New Times arising: The Giddens Project blogs II

In part two, the development of New Times thinking in reaction to urgent changes in the late 20th century, as those on the left struggled to respond to social upheaval, globalisation and the rise of a new politics dominated by the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Roger Douglas

"Third way politics is above all an endeavour to respond to change...New Times meant the whole leagacy of socilalist and social democratic thought would have to be recast" (1). 

I first came across the concept of New Times when I was browsing a newsstand at Piccadilly Station in London in October 1988. The words were splashed across the cover of a special issue of what was then the go-to magazine for anyone interested in politics - Marxism Today.

What I read changed the way I looked at the world.

Like many people on the left of politics, I had found the 1980s very confusing. I had grown up and benefitted from the welfare state, so I supported a strong interventionist government and an egalitarian society. But from an early age I had rebelled against the economic and social constraints of living in mid-20th century New Zealand. Throughout the 70s and 80s, I was involved in every progressive social movement available and argued in favour of change.

The confusion we all experienced can be explained with the benefit of hindsight. We were living through a time when economic, political, cultural and social liberalism were emerging as the driving forces of change. Where there had been a protected national economy, the business community was looking for a more open, globalised economy.

Where there was social conformity, the many people involved in social movements were looking for a more open, cosmopolitan society.

This drive for change created an awkward right/left coalition united by a desire to leave the mid-20th century behind (2).

In 1984 the opportunity to do just that arrived in the form of the 4th Labour government led by David Lange. But it quickly became clear that the kind of change Labour was implementing was not quite what I had expected. Instead of a mix of the traditional welfare state and the aspirations of the many social movements that helped drive Labour into power, the new government embarked on a far-reaching programme of economic and public sector reform that seemed in every way to conform to the views of right-wing politicians like Britain’s Margaret Thatcher. In Britain they had Thatcherism, in the United States they had Reagan; in New Zealand reform went under the name of Rogernomics (3).

To make matters worse, as I tried to articulate why I opposed the direction of the new government, I found myself unsure of what to say beyond criticism. Out of frustration, I co-edited a book that purported to offer a range of alternatives to the government’s reforms (4). The chapters were worthy, but no match for the policies being rolled out by Douglas & Co.

As I was an academic at the time, I also worked with colleagues to establish the New Zealand Cultural Studies Working Group (NZCSWG) and the journal Sites with the aim of exploring the many progressive voices that were seeking change. Meanwhile, everything around me that was ‘solid was melting into air’.

What I came to understand was that the protected economy and the welfare state I had grown up in did not fit the needs of the modern world. What the 4th Labour government was attempting to do was respond to changes that had been ignored for too long. There was no denying that they looked modern, radical, innovative, brimming with confidence and full of ideas. Frankly, they were exciting.

In contrast the left appeared defensive, back-ward looking, conservative, without ideas, out of touch and boring.

I was in this state of mind when I began to read the New Times edition of Marxism Today. What it told me was that unless the left came to grips with a changing world it would be relegated to the history books. That was something I did not want to see happen.

A little bit of information about Marxism Today will be useful at this point. The magazine began in 1957 as a platform for the British Communist Party. But when Martin Jacques, who had been teaching at the University of Bristol, was asked to take over the job of editor, everything changed. From 1977 through until 1991 when it closed, Marxism Today attracted the attention of academics and commentators from across the political spectrum (5).

What made Marxism Today so compelling was that it placed itself at the centre of the debate brought about the by the upheaval in British politics caused by Margaret Thatcher, the Falklands War, Ronald Reagan, conflict with unions, the collapse of European Communism and the rise of the free-market.

There was also the calibre of the people who wrote for Marxism Today. These included the Cambridge historian Eric Hobsbawm, founder of the Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies Stuart Hall; leading feminists Beatrix Campbell and Suzanne Moore; plus key policy specialists in what was to become New Labour, Geoff Mulgan and Charles Leadbeater.

At first, the new incarnation of Marxism Today focused on explaining why the right were doing so well and the left so badly. But in the late 80s, as right-wing governments continued to win elections, they turned their attention to what they saw as the urgent need to renew left-wing politics.

The shift in thinking had been inspired by two articles – the first by Eric Hobsbawm published in 1978 titled “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” arguing that with the erosion of class consciousness support for Labour was declining and would continue in a downward direction (6).

The second by Stuart Hall was titled “The Great Moving Right Show” (7). In it, Hall argued that Margaret Thatcher was not just reviving conservative politics, she was writing a new script based on anti-collectivism, market values, personal responsibility, tax cuts, individualism and welfare dependents of the nanny state. It was a script designed to respond to fundamental change.

As the importance of what Hobsbawm and Hall had to say began to sink in, attention turned to questions of how much society was changing and why. After a difficult and contentious birth, the New Times edition of Marxism Today made its appearance.

The New Times argument is:

“…that the world had to change not just incrementally, but qualitatively…and that advanced capitalist societies are increasingly characterised by diversity, differentiation and fragmentation, rather than homogeneity, standardisation and economies and organisations of scale which characterised modern mass society” (8).

Central to this shift – as you would expect from a magazine with Marx in its title – is capitalism. The economy in the world I grew up in was all about “Fordist” mass production and standardisation. What was emerging in the shadow of globalisation was:

“…a new reality of small economic units, franchising, outsourcing, self-employment, part-time work – most of it driven by companies and corporations with global reach – Post-Fordism. Computers, for example, were being built from components produced in diverse locations all over the world; iconic companies had stripped down their focus to sales, strategy and what we would now call branding, outsourcing production to an ever-changing array of third parties. As a result, economies were becoming more fragmented and unpredictable, as the bureaucratic, top-down structures that defined the first two-thirds of the 20th century were pushed aside”.

