Big ideas - The triumph of the ''I''

Politics - The future lies with the individual, not with the collective. And we now understand more

Ideology is dead or, rather, the triumph of one ideology - liberal democracy - has left ideological struggle for dead. With communism bust, liberal capitalism has become less an idea than an orthodoxy.

In such a post-ideological world, what matters is, to use Tony Blair's phrase, "what works". Travelling without the baggage of fixed beliefs confers huge political advantage, permitting a fleet-footedness and businesslike pragmatism in the making of policy. Implementation is more important than ideas. Thus business leaders revolve in and out of Downing Street and assorted task forces, while philosophers are less in demand.

Yet although political battles of ideas no longer revolve around the macro-political questions of markets versus planning, or liberal democracy versus one-party state, that does not mean there are no new political ideas or political contests.

There is globalisation, for example - in particular the tensions created between national sovereignties and the freer movement of capital and commodities and the associated rise of what Philip Bobbitt and others have dubbed the "market state". However, the anti-globalisation movement appears to have run out of steam, not least because it failed to articulate a compelling alternative to the unquestioned dynamism of cross-border markets. Globalisation is a demo rather than the terrain of ideological struggle.

What remains is an important but largely academic debate about the need for democratic institutions to fit markets more closely, as argued by David Held of the London School of Economics in his new book Global Covenant and in more incendiary fashion by George Monbiot in The Age of Consent. What is missing so far is an explicit questioning of whether sovereignty is sufficiently divisible to permit supranational government for economic affairs, but national or subnational government for social policy. If recast in these terms, the referendum on the European constitution could mark the opening of new ideological fissures.

There are other fissures, too, developing around the nature, depth and maintenance of the public realm, with the beginning of a debate about the (as yet clumsily expressed) concept of "publicness". A second strand of ideological contest is the political rationale for state action, and in particular the potential shift from a providing to an "enabling" state. We should also expect competing political models of the individual to take centre stage as psychology and neuroscience advance.

None of these emerging ideas is new; but all are poised to re-enter the political arena in new forms. John Kenneth Galbraith, the US economist, contrasted the private affluence with the public squalor of postwar America. Now the idea of a public realm that exists alongside the market realm, containing goods whose value the market struggles or fails to capture, contains as much an ethical as an economic dimension. Writers such as David Marquand and Will Hutton argue for the value not only of public services, clean streets, public parks and decent, safe transport, but of shared values, the arts and even the role of organised religion in shaping collective life for the better. The analysis is no longer simply one of market failure, but moral failure, too.

The notion of a public morality provides ammunition for serious ideological warfare across existing party lines. The recent debate about the role of government in the way parents discipline their children is a straw in this wind (and it is easy to extrapolate other issues such as diet and health, smoking, education and community involvement). The dominant political philosophy is currently liberal pluralism, built on the assumptions that there are many competing visions and versions of a good life, and the job of a liberal polity is not to promote one above the other but to create a framework for their peaceful coexistence. But it may be that this particular liberal tide is about to turn; and that a critical divide will be between those who believe the state should actively promote a particular way of living and those who insist on official neutrality - between the philosopher kings and the postmodernists.

The second emerging "big idea" is that the role of government is not directly to provide goods and services to individuals but to enable individuals to procure them for themselves. This sounds right-wing, but the Democrats in the US, and to a lesser extent new Labour, were the chief admirers of the Reinventing Government thesis of David Osborne and Ted Gaebler. The central message, as Philip Collins, director of the Social Market Foundation, argues, is that the state works - but does not, itself, have to do the work. In their famous phrase, the state should "steer, not row".

The political right is instinctively wary of state provision. It is within the centre left that there is tension between those who believe that there is something intrinsically good about state provision and those who see the ownership of the means of provision as an entirely contingent matter. While Labour attacks any Tory voucher schemes, the Prime Minister's own adviser Julian Le Grand has advocated a voucher scheme for education - in his case, a system with significant bias towards those less well-off.

The battle between the statists and non-statists is likely to rage not only over areas such as health and education but also over childcare, pensions, care for the elderly, and science. The economist P B Musgrave has suggested that the economic activities of a government could be split into three parts: a service branch, providing public services; a redistribution branch, shifting money from rich to poor; and a stabilisation branch, focused on macroeconomic stability. New Labour has already passed a large part of the stabilisation function to the Bank of England. Moreover, for many Blairites, there is no binding principle for keeping the provision of services within the state sector, so long as the redistributive function is retained. This is why the Tory policy that really scares Labour insiders is something along Le Grand's lines, a genuinely redistributive voucher system in a market-based system. The Conservatives would struggle politically with such an overtly redistributive policy - but it would provide a much more profound challenge to Labour's relatively statist position.

The third area of political analysis that we should see more of relates to the rise of the individual. Much has been written at all points on the political spectrum about the growing desire and opportunity for people to chart their own course through life. On the right, individualism has been seen as the principal driver of social and economic progress. On the left, the freedom to choose one's own life - captured not least in Anthony Giddens's social theories - has provided fuel to the fire of many movements, from feminism to lesbian and gay liberation. And in business economics, Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxmin in The Support Economy described the rise of a "new society of individuals" demanding the "right to psychological sovereignty".

The individual is steadily replacing the collective as the site of political action, analysis and conflict. The point here is not that everyone is becoming more selfish, but that the self is becoming a more important unit of politics than the class or group. In part this is because of the greater choice of lifestyle on offer and the breaking of hereditary voting patterns. More important has been the steady erosion of stable political affiliations; hence Labour winning more of the middle-class vote than the Tories in 1997. This is neither a progressive nor a regressive trend; it is simply a fact.

One of the consequences has been what one seasoned political observer calls "the privatisation of anger". People get angry a lot, but generally as individuals, rather than in a group. Once we had Jarrow marchers; now we have road rage. Once we had trade unions; now we have therapists. Many of the major battles under way - for example, between work and life, healthy living and obesity, good and abusive parenting - are being fought within individuals, rather than between them.

At the same time, the level of understanding of what makes individuals tick has vastly overtaken the theories of society. John Stuart Mill predicted that we would shortly master a science of society, and then a science of the mind. As it turns out, the science of society turned out to be a tricky enterprise, while the advances of psychology and neuroscience, as Marek Kohn and Ian Hacking discuss in their contributions to this "big ideas" issue of the NS, put us on the brink of understanding a great deal about why we think and feel as we do - and what might alter these processes. Right now, the implications of these advances seem remote from politics: someone is developing a drug based on studies of cannabis users that will stimulate the "reverse munchies" and thereby promote weight loss; there is a flourishing institute of neuromarketing in the US.

Yet a greater understanding of individual processes will be-come more important to politicians, too. Many of the changes that politicians want to bring about - better health, more stable family life, greater productivity - rely on individual rather than collective action. At present there are no well-articulated political theories of the individual. However, neither the conventional right-wing notion of a robotic, self-maximising individual nor the conventional left-wing one of classes and groups bound by common interests or aspirations remains adequate.

While the particulars of each of these three debates are certainly new, the headings remain uncannily similar to those pondered by political thinkers for at least three millennia: the idea of society, the idea of the state, and the idea of the self. Plus ca change.