CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: new Thinking for New Times (Report No. 1)

CAIN Web Service

New Thinking for
New Times

The new context of politics

Anthony Giddens

We live, today, in a world full of surprises. Who would have foreseen, a few years ago, that communism in eastern Europe would be peacefully dismantled after 1989? Who would have foreseen that a vicious war would exist almost in the centre of Europe?

On a more positive note, who would have foreseen that there would be a peace process in the middle east or that massive changes could happen in South Africa, without the violence which most people of all political persuasions expected there? And who would have foreseen that there could be a peace process in Northern Ireland, which looks - we all hope - as though it will be successful and longstanding?

Considering all these changes, one begins with a conclusion - that they cannot be separate from one another. These events going on across the world cannot surely be understood as independent happenings, but must, in some way, be linked. How they are linked is the theme I explore here.

We are living in a world undergoing very, very profound transformations. Not only do these help us understand what has happened here over the past three or four years-and over a longer period too-but also one can't really work out what will happen in the future in Ireland without looking at these broader processes of change, transforming the world as a whole.

There are three sets of massive changes going on today, in the social, political and economic worlds. There are other changes too, but I'll concentrate on these three, which are producing something of a seismic shift in the sorts of society in which we live, which have caused us to break in some ways with the past, but which also allow us to think innovatively about the future.

First of all, we've all become dramatically conscious over the past few years that we live in a world undergoing massive 'globalisation'. Globalisation is the prime agenda of our lives today, though it is not yet very well understood. One has only to pick up the newspapers to see how a word which no one really mentioned even 10 years ago is now discussed with extraordinary frequency.

There are many such discussions in the economic press. There, one sees globalisation identified with competition in worldwide economic markets-the idea being that we live in a much more integrated global economy than we ever did previously, and that this economic globalisation is accelerating. Now, with reservations, this is true. It is true that we can't carry on our economic lives in the way we once did.

Think of what's happened over the past 30 or 40 years: not only the collapse of communism, the collapse of a certain way of organising the economy through centralised direction; but at the same time, in all western countries, a crisis of the welfare state and the crumbling of what seemed the very foundation of economic theory, Keynesianism. These things are plainly not unrelated: they are bound up with global economic competition, and it's clear to everybody, whether on the right or the left, that conditions of economic competitiveness are different now from what they were even a quarter of a century ago.

But this is not the most fundamental sense in which globalisation is changing our lives, so it will not do simply to concentrate on the importance of global economic competition, essential though that now is. We should rather understand by globalisation something more profound - a transformation of our personal lives, our local lives, in the context of much larger global events.

What has been the leading influence in the globalisation of society over the past 20 or 30 years? The communications media. A technological fix on the change in the nature of the global expansion of the west across the rest of the world is offered by the establishment, some 30 or 40 years ago, of the first global satellite communications system. When one has global satellite communications, one can have instantaneous communication across the world.

And when one has instantaneous electronic communication across the world, one doesn't only shift economic things. Certainly, 24-hour global money markets weren't possible before the marriage of information technology and global satellite systems. But one doesn't only have economic transformations: there are transformations in experience, in nature, the way we lead our lives; there are major transitions in the nature of the state; and, particularly importantly, we now live a new agenda. This links our personal lives much more closely than ever before with global futures and, in turn, links global events much more directly with our personal experience.

Two sorts of experiments, as it were, are going on in the world. One has a grand experiment on the global level: what will we make of an industrialising world with the first global economy that's ever existed, if there is not much prior experience on which we can build? But also our everyday lives, in a certain sense, have become experimental: look at the changes affecting the relationship between the sexes, at this fantastic debate over 'family values', now seen throughout the world-in third-world as much as first-world countries.

What is the reason for this? It is a shift in how we live our everyday lives, associated of course with claims of women to power which they didn't have before, but associated with many other seismic changes too. One has to understand the conjunction of change, therefore-linking personal, even emotional, experience with much larger global events-and that electronic communication plays a central role, shifting the texture of how we live our lives.

