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BBC - Future - The reasons why politics feels so tribal in

Presenting himself as an almost apolitical figure came easily to Blair, because that was how he often saw himself. During the early years of his leadership and premiership, Blair was encouraged in such thinking by another sceptic about politics, Geoff Mulgan. Mulgan was a precocious, intellectually impatient former leftwing activist, who had quickly tired of what he saw as the factionalism and dead-end thinking of most socialists during the 70s and 80s. In , Mulgan distilled his British experiences and his wide knowledge of western politics and social trends into a book, Politics in an Antipolitical Age.

It claimed that warring creeds no longer interested most voters, or served them well. Mulgan knew Giddens, who was a longstanding Labour supporter, and invited him into the New Labour inner circle to share his thoughts.


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And in person, they were disarmingly direct and informal. In the 80s, Mulgan had driven a tour van for Labour-supporting bands. As intellectuals go, Mulgan and Giddens were can-do, pragmatic figures, which was attractive to a New Labour hierarchy that saw itself in the same terms. But what exactly did he mean? Blair, at the time a master of vague rhetoric, never quite explained. Political journalists scratched their heads, or sniggered at the portentousness of the phrase.

For three years, Blair used the third way like an advertising slogan, as an attractive but almost content-free metaphor for the supposed freshness of New Labour and the staleness of their opponents. Then, in , he and Giddens decided to define the term more concretely.

They published a pamphlet and a book , respectively, both titled The Third Way.


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As well as advocating consensus politics, it warned that third way governments would still need to make controversial decisions: to check the growing power of the financial industries, for example, and to require socially responsible behaviour from companies as well as benefits claimants. Yet both men insisted that accepting the global free market in principle — and thus effectively removing it from politics — was a central part of the third way project.

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For the next five years, from to , Blair promoted this and other third way orthodoxies at regular, widely reported, sometimes slightly self-congratulatory international summits in Britain, Italy, Germany and the US. Most of the attendees were leaders of nominally left-of-centre parties that had moved into more ambiguous political territory and were achieving electoral success seemingly as a consequence. Giddens sometimes also attended. These days, he plays down his involvement. T he next British general election, in , suggested a new era of political harmony and equilibrium.

Yet there was one significant difference between the two contests. The turnout was strikingly low: the lowest for 83 years.

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Many commentators and Labour figures discounted this as a consequence of a one-sided election. The Conservatives were still offering voters tired Thatcherite policies, and were awkwardly led by William Hague. Giddens was relatively sanguine about the situation.

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Yet by the early 00s it was also becoming clear that there was something unsatisfying about the third way. It was a retreat. Its notion of the political was extremely narrow. Government became mainly about competence, and measuring that competence. But the most vivid condemnation of third way politics came from the melodramatic German conservative philosopher Peter Sloterdijk in Former New Labour ministers complain that such sweeping dismissals ignore the many achievements of their governments, such as the introduction of a minimum wage and the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland.

People live in yards. Yet the fact that former New Labour figures so often respond to criticisms of their governments with policy detail is revealing: it suggests they think the latter is the only criteria on which governments should be judged.


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Moreover, in government as in business, basing your public appeal on competence and efficiency is a risk. Even when policies did succeed, voters often did not believe they had, thanks to the distorting efforts of the tabloids. His government suffered the consequences. On radio phone-ins in the early 00s, callers would routinely castigate it for failing to do things, such as reduce crime, that it was already doing. Politics might have become a more placid business in the eyes of third way theorists and New Labour ministers, but in newspaper offices and living rooms it still bubbled with ancient enmities and fresh grievances.

R ightwing populist parties had begun to make electoral breakthroughs in France, Austria and Italy during the 80s and early 90s. In each case, the populists moved into political space left vacant by mainstream parties congregating ever more tightly on the centre ground. Others in New Labour convinced themselves that the third way had its own populist dimension. He was a privately educated ex-barrister, and his MPs were more middle-class than any previous Labour cohort; yet, at first, this anti-establishment tone was not completely absurd.

It was based on a deliberative vision of politics that saw democracy as modelled on discussion. Its distributive framework squeezed out other ways of thinking about the dynamics and organization of economic, social, and political life. The Rawlsian distributive framework squeezed out other ways of thinking about the dynamics and organization of economic, social, and political life.

