The concept of a “third way”, which lies between the extremes of the left and right but is somehow qualitatively different from both, is essentially a great idea.
From Machiavelli to Marx, Hobbs to Rousseau, Smith and Ricardo to Kropotkin, history is peppered with important thinkers from both ends of the political spectrum, so what could be wrong with our taking a mix of good ideas from the left and the right and blending them together in a way that enables us to meet the challenges of our newly globalised, highly technological and ecologically threatening human society?
The third way somehow recalls to us the middle way of the Buddha, and the words moderate and inclusive spring to mind. A great idea! In practice however, unfortunately the third way has made a bit of a false start.
Based on the political strategy of “triangulation”, where one party attempts to take the middle ground by claiming their opponent’s policies as their own, the third way as defined by Bill Clinton in the USA and Tony Blair in the UK appears to have meant little more than an embrace by the centre-left political parties of the world of the neo-liberal economic agenda, with its policies of privatisation, deregulation, trade liberalisation and economic growth.
To date therefore, the third way could perhaps best be understood as such: in their efforts to counter the previous dominance of the conservatives, (especially Reagan and Bush Snr in the USA, Thatcher and Major in the UK), the centre-left made a shift to the right in an otherwise ideologically vacuous rebranding.
Surely we deserve better than this! Indeed, looking at the broader historical context of left/right politics, a genuine, much more interesting third way can be understood to exist than the one offered by Clinton and Blair.
Broadly speaking, left wing economic policies are focused on the collective. Lefties believe that the role of government is to facilitate people to co-operate and share together, to manage the commonly owned productive assets of the society and to redistribute wealth so that all people have a relatively equal standard of living.
Right wing economic policies on the other hand focus on the individual. Righties believe that government’s role is to free up individuals to pursue their own interests, to promote private as compared to common wealth, and to encourage people to look after themselves.
It is the nature of our society that it tends to swing back and forth between these archetypal opposites. If either side dominates for a time, then the other side will rise up to challenge that dominance. But there is an alternative to this. We can find a balance: this is the third way.
Over the last century or so, a major conflict between the forces of the left and right has played itself out, with our global society negatively polarised between socialist and capitalist ideologies. Following the collapse of the USSR and China’s embrace of capitalism with the end of the cold war, the advocates of right wing economic policies began to claim the moral high ground.
We saw the rise of neo-liberalism, and as mentioned above, neo-liberal policies became embraced by both centre-left and centre-right political parties around the world. Far from being the third way as Clinton and Blair claimed however, neo-liberalism actually meant a shift to the right for the already right-winged global capitalism. A more genuine third way actually lies significantly to the left of here.
What this shift to the right has meant for democratic nations of the world is that political opportunity is beginning to open up on the left-hand end of existing mainstream parties. This can be witnessed by the rise of Barack Obama, the Liberal Democrats in the UK, the left-leaning Julia Gillard in Australia, and the increasing importance of the Greens in political discussions around the world.
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