Politics and society reflected this upheaval… the decline of class politics, new conceptions of identity more complex than the hoary category of “worker”…an insurgent women’s movement had highlighted huge changes to the fabric of everyday life, the rising importance of green politics, the increasing expectation of personal autonomy – and how seemingly unstoppable forces were weakening the traditional nation state.

Union membership was declining fast…(9).

The terms Fordism and post-Fordism come from the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci. They signal a transition from mass production to ‘flexible specialisation’ – a means of production that allows firms to rapidly change what they do as consumer preferences change. This in turn drives much wider and deeper changes in society and culture.

This was change on an epoch-making scale, something it might be thought would be natural territory for a political movement that prided itself on creating the welfare state and advancing progressive causes. But that was not the case.

Instead, the left – social democratic parties specifically – gave every appearance of being blindsided.

Perhaps this should not come as such a surprise. The welfare states of the mid-20th century had been very successful. So successful that American sociologist Ralph Dahrendorf noted that “…in many respects the social democratic consensus signifies the greatest progress which history has seen so far. Never before have so many people had so many life chances” (10).

No wonder there was reluctance to let it go, particularly when it meant disappointing the core constituency of working men and their families that had benefitted from the welfare state and did not want to see their protection and security undermined.

But hanging onto the past was just one of the problems left-wing parties had to contend with. Throughout the 60s and 70s, new social movements had looked to left-wing parties to advance their cause. Many of these movements had little connection with social democratic thinking – they just saw a party of the left as the only way forward in a two-party first-past-the post electoral system. The strain of holding a wide range of sometimes competing agendas was already showing in the early 70s and it only got worse.

These complications may have been resolved if it had been possible to come up with a framework that gave some coherence to the traditional and future demands. But that did not happen. The right just got stronger and began to win elections everywhere.

It was a fact of political life in the last century, that parties aspiring to be the government had to win the middle ground – the centre. That was true in the mid-20th century when all parties had to promise to protect the economy, guarantee full employment and expand welfare. By the mid-70s, the centre was being increasingly occupied by the ideas of the marketplace. Unable to offer an alternative, to stay relevant, left-wing parties began to accommodate (some would later say, capitulate to) the new thinking.

Nowhere was that more obvious than New Zealand, where the 4th Labour government driven by Treasury, the business community and a group of MPs around the Minister of Finance Roger Douglas ushered in what Colin James called the “Quiet Revolution” (11).

We will talk more of this revolution later, but for now it is enough to know that Labour created a new centre position that included market-led reforms of the economy and the state combined with the maintenance of social policies (although, had Labour stayed in power, there is no doubt they would have eventually applied the market approach to the welfare state – this was done by the incoming National Government in 1990).

The reforming Labour administration was wildly popular during its first term but infighting and the negative consequences of its policies saw a dramatic plunge in support during its second term. In 1990 it was, in the words of former Labour Prime Minister Mike Moore, “elected to opposition” in the most brutal way possible.

There were other matters that made life difficult for the left. Social democratic and other left parties held to a belief that they should work within national boundaries – not easy to do in an age of globalisation. Protecting the economy and guaranteeing security is difficult when business and capital are moving freely around the world, out of the control of any nationally based government. Policies that shaped the outlook of the social democratic parties mid-century (I’m am thinking particularly of Keynesianism), no longer seemed to offer all the answers.

In the context of globalisation, the world order was rapidly changing. Soviet-style communism was being consigned to the dustbin of history, China and Asia was on the rise while the United States was on the decline. As the struggle for superpower status went on, a multi-polar world was emerging, and old alliances were looking increasingly out-dated.

If the roots of left politics in the 20th century could be traced to the aspirations of working-class men, as the years slipped by a proliferation of new agendas had to be attended to. Issues such as gender, race, sexuality and regionality proved difficult to respond to. And for parties committed to constant growth, the emergence of the environment and eventually climate change as the ‘issues of a new generation’ threatened the very core of what if meant to be a social democratic party.

Little wonder Anthony Giddens called for a fundamental change in the ideology and practice of social democratic parties. That is what we will turn to next.


1. Giddens, A. (2000) The Third Way and its Critics. Cambridge: Polity. pp27,28.

2. For an excellent analysis of the way in which social-cultural liberalism and economic-political liberalism dominated Western politics for the over 50 years see J. Milbank and A. Pabst (2016) The Politics of Virtue: Post-liberalism and the Human Future. London: Rowman and Littlefield.

3. “Rogernomics” was the name given to the economic reform programme associated with Minister of Finance in the 4th Labour Government, Roger Douglas. After leaving Parliament, Douglas joined the ACT Party.

4. Maharey, S. M. O’Brien (1986) Alternatives: Socialist essays for the 1980s. Massey University/Benton Ross.

5. Contributors came from every part of the spectrum and included New Zealander Bryan Gould, who rose almost to the top of the British Labour Party and then left politics to be the Vice-Chancellor of Waikato University.

6. Hobsbawm, E.

7. Hall,

8. Jacques, M. Hall, S. (1989) “Introduction”. New Times: The Changing face of politics in the 1990s. London: Lawrence and Wishart. P11.

9. Harris, J. (2015) “Marxism Today: The forgotten visionaries whose ideas could save labour” The Guardian. Tuesday, 29 Sept.

10. Dahrendorf, D. (1979) “The end of the social democratic consensus” in Life Chances, Chicago: Chicago University Press: pp108-9.

11. James, C. (1986) The Quiet Revolution: Turbulence and Transition in Contemporary New Zealand. Wellington Bridgit Williams Books.


Next: Anthony Giddens