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Has Third Way Politics Failed?

    The Economist is currently having a debate on whether or not 'New Labour', or Third-Way (3W) politics, has failed. Certainly, if you read my blog enough, you would know that I think 3W politics is doomed to failure, because it has accepted the ideological terrain of 'the enemy', by leaving capitalism outside of contention. The politics of the 3W basically articulated a discourse that sought to satisfy everyone and in the end satisfied no one. As one of the debaters argued:

    New Labour was a centrist project, once charged with trying to be all things to    all people. Ironically, 13 years on, it often lacks advocates, as it is challenged    from the right for increasing spending and tax and from the left for not doing     more on inequality.

    This is exactly what the left has been warning about, the 'consensus politics' of the 3W alienates everyone, because it ignores what politics is supposed to be about: change, conflict and values, viz. antagonism. There is no such thing as consensus, there is only conflict and when a 'hegemonic bloc' has gained the upper-hand it institutionalizes its values through ideological hegemony--ISA's--or when that fails, institutionalized force--RSA's. The 3W tried to avoid all three, it tried to have Thactherism, which Zizek correctly argues became hegemonic only when Blair appropriated and accepted her logics, with social progressivism. It sought to tame the wild excesses of finance capitalism in the interests of progressive distribution of income, through an increase in the availability of public services, but not changing a thing about the actual structure of the economy; therefore, in reality the basis of a stable economy was eroding as demand was being constantly crunched by the flows of capital to the top percentage of the population, which lead to the current crisis by undermining the basis of a debt-economy: sound fundamentals. Finally, the push forth the 'cultural' card to replace the emancipatory project with one centred on formal recognition of reified social categories, i.e. gay, black, etc. As Wendy Brown argues:

    The retreat from more substantive visions of justice heralded by the promulgation of     tolerance today is part of a more general depoliticization of citizenship and power and     retreat     from political life itself. The cultivation of tolerance as a political end implicitly     constitutes a     rejection of politics as a domain in which conflict can be productively     articulated and addressed, a     domain in which citizens can be transformed by their     participation, a domain in which differences     are understood as created and negotiated politically,     indeed a domain in which “difference” makes up     much of the subject matter. To the contrary,     as it casts the political and the social as places where     individuals with fixed     identities, interests, and ideas chafe and bargain, tolerance discourse attempts     to remove from the political table as much of our putatively “natural” enmity as it can.

    New Labour has certainly increased the standard of living for many Britons over the last 13 years, "Real incomes in Britain rose just under 2% per year from 1996/97 to 2007/08, with not dissimilar growth to that of the Thatcher and Major years. The difference was that Labour's choices saw the gains distributed much more evenly across society: the bottom half did proportionately best under Labour; the top third under the Conservatives ". So what? It doesn't make 3W politics any less alienating; rather it may make it more-so, consider if the lowest rungs of the income latter are getting progressively better, without actually changing their state of alienation or the politics of nihilism that the 3W represents, it doesn't mean much to these voters apart from greater pessimism that is manifested in new forms of politics that have no chance for hegemony and this impossibility manifests into frustration and violence--i.e., radical Islam, which is rampant in England.
    Politics is not merely about mere pecuniary conditions, it fundamentally means a desire to change the very relations of power/subordination in a society. The greatest err of The Economist's debaters and the debate itself is its 'vulgarity', focusing only on the effects not the causes of the failure, confusing the effects for the causes. The great myth of 3W politics is the end of alternatives, that power exists as it does today and should not change, because it is the best alternative out there; this hubris was best manifested by PM Gordon Brown's statement that 3W had create the conditions to end the era of "boom and bust"--the UK's economy last year shrank by, at least, 5%.
    The reality is that alternatives are emerging but in the guise of proto-fascist, racist movements like the BNP in England. As this short clip from Al Jazeera shows, the rise of the BNP is directly tied to the end of emancipatory politics of the left:

    The far-right critically misinterprets the problem away from capitalism proper towards the 'insider/outsider' distinction, best manifested with the nativist reaction against 'the other'. This is a result of the end of the Enlightenment project of internationalism, best exemplified by socialism, and the re-emphasis on the nation with 'tolerant multiculturalism' embedded in liberalism. This emphasis on 'culture' is the problem in many respects, because it leads to the kind of politics of the past that sought to obfuscate the tensions within capitalism to present them instead as tensions immanent in human civilization--the 'clash of civilizations'. Habermas describes this situation well:

