Third Ways and Worlds

On the weekend of July 11-13, London was host to the most recent conference on “Progressive Governance”–better known as the ‘third way’. The meeting gathered five hundred political leaders, diplomats and intellectuals to discuss the state of the center-left in European politics mainly. To distinguish itself, its organizers invited the international socialist’s man of the year, Brazil’s President Lula da Silva.

The ‘third way’ was forged by British sociologist, Anthony Giddens, lead thinker behind Tony Blair’s formerly recast New Labour Party. “Advocates of the third way desire a market economy without wanting the values of a market society” is how the British Prime Minister put it at the November 1999 meeting in Florence. It was a brighter time for the movement. Social democratic parties were governing in most of Western Europe and North America.

Where Giddens actually built a theoretical edifice exalting the notion, Blair’s spin doctors used it as the main marketing device to boost him to power. Its catchy bisexual-hip coated the transformed and gutted ‘Old’ Labour with the legitimacy of contemporary pertinence. During Blair’s first term, international meetings on the matter were held in Europe, with Bill Clinton, Holland’s Wim Kok and Portugual’s Antonio Guterres all attending. Even France’s Lionel Jospin got himself an invitation despite being snubbed by Blair at a photo-op for the 1997 European Union meeting. It seems that the former French Prime Minister was too leftwing for Mr. Blair’s taste.

Given the setbacks of the past two years, speakers were bound to trade hopes amidst much talk on what is possible and desirable. Denials also abound about the extent to which the current American government expects submission of the center-left when it is actually governing, and subjection when not. Its protagonists have taken the opportunity to tell the world that nothing had changed in the conception, though very much has changed in the world.

When times are down, optimism is often a virtue. Even were Blair not under attack, it’s questionable whether anyone was really listening. The fact remains that the center-left is on the retreat. European leaders today are mainly center or rightwing conservatives, with Aznar and Berlusconi clearly tugging toward the extreme. How Blair escapes being called anything but their counterpart can be thanked to the English’s legendary politeness.


Electoral defeats have seen the center-left drawing back from two directions. It has yielded to conservatism just at the moment when the right has surged forth to accomplish its interest-group policies, both domestically and internationally. Meanwhile the center-left has frantically reversed motion from its own populations. In countless countries, the establishment is confronted with populations striving for greater representation, more equitable policies and fuller governance in their own name. February 15, 2003 is not a date center-left leaders shall soon forget.

In confrontation to this recent popular push, the cynicism of the third way agenda is particularly blaring. Local and grassroots socialist leaders are quickly dismissed as ‘populists’ showing little regard for the rule of law and democracy. Yet wherever third way leaders govern in the G7, they have catered to satisfying high finance first and foremost. Throughout the 1990s, the doctrine of globalization was replete with the idiom of inevitability. Still, some conference guests, like Goren Persson from Progressive Europe, maintain that “the world has probably never been a better place to live in than it is today. The average citizen is richer, more people live in democracies, and peoples’ life chances are greater than ever before.”

If this is the third way dictum, what do we observe from the record? That reality proveS otherwise. More people are unemployed proportionately than 30 years ago. The average G7 citizen is barely as rich as then, while concentration of wealth has skyrocketed in most countries, foremost among them the US and UK. As for the self-proclaimed glories of the education system: tuition fees are up everywhere and position hiring dramatically sparse in any field. Contract work and the freelancer rule the day with their job insecurity and over-employed stress. When professional ambitions are other than being a MBA manager or systems analyst, then few are those who may comfortably assert that life chances are greater.

All this occurs in the context of today’s sacrosanct democracies. As for those most defending this social system, life expectancy has certainly risen, which in turn has made the elderly generation the consumer society’s jackpot. At the same time, this silent majority of the increasingly elderly has cast their vote for the disappearance of the welfare state. In that measure, conference participant Gøsta Esping-Andersen surprises no one when observing that “the bulk of redistribution [of welfare states] is geared towards the elderly whilst little is invested in children and young people.” As long as the stock market and 401(k) plans worked well as repositories for savings, who would or could avoid using them?

Amidst the conflicting messages that just don’t make good TV, the big secret is that the Developing World, after a decade of being preached at to adopt financial and fiscal policies of center-left “globalization” principles is tilting with tremors. Last week, the United Nations Human Development Index reminded the interested of the circumstances: poverty has risen throughout the decade explosively in its reality and in the violence it has wrought.


This is why the progressive governance conference could not miss out having Brazilian President Lula da Silva lend it a light of legitimacy. For the President, it signaled yet another true turn. He had to publish his speech in The Guardian to insist that “political realism must not be taken as a justification to abandon the dreams that lie at the foundation of the thinking of the left.” Yet the Brazilian PT has no excuse about not understanding the conformist pressure awaiting it upon reaching power. Regarding the ideological fantasies of the third way, one of the Brazilian Workers’ Party’s most illustrious philosophers and activists, Marilena Chaui had already delivered a decisive critique in 1999.

