Across the globe, politics seems to be a battle between strongmen, populists and those eager to make socialism great again. But there is another way. A third way. And it's time not merely to resurrect ideas from the 1990s, but to reimagine them
The Giddens Project has its origins in my association with 'Third Way' politics during my time as a member of the New Zealand parliament between 1990 and 2008. It might be reasonably thought that the Third Way has long since been discredited, along with its main advocates former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former United States President Bill Clinton and is, therefore, not worth renewed attention (1). But I don't think that is the case.
Blair and Clinton were not the authors of Third Way politics – that distinction belongs to British sociologist Anthony Giddens. He wrote this in 2000:
“Third Way politics…isn’t an ephemeral set of ideas…it will be at the core of political dialogue in the years to come…Third Way politics will be the point of view with which others have to engage” (2).
When, just two years earlier in 1998, Giddens had published a slim volume titled The Third Way (3) outlining a new form of social democratic politics, he was attempting to respond to fundamental social, economic and technological changes – summarised by Stuart Hall as “New Times”(4). In Giddens’ view, social democratic parties were not providing an adequate response to these changes and risked becoming irrelevant. He thought that social democracy had reached its peak in the 1970s with the welfare state and had been in decline ever since. On the ascendant was the market focused politics of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan; he might have included Roger Douglas if he had known who he was.
Giddens urged social democrats to realise the world was changing in ways that demanded a fundamental shift in both ideology and practice. Many tried. But Blair, Clinton and other leaders of centre-left political parties who came to identify themselves as Third Way politicians, did not revise their views as thoroughly as Giddens was demanding (5). Rather, they succumbed to the hard reality of government and were more old-fashioned than they liked to think. If I am right, Blair and Clinton are not such a good guide to Third Way politics as it was intended by Giddens.
Perhaps, then, a fresh look at what Giddens had in mind is worthwhile. Especially when social democracy is in a worse position today than back in the mid-1990s.
In many countries once powerful social democratic parties are in retreat or have disappeared. There are notable exceptions (New Zealand is one), but it would be fair to say that even the exceptions have struggled to maintain support in recent decades. Also, despite being in government, social democrats have yet to articulate the kind of clear, comprehensive and compelling position that Giddens was looking for.
Exploring such a position is what the Giddens Project is all about. It is a ‘project’ in the sense that ideas are being worked through rather than being presented as the final word. The focus is on engaging with what Giddens had to say in order to build a framework within which specific policy can be advanced. It must be acknowledging that the world has continued to change since he published The Third Way. He was, perhaps, too accepting of the dominance of the market and this led him to say too little about the economy. All of this means I am not attempting to just rerun his ideas. Rather, the aim is to build on them in order to make better sense of the world and, armed with that knowledge, better align centre-left thinking with that new world.
I have emphasised the centre-left here to distinguish what I have to say from democratic socialism as it has emerged in the United States and Britain in response to the rise of right-wing populism. There will be more on this later, but for now let me say that as attractive as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn can sound (particularly to a generation who never experienced the welfare state), both men seem to be clinging to old shibboleths.
Sanders and Corbyn talk in the language of class politics and appear to believe that once elected they will use the state to address every problem. This is a belief “that one party, in one nation, largely through the state can create a settlement that favours labour over capital” (6). It is as if the world had not changed much at all. A kind of ‘make socialism great again’ strategy.
I am also of the view that opposing right-wing populism with a left-wing version is a mistake. This is the strategy advocated by such political theorists as Chantal Mouffe (of whom I am a long-time and avid reader) (7). But even Mouffe has begun to reconsider her approach (8). In a functioning democracy people with different views might be expected to treat each other with a modicum of respect. But as Mouffe has come to wonder, what, as is the case now in Britain and the United States, if there is no functioning democracy because key institutions are no longer functioning? Then it will be warring camps advancing their own views aided and abetted by the isolating ‘bubbles’ created by social media.
What Giddens argued for was politics organised around a centre ground. A new centre ground. One that is created by progressive social forces seeking to define a future in the context of change. We have seen such centres before, for better or worse depending on your political position, during the time of the welfare state and neoliberalism.
There was debate, there was profound disagreement – but to be in politics meant arguing about a broadly agreed agenda. There was still room for new politics to form on the margins – but the margins did not dominate. It is in this direction that what I have to say will head because I am convinced of the need to build common ground relevant to the 21st century.
Talk of a new centre may not sound very ‘transformational’. This is not the case. What I am rejecting is what appears to me as the false hope of simplistic answers to complex problems that is the stock in trade of populists. They promise ‘things will be fixed’ if only those that oppose them would get out of the way. This is the attraction of ‘strongman’ politics we see winning the support of many voters around the word.
We have been down this road before and the results have not been good.
But rejecting simplicity does not mean being timid. We still must confront climate change, inequality, poverty, crime, globalisation, the role of the state, poor housing, new technology, health care, the failings of capitalism and the many other challenges that are testing politics in the 21st century. Answers are urgently required so it is not possible to be anything other than transformational. In fact, it may be, as Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg argues, time to “panic”. Key to panicking effectively, will be a clear understanding of what is happening to our societies and a comprehensive political response that a majority can agree on.
We are living through a period of fundamental change that will require us to live differently in the future. We cannot respond to one or a few of the issues we face – we need a response that addresses them all because they are related. That is what Giddens was interested in doing.
A final point; it must be acknowledged that I am writing in the context of a country that is seen as something of a beacon of hope in an otherwise divided world.
New Zealand has a government that talks of the inability of free-market capitalism to address social issues, the need for transformation across many policy domains and a new generation of leadership. In Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand has a Prime Minister who articulates a view of the world based on empathy, understanding, community, togetherness and belonging. Her obvious sincerity has won Ardern a worldwide audience who are keen to hear what she has to say about how a progressive centre-left government might lead on all fronts in the modern world.
In short, New Zealand is a good place to be thinking about the future of politics.
1. More recently, critics of French President Emmanuel Macron, former United States President Barak Obama and Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau have labelled them as Third Way advocates. It is not clear, however, any of these politicians claim to be Third Way.
2. Giddens, A. (2000) The Third Way and its Critics. Polity. Cambridge. Pvii.
3. Giddens, A. (1998) The Third Way. Polity. Cambridge.
4. Hall, S. and M. Jacques (1989) New Times London: Lawrence and Wishart.
5. Before anyone else feels the need to say so, I include myself in this criticism.
6. Lawson, N. (2016). ‘Social Democracy without social democrats: how can the left recover?’ New Statesman. 12 May.
7. Mouffe, C. (2018) For a Left Populism. Verso. London.
8. Andy Beckett (2018) ‘The death of consensus: how conflict came back to politics’ The Guardian. 20th September, 2018.
Next blog. New Times