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On The Left - Third Way politics, a critical view

In November last year, another Scoop columnist wrote a piece on the progress of the Third Way in progressive politics around the world. The Third Way is indeed a challenge for progressive politics today, but it's not quite the saviour that some have painted out. In some important respects, the Third Way is a mere sellout to neo-liberal economic dogma. In other ways however, it brings back into socialist thought an important strand of communitarianism, which has often been sidelined. Taking a critical look at the Third Way is as important as being critical of anything else in politics - and there's precious little criticism of Third Way thinking at the moment.

One of the most insistent pieces of rhetoric associated with Third Way thinking is the reconciliation with globalisation. We are told, with monotonous repetitiveness, that globalisation is a process that is entirely beyond our control. We adjust, or we die. The implications are that government action on a whole range of fronts - economic policy, dealing with poverty, redistribution - are to be dictated by an unaccountable process that nobody can or should question. Low taxes, flexible labour markets, stable macroeconomic policy and a competitiveness drive are all essential to economic success in this brave new world of globalisation.

The problem with the view above is that it is utter rubbish. The first points to make are practical, empirical ones. While globalisation is having an undoubted effect on economies around the world, its effects are far from omnipotent. It is very rare indeed for a country to depend on trade for more than 30% of its GDP. This means, effectively, that the majority of the modern economy (most of which is services based) is not subject to this supposed icy blast of international, globalised competition. Free trade issues are an irrelevancy - free trade is used by both sides of the debate in a misleading and nonsensical way to sideline real issues (more on that in a future column).

While it is silly to underestimate the effects of globalisation on economies, to push it so far up the agenda is absurd. There are many areas where governments can engage with economic policies that either challenge globalisation directly (trade and tariff policies) or less directly with education, industry support policies and so on. Domestic taxation and expenditure policies, as long as they are reasonable, do not of themselves need to be directed by this fabled globalisation process.

The other point relevant here is the moral dimension. If globalisation is something which states are not content with, or if it has negative impacts, why should the global community not bring globalisation under control? It is clear that numerous interests are opposed to parts of the globalisation agenda - and it is far from clear precisely what benefit globalisation is bringing to the people of the world. The argument for international political action to bring the economic globalisation under control is a strong one. Socialists whose concern has always been the democratic control of economic forces see the democratisation of global economic institutions as an essential step towards making sure that the economic developments of the past 20-30 years work to everyone's benefit, not just that of the "Golden Billion".

Enough of the economic dimension, because the Third Way also loudly proclaims a new morality for politics. We are told that matching rights with responsibilities is a requirement if democratic socialism is to continue to progress. Thus we see beneficiaries in the UK being forced into work that is unsuitable for them; or solo parents being forced to work despite their children still requiring care at home. Bill Clinton's Welfare to Work initiatives in the US are part of the same trend. The Blair government faced a large rebellion of its back bench when it severely cut the income support available to invalids, on the basis of the mantra that such people needed "a hand up, not a hand out."

Orthodox democratic socialism (and what an ugly phrase that is!) has always acknowledged the responsibilities that go along with the extensive rights available to citizens in a modern welfare state. Entitlement has never been unlimited; responsibilities to pay taxes and to make good use of public resources have always been a feature of our thinking if underemphasised at times. What the Third Way seeks to do though is in some respects cloak a right wing distaste for the whole notion of income support under a mantra of "responsibilities". If someone can explain to me how taking punitive action against those least able to fend for themselves fits into a notion of a progressive society, please do get in touch. I think it's nonsense.

Others do too. The resurgence of social democracy in Europe, and even here, has left much of the Third Way to the United States and the UK. If you read the most recent statement of principles by the Socialist International (www.socialistinternational.org) of which both the British Labour Party and NZ Labour Party are members, it is far to the left of where Tony Blair stands. His attempts to remake social democracy in his image through the Socialist International have met with no success. The electoral (and more importantly economic) success in the European area of parties following policy lines that are much more traditional in their socialist colours shows that alternatives to the Third Way are not only in existence, but are politically successful as well.

So what can orthodox social democrats learn from the Third Way? Certainly that a focus on smart selling of policies at elections is very important. Labour's campaign here was an excellent example of Third Way publicity mixing with social democratic policy succeeding in electoral terms. The economic evidence remains to be seen. If the objectives of democratic socialists for freedom, justice and solidarity can be assisted by a hard sell, then I'm all for it. But selling out on principles is something else - something the Third Way denies it does. I'll leave it to you to decide who you believe.

Till next week,

Feedback to Jordan Carter: carters@ihug.co.nz

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