Chaui’s target was then-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and post-Seattle Northern protectionist trade policies. The third way had merely legitimated the inevitability of local politics and social issues taking second place to international trade and capital flow. Observing the third way refrain on the end of the class struggle, she hammered in how its advocates mistook the “geopolitics of the Cold War with the class division established by capitalism, inferring that just because the first has ended, the latter must come to pass”.

Chaui, moreover, uncovered the dubious history of the term. Far from being an offshoot of the ‘left’, it was “used by fascism to indicate an economic, social and political project and program that sought to be equally distant from liberalism and socialism/communism.” From its founding texts, the aims of the third way were crystal clear. Do away with the worker. Bid farewell to classes. Call for individual self-initiative and the streamlining of the State to basically rid it of individual and collective responsibility. Promote a ‘mixed’ economy through the privatization of collective wealth.

Despite the position his party held when in the opposition, Lula chose to attend the meeting. Yet even before his appearance on July 13, and then on July 14 at the London School of Economics, London’s brightest and best were trying to redeem their fallen idol, Blair, by crowning Lula as the head of an absurd derivation: the “New PT (Workers Party)”. Brazilians are famed for their sense of humor, but back home the appellation exudes the distinctive smell of a set-up.

In the 1990s, the third way sought legitimacy by outreaching to the developing world. The only representative of a so-called emerging market then was Brazil’s President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. He stood as the perfect example of the soundness of its principles as he drove his country into financial crisis. It was done perhaps naively, but given the nature of the beast, Brazil, it resulted most likely from a calculation that no matter what change could be fostered, dire consequences would follow. Follow they did: shortly after Brazil’s 2002 World Cup victory, the second economic crisis under Cardoso’s tenure tore the value of the national currency down even more dramatically than what had occurred in January 1998, at the beginning of his second term in office.

Newer progressive voices, however, have sought damage control. Bill Clinton seems to be pressuring the IMF to alter its austerity parameters. Peter Hain, the increasingly outspoken leader of the Commons, stated to BBC2 that “we’ve got to be much clearer that we really are committed to social justice and redistribution of wealth and income.” One wonders what has kept this from being the message all along.

Whatever the reason for the communication breakdown, the lack of trade union representation seemed to reinforce the point. Old labor, deemed by Hain as “economically unsuccessful” might not attract dreary old rock stars to give promotional sound bytes, but it’s the voice of the people. And it’s the voice that the third way’s legitimizing of capitalism’s tender side has done nothing but beat into exclusion. In that sense, Giddens is being facile when suggesting that “in Europe, the right has been opportunistically propelled back to government largely on the back of a wave of far-right populism.” As in France, the right returned due to the center-left’s hindering of the popular will to accomplish its broader ambitions for reform. Most third way States within the European Union have remained aristocratic institutions.

The ‘worker’ is a category that has been erased from third way-like discourses. Decades ago, Westerners were told they were a huge middle class. Nowadays, the only type of worker around is a white collar office worker: a ‘knowledge worker’. It is no small irony that in the age of State abandonment of its commitment to public education, knowledge has become such a hot commodity. Evidently, knowledge has been trickled down to information as if it were yet another cartel property.

President Lula may have no option but to confront this situation. But for the record, the third way is the European Union protectionist way itself where it hurts countries like Brazil most: agriculture and manufacturing. Lula let this clearly be known. So it’s hasty to misunderstand the nature of Lula’s political s pin–in a class of liars, the honest man is only a victim. He knows full well that no invitations would be forthcoming from the North were he to stumble like Venezuela’s Chavez. Meanwhile, the Conference and London School of Economics have elected him to be their icon.


Anthony Hall, professor at the Social Policy Department of the London School, tried to jump the gun by citing Lula’s adoption of market standards as indicative of a general movement within the PT –akin to what gave British Labour a new skin. The PT is dead, long live the New PT. If this strikes readers as the worst case of short-sighted British intellectualism, they are not the only ones. Back home, any basis for the claim has been hotly denied by Lula’s main advisors.

If it’s style that dictates trends, a buzzword is known to be short-lasting. As the Folha de Sao Paulo reported on July 6, Professor Francisco Panizza of the London School’s Department of Government, maintains that “Lula may not like it, but he has been converted into the third way’s biggest poster boy.” To Panizza’s credit, Lula has certainly demonstrated a versatility making him unique on the world’s political stage. He’s able to talk to ordinary people, as well as venture through some of Capital’s tallest doors. Yet it does not serve Panizza to don the Straussian garb when suggesting that Lula has to teach Brazilians to accept patience as change concretely bides its time.

Back in Brazil, the mood is ironic, heavy. Historical repetition of well-packaged capitalism is not what voters sought with the PT. So far there have been but tawdry signs of real gestures. In The Guardian, Lula spoke of the “courage needed to implement an ambitious reform programme”. The population awaits for the Executive to demonstrate it.

Lacking political direction and entertaining confused social and economic policies is what characterizes the European Union. Lula has too much work at home to be the European Court jester –let alone its joker in a power play against Washington. What can the third way ensure Brazil’s President when his peace and love attitude switches to policies that are fair in love as in war?

NORMAN MADARASZ, Ph.D. in French philosophy, teaches and writes on philosophy and international relations in Rio de Janeiro. He welcomes comments at