The Left/Right Divide and the Third Way

Summary of Giddens’ Position

Although there are some references throughout The Third Way to these issues, Giddens addresses the nature and continuing relevance of the Left/Right Divide at pages 20-22 and 36-46.

In the earlier section, Giddens mentions the sharp decline of the blue-collar working class, higher education levels and greater concerns with lifestyle issues.

He claims that there has been a significant decline in co-relation between voting intentions and class across the advanced capitalist world.

He quotes research by Blundell and Gosschalk on political attitudes in the UK. They characterise political attitudes as follows:

Giddens goes on (at pages 37-46) with a brief historical survey of the fluidity of the concepts of Left and Right, citing examples such as the 19th Century association between the “left” and support for the free market. He also quotes from Bobbio, who makes the important point that the questioning of Left-Right distinctions historically occurs where there is a perceived imbalance between Left and Right (eg after WWII, when the right was on the retreat, and the 1990s, where the left is in disarray). The dominant side sees the other is irrelevant and the losing side seeks to incorporate arguments from the dominant side in order to bolster its position (eg. Churchill 1945 — “We're all socialists nowadays”).

Nevertheless, Bobbio posits equality as an enduring feature of the left which distinguishes it from the right. Giddens agrees with this and gives his own reasons why equality should be seen as central — the intrinsic problems of the suffering of those at the bottom, the waste of talent, and the potential instability created by inequality.

Giddens accepts Bobbio’s putting equality at the core of the left, but adds his own definition of the left that government has a key role in pursing the aim of equality.

Having identified this core or enduring characteristic of the left, Giddens is than able to identify issues that are outside the left/right divide.

First and foremost, “with the demise of socialism as a theory of economic management, one of the major division lines between left and right has disappeared.”

Moreover, according to Giddens, ecological questions are beyond left and right as are questions of family, work and personal/cultural identity.

Giddens then puts forward the notion of the “radical centre”, suggesting that social democracy needs to be not “moderate” but radical, while recognising that the radical solutions required to the problems of government will not always be relevant to a left/right axis.

Commentary on Giddens’ Position

The changing class structure of advanced capitalist societies is beyond the scope of this short contribution. However, the alleged decline of class as a central question in voting intentions (and by extension, according to Giddens, politics) may be a result of the great disruption to the traditional manufacturing and resource-extraction core of the working class which has accelerated since the 1970s. The political and cultural identification with class certainly seems to have declined and this is reflected in the figures quoted by Giddens about class identification.

However, the two-dimensional axis of intervention v free market and libertarian v authoritarian is, in part, a reflection of past gains of the “left” (feminism, queer politics, “alternative” culture, etc). Moreover, similar multi-dimensional axes have existed in politics of all countries for generations. For example, religious, national, ethnic and racial questions, and even the issue of free-trade v protection have cut across left-right divisions during the 19th and 20th Centuries.

The fact that politics is only partly explained by divisions in attitudes to the market is nothing new.

Giddens identification of equality as the central enduring aim of the left, and of government as the means of achieving it, are true. However, by citing a time (the 19th Century) when arguably the supporters of free-markets were seen as part of the “left”, is disingenuous and convenient. I would argue that, even among laborist social democrats, hostility to the market and the need to intervene against the market have been seen as a central component of the left — both as a method of achieving its other goals (such as equality) and (for many) as a goal in itself.

This reflects a view that the market:

Giddens, in effect, asserts that “with the demise of socialism as a theory of economic management” there is no choice but to learn to use or regulate markets to achieve social and economic goals.

By narrowing the core aim of the left to equality, Giddens can conveniently (and wrongly) characterise issues such as the ecological crisis as outside the left/right divide because they only tangentially affect equality. However, if the left is seen as being against the market and corporate power, then questions such as the environment, global warming, and the like, fit easily into the left/right continuum.