Rorschach Politics

"We have moved past the sterile debate between those who say government is the enemy and those who say government is the answer. My fellow Americans, we have found a Third Way."

—President Bill Clinton

"The Third Way is to my mind the best label for the new politics that the progressive center-left is forging in Britain and beyond."

—Prime Minister Tony Blair

The words echo each other. The era of class struggles is over. The millennial vision is of a politics that can surf conflicts and harmonize, in the words of Tony Blair, "themes which in the past have wrongly been regarded as antagonistic—patriotism and internationalism, rights and responsibilities, the promotion of enterprise and the attack on poverty and discrimination."

But the invocation of a common language does not necessarily imply shared meanings. If the appeal of "the Third Way" appears to cross frontiers, it is not necessarily because it reflects the ineluctable logic of a new global order. Rather it is because it provides a convenient verbal flag—a chameleon phrase whose appeal lies in its conceptual versatility—under which different political parties in different countries can organize their strategies for survival. Clinton, Blair, and the rest of the clerisy may appear to be singing from the same hymn book—but they are addressing different gods and congregations. In short, the meaning of the Third Way is contingent on the particular historical circumstances of individual countries.

If the challenge for both Clinton and Blair has been to construct a viable electoral coalition for a party whose traditional base has been eroded by the weakening of organized labor, they have operated in vastly different contexts. Britain's Third Way was the product of a long struggle by successive leaders of the Labour Party to make it electable again, a struggle that ended with Blair's landslide election triumph in 1997. This involved reshaping and repositioning a party that had been the creation of the trade union movement and had been explicitly committed to a socialist agenda, characteristics which distinguish it sharply from the U.S. Democrats. So Blair's Third Way is not Clinton's. It has a different history and is addressed to a different constituency.

Consider Tony Blair's own exposition of the Third Way: "Over the last 50 years two major political projects have dominated politics in Britain and many other Western democracies—neo-liberalism and a highly statist brand of social democracy," he writes. "Britain has experienced both in full-blooded form. That is why the term 'the Third Way' has particular relevance to Britain." The United States, on the other hand, has never experienced "a highly statist branch of social democracy;" the notion of a National Health Service, for example, while embraced by all political parties in the U.K., can still be presented in the U.S. as a dangerously socialist enterprise.

The Crucible of Thatcherism

Tony Blair's politics can only be understood in the context of Margaret Thatcher's success in reshaping Britain's political landscape. By 1979 when Margaret Thatcher's election inaugurated an 18-year period of Conservative government, the achievements of Labour's postwar government had turned sour. The extension of state power, through the nationalization of key industries, had failed to deliver the hoped-for economic growth. Even the hitherto politically untouchable welfare state was being increasingly criticized by both left and right for putting providers ahead of consumers. Industrial strife, culminating in the notorious gravediggers' strike in the winter of 1978 and 1979, became the norm. In Blair's own words "as the 1970s advanced, post-war social democracy proved steadily less viable."

So the ground was prepared for the Thatcher enterprise. In this Margaret Thatcher's greatest achievement was perhaps that she successfully reengineered popular perceptions of what government could be expected to deliver. Government, she persuaded voters, could create the right conditions in which market forces could operate—but only the market could deliver. Hence the curious phenomenon that Mrs. Thatcher could win successive elections despite spectacularly high unemployment (aggravated by her own erratic brand of monetary economics), the erosion of Britain's industrial base, and fluctuating growth.

In pulling off this feat Mrs. Thatcher was greatly helped by the Labour Party. Defeat in 1979 led, in Blair's words, "to a decade of infighting within the Labour Party as it sought to reconcile its core values and old policy prescriptions to a changed world." It remained the party of nationalization, of high spending and taxation, and of a working class that was both shrinking and changing. In the mid-1980s it even seemed possible that it would cease to be the main opposition party as some of its leading figures, appalled by the constant struggle to prevent left-wing militants from dominating it, formed the breakaway Social Democratic Party to which Blair owes a great, if unacknowledged, intellectual debt.

Blair's Third Way was molded in the long campaign—begun under Neil Kinnock's leadership and continued in the brief reign of John Smith—to make Labour electable once again. The influence of the unions waned with their membership. Labour's election manifestos increasingly became models of fiscal rectitude. Finally, Blair bulldozed the party into abandoning the notorious Clause 4 of its constitution, which had committed it to seeking the common ownership of the means of production, a change of enormous symbolic significance to all concerned, if of little practical import. But after getting rid of the historical lumber, dispelling Labour's electorally damaging reputation as the party of tax-and-spend, and winning a landslide victory, Blair was still left with a dilemma. What actually defined New Labour? How could he reassure the party faithful who had supported Old Labour in the wilderness years without alienating the new voters who had made his victory possible and who saw him as the confident voice of the future? Enter the Third Way. To the party faithful, it offers the language of idealism; to the newly won voters, it offers the language of pragmatism: "insistence on fixed values and goals," in Blair's words, "but pragmatism about means."

