About time for a change

31st January 1997 at 00:00

Gillian Peele looks forward to political and social changes in the next millennium

The countdown to the millennium will inevitably produce a flood of books and articles speculating about the character of life in the 21st century and at first glance this collection of essays may appear to be part of that process.

Although Geoff Mulgan is the key figure in a think-tank (Demos) which has the idealistic goal of bringing democracy back into politics, this is a sober, hard-headed and thoughtful attempt to assess the challenges of change in society and the possible solutions to the problems presented by it.

Some of these challenges will already be familiar both to an academic audience and to a wider public. The impact of globalisation, of technology and of the learning revolution have already been extensively discussed in the mass media and in social science writing.

Other themes have perhaps received less attention. For example, one recurring theme is the extent to which our relationship to time is changing. Geoff Mulgan and Helen Wilkinson argue in a chapter on "well-being and time" that as a result of new information technology and other changes there is now a "post-industrial model" of time which has multifaceted effects on work, on leisure and on culture. Similarly David Cannon in an essay on the "post-modern work ethic" argues that just as different cultures have different attitudes to time so do different generations. Young people between the ages of 18 and 30 (generation X) thus have a distinctive view of time, involving a shortened time horizon, prefer multiple to single-focus tasks at work, and have blurred the boundaries between work and leisure.

A shortened time horizon may of course have alarming implications for social and political tolerance. Several writers explore the implication of "identity politics" and the new salience of divisions based on ethnicity, gender and age rather than class. Thus, Mulgan and Wilkinson suggest the gap between generations is becoming ever more serious both because of the gulf created by technology skills and because demographic pressures have changed the ratio between those in work and those supported by the state. Young people with a (temporary) advantage in the technology game may prove increasingly unwilling to fund the welfare provision necessary to support their obsolete elders. On this scenario, they will increasingly mobilise through groups such as Third Millennium to protect their generational interest as opposed to the massed ranks of grey activists who have already organised to protect pensions and other cost benefits.

It may at this point come as something of a relief to the reader to know that although much stress is laid on the impact of technology, Mulgan's authors are anxious also to assert the crucial role of morality and of politics in this brave new world. There is a short but eloquent plea by Pete Singer for the search for the ethical life as essential to individual fulfilment as well as an essay by Zygmunt Bauman on the need to search for a common life built on standards of justice, while Roger Scruton explores the question of animal rights.

But what of the political implications of all these developments? The authors insist that collective not market solutions are the way forward. Yet they are pessimistic about the current state of politics which lacks energy and leadership and is marked by an apathetic public.

Many of the authors seem to argue for a new politics which transcends existing parties and elites. Direct democracy, using opinion polls, would be a possible improvement as would new forms of government and a greater emphasis on truth. Unfortunately, as the authors are also aware, direct democracy can become media dominated and promote populist figures such as Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and America's Pat Buchanan. Old-fashioned and boring representative government has its strengths as well as its weaknesses.

The fact that this collection is much stronger on diagnosis than cure should not prevent it reaching a wide public. It will provide teachers with an excellent starting point for the discussion of political issues and should be read by anyone planning to live beyond the year 2000.

Gillian Peele is tutor in politics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

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