After the Left's Paralysis: The Third Way Can Provide a Framework for Political and Economic Thought That Cuts across the Old Divides of Social Democracy and Neoliberalism

By Giddens, Anthony | New Statesman (1996), May 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

After the Left's Paralysis: The Third Way Can Provide a Framework for Political and Economic Thought That Cuts across the Old Divides of Social Democracy and Neoliberalism


Giddens, Anthony, New Statesman (1996)


A year ago, immediately prior to the election, I wrote an article for this magazine defending new Labour against the strictures of two critics from the left, Martin Jacques and Smart Hall. The gist of their critique was familiar: that what was on offer was warmed-over Thatcherism. After a year in power the feeling of many people that Labour is pursuing a neoliberal agenda under another name, hasn't gone away. Dissident voices inside and outside the party continue to make much the same point as Jacques and Hall.

More disturbingly, such criticisms have become commonplace in social democratic circles on the Continent. When he came back from his policy discussions with Bill Clinton in Washington in February/Tony Blair spoke of his ambition to create an international consensus of the centre-left for the 21 st century, a "Third Way" different from the old left and the new right. The claim to have found a Third Way had earlier been made by Clinton in his State of the Union address.

Blair's announcement met with a distinctly frosty reception among some social democrats in Europe. They saw Clinton's policies as largely irrelevant to the European context, given Europe's stronger traditions of social protection. Moreover, talk of a "Third Way" conjures up uncomfortable memories. The term was used by some of the most noxious movements of the 1920s and 1930s, as was the notion that left and right were largely obsolete categories. Later on the "Third Way" came to mean market socialism, an idea that led nowhere.

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Yet whether we use the label Third Way or not - and faute de mieux I shall do so in this article - there are some extremely important shifts in political thinking going on in Europe and the United States. Blair was quite right to call for an international debate about them. There is growing agreement not only that we have to find something different from the old left or the new right, but that leftist political theory is slowly recovering from its post-1989 paralysis. Over the past few weeks the New Statesman has carried a number of articles devoted to the Third Way. Most contributors seem to be looking for a big idea that would define the new politics, but I think this is a mistake. What we need to do is to develop a framework that could be contrasted point by point with the two rival doctrines. We know what the Third Way is not, and from such a comparison we can flesh out the alternative. A whole range of contrasts could be drawn, but given constraints of space I shall limit myself to five dimensions: political values, the economy, government, the nation and the welfare state.

The comparison is a schematic one; it is developed much further in the forthcoming study on which this article is based.

1. Social democracy was explicitly a class politics of the left, having as its main constituency the manual working class. Although less openly a form of class politics, neoliberalism is a conservative philosophy, situating itself on the political right. With the rapid shrinking of the working class and the disappearance of the bipolar world, the salience of class politics, as well as the traditional divisions of left and right, has diminished. Left and right haven't lost all their significance, as the existence of far-right parties bears witness. Yet major issues today cut across the left-right divide, or recast it, including responses to globalisation, cultural diversity, and scientific and technological change.

Surveys carried out in many countries bear out the inadequacy of the left-right division as a means of capturing contemporary social and political attitudes. In their Beyond Left and Right, for example, based on a MORI survey carried out in the UK, John Blundell and Brian Gosschalk find that political attitudes divide into five clusters rather than two. The Labour Party just before the 1997 election, as recast under Tony Blair, was in first place for four of these five groups. …

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