This means that when one speaks of a society-Northern Ireland, Ireland, the United Kingdom or the wider European society-it's going to mean something different from what it used to mean, even a couple of decades ago.

Associated with globalisation - if globalisation means shifts in space and time, transformations in the ways we relate our experience to larger systems- one sees a second set of changes everywhere in the world. These are the sweeping effects of what sociologists, if one can forgive the 'sociologese', have come to call 'detraditionalisation'.

Detraditionalisation means that globalising processes eat into, attack, local customs and traditions, local ways of doing things. They do so in our personal lives at the same time as they do so at the level of the nation-state, and larger systems too.

For about 150 years, with the advent of modern industrial society, there was a collaboration between modernisation and industrialisation on the one hand, and tradition on the other. Industrialisation destroyed a lot of the pre-modern world. But, at the same time, there was an accommodation: tradition persisted in the 19th century, in the invention of nationalism, the resurgence of religious movements and, especially, in everyday life. There was a retraditionalisation of the family, of gender, of various aspects of personal life. That's what made modern society stable - a marriage of modernity and tradition.

In a globalising world, with the immediate and shattering effects of electronic communication - a much more urgently cosmopolitan world - this marriage of modernity and tradition becomes prised apart.

In our local lives, detraditionalisation means, for example, that women are no longer simply just 'women'. One has to decide what it is to be a woman. One has to decide now even what it is to be a man - something which is very unusual and difficult for men to do. But this is certainly going to occupy our lives in the future: gender identity is no longer fixed, no longer given; it's something we have to achieve. The same applies to family life: the family is no longer something given.

We don't accept our lives any longer as fate. Even a quarter century ago, if one was a woman it was one's 'fate' probably to have children, to live in the domestic milieu, maybe to work part-time. It was one's 'fate' as a man to leave school or college, get a job, retire at 65 and spend the rest of one's life wondering what to do. We don't live our lives as fate any more, so these things no longer hold for either sex or in family life. One has today to construct an emotional life much more actively than ever before.

That's why there's no sense talking about going back to the 'traditional family'. We're stuck with the democratisation of family life, of which we have to make the best. Again, we don't know quite where it will lead, but there is no turning back from that.

The detraditionalisation of local life is much more important than many people would accept. It intersects with economic development; it intersects with politics; it becomes a meeting-point of what one does in one's working life, in respect of the other groups to which one belongs and where one casts one's vote.

At the level of the state, we see everywhere that leaders can no longer lead. Why are all leaders suddenly lacklustre? It's not just because the individuals involved have become so; rather, when detraditionalisation affects the political system, one simply can't depend on the same deference as before. Again, we see this happening throughout the world, not just in the west; there are massive problems for political leadership, plainly related to the 'hollowing out' of the nation-state both below and above the level of political action.

What some sociologists, if one can again forgive the terminology, have called 'the politics of un-politics' is set to become much more important. This refers to the very many changes going on in society - such as women's claims to new autonomy in everyday life - which do not emanate from the political sphere, but to which the political sphere must respond. The state, in some sense, must respond to these claims, even though they are not, by and large, first established within the political system. The political system has lost a good deal of the autonomy it once had. It doesn't follow, however, that it can't re-establish it.

What does follows from this is that in personal life, in business and in the state we will depend much more upon active trust, rather than a passive acceptance of fixed roles, fixed economic systems - of work for life and all the rest of it. Active trust entails having to gain the trust of others in an active fashion - having to recognise that one is dependent on them, no matter how much power formally one has over them. This is one of the reasons why the shape of economic organisation and political structures has changed.

Bureaucracy, after all, used to work. It used to work in the period of Keynesianism and the dominant theory of organisations, until relatively recently, was that the more bureaucratic the industrial organisation, the more effective it would be. Now everyone is escaping from bureaucracy. Why? Not just because of the impact of new technology, but because of the impact of this wider set of changes.

