In many European countries, politicians are trying to go "beyond left and right" to a Third Way. Most of its protagonists have a close relationship to what in Britain is called New Labor, or sometimes, the "Blair project." In fact, the Third Way debate has become the only game in town -- the only hint at new directions for Europe's politics in a confused multitude of trends and ideas.

The recent paper signed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, entitled Europe: The Third Way -- Die neue Mitte, begins boldly: "Social democrats are in government in almost all the countries of the Union. Social democracy has found new acceptance -- but only because, while retaining its traditional values, it has begun in a credible way to renew its ideas and modernize its programs. It has also found new acceptance because it stands not only for social justice but also for economic dynamism and the unleashing of creativity and innovation."

This document was published a week before the June elections to the European Parliament. Whatever their shortcomings, the European elections undermine Blair and Schroeder's assertion that "social democracy has found new acceptance." In 6 of the 15 European Union (EU) countries (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Italy, and the Netherlands), social democratic parties had 20 percent or less of the vote; in two others (France and Luxembourg), they had 22 or 23 percent. In 5 further countries (Germany, Greece, Britain, Austria, and Sweden), the social democratic vote was between 26 and 33 percent. In Spain, 35 percent voted for the democratic Socialists, and in Portugal, 43 percent. In only 4 of these countries were social democrats relatively the strongest party -- and this includes France, where the fragmentation of the right allowed Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's Socialists (themselves hardly unified) to have the best showing with just 22 percent.

Twenty years ago these parties had twice their current support in Europe. Social democrats are distinctly minority parties in most European countries. Even in Britain, Blair's deceptively large parliamentary majority is based on 43 percent of the popular vote.

The real electoral trend -- as underlined by the European elections -- is toward nontraditional parties, many of which did not exist 20 years ago. In most European countries their vote adds up to more than the social democratic vote. In truth, voters are confused and uncertain, pulled hither and yon. It is hard to discern any new crystallization of electoral views.

Nevertheless, Blair and Schroder's set of ideas may find widespread support. (It may win as much endorsement outside socialist parties as inside. Blair gets on at least as well with Spain's conservative prime minister, Jose Mar'a Aznar Lopez, as with his French socialist colleague, Jospin.) The key issue confronting all European countries today is how to create sustainable economic improvement in global markets while not sacrificing the basic cohesion of their societies or the institutions that guarantee liberty.

The terminology used in attempts to give this answer is by now familiar. We need market economies with competitive strength, which can be brought about only by loosening constraints and liberating the supply side of economics. We also need societies that include all citizens rather than disenfranchising an underclass. Useful as individual competition is in the economy, it must be tempered by solidarity in social relations.

The Blair-Schroder paper uses a phrase that is misleading, or is perhaps more than a slip of the pen when it says, "We support a market economy, not a market society." What alternative do they prefer? Do they want a command society? Moving in the direction of Singapore would reduce, if not endanger, the third element of the Third Way's program of squaring the circle: that of doing it all "in a free society."

FINDING THE WAY

Anthony Giddens, Great Britain's chief Third Way theorist, places the task of combining wealth creation and social cohesion in several contexts, including the great changes wrought by globalization, the "new dialogue" with science and technology, and the transformation of values and lifestyles. He then identifies six policy areas of the Third Way: a new politics, or "second wave of democratization," from going directly to the people; a new relationship that joins up state, market, and civil society; supply-side policies incorporating social investment, notably in education and infrastructure projects; fundamental reform of the welfare state by creating a new balance of risk and security; a new relationship to the environment evolving out of "ecological modernization"; and a strong commitment to transnational initiatives in a world of "fuzzy sovereignty."

Much can and has been said about each of these policy areas in various books and papers. Overall, the Third Way project has been described as a combination of neoliberal economics and social democratic social policy. That is not entirely fair. In some ways the key feature of this approach is implicit rather than explicit: its optimism. I call this "globalization plus" -- accepting the needs of global markets but adding key elements of social well-being. Others describe the underlying approach by reference to the word "risk." Ulrich Beck, another protagonist of the Third Way, has shown that risk is an opportunity as well as a threat to security, an invitation to entrepreneurship and initiative as well as a warning of uncertainties. The same could be argued for another favorite word of this approach, "flexibility."

Perhaps this is where the Third Way actually divides social democrats. Old Labor is threatened by risk and sees flexibility as insecurity, so it tries to hold on to the old certainties. New Labor, on the other hand, emphasizes the new opportunities of individual initiative and the ways people can enhance their well-being by coping with new challenges. Here it becomes evident why the reform of the welfare state is the key area in dispute, and why New Labor exists in Britain and Holland but not in many other countries where the parties of the old right lean more toward the neue Mitte. The alliance between Blair and Aznar is not so surprising after all.

The positive, future-oriented sense of opportunity makes the Third Way attractive to those who do not feel threatened, including the new "global class" of people who hope to benefit from changed forces of production. Perhaps it also shows that the Third Way is not likely to inspire a mass movement even if it is, in some cases, useful for winning elections. There is something slightly contrived, almost elitist about the concept, which attracts wider attention only if coupled with evangelistic methods of communication. Spin doctors are therefore essential for the Third Way, as is the strangely religious style of Blair and the brilliant presentations of Giddens and Beck. They all manage to deflect criticism, as if wearing oilskin made of a curious mixture of diffidence and dogmatism. Skeptical questions are as often answered by reference to what might or even should be as by pointing to real conditions.

