Will Leggett
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Criticism and the future of the Third Way

This chapter reviews existing critical strategies towards the Third Way. It divides the various criticisms from what are broadly the neo-Marxist and the social democratic Left into those which dismiss the Third Way as a 'smokescreen'. The smokescreen approaches highlight important issues about the relationship between ideological projects and material interests. The chapter identifies and elaborates the productive critique of the Third Way. Too often third-wayers treat the dramatic social transformations they have identified as a fact of nature, rather than historical constructions that can be steered by purposeful political interventions. The desire to recreate a traditional Labour Party based on the male bread-winner model neglects what the Third Way recognizes. The chapter suggests that Third Way theory itself, particularly the earlier work of Anthony Giddens, contains the basis of a more progressive vision than that which is being pursued by current practitioners.


It is ironic that the surest indication of the durability of the Third Way is the continuing attention paid to it by its critics. This collection has provided a flavour of the range of such criticism from different disciplinary, analytical and political perspectives. But what general conclusions can be drawn from contributions such as these as to the prospects for a successful critique of the Third Way and a reconstructed project for the (Centre) Left? This concluding chapter reviews existing critical strategies towards the Third Way, as illustrated by contributions to this volume. It divides the various criticisms from what are broadly the neo-Marxist and the social democratic Left into those which dismiss the Third Way as a ‘smokescreen’, with no substance in itself, and those which recognise that if it is to be critically engaged with the Third Way has to be taken seriously.

This overview reveals that, at present, the various critical approaches expose significant weaknesses, tensions and dangers in the Third Way project. However, critics representing both these perspectives are often too quick to dismiss outright some of the claims made by the Third Way as to the changing social and political terrain on which the ‘actually existing’ Centre-Left finds itself. It is suggested here that a productive critique of the Third Way should do three related things. First, it needs to take the Third Way seriously. To dismiss the Third Way as ‘mere’ spin, or simply a smokescreen for a more traditional agenda, is to misconceive it: the Third Way is a distinctive political project that draws on different political heritages in novel ways. Second, having acknowledged that the Third Way merits serious engagement, critics must recognise and attempt to understand the new landscape against which the Third Way claims to operate. The Third Way is a response to empirical shifts that have significant implications for constructing political strategies: the changes posited by the Third Way (such as globalisation) are not simply fabricated. However, the picture the Third Way paints of the world is not the only possible one. Too often third-wayers treat the dramatic social transformations they have identified as a fact of nature, rather than historical constructions that can be steered by purposeful political interventions. Thus, the third and most important criterion for a successful critique of the Third Way is to show how what Giddens calls the ‘social revolutions of our time’1 can be taken in a more progressive direction by a revitalised politics of the Left.

Contributors to this volume begin to meet this third criterion in their reworkings of the Third Way’s understanding of the individual, community and wider social transformations. I suggest that Third Way theory itself, particularly the earlier work of Giddens, contains the basis of a more progressive vision than that which is being pursued by current practitioners. However, for this to take meaningful shape it needs to be supplemented by a re-introduction of more traditional Left concerns, the salience of which have been highlighted throughout the chapters of this collection.

Existing critical strategies

The Third Way as smokescreen

Much of the criticism in this volume reflects a general tendency to dismiss the Third Way as of no substance in its own right, or to reject the idea that it represents something meriting serious engagement on its own terms. Instead, the Third Way is seen as a distraction from, or smokescreen for, some alternative (and usually less desirable) agenda. In Britain, this has been the oppositional strategy adopted by the Conservative Party in trying to present the Third Way as masking New Labour’s unreconstructed Old Left threat. This involves high taxation, over-regulation on business and centralised State power. While there is no doubt that New Labour is vulnerable to libertarian charges of representing a ‘nanny state’, the Conservatives have thus far failed to capitalise on this opportunity; and trying to paint Blair’s New Labour with the brush of the red menace is, to say the least, unconvincing.

It is from the Left’s criticism that the idea of the Third Way as smokescreen has gained greater purchase. Much of this can be seen in the broadly Marxist tradition of viewing changing political formations and projects as masking enduring social relations. These consist in ongoing capitalist domination and exploitation, as social forms are restructured in the relentless drive towards profit maximisation. As capital seeks to colonise ever more areas of social life, governors are forced to develop corresponding political strategies that seek to maintain the ensuing social tensions. The Thatcherite neo-liberal strategy proved remarkably successful in this role over an extended period, to the extent that a number of this book’s commentators grant neo-liberalism a hegemonic status. On this view, the Third Way is simply an elaborate rhetorical device that seeks to legitimise the capitulation of the Centre-Left to the triumph of neo-liberal ideology and practice. Giddens and other advocates of the Third Way have simply reconciled themselves to neo-liberalism. The Third Way is a project that looks to ‘adapt to the existing order, seeking marginal improvements inflated by self-deceiving rhetoric’.2 Such a position is taken by David Morrison (chapter 9) when he suggests that New Labour has adopted a neo-liberal political economy which is given a ‘human face’ by communitarian rhetoric in social policy.

