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IN COMMON with many other countries British politics is in a state of flux to a degree that is not only unprecedented but one that is not easy to fully comprehend; and the notion that this is part and parcel of what has become fashionable to term post-modernism, is not always particularly helpful. Nevertheless, the complexities of our current condition have provoked rather than deterred a variety of responses ranging from the highly theoretical, which have in turn informed many policy proposals, down to the prosaic and practical.
The delineation of the present epoch as being post-modern suggests that its character is significantly different from that which preceded it, especially in regard to what had been the prevailing norms, be they values or behaviour. In retrospect, and in a way not usually highlighted, post-modernist portents were discernible in recent British politics. Looking back over the past thirty years or so, it is possible to detect the origins of some of the changes that were in train both in the behaviour of the British electorate and in successive academic analyses of it. The lessening of the class basis of political cleavage, the identification deferential working-class Tory as an explanation for this, theories of embourgeoisement that stressed the importance of status rather than class as a main cause of partisanship, together with the notion of political dealignment, all sought to describe and explain developments as they seemed to be unfolding. These and a growing awareness of the decline in governmental efficacy, perhaps because of overload, or other such factors, reflected a more serious concern that presented itself. namely, the disjunction between state and society, between the private and public realms and, most crucially, in the growing divide between politicians and their constituents. The gaps appear to be widening and are manifest on a world-wide scale. Because of this, many of the contemporary theoretical commentaries adopt a comparative approach where attention is paid to such international forces as the impact of globalisation, the information explosion and ecological concerns on the one hand, and reactions to these forces at the levels of the nation, locality and the individual on the other. The dominant explanatory paradigm for considering both the forces and the different responses they evoke is post-modernism.
In his recent book Krishan Kumar describes how post-modernist ideas originated among those cultural critics reviewing the trends and tendencies emerging in architecture, music, the plastic arts and literature.(1) Subsequently, many of the insights thrown up by these critics were to be adopted by social theorists because of a growing realisation `that industrial societies have undergone a transformation so fundamental and wide-ranging as to deserve a new name. The question then becomes, are we living not simply in a post-modern culture but in an increasingly post-modern society.' Kumar further observes that `The irreducible pluralism and diversity of contemporary society is not denied. That is what makes it modern as opposed to traditional. But that pluralism is not ordered and integrated according to any discernible principle. There is not, or at least no longer, any controlling or directing force to give it shape or meaning -- neither in the economy, as Marxists had argued, nor in the polity, as liberals had thought, nor even as conservatives had urged, in history and tradition. There is simply a more or less random, directionless flux across all sectors of society. The boundaries between them are dissolved, leading however not to a neoprimitivist wholeness but to a post-modern condition of fragmentation'. He goes on to remark that the forces of globalisation have affected the typical institutions and practices of the nation-state which are correspondingly weakened. Mass political parties give way to the `new social movements based on gender, race, locality, sexuality ... post-modernism proclaims multi-cultural and multi-ethnic societies. It promotes the "politics of difference".' On an historical point, it is interesting to note that some of these notions echo those of G. D. H. Cole and the Guild Socialists who, some seventy years ago, also perceived the individual as occupying a variety of roles, primarily as a producer but also as a consumer, citizen (particularly at the local level) parent and so on.
The problem is that post-modernist theories, however useful descriptively of the modern condition, are deeply enervating in terms of constructive and purposive reflection as how best to move on, while enfeebling political life more generally. They leave us with an uncertain sense of being, a strong sense of being becalmed, and little sense of becoming. By definition, post-modernism does not contain within itself any operational guidelines or even hints as to how the future could or should develop. However debilitating the effects of this, and however stalled things may seem, …