What's Left Now?

15 April 2009

Horror vacui: Nature abhors a vacuum. Written some 2300 years ago, this Aristotelian thesis also holds true for the world of socio-political ideas. Moreover, it is the most precise conceivable description of our situation today, in early 2009. The neo-liberal discourse that has predominated over the last three decades has collapsed. Framed by nationalised banks, community cash injections to market players and direct intervention on the stock exchanges, the history of the global economic crisis shows clearly that a completely new set of rules based on very different theoretical principles will operate from now on. (And that this process is far from over yet). Tibor Dessewffy, sociologist, is President of the DEMOS Hungary Foundation

While practice progresses inexorably in a direction that again foregrounds the role of the state, theory can only trail far behind. It would be a serious theoretical challenge to predict what the world might look like after the crisis. The attitude of left-wing economists is well conjured by the enthusiasm of Will Hutton at a recent Policy Network conference in pursuit of a more ‘liberal' social democracy, who called the collapse of Lehman Brothers, ‘the sweetest day of social democracy'. However, compared to previous periods of state expansion (the 1930's or the 1960's), others note that this time around there is a professional consensus that this will only be a temporary expansion of the state. I believe that it is too early to herald the ideological renaissance of proactive social democracy. It is something much more like a fear of the vacuum that we can see at the moment, than any kind of however longed-for ideological renewal.

Once upon a time there was the Third Way

Since the Beatles - and perhaps with the exception of David Beckham - the most successful British cultural export article has been the New Labour Party of Blair and Brown, characterised by ‘the Third Way'. The reason for its instant international appeal is far from self-explanatory. But one major component must be that it recombined the dominant liberal ideology with leftist values in a manner that was not only acceptable but also attractive to the middle-classes. The Third Way - as we know from the books of Anthony Giddens - sought a progressive way forward between traditional, orthodox social democracy and the new neo-liberal hegemony. Its notion of political success was to be made manifest in useful and efficient social projects.

The Third Way was also successful because it united innovative policies under one overarching set of coherent values, readily recognisable in an established ideological context. Moreover, it helped to implement a comprehensive organisational and communicational overhaul of a Labour Party that was becoming far too entrenched in past platitudes. This organisational reform that domesticated and humanised liberalism was a recipe for successful modernisation that the whole of Europe could relate to.

At the turn of the millennium when the Progressive Governance movement started there were 11 social democratic governments in the EU-15 countries. Today, however, even if we count generously, there are a maximum of 6 countries from the 27 members states where social democrats are in power, and we are some way from being able to talk about the dominance of a coherent ideology. This restructuring did not happen like a landslide but was a gradual process. By the same token, the troubles did not start with the financial crisis last autumn: the crisis situation has only strengthened the need for a way out, and thrown it into starker relief.

Looking back at the history of the left in the last decade, the work done in the framework of Progressive Governance was the peak of a process after which the road took a downward turn - at least in Europe. Fears of terrorism, and subsequent anxieties caused by immigration and the sustainability issues of welfare and social systems, brought the progressive left under increasing pressure after 2001, which in turn led to a shrinking of the political space it had once occupied. The underlying characteristic of this new situation has been identified by Wouter Bos as an increasingly isolationist populism, which has succeeded neo-liberalism as the main ideological competitor to the progressive left. This duel in the headwind of the zeitgeist has usually spelt election defeat for the progressives - even in places where the fundamental dilemma has been confronted head on.

The interim state

The global economic crisis has in fact momentarily halted the process of searching for a way out - short term crisis management tasks surface in a state of emergency. Not that the task has become any simpler as we look ahead: the downsizing of production capacities to fit shrinking consumption, and the hesitant and partly involuntary reconfiguring of welfare benefits are expected to strengthen anxieties that were already apparent at the beginning of the 2000's. The challenge facing the progressive left is at least as considerable as it was at the end of the eighties when the task was to find a new ideological path between neo-liberal hegemony and orthodox leftist values. Now we need to construct an antidote to isolationist and populist ideologies that are getting stronger both on the left and the right.

To do that we have to dig down to the fundamental values which define a social democratic model under continuous pressure to modernize. This does not at all mean that the programme of the Third Way should be thrown into the waste bin of history. It does not seem that there is a viable alternative to capitalism, however regulated the market economy, or operating in coordination with social aspects. However enthusiastically some left-wing leaders lash out against bankers and speculators with a rhetoric almost reminiscent of the good old times, the necessity of cooperation with the business sector - an important tool and also value of the Third Way - remains with us.

Nevertheless, we must reconsider some other core elements of our Third Way ideology. Securing basic, universal state services will probably push the provision of choice for customers into the background. The risk society will stay with us. However, the readiness and room for manoeuvre of the individual will probably be less than was envisaged by the original Third Way concepts. The life career model that spans from baby bonds through student loans to bank facilities that cover housing loan repayment installments and to various refined pension saving schemes is also questionable. The model of the citizen who manages his own assets and makes investments will face substantial problems not only in countries with an undeveloped financial culture like Hungary, but also in regions of Europe that carry no post-communist legacy.

