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Three for all

FROM THE THREE bears and wise men to the enduringly mundane 'sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll', the neat and weighty triple has for centuries been the choice for a multitude of individuals, religions, lobbies and interest groups to package and sell their ideas. Literary, cultural, philosophical and political strategies are made to seem more substantial, ruses and conceits more respectable, inevitable even, as if ordained by the mysterious appeal of the 'perfect' number.

In ancient Sanskrit there were only three numbers – one, two and many – and it seems we are still not hardwired to understand anything more complex than three of anything, any more than we are born with the ability to read and write or play cricket. Long numbers are a cultural construct that has to be taught and learned. Moreover, the number three (the biggest a babe can recognise) seems to be imbued with mystical properties: if a whole is in three parts, each third expressed as a decimal is 0.33333 recurring, a number that that has no end. We can only count up to three but isn't it encouraging to know it includes infinity?

In 2004 Peter Gordon, a behavioural scientist at Columbia University, published a paper that declared us to be innately innumerate. He had been living with a small Brazilian tribe, the Piraha, whose concept of numbers was also 'one, two, many'. They had no written language and could not use their fingers for counting. Gordon decided that the rest of us probably would be the same if we weren't taught the words for numbers greater than three – human comprehension of number is linguistic.

So, the rhythmic resolution of the three-part list, the seductive appeal of the metaphorical triangle, the symmetrical trio, the mysterious trinity are imbued with the allure of paradox. Three defines our conceptual limitations but points to limitless options beyond. It is the simpleton's infinity. Thirds, triangles, trios and triples are natural links to deeper cosmic puzzles. Any third thing encourages our desire to burst out of the constraints of bifurcated reality – good/evil, up/down, wet/dry, left/right, then/now – that seems to be in our DNA.

Then there's the continuous recycling of the three-element joke that conflates choice to certainty. In the old Yiddish version: the world stands on three things – on money, on money and on money. Orson Welles was reported to have said that his favourite film directors were 'the old masters'. When asked by the British critic Kenneth Tynan to identify them, he replied: 'John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.' The better to accept the singularity of a truth we are encouraged to imagine it threefold. The contemporary equivalent is location, location, location. Media traffic in threes is busier than bicycles in Amsterdam.

Any day of any week our attention is drawn to three key points, pillars, reasons – the construction is as essential to journalism as the three-act play is to drama, the three men who walk into a pub are to comedians or the trinity to Christians. Prime Minister Julia Gillard identified the problem when she accused her opponents of reducing their policies to 'three-word slogans' (like 'stop the boats'). The Tea Party Movement loves them (TEA is an acronym for 'taxed enough already'), as in: 'lower taxes, less government, more freedom'. The only one I value is the old Hell's Angels motto: three can keep a secret if two of them are dead.

 

MOST RELIGIONS HAVE practices that relate to doing things three times. Muslims are supposed to wash before praying in a ritual known as wudu: hands, feet, face, all and each separately, three times. A pre-Christian rite performed on the longest day of the year sees some Greek women light small fires in the street, over which they jump three times, lifting up their skirts to feel the heat between their legs – a charm designed to promote fertility. At Greek Orthodox baptisms the infant is dunked into the font three times. It's good form to throw three stones on a Mongolian burial mound, and a Christian cathedral is always consecrated three times with holy water. A friend told me that when she visited her ancestral home in Ghana, the elders insisted she be inducted by ritual cleansing, and so she was submersed in the local river three times – on three separate occasions. And we all know about third time lucky.

There's something else going on that even connects cultural traditions of seeing things in groups of three, or preferring a third option, that could explain the connection between Buddhism – routinely described as one of the world's 'three great religions' and itself packed with many three-based precepts – and the thoughts of Chairman Mao. Buddhism has 'three treasures' – the Buddha, the Buddhist law and the Buddhist priesthood – and for liturgical complexity you can't beat Buddhism's three kinds of three-part time (past, present and future in the past; past, present and future in the present and past; present and future in the future), or for simplicity its claim to be the 'middle' or 'third' way to enlightenment. Even the Buddha's lotus position formed an isosceles triangle, its apex at that spot in the middle of the forehead where the 'third eye' was supposed to be, while the base was the line between the knees of his folded legs.

The Communist Party of China as led by Mao used Buddhist-style three-part mottos and slogans. In the early 1950s it identified 'three evils': corruption, waste and bureaucracy, all of which were to be eradicated by 'the three antis'. The Great Leap Forward was launched with a campaign under 'three banners'. Much later Deng Xiaoping devised three 'benefits' to allow the development of capitalism and market practices within the state-governed structure, whereby anything 'beneficial' to the Chinese economy must be 'socialist' including letting favoured enterprises rip, encouraging consumerism and maintaining one-party state control.

I don't think he ever admitted to it, but maybe Tony's Blair strategy to reconfigure Britain's New Labour as the 'third way' (somewhere between socialism and capitalism) might also owe something to Buddhism. After all it was invented in the afterglow of New Age rave culture.

