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The Third Way and Its Critics

by Anthony Giddens.

The basic thrust of the Third Way as championed by Giddens is an argument to balance the undoubted energy of capitalism with the need to foster social solidarity and civic values. Giddens states that : “The third way suggests that it is possible to combine social solidarity with a dynamic economy, and this is a goal contemporary social democrats should strive for.” (1)

Giddens points out that national governments are limited by historical developments in how far they can manage economic life and provide social benefits. His ideas are taken seriously by political leaders like Blair and Clinton.

Others, however, remain distinctly unimpressed. This book has been written to answer those critics (and I must declare I’m proud to be numbered amongst them). The best of his critics come from the Left. Jeff Faux argues that : “The third way expresses the world-view of the multinational corporate sector — that the global marketplace only works effectively if government plays a minimal role.” (2)
Stuart Hall points out that it offers no strategy to achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth and makes no reference to power relations. Giddens fairly summarises their claims that his third way :

“Accepts the basic framework of neoliberalism, especially as concerns the global marketplace… the third way takes globalisation as given. Crucially, it fails to contest inequalities of income, wealth and power.” (3)

Does Giddens answer his critics? The answer I would give is a qualified yes. Whilst stressing the benefits of a market economy he recognises the tension that exists between it and “other life values”. At one point he also states that :

“There are interest groups, and groups of the powerful, that any self-respecting left-of-centre government must confront, face down or regulate.” (4)

For a moment it seems that there might be adversaries or “bad guys” — a view he in fact dismissed when describing the view of politics and economics put forward by Stuart Hall. Giddens rejects the role of the “minimal state” (5) but calls for a reinvention of it, taking its cue from business best-practice. He is doubtless right when he argues that the old model of State intervention in the economy was bureaucratic and ineffective. It’s also true that many on the Left have been blind to the limitations of the State.

Yet the balance he advocates is wrong. Alongside reform of the State we surely also need reform of companies and corporations. If we argue, as Giddens does, that we should seek to create active citizens why should they suddenly become passive in their economic life? Is one a trade-off for the other? Is it the role of the State to provide well-drilled and motivated citizens for the corporations — to maintain the social fabric on which they rely?

I would like to see such activism and energy enter our working lives too. We should reform company law to create trusts for workers and social and environmental audits. We should encourage co-operatives and small businesses. The State should get more involved in facilitating and financing research projects. We should look at new ways of investing in business ventures that do not impose high burdens of debt.

Whilst he talks of “a second wave of democratisation” and lists the use of electronic referenda, revived forms of direct democracy and citizens’ juries, his followers seem less keen. In the UK, New Labour have excluded non-parliamentary parties from policy development grants, sought to deny all candidates in the Greater London Assembly elections free postage and introduced forms of Proportional Representation which give Parties more power, rather than power to the voters. These are just a few examples.

Why not look at adopting a Swiss style system of direct democracy? Why not introduce STV proportional representation for local, national and European elections? If we are to invoke new civic values we need to think big.

The idea that people will have more faith in our civic institutions if Giddens limited measures are introduced also ignores the reality of media power. We saw in the referendum on UK membership of the European Economic Community that media coverage largely determined the vote. People vote on the basis of information presented to them. Giddens talks about structural constitutional reforms but unless we also seek to encourage a diversified and critical media the active citizens he would like to see will be in short supply.

The whole political culture in the UK is against the risk-takers he would like to see appear in the social sphere. Our academic institutions and even national and local departments have retreated into protocolism — an over-reliance on codes of conduct. Our media conducts witch hunts against anyone who says anything outside the consensus (if they are reported at all). Our libel laws are infamous internationally for their restrictions on freedom of expression yet only the rich can afford their protection. Our system encourages and reinforces the status quo instead of encouraging diverse expression, creativity and change.

Giddens has identified issues which should be of concern to us all. I do admire him for his intellect and for his willingness to debate with his critics. We need a fast-rate of change if we are to avoid social fragmentation and build a society in which all can contribute. We also need to be prepared to adopt radical measures and confront powerful vested economic interests if need be. The central question in my mind after reading this book, was just how far the debate on ‘third way’ politics can create a process of genuine change and renewal.

(1) Page 5, The Third Way and Its Critics

(2) Jeff Faux, Lost on the Third Way. Dissent 46/2 (Spring 1999): 67-76. Quoted on page 8 of The Third Way and Its Critics

(3) Jeff Faux, Lost on the Third Way. Dissent 46/2 (Spring 1999): 67-76. Quoted on page 10 of The Third Way and Its Critics

(4) Page 38, The Third Way and Its Critics

(5) Page 58, The Third Way and Its Critics

The Third Way and Its Critics
by Anthony Giddens
published by Polity Press. UK ISBN 0745624502

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