Anthony Giddens and Modern Social Theory


Kenneth H. Tucker Jr

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    To my parents, Ann and Ken Tucker


    I am indebted to Chris Rojek for suggesting this project and supporting it to its conclusion. Robert Rojek and Jane Evans of Sage Publications helped enormously with shepherding the book through the review process, and editing the manuscript. Anthony Giddens graciously granted me an interview which allowed me to clarify many issues regarding his work. A faculty grant from Mount Holyoke College assisted with travel and research expenses.

    For emotional and intellectual support, I wish to thank Barbara Tucker and Michael Barker. For my spouse, Sherry, no thanks can be enough. A perceptive critic and wonderful companion, the book could not have been completed without her care and insight.

  • Conclusion

    Giddens sees expanded social reflexivity accompanied by the globalization and the emergence of a post-traditional world as primary characteristics of late modernity. New knowledges and new social movements become widespread and manufactured uncertainty increases. This contemporary social context calls for a new type of politics, in Giddens's view. The mobile and ever-changing nature of manufactured uncertainty means that it cannot be controlled by old political solutions, as problems can no longer be mastered in the Enlightenment sense of people's self-conscious dominion over the natural and social world. Accordingly, socialism is dead, and political positions from welfarestatism to neo-conservatism are dying. None of these political orientations supplies the theoretical resources necessary to confront contemporary social problems.1

    For Giddens, life politics forms the basis for a new radical politics, which must be concerned with repairing damaged solidarities, and preserving and reinventing traditions which provide a meaningful context for people's lives. Trust must be actively won and created. Life politics is a generative politics, which dispenses with the traditional liberal/conservative division, and transcends “state provision versus privatization” as the primary solution to social problems. It means that people must reflexively create and sustain their own lives, often outside of the formal political realm.2

    Giddens states that this new politics requires a rethinking of the modern welfare state. He argues that many conservative critiques of the welfare state are on the mark, for it has been unable to reduce poverty or generate income transfers, and has created large, bloated, government bureaucracies. The Western welfare state resulted from a class compromise between the working class and economic elites: realized in the 1950s, it embodied economic equality and rationality. The welfare state arose in tandem with a manufacturing economy. State officials recognized that new governmental measures had to be taken to protect people. Bolstered by strong industrial labor movements and the two world wars, which increased central government power, the welfare state attempted to manage social risk. It encouraged economic bargaining between large unions and big firms, mediated by a reformist government, in the name of national solidarity.3

    Such a state is now outmoded, in Giddens's view. Most welfare state measures are based on dealing with failures of the government or the market, rather than confronting and solving problems at their origin. The welfare state promotes a gendered workforce, as the domestic work performed largely by women is not counted as real, paid labor. Moreover, the class issues informing welfare state policies are now less relevant for everyday existence. Welfare state programs are tied to the emancipatory politics of economic growth and redistribution of wealth, and are unable to deal with the new issues of cultural diversity and self-actualization arising from life politics that are becoming more central in people's lives.4

    Because welfare state aid programs often create bureaucracies which are inflexible, inefficient, and serve the interests of bureaucrats rather than their clients, a post-scarcity type of politics and society is necessary. A post-scarcity society is concerned with more than economic prosperity, rejects the ideology of productivism central to the welfare state, and recognizes that out of control consumption is a world-wide problem. It sees markets as “signaling devices” which let firms know where more production is needed, but it is sensitive to the role of markets in creating the economic class divisions as was recognized by Marx. The dominance of paid work and economic concerns central to the welfare state must be replaced with new issues. Giddens calls for policies oriented to the building of new traditions, or the protection of old ones, as everyday allegiances have to be fostered.5