None of this touches the core values that I mentioned above: these revisions hardly amount to a new, coherent concept of the world. In order to rise to the challenge of that greater task in such a baffling new context, it is necessary to return to some ‘anthropological constants', and think about the lessons of the crisis from the aspect of group psychology.

Experiencing togetherness 

We know from group psychological research that when "the usual order of things changes", when earlier habits no longer give guidance in the wilderness of life, the need to belong to the group increases. Ethological evidence indicates that primates will cuddle up together when the storm and lightning come. Experiencing togetherness is there to mitigate the anxiety caused by the unusual and unknown.

We can draw two consequences for the current global social and economic situation. On the one hand, the pendulum that swung so far towards individualism will swing back in the next period. On the other hand, it is easy to see that those defensive collective identities that give a putative "answer" to the crisis, such as "the nation defined in contrast to aliens", the "hard working middle-class as opposed to parasites" are almost naturally available to the populist right. Once again, the progressive left faces a problem here: the definition of alternative collective identities is not self-evident, and it is not usually its strength.

The challenge is further complicated by the fact that this communal experience has a different pattern today than in earlier restructurings of the public dimension. As Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired Magazine points out in his book "Long Tail", cultural consumption and the identities formed as a consequence become more and more fragmented and segmented with the spreading of the internet. The prevailing trend gets lost in the formation of the endlessly diverse communities served by digital technologies. Ninety-eight percent of the hundreds of thousands of songs available on iTunes are downloaded at least once a year: exciting and previously unknown groups are born in the "long tail", only a few members on an individual basis but, aggregated, they happen under that curve that stretches practically to infinity. If this cultural pattern becomes dominant, then we have good reason to assume that the large collective identities mitigating these anxieties will also change. Even if they continue to define themselves along the traditional labels of the "nation", "middle-class", "tough, masculine, honest people", the reality behind these labels and the communicational structure will be very different. This is a challenge for a defensive, inward-turning right - but it generates no automatic advantage for their progressive opponents.

Alternatively, we can think about this recent history in terms of anxiety management. Maybe it is no accident that the progressive success period of the nineties evolved in parallel to the end of the cold war and the spreading of a universal optimism of the Fukuyama kind. That zeitgeist supported individualisation and the relative devaluation of defensive collective identities, in what has turned out to be not the end of history as we know it, but the end of one story: free market capitalism.

Changes based on group dynamics go against the value changes of the last 30 years. In modern societies, according to sociologists, the increase of material wealth and a stronger development of the middle-class has nurtured the values of individualism and a growing freedom. These trends are interrupted, maybe even terminated by the crisis, and we cannot even rule out the possibility of substantial movement in the opposite direction. However, ideology is different from social scientific theories. Among other things, it does not wish to merely interpret reality through understanding it. It interprets it in order to be able to shape a political reality. We cannot afford to be satisfied with the conjecture that the next decade will probably prefer defensive collective identities, a situation which will hand the advantage over to right-wing populism.

Towards a new equilibrium

The situation is difficult but far from hopeless, thanks to one experiment in the seamless coordination of the left and the communal principle which has been gradually unfolding before our eyes in the largest and strongest democracy of the world, the United States. Of course I refer to the election victory and governance of Barack Obama which - even if it does not deny what I have written so far - nevertheless demonstrates that it is not impossible to come up with a formula which successfully responds to people's anxieties at the same time as it fills the ideological vacuum. In this context, the rhetoric of the Obama campaign is interesting in three regards.

On the one hand, it not only encapsulated but roundly reclaimed for the Democrats the collective desires attached to the greatness of the American nation and the ability to make the American dream come true. After eight years of Bush administration and the broken promise of "compassionate conservatism", these aspirations emerged as stronger than ever, augmented by such historical election stakes as the election of the first black or woman president (vice president), the biggest crisis for several generations, and finally, the hope of starting over and reunifying the country.

This was made possible first and foremost by the consciously undertaken role of Obama as a healer, offering a remedy for both historical and current grievances. The new Democrat president took a third-way position in a new sense of the term: he could overcome traditional dividing lines and reach out his hand to the majority of Americans despite his liberal-leftist background. Even if this was not united with a Clintonite, Democrat public policy approach, he is still, in the philosophical sense, the worthy heir apparent of third-way traditions that focus on the middle-class and the inhabitants of Main Street, in the countryside in addition to urban dwellers.

