of the London School of Economics and a so-called "guru" for Prime Minister Tony Blair and his "New" Labour Party. He is also billed as an advisor to President Bill Clinton.

Unsurprisingly, considering its provenance, a lecturing tone pervades this brief review of some of the major issues raised by globalization. But the style also errs on the side of sacrificing intellectual depth for a certain self-satisfied slickness. Mr. Giddens, for example, peremptorily divides people with views on globalization into skeptics, who think the whole thing is exaggerated, and radicals, who believe the era of the nation-state is over, and promptly sides with the radicals. But the wide-ranging debate over globalization contains far more shades of opinion, and far more subtlety than he allows.

Nevertheless, there are three good things about this slim volume. The first is that it is short. Many people interested in today's rapidly changing world might not have the time or energy to read some of the more lengthy and technical studies that have been devoted to this vital and fascinating subject. The second good thing is that it is written in relatively simple language. Many of the other studies have been written by economists, who tend to write for each other rather than for the average reader.

The book's third strength is that it does not stick to economics but, as befits the sociological background of its author, examines many of the other social changes that are taking place as the world enters the Global Age. Among other issues, Mr. Giddens includes his thoughts on how globalization has affected science, technology, political rivalries, war, religion and sexuality.

He is, for instance, pleased by the progress of women's liberation and sexual tolerance - never, he says, have women been so equal to men - but concerned by nostalgia for the traditional family, which he believes to be overblown, if not, in some countries, dangerous.

In a huge oversimplification, Mr. Giddens writes that the battleground of the 21st century will pit fundamentalism against cosmopolitan tolerance. Cosmopolitans welcome and embrace today's cultural complexity, he says. Fundamentalists find it disturbing and dangerous. Put like that, it is not surprising that he hopes, and believes, that the cosmopolitans will win.

One disadvantage is that the reader cannot always see quite where Mr. Giddens is going, confirming his reputation in academic circles for a somewhat abstract impenetrability. You sometimes feel like shaking the book and shouting: "So what's your point?"

Mr. Giddens has an irritating habit of exaggerating the originality of his insights by deciding to give a series of well-known developments his own invented name. Thus, he says, "I shall call this the paradox of democracy," or, in another instance, "democratizing democracy" - which is basically a technique for suggesting that the author is revealing a new way of looking at things that others have missed.

It is a technique to which Mr. Giddens already owes much of his reputation as the popularizer of the term "the Third Way," which is really little more than a device to provide intellectual and political cover to Old Labour types as they embrace more conservative policies.

Similarly, in this book, not only does Mr. Giddens believe that you can make a social or political process more important by giving it a new name, he also seems to believe that if there is not a name for something it does not exist. This is often simply wrong.

Noting, for example, that nobody spoke of "relationships" between couples before the 1970s, he infers that the only real link between two people of the opposite sex was marriage, that what today are called "relationships" did not exist. This is weird. Cleopatra surely thought she was cultivating a "relationship" with Mark Antony - not to mention Julius Caesar.

In the end, Mr. Giddens comes out on balance as an optimist. That is both sensible, and proof of his New Labour credentials. Old Labourites, of whom many are still to be found in labor unions, tend to see more of globalization's bad side. Above all, his views are thought-provoking, which means that if readers do not agree with them, they are obliged to make the intellectual effort to come up with their own opinions.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number II in the Spring of 2000.

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