The Politics of the Third Way

Blackwood Project 2001. Geoff Boucher

The Politics of the Third Way: Towards a

Democratic Socialist Alternative

Geoff Boucher

According to the leading theoretical proponent of the “global Third Way,” Anthony Giddens, the new world that opened with the collapse of communism is one “beyond Left and Right”. Responding creatively to the onset of economic globalisation, the end of the welfare state, the cultural condition of postmodernity and the decline of the socialist tradition, Giddens proposes that the collapse of the traditional, socialist Left is the result, not of the bankruptcy of reform, but of the increasing complexity of society. Where the relation between the state and the market defined the Left – Right opposition during the twentieth century, there now exists a consensus on the importance of the free market and the impossibility of socialism. The massive structural changes that rule out the twentieth century concepts of the command economy (and state welfare planning), the authoritarian rational state (and the centralised administration of social benefits), and the central role of the working class in the struggle for communism (and social democratic reforms), are not evidence for the irrelevance of social democratic politics, but dilemmas that demand that political risks be taken. Calling for a “renewal of social democracy,” Giddens advocates a raft of new social policies in keeping with the “post-traditional society” of reflexive modernity.

This theory of the validity of the “renewal of social democracy” via a “Third Way” that is “beyond Left and Right” relies not only on the decline of the socialist tradition, but more fundamentally upon an epochal theory of history. For Giddens, the major recent transformations in the world economy, international politics and global culture are part of the second modernity, or “reflexive modernity”. Reflexive modernity is characterised as the “end of nature and of tradition”: everything solid melts into air, beginning with all immediate access to nature and all bonds of tradition. The process of radical doubt characteristic of modernity sustained the combination of modernisation and traditional survivals that marked the spread of European influence worldwide. Now that the final survivals of natural immediacy and traditional allegiance are dissolved, and the European model has been globalised, this process of radical doubt extends to the social and political forms of modernity itself. Everything is exposed to rational scrutiny and all decisions arbitrated by the social processes of modernity. The result is a global society of immense complexity where the multiplication of decisions produced by the advent of reflexive modernity provokes anxiety and tremendous risks. Economic globalisation, the end of the welfare state, the cultural condition of postmodernity and the decline of the socialist tradition – as well as the emergence of new technologies and environmental risks, the development of entirely new wars and the spread of religious fundamentalism and ethnic nationalism – are all processes bound within the complexities of reflexive modernity. These transform the political terrain in unprecedented ways. Most importantly, they render nugatory all appeals to established political formulae and traditional social forces. Everything has to be re-thought; everything is open for creative new solutions.

The socialist response to modernity derives from the Enlightenment ideals of the rational mastery of nature and society and the creation of a harmonious and transparent social totality. By unmasking traditional illusions and mapping the rational substructure of society, the Left hoped to gain control of social processes and turn them towards emancipation and an egalitarian social order. During the twentieth century, this took the form of the concept of “cybernetic socialism,” which defined the common ground uniting socialists and communists, despite serious differences regarding parliamentary democracy. The concept of “cybernetic socialism” regarded the state as a social “mind,” capable of directing the irrationalities of the market and administering the multitude of competing wills present in civil society. The collapse of this concept means an end to the relevance of the opposition between Left and Right, since this bipolar political division relied upon counterposed positions regarding the rationality of the market and the desirability of state intervention. Economic globalisation makes national economic planning impossible. The decline of the welfare state is rooted not only in its economic inefficiencies, but also in its inability to deliver egalitarian outcomes, its expanding bureaucracy and its irrelevance for the emergent new forms of individual freedom. The concept of the civilising mission of the national culture – its role as the educational support for the rationally administered society and its function as the cultural foundation for national unity — has foundered upon the radical doubt introduced by reflexive modernity. The “master narratives” of historical progress and rational mastery appear, in the post-traditional society, as quaint survivals of religious belief. Instead of a national culture, reflexive modernity stimulates global and local cultures; instead of a civilising mission designed to produce national uniformity, postmodern culture exposes everything – including the unity of modernism and the validity of civilisation – to radical scepticism and cultural fragmentation. Instead of a pervasive nihilism, this is actually a process of the enabling of a host of new individual identities, liberated from the necessity for their adherence to teleological master narratives.

