Monday, 3 September 2007

The “Third Way” and other alternatives

To escape the tyranny of that American combination of unilateralism and hegemony these days is not easy. There is shrinking room for choice in this world of rejuvenated conservatism and inclination to uniformity. As the number one democracy and power leads that way, what responses would other developed economies with strong left wing and welfare traditions make, including Australia? Are they courageous and sensible enough to uphold their moderate approaches and ignore the dreadful choices offered by their ambition-driven leader? How to maintain a progressive nature of democracy in tact while not being subdued and bullied around by conservatives, especially when that political section took command in US politics? A simple, safe, and cost-effective option is apparently jumping on the bandwagon of American steering
and riding along as deputies.

Beyond that short-term pragmatist plan, there have always been movements of strength seeking alternatives before the unilateralism flexed its muscle on the back of September 11 tragedy. Many Western democracies have endeavored to negotiate a path not leaning towards one of the two extremes. The “Third Way, standing between socialist left and capitalist right, also emerged strongly from the late 1990s. Socialist ideals per se now dread many who believe in individual rights rather than collective rights, in freedom of many categories rather than strict controls on movements and thinking, and in fair exchange rather than designated allocations and fixed patterns in life and business. A functioning market and property rights are the essence of this belief. Socialism, in particular those of Russian origins, is outright rigid and inhumane to these new believers. Orthodox practices of socialism in developing countries fared even worse, unraveling under the combined weight of under-development and ideological extremity.

On the other hand, social equality believers in developed democracies are equally disgusted by naked self interest, wanton waste and manipulation of markets, frauds, lost morals of human beings, and visible social inequality in a capitalist setting. They are torn by the two opposite tendencies. In reality, they incline to favour capitalism and the market, the two engines of industries sustaining growth and comfortable life of modern day. In principle, they understand that those are far from perfect for genuine social cohesion and equality. Open and blind faith on socialism has diminished after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and undertaking rigid socialist tasks at this phase of history exposes certain irrationality. On the other hand, the weakness of true type of capitalism has demonstrated themselves even more clearly in wealth distribution and super riches in the hands of a few. Regular cycles of economic growth bring recessions and inflations periodically and cause untold sufferings to working people and investors. Between these two fundamentalist ideologies, an alternative, or third way, must be found to combine competition and distribution, and to best balance the triangular relations between individuals the market and government.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, these middle-roaders had to find a way for their genuine beliefs to sustain the overwhelming triumphalism of the US and loud calls to worship the free market. Leaders of this new movement gained some progress in political arena. The Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair of the UK has won consecutive elections since the late 1990s after a long spell of Conservative governments. He, the former US President Bill Clinton, and German Chancellor Gerhard Shroeder jointly proposed the “Third Way” and put their names to the launching of this cause. These leaders seek progressive policies to find the right mix of individual rights and responsibilities, encouraging people to sign a new contract between individuals and the state. Meanwhile, both freedom for all and equal opportunity are not to be marginalised. This recent cause by and large resembles numerous past initiatives, such as the surge of European socialist parties before WWI, the New Deal, and the Great Society, the latter two being Democrats’ missions. Sections of the Western world always try to find a way to reduce labour toil and toll of suffering brought out by the capitalists ruthlessly pursuing profits. Tony Blair’s “New Labour” considerably narrowed the gap between the two sides and mitigated problems arising from clashes of interests between the radicals.

The “Third Way” is in nature and form a centre-left positioning, which works well in those developed economies like Australia with sufficient public wealth but without the heavy overseas obligations and sacred missions of a super power. The top concern is the welfare of all citizens. As such, social security and safety nets are very much the priorities of the government of the day. I was quite amazed in my early years in Australia by the fact that the Health or Education Minister was a key figure in a political party, either Labour or Liberal, and is a position taken by senior frontbenchers or those trusted by the incumbent Prime Minister. At state level, the situation stays the same, with these positions being at the top of cabinet posts under the Premier. When Bob Carr voluntarily resigned from his post of Premier of NSW, after ten years of service, he was succeeded by the then Health Minister Morris Iemma. It took me a long while to get used to this arrangement and priority setting. In my previous understanding, in China or of the US, other appointments, especially foreign affairs, defense, or finance, usually squeeze the health or education portfolio out to the bottom of the list. In Australia, by the way, the portfolio of Defense implies limited promise and has very limited influence on the electorate. This political tradition has been maintained in many developed economies since the end of WWII and fits well with the usual descriptions of them as welfare states.

