Politics is lost for words. Commentators still talk about parties, but everybody knows these outfits bear little resemblance to the organisations that dominated the political landscape of the past century. Hardly anybody is a member of a party. Many of this dying breed are not even aware of their membership, and even more are entirely inactive. Columnists still ponder the whereabouts of the core voter, while party operators try to devise schemes to retain the loyalty of this elusive group. They still have not grasped the fact that, after a prolonged illness, the core voter died sometime back in the 1980s. Even the meaning of the word 'electorate' can no longer be taken for granted. The electorate has become an unstable and self-selected group, most of whom most of the time don't actually elect anybody. The term voter apathy has become a permanent understatement. When plans are afoot to counter this apathy with the introduction of gimmicks —- 24-hour polling booths, electronic voting, mandatory voting — then even the meaning of an election is unclear. It becomes little more than an empty ritual designed to create the illusion of democratic participation. As for parliament, who cares? Highflying politicians regard this institution as an inconvenience and the large army of faceless MPs is at a loss to know what to do with itself. Many MPs behave as if they are local councillors, and claim that doing things for their constituency is what really counts. The idea of parliament as a national forum of cutting-edge debate is just that, an idea.

The irrelevance of the political vocabulary of the past two centuries is most striking when it comes to the traditional distinction between left and right. There was a time when these labels signified an important distinction between progressives and reactionaries. To put it crudely, the left wanted social change and looked forward to human emancipation. In contrast, the right dreaded change and robustly sought to uphold what it considered to be the traditional way of doing things. Today, people who regard themselves as right wing — and there are a very few of them — have more or less given up on defending tradition. Tradition is in retreat. On every front. Foxhunters, public schools and elite universities protest that they are misunderstood, and that they are actually quite modern and normal. Even the churches cannot make up their minds about fundamental issues to do with doctrine and ritual. Just as the right no longer defends tradition, the left no longer embraces change. Those who call themselves left wing are among the most vociferous opponents of change today. They are intensely suspicious of science and experimentation, and regard new technology with dread. There was a time when left-wing thinkers took pride in the battle against all forms of superstition. Today's self-styled left embodies a hi-tech superstition that uses the internet to spread panic about anything that might be remotely progressive.

The vocabulary of politics has been emptied of all meaning. This reflects a profound sense of confusion about how to approach the future. Contemporary society is uncomfortable with itself and invariably experiences change as a destructive process. At the same time, society feels distant from its past, unsure of what to uphold or retain. These sentiments are transmitted through a contemporary culture that values inconsistency, scepticism, relativism, cynicism and anti-humanism — prime virtues of an outlook that prides itself on its detachment and lack of commitment. The political expression of this culture is an incoherent doctrine that we might call the new conservatism.

The new conservatism has little in common with its classical counterpart. Unlike the old conservatism, it has no tradition to defend. The new conservatism feels ill at ease with the world of absolute values. None of its causes is sacred and it is always prepared to "modernize" and "compromise". The new conservatism has lost its anchor in the past. The anti-change rhetoric of classical conservatism has given way to a new, more relativist vocabulary, articulated by those not traditionally associated with the forces of the right. The most coherent exponents of the new conservatism are to be found among the ranks of people who were out protesting "against capitalism" on the streets of Seattle, Washington and London. Burke would have felt comfortable with their slogans and rhetoric. Yes, they are radical, but theirs is a radicalism oriented entirely against change. The ethos of sustainability, the dogma of the precautionary principle, the idealisations of nature, of purity, of the "organic", all express the mistrust of experimentation. The anti-capitalism of the protesters on the streets of Seattle represented not the old dream of human liberation, but a fear of the future and a determination to flee back into a mythical past.

At least intellectually, these anti-capitalists feel more at ease with the lifestyle that prevailed in the days when people respected the natural order of things than with modernity. Politics will remain in a state of stasis as long as society feels so ill-prepared to deal with change. Society's estrangement from the future undermines the capacity to generate ideas about what needs to be done. Without such ideas there can be no vision of the way ahead and no real choices to be made. Politics needs visions and choice. At the very least politics has to offer a choice between leaving things the way they are or offering an alternative way of improving on the present. Without such an alternative what we are left with is a parody of politics.

