Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Third Way and politics

Much of the discussion of Tony Blair's departure fails to place his government in the context of political history. In the 1940s politics in Europe shifted fundamentally to the left, due to the prestige of the Soviet Union and the perception that pre-1939 capitalism had been a failure. In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was another leftward shift. In both cases conservative parties anxiously sought to accommodate themselves to the leftward shift, and they tried to seek justification for this pragmatic accommodation in aspects of their core doctrines. Thus reformist British Tories blamed Whigs for laisser-faire, whilst in the early 1970s the Australian Liberals as Denis White and David Kemp (see his essay in here) complained took up concepts of positive freedom to justify support for an expansionist state in social policy. Since the mid 1970s however the centre of gravity on economic policy has shifted to the right. In Britain this shift was particularly marked, reflecting a broader shift in public opinion (discussed here) due to the disappointments of the 1970s. 1979 in Britain was a turning point, like 1980 in US (and 2007 in France?). Of course this has not meant a minimal state, public expenditures levels have remained high and contrary to some silly arguments economic policy has not converged across developed countries. Thus pragmatic politicians followed this centre to the right, in the case of British Labour the shift has been most apparent given the party's early 1980s leftism (for the obverse of the majority shift to the right in the 1970s was a minority radicalisation), electoral defeat and the general zeitgeist contributed to a general demoralisation, but the centre on other policy areas has shifted to the left and New Labour followed this, devolution and human rights legislation were seen as dangerously radical by the Labour moderates of the 1970s. Blair is particularly prone to justify pragmatic centrism by extravagant rhetoric (see his works here and here), hence his arguments that the Third Way was not a shift to the pragmatic right on economic policy. The events of the 1970s traumatised the British political class, and made the reduction of trade union power a policy that attracted consensus support, even if in Labour's case after the fact. Even Blair’s view that Thatcherism had economic achievements to its credit was anticipated by some British Marxists who saw in Thatcherism not crazed economic irrationality but an attempt to restore the conditions for capitalist accumulation. Even the extravagance of Third Way claims to represent all interests, except a few old thinkers, is shared by the revolutionary left’s implausibly broad definition of the working class.



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