The late Daniel Singer described that state of neoliberalism in the left parties of Europe in The "Third Way" and a New LeftJournal of World-Systems Research 6:3 (Fall/Winter 2000). The "third way" hasn't really been that commonly used in the United States, though some political geeks are familiar with the term. Bill Clinton during his Presidency quietly promoted the concept especially with Tony Blair of Britain's Labour Party and Gerhard Schröder of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD). It was a term for strategies for traditionally left-leaning, pro-labor parties to use in promoting neoliberal economics (deregulation, "free trade" on favorable conditions for corporations but not workers, allying with big banks) while retaining the support of their working-class voting bases. Singer, writing with particular reference to western European politics, defined the concept this way:
There are fashionable terms that are at once misleading and revealing. The “third way” is one of them. There was a time when this concept had a genuine meaning. Back in the 1950s, for the so-called "revisionists" in Eastern Europe it spelled the search for democratic socialism that had nothing to do with its Stalinist perversion but was not a return to capitalism either. For some radical dissidents in the West it had the same significance: it was their way of telling Moscow and Washington "a plague on both your houses" during the period of the Cold War. But that conflict is over, the neo-Stalinist empire has collapsed and capitalism is triumphant. In its new reincarnation, the “third way” does not even envisage the dismantling of capitalism. All it proposes is to put a coat of varnish on top. As applied by its chief practitioner, the British prime minister, Tony Blair, and as interpreted by his guru, Anthony Giddens, the model has been described, unkindly though not unfairly, as that contradiction in terms - "Thatcherism with a human face."
The Social Democratic parties of Europe mostly split after the Russian Revolution of 1917 into reformist social-democratic and pro-Russian Communist parties. The Social Democrats rejected the Soviet model of governance and economy. They defended parliamentary democracy and in practice the basics of capitalist economies, though they were more favorable to having some industries nationalized than conservatives. Until after the Second World War, it was common for European parties to identify themselves on some kind of a class basis: the Social Democrats as working-class parties, the large Christian Democratic parties as parties of big capital, and so on. They have pretty much all long since adopted the notion of being "people's parties", parties that at least in theory attempt to appeal to the entire range of voters and seek to represent all the people, not a special class in particular.
Singer uses a phrase for what the embrace of neoliberalism meant for the left parties that I'm not sure quite works as history, but does catch the general concept of what happened. The post Second World War Social Democratic parties were non-revolutionary, except in cases like Spain or Portugal where dictators ruled, they wanted to replace dictatorship with parliamentary democracy. Which happened in both countries in the 1970s. But they also fought for reforms that would benefit working people. In their neoliberal phase, though, their role was not to fight for new reforms "but to take back those that had been made in the period of prosperity."
A good recent example of this is Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, who is serving on the Obama administration fiscal commission which the deficit hawks want to use as a vehicle to slash Social Security and Medicare. Durbin said (Walter Alarkon, Panel urges fiscal overhaulThe Hill 04/27/10):
"If this commission is going to make an historic contribution to America, the styptic heart of conservatives on this commission need to open their minds to the safety net in our country and the troubling plight of many working Americans," Durbin said. "And the bleeding-heart liberals on this commission have to open their mind to what it takes to inspire competition and economic growth in our economy and make real sacrifices to strengthen our nation." [my emphasis]
Durbin here was embracing the neoliberal concept that a "left" party's purpose is to sell their constituencies on policies that will damage most of them while increasing the inequality of income and are especially designed to comfort the already very comfortable.
As I said, I'm not sure Singer's phrase quite works as history. Because, as we can see with the Republicans and the Democrats, the Democrats are committed to comforting the comfortable, while the Republicans are committed to comforting the most comfortable and promote a Predator State form of governance and economic policy that does distinguish itself in its destructiveness to the interests of the public.