    The neoconservative does not uncover the economic and social causes for the altered    attitudes towards work, consumption, achievement and leisure...The mood which feeds     neoconservativism today in no way originate from discontent     about the antinomian     consequences of a culture breaking from the museums into the     street of ordinary life. This     discontent has not been called into life by modernist     intellectuals. It is rooted in deep-seated     reactions against the process of societal     modernization. Under the pressures of the     dynamics of economic growth and the     organizational accomplishments of the state, the social     modernization penetrates     deeper and deeper into previous forms of human existence. I would     describe this     subordination of the life-worlds under the system's imperatives as a matter of     disturbing     the communicative infrastructure of everyday life. (Modernity--An Incomplete Project, p.      7-8)

Capitalism is a system characterized by deep and sharp social changes an inherent instability in symbolic representation and material security. When liberals, like the 3W and now even the Conservatives, trumpet the multicultural/progressive ethos of social liberalism they are only making this situation worse by not tying these evolution into an wider project--the Jewish Question redux. Without being tied to a greater project for full emancipation, even if that project is impossible, makes the rise of reactionary movements stronger and even more dangerous.
    The multiculturalist 3W politics has another dangerous aspect. The ossification of cultural difference as something that can never be superseded, but something that is to nurtured--another signal of abandonment of the Enlightenment project. This assumes that people cannot be changed by praxis of struggle, as Zizek notes:

        Perhaps, nothing expresses better the inconsistency of the post-political liberal project than its implicit paradoxical identification of culture and nature, the two traditional opposites: culture itself is naturalized, posited as something given...Actual universality is not the »deep« feeling that, above all differences, different civilizations share the same basic values, etc.; actual universality »appears« (actualizes itself) as the experience of negativity, of the inadequacy-to-itself, of a particular identity. The formula of revolutionary solidarity is not »let us tolerate our differences,« it is not a pact of civilizations, but a pact of struggles which cut across civilizations, a pact between what, in each civilization, undermines its identity from  within, fights against its oppressive kernel. What unites us is the same struggle...In other words, in the emancipatory struggle, it is not the cultures in their identity which join hands, it is the repressed, the exploited and suffering, the 'parts of no-part' of every culture which come together in a shared struggle.
    The 3W's strength, and greatest threat, comes in by 'transforming' demands in a hyper-institutionalized way that makes existing inequalities in power, alienation, subordination and hopelessness even greater. As exploitation, unemployment, stagnating wages, massive inequalities in income grow, the population's demands are institutionally absorbed, denying them the possibility of creating 'equivalencies' with other demands that could turn into a veritable struggle for emancipation--Laclau's populism thesis. With the resistance against capitalism dead--indeed the very term capitalism has been replaced with 'the economy' making anti-capitalism seem anti-economy--the encroaching of capitalist subjectivity that Habermas and the entire socialist project warns about is reaching epic proportions. The unending commodification, bureaucratization, de-democraticization and depoliticalization of our lives is the true success of the 3W, by preventing people from coming together to see each other's individual struggles as a meta-struggle against a system that has no end to its exploitative effects.
    This is the lost message of the left, that it doesn't matter if the economy functions better, it doesn't matter if we have expansive social programs, because none of this is making people's lives any more tolerable it merely alienates them further. As this crisis shows, the means by which the economy grows and profits are accrued are at the direct cost of the average citizen through unemployment, increasing productivity without commensurate income growth, the increase in debt bondage all leading to the erosion  or social mobility, the amplification of hopelessness, social marginalization...essentially proletarianism. The task of the modern left is to move beyond the growth fetishism, to fight for an end to growth--indeed, the earth cannot sustain more growth--and with the end of this fetishism, we should then fight for the democraticization of our lives.



  1. The picture at the top of your blog with the ruined buildings - underneath the title 'Perspectivos' - where is that from? Is that Groznyy in Chechnya? Sarajevo?

  2. You have original and witty thoughts and with many of them i agree, unfortunately you're a communist which to a great extent lowers the legitimacy of your ideas.

  3. me podría resumir en dos frases sus conceptos sobre la decadencia mundial y el rol y responsabilidad de USA .Quizás así pueda trasmitirse al conjunto para que comprenda sus elaborados conceptos del devenir proveniente de una realidad poco auspiciosa



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