Having It All

Having It All

The Blair-Schroeder third-way manifesto published in the Spring issue (“The Third Way/Die Neue Mitte, annotated by Joanne Barkan) is not a pretty document. But it does not deserve the graffiti that Joanne Barkan splattered all over it. Or rather it deserves both more and less than her spraycan has come up with. More, because her dissenting scribbles cannot in the nature of things add up to a coherent critique. Less, because she invests too much effort into deconstructing a rather ephemeral political statement that resounds with the platitudes required by official political life.

This document is not the Communist Manifesto of the third way. It was, like most documents of this kind, thrown together rather haphazardly by a working party of like-minded British and German center-left politicians just prior to the European Parliament elections of June 1999. The idea was to show their respective electorates that modernizing third wayism was the tide of the future. That said, we should not ignore the semi-programmatic statements of those who rule, and Dissent is right to open a discussion about it.

So what is Barkan’s problem with the third way in general and this document in particular? Her problem seems to be twofold: it is not Swedish enough and it does not seem to represent any advance on a 1960s-style social democracy. Her conservative premise is that there was a golden period of social democracy in Europe (and America?) from which the third way is unnecessarily deviating, seduced by the siren voices of free-market individualism. In the good old days we all knew where we stood, left was left and right was right—the social order was a pyramid, the economy was dominated by manufacturing industry with greedy bosses at the top and decent trade unionists at the bottom. This harsh social order could be improved only through high public spending financed by steeply redistributive taxation.

I am not an expert on Swedish social democracy. Its achievements seem to be considerable. But Sweden is a small, ethnically homogenous country, where a high degree of solidarity is culturally ingrained. In much larger and more heterogeneous places like Britain or America it is impossible to imagine Swedish solutions being of much value.

And what of Barkan’s nostalgia? In most parts of the developed world the left has been in political retreat for the past twenty-five years. This is partly the result of sociological and economic change: the social pyramid has become a light bulb, manufacturing has turned into services, ties of class and region have given way to a far more individualized experience of life. These hostile trends have been compounded by the left’s political failures, at least in Europe: its archaic class associations, its uncritical embrace of the state, its obsession with taking your money and spending it on an inefficient public sector, its mismanagement of the economy, its apparent hostility t...

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