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Giddens and Blair: liquidating social democracy

By Tristan Ewins - posted Tuesday, 26 March 2002

The Liquidationist Agenda

Gazing around the world today, the 'old' social democracy appears to be dying, while some claim that a 'new' social democracy is struggling to be born. All over the developed world there seems to have arisen a new paradigm: one characterised by an unprecedented narrowing of the political field, whereby what little choice offered to voters boils down to either neo-liberalism, or otherwise 'neo-liberalism with a human face'. Amidst all this upheaval no individual has so come to epitomise the political moment as has British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Indeed, Blair and prominent British sociologist, Anthony Giddens have emerged as the Siamese twins of the 'New Labour' new order, one presenting the 'face' of 'New Labour' to world, the other turning from otherwise fruitful explorations of social theory to become the prime source of intellectual legitimation for what has come to be termed as 'The Third Way'.

This 'Third Way', as theorised by Giddens and practiced by Blair, claims to steer a course half way in between traditional social democracy and neo-liberalism. Giddens has referred to this as 'the renewal of social democracy' and the 'radical centre'. The name of the first chapter of Giddens' highly influential book, 'The Third Way' says it all. Titled 'After Socialism', the implication is obvious. (Giddens, p 3) Socialism, according to Giddens, therefore, is dead, and traditional social democracy shares with it a common grave. If these traditions enjoy anything of an afterlife, Giddens sets himself the task of efficiently exorcising those troubling ghosts. Ideology, by this reckoning is also dead, not in the Marxian sense, but in the sense that capitalism has come to be considered an absolute: invisible and impervious to criticism.

The 'Third Way' programme advocated by Giddens as an alternative to these allegedly defunct traditions is at once politically 'safe' and, in many ways, populist. 'Cosmopolitanism', 'welfare modernisation', and a vague concept of 'social inclusion' (Giddens, p 69) comprise its core. What is more, despite a supposed commitment to 'double democratisation', democracy is notably absent from the economy, the unquestioned dominance of globalising capital being taken as a given which is 'not to be questioned'. In the sphere of the economy, Blair's strategy is very revealing: resembling an attempt to neutralise Thatcherism by internalising rather than negating it. 'The forward march of labour', therefore, has not recommenced. British Labour is not only on the defensive: it is in a state of ideological liquidation. In 'New Labour-speak' this is called 'claiming the Centre'. Of course, what remains unsaid in this little populist quip is that 'the Centre' is always relative. Those with real power do not have to 'claim' the Centre - they define it.


Additionally, the kind of 'reciprocity in welfare' urged by Giddens has led, ultimately, to punitive welfare. Clinton's support of a two year limit on welfare payments stands in stark contrast to his failure to secure meaningful health care reform. Such issues are adroitly evaded by Giddens, presumably out of artifice, not ignorance. According to Giddens, "the issue isn't more government or less, but recognising that governance must adjust to the new circumstances of the global age." (Giddens, p72) This is 'code' for 'downsizing' government as part of the overall global process by which the capitalist economy has been radically restructured. The relation between 'social inclusiveness' and small government, where 'small government' can no longer afford the most basic of infrastructure, let alone the support of vibrant and equitable public education and health systems, is terrain that is also conveniently untraversed.

(nb: the cost of this is evident, for instance, in the Victorian Citylink private tollway project, which cost $2b to build, but will cost motorists a staggering $4 billion before reverting to public ownership)

Although Giddens portrays his 'Third Way' as new and topical, its combination of authoritarianism and pseudo-liberalism is far from new. Far from representing 'the renewal of social democracy', the politics advocated by Giddens and his eager student, Tony Blair marks its liquidation. Stripped of its commitment to the socialised mixed economy, economic democracy, a radically redistributive welfare state and justly progressive taxation, there is nothing left to distinguish social democracy from liberalism.

Despite its flaws, however, the kind of agenda advocated by Giddens and Blair has an undoubtable appeal for those who prefer to retain a sense of social responsibility without any of the more controversial political commitments necessary to bring reality into line with rhetoric.