    Giddens's model of equality moves away from a concern with productivism toward the pursuit of happiness, which includes a sense of security, self-respect, and self-actualization. Such a “generative welfare” is tied to a new individualism that is now widespread in the West. The new individual is not the egoistic, self-interested person caricatured in the 1980s “me-decade” of Reagan and Thatcher. Rather, new individualism refers to the quest for personal autonomy, in which the trust of others and of institutions must be actively won. The new individualism can potentially give rise to an autonomous self, based on self-confidence and a strong sense of ontological security which allows for the tolerance and appreciation of differences among peoples. It would involve a pact between rich and poor, based on a sense of mutual responsibility, the desirability of lifestyle changes for the rich and the poor, and an expansive notion of welfare oriented toward developing the autonomous self. Such “positive welfare” connects individual autonomy and collective responsibility. For example, a positive version of health care is proactive, focusing on preventing illness, rather than treating it. To achieve these ends, the state would have to work with a variety of self-help groups. Affected groups must be heavily involved in government programs, which must draw on “the reflexivity of the individuals or groups they address.”6

    In sum, the welfare system is tied to a notion of life as fate, which is influenced by external risks. However, this approach misrepresents the most fundamental issues confronting modern societies. Major contemporary social problems do not concern the funding of welfare institutions, but involve “how to reorder those institutions so as to make them mesh with the much more active, reflexive lives that most of us now lead.”7 For Giddens, social reflexivity must inform life politics and generative politics, if they are to be effective. This politics should adopt a utopian realism, aimed at combating poverty, addressing ecological problems, contesting arbitrary power, and reducing the role of force and violence in everyday life.8

    Giddens on Labour Politics

    Giddens believes that his vision of a new left politics can find a home in the British Labour Party, as it rethinks its traditions and policies in the wake of the decline of socialism. As he has moved to become Director of the London School of Economics, he has become an informal adviser to Tony Blair and an important spokesperson for the Labour Party. For Giddens, the possibilities for a refurbished Labour Party grow out of the problems faced by Conservatism.

    Giddens argues that the Conservative political position outlined in the 1980s by Thatcher and Reagan is inherently contradictory, for it advocates an unrestricted free market in the economic realm, and traditional values in the personal sphere. Yet the play of the market undermines tradition, as Marx and Engels recognized in The Communist Manifesto. Giddens concurs with Marx and Engels's assessment that the market “sweeps away all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions.”9

    While Giddens finds Conservative solutions to modern social problems to be non-existent, he rejects the welfare-statist and socialist policies traditionally advocated by Labour. Giddens contends that Labour's major idea should concern “civic restructuring,” and this still involves repairing the damage to communal solidarities inflicted by capitalism. But an effective, modern model of community must be based on the new individualism, in which people actively construct their lives more than they did in the past.10

    Giddens states that these changes entail a rethinking of Labour's philosophy. Labour must break with Keynesian welfare-statism. Welfare provisions must be changed, so that one-parent families without fathers are not encouraged. The power of labor unions over the Party must be severed, and new types of partnership between unions and industry encouraged. Correspondingly, Labour should not be beholden to finance capital, and should seek to close tax loopholes which unfairly benefit financial elites.11 Labour needs policies which sustain low inflation and long-term infrastructure investment. Socialist concepts cannot supply policies which result in these economic benefits. Giddens contends that socialism is theoretically impoverished, for, contra Marx, “political and administrative power does not derive directly from control of the means of production.”12 Accordingly, socialist goals no longer make sense, and any leftist party must rid itself of beliefs in the virtues of the planned direction of the economy, the socialization of the means of production, the coming to political and economic power of the working class, and the disappearance of private capital.

    The decline of socialism is also tied to social changes. The decrease of the manual and industrial working class as a percentage of the working population, combined with the globalization of capitalism, have destroyed class as a major indicator of social identity. Moreover, class communities no longer cohere because of the prevalence of the new individualism. In Giddens's view, the new poor of the chronically unemployed and single mothers do not form a class-based community.13

    What then is of value in the socialist tradition? Giddens states that notions of equality and democracy are still central to a left politics. However, they must be understood in new ways, as Labour should try to “foster new forms of social solidarity, cohesion, and civic culture.”14 State welfare programs will not solve social problems by themselves, and they must be put in the context “of a wider drive against inequality” of all sorts, from gender to race. He states that an integral component of this rethinking is the equation of socialism with an attitude of care for oneself, others, and “the fabric of the material world.”15 An attitude of care means recognizing and nurturing human interdependence, while also realizing the value of diversity.

