Anthony Giddens [1.29.00]
Introduction by:
Anthony Giddens

"The second globalization debate is now upon us, and it's no longer just an academic debate. It's in the streets, as we know since Seattle, since the meetings in Washington, since the carnival against capitalism in London, and similar kinds of events all over the world."

by John Brockman

Though the notion that we live in an era of unprecedented globalization is becoming increasingly evident, that change is more often than not attributed exclusively to the convergence of technology with the financial markets. But too often in these discussions, the larger point is missed: that we have a historic opportunity. As Anthony Giddens, director of the London School of Economics, writes, "we have the chance to take over where the 20th century failed, and a key project for us is to drag the history of the 21st century away from that of the 20th."

According to Giddens, "the driving force of the new globalization is the communications revolution," and beyond its effects on the individual, this revolution is fundamentally altering the way public institutions interact. Giddens uses the idea of risk as an essential component of this future-oriented environment, asserting that scientific innovation explores "the edge between the positive and negative sides of risk." Risk management, then, becomes a necessary a field of analysis. 

— JB

Appointed as Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in 1997, ANTHONY GIDDENS was previously a Fellow and Professor of Sociology at King's College, Cambridge. Among his 34 books are The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy, The Third Way and It's Critics, and Runaway World : How Globalization is Reshaping Our Lives. There is a substantial body of academic writing and criticism about his work.He co-founded the academic publishing house Polity Press in 1985. He was the 1999 BBC Reith Lecturer.

Anthony Giddens is the most widely-read and cited social theorist of his generation. His ideas have profoundly influenced the writing and teaching of sociology and social theory around the world. Frequently referred to as Tony Blair's guru, Giddens has made a strong impact on the evolution of New Labour.

Anthony Giddens Edge Bio Page


One of the big debates at the moment concerns the theme of globalization. This is a completely amazing thing, because only about 10 to 12 years ago it was hard to get people to talk about it, to use the notion of globalization at all. And now only a decade later, everybody's using it. It's in the papers all the time. Politicians talk about it. Businessmen talk about it. The whole globalization debate has itself become globalized, and that shows you that this truly is a period of dramatic, intense change. When you get a notion which comes from nowhere and comes to be everywhere, it's obviously going to get debate about it, and there is a very intense debate, and there were two phases to that debate.

There's the old globalization debate, which is about whether or not our world is different, for example, from the late 19th century. The late 19th century had a lot of technical change: You had an open market place. You had trading in currencies. You had a lot of immigration. You didn't have too many established borders between countries. People didn't need passports for a lot of travel. So a lot of people said, well, it's just a reversion to the 19th century. That debate is now over. We can be quite sure that the current phase of globalization is not just a repetition of the late 19th century. Globalization now is much more intense. Technology is much more developed. You had nothing like global money markets previously. The latest estimates suggest there are about two trillion dollars turned over on global money markets every day.

The second globalization debate is now upon us, and it's no longer just an academic debate. It's in the streets, as we know since Seattle, since the meetings in Washington, since the carnival against capitalism in London, and similar kinds of events all over the world.

The second globalization debate is not about whether it exists; it's about what globalization is, what its consequences are, and what kind of framework we can develop for the world to accommodate it. It's plainly had a lot of positive developments in producing a more interdependent world. We have to learn to harness those things, and we have to shift away from the kinds of political positions that were dominant for the last few years, and we have to produce a politics which allows us to create an inclusive society locally, nationally, and globally, and to harness these processes for the betterment of human beings.

I believe it can be done, but I also believe it's a lot to play for because in the first phase of globalization at the end of the 19th century, there were a lot of hopes for an instant [transformation]. People thought it was the end of war. People thought it was the end of division. People thought you could produce a globally just society. Well, the history of the 20th century is completely the opposite of that, really. We have the chance to try again, as I figure it. We have the chance to take over where the 20th century failed, and a key project for us is to drag the history of the 21st century away from that of the 20th.

EDGE: As globalization evolves how does it affect institutions that we have? What does it mean in terms of public institutions?

GIDDENS: First of all you have to get a good understanding of what globalization is. And I feel that a lot of people who've contributed to the debate, including some of the people out on the streets, don't have a good notion of what it is. They think of it as solely the global marketplace, solely the intensification of financial markets. That's wrong.

Globalization is not primarily economic. It's not solely driven by the global marketplace. It's actually about what we're doing now. The driving force of the new globalization is the communications revolution. And if you want to put a technological fix on it, the turning point would be would be the late 1960s and early 1970s, the first time when there was an effective communications satellite sent up above the earth that made possible instantaneous communication from one part of the world to another. To me, that changed more or less the whole of late 20th century history.

