Searching for another Third Way

«The big idea is that there is no big idea,» proclaimed The Economist in December 1998, when political debate over the Third Way was still in its heyday. These days, center-left leaders in Europe seem to have somewhat wandered from the once-celebrated Third Way rhetoric per se, but intellectual discourse over the «big idea» remains vigorous, at least outside Greece. Nicos Mouzelis’s latest book, «For an Alternative Third Way: Reflexive Modernization and the Impasses of Giddens’s Political Thought» (Themelio, 2001), is an important contribution to the debate about the renewal of social democracy, offering a resourceful critique of the theory which was first systematically set out by Anthony Giddens, director of the London School of Economics (LSE) and one of the hip sociologists of our time. In his book, Mouzelis, also a professor of sociology at the LSE, argues that it is possible to formulate a Third Way that is different from the ad hoc mixture of neo-liberal and old social-democratic ideology found in the Blair/Schroeder type of public language, and also free from Anthony Giddens’s theoretical flaws. In his preface, Mouzelis argues that Giddens’s work has unfortunately not come under serious critical examination by intellectuals in Greece because it has been falsely interpreted as an apology for Blairism, the policies of the new Labor Party. There is an additional reason for this, which Mouzelis has referred to in earlier writings. Those on the traditional left hold tenaciously to their intellectual commitments, which can seldom be dislodged by logic or contrary evidence. Any attempt to renew social democracy is viewed with disdain and suspicion and is denounced as «betrayal» or as «reformist» discourse which is at best superficial and, at worst, aims to perpetuate the working classes’ false consciousness (as Marx would have it) and undermine their revolutionary potential. The book begins with a clear presentation of the Third Way as it has been put forward by Giddens. Giddens’s theory is based on a three-stage ideal typical model. Society moves from a traditional to an early modern phase where traditional certainties are replaced by collectivist ones (such as national conscience, collective class organization). In the late-modern phase, however, under the influence of globalization «both traditional and collectivist certainties decline or disappear» (process of detraditionalization) allowing room for «empty spaces.» In these spaces, which are deprived of traditional or collectivist guidance, «the individual has to be highly reflexive, and must construct his/her own ‘biography’.» In this context of the new individualism, «the values, concepts and dilemmas of early or simple modernization are becoming increasingly irrelevant.» And so is the right-left divide, which is opening the path for Giddens’s Third Way alternative. This is where Mouzelis’s criticism begins, as he believes that in the current period of late modernity the left-right divide is no less relevant than in previous phases of modernity. In contrast to Giddens, who deems that a number of themes now escape the old left-right divide (questions of identity, ecology etc.), thus marking a shift from emancipatory to «life politics,» Mouzelis argues that these issues are «not beyond but part and parcel of emancipatory politics.» The old socialist and communist parties may be in decline, but the downtrodden and impoverished masses across the world remain. What is needed, therefore, is their emancipation. The old struggles for political and socioeconomic emancipation have to be coupled with a struggle for cultural emancipation, that is a fight against «manipulative socialization» (what Bourdieu calls «symbolic violence»). Mouzelis places particular emphasis on the issue of cultural emancipation and hence inevitably raises what has recently become a very acute issue, that is the regime of media control and particularly of television, which he sees as the main socializing agency. For Mouzelis the problem is one of democratizing media control, devising forms of operation which are «based neither on the profit nor on the party/state logic.» The spread of cultural rights downward presupposes passing the control of cultural technologies from economic barons and unaccountable individuals to those who actually produce or transmit culture (artists, intellectuals, teachers and so on). It is worth noting that Mouzelis admits that his ideas seem highly unrealizable in practice, although he holds that his ideas are less utopian than Giddens’s belief that further democraticization and self-realization can be achieved without radical change in the present regime of media control. Mouzelis concludes his book with a short chapter setting out 12 proposals for Europe’s center-left which will help to steer an alternative Third Way and at the same time avoid the neo-liberal and traditional socialist ideas which have clearly failed us. This chapter is quite out of line with the rest of the book, as it takes the form of a quasi-manifesto, lacking the deep insights and thorough analysis to be found in the earlier chapters. In any case, an alternative version of the Third Way, the writer says, should stress the uninterrupted relevance of the left-right dichotomy, that is «the continuities between early and late modernity and between the old and new emancipatory struggles against tyranny, exploitation and cultural/symbolic manipulation.» In light of the absence of a radical overthrow of the capitalist system and the dramatic collapse of the communist states, Mouzelis seeks to promote pragmatic policies to promote the emancipation of various social groups rather than revolutionary ideas. Mouzelis’s reform proposals for social democracy refer to the humanization of capitalism, the economy (he advocates some state guidance), unemployment (a new employment culture), the social state (redistribution of social funds), the civic society (enhancing a domain which has, primarily for historical reasons, remained quite weak in Greece), the political system (need for thorough democratization), culture (need for spirituality), Europe (as a means to offset US hegemony), globalization (need to shift from a neo-liberal to a new social-democratic system of regulation (the author believes that the Seattle movement can play an essential role in bringing about this shift provided that it overcomes anarchist violence and revolutionary utopia), and, finally, a redefinition of the center-left vision: The center-left, Mouzelis ends, «should aim at striking a balance between the value of productivity in the economic sphere, of democracy in the political sphere, and autonomy/self-realization in the cultural sphere.» A leader of the Fatherland/All Russia party coalition at the State Duma after the 2000 elections, Primakov was elected, in October 2001, president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation.