Ref. :  000023367
Date :  1999-12-15
Language :  English
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The Neo-Liberal Turn of Social Democracy

Author :  Endre Kiss

The Third Way is made up by neo-liberalism and social democracy interwoven in a specific way; it’s a completety new and completely special variant of Third Ways that have completed splendid political careers. The history of Third Ways is an uncomparably exciting mine of historical examples. Instead of presenting it, we might just remind at a strange contrast existing between the first half and the end of the nineties: while namely in the first half of the nineties (especially in post-socialist milieu) the mere thought of a Third Way counted to be politically incorrect (by that it limited possible political set of means of establishing post-social political scene a great deal), it was right social democracy, or mainly its Anglo-Saxon equivalent, Labour that had enough of political abstinence concerning the Third Way, and it did set out to work out a new concept of such contents.

Neo-Liberalism is a political-economical complex; it gained its present mature form from the opposition and latter triumph against late communism. Therefore, in its tendency it’s a global arrangement without a political system of institutes of its own, that would organically belong to the complex. One of its characteristics is the fact that in not one of its features, it’s also a correction of classical liberalism; the tension that came from this conflict, and was not to be neglected at all, was neutralized by the opposition with late communism, in a way that neo-liberal politics articulating beside neo-liberal economy was made similar to the figure of classical liberalism by the living contrast of communism. Neo-liberal structure actualizes tendencies of globalization in the structure of so-called monetarism, which is not the same as an economical school of the same name, but it denotes an establishment of the structure of globalizing economy by nation-states running into debts; the sphere of international financial organizations, i.e. the actualization of the concrete shape of globalization. From all this also follows the fact that for social democracy, even neo-liberalism so much desired within the frames of the Third Way-concept, can receive classical liberal critics. Emphasizing the structured, if we like, systematic nature of neo-liberalism is especially important, also because social democracy (Labour) was trying to find connection to this structure perceived as a system by its Third Way-concept. This also explains a fact which is not only difficult to explain in other ways, but it even seems ambiguous: as social democracy (Labour) was not lead to the concept of a Third Way identifying with neo-liberalism by new insights and recognitions, but the search for interpretation justifying this identifying approach only began after making a decision that implied this approach.

One of the most important problems of the operation, but also of the interpretation of the monetarist–neo-liberal complex is the relationship of the complex and society; not only the content of this relationship, but also its new, incomparable quality. Namely, this complex is basically built upon the operation of functional systems that had become global, of which unvulnerably legitimate political basis is the system of representative democracy. As the operation of big functional systems doesn’t have a direct link to the political sub-system, quite complicated and refined systems of modern society don’t directly fit the operation of big functional systems; at the same time, representative democracy itself is unable (and it’s not its function either) to link this refined and complex social sphere to the operation of big functional systems. This specific problem of society has also caught the eyes of theoretical and practical leaders of neo-liberalism. No wonder that from both sides, we know opinions according to which there’s no such a thing (!) as society; there are only individuals, and each of them can easily become an individual contractor. This huge structural, and as we have seen, antropological problem (“there’s no such a thing as society”) still swallows up all dramatic aspects that we call the sphere of interests. The question “whom is it good for?” rises at all levels and projections of the neo-liberal–monetarist complex, and this question will not be neutral at all, when judging the concept of the Third Way, i.e. when interpreting the specific and far-reaching neo-liberal turn of social democracy (Labour). If namely from one side it seems possible to judge the fact that the neo-liberal turn of social democracy (Labour) is a consequence of some kind of adaptation to the hegemonial state of the neo-liberal–monetarist complex, from the other side, the theoretically unidentifyable relationship of the neo-liberal–monetarist complex to society appears with great weightiness in such a strong approach of this complex by a political direction which has defined itself as a representative of all-social interests so far.

