It is unclear whether Jeffrey Isaac regards the kind of discussion I sought to develop around the recent political interventions of Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens as having any legitimacy at all. He seems, first of all, somewhat confounded to discover that Marxists still exist. ‘The demise of the Marxist vision’ being ‘an accomplished fact’, he invites us to take our cue from the likes of François Furet and meekly depart the historical stage, leaving progressive politics to those who will, in a spirit of ‘democratic pragmatism’, devote themselves to ‘problem solving’. One might have thought that the very frequency with which the death of Marxism has been announced in the past would have encouraged a certain note of caution here.

Isaac concedes that I provide a ‘very compelling critique’ of both Giddens and Bourdieu—‘from a Marxist perspective’—in arguing that neither ‘has either a systematic theory of the structures of capitalism or a strategy capable of obviating the powerful imperatives of capital accumulation.’ The qualification is important here: according to Isaac, the perspective from which it is written invalidates my critique. A strange conception of criticism, surely: is not the validity of an argument, or the cogency of an analysis, at least partially independent of the perspective from which it comes?

To begin with Giddens: even those sympathetic to his broad political outlook may still often privately concede that The Third Way is a truly awful book (and some have said as much to me).footnote1 There is no reason why the project of a ‘centre-left’ alternative to both traditional social democracy and neo-liberalism should not be supported by powerful arguments. David Marquand’s The Unprincipled Society, for example, or Will Hutton’s The State We’re In represent serious attempts to map out such an alternative: the conception common to both is a vision of ‘stakeholder capitalism’, superior in efficiency and equity to the unregulated Anglo-American model. Marquand and Hutton (one Roy Jenkins’s ex-chef de cabinet, the other recently appointed head of the Industrial Society) are scarcely Bolsheviks, but their attempt to formulate a real programme, rather than a stock of bland, cloying phrases, proved too radical for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Less bracing counsellors have taken their place: Charlie Leadbeater’s Living On Thin Air (which makes The Third Way look like Das Kapital) was apparently the toast of Downing Street last year. The intellectual vacuity of such work corresponds to the emptiness at the heart of ‘the project’ itself, where neo-liberalism has reduced egalitarian commitments to mere rhetoric.footnote2 Nor are things any better across the Atlantic, where Robert Reich has shared the fate of Marquand and Hutton, and where the Clinton–Gore Third Way relies heavily on right-wing Republican Alan Greenspan’s management of money markets to keep the Wall Street bubble expanding.

The very shabbiness of official ‘centre-left’ thinking is one reason why serious strategic discussion on the left remains so important. Isaac wholly misreads the intention of my article, which was to contribute to such discussion, not foreclose it. He says I have ‘no desire to learn’ from Giddens and Bourdieu. Only a fool could think he or she had nothing to learn from the author of The Rules of Art and Distinction. One of the main themes of my article was to demonstrate how Bourdieu’s political interventions over the past decade have helped to open up a new space for the Left in France. Nor do I think it appropriate to dismiss, as Isaac does, his critique of neo-liberalism as ‘moralizing’. It is curious that Isaac, usually so quick to list Marxism’s faults, should here endorse its traditional disdain for moral critique. Many Marxists have learned in recent years the importance of articulating and defending their tacit normative commitments. Here Bourdieu can be of help. Perhaps because his earlier work focused on how class is lived, on how social differences inhabit the very grain of everyday life, he has proved especially sensitive to the scale of socially unnecessary suffering—what he has called la misère du monde—produced by market capitalism. His evocation of an ‘economics of well-being’, however unspecified its institutional implications, potentially connects up with Amartya Sen’s development of egalitarian thinking, whose goal is to equalize individuals’ capabilities to engage in valued states and activities.footnote3 Meanwhile, at a more analytical level, Bourdieu’s discussions in Contre-feux of insecurity (précarité) as a mode of capitalist domination, and the collective research that he and his collaborators have undertaken into the ways in which the media systematically function to suppress serious debate are important contributions to contemporary social theory.

The point I sought nevertheless to make against Bourdieu (and also against Giddens, although, alas, with much less hope of an interesting response) was this: their recent political writings raise certain classical questions about both the limits that capitalist structures place on attempts to regulate them, and about what alternative forms of socio-economic coordination might be needed to remedy capitalist dysfunctions and injustice. I did not say that they were required to endorse the answers of the classical Marxist tradition on these points; all I argued was that for Bourdieu’s critique of neo-liberalism to fulfil the hopes it has raised, it will, yes, have to engage seriously both with these questions and with that tradition. Were he to do so, we could all benefit and learn from the debate, whether or not all disagreements were resolved.

Isaac, however, would preclude such discussion. Here we return to his fundamental reason for dismissing all criticism made from a Marxist perspective. It is, for him, just a matter of fact that ‘there exists no credible, wholesale alternative to capitalism.’ However feeble Giddens’s arguments may be, ‘coming to terms with capitalism’ as Giddens has done is ‘simply the mature and serious thing to do’. The assumption of maturity is, of course, a long-standing feature of conservative rhetoric (my favourite example would be Conrad’s remark that ‘women, children and revolutionaries have no taste for irony’); but Isaac doesn’t confine himself to telling people like me to grow up and learn to live with capitalist society. He goes on to compare capitalism to water purification, modern medicine, electronic communication, industrial technology, civil liberties and representative government, ‘all things that it is not credible to imagine transcending’. It is almost too easy to point out that this list confuses scientific and technological innovations and social and political institutions, between which Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism sought precisely to force us to distinguish. The category mistake this melange of technologies and social relations involves is obvious: while medicine, electronics and sewage systems might all be continually improved without changing their nature, even Isaac would concede that this is not true of capitalism.

Isaac can rely on such slack reasoning because he believes world history has solved the argument for him, and come out definitively on capitalism’s side. Isaac is certainly expressing the spirit of the age here. The experience of Stalinist collapse and social-democratic failure has led to the almost universal belief that capitalism cannot be transcended. In the West at least, competing political standpoints all tend to appeal to some version of liberal ideology—if not the neo-liberalism of the 1980s and 1990s, then to its communitarian or egalitarian variants, represented respectively by civic republicanism or by the theories of justice of Dworkin and Rawls. To that extent, Fukuyama’s proposition that liberal capitalism has seen off any systemic ideological rivals becomes true: to paraphrase Sartre, liberalism forms the horizon of intellectual and political debate today.