If one is going to have the active trust of a workforce, one must give that workforce some autonomy. Giving them autonomy means a much more flexible authority system and, in a world of decentred globalisation - where it's no longer true that West is Best - an 'Easternisation' of industry is not surprising. One no longer speaks of Westernisation; there are many aspects of Easternisation going on today: bottom-up decision-making, non-hierarchical systems of authority and so forth.

These things all belong together. They are not different from what's going on in the sphere of the family, and they are not different from what's going on in the sphere of politics.

In all these cases, therefore, it is possible to retrieve legitimacy. It is possible to restabilise, for example, the political system. One isn't stuck with a society where politics no longer counts for anything, but we won't be able to make it count for something without acknowledging the importance of new systems of authority, symbolism and legitimacy, which depend on active trust.

Active trust normally means a much more volatile electorate - shifts in political allegiance, surprises. The sort of surprises that have happened in Canadian politics or in the United States, where no one really anticipated the election of Bill Clinton, and very few anticipated the sudden resurgence of the Republicans. Such things will probably become more commonplace in a detraditionalised world, where one has to build trust much more actively, where trust and risk become central organising notions for us.

Take what happens when one gets married, for example. One got married 30 or 40 years ago, in most western societies, with some sense that one knew what one was doing. Marriage was an established role relationship: one knew what it was; one knew what expectations followed. If one gets married now, this is no longer true: one does so against a backdrop of a very high divorce rate, in lots of western countries anyway. Anyone who gets married now knows that women stake much more claim to autonomy than before.

Everyone knows that traditional family systems are in some sense dissolving. Everyone knows there is a fierce debate about all these things. These are not just external environments to one's decision: they are part and parcel of what that decision is. There is an important sense in which, when one gets married now, one doesn't really know what one is doing. One is participating in an experimental relationship, both for oneself and the wider society. A lot of our life has become like that, producing enormous anxieties for all of us, but also producing some very interesting new opportunities.

The third set of changes, linked to the others, is the development of a much more active, 'reflexive', citizenry. One may often read in popular accounts of what's happening in politics, what's happening in economic life, what's happening in emotional domains, that we're paralysed - that people are disempowered by living in a global economy, by living in a globalising society. And this is, to some extent, true. On the other hand, living in such a society means one cannot but be active in relation to it.

The more tradition releases its hold, the more we no longer live our lives as fate, the more it's true that in some sense we must actively grasp control of our circumstances - read, acquire knowledge about what we do and, through using that knowledge, reorganise what we do. That's what it's like to live in a reflexive world. A reflexive world is not an increasingly self-conscious world: it's a world where one must use lots of sources of information about one's life.

It doesn't matter whether one is an individual, whether one is running a big corporation or whether one is running a state; we all live in this information environment today, where one must use information about the outside world to live in the outside world, but where that information may be too much to handle may be inconsistent, may be changeable - there are many difficulties in dealing, reflexively, with an enclosed information environment of the sort we now have to handle.

Consider, for example, the simple decision of what to eat for breakfast. A lot of people eat muesli for their breakfast in the belief that muesli is healthy, that it helps one to stave off various illnesses from which one might suffer. Latest research seems to indicate that muesli isn't very healthy at all, and that certain things we used to think were healthy, such as water, are less healthy than red wine. So if one drinks two glasses of red wine a day - even one for breakfast - it thins the blood and helps one's heart.

How does one relate to a world like this? This is a world of elementary scepticism: it has changed so much in terms of how we live in it, in terms of the information we get about it, partly because the role of science has changed so much - and it's science one is talking about here, in that simple decision about what to eat for breakfast.

Science used to be a sort of tradition: it used to be an authority to which we could turn, and we believed in the probity of science. But now, we see that science depends upon scepticism. The essence of science is the belief that no belief is cherished - one gives up even one's most cherished belief if empirical research shows it to be wrong.

Popper shows us that science is built on shifting foundations; there is no foundation to science. Anything one believes in could be shown to be wrong. That view is no longer confined to science, but is part of our everyday lives.

