The Third Way: Myth and Reality

By Petras, James | Monthly Review, March 2000 | Go to article overview

The Third Way: Myth and Reality


Petras, James, Monthly Review


Introduction

What is the Third Way? Both historically and in the contemporary world, there are numerous examples of political leaders and movements that declare their allegiance to a Third Way--defining alternatives in opposition to what they perceive to be dominant paradigms. In the contemporary world, the best known exponent of the Third Way is British Prime Minister Tony Blair, though a number of other political leaders in Europe and elsewhere have expressed sympathy or support for the rhetoric or substance of Blair's version of the Third Way.

What we should keep in mind, however, is that there are many other varieties of a Third Way in the modern world besides the Euro-American brand. Moreover, the contemporary version represents a sharp divergence from earlier Third Way approaches, prominent in European politics throughout the twentieth century. This paper will begin with a brief exposition of the principal arguments of the contemporary Euro-American Third Way. We will then compare and discuss historical experiences and earlier exponents of the Third Way, critically analyzing their assumptions and prognostications. We will then proceed to discuss a variety of contemporary Third Ways, including the Euro-American one, before summing up our analysis and theoretical conclusions.

The Claims of the European Third Way

The Western European version of the Third Way (specifically the Tony Blair/Anthony Giddens account) begins by elaborating a critique of what they describe as free-market capitalism and state socialism. They argue that free-market capitalism is in humane and exclusive--based on a class-bound establishment that denies equal opportunity to all classes and social groups. On the other hand, the ideologues of the Third Way claim that statist socialism denies the individual freedom of choice and incentives to engage in entrepreneurial activity. Having specified the two dominant modes of thought of the present or recent past, the Blairites and their cohorts claim that they are in favor of an economy and society that combines the individual choice of the marketplace and the social opportunities of the welfare state. Underlying the Third Way is a set of sociological assumptions that provide the theoretical gloss for Blair's political directives.

Sociohistorical Premises of the Third Way

According to Third Way theory, historical developments have dissolved old class-based politics and rendered class struggle approaches irrelevant. New technologies and market-driven incentives unite producers in a new, information-driven global economy. The principle that unites producers is the drive for higher productivity and greater competitiveness in the global marketplace. The state, according to Third Way theory, should play a role on the supply side, creating conditions and incentives to encourage entrepreneurship, innovation, and equal opportunity. The state's role in the social sphere is to promote personal responsibility and to encourage employment rather than welfare dependency. According to Third Way theory, society will retain social inequalities but encourage equal opportunity; the goal accordingly is not to redistribute income but to increase income for all. In confronting the assumptions and propositions of contemporary Third Way theory, it is useful to compare and contrast it with earlier Th ird Way arguments. In doing so, we can clearly identify its radical break with the past, as well as gain a critical perspective on the limitations of previous Third Way approaches. Following this historical comparison, we can then turn to an examination of each of the basic premises of contemporary Third Way approaches and draw some general conclusions about the contextual emergence and possible demise of the Third Way.

Comparative Historical Experiences of Third Ways

It is important to distinguish between two distinct but interrelated efforts to elaborate Third Ways in the twentieth century: the reform socialist approach that dates from the turn of the nineteenth century to the end of the Second World War; and the welfare capitalism approach that emerged in the period after the Second World War and lasted until the mid-1980s. …

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