There are also social democratic critics who, while not speaking the Marxian language of exploitative capitalist relations, also dismiss the notion of a meaningful Third Way. Of course, social democracy can itself lay claim to being the original Third Way; between state socialism and laissez-faire capitalism. The numerous individuals and groups that remain true to the European social democratic heritage are thus understandably put out by claims for a ‘new’ Third Way. From what might be called the Old Right of the Labour Party, approaches of this sort would like to place New Labour in the long tradition of revisionist Labourism and forget talk of Third Ways. The task of a Labour government is to maintain economic growth, high levels of employment and well-funded public services, and to alleviate the inequalities of the market through modest redistribution. Those more sanguine about New Labour’s social democratic credentials, such as Stephen Driver (chapter 2), believe that it has been largely true to these goals, but are often frustrated that Third Way rhetoric refuses to be explicit about this fact and to develop a bolder social democratic narrative. As one chronicler of Labour revisionism has argued: ‘Third Way discourse has been conscientiously devised to disguise the real continuities between New Labour’s policy agenda and the traditional social democratic agenda in Britain.’3

However, social democrats who are more critical of the Third Way see it as masking not a ‘real’ social democratic agenda but, like their neo-Marxist counterparts, as a collapse before neo-liberalism. This reflects the steady encroachment of the market into all areas of social life. Thus, having examined the case of the PFI, Eric Shaw (chapter 4) concludes that, far from being a technocratic exercise of the ‘what matters is what works’ variety, the Third Way in fact represents the incorporation of key neo-liberal nostrums within Labour ideology, or what he calls the ‘operational code’ which informs policy choices. Similarly, having charted in detail the use of the term ‘community’ in Third Way discourse, Eunice Goes (chapter 6) argues that it has come to act as a means by which to abandon more traditional social democratic themes such as a commitment to reducing inequality.

Following New Labour’s second landslide election victory, that of 2001, some social democratic critics of this type have been given heart by the apparent re-emergence of taxation and a commitment to public services as a defining difference between Labour and the Conservatives. New Labour has apparently realised that to promise investment in public services without making the case for taxation to fund those services is to make an unsustainable commitment. Driver points to Labour’s increasingly ‘social democratic’ budgetary decisions. The 2002 spending review recognised that ‘stealth’ taxation was neither a long-term policy option nor sensible politics. A rise in national insurance contributions, coupled with massive investment in the NHS, was even being described by party modernisers and an excited Observer editorial as ‘the most significant restatement of the British social democratic tradition for a generation’.4 It has been the longstanding hope of many social democrats that, once these real political battle lines re-emerge, inflated claims about a Third Way will cease to be made.5

The Third Way as real, but wrong

In contrast to these ‘smokescreen’ approaches which largely dismiss the Third Way, neo-Marxist and social democratic accounts contain a strand which accepts that the Third Way represents something new and significant, reflecting wider social and economic change.

Neo-Marxist approaches of this sort concur with the smokescreen theorists that the Third Way is the product of global capitalist restructuring. However, rather than see the Third Way as a relatively passive conduit for such restructuring, it identifies a more aggressive role for Third Way politics. In this view, the Third Way not only legitimises the neo-liberal hegemony, but is a strategy for its active reinforcement, promotion and development. Furthermore, dressed up as it is in the language of the Centre-Left, the Third Way is able to extend the dominance of capital in ways that would have been off limits to traditional Conservatives and even neo-liberals. This is evidenced, for example, in the extension of private sector involvement in the public services or the charging of university tuition fees.

Paul Cammack’s polemical intervention (chapter 8) provides a forceful example of this approach. Cammack takes what might be called a strong view of neo-liberalism, arguing that it is not concerned just with leaving be markets in laissez-faire fashion but looks to the State to actively promote conditions ripe for the logic of capitalist reproduction. On this account, by accepting neo-liberalism, the Third Way seeks not to humanise capitalism but to impose its logic on all areas of social life. Cammack explains in detail how the language of social democracy has been subverted as part of this aggressive neo-liberal project.

