The little book of big ideas

Slicing through PR and marketing bullshit, James Harkin’s dictionary of the ‘latest thinking’ reminds us that ideas can change the world and invites us to start formulating our own.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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James Harkin’s Big Ideas: The Essential Guide to the Latest Thinking is no consumer guide to the intellectual marketplace. ‘If it’s a kitsch idea you’re after’, he doesn’t write, ‘look no further than “status anxiety”. Once again Alain de Botton has been able to imbue an everyday notion with something ineffably twee.’ No, Harkin’s intention is far more serious – for ideas, ‘big ideas’, ideas which might inspire, matter to him. And, as readers will discover, their absence matters even more.

It’s far from heavy going though – as weighty as the intention might be, his touch is light. This is helped, no doubt, by the dictionary-style format, which allows you to dip in and out at will. Consisting of over 70 alphabetically ordered two-page entries on contemporary ideas, or more accurately, buzzwords and modish concepts, Harkin clearly enjoys himself as he pricks their semantic pretensions.

‘Infomania’ for example, supposedly characterises a state of attention-frazzled consciousness brought about by the heroin of the intellect: information sources and 24-hour news outlets. Woe is contemporary man, it excitedly suggests. Except, as Harkin reminds the peddlers of such quackery, ‘infomaniacs who want to kick the habit, after all, only need to reach as far as the off button. While going through the painful process of information cold turkey, it may be therapeutic for them to have a conversation.’

Gently withering throughout, the book is especially good at deflating the tumescent world of marketing. At the very least, then, Big Ideas serves as a bullshit checklist, an early warning system primed to pick up on those ‘mini ideas’ which form ‘the lifeblood of a burgeoning cadre of management consultants, the witch doctors of the modern workplace’. So, for anyone whose soul has wilted at the dread utterance ‘the long tail’, or who’s found the notion of ‘the tipping point’ as enlightening as a week on the weed, Big Ideas arrives as a blessed relief. Like a shot to the head, it might serve a similar purpose for fully signed-up marketers.

But what gives Harkin’s book its edge over something like a dictionary of ideas is his treatment of ideas as part of history, not as a history unto themselves. In other words, their meaning is bound up with the society in which they have a currency. ‘Happiness’, for instance, although it’s been knocking around since Aristotle, has since become ‘one of the most influential ideas of our time’. But it has not done so without changing its meaning. Where it once hazily referred to something that an individual could cherish as utterly useless, it is now measurable, an index for the nation’s wellbeing. Happiness has become politically useful, something that can be reckoned up and managed:

‘[T]he happiness gurus are in danger of making our innermost emotions into the instruments of public policy rather than ends in themselves. If we could only be made happier, they reckon, we could be better workers and better citizens… As being chipper is good for the economy and for the country, we can all look forward to the same fate as those service workers who are contractually obliged to smile.’

Insofar as it inserts the ideas discussed within a historical context, Harkin’s introduction is indispensable. He begins, in a familiar move, by situating Western society at the end of ideology. We are living, in other words, in the aftermath of those ‘grand metanarratives’, political or otherwise, which gave meaning and purpose to social life. However, he then suggests that, if the proliferation of big concepts is to be believed, we also appear to be on the cusp of an age rich in new ideas, that is, new ways of giving meaning to social life, be it through ‘social networking’ or a New Labourite notion of ‘positive liberty’. But why has this often ‘esoteric new vocabulary of ideas’ bobbed to the surface of public life now?

This he attributes to a changing of the political guard. With the reigns of Blair and Chirac at an end, and Bush’s end fast approaching, the sense of ennui afflicting their flagging rules has generated its opposite, an appetite amongst the elites for new ideas both to inspire and to better confront what they see as the problems of the twenty-first century, from terrorism to the environment. Such has been the demand that a whole ‘ideas industry’ has emerged. There are ‘ideas entrepreneurs, media gurus, think tankers and policy wonks’, to name just some of the ideas industry’s various sectors, all of them currently producing new thinking like an incontinent bull defecates.

The result, understandably, has been less than edificial. Many of the big ideas Harkin defines and analyses are ideas for the ideologically bereft. They operate as magic phrases that seem to describe a social phenomenon while investing it with a normative value. Take ‘social networking’ for example: while it claims to describe the new forms of social relationship, it also invests these interactions with some sort of superior value, as if they’re re-energising democracy all by themselves. But, noting the fragility of these bonds, Harkin writes ‘they are a poor solace for more sustained kinds of democracy’: ‘Maybe we would be better off if we stopped stealing metaphors from science and computing to explain social phenomena. Nodes on a network we may be but we remain strangers all the same.’

Concepts or ideas, here, are policy packages; they are ways of selling, if not a vision exactly, then an idea of society or ‘community’ back to its constituents. As many of Harkin’s entries indicate, politics and marketing have coalesced. Not for nothing does he mention David Cameron’s previous life as a PR man for a television company. As politics becomes a matter of simply selling policies to the electorate, and the market for new ideas and concepts expands, the ideas and concepts themselves, as little more than branding fodder, are infected with the desperate instrumentalism of the estranged elite. ‘Happiness’ is enforced by government index; ‘positive liberty’ involves little more than coerced participation; and the ‘precautionary principle’ justifies a politics not of providing us with the good things in life, but of saving us from the bad things.

Harkin writes: ‘It smacks of a narrow managerialism whose approach to motivating its citizenry is a simple matter of neat technical fixes like economic carrots and sticks. It is not enough for politicians to tell us that society is bruised and in need in of some attention. The only things capable of really reinvigorating political society are ideas which could bring people together with a shared purpose. New ideas like liberty, equality and fraternity were the motivating principles of the French Revolution, and a brand new idea about how social welfare and a healthy economy could go hand in hand was the impetus behind the welfare state. Both managed to inspire people in their time. We could do with being inspired again.’

Theory, as Marx once said, becomes a material force once it ‘grips the masses’. Ending with a series of blank pages for ‘your ideas’, Harkin’s enjoyable romp around the contemporary ideological landscape shows that while there currently isn’t much gripping going on, the opportunity exists for those of who care about big ideas that might change the world to start formulating them ourselves.

Tim Black is staff writer at spiked.

Big Ideas: The Essential Guide to the Latest Thinking, by James Harkin is published by Atlantic Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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