The Third Way's main protagonists, Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell, formed a pragmatic trinity – not so holy, and hardly Buddhist, but I expect the natural seeming order of a trio would have had resonance for them. Trinities are deeply embedded in western culture. The legendary Greek bard Orpheus supposedly said, 'all things were made by god in three names' – meaning the celestial trinity of sun, moon and earth. Perhaps all our trinities derive from the celestial order of ancient Egypt, when Osiris Isis and their offspring Horus ruled heaven and earth.

For Christians the difficult abstraction (and physical fact) of God in three persons is the ineffable mystery which makes their belief system so powerful and mysterious. Most theologians are reluctant to explain it too well and it is rejected as heretical by Islam, which believes only in one unitary God. Easier to understand are the holy family of Jesus, Joseph and Mary, the Three Wise Men who came to visit them and the trio of ideals in the Catholic Catechism: faith, hope and charity.

We can only guess from which of all these three-based traditions emerged the subconscious of the three wise men of New Labour but, while it lasted, they were determined to take advantage of whatever latent potency the Third possessed in western culture. It's worth remembering that the post-hippy era also gave us the quasi-religious mind-body-spirit movement.

The radical American critic Norman Birnbaum ('Is the Third Way Authentic?', New Political Economy, vol. 4, no. 3, 1999) spotted what he called a 'redemptive note' in Tony Blair's discourse – the 'doctrine of uplift' as extolled by Evangelical Protestants – and he noted that Bill Clinton, who proclaimed the Third Way for US Democrats, was a Baptist who drew heavily on the 'heart' of black American Protestantism. They were reviving Christian Utilitarianism, which decreed any human activity could be redefined ethically by its worth or value – so ethical quantification could be added to the market as a determinant of price and value. What was missing, Birnbaum concluded, was 'the concept of active citizenry': 'The Third Way is not a modernisation of American social reform and European socialism; it represents their liquidation.'

Blair's way began as a response to the devastating work done to Labour by the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher. The Tories and their press successfully vilified state policies that gave subsidies or grants to the less well-off as 'social engineering'. Thatcher expected users to pay market prices for services and, if they were too poor, they would have to apply for government grants or pensions dispensed through means tests and contracts to ensure the state got something back from the supplicant, preferably in the form of work.

There was something deeply paradoxical at the centre of Third Way thinking that aspired to the miraculous. It was devised to reverse Thatcherism but at the same time absorb it, without being seen to do so.

Thatcher had changed Britain's laws to put more people into a middle-class frame of mind and discourage them from paying taxes to subsidise non-achievers. Nothing collective, only individuals pursuing 'choice' through the discretionary expenditure of their own income, taxed to the minimum. People were to become small shareholders in privatised public utilities like Telecom and the water boards: if the majority had a vested interested in the ownership of capital through stocks they would abandon outmoded allegiances to trade unions and their creature the Labour Party. They could criticise capitalism from the inside, at shareholders' meetings. Tenants of public housing, originally built by local authorities, were encouraged to buy the roofs over their head – which most then sold for ready cash to pay for services no longer provided out of taxes.

To let them down lightly the government relaxed laws controlling gambling and brought in a colossal national lottery from which came the opportunity, once a week, for at least one individual to become a multi-millionaire. So, for a while, there was a craze for casino capitalism, as ordinary working people became temporary stock market 'winners' and property owners. Thatcherism was the assertion that there was only one way and we were all in it. There was no alternative.

Labour's Third Way was the pursuit of something similar within the rhetoric of 'mutual obligation'. Anthony Giddens, former director of the London School of Economics, defined it in his marquee title The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy (Polity, 1998) as the 'radical centre, the place where individualism and collectivism folded together as equals into the social mesh'.

Blair did nothing to deny capitalism was inevitable and natural, and instead eagerly set out to prove there would be no return to 'Old' Labour socialism. The Third Way would banish class struggle, revolution, collectivism, Stalinism and sectional interest, and accept the victory of free market capitalism to be irreversible. It just needed the human touch. His ally and chief political organiser, Peter Mandelson, liked to call it the Project (see The Third Man, HarperCollins, 2010), which would recreate Britain as a (democratically elected) one-party state. Their first goal was to change the attitude of welfare recipients. Thatcher's policies had made them bitter and resentful; Blair wanted them to be 'responsible'.

However, the Third Way was never much of a project until Labour gained power, and like many third options its promises of something new proved to be illusory. It suggests to me that wherever there is talk of 'three' it might be wise to think of One. In other words, you are being persuaded by covert means to go along with the original idea disguised as an alternative.

For its theoretical appearance in Australia we have to acknowledge the enthusiastic (if temporary) and secular advocacy of Mark Latham, who probably isn't a Buddhist. Latham tried to argue the Third Way's merits from Opposition: the only way the Left could modernise itself was to re-embrace the 'mutualist ideals' of 'co-operative and ethical socialism', which had been destroyed (almost) by the twentieth century's 'socialism of the state'.