    For example, Giddens states that fostering strong families is indeed important for a healthy society, but that the nuclear family is not the model to emulate. For Giddens, strong families are based on a variety of kinship ties beyond that of the mother and father. Moreover, in some societies such as Italy, families become too concerned with their own affairs, which can lead to a lack of community involvement. For Giddens, this demonstrates that contemporary communities will necessarily be more diverse than in the past. Recognition of this diversity demands a strong sense of cosmopolitanism among people, as they must be able to value ways of life different from their own.16

    According to Giddens, cosmopolitanism and the new individualism demand new Labour policies, which include modernizing the state, attempting to create wealth and not simply redistribute it, and dealing with unemployment while pursuing egalitarianism. In order to modernize the state, the central government must give up some of its power to a more active citizenry while respecting the constraints brought about by globalization. For example, new regulations about children's rights might have to be negotiated with local groups and international organizations. Problems of wealth creation and unemployment should not only be tackled by creating more jobs, but also by equalizing work time between men and women and the rich and poor. Greater gender equality in housework and childrearing and more flexibility in work schedules can help mitigate the culture of productivism that is anathema to Giddens, and reduce the dominance of paid work over other aspects of life. For Giddens, civic obligations can only be improved “in the context of a restructuring of jobs, work, and family obligations.”17

    While Giddens advocates more education to increase economic productivity, he is suspicious of purely vocational training. In Giddens's view, education should be wide-ranging and humanistic, encouraging a cosmopolitan attitude and enhancing “a wide range of life values.”18 Humanistic education will actually be more practical in responding to social problems than technical instruction, for it will teach people the value of engaging in preventative and caring activity toward oneself, others, and the environment. Such an education would encourage people to take responsibility for solving problems through their own actions, rather than relying on technical solutions formulated by a state bureaucracy.

    This type of education would encourage a reflexive, productive citizenry, combat the predominance of outmoded social ideas and policies, and challenge the belief that economic growth can solve all problems. As Giddens states, “Contesting productivism while promoting productivity is the only route to follow if a low-inflation, low-growth society is also to refurbish itself and give substance to values of participation and equality.”19

    Giddens's odyssey has taken him from the reconstruction of social theory to the rethinking of the politics of the Labour Party. Such seemingly disparate interests have been linked by his continuing attempts to discern the main contours of modernity, which ties theory to practice. Yet Giddens's proposal for a new politics points to an interesting tension in his work. He recognizes that damaged solidarities must be repaired, but they can only be (re)constructed on the basis of the autonomous, Promethean self. Giddens's political stance replicates the inconsistency in his theoretical work between the power of society (as in the importance he attributes to social routines), and the autonomy of the individual. Despite Giddens's attempts to overcome the structure/agency duality, he has not so much resolved this discrepancy as wavered between the two poles of society/individual. In his earlier work, he stresses the centrality of social routines and large-scale social changes (such as the emergence of the nation-state) in shaping individual behavior. In his recent studies of modernity, he reverts to a view of the individual as almost separated from social structures, and as having transformative abilities that allow him/her to reshape social forces in his/her own interests. This conception of individual autonomy influences Giddens's conception of how people become competent members of society. For Giddens, “individuation is defined as either absolute creativity or absolute conformity. This view is very different than, say, a Habermasian perspective, which sees individuation as a moral and rational learning process structured by cultural traditions that serve as a resource and context for the emergence of shared meanings.”20