Take the example of the decline of the Soviet Union. This was very much related to the fact that the Soviet Union couldn't compete in the new kind of society and the new kind of economy which a hooked-up global electronic world creates. The Soviet Union was pretty competitive in the old industrial economy, but wasn't able to compete in the new globalized weightless economy, nor were its politics appropriate to it, because in an era of high communications soft power tends to replace hard power. The kind of authoritarian top-down power, which the Soviet Union represented par excellence, becomes largely dysfunctional for effective management or effective politics. You are talking about big packages of changes here in which key things are continuing the transformation of communication.

EDGE: What role would the idea of computation play in all this?

GIDDENS: Well, you're talking about a marriage here of communication and computers. For example, you couldn't have 24-hour financial markets without that marriage of global satellite technology and computerization, which is one of the key convergences of the time. But as we know, there are new convergences happening between communication, computation, and biology, and that looks like the next kind of process of technological transformation.

However, although I don't know what the views of your contributors are, one mustn't think of these things as solely driven by technology, and one mustn't ever imagine that technology drives itself, and one mustn't imagine particularly that technology is unilinear — that the future will always be more of the same as the present. History moves dialectically; it takes us by surprise. The future is not linear. You will get many different kinds of reactions to these technologies, some of them hostile, some of them producing new technologies, many of them unpredicted. It's a key feature of our times that the big events like the one I mentioned, the decline of the Soviet Union, went unpredicted. No one predicted, with any accuracy, what actually happened in the Soviet Union — even people who spent their whole lives studying Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. This is a world of these kinds of transformations, and this is very important for technology, because a lot of people who are deeply into technology think in a linear way about it. I feel that's a great mistake.

EDGE: I was just writing something myself: "Today the interesting and important work in science is A. about computation, B. the result of computation, or C. informed through the models of computation. The metaphor of computation has emerged as the key unifying theme of what I call the Third Culture. Software and computation is reshaping civilization; that's the big story in intellectual life today. David Gelernter, a computer scientist, says, 'It's the beginning of everything; everything's up for grabs, everything will change - there is a magnificent sweep of intellectual landscape right in front of us.'" Does that resonate?

GIDDENS: Let me tell you a little parable. There was an older man, who, as older men do, fell in love with a young woman. And even though he's terribly pressed at work, he sends her several messages a day and eagerly awaits each message as it comes through to carry on this romance. And you might think that's an e-technology, an e-mail romance. But actually it's Prime Minister Asquith with a friend of his daughter's, who he fell in love with in 1915. In 1915 there were eight mail deliveries in London. You could interchange eight messages within a short period of time and carry on a dialogue, which is now impossible because you're very lucky if your letter gets there the next day. That's what I mean by the fact that there's no such thing as unilinear technology. You can't say that everything is changing, because this is a world where, although everything changes, in a certain sense everything stays the same, and that's the kind of accommodation we make to technological change.

EDGE: Let's talk about risk.

GIDDENS: Well, I still write about risk because it's deeply, deeply involved with technological transformation, obviously. What's happened in our lifetime is a transformation from one type of risk environment to another. You know, the notion of risk didn't always exist; it was invented essentially in the late Middle Ages. Many traditional cultures, so far as we know, don't have a concept of risk at all, the reason being that things are either a result of the will of God, or the result of hazard, or the result of the kind of influence which through ritual you put on the world. Or they just happen that way.

It's only when you have a future-oriented world that you need the notion of risk, because the notion of risk is a confrontation with the future, essentially. It's about future time and the management of future time. What's happening now is that we live in the most future-oriented society that has ever existed. Therefore, the notion of risk for us infects more or less everything, including personal things, like the decision to get married, say. The decision to get married, where it's an institutional decision, a kind of transition in life, was a pretty straightforward thing in the past because you knew what you were doing. Now there's a certain sense in which you don't know what you're doing because the nature of marriage and relationships is changing. You have an open environment. You are involved in a kind of risk universe there.

In many situations you can't use traditional methods of calculating risk, because you don't know in advance what the risk actually is. Every time you step into a car, insurance companies can calculate your risk in being involved in an accident because of your whole series of past data. But with something like BSE — the beef epidemic in the U.K — you don't know what the risk is, because it's an open environment where it could be that it will take 10, 15, or even longer, years, before we know whether we're safe from the consequences, or whether it's some kind of stored-up epidemic. On the other hand, you might remember that 40 years ago doctors actively prescribed smoking as a calmant, and no one knew what was being stored up in terms of the risk situation there.

