The Era of Hard Choices

No to Anthony GiddensI’m not usually inclined to comment on a book before I’ve read it. However, I’m moved to make an exception in the case of Anthony Giddens’ new tome, entitled “The Politics of Climate Change”.

For those who aren’t familiar with Lord Giddens’ previous works, he is one of the intellectual architects of the “Third Way”, the philosophy which underwrote both Tony Blair’s and Bill Clinton’s approach to politics. I recall one of Clinton’s speeches in which he articulated this perspective: he rejected the choice to be made between state intervention and free markets as false, rather, he called for a partnership between the two for the betterment of society. Rather than stop there, he continued in this vein for an additional thirty minutes; the lecture made one think of political philosophy as a caramel stickiness, a sugary adhesion between two diametric opposites in one great metaphysical globule. In an era of prosperity, few questioned this “post-ideological” approach; people were more interested in snickering at President Clinton’s sexual dalliances at the time.

Not content with creating a intellectual abortion based on avoiding the idea of choice altogether, Giddens’ latest work attacks the green movement. According to the Economist, he refers to greens as “relentlessly downbeat” and rejects the “hairshirt” approach as offered by environmentalists. He suggests that greens need to offer a vision of a bright future as opposed to issuing dire warnings.

Other commentators agree. Will Hutton stated in the Guardian that “the environment is too important to be left to the green movement”. In his words:

The green movement as it stands should receive the last rites. Its only hope is for a complete overhaul. Its mystic, utopian view of nature and its attachment to meaningless notions such as sustainable development or the precautionary principle should be done away with. It is time to move on.

To which I feel tempted to reply, “Oh, really?” Which has been proven to be unsustainable and impractical, the philosophy both Hutton and Giddens represent, or the principles for which the green movement stands?

I’ve often thought that the Green Party should base its next general election campaign around a single question: “How’s that working out for you?” It sounds very American, to be sure, but the tone behind the question: sardonic, sarcastic but pragmatic all at once should provoke thought about the modern world and how it is presently structured.

We have had nearly twenty years of Giddens’ philosophy being in vogue among the political Centre-Left; it was put into practice in the United States and Britain. Everyone thought they could have their cake and eat it too: Clinton thought he could spend more, solve the deficit and eliminate the barrier between investment and commercial banking (i.e., through the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933) and it would all come right. Yet, it was the refusal to diminish expectations (e.g., by pricking the housing bubble), and his government’s elimination of regulation that helped pave the way to our present crisis. It is possible to ask the American public now: how’d that work out for you? Unemployment is on the march, people are locked into debts they can no longer afford, banks will be propped up by the taxpayer for years, industries are shutting down. The pessimists, the Cassandras, those who sounded a cautionary note and were swept aside by the Third Way optimists were the ones who turned out to be correct.

Similarly, in Britain, we have had a Third Way government in operation since 1997. The Labour government thought the party would last forever: it gave the Bank of England operational independence, and spent more. Gordon Brown went so far as to say that the cycles of “boom and bust” had been abolished; this is a mistaken claim for which he has not yet apologised. The British public should also consider how well this played out: the sceptics, the dour pragmatists, the hairshirt wearers and those who watched the proverbial economic canaries in the mine keeling over proved to be those who understood more about what was going on than the optimists.

Yet after having been so categorically and tragically wrong, we are presented with the likes of Giddens and Hutton telling those who were right, that they are the ones who are wrong and indeed that they need to change their ways. These esteemed gentlemen also tragically underestimate the intelligence and discernment of the public: they simply refuse to believe that an informed electorate is capable of making difficult decisions, rather, like children, they need to be given bright colours and more sugar candy in order to make the bitter pill of greenery that much easier to swallow. This is a “bread and circuses” brand of politics which is the province of the authoritarian regimes, rather than the hallmark of a responsible, representative government.

Let’s be clear: it is time to don the proverbial hairshirt in most respects. We have one planet, with a limited set of resources. Under these circumstances, economic growth has constraints: there are only so many products we can pull out of the ground, whether they are agricultural or industrial. There are only so many people that this world can feed, clothe and allow to breathe. Either we correct the problem through our actions, or nature will correct the problem for us, in ways we would probably rather not contemplate.

The reality of global constraints must be accompanied by a recognition of individual constraints. We have been encouraged to think that our individual sovereignty is linked to unlimited consumption. Through advertising and the present construction of the economic order, we have been led to believe that we are entitled to have whatever we want, whenever we want: we have become autocrats in our own domains. However, this fallacious link should be severed: liberty is not a matter of being free to consume, but being free to think, to act, to question and to be entrusted with responsibility. Is this less “fun” than carefree self-indulgence? Certainly. But at the same time, we’ve seen that the other way is a dead end.

This analysis moves green political thought from a “utopian” project, as both Giddens and Hutton believe, into a project which is actually more realistic than what they propose. Interestingly, it is Giddens and Hutton who are buying into fantasy: as the Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek once stated, we labour under a paradox, namely that we have the power to destroy the world, which is true, but that we also are simultaneously powerless to change the present economic order. Giddens and Hutton would rather not work to remedy the conundrum, rather they want to continue to indulge it.

The Economist notes, with some implied sadness, that despite Giddens’ work being “woolly”, that the author’s previous significance will “propel it onto shelves in high places”. This is probably true. With a bit of luck, however, the volume will remain on those shelves, gather dust, and then be quietly forgotten. The era of hard choices is upon us, whether we like it or not. Giddens’ fantasies are not a help, but a hindrance.

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