This sense of the Third Way, as actively representing what might be called the neo-liberal moment within social democracy, is evident also in Morrison’s analysis of the function of the discourse of citizenship. Morrison argues (chapter 9) that the label ‘Third Way’ is merely a transient piece of branding. However, his analysis of citizenship discourse and the New Deal suggests that, far from being insubstantial or a smokescreen, the Third Way is a definite attempt to construct the mindsets of individuals necessary to support a new phase of capitalist development. By ostensibly empowering citizens to help themselves (‘a hand up and not a hand-out’), the strategy is one of displacing, from the level of the State to that of the individual, some of the contemporary problems of government. Morrison suggests that a key objective of New Labour’s ‘rights and responsibilities’ citizenship discourse is that citizens are to be equipped as competent members of the global information age. This is further reflected in Goes’s assessment that the Third Way selectively deploys communitarian rhetoric to justify a retrenchment for the State’s role in addressing inequality, again shifting the burden to the individual.

This view of the Third Way as an active governing strategy, the rhetoric of which is aimed at constructing specific types of political subject, is evident also in the deconstruction of Etzioni’s communitarianism offered by Simon Prideaux (chapter 7). Prideaux sets out to show how Etzioni’s version of community is influenced by his organisational theory work in the 1950s. Interestingly, whereas Morrison, and implicitly Cammack, suggest that the Third Way is a strategy aimed at constructing economic subjects appropriate to the (perceived) new global economic context, for Prideaux the communitarian strand of Third Way thought is in fact a regressive strategy. On this view, the Third Way is more appropriate to the social and economic conditions that ushered in Taylorism in the 1950s and 1960s. The criticism is that, far from representing the leading edge of social change, the present Third Way is based on outdated sociological assumptions.

There are also social democratic critics willing to recognise that the Third Way is more than a smokescreen and needs to be engaged with in its own right. Rather than wanting the Third Way dropped in favour of a traditional social democratic agenda of the type discussed above, these critics want to see Third Way modernisation as the completion of an unfinished social democratic project. They are willing to engage with the Third Way as long as it has the potential for delivering their enduring agenda of a modernising, often liberal, social democracy. Thus, Will Hutton retains his commitment to the idea of a stakeholder society, despite, as both Morrison and Goes point out, New Labour having discarded such a discourse. This envisages a more radical restructuring of British capitalism. It would involve a robust and active role for the State, particularly in terms of promoting sustainable growth beyond the short-term drive for maximal shareholder returns, and would protect the public interest through the regulation and enforcement of service agreements.6

The critics assessed

It was suggested at the outset that a successful and productive critique of the Third Way needs, first, to recognise that it has substance in its own right; second, to identify where it has responded to significant social change; and, third, show how such change may be appropriated for progressive ends. Existing critical approaches have been broadly grouped into those which tend to see the Third Way as insubstantial and as masking an alternative agenda, and those which recognise it as a project in its own right, albeit one with which they disagree. These positions cross-cut what have been identified as neo-Marxist and social democratic perspectives.

Critics who largely dismiss the Third Way as a smokescreen do touch upon important issues to which any successful reconstruction must be alert. The neo-Marxist account is the result of privileging economic relations over mere political analysis. Marxian approaches remain compelling in terms of locating the development of a set of theories and practices such as the Third Way in the context of definite dynamic relationships of economic and social power. At the same time, traditional social democrats tend to take a longer view of the Centre-Left which puts some of the more excited claims about the Third Way being ‘beyond Left and Right’ into a more sombre perspective. They ask exactly why is there such urgent need to abandon social democratic values and policy mechanisms? This poses the possibility that the Third Way mantra of ‘traditional values in a modern setting’ simply represents the jettisoning of certain values, as a matter of ideological preference on the part of current party elites.

However, on the smokescreen neo-Marxist accounts, attempts to delineate the complex normative and empirical assumptions that underpin the Third Way are rather a waste of time. The action remains at the level of global class relations and it is through understanding these that the Third Way is exposed as a sham which diverts from the real issues of power and domination. While it is important to reveal how political projects may be subservient to enduring material interests, how they are deployed to contain contradictory and potentially antagonistic social relations or even represent a coup d’état within existing parties, the cry of ‘sell-out’ is all too easily made. It is not sufficient to account for the Third Way as the result of academic theoreticians, or even Labour politicians, simply choosing to turn their backs on socialism. If a broadly materialist approach to the production of political ideas is to be true to itself, it should consider the possibility that the emergence of an entity such as the Third Way is a response to definite changes in the world within which it operates.