One of Obama's greatest successes was to attain this national reconciliation with the enthusiastic support of the rainbow coalition that has traditionally been in Democrat sights. Namely, in addition to the middle-class, the campaign could also mobilize minorities: in terms of race, gender, sexual identity and religion. He was able to create this coalition of hope by fitting together the tiles of a mosaic which gave a new identity to social layers that were apolitical or who perceived politics as a sport for dandies and turned consciously against it.

This leads us directly to my third point: the announcement of the "green new deal" as the element of collective identity in this coalition is an important innovation in comparison to the 1990's. With his public economic stimulus and reform package optimised for the twenty-first century, Obama is the first president to have given policy priority to the issues of environmental protection and energy. Joint work to protect the climate of the planet (not least to achieve energy independence for the country) means the integration of a discourse into the mainstream that can be the basis for a new collective identity, a way of overcoming former divisions which in turn constitutes a suitable riposte to any inward-turning tendencies.

An inspiration but not a model

While revelling in the euphoria of the launch of an era dominated by Democrats we should not forget that the success of Obama was brought about under singular circumstances. These circumstances (getting stuck in the war in Iraq, the dire financial crisis, the unpopularity of George W. Bush reaching historical proportions) created an appropriate backdrop for emphatically proclaiming the need for a progressive politics of change.

However, it is far from certain whether the election victory and governance of Obama represents the exception or the rule in the years of the progressive left to come. What is certain is that the factors of the success of Obama as demonstrated above are a source of inspiration for all of us. But this is no coherent system of views and policies to be easily ‘copy-pasted' into any different economic and social environment. Contrary to the Third Way that started its tour around the world with the Clinton administration in the early nineties, Obama's way is by no means an (almost) universal model.

There is something that links Clinton and Obama. The title of Clinton's famous 1992 autobiographical campaign video was The Man from Hope, a reference to the birthplace, a little town called Hope, of the then aspiring candidate. Obama's slogan was also ‘hope' in addition to 'change'. This is printed on posters that have become cultural icons, and deployed by his numerous supporters that roam the Web 2.0 world of the internet. Of course this is no accident: as any pre-school for campaign strategists will teach you, the symbolic possession of hope is the key to political success.

However, in late modern politics we sometimes forget: on the progressive side at least, hope cannot be relied upon to emanate solely from the charisma of the leader. Two things are necessary to turn it into that comprehensive message that reaches many people. On the one hand, it is vital to demonstrate that we know and understand what is going on in the world, and are able to project some sort of order into the chaos: we know where the road lies that will take us forward. On the other hand this solution, this plan must be made open to society at large, ‘This is the path we are following and you can join us in taking this direction in this or that manner. This is why it will be good for you, and why keeping us company will give you the comfort you seek, if things work out the way we would like them to work out. You only have to think through these two formidable challenges, to see that the progressives of the 'Old Continent' are particularly up against it.

It is hardly surprising if, in search of inspiration, European progressives pay keen attention to the US of Obama today. There is, however, a less obvious direction from which to seek intellectual renewal. This is nothing less that the original constellation of values of the Third Way. Some mental freshness is needed to ponder this unlikely premise. Whatever we think of the political practice and policy directions of the Third Way over the last decade, we may reach different conclusions if we go back to square one. For Giddens, we should remind ourselves, the meaning of the whole project lay in the following, that ‘the overall aim of third way politics should be to help citizens pilot their way through the major revolutions of our time: globalisation, transformations in personal life and our relationship to nature'.

These changes are of defining importance also today and so are the value compasses that accompany them in this thinking. What are these value compasses? If we look at the table of Third Way values in Giddens' famous book, we will find the following: Equality, the protection of the vulnerable, freedom as autonomy, no right without responsibility, no power without democracy, cosmopolitan pluralism and philosophical conservatism.

Only the last two theses require any explanation: they represent the two sides of the coin of ecological modernisation; a cosmopolitan approach because global problems such as climate change require solutions that transcend individual nation states. Philosophical conservatism refers to the sensitivity that is required to display empathy towards problems and anxieties that arise in relation to modernisation - such a position does not dismiss these considerations out of hand as old-fashioned anti-modernism. This last is not a concession to the political right, but rather a pragmatism that respects traditions and does not fetishize the results of progress. Nor does it try to pretend that these results are without any problematic downside.

It appears to me that because the concepts of Giddens are right on the level of sociological analysis, the value conclusions drawn from them also remain valid. What innovative political programmes and promising political strategy can arise to match this constellation of values is a different question which is clearly outside the scope of the present essay.

Progressives in Europe should be prepared for the difficult decade that lies ahead. They must find an ideology that reflects an anxiety that is ever-deepening in our societies; and collectives that provide people with protection in this insecure environment. In the difficult years of reconstruction ahead, this feeling of belonging to a group needs to be derived not from the Evil hiding in all of us, but from the equally omnipresent Good, carving out narratives that can redefine communities and community action in a progressive way.


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