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Against the Third Way

by Alex Callinicos

published by Polity 2001, ISBN 0745626750

This work aims to examine and debunk Blair’s “third way”. Callinicos looks at Blairite claims to be renewing the Left, and central to this is a discussion of the meaning of two key concepts — equality and community.

Callinicos points out that “an emphasis on values — in particular that of community — has been a persistent feature of Blair’s leadership of the Labour Party. Early on he sought to appropriate a traditional conservative concern with social cohesion”. (p.45) As the author points out, however, community is a contested concept. The NuLab version uses a notion of community (never clearly defined) as the basis for overriding traditional and individual rights. Callinicos accuses Giddens of advocating overriding the liberties of the few in the alleged interest of the many”. (p.60) There is a strong streak of authoritarianism in NuLab’s vision of community. The emphasis on “public safety” through ever greater police powers and CCTV schemes which somehow never seem to deliver the security promised is a worry.

The other problem Blair and Giddens have is that the neo-liberal economic policies they advocate and pursue undermine the very community they claim to care so much about. This is not entirely lost on them. Giddens is quoted recognising that “nothing is more dissolving of tradition than the ‘permanent revolution’ of market forces. The dynamism of market societies undermines traditional structures of authority and fractures local communities… Moreover, it neglects the social basis of markets themselves which depend upon the very communal forms that market fundamentalism indifferently throws to the winds.” (p.67) It is a point I made in my own booklet The Third Way – an Answer to Blair (which is also available from Amazon): “Consumption is the dominant means of defining and communicating identity in our society. This has been elevated as the ultimate expression of personal choice and autonomy. The social fragmentation produced by the development of consumer Capitalism has consequences.” (p.6)

Callinicos asks a key question: “How can a political current so strongly identified with the forces of capitalism and modernity somehow attach itself to communitarian theories that define themselves in opposition to those forces?” (p.64)

The answer would seem to be that it can do so only if the contradiction is not drawn out. If in place of discussion and an active civic sphere we have shallow soundbites and spin the mass of people may not even be aware of the contradiction. Perhaps the Sultans of Swing in NuLab really believe that they can resolve contradictions simply by stating them as if they complemented and supported one another.

In tackling inequality Brown and Blair have relied on providing skills and education rather than any other measures. This is the soft and some would say ultimately illusory option. It is well recognised that economic factors inhibit educational development. Might we not just be raising expectations only for people to find there is nothing for them — having followed the recommended route — in the job marketplace. For NuLab the appeal is to appear to be addressing issues of inequality without confronting the economic forces and interests that produce them.

Saviours of Humankind

Blair has elevated his vague concept of community asserting the ‘doctrine of the international community’. He asserts that in defence of human rights, in certain circumstances national sovereignty may be overridden. Callinicos points out the hypocrisy behind the selective application of this concept, concluding that: “Far from transcending Realpolitik, contemporary humanitarian intervention is an instrument of it.” (p.95)

Masters of the Universe

“Globalisation” is a buzz word. Callinicos has a refreshingly realistic take on it. He points out that many trends which really have nothing to do with Globalisation have been ascribed to and associated with it. He criticises Giddens with his “runaway world” which seems to blame or credit it with just about every modern trend. Nonetheless he accepts that there is such a thing as “Globalisation”.

Callinicos points out that Blair is ambivalent about Globalisation, talking of a world: “where jobs come and go because of a decision in a boardroom thousands of miles away; where ties of family, locality and country seem under constant pressure or threat.” (p.16 quoting Tony Blair’s Values and the Power of Community speech to the Global Ethics Foundation, Tubingen University, 30 June 2000)

With a historical perspective, Callinicos points out that the frustration of reformist governments by the markets is not new. He is weak, however, in suggesting how political action might transform or control global capitalism. The Tobin Tax and limiting corporate influence on parties are some measures suggested in his chapter “Alternatives”.

My own view is more pessimistic. I think it would be necessary to create at minimum a Bloc of States with the same purposes and a fundamental restructuring of investment sources within each country to regain political and economic control. Small reforms, though worthy, would not be enough.

Callinicos looks to what he describes as “the anti-capitalist movement” for the eventual development and articulation of an alternative. He seems to think that the “variety of ideological currents” is a strength. Time will tell. I think he is looking in the wrong place to see where the alternative to Capitalism will spring from.

Having written these last words of criticism, I still commend his book to you. As an old Marxist, Callinicos provides two things which seem to be sadly absent from our politics in general — a historical perspective, and rigorous analysis. He has certainly taken up the gauntlet thrown down by the Blairites.


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