There are similar problems with the traditional social democratic criticism that the Third Way simply masks continuities with previous Labour governments, or that it has erred from that past and should return to its true path. This perspective, like the neo-Marxist accounts, neglects the fact that its preferred model (the post-war social democratic welfare state) was tied to a specific social formation which has been radically altered. Specifically, the institutions of the Keynesian welfare state presumed a greater degree of national economic sovereignty, a largely homogenous working class based on the male bread-winner model and a greater degree of social solidarity, primarily through collective class identities. The desire to recreate a traditional Labour Party based on this model neglects what the Third Way recognises: that processes such as economic and cultural globalisation, changes in employment and the decline of collective solidarities have radically altered the frame of reference for any political strategy. It also rests upon the spurious notion of a fixed ‘Old Labour’, a Labour that was in fact complex, diverse and contested. The Third Way has emerged as a response to a whole range of social, economic and cultural shifts, an understanding of which is of paramount importance.

The smokescreen approaches highlight important issues about the relationship between ideological projects and material interests. However, they broadly fail on all three criteria suggested for a successful critique: dismissing the Third Way itself as spin; claiming that the empirical changes posited have been exaggerated or distorted for ideological purposes; and being consequently unwilling to address how such changes may be engaged with as a new set of challenges for the Left.

Approaches that recognise the Third Way as a largely coherent body of ideas with important effects have a greater critical purchase than do those which dismiss it out of hand.

Neo-Marxists who see the Third Way as more than a smokescreen suggest that it provides the ideological repertoire for managing a whole new phase of capitalist expansion. This colonises the language and politics of social democracy, which at least used to be about containing capitalism and ameliorating its worst effects. However, those who follow this line grant a vast amount of agency to the political elites who are held to have ushered in this new justification for capitalism, almost to the point of a conspiracy theory. They tend to understate the extent to which projects such as the Third Way are a contested response to definite social changes, and once again are consequently unwilling to elaborate on how such social transformations might need addressing. Although perhaps not quite as mechanical as those theories which dismiss the Third Way outright, neo-Marxist approaches which grant substance to the Third Way are still ultimately reducible to an enduring struggle between capital and labour, with the predictable prescription that the latter must be strengthened.7

Social democrats who engage with the Third Way, but disagree with the form it is taking, show more promise. They share with the Third Way the perception that the ‘social revolutions of our time’ necessitated a shift in Centre-Left strategy, but are concerned that such a shift need not have entailed what they perceive as the abandoning of the social democratic project. However, there is still the sense here, as in more traditional social democratic accounts, that Labour needs only to return to its true path. For political economists such as Hutton and Hay, the goal appears to be a more interventionist state that can at last modernise the British economy by transforming its fundamental structural weaknesses: a lack of investment and chronic short-termism.8 For those such as David Marquand, the golden path appears to be a journey towards a form of liberal social democracy, perhaps healing the rift that has famously split Labour and the Liberals and enabled the Conservatives to dominate the twentieth century.9

However laudable these models for a revitalised social democracy are, there remains a sense of wanting to steer the Third Way towards the longstanding projects of the authors. While there is nothing illegitimate in this, it fails to appreciate the extent to which the challenges posed by new social and economic conditions have called for a rethinking of many of the assumptions of social democracy itself. Despite granting the Third Way significance in its own right, these versions of the neo-Marxist and social democratic approaches still ultimately fail to perceive the significance of the economic and social transformations that informed the development of Third Way theory. They do not address how the empirical changes identified by the Third Way, such as economic and cultural globalisation and increased individualisation, may have necessitated a revision of their own strategy, as well as that of the ruling elites.

The problem remains, then, that in a productive critique of the Third Way, both these conditions and Third Way ideas themselves need to be more fully engaged with. In what follows, those elements of the contributions to this volume that suggest a more productive critique of the Third Way are identified and elaborated. This account is presented against the stated criteria of: taking the Third Way seriously; engaging with social change; and showing where progressive political interventions might lead.

Towards a productive critique

Taking the Third Way seriously

Taking the Third Way seriously is the first task in any successful reconstruction. Some critical approaches, as has been seen, achieve this to the extent that they view the Third Way as an extended, more aggressive, neo-liberalism or a misguided attempt at reforming social democracy. However, the Third Way is clearly more complex than both these things, and the contributors to this volume have attempted, in places, to pin down exactly what is distinctive about the Third Way enterprise.

