>Big Question? Big Yawn


The March 2007 issue of Prospect magazine asks a hundred (mostly British) thinkers and writers the Big Question: what comes next after Left and Right? Blithely assuming that the meaning of Left and Right was clear (ideology and/or class-based conflict over distribution of material goods), their answers are striking less for how pessimistic they are (the shock horror gloss Prospect itself gives) than how they home on a less-than-strikingly-new consensus. Most argue that there will be a conflict between localists and globalists of varying stripes overlapping with a conflict between partisans of a closed, rooted, sometimes religiously or ethnically based models with those of a universal liberal order (‘nation state vs. nation state’, Patria vs Plutopia (Michael Lind), ‘consensus populism’ (A. S. Byatt) vs. a liberal elite. This is a less than original set of ideas basically outlined more than a decade ago by, for example, Benjamin Barber in Jihad vs. McWorld.

Other alternatives dimnesions of conflict included pragmatism vs. ideological utopianism; politics vs. anti-politics; real life vs. virtual life (a.k.a territorial vs. non-territorial); a naked struggle of interest groups and bureaucratic interests; technology vs. the human vs. the planet). A few old fashioned souls flag up that haves vs. have nots still matters or come up with versions of individualism vs. collectivisms. And a very few honest folks (including Anthony Giddens) honestly admit they just don’t know or invoke the Rumsfeld principle of Known Unknowns, Unknown Unknowns etc.

Perhaps revealingly, the most interesting answers come less from the academic Big Names and Big Hitters than slightly obscure writers and retired civil servants. Top marks from me for content and conciseness (if not originality) go to ex-diplomat Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, who argues that:

“What is next is the broad centre vs fringes, and the centre vs localism. The first will unite traditional left and right, while the second, as the modern expression of the traditional difference over the size and role of the state, will continue to divide. The broad centre will mobilise against the extreme fringes, some of them violent, which are not signed up to the liberal values of the centre but which are prepared to exploit them to undermine them. Class will be less important than identity as a basis for political action. The ideological debate will pitch individualism against communitarian politics and special interests of groups—for example, demanding special rights vs equal rights of individual citizens under a single law applicable to all. The level of decision-makers and their status will remain a left/right issue: how much to be decided at the centre and by organs of the state spending taxpayers’ money, and how much to be decided locally and by voluntary action of individuals acting in private capacities as citizens, parents, consumers.”

Lazily, Prospect itself can’t be bothered to synthesize or discuss the dozens bite-sized responses it receives, say, an accompanying essay or commenrary, although I guess this means I could set it as as a useful assignment for students.

I am now due to go to the Czech Republic for a family trip over Easter, assuming that is I can fight of a sore throat and temperature from a virus whose recurrence has been as unwelcome and unexpected as a boatload of Iranian Revolutionary Guards….


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