What’s Left Now?

As European progressives seeking to allay contemporary anxieties look to the singular success of their American counterparts for comfort, they may be inspired, but should not assume that this is a model for the careful recalibration which is needed in the ?Old continent’

This article was first published in Open Democracy on 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

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
. 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
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.

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
“, 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

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
. 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

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

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.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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