Leaving the other question undecided, what is the real content of the approach of social democracy (Labour) to neo-liberalism, it’s clear already that a basic condition of such an abstraction is a total former disideologization of politics. But a certain magnitude of disideologization even endangers the basic, Aristotelian concept of politics, as in the sense of sociology of knowledge, elemental ideology-making (despite the undoubtedly problematic kind of the expression ‘ideology’) stands for the socially bound-to-existence articulation of each group, and making these bound-to-existence relations clear is a basis of a democratic articulation of political interests. Therefore we’d like to separate the ideology of great ideological systems of the 20th century from the ideology of the possibility of an articulation of being bound-to-existence in the sense of sociology of knowledge. While the end of ideology also means the end of dictatures tightly interwoven with ideologies, on the other hand, this same thing makes most groups of society “minor” (unmündig) in a Kantian sense, as it doesn’t make any kind of general articulation of their bound-to-existence social status possible. Eliminating elemental and bound-to-existence ideological articulations in a wave of punishing great dictatures makes radical chances of linguistic regulation, a transformation of rhetoric possible; it grounds victorious rhetoric characteristic of the Third Way on the whole. Thus we can only read the lines of the sociologist who grounded the Third Way with great thrill, as Thatcherism that had confidently overcome European left-wing and welfare state “had shaken up British society a great deal” (!). The stunning thing about this example of new linguistic regulation, of shoreless rhetoric is not the fact that by the same logic, even the final of a Wimbledon tennis tournament could become a historical phenomenon (as it “had shaken up British society a great deal”), but more likely the fact that transforming the great defeat to a slight tickle makes literarily all possible arbitrary changes of linguistic regulation possible. Of course new, yet unconsidered theoretical questions are lurking behind this problem-cycle. In fact, the necessity of the emergence of bound-to existence ideologies doesn’t concern the whole problem-cycle of the decline of great ideologies; the fact (and justification) of doctrinally unceasable political interersts of each group doesn’t change the depolitizing effects of great functional systems.

All this great preconditions lead to the possibility of re-arranging political space, of which we’d emphasize a few elements of the idea of the Third Way now; as the re-arrangement of political space is a partly spontaneous process, but partly all political and social movements inevitably participate in it.

One of the most important elements (basicaly neo-liberal, but also used by the Third Way) of the re-arrangement of the whole political space is a total identification of the idea of state with the temporarily hegemonial shape of social state, i.e. the neo-liberal demolition of social state becomes equal to a critical relativization of all statehood. But it would (have) be(en) enough to flip through our kindergarten notes to recognize some functions of state breaking civilizational records even in Greek democracy, which have nothing to do with social state, and of which total elimination has brought a part of society into a critically defenceless condition, which can’t be called a direct beneficiary, not even a partaker of great functional systems. While ephemeral welfare state has practically swallowed up all community functions, the power complex built upon great functional systems efficiently used its fall for rolling back all civilizational achievments statehood had reached so far.
All this also means, the 21st century attempts to solve its genuine new challenges by the approach and set of ideas of the 19th, if not right the 18th century (six billion individual contractors, out of which one and a half billion are Chinese).

Some mature concepts of the Third Way, in the programmatic form they appear to us, are in a methaphorical or realistic sense also products of a state defined by a post-historical state, by the “End of History”. From this logically follows what empirical inquiry justifies each time. Concepts of the Third Way move among the set of ideas, events, values and interpretations of each historical era so arbitrarily that even the de-constructivist, as well as the constructively eclectic stream of posthistoire could envy it. Thus, questions we don’t consider unimportant at all, which had defined each era of the nearly two hundred year long history of left wing (and right wing compared to it) are being treated with genuine post-modern arbitrariness by theoreticians of the Third Way (and by every indication, they don’t just do it in accordance with the requirements of political rhetoric which obviously prefers simplification, but they even think like this, or at least they’d like others to think like this). Sometimes ‘yesterday’ means the division between right and left, sometimes classical capitalism; sometimes ‘social state’ is the left, and its demolition is the right (1).

We tend to make this postmodern (and thus even if not completely objective, but by all means era-symptomatic) arbitraryness of historical spaces the ideological basis of the Third Way. In case of a theory so ‘exact’ and ‘practically’ political on the surface, this should evoke astonishment. Still, such an extremely arbitrary treatment of historical dimensions turns though not to gold, but an argument for the first sight in the hands of the masters of the Third Way. Thus can the Third Way step forward as a reformer of welfare state. This is the point where we might tend to forget that welfare state has already been destroyed by the neo-liberalism of Reagan and Thatcher; the Third Way could only have the chance of re-arranging remained but quite moderate welfare dimensions of the state (2).