The clearest manifestation of this parody is the dearth of new ideas. To its credit, New Labour recognizes the absence of ideas more than most. Like a new dotcom company, it is continually on the look out for content. It is not just cynicism which motivates New Labour's ceaseless consultation exercises. It really is looking for ideas that could allow it to operate as a credible force. However, like its competitors, New Labour remains lost for words that could make sense in the changed world.

Expanding human control through expanding knowledge, science and technological know-how represents the only guarantee for the development of a secure and enlightened world. The problem is not "man has become too arrogant" but that our culture lacks conviction in the possibility of making progress through encouraging experimentation, enterprise and risk-taking. In contrast to the current mood of exaggerating limits and denouncing any progressive proposal as "unsustainable", it is important to challenge the culture of restraint. An enlightened society is by definition open to new possibilities and the testing out of ideas.

We live in a world where it is evident that change cannot be stopped. However, when the process of change is confronted by formidable obstacles and cultural restraints, then change may well become distorted and degraded. These days, intellectual and cultural innovation is often dedicated to developing strategies for avoiding change. Those kinds of innovations can only encourage a reaction against progress.

Enlightenment humanism freed the individual from the status quo of natural identity, allowing humanity to reach beyond self, to change rather than simply be. Identity politics is the politics of the new conservatism, predicated on the assumption that what matters is what you are. An accident of birth like ethnic origins, or an illness or disability or sexual preference, have been endowed with tremendous significance. A society that celebrates what you are rather than what you have done or achieved assigns a passive status to the role of the individual. Identity politics is not only divisive. It demands nothing of its audience and offers only a self-flattery that goes by the name of self-esteem.

Identity politics represents a form of consciousness that is lower than that achieved centuries ago by Enlightenment thinkers. The Enlightenment was in part a reaction to the traditional idea that who you are was defined by your identity, your place in the natural order. It posited the notion that people made themselves through making history. That is how the Enlightenment was able to develop a form of consciousness that transcended the specific experience of individuals and individual groups. Today, when striving for universalism is treated with cynicism, it is easy to forget that basic principles of equality and rights were embedded in this outlook.

It is necessary to develop an intellectual approach that is enthusiastically oriented towards the future and positively welcomes change. That will involve challenging social pessimism at every turn and continually drawing attention to anything that is potentially positive. People need to learn for themselves that resistance to change is far more dangerous than trying to harness its power for the common good.

Contemporary problems are not the result of applying reason, science and knowledge, but of subordinating them and thwarting human potential. The humanist intellectual universe needs to be ambitious but open-ended, prepared to countenance the validity of any idea. At a time when free thinking is violated by a censorious climate, it is important wholeheartedly to endorse free speech and encourage open debate.

Today, when the political imagination appears exhausted, it is easy to draw pessimistic conclusions about the future. But such a response is not warranted in a world that is in many respects fluid and still open to new solutions. Political life has reached an impasse. But the changes unleashed by the rise of the modern world cannot be stopped. The new conservatism, which reflects a loss of nerve, cannot turn back the clock.

The old political alignments are going to give way to new ones. It seems likely that the alignments of the future will, in the first instance, be constructed around the question of how we view change. It is already evident that the key question is not whether you regard yourself on the left or on the right, so much as whether you embrace or reject change.

It is hard to be open-minded and progressive in an era dominated by caution and the fear of change. But there are many decent people who believe in the humanist project and are willing to go against the grain. Today, it is important to influence attitudes and imagination. A worthwhile objective would be to encourage development of a second Enlightenment. Many of us are the products of the first, and by trying to engage with the obstacles that have thwarted its realisation, we might gain some insights about how to do better the second time around.

This is an edited version of an article by Frank Furedi that appeared in the last LM magazine, Summer 2000