At the end of the historical century and the approach of the chronological millennium, there is plenty of temptation to predict the new age, as Fukuyama and many other have done (R. Barker 1996a). But about the only certainty to emerge is the clear evidence of wild and vigorous disagreement. I have tried to follow the less spectacular but possibly safer course of indicating possibilities and uncertainties, but steering clear of confident prediction. The fading away of conservatism and socialism, and the arrival of lefts and rights which are both radical and variegated, has loosened or severed the link between ideas and institutions, and left political thinking unusually unsustained and untethered by organized interests. As political parties with comprehensive programmes have seemed less and less the vehicles, even for those who do no more than hitch a ride, for plausible or coherent political thinking, voluntary associations, single cause or issue groups, ‘new social movements’ have taken the initiative both in placing issues on the agenda of politics and in relating political thinking to public policy.
Many of these movement have contributed to the beginnings of political thinking which not only does not sit within the old divisions of collectivist and libertarian, or socialist, liberal and conservative, but has no obvious relationship either with the fluid categories of left and right, pluralist or feminist. A concern with the environment, and a desire to ‘tread lightly on the earth’ is associated with a post-industrial mood, and may be informed both by collective conscience and by a deep worry about the quality of human life. It is clearly political, but when attempts have been made to throw bridges across to either old or new bodies of political thinking (Gray 1993a; Red-Green 1995), the structures have been too rickety to take any serious traffic.
The dangers of being over-confident about the future are matched by the equal dangers of being over-confident about the past. The view