How the new 'left' and 'right' meet in the authoritarian middle

Peter Cresswell's picture
Submitted by Peter Cresswell on Thu, 2006-10-19 22:36

Many people have been surprised at the alliance of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, men respectively of the right and the left but who share an obviously genuine friendship. The answer to the apparent paradox is to be found in their respective philosophies. The so-called 'philosophies' of the left's 'Third Way' and the right's Neo-Conservatism' to which these two subscribe share more than their promoters might like to concede.

In fact, I would suggest that in all essentials the 'Third Way' is just the mirror image of 'Neo-Conservatism.' It is no accident that George Bush and Tony Blair have become allies; the understanding they so clearly share is born of a common way of seeing the political landscape, and it has lessons for us here in New Zealand.

Let me explain. These two political schools of the right and the left have until recently both of dominated their respective political 'markets,' and they've done so largely by making themselves 'pragmatic on principle': that is, they accept what they view as the 'political realities' of the present ideological and political geography of a country; they concede that capitalism produces rather more than any other alternative yet devised; and they've chosen to shackle the levers of power and the engine of capitalism simply to deliver votes.

That in a nutshell is the 'big idea' behind the ruling ideologies of both the Neocons and the Third Way zealots.

Far from being big ideas, both are little more than strategies for gaining and holding power for their 'side,' but in placing strategy over principles both leave largely bare the question of what they are gaining power for -- the result is that for both schools the pursuit of politics becomes power for power's sake - and we know (and have seen in the NZ Parliament recently) what the pursuit of power tends to do to those who pursue it absolutely. It's not at all pretty, and not all a natural environment in which freedom and liberty can flourish.

Fortuitously, recent posts on the local blogosphere make the comparison between the two relatively transparent. Prof. Brad Thompson's superb analysis of American conservatism gives the necessary keys to understanding the so-called philosophy of Neo-Conservatism; and now and in an apologia to the local left posted yesterday, Labour strategist Jordan Carter summarises for the "further left" the Third Way strategy followed by Labour here since 1993.

Third Way
If we look first at that "Third Way strategy" as summarised by Jordan: "The key components of that locally have been," he says,

  • Emphasis on the connection between social justice and economic development
  • Moderate political positioning, in touch with voters not activists
  • Pragmatic policy lines in terms of public spending and the market/community boundary
  • An avoidance of 'reform' as opposed to consolidation in most areas of policy
  • Incremental change and routing around, rather than challenging, opposition to particular policies

As I suggested above, this is hardly a 'big idea' in terms of political philosophy - this is strategy not philosophy, and if I may translate from the language of wonkery above into how it has worked in practice here, the strategy has been this:

  • Shackle capitalist means for socialist ends -- that is, use the engine of capitalism to produce, and the maw of politics to redistribute
  • Accept the political landscape (as Blair did in keeping the Thatcher reforms, and Clark has in keeping the Richardson/Douglas reforms) and seek instead to capture and massage and persuade the unthinking and the easily persuaded
  • Use welfare distribution as a tool of politics: that is, make sure welfare is politically targeted (remember for example how South Auckland came in for Labour last September?) and that new welfare programmes are identified with Labour (Welfare for Working Families anyone?)
  • Keep former New Labour activists close and compliant (Hello Jim), and the harder left rabble quiet by whatever means necessary, including both 'buy-in' and buying off.
  • Blur public-private boundaries, and make both public and private companies either politically or financially dependent on the party in power

The aim of course is not reform per se, except to the extent that reform might attract votes. The measure of success for such a strategy is not the success of the programmes and policies introduced (as demonstrated in the complete lack of interest shown in plummeting literacy and numeracy, increasing (if now-hidden) hospital waiting lists, and the almost complete disinterest in recent poverty surveys showing increasing poverty), instead the real measure of success to such a strategist can be best measured by the number of votes such a strategy attracts. As Jordan boasts:

[The 'Third Way' strategy] has been a very successful strategy for Labour. The party has rebuilt from a very low share of the vote of 28% in 1996, to three consecutive election wins around 40%. The message of moderation, and of investment in public services instead of cutting taxes, has been an electoral winner.

Never mind the poverty and dependence, feel the power! "We won, you lost, eat that!" The aim of the 'Third Way' strategy is clear enough: it is power. Power for power's sake. The pursuit of power, and the holding of power once gained -- and all policy is geared to that aim, policy as the hand-maiden of power-lust.

How does this differ from Neo-Conservatism? Hardly at all. Professor Brad Thompson summarises the advice given by Irving Kristol, the father of the Neo-Conservatism:

Kristol’s advice to Republicans is: Stop taking your principles so seriously (as if that were ever a problem). The successful statesman, he argues, is chameleon-like in his ability to redefine his principles in the light of changing circumstances. Don’t concern yourselves with principles; concern yourselves with acquiring and keeping power.

In other words, make policy the hand-maiden of power-lust. Third Way leftists and Neocon rightists might start at what they see as different ends of the political spectrum, but they both meet up in the authoritarian middle. Continuing the summary of the Neocons [with Thompson's words double-indented and my own single-indented):

Neocons agree with the underlying moral principles of the socialists; they disagree merely over the best means to achieve their shared ends. As do all good socialists, neocons hold that welfare should be regarded as a right because it is grounded in people’s “needs”—and, as Kristol explains, for the neocons, “needs” are synonymous with rights...

