BEYOND ANTAGONISM? INVESTIGATING THE THIRD WAY

James Martin & Steve Bastow
7th November 2002

The Third Way has become a label that many on the left enjoy mocking. The sheer audacity of claiming to have moved 'beyond left and right', perhaps even beyond ideology altogether, met cries of derision in New Labour's first term. For Marxist and 'post-Marxist' intellectuals alike, newspaper commentators, as well as the Labour Party's old guard (and even some of the new), Tony Blair's adopted term for a renewed social democratic agenda seemed an incoherent, certainly incohate, jumble of earnest moralising plus semi-analytical insights culled from the back-cover blurb of sociology books on globalisation. At best, it failed to set out a full analysis of the post-Thatcherite, post-Cold War agenda for the left; at worst it followed the logic of a crude marketing campaign: say very little, very loudly. The Third Way, with all its efforts to reconcile choices that were once polarised-individual and community, market and state, rights and responsibilities, social justice and law and order, etc-was simply indecision at its most desperately poetic (see Blair, 1997, 2001; Blair and Schr÷der, 1999; Giddens, 1998). Having ditched the party's founding principles, New Labour would proceed by embracing as many as it could until it was sure where it wanted to go next. Surely, this couldn't be a political philosophy of the left?

There are good reasons for critics to deride New Labour's stab at ideological rebranding. The overly flexible, sometimes vacuous language of the Third Way-not least that of Anthony Giddens in his multiple restatements since 1998 (note in particular Giddens, 2000, 2002)-seemed to deliberately evade the kind of intellectual coherence and certainty of principle upon which the left has long prided itself. The unwholesomely rapid embrace of market philosophy and 'law and order' rhetoric jarred too much with any intuitive left-wing sentiment.

But there are bad reasons for rejecting the Third Way, too. It has been easy for the left to relish New Labour's intellectual incoherence, the absence of clear principle, and the relatively conservative (small and big c) ambitions it projects, and to roll these together as all part and parcel of social democracy's short-sighted reformism and the ease with which it betrays the poor and marginalised in society. It is a short step from these complaints to the critique made by Marxists such as Perry Anderson or Alex Callinicos that the Third Way is an ideological fašade for neo-liberalism (Anderson, 2000; Callinicos, 2001). These responses encourage us to dismiss the Third Way too easily. And-curiously, like Giddens himself-they encourage us to point to the economic and social context of the Third Way, as if its essential meaning lay exclusively in the extent to which its ideas reflected the reality of the changing world. Whilst for Giddens and Blair, the Third Way is a renewal of social democracy for an age of globalisation and information technology, for its critics it serves to disguise the imperialistic expansion of capital and the commodity-form into ever-deeper parts of the world and our lives.

What both proponents and critics miss, however, is the way the very idea of a third path itself structures our interpretation of these changing social and economic conditions. That is, the Third Way itself is bound up with defining what the objective constraints of the social world are and what it means to properly understand and respond to them. Announcing a 'third way' is itself part of the politics it seeks to promote, whatever our views of this politics might be.

Moreover, the characteristics of this third way can take a multiplicity of different forms.The appeal to a third way is a regular feature of ideological and intellectual development in European history since the late nineteenth century. From new liberals, liberal socialists, through to interwar and post-war fascists and greens, the idea of a route that cuts through the polarised dichotomies of left and right has persistently returned, though often from the intellectual and political margins, to challenge the dominant structures of ideological choice. The third way, then, is not so much a political philosophy with its own distinctive worldview, as a discourse invoked from a variety of ideological and normative positions.

Much of today's debates over New Labour's Third Way turns on questions of public policy: how can policy options be framed within the language of 'partnership' between government and the private sector, or in terms of matching 'duties' with 'rights' in family policy, and so on. But the Third Way is more than just a policy strategy. Looked at historically, we can see a number of discursive features, what we might call a 'repertoire', that gives third ways a distinctive grammar of their own, even when they differ starkly in ideological origin. Let us consider this repertoire more closely.