There is, therefore, a new debate in the modern world, between scepticism and fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is not something which has always been around: it is a creation of a world where we exist in a new relationship to all sorts of potential information around us. Science declares that nothing is sacred, whereas fundamentalism asserts that one cannot live in a world where nothing is sacred. There's a sophisticated dialogue here, not just a dialogue of violence - though there are connections, in a more reflexive world, between fundamentalism and violence.

In a more reflexive world, in which active trust has an important role, the citizenry increasingly live in the same information environment as those, like political leaders, who are empowered to take decisions which affect them. This has many consequences, again, for politics.

The same is roughly true of the economic world. In Brazil, there are a lot of very poor people, and until recently there was a very high rate of inflation. What one finds in the very poorest parts of the cities, where people are living in indescribable conditions, is that very poor people have learned to use their minimal resources to stave off the worst effects of inflation, by playing the global money markets in a sophisticated fashion.

There is no one outside a world of high reflexivity any more: we all tend to live in the same information environments, and we all have access to various kinds of expertise within those information environments. Recently, the press reported a comparison between finance ministers and dustmen, in terms of predictions about inflation, economic development and so on. The dustmen were definitely superior to the finance ministers in the predictions they made.

We live in a world where we all discuss the same things - it is an extraordinary change. In my years of going round the world and participating in academic dialogues, there has been a tremendous globalisation of information: one finds the same debates, the same discussions, the same ideas wherever one goes now, a change which has taken place in a very short time. There is some sense in which we all live in the same reflexive environment now, whatever we make of it. There are, however, many possible reactions to that.

In a world marked by these concentrated and fundamental changes, a lot of consequences arise. These can be compared to a settling out after a large earthquake - a massive ripple-effect across the world. Some of them are bound up with democratisation.

If one asks what happened in the Soviet Union, what happened in South Africa, what's happening in Northern Ireland; if one sees these things as part of a global communications system, one gets some purchase upon the fairly rapid spread of democratisation across the world today. And one arrives at a different theory about democratisation than the orthodox one.

There are 'catching-up' and 'leapfrog' theories of democratisation - I prefer the second. A catching-up theory of democratisation looks at what went on in South Africa, in eastern Europe, and says: these countries were authoritarian, they lagged behind western liberal democracies; what they have to do is catch them up. They have to catch up by a joint process of economic development and political liberalisation, so that they establish stable, multi-party political systems of the sort found in western Europe, Australasia and north America.

Now, that view has some substance: it's plainly true that these were authoritarian systems, unacceptable to large chunks of the people ruled by them. But the theory doesn't make enough sense of the double fate of democracy in contemporary times: although we see the spread of democracy across the world, at the same time surely, we see democracy in trouble.

We see trouble all around us in western countries. At the high point of its apparent global success, western, liberal, multi-party democracy seems to be under enormous strain. If one has a different view of democratisation, however, one can explain both the attractions of democratisation and the strain to which liberal democracy is subject.

The spread of democratisation across the world is bound up with the very changes I have described: global communication, detraditionalisation and a more reflexive citizenry create urgent pressures towards democratisation, towards involvement. If people start to live in a similar information environment, of course they are clued in to what's going on, and of course they make claims as to their interests in respect of what's going on.

But if these things explain the spread of democratisation, at the same time they show why the older models of democratisation are likely to come under pressure and to be inadequate. With all these other changes going on, there is a great resurgence of discussion about other forms of democracy today, in addition to - not as a substitute for - liberal, multi-party democracy. There is a sudden interest again in participatory democracy, which, for a long time, was written off as of no relevance to anyone living in a large industrial society. Why? Because of this shakeout, where new forms of democratisation become not only possible, but necessary.

We look now for forms of democratisation which stretch right through from our personal lives, through the nation-state, to larger global systems. We look to forms of democratisation which reflect these fantastic changes affecting the global society.

