Road to nowhere

Anthony Giddens - Where now for new Labour? - Polity Press, The Fabian Society and Policy Network, 2002, pp84, £6.99 pbk

The 'third way' is dead. Long live "new social democracy", the "new centre-left" and "liberal progressivism". This, in essence, is the message behind this slender pamphlet from the chief ideologist in the court of president Blair. But what, if anything, is "new" about Giddens's latest attempt to give the Labour's relentless rightwards trajectory some kind of legitimation, to cover the theoretical nakedness of Blairism with social democratic clothes? Not much, it has to be said. Like an old don exasperated by the dimness of the pupils he is condemned to teach, Giddens bemoans the fact that the debate which followed his book The third way: the renewal of social democracy (Polity Press 1998) led to certain "difficulties" in this country: ie, people found his exposition of what Blair, in a precious piece of New Labour speak, called "pragmatism with values" to be an incoherent, bombastic, cheap derivative of Clinton's 'New Democrat' ideas - and profoundly dishonest to boot. But that, you see, was our fault: specifically the fault of what Giddens dismissively calls the orthodox left. It was our "wilful refusal to face up to the changes the left must make to adapt to the world in which we find ourselves", a refusal caused, among other things, by our "insularity", "memory loss" and "intellectual laziness" that prevented the 'third way' gospel from getting a proper hearing (p3). The professor's latest offering, however, suffers from all the defects of its more bulky predecessor: the same flatulent sociological banalities dressed up as political theory. It reminds me of the shepherd's pie we all got during our school days - warmed up leftovers, precious little meat covered in an amalgam of recycled vegetable matter. Indigestible and deeply unsatisfying. His fundamental message remains the same: "Socialism is dead "¦ The driving force of socialism, in its many varieties, was the idea that a consciously controlled economy would be superior to market capitalism. This core notion has proved to be false "¦ to pretend or imply that there is a known alternative to the market economy is a delusion" (p11). Thatcher's 'Tina' all over again. New Labour really had "no alternative" but to embark on a path that inevitably involved "difficult trade-offs" (one of Giddens's favourite phrases to describe casting aside even the fig-leaf of old-style social democracy). Yet, just as before, Giddens demonstrates a gritty determination to hold onto the category of 'social democracy' in form, while jettisoning even its pitifully feeble reformist content. Hence, at various points in the text the Blair government is ludicrously described as "centre-left", "left-of-centre", "left" and even "leftist". Can the good professor really believe any of this? Perhaps so, but there is no disguising the fact that Giddens's 'social democracy' is essentially a cover name for the particular strain of authoritarian bourgeois liberalism that constitutes the ideological core of New Labour. Focusing on the need for "a profound rethinking of leftist doctrines", new social democracy "concentrates on the conditions necessary to achieve electoral success" (p11). Quite so. What made old Labour unelectable for so long was the fact that it was ideologically rooted in Giddens's favourite bogey - "redistribution". Winning elections ("addressing the real concerns of voters rather than opting for an impotent ideological purity" - p11) is ultimately about keeping the middle classes sweet by not taxing them too much. Derided as members of the "Groucho Marx tendency", we on the left are accused of believing that "anything that can actually be achieved in the sphere of orthodox democratic politics by definition can't be worthwhile, and therefore should be either scorned or ignored. It is a classic manoeuvre of the far left and deeply embedded in its history" (p10). Presumably the professor has not yet heard of the Socialist Alliance, out of which some of us, at least, are striving to create a genuine mass party representing the interests of the working class: ie, the vast majority of the people of Britain. But what features, exactly, differentiate "new social democracy" from its failed forebears? Here are a few of them. First, a commitment to "structural reform of public services", in which the state "collaborates with other agencies, including non-profit organisations, business and third sector groups", whatever the latter may be (p15). In practice this means a ringing endorsement of public-private partnerships and private finance initiatives. Secondly, no more "tax and spend" (redistribution again). Fiscal policies must not be seen primarily in the context of social justice, but against the wider background of stimulating investment and competitiveness - easily decoded as New Labour's 'business-friendly' ethos and espousal of entre-preneurship. Thirdly, structural reform of the welfare state, by means of reforms that "must stress responsibilities as well as rights, in order to encourage active citizenship as well as to reduce welfare dependency" (p16). The keynote is "active labour markets", like Blair's "New Deal", which means intimidating unemployed workers off the dole and sticking them in low-paid, transitory and insecure jobs in the service sector. In another passage, Giddens pays a fulsome tribute to the achievements of Margaret Thatcher both with regard to tax and labour market reforms. "There is no point pretending", he tells us, that by "reducing the top rate of income tax, lowering taxes on business, and placing more emphasis on consumption taxes" her (virulently anti-working class) policies were not part of the reason for Britain's improved economic performance in the 1980s (p21). He has little to say about the trade unions, apart from passing references to their backwardness and the power they supposedly still wield, but Giddens's endorsement of Thatcher's anti-trade union laws can be taken for granted as yet another of the Iron Lady's "achievements", which it behoves new social democracy to preserve in its own interest as well as