As his theory was widely taken up, ideas incompatible with these parameters were set aside or dropped out of mainstream philosophical discourse altogether. Liberal philosophers dispensed with older arguments and concerns—about the nature of the state, political control, collective action, corporate personality, and appeals to history. Their conceptual choices often had political implications, regardless of the political motivations of the theorists themselves, who sometimes became trapped in conceptual structures of their own collective making.

As subsequent generations built on the arguments of their forebears, a philosophical paradigm took on a political shape that none of its discrete theorists might have intended. It had its own logic and its own politics, which helped determine what ethical and political problems would count as sufficiently puzzling to warrant philosophical concern. That meant that demands for reparations for slavery and other historical injustices made by Black Power and anti-colonial campaigns in the late s and s were rejected too.

It also meant that political philosophers in the Rawlsian strain often read later objections to the universalist presumptions of American liberalism as identitarian challenges to equality, rather than as critiques informed by the history of imperialism and decolonization. As the concerns of philosophers were consolidated, facility with Rawlsianism became the price of admission into the elite institutions of political philosophy.

Many on the margins saw that it was only by adopting the form of liberal egalitarianism or its mainstream alternatives that other ideas—Marxian, feminist, critical race, anticolonial, or otherwise—could be considered.

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Just as often, rival political visions or arguments were not rejected outright, but accommodated within the liberal egalitarian paradigm—often in a way that diffused their force. When marginalized ideas were taken up by liberal philosophers, they were frequently distorted to cohere with the larger paradigm. Analytical Marxism was engaged insofar as Marxism could be made into a theory of property distribution, and thus compatible with the Rawlsian focus of distributive justice.

The same was true for democratic ideas, which had to be made compatible with theories of discussion and deliberation. The very capaciousness of liberal philosophy squeezed out possibilities for radical critique. The political crises of the s largely passed Anglophone liberal philosophers by. Few wrote about crises of legitimacy and the challenges of post-industrial society. In this moment of conceptual consolidation, the political crises of the s largely passed Anglophone liberal philosophers by.

Many social theorists were trying to address the collapse of Marxist and liberal grand narratives—by rethinking the subject of the working class, and by moving analyses of work beyond the factory to the school, prison, clinic, and bedroom. Rawlsians did not worry much about these collapses or the social changes these rival theories sought to explain—changes of class, capital, work, the state, or the subject. Instead they offered a new grand system at a time when many other systems were rejected.

It was in part because of this refusal to engage these new challenges that liberal egalitarianism survived the undoing of the postwar liberal settlement. This is not to say that political philosophy was untouched by political change.

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They explored questions of individual responsibility and control over choices. Many were leftists, but they took on an individualizing discourse of responsibility, dependency, choice, and market solutions identified with the New Right. Others challenged proceduralism and marketization in the name of community or human rights. A school of thought known as communitarianism became the dominant alternative; its advocates prioritized community over the individual and the social self over the atomistic, liberal one though in practice many communitarians returned to ideas that Rawls had himself begun from and left behind.

The rise of Rawlsianism is thus a story of triumph—the triumph of a small group of affluent, white, mostly male, analytical political philosophers who worked at a handful of elite institutions in the United States and Britain, especially Harvard, Princeton, and Oxford, and constructed a universalizing liberal theory that took on a life of its own. They began from where they were, focusing almost entirely on North American and Western European welfare states, except in their imagination of the global.

Yet they wanted their political philosophy to have a broader reach; they tried to expand their theories across space to encompass wider communities, nations, the international realm, and ultimately the planet. They also moved across time, drawing on the past to reimagine the future and to make political philosophy as universal and unconstrained as possible. But in the end, they remained within the contradictions of postwar liberalism.

In recent years, however, aspects of the Rawlsian paradigm have come under pressure as a new generation probes its limits. Its prevailing assumption and aim of consensus today look out of touch in the face of so much sharp division. Doubts have led many philosophers to ideas that the first few generations of Rawlsians ignored.

In recent years, aspects of the Rawlsian paradigm have come under pressure as a new generation probes its limits.

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Others have repurposed theories of exploitation and domination to supplement distributive principles. Self-described political realists have tried to put the politics back into political philosophy by making theories of democracy more sensitive to the nature of actual political conflict. There has also been a move away from the distributive focus, as well as from the deliberative view of democracy that models politics on a seminar room.