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Margaret Thatcher in Drag?

What are these "fixed values and goals"? To quote Blair: "Our mission is to promote and reconcile the four values which are essential to a just society which maximizes the freedom and potential of all our people—equal worth, opportunity for all, responsibility, and community." It is a list no doubt deliberately designed to make heads nod in agreement. But it also marks a significant semantic shift in the presentation and interpretation of "center-left" values. First, it marks a change of emphasis from the redistributive state to the investment state: equality of opportunity (whatever that may mean) replaces equality of income or outcomes as the aim of policy. Second, it involves a redefinition of the relationship between the state and its citizens. Rights carry responsibilities; the role of central government is to promote community and voluntary activities; civic cooperation replaces state collectivism.

In all this, "Our approach is 'permanent revisionism,' a continual search for better means to meet our goals, based on a clear view of the changes taking place in advanced industrialized countries." The slogan shaping policy is "what counts is what works": the apotheosis of pragmatism. In effect, New Labour accepts most of the Thatcher legacy—notably the reliance on market forces, the promotion of competition, and flexible labor markets—as "necessary acts of modernization."

If anything, this Third Way strengthens the Thatcher emphasis on managerial techniques. But New Labour's Third Way distinguishes itself from Thatcherism by denouncing it for pursuing these policies with ideological dogmatism and for its "visceral antipathy" to the public sector, as well as for its failure to foster civic society. For New Labour, markets are seen as tools of—rather than driving forces of—policy. Both equality of opportunity and prosperity will be achieved by investing in human and social capital. And with a final rhetorical flourish Blair's exposition of the Third Way concludes by proclaiming:

In standing for justice, we assert the historic claim of the center-left that there is no progress unless every citizen has a real stake in it. Without a fair distribution of the benefits of progress, societies risk falling apart in division, rancor and distrust.

So there it is. We have deliberately quoted Blair in extenso since the style itself is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the U.K. model of the Third Way: a skillful evocation of key words like "justice," "opportunity," and "community," each of which is calculated to reassure one of the constituencies being addressed without alarming the others. "Justice" reassures traditional Labour supporters; "opportunity" appeals to the many upwardly mobile working-class voters whose support kept Mrs. Thatcher and her successor John Major in office; "community" offends no one and may even appeal to Conservatives worried about problems like rising crime, one-parent families, and the apparent disintegration of traditional social discipline. Words like "new," "dynamic," and "modernization" pepper the text to underline that the Third Way is a forward-looking enterprise. Old Left and New Right emerge as the thesis and antithesis of a political dialectic resolved by a Third Way synthesis that is distinctive if elusive in its precise implications. For Blair's New Labour rhetoric requires that an ideological wedge be driven between the past and the future. Distance between "old" and "new" is achieved by denigrating the past and praising the present.

Semantic slipperiness, fundamental vacuousness, and an overarching blandness are perhaps to be expected in a document produced under the name of a serving prime minister. They make very good political sense if it is assumed that the prime purpose of the whole Third Way enterprise is to construct a coalition of support that will maintain New Labour in office for the foreseeable future. In terms of distancing Blair from Old Labour and Thatcherism alike without committing him to anything specific for the future, the Third Way is a triumphant example of New Labour's style of self-presentation. But is there more to it than that?

From one perspective it can be seen as the latest manifestation of a long-standing aspiration in Western political thought to devise a middle way between warring ideologies, going back to Erasmus's attempt to devise a via media between Catholicism and emergent Protestantism in the sixteenth century. Others have pointed to the strand in Catholic thinking developed at the end of the nineteenth century and taken up by the Second Vatican Council and liberation theology—urging a middle way between capitalism and socialism. (Not for nothing, perhaps, is Tony Blair a self-professed Christian socialist.)

Giddens the Guru

The most ambitious attempt to define the Third Way has come from Anthony Giddens, a distinguished sociologist, director of the London School of Economics, and Blair's court theorist. For him, the project is to demonstrate how social democracy can not only survive but prosper. And his version of the Third Way, which he articulates in The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy, is a response to forces like globalization and anti–trade union sentiment that have made the antitheses of traditional left-right political discourse irrelevant or misleading.

According to Giddens, globalization and the accompanying communications revolution have not only limited the ability of individual countries to pursue autonomous economic policies but are also shaking up "local institutions and everyday patterns of life," reinforcing old regional loyalties in some cases, and creating some new cross-boundary alignments in others. Giddens also presents the notion of "new individualism," a key if somewhat elusive idea in the analysis. With "the retreat of tradition and custom from our lives," he writes in The Third Way, individuals have to construct their own moral universes and accept responsibility for their decisions. We live in the era of the politics of choice.