Third Ways - Old and New

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the term 'third way' referred usually to those paths between Bolshevism and Right social democracy. The Italian Communist Party, for instance, pioneered the 'Third Road' ('Terza Via') to socialism which envisaged a gradual cultural struggle for socialism rather than a Bolshevist insurrectionary seizure of power. Such strategies, in turn, led into the Eurocommunist movement, and the radical political economy movement of British Labour in the 70s, spearheaded by the likes of Stuart Holland. The Swedish model of socialism, epitomised by democratic wage earner funds, saturation levels of unionisation and a universalistic welfare state, can also be seen as part of this now neglected radical 'Third Road'. The old politics of the 'Third Road' concerned themselves with fundamental (ie: qualitative) social change. They concerned themselves with the democratistion of the economy and the state apparatus. They sought to counter the ever growing power of monopoly capital with selective socialisation, collective capital mobilisation and redistribution, industry plans and global solidarity. They pursued full employment, media diversification, and universal provision of education and health care. They sought reforms, backed through massive cultural and social mobilisation, which would deliver qualitative change. Exploding the traditition opposition of reform and revolution, they sought reforms of truly revolutionary dimensions.

Unfortunately, this radical challenge of the Left came to a head during the early 1980s, ending in bitter defeat. The French Socialists stalled after an original burst of success.


Swedish Prime Minister, Olaf Palme was assassinated and the radical Meidner wage earner funds were capped at 10% of the stock exchange. Meanwhile, British Labour effectively self-destructed. And while the Hawke-Keating Labor governments were happy to impose wage restraint upon unions, commitments on extending the social wage soon evaporated into thin air.

The 'death knell' of socialism was proclaimed by many with the collapse of the USSR. This theme, repeated like a mantra throughout the media, and even through ostensibly 'left' journals, led to total demoralisation and the collapse of radical alternatives.

Understanding the moment better than their opponents, Blair and his ilk cynically exploited the modern fascination with 'intellectual fashion' and what we might refer to as the 'cult of the new'. Thus 'New' Labour was born and, along with it, the ostensibly 'new' Third Way ideology. Finding eager supporters of his programme for ideological liquidation in the British media, Blair and New Labour were swept into office. Before too long already despairing leftists were treated to the spectacle of Tony Blair admitting his support for elements of the Thatcherite agenda. Into this potentially dangerous ground, however, moved Giddens, pacifying those pseudo-intellectual middle class Labour supporters with his now-famous tour-de-force, 'The Third Way - The Renewal of Social Democracy'. At once promising everything and nothing, Giddens argued a means of 'social democratic renewal' which, in reality, facilitated the liquidation of the very tradition it claimed to invigorate.

Alternatives to Liquidation

It is a sign of the utter lack of direction of the modern Left in Australia, Britain and elsewhere, that some of its leading spokespeople are now openly embracing Giddens's 'Third Way'. There is, however, an alternative. That alternative is to return to the radical principles of the original 'Third Road' movements, resurrecting the radical critique of monopoly capitalism, and reinitiating the debate on economic democracy. That alternative is to reassert the principles of universalism insofar as they apply to the social democratic welfare state, to capture and radicalise the debate on citizenship, and to posit the possibility of socialist globalisation as an alternative to globalising capital. That alternative is to pursue an intellectual renaissance within the Left, with the aim, once more, of setting the agenda rather than responding to it. That alternative is to start encouraging co-operation and exchange across the arbitrary boundaries of social movements and political parties, this with the aim of building what Gramsci called a 'counter hegemonic historic bloc': a broad social/political alliance capable of making effective cultural interventions, and winning qualitative change.

The world has changed since the Left's last great worldwide political defeat.

It will take hard work and determination to reclaim a viable alternative agenda that goes beyond ingenuous liquidationism. It will take a cultural struggle with the aim of reclaiming the Left's identity and language. It means responding to the reality of globalising capital, but without mistaking this process as 'natural', 'unstoppable' or 'without agency'. It means revising leftist theory to take account of new realities, without abandoning the radical values or content which were always at its core. The possibility of a counter-hegemonic response is real. It just remains to be seen whether the Left is up to the task.

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About the Author

Tristan Ewins has a PhD and is a freelance writer, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. He is also a long-time member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.

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