Such an eclectic treatment of historical and objective dimensions is also sure to help the conspicious verbalism characteristic of the Third way in general (and also from several other perspectives)(3), which at this point should be called triumphant verbalism, after all.

For example, Blair prefers to use the expression “strong family”, partly as a social-political goal of the concept of the Third Way, partly as one of its media, but partly also as a part of the present reality pointing towards the future. But if we want to see through the curtain of verbality, we may find, one component of a “strong family” is “civil society” lacking any closer definition (though it doesn’t sound bad verbally, but we may wonder why Blair judges neo-liberalism in this same text because it believes too much in the mission of civil society solving every problem automatically); we also learn, strong families are (mutually) beneficial for the state, and that they expect “intelligent administration”, but make it possible as well. Above all this, we learn nothing about the “strong family” on the level of political reality.

One significant common feature of the concepts of the Third Way is argumentation with values. On this field as well, several objections could be raised, and there can be showed numerous reasons of insufficiency in content and methodology in the way of treating problems. But one(this?) feature of the Third Way’s theory of “values” is defining; defining considering the deepest character of the whole stream, and (if it’s so, we may not wonder) it defines most deeply the political goals of the Third Way as well. New values of the Third Way, value-based attacks of rival streams, an explanation of the new political situation by new values, and thus the whole value-oriented nature of the Third Way proves to be a basically incomplete approach, as it builds values into functional connections of the whole of modern society and its sub-systems like that(?). It talks about values in every way, without any connections of objects or contents. But a discourse of values put this way is doomed to be almost totally arbitrary. A new concept can’t be built upon new values, but only upon new interpretations of political, economical, social processes and of international politics, which of course bring changes into the system and relations of values; they re-evaluate them, right as new interpretations. A re-evaluation of values without new recognitions is a superficial activity which only affects the surface, and it can’t promise any greater results. Namely, if it was possible to acquire significant creative and innovative recognitions by a mere re-intrepretation of values, by simply changing their positions to one another, scientific research or theoretical work would be the most simple job on the world. Without new recognitions, where could we possibly acquire a new basis from, according to which the content or position of each value could change? Such a rectilinear separation of values from analyses of contents and functions, of course brings some intellectual and practical benefits concerning the actual goal of the Third Way, as without any connections of functions or contents many don’t realize it, how unrecognizably the real values of the Third Way resemble basic values of neo-liberalism (4).

In one of his most important texts, Blair puts it in an honorably open way, that in case of possible conflicts between values (taken without any analysis of functions or contents), the Third way considers “right politics”, i.e. political pragmatism especially significant. God forbid us to find any flaws in this formulation, at least in its general form. But getting back to values lacking functional references, the situation changes. In this case namely critical, moreover decisive flaws of the model in question must become apparent immediately. If namely, the Third Way had built its values (or even its re-evaluations) upon analyses of functions and contents, pragmatic political practice couldn’t have its miracle-making power any more. Self-sufficient analyses would have brought an interpretation of the objective world with themselves, which could (have) be(en) balanced by “right politics” only if it could have brought a real break-through on the level of functions or contents (5).

But the Third Way’s ideas about values also has a side which is also relevant in a comparison with neo-liberalism. Namely, we had to state so far (on one hand) that leading values, either directly or concerning their interpretation, are of a neo-liberal kind; we also had to mention the fact that the secret gravity of the Third Way is to change political representation of neo-liberalism and to acquire political control over new nation-state and super-national structures that are to be built upon neo-liberal bases. A peculiar treatment of values, emphasizing the importance of “right politics” generates a significant shade of difference between original political neo-liberalism and the intended figures of the Third Way. While classical political neo-liberalism in present circumstances (standing on neo-liberal economical and political bases) doesn’t want, it’s not even able to promise anything about solving or even reducing conflicts that might emerge in the system, the “right politics” of the Third Way is a still a promise after all, even if – of course – we would be aware of new results of analyses of functions and contents behind the movement of values when grounding these values as well (6).

Enemy-images appearing in basic texts of the Third Way though rarely but unmistakably, hint an intention being formulated in political promises. Blair directly calls “cynism” an enemy, which claims, global markets pull themselves out of the control of politics, and this point of view says a lot. It shows reflection of globalization to some extent, but it shows keeping up the claim for political mission and social control in new circumstances as well.