The Third Way altered to some extent this traditional emphasis on social welfare and introduced competition and deregulation. These were done partly as a compromise to economic reality (budget constraints) and the mounting urge of the right, which accused the state for taking on so many responsibilities that hurt overall productivity and efficiency in an economy. Many state run enterprises and organisations were privatised, sold to institutional and private investors, such as the incremental sales of Australia Telecom (now called Telstra). This realigned stand looks more of a middle way, or even right leaning, so why it is called centre left? Those leaders with life experience of a free market economy hold lower confidence in a properly running of the market, than do those newly coming in from former socialist or collective societies, such as the new German Chancellor Mrs. Angela Merkel, after Shroeder’s departure. In government or in opposition, political parties in these developed economies have witnessed repeated economic fluctuations and constantly agonised over correct policy responses to each of those unwanted crises. In particular, they have doubts over equal and fair distribution under a self-governing market, which may affect the welfare of the population and therefore of their voters. As a result, despite the scheduled tasks undertaken to enhance efficiency and market competition, the openly declared goals are filled with flavours of the left, though not the old left. A centre stand could appeal and appease both the left and the right. This policy formula worked some wonders for a while, especially in the UK under Tony Blair’s New Labour government, with growth, jobs and low inflation in a more open market. Economic performance under Bill Clinton in the US attests to the same rationale of balance and competition.

Unfortunately, the credibility of Tony Blair in leading the Third Way movement further was shattered by his ardent support for the war on Iraq before and after 2003, waged slyly by the ultra conservative right in the US. Tony Blair’s inclination towards the calling and embracing of neo-conservatives has been exposed openly, which brought him with intense domestic unpopularity. ­People wondered loudly why a declared left politician immersed in a sea of conservatives and came out smiling broadly. Even if he is cleared of being seen as an undercover conservative, his speeches and actions regarding the war resemble uncannily those by the so-called compassionate conservatives. Despite the fact he did win the third term amidst strong nationwide anti-war sentiments, primarily based on party line and satisfactory economic performance so far in the UK, he is unable to represent that movement any more. This indicates the hopeless predicament the Third Way leaders have got themselves into, being truly believing and earnestly practicing social democratic ideas while being shredded into pieces by the more determined and assertive conservative right, at a time when some precarious situation put national interests and the Western alliance on the line. They are unable to bear the pressure from being subject to constant denunciations from right wingers and from the towering might of the US government as the base camp of conservatives. In the end, they could not effectively repudiate the charges of treason and being unpatriotic laid against them in the name of God, weapons of mass destruction at the disposal of conservatives at will. Again, they plainly cannot behave more conservative than ultra conservatives, no matter how hard they pledge loyalty and allegiance. The Third Way leaders as open and enlightened as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton eventually traded their beliefs and good intentions for answering a higher calling, the Western alliance and its undisputed righteousness. If liberty or equality is to be curbed for a cause to purify the world, so be it.

What is to be the course for the Third Way? It is on the way out. The sweeping advance of American unilateralism implies a shrinking of choices from three to two and thus announces the death of the Third Way. Currently, the WW factor is in firm command. The main problem for these centre left parties is to prove to the electorate their capability of making economically viable decisions while delivering social equality, to balance productivity and welfare, wealth generation and distribution. Once they accepted arguments for competition and productivity over social responsibility, they painted themselves into a corner and would eventually agree with conservatives on most issues, from rights, employment, foreign investment, to environment, the whole package of neo-liberal line. Military participation is already on the table, for the sake of the Western alliance. The economy under this guide will move steadily towards the US line and mode. In addition, hegemony and unilateralism deem the Third Way unnecessary and pointless, highlighting the futility of searching for the middle, non-aligned way. Diversity and deviation thus attract suspicion and even wrath of the reigning superpower. The third way proponents will find it hard to survive and stick to their conviction under these worsened conditions.

The parallel processes in the UK and Australia serve as a proof to this point of futility. British New Labour won election in 1996, exactly the year Australian Labour lost to the conservative Coalition. The two election victories are nearly identical landslides. British New Labour and Australian Liberal Party have more in common, in beating demoralised opponents, winning re-elections, and staying in power despite mounting discontents. Their economic and political policies are close enough to separate. They both heartily undertook market liberalisation and reduction of state functions, and they are both strong lone allies of the US in the Iraq war, betting their political fortunes on that military venture. But they are exactly opposites in politics and party traditions. Tony Blair officially represents the ideals John Howard and Bush junior would ultimately feel uncomfortable with, to say the least. This indicates that a realigned centre left party, in the stream of the Third Way, has moved closer to the territory of right wing and taken up handy remedies from behind the opposite camp in politics. The two parties share economic rationalism and edge to the centre of politics for image building, with slight difference only in posture. At this stage, the Third Way has completely lost its purpose. The British New Labour shows little difference from conservative Australian Liberal, in terms of policy implementation. It is very unlucky for Australian Labour to loose office at a time when their British counterparts just grabbed power, but it would be ironic if Labour governed like Liberal in the past decade and lost their credentials in the Third Way, due to the Iraq war. Unlike the British party, Australian Labour party in opposition is clean of this war baggage.

With the fading and dethroning of the Third Way, especially Tony Blair’s tarnished reputation and uncertainty of the new Brown administration's directions, social democratic parties feel some urgency in searching for wider alternatives. Their ready acceptance of neo-liberal economic rationalism raised productivity levels as expected, but their cause is undermined and troubled by mounting social tension and exposed market deficiencies. Furthermore, the stance in the face of American unilateralism may make or break them, as an increasingly impatient and intolerant US threatens deprivation of security for development and creates certain disadvantages to those forces opposing conformity. Time has shifted one more time back to a phase of expanded searching and exploring, as that in early post Cold War years. The 2006 Italian election illustrates economic and political trend drift from right to left, then back some distance to the centre, and people feel a profound uncertainty of their directions and of ensuing consequences, as the Damocles sword of American hegemony hangs deadly overhead.

