The Road (Not?) Taken: Anthony Giddens, the Third Way, and the Future of Social Democracy

The Road (Not?) Taken: Anthony Giddens, the Third Way, and the Future of Social Democracy

The “third way” is the subject of countless articles, op-ed columns, policy papers, international conferences, and the public pronouncements by heads of state from Bill Clinton to Gerhard Schroeder to Tony Blair. Anthony Giddens is clearly the most visible and important social theorist today to develop and defend this idea of a third way. Both his notoriety and the extraordinary hostility he is capable of inspiring are due to the specific role he has carved out for himself as a British public intellectual in the age of New Labour. For, beyond his writing, Giddens is also the founder and editor of Polity Press, an important publisher of social theory; the director of the London School of Economics; and a member of Tony Blair’s inner circle of advisers. In these roles he has worked with indefatigable energy to promote his ideas. His efforts have not gone unrewarded. He has received encomiums from the likes of Blair, Romano Prodi, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso. He has also been sharply criticized by many on the left for what they see as a capitulation to the political status quo. For these critics the so-called third way is simply neoliberalism with a human face, all dressed up in a language of “post-ideological politics” that well suits New Age, sound-bite culture.See Joanne Barkan’s clever annotation, “The Third Way/Die Neu Mitte,” Dissent (Spring 2000), pp. 51-65. They see Giddens as a rationalizer at best, an apologist at worst, for such a humanized neoliberalism.

I am skeptical of this criticism, not because I believe that the third way represents the riddle of history solved or because I believe that Giddens’s particular formulations are beyond reproach, but because I am doubtful of the supposedly more authentic left or social democratic alternatives that many of the critics take for granted. In short, while I am inclined to believe that the third way is neoliberalism with a human face, I doubt that it is simply this and, moreover, I wonder whether there is any reason to expect from contemporary politics anything more than this. I am thus wary of the harsh denunciations of Giddens for saying what many on the left privately acknowledge—that the political terrain has irremediably shifted in ways that have weakened the “historical project” of the left. But I am also wary of Giddens himself, for he seems in the name of modernization to have embraced developments that ought not to be embraced and to attribute to the new dispensation unrealistic possibilities for human advancement.

In my analysis of Giddens’s project, I want to make three basic points. First, his third way is the product not of political myopia or opportunism, but of a serious and in some ways exemplary intellectual trajectory. Second, Giddens’s argument about the third way—as distinct from various slogans and position papers produced by party ideologists and policy wonks—is a plausible account of democratic l...


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