The short-term goal of the Third Way is obvious: it wants to take away political control of today’s world from neo-liberalism (or political representatives of neo-liberalism, mainly conservatives). But at the same time they don’t want content – and function related bases of social operation to change (to be changed). This desired political hegemony therefore relies on deep identity; no wonder that not one concept of the Third way tries hard to indicate surface differences. The critic of neo-liberalism is a part of separation from it (7). This extremely interesting situation which can be characterized only with a narrow latitude is shown by the critic of the functioning of neo-liberalism; the representative of this critic in fact doesn’t want to change this same functioning. A third type of critic makes the dogmatic, doctrinal nature of neo-liberalism an issue, and in some sense it has some truth content, as in not one case it preferred to choose doing nothing, even when this was showing evidently (8).
The Third Way, as we have mentioned not once, considers itself basically as a product of the global era, and it evidently thinks in different variants of integration. In this aspect, we may consider the most specific feature of the concept the fact that the Third Way links its claim for hegemony over a political formation that is to be essentially built upon the image of neo-liberal economy and society, with the claim for controlling this formation above nations. The Third Way is a super-national offering, one integrating integration as well. The Third Way also makes great integration processes part of the concept of permanent revision.

At the opening of our summary, we should remind at the original intention of our whole undertaking. Our analysis put the concept of the Third Way on the scale not from a political, but from a historical, if we like, from a historical-philosophical point of view. Therefore of course, our conclusions also become interpretable only in this sphere.

After a world-wide victory over existing socialism, neo-liberalism emerged as a victorious complex system. The same way did the same victory of existing socialism shocked international social democracy, and put it ahead of new choices. According to the result of our historical analysis, the Third Way is social democracy’s answer to the new situation. An answer that offers long-term partnership, if we like, political marriage to the neo-liberalism of an economical and political world order, which is considered hegemonial already. In this case, there’s a difference between the marriage portion of each ‘spouse’. Triumphant neo-liberalism can wait, and its operation doesn’t directly depend on the tone of the political system of institutes that ensures hegeomny, while social democracy is sure to get to an acting constraint by a succession of quick changes. The Third Way practically means total acceptance of neo-liberal basic values; non–neo-liberal values (we’re intentionally not talking about “left-wing” values) only appear on the level of rhetoric, of triumphant verbalism, of verbal victories. In our historical (i.e. not political) analysis we’d therefore not emphasize the risk of a farewell to left-wing values so much, but more the risk of the unpredictable kind of jumping into a totally new situation.