Armando Barrientos and Martin Powell (chapter 1) caution against lazy references to a homogenous Third Way by assessing tensions between its discourse, values, mechanisms and policies; illustrated by significant national variations. The value of this reminder is that it highlights where, for example, the rhetoric of the Third Way may depart significantly from what is being implemented in terms of policy, or where values that purport to be in harmony may in fact be irreconcilable. Such an examination should encourage critics to specify those areas of the Third Way, as both ideology and policy vehicle, to which they are firmly opposed and those with which they might engage. The Third Way is too complex to be uniformly endorsed or rejected.

Driver (chapter 2) tries to capture the distinctiveness and complexity of the Third Way from a more sympathetic perspective than other contributors to this collection. He agrees with critics such as Goes and Shaw that the Third Way is not particularly social democratic in the traditional sense, but argues forcefully that it is certainly not neo-liberal as authors such as Cammack suggest. Like Powell, Driver teases out what is specific about Third Way policy mixes, and goes on to show how in his view it is possible to combine elements of what are broadly social democratic and neo-liberal approaches, if not reconcile them. This poses a question, for those who dismiss the Third Way as an attempt to create an artificial consensus: could such a recombining of elements of Left and Right actually form the basis of a progressive project?

Engaging with the ‘social revolutions of our time’

If the first step to a successful critical engagement with the Third Way is to take it seriously as an ideology and governing strategy, the second is to then critically engage with the analysis of the world on which it is based. A number of contributors to this volume are clearly sceptical about Third Way claims as to dramatic social shifts such as economic and cultural globalisation, increasing individualisation and the rise of the knowledge society.

What was labelled above as the ‘smokescreen’ approach to the Third Way sees such claims as merely discursive, ideological justifications for the reconfiguration of enduring capitalist relations. Others such as Cammack, who see a more aggressive role for the Third Way, tend to regard phenomena such as globalisation as the outcome of the intended strategies and actions of elite actors. On this view, to amend or reverse such changes is simply a matter of political will, and hence the charge of betrayal levelled at the leaders and theoreticians of Centre-Left parties. Similarly, Morrison suggests that New Labour’s discursive articulation of a new type of citizenship is first and foremost a political project. This is aimed at recasting the relationship between the State and the individual, and marginalising opponents on both Left and Right. In other contributions, doubts over the extent of social change are implicit. Thus, Goes’s detailed account of New Labour’s retrenchment on social democratic values, or Shaw’s claim that it has opted for greater use of the private sector as a matter of ideological preference, again suggests that the wider structural changes which third-wayers invoke are not as important as their own ability to select various ideological guides and policy options.

There is no doubt that critics are right to challenge the fatalism that seems to underpin the Third Way’s claims about sweeping processes such as globalisation. Norman Fairclough has shown elsewhere how, in New Labour rhetoric, such processes are treated as agents in their own right rather than uneven and contested processes deeply influenced by the decisions and strategies of social actors.10 However, although it is important to demystify overblown claims that ‘there is no alternative’ to the trajectory laid out by uncontrollable social forces, the effect of those forces still needs to be kept in mind. Certainly, much of the current social and political climate was deeply fashioned by an extended neo-liberal project, but the effects of this cannot be simply wished away. This is recognised in those contributions which identify the Third Way as grappling with how to bring social democratic values and policies to bear upon this new environment.

Regardless of previous ideologically motivated political choices, the scale of many of the social changes identified by the Third Way are such that it is plausible to suppose they would have occurred whatever the ideological colour of administrations from, say, the 1970s onwards. Where political choices make a difference is in shaping the particular forms in which social transformations manifest themselves, and how they come to be understood in the public imagination. The contributors’ perspectives, on how the types of social change that inform the Third Way can be appropriated for a more progressive project, are identified below.

Reconstructing Third Way themes

Once willing to take the Third Way seriously, and engage with its analysis of social change, the third, most significant and (as ever) most difficult task for critics is to demonstrate how the existing Third Way might be moulded in a more progressive direction. A number of possible themes for such a reconstruction have been hinted at in this collection. They relate to alternative interpretations of the theoretical assumptions of the Third Way as well to as its understanding of the social transformations to which it purports to be a response. In both cases, there are signs of more progressive possibilities within existing Third Way theory itself, most notably in the earlier work of Giddens. But what critics here have shown is that developing these possibilities involves re-introducing some of the core Old Left themes which third-wayers have jettisoned or underplayed. In particular, there is a need for greater attention to the persistence of material inequality and unequal power relations in undermining the progressive vision to which Third Way theory occasionally points.