Writing in 2000, Singer picked up on a nickname that was used for England's Maggie Thatcher, TINA (there is no alternative), to describe the convergence of Social Democrats (in their neoliberal incarnation) and conservatives on economic policies. He uses a label that I like for the neoliberal left parties: the Respectful Left, from the French gauche respectuese, which he explains is an "analogy with J-P Sartre's play, La Putain respectueuse, the Respectful Whore."
Singer looks back to the end of long period of postwar capitalist expansion, an end which I suppose in this context could be usefully dated to 1973. He gives a good description of the general background of the following period:
... a quarter of a century of unprecedented growth is over and the age of painful restructuring begins. True, at the beginning, in the "seventies," efforts were still being made to salvage the smooth system of class collaboration that had been yielding such nice dividends. The “eighties” witnessed the all-out offensive of capital against labor. It started in the United States with Reagan’s attack against Patco, against the striking air-controllers in 1981-82, and it climaxed with Thatcher’s ruthless defeat of the miners, after an epic battle, in 1984-85. Yet these were only highlights in a campaign waged on all fronts. Domestically, it involved antilabor legislation to weaken the unions and, to use buzzwords, downsizing, re-engineering, the introduction of kanban, the Japanese system of just-in-time organization of work and of corporate governance, the new American methods of management for immediate profit and a good quotation on the Stock Exchange.
In Europe, to provide scope for profit, public property was privatized on a vast scale, starting with steel or banks and ending with railways and telecommunications. Everywhere the function of the state was changed - let us emphasize, not diminished, but altered; its role as the pillar of the existing system, if anything, strengthened, but its powers to control capital greatly reduced. Deregulation was the order of the day and it affected international as well as domestic relations. Foreign trade barriers having been removed earlier, controls over the movements of capital were almost entirely lifted. This led to a huge expansion of these transfers and to a frenzy of financial speculation, with investment banks, pensions and hedge funds leading the way. It also strengthened the power of the employers, notably the transnational corporations, thinking and acting globally, over a labor movement thrown on the defensive and lagging behind the demands of the new international situation. [my emphasis in bold]
I would argue that the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe marked the beginning of the most pronounced period of the left parties embracing TINA, the approach that came to be known as the Third Way. Singer usefully reminds us, though:
Francis Fukuyama with his End of History, after all, simply codified and pushed to the extreme long-standing propaganda. It is interesting to remember that the concepts of an unsurpassable capitalist horizon, and the absence of an alternative, existed well before the collapse of the Soviet Empire.
And he addresses the particular neoliberal trap that is now closing on several countries in the European Union. Not the EU itself, but the particular way in which it has its currency, taxes and fiscal policies structured, countries like Greece and Spain are faced with cutting government spending significantly just when it's most needed as a stimulus to get their economies growing strongly again and put people back to work. Singer wrote:
[Center-left] leaders knew that they would be judged [at the polls] by their capacity to reduce unemployment and to defend the welfare state. Hence their temptation, once in office, to promote expansionary policies. These, however, clashed, particularly in the new framework of a single market and a common currency, with the provisions of the Maastricht Treaty and the Stability Pact imposed by [German] Chancellor Helmut Kohl. In fairness, it must be added that, after years of retreat and concessions, just merely to revive Keynesian policies or to defend - not to expand, but to maintain - social benefits would now require a mass mobilization of support and an international strategy that none of these parties had practiced for years. It is this contradiction that offers scope for a New Left within the labor movement, but in order to appreciate this opportunity we must fi rst take a closer look at the ruling Social Democracy to perceive beneath its uniformity the genuine differences, say, between Britain with its pure version of the Third Force and France showing the political consequences of a social movement. [my emphasis in bold]
Obama and the Democrats now face that dilemma in a dramatic way: "just merely to revive Keynesian policies" means that the Democrats need to organize "a mass mobilization of support." But after growing more and more accustomed over decades to accommodating neoliberal doctrines of de-regulation and fiscal conservatism, most of the Democratic leaders are far more comfortable and experience in showing their Respectful Left moderation by lecturing the damn fucking hippie "bleeding-heart liberals" than in rousing a mass movement to support their policies.