The United Nations has designated 1995 as the UN Year of Tolerance. How, if one looks at these changes, might one apply them to this country? How would one orient oneself to the problems of building a liberal, pluralistic, peaceful society in Northern Ireland, in a united Ireland or in a different form of Ireland, and in a wider European system? I offer three reflections in conclusion.

First, when we look at Ireland now, in the light of the changes I've described, we see that it is neither so unusual, nor so alone, as it used to appear. For a long while, to many commentators - and this would still be true if one applied a 'catching up' theory of democracy - there was an atavistic interpretation of Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, so it went, one has archaic conflicts which have not yet been quelled; a civil society has not yet, for various reasons, been fully established along the same lines as in other western societies; and one has a situation approximating to a civil war in a world in which, at least in the west, civil war has been largely forgotten.

One cannot any longer follow that interpretation. If one looks at Northern Ireland today - and one must look at it in a globalising context - one can see that both the problems and the opportunities which face it, or Ireland as a whole, are not different from those faced by the rest of the world. Elsewhere, now, one sees a new relationship between radical democratisation, on the one hand, and resurgent fundamentalisms, including religious, nationalistic and ethnic fundamentalisms, on the other.

These things are part of the global shake-out I'm describing; in this context Northern Ireland looks, in a certain sense, typical, rather than unusual. And the sort of institutional building blocks that one would seek to create here are surely the same as those we would look to construct in other European countries and in other contexts, in which we must all now deal with this new intersection between fundamentalism and democracy - forms of fundamentalism ringed with violence, but in some sense in dialogue with democratisation and with modernisation, in the form of economic development.

Not just here, but everywhere, if here particularly, there is a question of what Charles Taylor has called the 'politics of recognition'. The politics of recognition must be accommodated in a pluralistic society. It entails recognising the authenticity, the identity of different cultural groups who have different views - whether these be religious or of other kinds - these views having a right to be stated, to be heard and to be organised around.

The politics of recognition comes up against the politics of solidarity: how does one build a multi-cultural society, a society in which there is an effective politics of recognition but which still has mechanisms of social cohesion? The simple answer is that we don't yet know, but there's nothing very distinctive about Northern Ireland, as compared to many other parts of the world where we must seek to resolve the same problem.

What we're dealing with here is a genuinely global issue. In a world where the nation-state won't look the same any more, we can't confine problems of ethnicity, of religious pluralism, of other kinds of claims to recognition within the nation-state's sphere; we have to look for other ways of accommodating these two forms of politics. I would see this as the struggle for the early part of the 21st century - the struggle between the two, but the possibility of accommodating them also.

When one thinks of the state, one no longer thinks of what one used to think of. What is the United Kingdom? What is Northern Ireland? What is Ireland? What is France? What is Canada? They don't have the same resonance as they used to do, largely because of the transformations I've mentioned. Nowadays, if one is in one country, one is linked to other countries in a new fashion. One is linked to the European Union, and many different forms of accommodation - of federalism, of local autonomy - seem to be possible; we're all pioneering these.

Look at what happened in Spain. Spain is still a country, but with extraordinary autonomy for the regions. Catalonia, for example, is more strongly linked, economically and culturally, to other parts of the European Union than it is to Castille. Will this be a pattern for the future?

Secondly, there is an intrinsic connection between democratisation, pluralism and economic development, and this will apply in Northern Ireland as elsewhere.

The relationship between democracy and economic development is more complex than one might imagine. There's a new discussion, for example, of the impact of authoritarianism on economic development, when one considers the debate about Easternisation and the rather unusual accommodation that seems to exist between fairly authoritarian systems of political power in some of the eastern tigers' and their very rapid economic development. Some people are again saying: we don't need democracy, we don't need pluralism for economic development; one needs an authoritarian outlook - maybe even what the Chinese communists provided, and the Russian communists wrongly eschewed with perestroika.

That's what some are saying, but I don't think it is true. There is a close connection between democratisation and economic development. Economic development is the condition for democratisation; therefore discussion of economic partnership is crucial to the future of this country[1]. But that partnership is bound to entail new forms of democratic association - not just the old relationship between markets, liberal democracy and the nation-state. These things will no longer hold, here as elsewhere.