Theoretical influences

The Third Way is sometimes criticised for being merely a technocratic response to perceived social changes, without a guiding political philosophy of its own. However, the contributors to this collection have identified the distinctive recurrent themes that could be said to constitute a Third Way – ‘no rights without responsibilities’ – philosophy, grounded in a recasting of the Left’s understanding of the relationship between the community and the individual.

The Third Way’s understanding of ‘community’ has been queried in this collection primarily on the grounds that it has misappropriated the term. Sarah Hale (chapter 5) shows how key concepts deployed by communitarian philosophers diverge significantly from what is offered by the Third Way. She reveals how material redistribution plays a role in communitarianism, and points to a version of community based more on fraternity and spontaneous care than the duty-bound instrumental model offered by the Third Way. Hale’s alternative reading of community is complemented by that of Goes, who suggests that the Third Way departs significantly from the communitarian blueprint. She notes how New Labour has departed from communitarianism in its attitude to public dialogue (superficial), the family (less concerned with the traditional family than are communitarians), rights and responsibilities (creating an undeserving poor while neglecting the responsibilities of the wealthy and powerful) and use of the State (interventionist on moral culture, but not on alleviating inequality – the inverse of progressive communitarianism). Neither Goes nor Hale seeks to demonstrate crudely whether or not the Third Way is communitarian, and Hale challenges the possibility of trying to map abstract philosophy onto political projects. However, by contrasting the Third Way in practice with an ideal-type communitarian blueprint, both authors implicitly point to an alternative trajectory for the Third Way’s understanding of community. This would pay greater attention to Old Left concerns of solidarity, redistribution and unconditional rights.

A recasting of the Third Way’s understanding of the individual is attempted by Pete McCullen and Colin Harris (chapter 3), who also re-introduce a role for material redistribution. Just as Hale and Goes have compared the Third Way understanding of community with the original ideas of key thinkers, McCullen and Harris identify a distinction between the rhetoric and practice of Third Way politics and the work of Giddens himself with regard to the status of the individual. Given Giddens’s central role in the development of Third Way ideas, this represents one of the more promising routes for an immanent critique and reconstruction. Driver and Martell have pointed out that, for Giddens, individualisation consists in the choice and uncertainty that characterise a ‘detraditionalised’ society, in which individuals are increasingly freed from binding structural constraints. Alternatively, Blair and other third-wayers understand individualism as signifying a growth in egoistical behaviour, stemming from flaws in the approaches of both the Old Left and the New Right. Consequently, as a response to individualisation, the

active, reflective citizen in a radical democracy is Giddens’ model. Blair puts more emphasis . . . on the notion of duty, on moral cohesion and those institutions . . . which he believes can and should enforce good behaviour . . . In this respect, third way ideas can be divided between ‘post-traditionalists’ like Giddens and ‘social moralists’ like Blair.11

Drawing on management and organisation theory literature, McCullen and Harris point to how this notion of the post-traditional individual has elements that should be attractive to progressives. If a core goal for the Left has been creating the conditions that allow for individual autonomy as human fulfilment, then Giddens’s reflective, creative individual would seem to be true to that tradition. There are similarities here with MacIntyre’s richer version of human fulfilment per se, as pointed to in Hale’s overview, in contrast to the instrumentalism of the Third Way individual. Using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, McCullen and Harris show how, in the management literature itself, for this high-order need to be met distortions created by want of material resources need to be addressed. These have been glossed over in Giddens’s account, which has a tendency to assume that the structural conditions for such individual liberation are already in place, rather than constituting an enduring problem for a Left politics to resolve. Again, traditional Left themes have been discarded too hastily.

Alternative readings of social change

Our contributors have thus shown how there is significant room for alternative, more progressive, understandings of both community and the individual to be gleaned from Third Way thought. However, the problem remains that these alternative versions invest a great deal in the significance of political will. If only Third Way strategists chose those alternative definitions, more progressive political projects would ensue. This neglects the possibility, iterated throughout, that such is the scope and rapidity of social change that the existing Third Way really is the ‘only game in town’ as a viable response. Third-wayers themselves offer up this ‘there is no alternative’ line, with the implication that the Third Way is merely a technocratic, functional project of the sort identified here by Morrison, Prideaux and Shaw. However, alongside the alternatives to the Third Way’s theoretical understanding of the community and the individual, identified above, are different readings of its analysis of the character of the social change within which they are located, and the implications of this for politics. Interestingly, as with the example of individualisation, it is by returning to the Third Way theory of Giddens himself that some possible alternatives are to be found. In particular, Giddens’s notions of globalisation, a dialogic democracy and what he calls ‘life politics’ and ‘generative politics’ serve to map out a bolder progressive vision than the more technocratic versions of the Third Way. Again, though, this vision needs fleshing out with more traditional Left concerns if it is to be viable.