In the first instance, third ways have announced their arrival not as one different ideological outlook among many but as the answer to an intensifying crisis in political ideology. The third way is positioned as the route out of a proclaimed failure of traditionally antagonistic ideological programmes to offer up genuine answers to social problems. Left and right are typically figured as failed alternatives, often not as serious alternatives at all. This left/right dichotomy might be presented in terms of capitalism versus communism, liberalism versus marxism, free market liberalism versus state socialism, but their apparent distinction purportedly hides a pernicious complicity: for greens, both left and right fail to respond to the environmental crisis of industrial society; for right wing nationalists, left and right undermine the sanctity of the national community; and social liberals see the liberty of the individual being at stake in a world that has to choose between market inequality or imposed equality. However constructed, third ways have the self-appointed task of moving society beyond a political antagonism that has failed to erupt into genuine change. Not surprisingly, third ways have emerged after periods of progressive optimism have fallen into confusion and doubt, such as the intellectual crises of marxism and liberalism at the end of the nineteenth century, or the collapse of liberal political and economic institutions between the two world wars.

Given the presence of crisis, third ways have projected themselves as more than merely a technical fix; their task is a wholesale cultural and moral renewal. The crisis is conceived as a loss of moral subjectivity, a failure of the present order to penetrate the interiority of human psychology. Thus both fascists and liberal socialists of the interwar period, for example, pinned their hopes on a form of ethical transformation of individual subjects. In addition to institutional changes-indeed, as a necessary complement to them-the revolution would return them to their naturally social characteristics. Third ways have often conceived ethical renewal in terms of an integrative economic organisation that enhances the reciprocity of individuals as against the selfishness and individualism of raw capitalism. Thus fascist, liberal, and socialist third ways looked to syndicalism or 'the plan' for ideas on how to 'remoralise' the economy.

At the centre of their efforts to renew ethics, third ways typically point to that mythical embodiment of moral order: 'community'. Now, the kinds of community third ways invoke differ vastly: the community of mutually respecting individuals, the community of pure ethnically-related nationals, the community of the environmentally-conscious, etc. Beyond these differences, however, third way discourses commonly define the community as a unity of harmonised ethical subjects. Whereas left and right offer only antagonistic, and hence conflictual, visions of social order founded on competing classes or egoistic individuals, third ways project an image of a reconciled society in which differences are more or less harmonised. Harmony, of course, does not necessarily mean equality or democracy. The image of a functionally differentiated and hierarchical community is as common as a democratic and egalitarian one, depending on which third way we examine.

Finally, unafraid of change, indeed, positively embracing it, third ways have often asserted the need for an agency of some kind to bring about the new order. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the agency of change was often an inspired elite of revolutionaries or especially gifted group. Fascists, of course, played this card with notorious effect. But other third ways have often attached the birth of the new order with a distinctive group claimed to be specially placed to look beyond the present state of affairs and take up the reigns of leadership. Often this group is prized for its youth and lack of attachment to the failed ideas and programmes of left and right.

This summary of the third way's discursive repertoire might suggest an intrinsic coherence to third way ideologies. But like any ideological programmes, third ways contain contradictions and anomalies. What is particular to this discourse, however, is an intrinsic ambiguity about its claim to have moved beyond antagonism of left and right. Whilst this claim underscores the very idea of a third position, it is also the case that third ways typically move from a recognisable ideological stance. Thus we have third ways of the right, left and centre, with all the possible variations in between. Third ways can be revolutionary, elitist, democratic, founded on versions of socialism, liberalism, or nationalism. Whist they originate in certain ideological formulations, nevertheless they are projected as having transcended the narrow limitations of those ideologies. This often makes it difficult to classify them since they combine elements traditionally from different ideological programmes: nationalist third ways have combined principles of ethnic separatism and anti-monopoly-capitalist egalitarianism; some green third ways seek to reconcile an organic, often hierarchical, notion of the environmental order with a radical democratic participatory politics; socialist third ways have claimed to be both 'revolutionary' (marking a radical break with the current order, unlike reformism) and 'revisionist' (not class-centric, like Marxism), or socialist and nationalist at the same time.

The features of the repertoire and the peculiar ambiguity of third ways are both identifiable in the social democratic third way of New Labour. New Labour and its supporters identify 'social change' as the basis of a crisis in the 'dogmas' of 'Old Left' and New Right, neither of which are deemed capable of responding to the pressures of globalisation and technological advance. New Labour prides itself on responding to these changes with an array of sincerely held principles and values, a new ethical code that combines individual liberty and choice with social justice and community. At the centre of this ethical response is, of course, the notion of community, both as source and as object of ethical concern. And New Labour has sought to make the party the vehicle of a process of social and political 'modernisation', the agency of a total transformation of government and citizenry, remaking Britain a 'young country'.