Thirdly, and finally, I was very pleased to see that the name of the new think tank is Democratic Dialogue, because among the new forms of democratisation which will be particularly important for us, not just here but elsewhere, is what I call 'dialogic democracy'.

Democracy means two things, really. On the one hand, it means recognition of diversity of interests, so that one can form political parties and other associations. On the other, democracy always also means dialogue. It means the possibility of substituting discussion for violence. And one of the main threads of democratic theory in the west - and now across the world - has been the substitution of dialogue for violence, of talk for bullets. The substitution of talk for bullets is surely one of the great civilising contributions of western, liberal-democratic theory.

Dialogic democratisation, however, is unlikely to be limited any longer to the sphere of parliaments. Parliament plainly is a dialogic system - it's a place where one debates things and, hopefully, one reaches conclusions without the use of force. But in a world with these new connections and disjunctions between local life and global systems, one must look for forms of dialogic democratisation which will run through from personal and family life to large institutional systems.

I'd like to conclude by arguing that there is an inherent connection between dialogue, violence and the possibility of living along with others, both in gender relationships and in larger systems. In both cases, one depends upon the possibility of what I call a 'positive spiral of communication'. A positive spiral of communication substitutes dialogue for violence and substitutes discussion - public policy discussion - for the use of force to achieve one's ends.

We know that in violent marriages, where men are violent towards women, such men can change. They can change through inner communication and outer communication. We have many cases of successful therapeutic intervention, where violent men do manage to substitute talk for violence. When that occurs, it can produce a positive spiral of communication: the more one gets to know oneself, the more one gets to know the other; the more one gets to know the other, the more one understands oneself.

This is a positive politics of recognition, where difference with the other is a means to get to know oneself better which in turn is a means of getting to know the other better, in a positive spiral. There are many cases across the world of interaction between religious groups, ethnic groups, cultural groups, where one does see positive spirals of communication. I take it this will be one of the meanings of Democratic Dialogue - the furthering of such spirals of positive communication.

The question for us is how to avoid a relapse into negative spirals of communication. If, in a positive spiral, in an emotional relationship, love feeds on love, like feeds on like, tolerance feeds on tolerance; in a deteriorating cycle of communication, hatred feeds on hatred. What happened in Bosnia can't be understood in terms of what I earlier called an atavistic view of history. What happened in Bosnia wasn't just that centuries - old hatreds existed which had never been accommodated, in an awkward corner of Europe which had never modernised.

One certainly has to understand what happened in Bosnia in relation to the past, but in relation to how that past is used in a globalising context, where one has a new encounter - a global encounter - between Islam and Christianity, an encounter between different modes of modernisation. One doesn't simply have a reservoir of hatred lying around for hundreds of years, ready to fuel conflicts. That isn't really how hatreds work, in Ireland any more than anywhere else.

What one has is certain situations which can accentuate, can draw upon, pre-existing antagonisms. Once these become communicated as hatreds, then one can get a negative spiral of communication, so that people who were previously neighbours, and had got along quite well, can end up hating one another, to the degree they are prepared to visit the most horrific brutalities upon one another.

Managing the global society of the future is not going to be a matter of sending in UN forces to clear up areas of conflict - of which there will be many - such as Bosnia. It's going to be a question of somehow producing democratic institutions and creating interventions which avoid negative spirals of cultural communication.

As with all I have been describing, this is an open future for us. We can't really, any longer, use our past traditions of thinking to understand it. In confronting this open future, while we certainly see many difficulties, many uncertainties, we see many new possibilities too.

[1] See next chapter

[Report Contents] [List of Reports]

Democratic Dialogue {external_link}
53 University Street, Belfast, BT7 1FY Northern Ireland
Phone: -44-28-9022-0050 Fax: -44-28-9022-0051

Back to the top of this page