The critical concept in the Third Way’s understanding of social change is undoubtedly globalisation.12 Where New Labour sees the new global economy as something to which we must simply adapt, Giddens suggests a more active response via the establishing of global democratic institutions.13 It is true that Giddens has increasingly endorsed New Labour’s acceptance of the reality and desirability of economic globalisation, and the importance of developing human capital against a background of ‘sound money’. He suggests that ‘Economic globalisation, by and large, has been a success. The problem is how to maximise its positive consequences while limiting its less fortunate effects’.14 However, while Giddens is an advocate of the benefits of economic globalisation, he differs from New Labour in acknowledging that it was a deliberate project, constructed by concrete actors to meet particular interests. Accordingly, Giddens identifies – up to a point – the powerful interests at work in the process of globalisation and argues that they need to be counterbalanced, suggesting that

Third way politics as a matter of principle must not be complacent or collusive in the face of power. There are interest groups, and groups of the powerful, that any self-respecting left-of-centre government must confront, face down, or regulate.15

The impetus for this checking of powerful interests resides in Giddens’s account of the ‘social revolutions of our time’, which leads from globalisation to the new epoch he refers to as reflexive modernity.16 Politically, this is characterised by a communicative ideal of ‘dialogic democracy’. This is a space in which rational decisions can be made on an issue-to-issue basis, free from traditional, given authority and totalising ideological claims. Giddens sees this as ‘a way of creating a public arena in which controversial issues – in principle – can be resolved, or at least handled, through dialogue rather than through pre-established forms of power’.17 It is in this space that the boundaries of what, for example, should be preserved from colonisation by the imperatives of economic globalisation can be negotiated. To that end, Giddens and others such as David Held are strong advocates of extending democratic processes so as to create global dialogic spaces.18

In terms of the political agency that might facilitate this dialogic democracy, Giddens introduces ideas of what he calls ‘life politics’ and ‘generative politics’. Generative politics provides the institutional framework that both draws upon and encourages individualisation and the development of an ‘active trust’, based on reason rather than on embedded forms of power. Giddens sees generative politics as creating the conditions for desirable outcomes to be reached through negotiated reason, rather than being imposed top–down as in hierarchical notions of politics. He envisages active trust being built and sustained at all levels of society. Autonomy is to be encouraged through the provision of sufficient material resources and the decentralisation of political power.19 Within this framework, Giddens depicts the flourishing of ‘life politics’, based around the continually fluctuating issues arising from the active construction of individual identities. He contrasts this with the hitherto predominant ‘emancipatory politics’, which was primarily concerned with freedom from arbitrary power and material deprivation.20

It is thus possible to discern in the earlier work of Giddens a number of more progressive themes for the Third Way than those envisaged by its present practitioners. The ideal type Giddens sketches, based on what he suggests are implicit trends, is of a dialogic democracy of active, reflective citizens able to bring their life-political concerns from outside the traditional top–down statist model of politics. Entrenched interests, including spurious claims to expertise, will no longer be able to carry the day without being able to justify their actions on the basis of dialogue.

There is plenty in Giddens’s broad-brush vision that should appeal to the Left. However, there is a tendency in Giddens’s work, illustrated by his later elaboration of the Third Way, to imply that the conditions for this new polity are already in place, or at least that they are being ushered in by benevolent social forces which Third Way governments need only manage competently. This volume has pointed to where, on the contrary, a revitalised Left politics is vital in overcoming the barriers that remain to the realisation of Giddens’ vision. Material inequality, asymmetrical power relations and the continuing tendency of capital to undermine the kinds of dialogic spaces Giddens envisages present formidable obstacles. They cannot yet, unfortunately, be consigned to a past era of emancipatory politics.