that of the ruling class. Fourthly, new social democracy must involve a "new approach to inequality". Direct redistribution of income to the poor has "limited electoral support", so it is clearly off limits. Although "changes in the class structure have to be addressed, and problems of social exclusion attacked in a direct way", the best means of doing this is putting people to work. The slogan of the Dutch social democrats, whom Giddens holds up as a model is "work, work and work again". After all, "the best protection against poverty is holding a good job" (pp16-17). Only someone who has never experienced it could write that, "What matters about poverty isn't economic deprivation as such, but the consequences of such deprivation for individuals' autonomy" (p39). Only a well-off intellectual could imagine that when you lack the basic wherewithal to feed and clothe yourself and your family and give them a decent life worthy of human beings that your primary concern is going to be with personal autonomy. Giddens contends that where problems of poverty, inequality and social exclusion are concerned, a "meritocratic approach "¦ is inevitable" (p38). Creating "dynamic life-chances" is what new social democracy is all about, rather than laying too much stress on such mundane things as income and the availability of material goods, of which the disadvantaged cannot be expected to make much use unless their "social capability" is enhanced. But how to do this? Education gets only a fleeting mention, and then in the context of a vague, facile and disingenuous plan to "open up access to the private schools "¦ on a needs-blind basis", whereby entry would be purely on merit. Of course, there can be no question of abolishing private schools, because such a move would be "a non-starter politically" and could even run counter to European human rights legislation. "Altering their charitable status can be looked at but it might be both politically problematic and even iniquitous" (p42). So, somehow or other, in a way that is not explained (because Giddens evidently has not even thought about it), bright kids from sink estates will find themselves at Eton or Harrow, an experience that will "open up avenues of mobility", allowing "movement from bottom to top". As for the others, well, we are assured that "the state system must improve and is improving" - so that's alright then (p40). In his blueprint for Labour's second (and assumed third) term, there are times when Giddens has to engage in some concrete (if minor) criticisms of Blair's record thus far. Notwithstanding his approval of new social democracy's business-friendly bias, he raises the thorny subject of "corporate remuneration and corporate responsibility", recognising with unusual candour that, "Recent examples of company bosses who received big pay-outs in the wake of decline, or even complete collapse, of their firms are scandalous and seen to be so by the wider public. Moral suasion has little or no purchase in such circumstances" (p41). Some way must be found of bringing boardroom pay more into line with company performance and enhancing the rights of shareholders. But how? Beyond the pious platitude, there is no answer. Indeed, on the one recent case of glaring mismanagement and obscene greed familiar to all of us - the Railtrack fiasco - Giddens takes up a defensive posture. To be sure, "the privatisation of British Rail was politically motivated, hasty, ham-fisted and ill thought through" (p59 - strong words by Giddens's normal standards), but the real blame for the inadequacy of the railways in fact goes back to the chronic underinvestment and bad management that were a feature of the nationalised industry. So ultimately it is old Labour that is to blame, and any suggestion of a return to statism and Keynsianism, let alone returning some basic services to public ownership, is dismissed as "incorrect" (p60). Globalisation and its associated problems is the subject to which Giddens turns in his final chapter. In his view, it is a mistake to identify globalisation with "economic deregulation and the spread of world markets" (p70). Rather than seeing it as a concrete material phenomenon inseparable from capital's insatiable desire for the extraction of surplus value and the maximisation of profit - a position that Giddens could never adopt, for obvious reasons - he chooses to identify the "communications revolution" as constituting the core of the phenomenon, for, after all, "without it, the economic changes could not exist" (p71), as if this "revolution" were not in itself a facet of a deeper determinate. By saying that communications are the nub of the matter and that, "Every time someone switches on a computer and links up to the internet he or she is contributing to globalisation, not just responding to it", the professor tries to disguise the real nature and global capital relations (p69). On the other hand, in a classic piece of 'third way' sophistry, he earnestly points out that New Labour's ideology, while being pro-globalisation, must be "based on a rejection of neoliberalism or market fundamentalism" (p70). Giddens's concluding remarks are as vacuous as they are predictable: "Labour today stands for a new progressivism "¦ [which] stands firmly in the traditions of social democracy - it is social democracy, brought up to date and made relevant to a rapidly changing world" (p78). Where opportunism is concerned, 'twas ever thus. If you are going to lie, then make it a big one. Giddens's portrayal of the path forward for New Labour and its ideology tells us much about what the Labour Party has already become. To what extent can the Labour Party's supposed organic links with the trade union movement - and thus with the working class - be adduced as evidence that in some sense it still remains a bourgeois party of the working class, rather than a bourgeois party of the bourgeoisie? The time is undoubtedly ripe for a debate on this question and this pamphlet, like Giddens's other writings, which, for all their pseudo-sophisticated sociological guff, accurately reflect New Labour's political trajectory, must surely figure among the prosecution's exhibits. Maurice Bernal