So how does a conservative welfare state work? And how does it differ from a liberal welfare state? Behind all the rhetoric, the shabby secret is that there is very little difference except how and by whom the readies are doled out. Both liberals and Neocons opposed Clinton's refoms of the welfare state. Both liberals and neoncons promise cradle to grave nannying. The Neocons, who (like Roger Douglas) talk about socalist ends through capitalist means simply insist that the all-powerful state should provide, but people should be allowed some "choice." The state will continue to put its hand in your pocket, increasingly so say neocons, but "the people choose their own “private” social security accounts; they choose their own “private” health and child-care providers; and parents receive vouchers and choose which schools their children will attend."

The choices, of course, are not the wide-open choices of a free market; rather, the people are permitted to choose from among a handful of pre-authorized providers. The neocons call this scheme a free-market reform of the welfare state.

Socialist ends through capitalist means, you see (or at least "conservative" means, capitalism not being the process so described). And as far as the neocons' "big idea" goes, that's it. George Bernard Shaw observed years ago that a government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always rely on the support of Paul. The neocons rob Peter, rob Paul, and channel that money to the providers pre-approved by the ruling party (who can expect to show their gratitude in the appropriate way), clipping the ticket on the way on behalf of the paternalistic state.

So the Neocon strategy of gaining and keeping power differs in practice only marginally from the strategy of the Third Way; both seek to politicise the delivery of welfare, and in doing so both seek to enlarge and expand the nannying state and put it at the service of buying votes.

In practice, then, Neocons and Third Way strategists are soul-mates. George, meet Tony. Tony, meet George.

The Vision Thing
But as I've suggested above there is a problem with the strategies of both Neocons and Third Way zealots like Jordan's beloved Labour party, and it is best summarised by Brad Thompson in talking about the neocons:

The most remarkable issue about the neocons’ notion of a “governing philosophy” is that it is a strategy for governing without philosophy. The neocons unabashedly describe themselves as pragmatists; they eschew principles in favor of a mode of thinking—and they scorn thinking about what is moral in favor of thinking about what “works.” For over twenty-five years, they have fought an ideological war against ideology.

And at the end of that 'war' -- and just like Labour -- all they are left with is power, and little real idea of what to do with it. And here's the key thing, and it is this: the 'vision thing' is left for someone else to determine,

Never mind "the vision thing" -- about which George Bush Sr. agonised -- give yourself over instead to absolute rule, and let the other side seek out new visions . That's the neocon ticket. The three most important rules for absolute rule: Compromise, compromise and compromise. The fourth rule: if visions arise that are going to happen anyway, then just roll over and make sure you take the credit... This is what it means to “think politically.”

And therein here's the hope for local politics. As long as Third Way and Neocon strategists eschew ideas and the 'vision thing,' then ideas and vision become (or should become) the province of their ideologic opposition.

The question is, are they up to it?

LINKS: Third Way Tactics in Labour Politics - Just Left (Jordan Carter)
The Decline and Fall of American Conservatism - C.Bradley Thompson, The Objective Standard
'CONSERVATISM: A NEW OBITUARY.' Part 5: The "neocons" in practice -- adding cynicism to love - Not PC (Peter Cresswell)

RELATED: Politics-US, Politics, Objectivism, History-Modern, History-Twentieth Century, Politics-NZ

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Well said, Peter

Kenny's picture

I have made similar points in various posts. Another common feature is the use of the terrorist threat as an excuse for trampling on civil liberties and expanding the surveillance state.

" As long as Third Way and Neocon strategists eschew ideas...

Marcus's picture

...and the 'vision thing,' then ideas and vision become (or should become) the province of their ideologic opposition."

Not only that, but it means they have lost the battle. Power through pragmatism is in itself a vacuum that needs filling. To eschew right-wing ideology is also to eschew left-wing ideology and to leave the door open for what works in practice. The free market works in practice, therefore they cannot reject it completely. Power over voters however also means rejection or restriction of individual rights. How long can that last in an unprincipled ideological vacuum? Not long.

As soon as a new economic crisis arrives, the political ideologues will re-emerge from their slumber.

Right on.

Ross Elliot's picture

Right on.

I hope everyone here has read this, as it nutshells the modern western political raison d'etre.

In fact, Blair & NZ's Clark are what I call conservative socialists. No longer trendy lefties, their chickens came home to roost long ago... and started crapping all over the carpet.

Of course, the conservatives of both the left & right still hold out hope of implementing the grand plan; you know, the principles, corrupt as they surely were, that they used to hold so dear.

A member of the prototypical third-wayers summed it up:

"Success is the important thing. Propaganda is not a matter for average minds, but rather a matter for practitioners. It is not supposed to be lovely or theoretically correct. I do not care if I give wonderful, aesthetically elegant speeches, or speak so that women cry. The point of a political speech is to persuade people of what we think right. I speak differently in the provinces than I do in Berlin, and when I speak in Bayreuth, I say different things than I say in the Pharus Hall. That is a matter of practice, not of theory. We do not want to be a movement of a few straw brains, but rather a movement that can conquer the broad masses. Propaganda should be popular, not intellectually pleasing. It is not the task of propaganda to discover intellectual truths." --Joseph Goebbels, Nazi bastard.

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