From its inception, the Third Way has been dismissed and ridiculed, occasionally with good reason. But it is now clear that whatever happens to the expression itself, the Third Way identifies the ongoing challenges that the Left must adapt to and provides the closest thing to a governing philosophy for Centre-Left administrations. For this reason, it has been suggested here that a critical engagement must take the Third Way seriously, understand the problems it identifies yet show how they can be converted into progressive outcomes. The various contributions to this volume, often reflecting the wider state of criticism, have both neglected and fulfilled these criteria at different moments. To be sure, outright rejection is always the easiest critical strategy, and that is reflected where the Third Way is dismissed as mere spin or a sell-out in what was labelled the ‘smokescreen’ tendency in criticism. Others are more willing to give the Third Way credence, but fail to take on board the extent to which it reflects real and dramatic social transformations that do call into question aspects of traditional Left strategies.

Critics, here and elsewhere, are most compelling when they have recognised the Third Way as an attempt to address these challenges, but endeavoured to show that there are many possible responses and how these can appeal to progressives. This has included contrasting the Third Way’s selective use of ‘community’ with the richer understanding of that term offered by progressive communitarians, and suggesting a model of the reflective, active individual in a genuinely post-traditional order. This is in contrast to the atomised individual implicit in the commodified image of society that informs the present Third Way. It has been stressed that realising these alternative visions means re-introducing traditional Left concerns of addressing the material inequality and unequal power relations that distort the possibility of a dialogic democracy.

What stands out from all the contributions is that this process, of reconstructing the Third Way along more progressive lines, involves first and foremost its repoliticisation. A discourse which claims to have obliterated Left and Right when, as this volume shows, the terms still have real purchase will always be exposed by the irreducible nature of political conflict. By repoliticising the Third Way, its advocates can become explicit about their objectives, friends and enemies. This collection illustrates that the multitude of Left critics will never all be satisfied – that’s politics. But recognising that in the face of revolutionary social transformations, political interventions matter and can be more or less progressive, would be a start.


1 Giddens 1994: chapter 3.
2 Callinicos 1999: 102.
3 Larkin 2000: i.
4 Editorial, Observer, 21 April 2002.
5 Keegan 2000.
6 Hutton 1997.
7 E.g. Callinicos 1999.
8 Hutton 1997; Hay 1999.
9 Marquand 1999.
10 Fairclough 2000.
11 Driver and Martell 2000: 157.
12 See e.g. Dearlove 2000; Wickham-Jones 2000.
13 Driver and Martell 2000.
14 Giddens 2000: 124.
15 Ibid., pp. 37–8.
16 For a detailed discussion of the relationship between Giddens’s theory of reflexive modernity and the Third Way, see Mouzelis 2001 and the response by Leggett 2002.
17 Giddens 1994: 16.
18 See e.g. Held 1998.
19 Giddens 1994: 93.
20 Ibid.


Callinicos, A. (1999) ‘Social theory put to the test of politics: Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens’, New Left Review (I), 236, July–August.

Dearlove, J. (2000) ‘Globalisation and the study of British politics’, Politics (PSA), 20(2).

Driver, S. and Martell, L. (1998) New Labour: Politics After Thatcherism, Oxford, Polity Press.

Driver, S. and Martell, L. (2000) ‘Left, Right and the third way’, Policy and Politics, 28(2).

Fairclough, N. (2000) New Labour, New Language?, London, Routledge.

Giddens, A. (1994) Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics, Oxford, Polity Press.

Giddens, A. (1998) The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy, Oxford, Polity Press.

Giddens, A. (2000) The Third Way and its Critics, Oxford, Polity Press.

Hay, C. (1999) The Political Economy of New Labour: Labouring Under False Pretences? Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Held, D. (1998) ‘The timid tendency’, Marxism Today (special issue), November–December.

Hutton, W. (1997) The State to Come, London: Vintage.

Keegan, W. (2000) ‘An end to public squalor’, New Statesman, 24 July.

Larkin, P. (2000) ‘Blair’s third way: its emergence and prospects’, Paper presented at the workshop ‘Competing Models of European Social Democracy’, University of Sussex European Institute, Brighton, 26 May.

Leggett, W. (2002) ‘Reflexive modernization and reconstructing the third way: a response to Mouzelis’, Sociological Review, 50(3).

Marquand, D. (1999) The Progressive Dilemma: From Lloyd George to Blair, 2nd edn, London: Phoenix Giant.

Mouzelis, N. (2001) ‘Reflexive modernization and the third way: the impasses of Giddens’s social-democratic politics’, Sociological Review, 49(3).

Wickham-Jones, M. (2000) ‘New Labour in the global economy: partisan politics and the democratic model’, British Journal of Politics & International Relations, 2(1).

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The Third Way and beyond

Criticisms, futures, alternatives


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