Remember the Third Way?

Would-be Political Progressives Grope for a Vision

LONDON, MARCH 16, 2002 ( Only a few years ago the “Third Way” was a prime topic for political pundits and international forums. Billed as a kind of middle ground between creaky socialism and free-market “fundamentalism,” it captured the attention of the likes of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

Today it seems to have fallen out of fashion. The media, for instance, gave scant attention to a recent gathering of political leaders who met to discuss the “Third Way.”

From Feb. 22-23, eleven heads of state and government met in Stockholm to exchange “practical experiences of progressive policies to learn from each other and create new progressive strategies on global and national issues,” in the words of the organizers. Under the current name Network for Progressive Governance, this group has held other, more publicized gatherings in New York, Florence and Berlin in past years.

The participants this time included presidents (Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, and Ricardo Lagos of Chile), prime ministers (Jean Chrétien of Canada, Tony Blair of the United Kingdom, and Lionel Jospin of France) and a chancellor, Gerhard Schröder of Germany.

The closing statement of the summit declared: “We share a commitment to use the power of government to improve peoples´ lives; to foster a fair society and a dynamic economy; and to ensure that the powerful pressures of globalization serve the needs of the many, not the few.”

The document went on to enumerate a number of principles to guide the actions of “progressive governments.” For economic policy, these included the “commitment to economic discipline and competence,” as a condition for social justice; the creation of jobs; and the reform of public services, including opening them up to private-sector participation.

In the social field, the leaders affirmed their aim to provide educational opportunity; to take a firm approach against crime; and to “govern inclusively” by providing equal opportunities for men and women.

With regard to the international sphere, the communiqué spoke of “a global perspective and a multilateral approach.” Globalization should be characterized by cultural diversity and the promotion of democracy and human rights, they affirmed. They also announced their resolution to reduce global inequalities, increase aid to poorer nations, and to support a “reformed United Nations.”

But the wind has gone out of the sails of this attempt to find a new ideology for progressives, argued the Financial Times on Feb. 23. Compared to the last time this group met, in June 2000, their numbers have dropped due to election losses in the United States, Italy and Argentina. And South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung and Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis both declined invitations.

One factor contributing to its decline is the difficulty in proposing a platform acceptable to leaders from countries with very diverse political traditions. From the start there has been tension between the Anglo-Saxon branch of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, and the Continental European leaders, particularly French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

As Anthony Giddens, one of the chief ideologues of this movement, explained in his introduction to the 2001 book “The Global Third Way Debate,” disagreements extend even as to the name. While Blair and Clinton were keen on the “Third Way,” the title never gained popularity in Europe.

The Third Way was originally conceived of as an alternative to traditional socialist concepts and to the free-market fundamentalism typified by the Reagan and Thatcher eras. The former, based on government control of the economy, has been overwhelmingly rejected, with even supposedly Marxist China embracing the market economy. As for the second way, described by Giddens as neoliberalism or market fundamentalism, this is not acceptable due to its economic instability and the inequalities it generates.

But if it is clear what the Third Way is against, it is not so easy to define what it is for. Consequently, the meetings of recent years have confined themselves to a series of generalized principles, which in practice commit leaders to very little in terms of concrete action.

A core of beliefs?

The amorphous nature of this center-left philosophy was highlighted by a notable exchange recently in the British House of Commons. During question time a Labor member of Parliament, Tony McWalter, asked Blair for “a brief characterization of the political philosophy which he espouses and which underlies his policies.”

The query seemed innocent enough, but it floored the Prime Minister. According to the Guardian on Feb. 28, the question left Blair both amazed and baffled. In the end he stammered out a reply, pointing out how the government is committed to rebuilding the health system.

The Prime Minister had a second bite at the cherry last Tuesday, when he addressed a group of academics at the London School of Economics. “Is there a core of beliefs that will sustain us?” he asked at the start of his speech. Oddly, he never seemed to answer his own question.

Blair started off with a fierce criticism of the Thatcher years and the “Tory values of elitism and selfish individualism.” But his exposition of the Labor Party position was little more than a laundry list of achievements: the strong economy, the banning of handguns, Britain´s influence in the world, etc.

As for the future, Blair talks of a “third phase of New Labor.” His description of this phase is a shopping list of initiatives — “driving forward reforms, a sustained improvement in productivity and enterprise, overhauling the criminal justice system, welfare reform that cuts even further the numbers on benefit, completing House of Lords reform, Britain taking its rightful place at the center of Europe, implementing the plan for Africa” — with nary a hazard as to what the “core of beliefs” may be.

David Davis, Conservative Party chairman, said Blair´s speech was an “elegant piece of waffle” and a “cosmetic gimmick,” reported the Telegraph on March 13. An editorial in the Financial Times the same day was more brutal. Titled “Blah blah Blair,” the leader characterized the Prime Minister´s attempts to explain his party´s philosophy as “vacuous” and “windy rhetoric.”

It would be unfair to single out Blair as the only center-left leader uncertain about his ideological underpinnings. Ad Melkert, leader of the Dutch Labor Party, published an essay March 5 in the Financial Times explaining where Europe should be headed.

The text concentrates on the themes of economic reforms and public services. Melkert rejected the “smaller government” position, but at the same time insisted on providing better services and creating “an attractive climate for private investment.”

What emerges from these statements is a ritualistic rejection of an extremist free-market ideology, combined with moderate reform proposals marked more by desires to win public support than by any clearly delineated philosophical position.

Occupying the center ground in politics is now the principal objective. It´s clear that winning power is necessary in order to bring about changes. But the Network for Progressive Governance runs the risk of reducing itself to pragmatism and a desire to maintain an attractive public image rather than establishing any core values for contemporary political philosophy.

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