But New Labour also carries with it the ambiguities from which other third ways suffer: its claim to move beyond the antagonism of left and right makes it difficult to classify. New Labour wants to reconcile principles that were once opposed, but exactly what does that make it as an ideological programme? Some (like Blair, 1996) say New Liberal, others (like Mandelson, 2002) say social democratic a lß Crossland. New Labour's promotion of a form of inclusive communitarianism has made some think it seeks to move beyond antagonism altogether: a position which often sounds fundamentally conservative (see Mouffe, 2000).

For obvious reasons, the problem of classification has taxed commentators of New Labour, with the outcome that academics and journalists alike fail to find much to applaud in its various incarnations. For critics like former deputy Labour Party leader Roy Hattersley it is simply an abandonment of the social democratic traditions of the party (Hattersley, 2001). For others, like the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, it is a 'butterfly constantly on the wing', willfully dodging classification so that we might constantly be diverted by its fleeting motion (Toynbee, 2001).

Whatever the accuracy of critics of New Labour, we should not dismiss the third way tradition so readily. Far from being the ideological 'sell-out' its detractors condemn it for, the third way is fundamentally a strategy to recast the parameters of social and political debate and practice. Whilst that effort is not of positive value in and of itself, it is nevertheless a strategy that the radical left has adopted in the past and should still take seriously. For the appeal to a third way is indicative of a sense of exhaustion with the dominant alternatives on offer. If we refuse to accept that ideological debate can shift, or worse refuse to shift it ourselves, then we remain locked within terms that limit our options and encourage us to indulge political fantasies without ever testing them in reality.

Currently, for example, the growing tide of criticism against neo-liberal restructuring both internationally and in Britain has produced a predominantly 'social democratic' response. That is, in place of PFIs, PPPs and flexible labour markets, it is often recommended that we have state regulation, public ownership in the form of nationalisation, and protected labour markets. These are laudible demands, and yet they do not extend the debate on how to govern in current circumstances. Nor do they always recognise the inadequacies of social democratic statism or the dependance of that statism on international economic and political conditions that no longer hold. The old antagonism of market versus state has returned.

Of course, it could be argued that New Labour has barely challenged the ideological parameters shifted by the Thatcher governments. Its third way might be seen not as a genuine effort to find an alternative scheme to the dichotomy of 'market versus state' but simply a shift to a preference for the market. This is not entirely true, but it is a valid point. What it could be argued to mean, however, is not that the third way is wrong, but that New Labour is not third way enough! Rather than rejecting the notion of the third way per se, we argue for the possibility of a more radical democratic conception of the third way. This might involve, for example, the promotion of intermediary forms of democratic association running public services; greater accountability of private companies to their employees, shareholders and consumers, not exclusively to the state or to its appointed agencies. Such arrangements, of course, do not mean we can ever solve once and for all the question of how and how much to fund public services. These questions are central contentions in any welfare state. Indeed, moving the state 'downwards' and 'outwards' (as associationalist third ways argue: see Hirst, 1994; Hirst and Bader, 2001) puts paid to any idea of utterly uniform public services and therefore dispenses with the statist fantasy of universality in all things. But it shifts the antagonism away from state versus market and it demands we think differently about our social and political arrangements.

A radical democratic third way would have to reoccupy the ground that third ways typically make their own: it would have to confront the question of ethics and community, and map out some notion of agency if it is genuinely believed that current ideological formations offer little hope for social and political renewal. Occupying this ground may well involve accepting principles traditionally understood to be 'from' other ideological formations: arguably no genuinely realistic programme of governance can avoid accepting market principles, degrees of social control, and selectively prioritising reforms. Finally, a radical democratic third way would need to embrace antagonisms in their multiplicity and avoid the tendency of so many other third ways of conceiving the break with the traditional forms of left and right as a break with antagonism tout court. This demands that the kind of community and ethics such a third way invokes be founded on a recognition of the ineradicability of difference and the constant potential for conflict and violence to emerge. It requires a democratic ethics and a notion of community as being in constant flux, not essentially settled and reconciled (see Mouffe, 1993, 2000).

A radical democratic politics differs fundamentally from that of New Labour, but it shares a similar concern to escape the narrow parameters of inherited ideological antagonism. We would argue that the idea of a third way demands further investigation, both as a historical phenomenon and as a clue to the kind of shift necessary to genuinely renew political institutions and practice. Whether we use the term 'third way' or not, we ought to see the parallels between its discourse and that of radical democracy.

Steve Bastow teaches politics at Kingston University.
James Martin teaches politics at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

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