(1) By the way, this free eclectic manner proves to be quite efficient politically. As, considering common language’s division of semantic space every expression has a ‘meaning’, it chokes up the arguments hiding in historical exactness, and mainly the possibility of argumentation that had been made almost technically impossible among such circumstances, in the reader (and the interpreter). Such a ‘liberty’ of language of course leads to total arbitraryness, for example, when the Third Way is being interpreted shortly as an answer to globalization, or when Giddens called equality “still a central problem” in a 1999 interview.
(2) Historically doubtful remarks are often strongly tendencious – what should we think when we are reading in a text e.g. that industrial society had never been so “dominant” in history as many think, because there had always been active small-scale manufacturers and contractors…
(3) In a paradox way, sometimes it happens that because of the blurryness of historical and objective measures, even a useful and productive thought may lose its sharper outlines. Thus for example the idea that every public expense should create perceivable reforms and apparent improvement, becomes insecurely outlined if the objective components of the concept are not clear, i.e. if possible scopes of interpretion of long- and short term, minority and majority, common and individual interest, national and supranational interest are not made clear, as the original statement (“each public expense should bring apparent improvement”) shall have completely different meanings and contents at each significant concrete distribution of these aspects. Of course, even this, on its own totally flawless statement means practically overshadowing less beneficial possibilities and long-term thinking in general.
(4) In a programmatic writing (The Third Way), Tony Blair gives an excellent example for the way this stream treats values. Then he names four basic values (equality, equality of chances, responsibility, community) some of which are either entirely of neo-liberal content and origin (equality, equality of chances), or they become like that in concrete interpretation. A quite éclatant example for this is the “value” of responsibility, which is meant to describe the fact that there are socially supported people who use help without return, without “responsibility”. This is a real problem, we just don’t see why would it be a task of someone unemployed to find himself a “responsible” activity; we don’t see either, why Blair connects this (with a neo-liberal touch) to an attack against the old left wing. But even this is exceeded by the value of “community”, which at first sight is really not of a neo-liberal accent, but what Blair is trying to make accepted in way that he considers state intervention acceptable only in case self-supporting operation of local communities “is not being set back”. Definitions of state are especially sensible in concepts of the Third Way, as the pronounciation of these functions wishes to differ from neo-liberalism in a positive way, while the first concrete definitions are unmistakably of a neo-liberal kind already (another example: an interpretation considering the regulation of “competition” as a most important function of state).
(5) Looking at the effect of “right politics” dissolving these conflicts, we should of course consider not one important measure of our analysis so far in a different way. Thus for example, it’s clear what an important role the neglection of historical exactness, or even successful verbality as strategies can play at grounding political pragmatism which tries to solve conflicts of values without creating self-sufficient analyses of functions or objects.
(6) This ‘promising-nothing’ character of neo-liberalism puts it in a new light, why its victory got interwoven with the fall of communism. No matter how misfortunate e.g. one self-definition (”permanent revisionalism”)of the Third Way might be, neo-liberalism arriving at the peak of the best worlds, can’t promise such a thing. By acknowledging other possibilities, we may mention here an element of the new rhetoric of the Third Way, according to which while taking neo-liberal values, sometimes they consider the “attractivity” of neo-liberalism declining, sometimes they consider it straight politically dead.
(7) At Blair, at one place radical and doctrinal neo-liberalism endangers “the unity of the nation” – an argument continental representatives of the Third Way could hardly include in their set of arguments, although its everyday political meaning is quite clear.
(8) By the same token, we could have the right to define the Third Way as “non-dogmatic” neo-liberalism, where the attribute “non-dogmatic” has no positive content of a coercive power. In this sense, maybe even the following statement wouldn’t be totally meaningless, as the Third Way is no social democracy, but a “permanent revision” of neo-liberalism.


- The direct background of our train of thought (/reasoning/argumentation?) is sufficiently represented by an excellent compilation of Die Neue Gesellschaft. Frankfurter Hefte, May 1999.
(Programmatic writings, analyses, and interviews of Anthony Giddens, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, Robert Misik, Thomas Meyer, and Johano Strasser, together with content – and philology related indications).
- Following writings of the author have played a role in developing some theses of the argumentation.
- Monetarismus und Liberalismus, Zu einer Theorie der globalen und geschichtsphilosophischen Aktualitaet, Dresden, 1998, 1-17.
- Menschenrechte und Menschen im Strome der Globalisierung, in: Völkerrecht und Rechtsbewusstsein für eine globale Friedensordnung, Ed. Ernst Woit und Joachim Klopfer, Dresden, 2000, 55-64.
- Über die relevanten Bestimmungen des reifen Systems der Globalisierung auf der Meso-Ebene, in: Verwestlichung Europas, Herausgegeben von Peter Gerlich und Krzysztof Glass, Wien-Poznan, 1999, 101-108.
- Über das neue Phaenomen des Rechtspopulismus, in: Anachronia, Nr. 5. Oktober 1999, 154-165.
- Globalizáció, félelem, szociáldemokrácia, in: “Élet és Irodalom”, 25th June 1999.
- Posztmodern Justitia, in: Igazságosság. Edited by Rimma Dalos and Endre Kiss. Budapest, 1998, 37-46.
- Kisérlet a jelenkor jobboldali populista jelenségének értelmezésére. in: Európai Unió - Regionalizmus – Szuverenitás. IV. Országos Politológus Vándorgyülés. Székesfehérvár, 1998, 361-366.
- A jóléti állam mint teoretikus tárgy, in: Az állami eper édesebb-e? Edited by Rimma Dalos and Endre Kiss. Budapest, 1998, 69-80.
Das Globale ist das Unmittelbarwerden des Absoluten? in: Hegel-Jahrbuch, 1996. Berlin, 1997, 33-41.
- A globalizáció társadalomfilozófiájához, in: A mai világ és a jövö forgatókönyvei. Budapest, 1997, 52-62.

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