The term "Third Way" shows a curious absence of historical awareness among its protagonists -- a shortcoming that characterizes the Clinton-Blair type of leadership in any case. It also shows an unfortunate need to have a unified, or at any rate uniquely labeled, ideology. For many of us, by contrast, the liberation from communism in the revolutions of 1989 means that the time of systems has passed. There are no longer even First, Second, or Third Worlds, only varieties of attempts to cope with economic, social, and political needs -- and admittedly, also varieties of success. The Third Way presupposes a more Hegelian view of the world. It forces its adherents to define themselves in relation to others rather than by their own peculiar combination of ideas; more often the others have to be invented, even caricatured for this purpose.

In an open world, there are not just two or three ways but an indefinite number. The question -- how to create wealth and social cohesion in free societies -- may be the same everywhere, since it results from largely global conditions. The answers, however, are manifold. There are many capitalisms, not just that of the Chicago school of economics; there are many democracies, not just that of Westminster. Diversity is not an optional byproduct of high culture; it is at the very heart of a world that has abandoned the need for closed, encompassing systems. Even Third Way politics is quite varied. Nobody expects Schroeder to turn Germany into another Britain. The "Rhenish" model of the Third Way will remain quite different from the "Anglo-Saxon" model, and neither will necessarily be a model for others.

In any case, it is not only cynics who have observed that the best definition of the Third Way is whatever Blair actually does. If he supports a directly elected mayor of London, stands against teenage pregnancies, or favors the privatization of railways, this must be the Third Way. Still, the niggling doubt remains why Blair and his friends need to put it all in one basket. Are the unlimited opportunities of the post-1989 world too difficult to live with? Do the Third Way leaders crave a certainty, at least in their minds, that they deny their peoples in their lives? Is everybody supposed to take risks except those at the top?

AUTHORITARIAN TEMPTATIONS

One word almost never appears -- and never in a central place -- in all these speeches and pamphlets and books about the Third Way: liberty. There is much talk about fraternity, which, indeed, is one of the movement's central themes. Equality is dispensed with as a goal and replaced by social inclusion and, more recently, justice. (I sympathize on both points.) But liberty? No doubt, Third Way protagonists would say that it is assumed and implied throughout. Consequently it makes a brief appearance in the list of "timeless" values in the introduction to the Blair-Schroeder paper: ". . . fairness and social justice, liberty and equality of opportunity, solidarity and responsibility to others." But among timely values, liberty has no place.

This is no accident. The Third Way is not about either open societies or liberty. There is, indeed, a curious authoritarian streak in it, and not just in practice. When Giddens speaks of a "second wave of democratization," he in fact means deconstructing traditional democratic institutions. Parliaments are outmoded; referenda and focus groups should take their place. Third Way reforms of the welfare state not only involve compulsory savings but, above all, the strict insistence on everyone working, including single mothers and the disabled. Where normal employment -- let alone desirable employment -- is unavailable, people have to be forced to work by the withdrawal of benefits.

The Blair-Schroeder document contains, among other things, the following curious statement: "The state should not row but steer" -- it should not provide the wherewithal but determine the direction. It will no longer pay for things but will tell people what to do. Certainly the British experience provides worrying illustrations of what this might mean.

As it stands today, there are too many authoritarian temptations. The internationalization of decisions and activities almost invariably means a loss of democracy. NATO decisions about war and peace, International Monetary Fund judgments about Russia, and even legislation by the EU Council of Ministers are not subject to democratic controls; "private" worldwide financial transactions are even less protected. Decentralization of the state rarely means a gain in democracy and liberty. Especially at the subnational level, it more often empowers militant activists rather than the people and yields to the new nationalism of self-aggrandizing leaders. And at the national level, problems and solutions alike militate against the liberal order. Among the problems, law and order stand out; among the solutions, the proliferation of agencies and quangos (quasi-autonomous nongovernmental organizations) that evade civil control. The Singapore model is in fact not very far from Third Way preferences: let those leaders up there deal with things and leave us in peace! Thus the political class becomes an unchallenged nomenklatura because when those who do not conform are silenced, nobody raises his or her voice.

This is not what practitioners of the Third Way are doing, nor are its theorists advocating this. But the curious silence about the fundamental value of a decent life -- liberty (and old, very old liberty if you wish) -- may involuntarily make this political episode one further element of a dangerous encroachment. When, in establishing the EU Commission on Wealth Creation and Social Cohesion in 1995, I insisted on adding the words "in a free society," I thought of Beveridge's Full Employment in a Free Society but also of the Singapore syndrome.

Today, the temptations of leadership and the comforts of public apathy can combine to form a perilous attack on liberty. Therefore, it is more important than even a few years ago to begin a new political project with the insistence on liberty before we turn to social inclusion and cohesion.

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  • Lord Dahrendorf is author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe and After 1989: Morals, Revolution and Civil Society. This article is adapted from his address at "Ten Years After 1989," a June 1999 conference in Vienna sponsored by the Institute for Human Sciences in cooperation with Project Syndicate.
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