 

THERE WERE OVERT religious threads in Tony Blair's eagerness to declare support for Christian virtues. In 1993 he told the Third Way magazine (published by a Christian trust) he was in fact a 'Christian socialist' influenced by the thinking of the theologian-philosopher John MacMurray (who was first brought to his attention by an Australian pastor and friend, the philosopher-theologian Peter Thomson). During the decade of Bob Hawke's Accord, Blair's posse had already paid close attention to what was happening in the antipodes and well before that in the 1970s, as Australian political economist Tim Harcourt reported, Tony Blair spent formative years in the company of Australians at Oxford, where he was exposed to the concept of 'community' by Thomson. The West Australian Labor politician Geoff Gallup was another ally, and the connection came full circle late in 2003 when Mark Latham was elected to lead federal Labor. Latham admitted on television he had long been a supporter of Gallup's policy of 'parental responsibility'.

Only a few years into his career as an MP Latham had produced Civilising Global Capitalism (Allen & Unwin, 1998) to redefine the ALP's natural constituency – and sold the serial of the idea to the Australian Financial Review which, for well over a year, paid him to write a monthly 'Third Way' column. In it Latham explained how the old Left was Keynesian (code for too much public spending) and the new Right wanted too much 'deregulation' and 'individual freedoms' (greed and trickle-down), whereas 'thirdists' like himself put 'education, entrepreneurialism and rewards for effort' at the core of their philosophy (code: mutual obligation and risk-taking). The rider to the good news was that only those who engaged in 'active citizenship' would qualify. 'Unless welfare recipients are willing to take responsibility for improving themselves and the society in which they live, they have no right to permanently live off society.' . (BTW this is a quote)It was 'the only way forward'. AFR 11/1/99

In Opposition, Mark Latham had no power to implement Third Way policies. The closest John Howard got was to open up the management of welfare to the 'third sector' (coined by Jeremy Rifkind in 1995), whereby charities and NGOs managed mutual obligation However, the most enduring and costly legacy of Third Way thinking in Australia is the ubiquity of PPPs (public-private partnerships) designed to reduce public debt: state Labor governments encouraged the private sector to build toll roads, bridges and tunnels, only to find their losses had to be topped up by taxpayers. In Blair's Britain schools, hospitals and prisons were also built this way (by PFIs, private finance initiatives) to make it look like the government wasn't spending much on infrastructure.

The aggressive marketing of mutual obligation was more insidious. Blair's team was desperately keen to wean individual stragglers off the public purse. Antony Giddens wanted them to take risks. The poor could be brought 'in' through something he called the IDA – 'individual development accounts' linked to another three-word cachet, 'asset-based welfare'. The poor should cash whatever assets they had – including their latent talent – for the common good of the market. Tony Blair suggested that every newborn baby be issued with a life 'bond' (or 'life asset account'), parts or all of which could also be realised, or invested, at various times during their life to pay for education, child care and other needs including welfare.

Mark Latham came up with a similar idea: when they reached maturity at age eighteen, young Australians could take control of a means-tested 'endowment' allocated at birth, which they could then spend on education or training, home ownership, business start-ups, superannuation or pension requirements. In July 2003 he promised a $500 grant to young parents to put it into a trust account for their child – 'to start it in the savings habit'.

The Howard government minister for children and youth services Larry Anthony thought that parents (single or otherwise) in receipt of any government benefit should show their commitment to society by attending compulsory parenting 'classes'.

Then Latham declared a Labor government would bring in legal requirements for parents: 'the poor are actually the solution' and could 'do things for themselves', he said. Governments would be 'junior partners' and 'communities' would take over the main role in developing support programs for former public welfare recipients. Such was the ubiquity of these ideas around the world that by the end of the 1990s, journalists and commentators were using 'Third Way' as a shorthand descriptor for any policy devised to move people out of welfare into work and reduce the size and power of government.

In May 2004 Latham told the parliament that Labor's new youth education policy would be based on 'learn or earn' – young people could either attend school and college courses or get a job. There was no 'third option' (his term) of sitting around doing nothing. A couple of years after Latham was dumped as leader the AFRinvited him to resume his column and in February 2010 he deployed the rhetoric of the left-leaning outsider, gloomily concluding that a 'social reformer' (like himself) had no choice but to either stand up to 'the power elites' (and die on his feet) or become part of the establishment (and live on his knees). There is no third way.

I should add that despite all the media hype and political blather about it I have never heard anyone talk elsewhere about the Third Way. Perhaps most assume it's a phantom, no such thing, just a gimmick. However, aside from the Hells Angels creed, I did find something worth remembering in JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy about the denizens of, yes, Middle Earth. In 'The Two Towers', Chapter 3 starts on page 660 in the paperback version. Six pages later, on page 666 (a number that is eagerly circulated by conspiracy theorists as evidence of the Devil's involvement), there occurs a conversation between Frodo the hobbit and the wily, slimy creature of the abyss, the fallen ring-wearer Gollum. When confronted by a choice of possible routes through the subterranean labyrinth, Frodo suggests they take the third route. Gollum's reply is firm and unequivocal. No way, he says: the Third Way is the 'road to the left'.

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