The worthiness of Australia as a place of alternative trials in this world partly hinges on its links with the “Third Way” movement. A wide recognition exists in Australia of an ongoing tradition of Western European pattern deviating from an American mainstream. Australia could be a likely candidate for reviving true-form social democratic traditions, with its more fair minded mentality within the population and resources bumper enough to sustain the costs of social equality for a long time. Australia can also be one of the last bastions for sane human beings and behaviours in this maddening world of ruthless expansion of ideologies and greed. Australia has something the UK would desire, the latter being too close to Europe and the United States and has the unavoidable shortcomings of a medium island country. Even a confessed left leader as Tony Blair is trapped in an eternal bond with the interests and agendas of the US. Strategic positioning and concerns offer Australia some security that it would be lightly affected by adverse forces in the course of exploring alternatives and undertaking progressive experiments. Its neutrality, independence, and geographical detachment ultimately guarantee to sustain a progressing nation of egalitarianism and fairness.

In regard to current politics, it may sound odd to name Australia as a preferred choice to a number of European countries with similar potentials, since the Coalition government under John Howard is the second most ardent supporter of the Bush administration on almost everything, after the UK. This government is also not shy of being regarded as the US’s deputy sheriff in the Asia Pacific region. Indeed, the Liberal Party is moving closer to the full embrace of the staunch conservative right in the United States. They are more comfortable joining hands and back patting with the Bush administration than Tony Blair ever is.

The point to be made here is that Australia is not moving towards the direction US conservatives pointed to at a fast pace. On the contrary, the tug of war reveals strong traction of social democratic traditions in this country. There is little possibility that conservatives don the cap of being unpatriotic on their opponents, the way their American counterparts cowed the public and politicians over there. There are strong anti-war, anti-hegemony sentiments, and there are even stronger wills to keep Australia a fair and equal society on the earth of this planet. The consecutive wins by the Liberal Party, especially the one after the war in Iraq, seems to have endorsed the government’s war option and tough right wing policies. They instead demonstrate more of the background of an improving, at least not faltering, economy and standards of living. This has come from decade old reforms and deregulation under Labour governments. Released energy and momentum under those deregulations have just added to the growth, and the so-called old economy of Australia more than made up for the losses from tech bubble bursts. If a coming economic downturn is accompanied by irrational and foolish government policies, the result would be hard to predict. Under a general atmosphere of virtual coercion internationally, the strong belief of equality and a more liberal, not Liberal, mentality prevailing in Australia is so refreshing and shedding some light of hope. A common sanity in judgement is reassuring. It is hoped that this Australian fairness is not going to be eroded by new fashion politicking and blatant cockiness borrowed from afar.

In addition, Australia has no world obligations and will to enforce those obligations on others, as does the US. Fair minded Australians generally dislike forced intervention and intrusion of many kinds, and are keen to seek resolutions through international organisations, which are viewed by conservative Americans with world visions and grand ambitions as obstacles to certain causes deemed righteous. Judging by Australians’ enthusiasm and preference for international forums, the disgusted unilateralism has few takers. This leads Australia to distance itself from American world agendas, and accordingly seek alternative approaches in domestic affairs, which are not sufficiently conservative by American standards.

Based on these deep-rooted divergences from an American way, Australia stands out as a rare choice for carrying on the post Third Way course of truth rediscovery and alternative seeking. It would be more applicable if Labour bounced back and forced the Coalition to a retreat. Even this scenario depends heavily on electorate’s mood and election results, Labour can remain to be a positive force in encouraging progressive thinking and countering conservative surges. The Coalition itself has divisions of policy choices, not totally committed to ultra conservatives, despite party lines and disciplines. Social welfare in this country will stay in place if economic conditions allow and public acceptance persists. Pushing too hard on conservative agendas and formulas turns out to be unwise and undesirable. The so-called Kennett revolution in Victoria provides an excellent reference point here. Given overall environment of tolerance and fairness, Australia is a place for more enlightened social experiment, countering unilateralism, and for a welfare state to improve the state of functioning.

The 21st century so far represents an anti-climax, an expected highlight of human progress severely subdued by aggressions and reckless policies under unilateralism. Expansionist strategies and tactics are now termed in fashionable jargons such as the great game or global war on terror. Subsequently, the hopes of people for a more promising century were dashed quite early in the first decade, a situation not entirely different from the mood and scenes of the early 20th century. It is utterly disastrous for peoples in the so-called global village to suffer multiple let downs in a way eerily similar to the experience of the last century. Social democratic forces are supposed to hold the line against erosion of rights and deterioration of welfare. They have found it demanding and felt inadequate to counter conservative lines of efficiency and larger returns in a globalising world. It is thus vital and imperative that the search for alternatives continues, even after the Third Way debacle. Among less suppressive and draconian places, Australia remains a hopefully viable choice in an overall assessment, clearly in sharp contrast to the origin of those spectacular let downs.

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