What we have to deal with is a very, very interesting thing, which is very crucial to scientific innovation, which is exploring the edge between the positive and negative sides of risk. You obviously need risk; no one lives a life without actively embracing risk. Science is about boldness, is about innovation. And the question for all of us is how you find an appropriate balance between these two, especially when you don't know in advance what the consequences of scientific innovation will be. It's a very, very interesting world in which to live. These two sides of risk, until recently, have never been brought together, because you've got lots of discussions of financial risk, where risk is essentially a positive wealth generating thing. There is also much discussion of ecological and health risk, where risk is essentially a negative thing — things you want to avoid. These things are coming together in the real world, and we have to bring them together in the way in which we think about them. A lot of business, a lot of government, a lot of the management of technology is essentially about the sophistication of risk management.


EDGE: You consult with governments — or they listen to you. How does this play out, say, in an American government where the Republicans want to wipe out the forests to create jobs and the Democratic party have their issues?

GIDDENS: With respect, I don't think that's the most interesting type of situation. Let me mention two things, one of which is fairly mundane. The traditional welfare state, especially in Europe, is essentially a passive risk management system. It assumed that certain mishaps could befall you got divorced, you got unemployed, you got older — and the welfare state would be there to protect you. But now in our much more open knowledge environment with the much more open lives that people lead, you can't any longer have the welfare system as a passive system. And we know that that's produced various perverse consequences. For example, passive risk management often locks people out of jobs when you want them to be in jobs. That's why in most countries, including this one, there's been a movement towards a much more active welfare system, which recognizes that you want people often to take risks, not just to be passively protected against them, and you want them to enter the labor force, for example, when there's a chance of getting a good job. That's one type of thing.

The second one, though, is what we started out talking about: the management of scientific innovation. And governments are finding it hard to bring the management of scientific innovation into democratic discourse. In the past, , governments have tended to rely on the wisdom of experts, and that's probably because the pace of scientific advance was slower, less universal, less globalized itself in the past than it is now. Now, when scientific innovations happen they impact on our lives very directly. Plus, we've got the kind of wreckage of the world that you mention. Governments — they are the sphere of democratic participation, they've got to manage these things — we've all got to manage them, but you must discuss them openly in the public sphere. In the BSE episode the then conservative British government made a serious mistake. They said there is no risk, and you had the minister John Gummer getting his kids eating hamburgers on television to show the safety of British beef. Tony Blair almost made the same mistake again, when he seemed to say genetically modified foods are safe and known to be safe, because no one can know if that is the case. Those are areas where the notion of risk is absolutely central to modern politics.

But I feel it's central to modern life, even though people don't recognize it, because tradition and custom, and nature itself, no longer structure our lives like they used to do. If you think of nature, it used to enter the body as it were; the body for example simply aged, let's say. Now we know aging is a much more active kind of process. Now we know that whenever you drink a cup of coffee or you stick to water as you're doing there, you're calculating risk there. You probably don't consciously take it on too much, but that's essentially what you're doing. The reason why everyone is running around with bottled water, nowadays, is all about that. So far as I can see there's no way out of that environment any more. It's like a mixture of emancipation and anxiety for us, and it causes a lot of identity problems for us. It makes it difficult to understand our relationship to our bodies, because the body is not something you simply have.

In the past I did quite a lot of research on anorexia and eating disorders, which are amazingly interesting, because although there is dispute about it, so far as we know, they only became certainly common relatively recently. And they correspond more or less with the rise of supermarket culture and globalized production of food. This takes food out of nature, because we don't eat just what is available in the autumn or the summer; you can eat anything all year around. You've then got to construct a diet and you've got to construct a self and a body. And when you've got women entering the public sphere in a society that values slimness, you've got a kind of concentration of anxieties around the body that seems to result in the generalization of eating disorders. And there are lots of other parallel things that one could discuss.

EDGE: Richard Dawkins was up here talking with a bunch of editors, and he doesn't share the same kind of alarm about genetically modified foods that the press does.

GIDDENS: Yes, but that is precisely the point. You can't just turn to experts to give you an authoritative opinion in many situations, particularly in innovations, because they disagree. Therefore, you must have both a public debate and political and legal decision-making about these things. This is particularly true when different people say completely the opposite things, even though both seem to be equally eminent scientists. I'm not saying that in the end they wouldn't find some agreement, because they might after years of research, but you have to deal with it now, plainly.

EDGE: Politicians can always get an expert to say what they want them to say, I would imagine.

GIDDENS: Well, they would be very foolish if they did, because that can rebound. The material costs on the other side of the material benefit of some of these things are so immense that everybody's due a democratic dialogue about them.

