Third Way or Réalisme de Gauche?


Third Way or Réalisme de Gauche? The new social democracy in France

Ben clift

The ʻThird Wayʼ remains nebulous and ill-defined, yet advocates argue that it stands for ʻmodernizedʼ social democracy – a vision around which the European Left must cohere. However, not all subscribe to Blairʼs singular reading of the modernization of European social democracy, not least because New Labourʼs socialdemocratic credentials are ever more questionable. The French Parti Socialiste (PS) remains sceptical of the Third Way, and its emergent Réalisme de Gauche advocates pursuing egalitarian and full-employment goals through concerted European-level activism. The self-positioning of the PS, the emphasis on equality and state intervention, and the approach to ideology all point to a more equivocal acceptance of neo-liberalism than is evident in New Labourʼs policy paradigm. As a result, their interpretation of what constitutes economic ʻrealismʼ in a world characterized by advancing economic globalization is much more recognizably social democratic. Accordingly, the PS argue, contra Blair, that there is an alternative for the European Left.

In carving out New Labourʼs identity within the radical centre, Blair concurs with his ʻsuper-guruʼ Giddensʼs analysis of politics being Beyond Left and Right. In contrast, the French Socialist party shows no interest in such a remapping of the political landscape, and clearly affirms its position on the Left. The nature of its coalition, including Communists, Greens, the Citizenʼs Movement – all to the Left of the PS – is only part of the explanation for this. A centrist shift, seeking to exclude the Communists from any coalition, was contemplated by the PS under Rocard. So popular was it that within a year Rocard had been deposed, and his hopes of the presidency dashed. Talk of the PS turning into the American Democrats à la française proved very wide of the mark. The party, like Jospin himself, has historically defined itself as socialist, not social democratic, only formally accepting its social-democratization at the 1991 Arche conference. A defining feature of the partyʼs ideological self-positioning since Jospinʼs return to prominence in 1995 has been its Left-ness. It was from this position that the dialogue with future coalition partners began.

Central to New Labourʼs approach is a claimed disdain for ideology. The mantra ʻwhat counts is what worksʼ expresses an approach that seeks to exclude ideology from New Labourʼs approach to the economy. The new philosophy insists upon the significance of ʻrational expectationsʼ, incentives in the private sector, and the overriding importance of the supply side. This bears resemblance to the PS approach to economic policy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, associated with the late Pierre Bérégovoy.

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However, there has been a conscious attempt by the PS, since 1993, to break with this neo-liberal pensée unique, and the idea of governing the economy as merely a matter of efficient technocratic management. For example, although it accepts that globalization makes the pursuit of Keynesian strategies at the national level extremely problematic, the PS remains committed to Keynesianism as the best social-democratic ʻstrategic amalgamʼ so far elaborated. It thus seeks to re-create – at the EU level – an economic space where Keynesian economic strategies may once more be reconciled to the international economic context.

The PS continues to advocate Delorsʼs proposal for internationally co-ordinated demand-management policies and trans-European investment in public works to create 15 million new jobs. The social-democratic aspiration of full employment at the EU level with the European Jobs and Growth Pact, is shared by the German SPD, among others. Such commitments will be extraordinarily difficult to deliver given the collective action problems involved in any major shift of EU policy, as the squabbles over tax harmonization have shown. Given the neo-liberal foundations laid at Maastricht, the supra-national road to social democracy will be no less difficult than the national road before it. Indeed, Jospinʼs aspirations for a ʻEuropeanization of social democracyʼ are criticized by Green and Communist coalition partners, who see Europe not primarily as a reformist opportunity but more as a budgetary constraint and neo-liberal menace. The early reformist zeal which heralded the 35-hour week, the Plan Aubry and social exclusion legislation has, critics argue, faded, partly as a result of European constraints. The point however, is that in actively fighting for such shifts the PS are demonstrating a will to reinvigorate social-democratic full-employment policies on a European scale: arguably the only viable scale for them today. By contrast, New Labour shows no interest in any such aspirations. It is all hopelessly ʻold Labourʼ.

