Pontifical Polonius

The Third Way and its Critics

Anthony Giddens <em>Polity Press, 176pp, £7.99</em>

ISBN 07456245

Left-wing friends with a training in Continental philosophy have warned me of the dangers of succumbing to the deplorable English vice of empiricism. The national tendency to demand that theory is supported by evidence, I now know, can miss the fundamental assumptions of a society, which can only be argued on a higher level. I have been told, too, that in a country where "academic" and "clever-clever" are insults, the urge to raise cheap laughs by mocking pompous pointy heads must be resisted, however easy the target is to hit.

I have tried to follow their example, I really have, but Anthony Giddens destroys the best of intentions. I felt like a teacher marking a lazy student's work as I went through the London School of Economics director's awesomely inadequate response to the many critics of the Third Way. I filled the margins with "proof?", "explain", "how so?" and "your terms, boy, define your terms". Giddens believes that he and his chums in the American Democrats and new Labour succeed because they understand the modern world, but he has remarkably little interest in going out and confronting the thing itself. Pages pass without anything resembling a fact to support his assertions. In place of corroboration, there is the harsh voice of the intellectual policeman who snaps that no one can defy the iron laws of history which all, funnily enough, protect his intellectual property rights.

The transplanted Marxist, "tomorrow belongs to me" tone is shared by other new Labour thinkers - most notably Geoff Mulgan and the wide-eyed Charles Leadbeater. But Giddens attracts special resentment. His associates tell me that he was hurt by the ridicule that his original Third Way (Polity Press, 1998) provoked, particularly when it came from his academic colleagues. As I read, with exasperation and boredom growing in equal measure, I wondered why so many people laugh at him - and why he cannot get the joke.

There is, I'm afraid, no getting away from his resemblance to the portentous professor of cliche who has become so used to deferential students that criticism strikes him as shockingly improper. When most of us receive a poor notice, we resolve - after sobbing for four, maybe five days, and raising the funds to employ a contract killer - to take it on the chin. Giddens has written a 180-page review of his reviews - a rather self-pitying project.

Then there is his closeness to power. Readers have a vague, if unrealistic, notion that the good intellectual should be a free spirit. Giddens is so closely tied to the political class that independence seems all but impossible. Puffs from Tony Blair, Romano Prodi and the president of Brazil pepper his cover. Early drafts were sent to David Miliband, of the Downing Street Policy Unit, and Sidney Blumenthal, a Clinton propagandist, for their comments. It is not a crime to agree with the prime minister or president, or to attempt to move on the debate about "progressive" policies. But as Polly Toynbee, who is scarcely a fiery enemy of new Labour, noted recently, the Blair circle has the whiff of monarchism about it. You are not allowed to be a critical friend, even if your criticisms provide fresh policy ideas. You are either in His Majesty's Service or an exiled traitor. If Giddens's work is a reliable guide, the effect on those who have chosen to reside at court is stupefying. Nothing that Blair or Clinton has done appears to disturb him.

The Third Way is meant to be an alternative to "old-style" social democracy (which Giddens slyly and quite outrageously links to Soviet communism) and the free-market right. The traditional mid-point was liberalism, which people like me would criticise for its lack of concern for economic and social rights, but which has an honourable record in this country nevertheless. The most striking feature of Third Wayers is their authoritarianism. Two million people are now in prison in the US, and the death rows are heaving. Trial by jury and asylum in Britain are facing their most sustained assault in modern history. Both regimes have an impatience with anyone who gets in their way and a willingness to use the state to punish them or bully them into work. It is not only that Giddens fails to justify or explain the packed jails and workfare; he also seems to be entirely ignorant of the consequences of his masters' viciousness. He berates Will Hutton (whom he hilariously describes as "old left" and "anti-American"), in a conversation reproduced in On the Edge, for not recognising the job-creating joys of US entrepreneurship. It hasn't struck him that, if a substantial proportion of young men are behind bars, the unemployment figures tend to look good. Nor does he ask why "progressive" governments need mass coercion and incarceration. To discipline the poor? To keep the workforce docile and maintain profits?

It was only at the tail-end of the 1990s boom, the longest in American history, that the real incomes of the American working and middle classes began to rise. Why was that? Instead of dealing with hard questions, Giddens produces the original insight that "we must be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime". He goes on to ask, if racist youths are running amok, "would a street curfew after a certain hour add to the sum of available liberties" by giving their victims the liberty to live in peace? If there are racist attacks, surely suspects should be arrested and brought before a jury (if, that is, a jury from the swinish multitude is allowed to hear the case). But new Labour lacks the competence to catch criminals, just as it does not have the administrative ability to separate genuine from "bogus" asylum-seekers or to detect social security frauds. Instead of improving a Civil Service that has been "deskilled" by 20 years of Conservatism, it lashes out and penalises all asylum-seekers, all minor suspects who want trial by jury, all recipients of sickness benefit, all children out after bedtime.

That Giddens provides intellectual cover for a brutal government's mendacious distraction techniques is, in my view, detestable. It is not a new politics but a triangulation of the old, and Giddens's geometry lessons instruct us to judge the results from a right angle. Social democrats (he never uses the phrase democratic socialists) cannot "any longer see either capitalism or markets as the source of most of the problems that beset modern societies". I'm not sure they ever did. I'm certain, however, that you cannot believe that poverty, environmental degradation and the hollowing out of democracy are not, at root, the faults of the capitalist order and still claim to be on the left. As Alex Callinicos pointed out in a critique of the original Third Way in the New Left Review, what is truly weird about Giddens and his sort is that they are ruling that capitalism cannot be contested at the very moment when it is conforming to a vulgar Marxist stereotype for the first time since the 19th century. Inequalities are exploding. Conglomerates are merging into monopolies. But all progressives do is parrot: "There is no alternative - get in line."

It is at this point that the policeman in the professor takes over. He is a gee-whizz conservative entranced by the Internet, branding and delayering. Yet he insists that his "Third Way politics is unequivocally a politics of the left". In effect, if not intention, his writings deny the validity of left-wing responses to modernity from within. His dispiriting words would lose much of their impact if he were seen for what he is - an opponent of radical change - and treated as such. But, like a fifth columnist, his menace (and value) lies in being on the inside. Location is everything, as the estate agents say.

I turned with relief to Naomi Klein's No Logo (HarperCollins, £14.99) on the many occasions when Giddens became too much for me. Her account of how modern capitalism is sweeping aside all values apart from money worship - insinuating itself into every crevice of public space, censoring, denying choice, limiting democratic debate and downsizing - isn't selling because of tributes from Blair and Prodi, but because of ecstatic word-of-mouth reviews and an extract in the NS. For all her anger, Klein is fascinated by modernity, and she stuffs her books with examples, quotes and journalism which take readers along with her while permitting them the freedom to disagree.

Where Klein is open, Giddens is snide and bombastic. Where Klein understands that new forms of power bring new forms of opposition, Giddens, for all his mutton-dressed-as-lamb posture as a fab modern, presents a frozen world. Klein, in short, is intellectually alive, while the dead hand of the court strangles Giddens's prose. Like his betters in government, he is not new and he is not Labour. Can't someone get Polonius a life?

Nick Cohen writes for the "NS" and the "Observer"