    This tension points to other difficulties in Giddens's thought that I have mentioned throughout the text. Giddens does not develop a strong theory of culture and its role in shaping behavior, nor does he formulate a convincing analysis of the relationship between cultural beliefs and social power. Thus, he does not extensively investigate how people create communal beliefs through shared history and memories. Such negligence impoverishes Giddens's analysis of the possibility of people creating different social arrangements than those existing in modern societies, for he does not sufficiently examine “the role of individual and collective memory, and the experience of collective and individual suffering … [as informing] any conception of cultural alternatives within modern society.” His emphasis on people's capacities to reflexively monitor their life situations underplays the role of “a preexisting cultural milieu that determines the texture of social interaction.”21 Finally, joining these theoretical problems is the more concrete discounting of class issues in Giddens's analysis. He does not adequately explore the new class divisions that globalization has created, as economic disparities between countries in the North and South replace class conflict within nation-states in the West as major sites of contestation.22

    Despite these criticisms, Giddens's social theory is a lasting legacy for modern sociology. His analysis and synthesis of a vast number of theoretical traditions have brought different schools of thought into contact with one another in ways that can only enrich each of them. He places new social movements and the social changes of late modernity into a coherent, powerful theoretical context, so that such changes do not appear to be haphazard. Giddens creates a sociology for the twenty-first century that is no longer insular, but reaches out to other disciplines in its attempts to capture the character of late modernity. It is a dynamic sociology which dispenses with old dualisms such as structure and agency. His social theory respects the knowledgeability of people, who always have the capability of making the world a better place.

    Giddens has been criticized for not giving rise to a new school of social research, akin to that of Marx or Durkheim. But his research has been truly practical, as it informs his approach to politics and social policy. This might be Giddens's greatest legacy, as he ties social theory to practical activity in a way reminiscent of the classical sociological figures. For Giddens, social theory is not separate from political action, and its major themes and arguments must stand the test of practice. Giddens's forays into Labour politics are suggestive of Marx's activities in the Workers’ International union, Durkheim's involvement in the Dreyfus affair of early twentieth-century France, and Weber's attempts to influence German national policy at the end of World War I. Giddens's criticisms of these classical theorists does not prevent him from continuing perhaps their major message to modern sociology – that social theory does not preclude strong commitments to moral and political action, but indeed demands them.


    1 Giddens, Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 4–8.

    2 Giddens, In Defence of Sociology: Essays, Interpretations, and Rejoinders (Cambridge, MA, Polity Press, 1996), p. 254; Giddens, “Risk, Trust, Reflexivity,” in Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens, and Scott Lash, Reflexive Moderization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1994), p. 186.

    3 Giddens, Beyond Left and Right, pp. 74, 136–140.

    4 Ibid., pp. 136, 143–144, 153.

    5 Ibid., pp. 163–164, 185, 248.

    6 Giddens, “Risk, Trust, Reflexivity,” p. 196; In Defence of Sociology, pp. 229–230, 237.

    7 Ibid., pp. 222–223.

    8 Giddens, Beyond Left and Right, p. 246.

    9 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker (New York, Norton, 1978), p. 476.

    10 Giddens, In Defence of Sociology, pp. 243, 250.

    11 Ibid., pp. 260–263.

    12 Ibid., p. 228.

    13 Ibid., pp. 246–247.

    14 Ibid., p. 249.

    15 Ibid., p. 248.

    16 Ibid., pp. 245–246.

    17 Ibid., p. 259.

    18 Ibid., p. 266.

    19 Ibid., p. 270.

    20 Kenneth H. Tucker, Jr., Review of Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens, and Scott Lash, Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order, in Contemporary Sociology 25 (January 1996), pp. 12–13.

    21 Ronald Lembo and Kenneth H. Tucker, Jr., “Culture, Television, and Opposition: Rethinking Cultural Studies,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 7 (1990), p. 101.

    22 See for example Robert J. Antonio and Alessandro Bonanno, “Post-Fordism in the United States: The Poverty of Market-Centered Democracy,” in Current Perspectives in Social Theory, vol. 16, ed. Jennifer M. Lehmann (Greenwich, CT, JAI Press, 1996), pp. 3–32.

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