26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 50

The politics of Year Zero

Robert Taylor

This week's Third Way seminar in New York was supposed to provide the belea- guered President Bill Clinton and his num- ber-one fan Tony Blair with a splendid opportunity to give idealistic substance to what their administrations claim to stand for philosophically. They could not have chosen a more 'inappropriate' moment or venue for such a gathering to discuss a political project described portentously as being 'beyond Right and Left'.

The global economy is lurching alarm- ingly into what could turn out to be the worst recession since the 1930s. It may not be quite the twilight of capitalism beloved of millenarian socialists, whatever the financier George Soros may proclaim, but there is no denying that there is enough anxiety around the world's stock markets for even the soberest spirit to worry about what may lie ahead. With such a febrile mood, the unconvincing search for a 'Third Way' to give intellectual respectability to the pragmatic, hand-to-mouth Blair/Clin- ton agenda looks like a waste of time. Most Americans are likely to think of any 'Third Way' associated with their president as having nothing to do with economics.

These two offerings indicate just how flimsy and shallow the 'Third Way' approach really is. Mr Blair's pamphlet proclaims that the Third Way

stands for a modernised social democracy, passionate in its commitment to social justice but flexible, innovative and forward looking in the means to achieve them.

He insists that its values remain those which have 'guided progressive politics for more than a century — democracy, liberty, justice, mutual obligation and internation- alism'. But Mr Blair argues that the Third Way has moved 'decisively beyond an Old Left preoccupied by state control, high tax- ation and producer interests'. Apparently it `draws its vitality from uniting the two great streams of left-of-centre thought — demo- cratic socialism and liberalism — whose divorce this century did so much to weaken progressive politics across the West'. It connects the liberal desire for the 'primacy of individual liberty in the market econo- my' with the social democratic aim of pro- moting 'social justice with the state as its main agent'. Clearly Mr Blair believes the formation of the Labour party was a big mistake. He wants to lead it back into a popular front of the Centre-Left.

His pamphlet should become a set text for the New Labour project, or what he describes as 'permanent revisionism'. It attempts to give coherence to what looks little more than an exercise in populist pragmatism without any roots or values beyond the need to exercise power. Of course, it caricatures the Labour party's past. It is as if Attlee, Wilson, Bevin and Bevan had never lived. But then Mr Blair always gives a disturbing impression that he believes little of consequence happened before he marched into No. 10 on the sunny morning of 2 May 1997.

The sheer emptiness of the Third Way is also laid bare by Anthony Giddens, direc- tor of the LSE and Mr Blair's favourite academic, the self-proclaimed champion of the 'new' politics. His essay is also depress- ingly light on facts, political thought and history. The Third Way is apparently nei- ther neo-liberalism nor 'old-style social democracy', which he believes are both dis- credited. He acknowledges that most West- ern European governments are run by Social Democrats, but he claims they have `not yet created a new and integrated polit- ical outlook'. This must come, he insists, from a Third Way which recognises the realities of globalisation, 'transformations in personal life' and in 'our relationship to nature'. He has not completely abandoned the language of the Left for Californian beach-boy babble. Apparently, 'social jus- tice and emancipatory politics remain at the core of social democracy', and 'the idea of equality is basic to the outlook of the Left'. But Giddens also asserts that collec- tivism (which he does not define, although he clearly dislikes it) has been abandoned, as the Third Way looks for a 'new relation- ship between the individual and the com- munity, a redefinition of rights and responsibilities, so there are no rights with- out responsibilities', and 'no authority with- out democracy'. Along with 'cosmopolitan pluralism, protection of the vulnerable and philosophic conservatism', these amount to Giddens's Third Way values.

Unsurprisingly, it is accompanied by a programme of sound-bites. We are to wel- come 'the democratic family, the active civil society, the social investment state, equality as inclusion, the cosmopolitan democracy'. Apparently, we need to speak of :positive welfare' which is functional for wealth creation, because welfare is 'not an economic concept but a psychic one con- cerning, as it does, well-being'. Giddens does not like the US market model. Indeed, he believes UK welfare spending should remain at European rather than US levels, although it is already far behind almost all European Union states mea- sured in gross national product per head.

But even Giddens is troubled by what the Third Way or New Labour stands for. He worries that if all it has to offer is 'media savvy, its time on the political stage will be short and its contribution to the revival of social democracy limited'. 'There must be something solid behind the hype, otherwise the public will see through the facade pret- ty quickly,' he admits.

The Third Way's most significant feature is a complete lack of any sense of the past. It is the politics of Year Zero, rootless and detached. It reads like joined-up writing on the Internet produced by arrogant, amoral young men who have read little and know less but ridicule everybody who disagrees with them as being old or out of touch.

But underneath its glossy but brittle sur- face is something much more sinister. It is an attempt to erase the collective memory of the Left. Through a spurious appeal to inclusiveness, it is seeking to replace social democracy, democratic socialism and liber- alism with a project that sounds more like the Social Darwinism of the 1890s. Gid- dens ought to look more closely at what New Labour seeks to do. It is socially authoritarian and a threat to civil liberties. It is intolerant of political dissent. It takes a punitive view of the poor and deprived. Immigrants and refugees who could once expect a humane response to their plight from the party of conscience and reform are treated like enemies of the state.

It is also remarkably uncritical of the vagaries of global capitalism. New Labour has fallen in love with the super-rich, espe- cially if they fund the Labour party. It has done next to nothing to address the enor- mous, widening gap of wealth and income that is undermining social cohesion. On the contrary, it seems only too willing to enhance the privileges of the fat cats behind the rhetoric of opportunity for all.

Both Messrs Blair and Giddens claim they believe in Social Democratic values but decked out in modern clothes. They are unlikely to convince the rest of Europe's Centre-Left. Lionel Jospin was wise in refusing a belated invitation to attend this week's seminar. Most of the European centre-left parties believe in modernising the social market economies they helped to construct in the post-war period but without abandoning their com- mitment to solidarity, equality and free- dom. To them the Third Way looks like an unconvincing marriage between US neo- liberalism and social authoritarianism. It does not resonate among slum housing estates, in closed down plants, in schools without books and hospitals short of beds. At a time of crisis for global capitalism. the Third Way provides few credible answers.

The author writes for the Financial Times.