Giddens's Third Way is, in essence, an existentialist—or is it a postmodern?—vision of individual and collective self-invention. With old certainties and political categories collapsing about us, and with the diminishing ability of our existing political institutions to cope with change, there is no alternative but for us—both as individuals and societies—consciously and explicitly to shape our destinies. If we want social cohesion, we can no longer rely on custom and tradition; instead we have to create them anew for ourselves.

Giddens is a master of the heroic, confident generalization. But each generalization prompts doubt. Are governments really more constrained than they were before "globalization" became the word of the day? After all, Britain's Labour governments in the 1960s and 1970s were regularly unable to implement their programs because of international monetary pressure. Are unforeseeable and uncontrollable risks a phenomenon peculiar to the end of the twentieth century? After all, the last hundred years have seen a drastic reduction in the damage wrought by famine and pestilence—unforeseeable and uncontrollable risks if ever there were any—which haunted all societies until the twentieth century.

It is easy to brush aside Giddens's analysis as comic-cut history and sociology, all crude colors and bold outlines—which indeed has been the reaction of many U.K. reviewers. He relies on reductive, crude characterizations of left and right. But he does strongly convey an effort to grapple with a world in flux. And this sense of wrestling with a difficult-to-pin-down, "reflexive" (to use one of Giddens's favorite words) reality may well be the essence of the Third Way, seen as an intellectual rather than a political enterprise. Politically the Third Way is a strategy for repositioning left-of-center parties in order to ensure electoral survival. Intellectually, it is a strategy for justifying that repositioning with a coherent program of action and a set of criteria against which that program can be assessed. This is the task that Giddens sets himself.

In seeking to put policy flesh, as he puts it, on the bones of theory, Giddens covers much ground but carries little conviction. Ideas flicker in and out of the text, some drawing on substantial secondary sources, others seemingly the product of highly selective serendipity in the library, and quite a few that appear to be inspired by casual conversations with colleagues. For example, he argues that it is futile to resurrect the traditional, conventional family. Agreed. But what does he offer as the social democratic response? The answer is the "democratic family": lifelong parental contracts; emotional and sexual equality; mutual rights and responsibilities in relationships; and negotiated authority over children. But it is far from clear how this is to be achieved: child care facilities for nonresident fathers, as proposed by Giddens, seem a somewhat inadequate policy instrument. Throughout his writings there is a curious contrast between his emphasis on the limitations of the state's capacity to shape society and his advocacy of policies which appear to demand a radical reengineering of social attitudes.

More serious than the failure to devise a coherent Third Way program is the failure to define the concept precisely enough to allow us to judge what policies would not be compatible with it. If the Third Way is not to be seen as magpie politics—pragmatism without principles—we need criteria that would allow us to judge not only what should be done, but what should not be done. The Third Way values as defined by Giddens are: equality; protection of the vulnerable; freedom as autonomy; no rights without responsibilities; no authority without democracy; cosmopolitan pluralism; and philosophic conservatism. Do these provide rigorous and precise enough criteria for judging the Third Way in action? Hardly. Take equality. The pursuit of equality has long been the distinctive ambition of social democracy, although an extremely elusive one given that the notion of "equality" has many dimensions and is capable of many interpretations. In any case Giddens redefines it to mean the redistribution of possibilities—through policies of social inclusion and investment in education—rather than the redistribution of income. Which begs the question of the scale and nature of the desired redistribution. As Giddens recognizes, listing values or criteria does not tell us how to prioritize between them when they conflict.

A Politics of Expediency?

So Britain's Third Way, whether elaborated by Blair or by Giddens, turns out to be a somewhat messy enterprise: words in search of meaning, concepts awaiting precise definition, political expediency in need of intellectual and moral justification. But we should not be surprised. Although it may suit proponents of the Third Way to portray both Old Left and New Right as coherent, monotheist political ideologies, this is in fact a convenient myth for those anxious to proclaim the birth of a distinctive, new form of politics—a misleading form of product differentiation.

Why worry if the Third Way remains a fuzzy concept? Because if the concept remains completely undefined, there can be no political accountability. If Britain's Third Way is indeed to be defined by practice—if it is a process of self-invention, an exercise in improvising policy on the hoof—then Blair would appear to have a blank check. But if what counts is what works, doesn't this mean that anything that works counts as acceptable Third Way policy?