Yet there is something of the “end of history” in this master narrative of increasing social complexity and the transcendence of the Left-Right distinction. It is not the evolutionary process of the increasing complexity of the social that is the problem. Modernity can legitimately be characterised by the fundamental processes of functional differentiation (constant increase in the social division of labour through specialisation) and the counter-process of functional de-differentiation (constant migration upwards of human labour towards skilled processes as a result of automation of routine tasks) and this indeed leads to an increasingly complex global society. The problem is that social complexity signifies absolutely nothing in relation to basic orientations of political strategy. Certainly, the increasing complexity of social processes makes some historically legitimate political strategies into now obsolete simplifications. This is different, however, to the interpretation of the fundamental division of politics into Left and Right. The master narrative of reflexive modernity takes the strictly meaningless process of increasing social complexity and loads it up with a transcendent Meaning. The concept of reflexive modernity entails the claim that the entirety of the visible social processes transforming the social and political landscape today – economic globalisation, the undermining of the nation state, cultural shifts, new technologies – are “actually” expressions of the underlying – merely intelligible and not at all phenomenal – process of “reflexive modernity”. This intelligible process is producing the global unity of a “post-traditional society,” and the only appropriate, self-reflexively ironic response (that is, post-historical reaction) is to move “beyond Left and Right,” into the renewed social democracy as the “party of inclusion” – that is, the new post-political instrument of a state-sponsored social harmony. Rejection of the Absolute Spirit of radical doubt and the teleological fantasy of the post-traditional society do not mean, however, that we have not moved beyond Left and Right. Nor does it free us from the responsibility for a rational account of the immensely complex visible processes supposedly expressive of reflexive modernity. The relevance of the Left-Right distinction and the viability of socialist strategy in an increasingly complex world have to be demonstrated according to the highest standards of rational debate and contemporary scientific procedures. Scepticism towards reflexive modernity, in short, is not a license to minimise or down-play the need for a fundamental shift in socialist strategy.

Giddens’ “end of socialism,” though, is a paltry and self-serving misrepresentation of socialist theory in the late twentieth century. The “cybernetic model” was effectively dead as a model for revolutionary socialism by the late 1930s – which is why Harold Laski made it the foundation for his Revolution of Our Time (1943), the theoretical basis of the welfare state. Certainly, while the Left Opposition within the Russian Revolution had explored alternatives to the command economy and bureaucratic centralisation (namely, the “market socialism” of the New Economic Programme and the policy of a revival of soviet democracy and workers’ control), the programme of the Left Opposition remained within the scope of traditional assumptions regarding the role of the proletariat as a unitary and universal class, the advent of socialism as the end of politics and the decisive importance of conscious control of increasingly transparent social processes. To bureaucratic consciousness, Western Marxism and the Left Opposition counterposed democratic class consciousness. It is unreasonable to describe this as “cybernetic,” since it includes both consumer demand and democratically resolved differences, but it is not irresponsible to assimilate it more broadly to the concepts of the rational mastery of a transparent society and the end of politics as the beginning of social harmony. By contrast, the most innovative currents in socialist theory and politics in the late twentieth century – Eurocommunism, the Frankfurt school, structural Marxism – broke decisively with exactly this rationalist dream of an end of history. The explorations of democratic socialism (including a sophisticated and highly articulated political philosophy), the debate on market socialism, the rejection of Leninism for the advanced capitalist countries and so forth, meant that the simplistic alternatives of the “cybernetic model” – high Stalinism or 1940s social democracy – were not seriously contemplated by the major political and theoretical currents of socialism in the late twentieth century.

Yet this crude simplification of a complex intellectual tradition serves a definite purpose within the universe of the “Third Way”. By aligning twentieth century social democracy with high Stalinism, and completely eliminating any of the alternatives to the left of the rightwing leaderships of the social democratic and labour parties, Giddens motivates the turn “beyond Left and Right”. This has to be viewed as the final act in the century long historical process of the liberalisation of social democracy. Certainly, there are conjunctural (tactical) reasons for the social democracy disguising itself as a “Third Way” – this is the classic tactic of one pole of the Left-Right distinction when the other pole becomes completely ascendant. This was the response, for instance, of the Western European Right after the defeat of fascism – the Conservatives and National Liberals hastily swept their dalliance with Nazism under the carpet and re-emerged as various Christian Democratic parties, maintaining that the new democratic consensus meant that the old political antagonisms were now superseded. The “renewal of social democracy” proposed by the theoretical and political architects of the Third Way, I contend, goes well beyond mere formal adaptation to a hostile political environment. I maintain that the content of the Third Way policy framework is “beyond the Left” in substance – the social democratic parties have become, or are becoming, liberal parties. To demonstrate this, it is necessary first of all to argue for the continued relevance of the Left-Right distinction.