Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The sheep in wolf's clothing?

I don't know whether this will be appear on the LSE Ideas Centre blog today (I hope so), but just in case (not), I'm attaching it here as well.  Some reflections following my attendance at Rafael Correa's speech at LSE last night:

"Tony Blair’s star seems to be rising, not just in Europe but globally. In Europe he is currently the frontrunner for the post of EU president, despite leaving the British prime minister’s office under a cloud just over two years ago. His departure then could be attributed to his unpopularity for his foreign policy in Iraq and his close relations with George W Bush.

"Globally, Blair’s brand of Third Way social democracy also seems to be in the ascendance – and from an arguably surprising quarter. Although the LSE and its former director, Anthony Giddens, became synonymous with the Third Way in the latter half of the 1990s, it was another speaker that last night seemed to breathe new life into the concept.

"Last night Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, came to speak at the LSE. Having been elected in late 2006, between 2007 and 2008 he was involved in a far-reaching constitutional reform which included land redistribution, greater controls on industries and fewer monopolies and environmental rights. It also enabled him to stand for re-election, which he did successfully in April this year.

"In Latin America Correa’s attitudes and positions place him alongside Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez (since 1998) and Bolivia’s Evo Morales (since 2006). This places him at the sharper end of the supposed ‘red tide’ that has swept the region since the mid-2000s rather than among its ‘pinker’ associates in Brazil (Lula), Chile (Michelle Bachelet) and Uruguay (TabarĂ© Vasquez).

"Despite this fearsome reputation though, Correa’s speech at the LSE last night provided a far more nuanced and pragmatic approach than is sometimes assumed. Indeed, what was remarkable about the so-called ‘21st century socialism’ that he, Chavez and others have expounded upon, was quite how similar it was to the Third Way.

"Among the main themes Correa stressed the importance of its basis on principle rather than on dogma or particular models. In particular he stressed its adaptability to different countries and settings, rejecting a standard form. He wanted to see a greater role for the state and more public intervention in markets, since the latter are only concerned with monetary (as opposed to social) value. He noted its collective nature (as opposed to neo-liberalism’s independence and isolation) and the influence it could play in achieving justice across different dimensions, including gender, ethnicity, etc.

"Where 21st century socialism was different from the ‘classical socialism’ of the last century was not just in relation to its relative pragmatism. He criticised classical socialism’s slaving adherence to dialectic materialism and its over-emphasis on unchangeable laws governing society. This had given rise to an almost theological commitment to the ideas of a few rather than a wider discussion about how best to improve society. In contrast to classical socialism he rejected violence, saying that the only ‘bullet’ should be the vote. He took issue with absolute state control of the means of production, instead stressing that it should be ‘democratic’. But most pertinently of all, he noted that classical socialism had fallen into the same development trap as capitalism, by emphasising consumption and accumulation rather than alternative, more human and nature-oriented versions.

"What is striking about this vision though is how remarkably similar it is to the Third Way. In 1998 Giddens put forth the ideas of a ‘renewed’ social democracy that sought to update it for the age of globalisation. This meant not a return to the old way of doing things but their adaptation. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the role of the state. Instead of a dominant state role Giddens envisaged the involvement of both public and private working alongside each other, but overseen by a state that would be ‘active’ or ‘enabling’. In other words the state’s role would be pragmatic, stepping in when and where it saw it necessary. This meant that like Correa’s 21st century socialism, it could be shaped and adapted depending on local circumstances. The result was that social democracy was everywhere and nowhere, being able to include individuals who called themselves social democrats but weren’t and those who were carrying out social democratic aims while denying the political affiliation. Furthermore, underpinning these ‘social democracies’ were similar core values identified by Correa, including the rejection of violence (class conflict) and its aims to break out of the development paradigm dominated by capitalism and previous forms of socialism.

"Not only was Giddens’s presentation of the Third Way subjected to considerable criticism after 1998, but it arguably became increasingly discredited through its association with the politician most closely identified with it: Tony Blair. It therefore does seem rather ironic that just as Blair may be achieving a political rehabilitation through Europe, so might the Third Way similarly be experiencing a renaissance. That it should be gaining this recognition from a trio of Latin American political leaders who (rightly or wrongly) have been on the receiving end of negative publicity is especially surprising."

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