Fwd: dsanet: Ken Livingstone: Giddens' Third Way reviewed
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Sat Sep 4 17:59:35 MDT 1999
[ ] New Statesman 25 September 1998
Giddens' Third Way reviewed
It is very easy to be cynical about the concept of the Third Way. For a
start, the very name seems to be an absurdity for anyone serious about
constructing an ideological framework - defining oneself against two other
'ways' rather than starting from what you believe in for yourself seems to
me to be a bit of a dodgy intellectual exercise.
Which reminds me of an old Soviet joke. President Gorbachev visits Britain,
and is impressed. Returning to the USSR, he announces that he has discovered
the secret of UK success. 'Britain drives on the left, whereas we drive on
the right. Therefore I will issue a decree. From now on, everyone in the
Soviet Union will drive on the left side.'
The assembled members of the Politburo think for minute, and reply: 'This is
too radical. The people will not understand it. We must avoid extremism.'
Gorbachev ponders, and concludes: 'you are right. The decree will be
altered. Half the cars will drive on the left, and half on the right.'
If that seems like a bit of a caricature, I plead guilty. But so should the
theorists of the Third Way. Anthony Giddens is a reputable academic, and he
has written a short book which is at times engaging and infuriating but
mostly just plain wrong.
One of the tactics of the Millbank Tendency in internal Labour Party debates
is to counterpose two simplifications. The concepts of 'New' and 'Old'
Labour are the perfect example. In this way subtlety - and eventually
accuracy - are easily abolished. Giddens contends that the Third Way should
be seen as the renewal of social democracy. Constrained by the very concept
of a 'third' way, he first defines the other two: old style social democracy
and neo-liberalism. It is in the ideological clash between these two - both
of which he sees as having had their day - that a new third way emerges. I
agree with him about the inadequacy of both of these positions, but that is
where we diverge.
There are two problems: one, that 'old style' social democracy cannot be
said to encompass the political thought of a very large number of Labour
Party members, particularly of my generation and younger; and two, that
there are more than two existing choices. Take his section on the
'democratic family'. Giddens argues: 'is there a politics of the family
beyond neo-liberalism and old-style social democracy?'. This is a daft
question, as feminists will no doubt remind him. Giddens is left to argue
that 'many on the social democratic left' argue for a new conception of the
family based on diversity and choice, in which there is no ideal family, and
where heterosexuality and homosexuality are not discriminated against on
issues such as parenting.
With respect to Giddens, this conception is not at all prevalent within
social democracy. Indeed, it was supposedly because of such 'loony left'
ideas that so many social democrats deserted the Labour Party in the early
1980s. Giddens is arguing against a position which cannot be said to 'social
democratic', counterposing to it the views of the 'new' Third Way politics.
His third way on the family is ghastly. Preoccupied with 'rights and
responsibilities', he proposes 'contractual parental commitments', arguing
'fathers should have greater parenting rights than at present'.
This idea is extended to children, whom, he suggests, 'should have
responsibilities to their parents, not just the other way around'. He
favours statutes requiring children to look after needy parents. Rights and
responsibilities are something Third Wayers are big on. I didn't realise how
big until I read this book. For Giddens, 'one might suggest as a prime motto
for the new politics, no rights without responsibilities.' This is a cloak
for social authoritarianism. Rights are not conditional, they are absolute,
or they are not rights at all.
The Third Way is a product of its age. The collapse of the Soviet Union has
completely disorientated the left. Many welcomed what they saw as the
democratisation of Eastern Europe, regarding the reintroduction of
capitalism into the USSR as the best chance of liberating the people there.
The bi-polar world was abolished, and optimism reigned.
Seen in retrospect, this optimism was misplaced, and the illusions are
having to be shed fast. The new world order has turned out to be a disaster
for the vast majority of the people of the planet, with huge capital flows
out of the third world, and a succession of irresponsible interventions by
the dominant world power - the USA - allowed to go unopposed. Social
democracy has looked on, impotent, and often supportive of the inroads being
made by neoliberalism.
This is beginning to unravel. Larry Elliott in the Guardian recently argued
that the current crisis in the world markets, and particularly the meltdown
in Russia, are as much a crisis for the left's leaders as they are for the
Certainly, the crisis on the right is acute. But the politicians of the
third way are also confused. So far, the British government has simply
repeated to the people of Russia that they must continue with the very
reforms that have brought their country to its biggest crisis since Hitler's
There is nothing in Anthony Giddens book which convinces me that the
politicians of the third way - which at best is a very right wing version of
social democracy - have in their armoury anything which would be of
relevance to the people of Russia. Indeed it is noticeable that the social
democratic parties in the former soviet union are few and far between.
I said at the start of my comments that there were more than two choices, to
which I mush add a rider: Giddens has deliberately posed a false choice,
because his book is not only an academic exercise, but an attempt to assert
the final burial of a different third way - democratic socialism. Yet the
'Lex Column' of the Financial Times, mostly devoted to the developments on
the world markets, recently asked under headline 'Das Kapital revisited',
why the world had swung 'from the triumph of global capitalism to its crisis
in less than a decade'. Socialists, of which there are millions all over the
world, still have some answers, despite Giddens's claim that 'socialism is
This review appeared as 'There are more than three ways' in the New
Statesman, 25 September 1998.
© 1998 New Stateman
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