The record so far is ambiguous. An ambitious program to modernize Britain's system of governance has been launched. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will, to varying degrees, have more freedom to run their own affairs. The hereditary House of Lords—Parliament's Upper Chamber—will be abolished. All this would seem to indicate a determination to "democratize" the British constitution. Yet this is not a government that wholly trusts the people. Constitutional devolution is, paradoxically, going hand in hand with the increasing centralization of power in England. The trend of the 1980s toward ever-closer central control over local government has, if anything, been reinforced. So, for example, the administration in London has strengthened the power of its central inspectorate over schools: private contractors can tender for the management of failed schools. Similarly, the government's reforms of the National Health Service (NHS)—supposedly reversing but largely building on Conservative policies, including reliance on private capital—will strengthen the grip of the center. Just as Mrs. Thatcher centralized in order to impose her own vision of the market, so Tony Blair appears to be centralizing in order to impose his own vision of democracy.

In all this, the government has been constrained by its initial commitment to fiscal rectitude, to sticking to the tax and spending levels inherited from the Conservative administration. In fact, the straitjacket has been somewhat loosened as more money has been found for the NHS and for schools. But overall the pattern of spending—and the accompanying rhetoric—underlines that New Labour is indeed different from Old Labour. Demands from within the party for handouts to pensioners and other welfare beneficiaries have been resisted. Instead there is to be a "radical change" in the "culture of the benefits system," as the minister responsible for reforming the social security system, Alistair Darling, explained when introducing Britain's version of "workfare." While Old Labour stressed the right of all citizens to a minimum income, New Labour is stressing the responsibility of all citizens, including the disabled, to seek work. The role of government is to create the opportunities for those out of work to acquire the training and skills needed to find employment.

Is the Third Way just Thatch erism with a human face? The emphasis on the responsibilities of the individual citizen certainly echo Thatcherism. But the Third Way differs from Thatcherite ideology in one crucial respect. It puts equal emphasis on the responsibilities of the state. There is an explicit commitment—stopping short, however, of actually guaranteeing the availability of enough jobs—to make it possible for individual citizens to meet the demands of the new work imperative. Similarly, there is a clear-cut commitment to dealing with the cat's cradle of related issues variously labeled social exclusion, poverty, and inequality. So, for example, the government has set up a Social Exclusion Unit charged with devising and coordinating policies for avoiding the growth of what in the U.S. would be called an "underclass," a self-reproducing class of those without access to a decent education or the mainstream labor market. A variety of initiatives have been taken to regenerate disadvantaged and deprived housing estates, schools, and communities, many of them echoing some of the experiments of the War on Poverty of the 1960s. New acronyms are sprouting all over the place: HAZs (Health Action Zones), EAZs (Edu cation Action Zones), and so on. A program labeled "Sure Start"—clearly modeled on Head Start—aims to promote early intervention in the lives of children in deprived areas.

A relatively buoyant economy and rising tax revenues have allowed the government to find extra money for these policy initiatives without abandoning its commitment to fiscal rectitude. Over the next three years, education is to receive £19 billion more than it would have under the spending plans inherited from the Conservatives; the National Health Service is to get £20 billion more. Another £4.4 billion is to be spent on regenerating cities and housing. These figures flatter the government's generosity—they have been inflated by some skillful political massaging and, in any case, the Con servatives would almost certainly have revised their expenditure plans if they had remained in office. Nevertheless they indicate the direction in which New Labour is moving. Similarly, while the changes in the structure of taxation have been modest—New Labour does not soak the rich—their overall effect has been mildly redistributive. In these respects, then, New Labour praxis is in line with Third Way rhetoric—and with the rhetoric of the New Democrats at the Democratic Leadership Council in the United States—although it remains to be seen whether the policies being pursued are adequate to achieve the desired goals.

Finally, New Labour practice suggests that the Third Way leans toward the authoritarian rather than toward the libertarian end of one of the crucial divisions in politics, cutting across the left-right axis. In line with the increasing trend towards centralization, its emphasis is on community control rather than community self-government. Penal policy has stressed being tough on crime more than being tough on the causes of crime—a British version of the three strikes rule is about to be introduced and the prison population is likely to go on growing. New Labour is stressing and codifying parents' duty to discipline their children while introducing curfews for children. If Marxism sought to force people to be free, Blairism sometimes seems to be seeking to force people to be responsible.

Incoherence, inconsistency, calculated ambiguity, and a readiness to extemporize are not characteristics unique to the Third Way. But the failure to recognize the tensions within the whole enterprise—the tensions between authoritarianism and libertarianism, between the eroding of trust in the state and the expanding scope of the state—could yet wreck the grand Third Way ambition to transform conflict into a strong, stable synthesis. While the Third Way in the U.K. makes sense as a political strategy and an attempt to interpret a puzzling world, if it is really no more than "constant revisionism" it will become a radical center without a core.

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