by Louis Proyect
(Swans - December 15, 2008) In 1997 Tony Blair became Prime Minister of Great Britain ending eighteen years of Tory rule. For left-leaning Britons, the 1979-1990 rule of Margaret Thatcher and her successor John Major easily rivaled George W. Bush's as an odious symbol of class injustice. When she was not embarking on foreign imperial adventures in the Malvinas, Thatcher was attacking the working class at home. Her most notable victory was in defeating the coal miner's strike of 1984, an achievement that was as effective as Reagan's assault on the airline controllers in preparing the way for a neoliberal economic regime.
When Blair was elected, the sense of relief evoked this "Wizard of Oz" ditty sung by the Munchkins:
Ding Dong! The Witch is dead. Which old Witch? The Wicked Witch!
Ding Dong! The Wicked Witch is dead.
Wake up - sleepy head, rub your eyes, get out of bed.
Wake up, the Wicked Witch is dead. She's gone where the goblins go,
Below - below - below.
Yo-ho, let's open up and sing and ring the bells out.
Ding Dong' the merry-oh, sing it high, sing it low.
Let them know The Wicked Witch is dead!
However, British voters did not get exactly what they voted for. As soon as the euphoria wore off, it became clear that Tony Blair was no friend of working people, as Thomas Friedman observed in an April 22, 2005, New York Times Op-Ed:
The other very real thing Mr. Blair has done is to get the Labor Party in Britain to firmly embrace the free market and globalization - sometimes kicking and screaming. He has reconfigured Labor politics around a set of policies designed to get the most out of globalization and privatization for British workers, while cushioning the harshest side effects, rather than trying to hold onto bankrupt Socialist ideas or wallowing in the knee-jerk antiglobalism of the reactionary left.
Blair demonstrated that he was no slouch when it came to sending British troops abroad, joining the U.S. in imperial aggressions against the Serbs and the Iraqis. Indeed, one would be hard put to really tell the difference between the Tories and New Labour other than the rhetoric.
Although the eight years of George W. Bush was a lot shorter in duration than Tory rule in Great Britain, it did manage to do as much violence to working people at home and abroad. Bush was notoriously lazy but he did have a kind of zeal for punishing those not fortunate enough to be born with a silver spoon in their mouth.
With the election of Barack Obama in November, the same pattern seems to be unfolding as it did with Tony Blair's prime ministry. Both Blair and his American counterpart Bill Clinton sought to govern through the "Third Way," a philosophy that permeates Obama's "Audacity of Hope." For those who have been surprised by Obama's apparent determination to serve in the capacity of Bill Clinton's third term, the evidence for such a proclivity was there all along for those with the patience to read through his gaseous prose. Obama wrote: "In his platform -- if not always in his day-to-day politics -- Clinton's Third Way went beyond splitting the difference. It tapped into the pragmatic, nonideological attitude of the majority of Americans."
Just as Blair was determined to continue the free-market policies of Margaret Thatcher, so was Obama ready to apply the same kind of lash to the backs of American workers first applied by Ronald Reagan, her American counterpart. Obama wrote that Reagan's message "spoke to the failure of liberal government," which had become "too cavalier about spending taxpayer money..." He added that, "A lot of liberal rhetoric did seem to value rights and entitlements over duties and responsibilities.... Reagan offered Americans a sense of common purpose that liberals seemed no longer able to muster."
Labour and liberal disappointment with Tony Blair and Barack Obama respectively tends to sidestep the all-important question of why these politicians try to mediate between their own party and the organized Right. In contrast, John McCain fought hard for Republican Party core beliefs. Triangulating between conservative and liberal positions originates on the left rather than the right apparently and when the conservatives keep shifting to the right, the end result of triangulation is a center further to the right than in the past.
Rather than seeing "Third Way" politics as a kind of conscious policy choice, I would suggest that it is better understood in structural terms as the defense mechanism of Empires in decline perhaps not even understood fully by the politicians who carry them out. In broad historical perspectives, the rise of centrism in two of the most powerful imperialist nations in history is stoked by their decline as economic powers.
At a time when the British Empire was relatively powerful, the Labour Party pushed relatively hard for the class interests of the rank-and-file voter. It was no accident that socialized medicine arrived when British steel, shipbuilding, coal-mining, and auto manufacturing were vibrant, profit-generating industries.
When British industry lost its competitive edge, not coincidentally around the same time that its former colonial subjects were winning their freedom, the capitalists understood that the old rules did not apply. The worker's slice of the pie shrank steadily, all in the name of "modernization" and "efficiency."
The same ineluctable processes that gave rise to the "Third Way" in Great Britain have matured in the United States, thus giving birth to the candidacies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama alike. In one of the greatest con jobs in history, Obama was elected because voters decided that "change" meant something different from both George W. Bush and the Clinton administration that preceded it.
The liberal pundits who helped to get Obama elected still hold out hope that he will push through a new New Deal and thus return the U.S. to some kind of golden era of prosperity. For many of them, the proof of Obama's FDR type credentials is his announced intention to push through a 700 billion dollar public works project. Once again demonstrating the indifference to history that characterizes the world of Huffington Post, Nation Magazine, et al., there has been no attempt to analyze whether FDR's public works program did much good in breaking the back of the Great Depression.
It turns out that it was World War Two that had such a salutary effect, according to a letter written by the late Harry Magdoff in reply to a Monthly Review contributor who betrayed Keynesian illusions in a submission. Magdoff wrote:
[D]espite a promise of heavy government spending, and Keynes's theoretical support, the New Dealers were stumped by the 1937-38 recession, which interrupted what looked like a strong recovery. There was then as there is now an underlying faith that capitalism is a self-generating mechanism. If it slowed down or got into trouble, all that was needed was a jolt to get back on track. In those days, when farm life supplied useful metaphors, the needed boost was referred to as priming the pump. The onset of a marked recession after years of pump-priming startled Washington. Questions began to be raised about the possibility of stagnation in a mature capitalism, the retarding effect of monopolistic corporations, and other possible drags on business. These concerns faded as war orders flowed in from Europe, and eventually they disappeared when the United States went to war. The notion of the "Keynesian Welfare State" has tended to disguise the fact that what really turned the tide was not social welfare, Keynesian or otherwise, but war. In that sense, the whole concept of Keynesianism can be mystification.
War, of course, is not a feasible option today for the U.S. or any other imperialist power given the likelihood of mutually assured destruction. That being the case, how likely is it that public works programs will accomplish today what it did not in the 1930s? The answer is not very likely at all. The irony of American politics today is that the weapons it created to help win the last world war serve to inhibit it from launching new wars against powerful rivals. Without resort to war -- what Randolph Bourne called "the health of the state" -- the U.S. is destined to lurch from one economic crisis to another with politicians on the right and the nominal left competing with each other to turn back the clock to a glorious past that never really existed.
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