EDGE: This morning on television there was a report about the ozone hole, which is projected now to be three times larger than the United States. My brother at NASA is a physicist who tests the ozone and they take it very seriously. Is this the kind of risk issue that you're talking about?

GIDDENS: It's quite a good example, although there's more consensus probably about the widening of the ozone layer than there is over other areas of potential risk where it's debated whether risk even exists at all. That's even true of global warming, where there is a minority of scientists who still seem to say either it's a natural phenomenon or that there isn't actually a risk. The majority certainly do have a consensus about it, but if you're a lay person you can never possibly go through the technical reasoning. You have to make a judgment on the basis of the kinds of risk elements I was talking about earlier. You don't want to be too concerned about it, but you've certainly got to watch out for the dangers of these changes.

EDGE: What background led you into studying risk?

GIDDENS: It's partly historical, because I stumbled on the idea that the notion of risk is a relatively recent one. That's a bit counter-intuitive, because you'd think life in the Middle Ages was more risky than it is now, which is true. The notion of risk has nothing to do with living in a risky world. It's much more to do with how you manage the world and how you manage future time in relation to the changes that we introduce into the world.

EDGE: How did the concept become part of our way of thinking, and when?

GIDDENS: Well, I just built it into my way of thinking, because I came to think of it as intruding into so many aspects of our lives in contemporary times — and by that I mean quite contemporary times. You can even date that a bit, because you can say that for hundreds of years human beings worried about the risks coming from the natural world; they worried about famines or floods or earthquakes or bad harvests. At some point, which is probably only in the last 50 or so years, we started, quite legitimately, worrying less about the risks that come from what nature can do to us, and worrying more about the risks of what we've done to nature. And I call that a transition between external risk and manufactured risk, or risk which stems from human creativity, scientific development and technology, and historical development. That's a big change That was a kind of point of analysis of what I would regard as a new situation.

EDGE: Regarding your ideas about the third way, how are governmental institutions affected — say in England?

GIDDENS: You could say the two main political philosophies of the post-war period have now essentially elapsed. And you could say they were kind of half theories. For about 30 years after the Second World War the dominant view on the whole, which was institutionalized in many countries, was of a beneficent state guided by some kind of view of the idea of managing a capitalist economy more effectively than it could manage itself by market forces. And that essentially failed, at least it failed in its more extreme versions, the Soviet Union obviously being that version. Then you had a period of reverse dominance of the idea that we can leave all that to markets; if the state can't solve our problems, markets can. That's also failed, electorally, and it failed structurally because you can't just leave the world to be run by the vagaries of market-based decisions.

You must restrict the role of the market in human life, and you must try and create a form of political thinking which is no longer half-theory. The first kind of theory was good on social justice but not much good on economic competition and development, and the second one was pretty good on competition but hopeless on social justice. I use the term third way to try to get a political philosophy which is different from these two previous philosophies but to me still preserves the values essentially of left-of-center viewpoint. That is, you want a society which is inclusive, where you don't simply accept expanding inequalities, where you recognize that vulnerable people need to be protected, and where you recognize also that the government has an active role to play in all of those things. That's essentially the definition of what a revised left-of-center or third way political philosophy is all about, and that's become a global thing.

EDGE: Why the protests in Seattle and other places?

GIDDENS: Oh, the protests are about the half-theory that I mentioned. The dominant ideology of the last 20 years has been essentially free-market neo-liberal theory, which does not address problems of global inequality, inclusiveness, and ecological issues.

EDGE: Was the globalism that encompassed Seattle a phony globalism?

GIDDENS: It's a bit more complex than that. I'll tell you a funny story, which is this poster that someone was holding up in Seattle that said "Join the world-wide movement against globalization." That shows you that a big part of globalization is, to go back to the beginning, new technologies in communication and people "against" it are using the mechanisms of globalization just as the people who are "for" globalization are. You have to deconstruct all that while essentially looking for a form of political philosophy which both allows us to produce a society which is competitive in the new global market-place and the knowledge-based economy and at the same time addresses norms of solidarity and equality. That's not easy to do, but there's no way around attempting to do it. It involves the extension of forms of government above the levels of the nation, because globalization is a reality, and therefore you can't just approach it locally. I mean, you must approach it locally, but you can't only approach it locally.

EDGE: What do you do with a country like China? I talked with a guy from the Chinese Ministry of Culture last night. They own their Internet and they're controlling it, so it's global but it isn't. In other words, every country is going to have its own local concerns and interests. In the Midwest and in the rust belt they're going to be very upset about people making sneakers in very poor countries.