Globalization, rhetoric and realism

New Labour sees globalization, like the tax-aversion of Middle Englandʼs floating voters, as an immutable reality. Their response is the development of policies facilitating the smooth adjustment to the new ʻgivenʼ. This dovetails with the telos of New Labourʼs modernization rhetoric, rooted in the assumption that there is no alternative. All that is required is some joined-up government and a few task-forces to ensure that the process of adaptation to globalization is efficiently managed. Yet this use of globalization as a justification is disingenuous: there is no substantiating the causal connections assumed by the argument. Blairʼs failure to appreciate how the impact of economic globalization is mediated and contested by domestic institutional context and ideological traditions, and his a priori acceptance of the primacy of markets over politics – to paraphrase Esping-Andersen – leads New Labour to abdicate from socialdemocratic state intervention.

The contrast with the PSʼs adaptation to globalization strategy illustrates the point.

Jospinʼs Réalisme de Gauche suggests that, whilst the constraints highlighted by ʻhyperglobalʼ pessimists are powerful, globalization does not preclude social-democratic policy activism. ʻWe fully recognise globalisationʼ, Jospin writes, ʻbut we do not see it as inevitable. We seek to create a regulatory system for the world capitalist economy … so that we can influence the process of globalization and control its pace for the benefit of society.ʼ By exerting ʻpolitical willʼ in opposition to fatalistic laisser faire, and approaching globalization as a contested process, the PS argues that a significant degree of volontarisme – or effective political intervention – remains possible. ʻThis need to take control in adapting to realityʼ, Jospin argues, ʻplaces a special responsibility on the state. . . Often it is the only agent that can clear away or navigate around the archaic forces standing in the way of what society wantsʼ (Guardian, 16 November 1999).

Within New Labourʼs policy paradigm, employment policy measures are conceived as supply-side reforms aiming to reduce the ʻnon-accelerating inflation rate of unemploymentʼ. In the three years since Blairʼs stakeholding speech, there has been a turnaround. Then, Labour contemplated the import to Britain of elements of the Rhenish model, such as long-termism and co-operative employer–employee relationships. Today, New Labour advocates the export of the Anglo-Saxon model – ever more flexible and deregulated labour markets – to continental Europe. The stateʼs role is merely to establish the right labour market conditions through setting replacement ratios, minimum wages levels, and employment legislation. The New Deal, operating through changing incentives in the private sector, contrasts with the French Socialistsʼ Plan Aubry, which pledged 350,000 private-sector and 350,000 publicsector jobs, and the state-orchestrated shift to a 35-hour week. The latter is also on the agenda of the SPD in Germany, and of the SAP in Sweden. The contrast with Britain, where even regulating a maximum 48-hour working week has proved problematic, is striking.

Perhaps the crowning achievement of European social democracy in the postwar era has been the establishment of the European Social Model. The Model involves a regulated labour market securing extensive rights and benefits for workers, and redistributive social welfare through accessible benefits systems. Whilst the PS remain committed to it, unwillingness to fund this Model is one of the causes of New Labourʼs distance from its European counterparts over tax harmonization. Although the French welfare state is subject to the usual fiscal pressures, Jospin has re-prioritized the tax burden through the more progressive Contribution Sociale Généralisée. Unemployment benefits and early retirement pensions remain generous and, through a 3 per cent increase in Revenu Minimum dʼInsertion, the Jospin government has explicitly targeted the non-working poor. This contrasts with New Labourʼs targeting of the working poor as beneficiaries of redistribution to the exclusion of the non-working poor, and moves towards an increasingly means-tested, ʻliberalʼ welfare state. Blair preaches flexibility, but the Jospin government offers a vision which remains recognizably social democratic. The debate over the future of European social democracy remains unresolved.