GIDDENS: Yes, but there are a lot of questions involved there. As far as China is concerned, you have to first start from the obvious. China's had a period of very intensive and successful economic growth, bred not by traditional mechanisms of Communist control of the economy but, on the contrary, by a kind of embrace of some aspects of a market economy. And that's crucial to recent Chinese history, so China is not outside the whole world which is developing here, and the issue of including China formally on the inside, with the WTO, hopefully shortly, will be further bolstered by the U.S. Congress. At least that's what we may hope.

There is all that. But of course you still have the persistence of authoritarian power, in China and in other countries too, and there's a battle to be fought there. But on the whole it does look as though a global information society has a structural relationship to the expansion of parliamentary democracy. Even if you take quite a narrow definition of successful parliamentary democracy, there are three times as many democratic states in the world — even allowing for the growth of the total number of states in the world — as there were 30 years ago. This period of tremendous intensification of communications probably has a democratic kind of connection. At least, we all have to hope for that. If you look in Latin America there's a quite decent possibility that countries which have had this erratic history of veering to an authoritarian military right and then to a brief period of a populist impotent left can have a more stable democratic system. And this will be an advance for the world if it can be achieved.

EDGE: The third way is something we hear about in America, but it's alive and well in London, I gather, or England, and certainly a lively subject in Europe. I actually don't know that much about how it works in practice. What are the critiques of it?

GIDDENS: First off, third way is simply a term, as I mentioned earlier, for how you achieve a decent left-of center political philosophy confronting the major changes of our time — globalization, technological change, the coming of the knowledge-based society, changes on the level of individual life — which have made the old political philosophies to some extent obsolete. There are currently left-of center parties in power or in coalitions, in about 11 of the 15 EU countries, in the UK, the US and New Zealand, in Taiwan, and in several of the Latin American countries. Not everyone likes the term third way, but the policies are pretty similar. That is, you don't just stick with traditional leftism. You don't just put everything in the hands of the state increasingly. You don't simply put up people's taxes all the time. You apply norms of fiscal discipline which allow you to get a decent rating from global financial investment. You have different policies for trying to deal with poverty. You reform the welfare system. You deal with problems like pensions. You try to get a high employment ratio — that is, a high proportion of people in good jobs — because then you're not wasting money on unemployment benefits, and you can spend it on things that people need, like health, education, a pension. And that's proving to be a pretty successful political philosophy. The impact of Clinton on these things is obviously arguable, but the Clinton administration has basically produced a fairly favorable set of circumstances for the American economy, and generally speaking, for American society, except that a lot more work needs to be done on remedying inequality and exclusionary mechanisms for the bottom. Still, you've got a generalized political philosophy here which could be very important.

EDGE: The detractors to this? Would they be the usual political people? 

GIDDENS: Well, you have detractors from the traditional left, who say that you should stick with more traditional policies and who believe in essentially the state as the liberator really, and you have detractors from the neo-liberal right, who believe that markets are essentially the liberator, and most of the things that government does are noxious. I don't think either of those positions are feasible positions myself, and we know now what a model of a good society should be like. It's one where you have good government (because you need effective government which is quick on its feet), where you have a decent market economy (because you don't know of any other way to have effective economic productivity), and where you have a developed civil society to balance the other two. If any one of those three gets on top of the others, you have troubles. A good society regionally, nationally, globally, is one that balances those, and on a global level you still have too much dominance by the global marketplace. You need to build a more effective global civil society and more effective modes of active governments.

EDGE: What is a global civil society?

GIDDENS: A global civil society essentially is the underpinning of many institutional democracies. You could regard non-governmental associations and organizations as a kind of early beginning to a global civil society. It's essentially having a civic culture of global participation, and should in the end, one would certainly hope, lead to some kind of version of global citizenship. I don't believe that's impossible in an era of high communications, actually, and the European Union is a kind of possible model of how you can build transnational effective political governments. It also needs democratizing and has economic problems, but nevertheless...

EDGE: Why is there so much tension between the UK and the Europeans over currency and trade?

GIDDENS: Well, not all tension is a bad thing, you know. Some of that tension is creative tension, and you shouldn't single out the UK, because you've got a number of countries around the edge of Europe which have always been a bit more Euro-skeptical, and those tend to have been maritime nations, to some degree anyway, like Sweden, Denmark, the UK. And the UK has always had historic connections to the US, linguistic connections with the US. It's harder for the British to feel themselves as central to Europe as other countries do. The massive cultural division, which in my view needs to be overcome to some degree, would mean abandoning the connections to the US, and they seem to me to be often fairly positive, not just negative ones.