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Book review: The Rise and Fall of the Welfare State

The author, Asbjørn Wahl has been a close friend and a colleague of mine for more than 15 years. I am pleased that his first book in English is published. Wahl is one of few trade unionists who has been stirring and steering the ‘left debate’ in the last decade both theoretically and practically. This English publication will provide him as well as readers like us with a range of opportunities to discuss his argument, some of which I will highlight in this review. For example, Wahl says that “unequal distribution in consumption, or increasing inequalities in society, derive from power and ownership relations in production”. This point alone is worth hours of debate.

The book is a timely reminder that we live in a world where classes exist in conflict and the balance of power between these actors determines the shape of the society that we live in. Wahl reiterates this point throughout the chapters and stresses that welfare state was a product of compromise between the labour and capital in the post-war period, driven by “the rise in trade union movement and breakthrough in political democracy”

The political landscape over the past three decades, however, has changed substantially. This paradigm shift has set labour on the defensive because “the capitalists have changed their strategy but the unions have not”. Wahl picks-up several other references to describe this development; a revolution of the rich (Christopher Lasch) or a coup d’état in slow motion (Dan Josefsson). In my own words, I have often said; do a simple Google search on the words “class struggle”; click the image button and see what you find. Pictures of Marx, Lenin, red flags, fists and workers’ marches will appear. Don’t forget, however, that a class struggle isn’t always about the labour challenging the capitalist class. And that is exactly what has happened in the last 30 years.

This book reflects some of the work that he and I shared over these years, in particular on transport workers’ response to these attacks. Wahl highlights the union struggles in France, USA and Australia – all taking place in the second half of 1990s – as examples of trade union fight-backs. From the same struggles, our federation (in which he holds an elected position) pulled together a policy where we pronounced that “governments and employers listen to us, not necessary because we are correct but because we are strong”. It unfolded a series of unprecedented activities in international trade union movement which I believe has built stronger rank and file activism.

On globalisation, Wahl rightly dismisses it as a “much used – and often misused – concept” to be adopted as his analytical concept for this book. Instead, he uses the terminology, neoliberalism – or the offensive of capitalist interests – and warns us that the depth and the seriousness of the attacks to our lives will not stop here today unless we fight back and to do so collectively. The future of the working people and their families continue to look grim. After global tidal waves of privatization and deregulation; acceleration of casino economy and speculative market; tighter restrictions on workers’ rights and industrial actions; outright slaughters on pension, education, health care and other public services, more is coming. For example, the ILO ACTRAV recently held a special symposium on precarious work because “millions of workers suffer” from such working conditions worldwide today. I wish Wahl could have spent more time on this issue in the book.

At the same time, there will never be a right moment to capture the whole picture of a contemporary theme like this one that Wahl has picked. He says that he had to update and rewrite some parts for this English edition since he published the original book in Norwegian two years ago. It is still a pity that recent developments such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movement are missing from his analysis. Perhaps a second volume is necessary soon?

I am, however, critical that the following three points were not included in the author’s deliberations in this book as they are not necessarily the most recent developments.

Firstly, Wahl says that the “employers and their organizations had not been able to defeat the trade unions” (p30) and that is why they compromised to the formation of welfare state half a century ago. Isn’t it another way of admitting that the trade unions in their total strength were unable to topple their antagonists at the height of their movement? If so, why? Has the author spent enough time and space in the book to analyse the balance of power within the labour movement and how compromises were made between different forces? These questions should not be taken lightly when the author says that “the class compromise and its legitimate offspring, the welfare state, gradually became an end in itself, not a step on the path towards social and economic emancipation and a deeper and extended democratization of society” where he concludes that “the ideology of class compromise has proven to be wrong” (p65). What were then the shortfalls in the strategies and tactics of the Left to let this happen? Likewise, what limits did they have in their capacities?

Secondly, I am quite disappointed that this remark in Chapter 2 was never followed-up in the next 6 chapters of the book.

“Much of the prosperity that is admittedly more evenly distributed in welfare states had (and still has) its origin in the exploitation of the global South” (p21).

The author has been a regular participant to the World/European Social Forums and in numerous international trade union activities. How can he fail to take-up this crucial question? My friend in Turkey once said to me that “this world is impossible” in her response to the popular slogan of the Social Forum, “another world is possible”. In my own words, if only the total wealth of the 99% (the masses as described in the popular political slogan by the Occupy movement) throughout the world were shared equally, those ordinary people in the Global North will surely see their living conditions deteriorate from what they enjoy now. That is without touching what the top 1% has accumulated. Now you see why it is so important to debate the power and ownership relations in production and find ways to change them as Wahl provokes. There is no way that the labour and capital can compromise to a global welfare state.

This leads onto my third and the last point. Does the author think that the trade union organisations in the Global North alone will continue to lead the fight-backs against neo-liberal offensives and their struggles for the emancipation of our society? We cannot ignore the political and economic context in European Union and the trade union response. They impact the wider world. However, I also see from elsewhere some vibrant unionism fighting oppressions with their agenda clearly set to build workers’ internationalism. Or look at the developments in the Arab Spring. Tunisian union confederation UGTT has reported to us that they have converted 50,000 precarious railway workers into full time employment during the recent social transformation. The confederation recruited 100,000 new workers, making their total membership, 500,000 effectively overnight. I have not seen any other case of rapid growth in unionism in the Global North over the recent years.

The author closes his book with a quote from Ingemar Lindberg with whom I have also associated with through our joint publication projects that he and Andreas Bieler have led in conjunction with the World/European Social Forums. In our discussions, they stressed that just because the industrial unions from the Global North have shaped our trade unionism in the past 150 years, such model may not last forever to represent the genuine interest of the working people given the major changes in the industries and employment conditions today. These are valid points that I oblige Wahl to respond.

Having said all this, Asbjørn Wahl is my friend at the end of the day. I’d be happy to act as his sounding board to develop his response to these questions. I also have the patience to wait for Volume 2 of this book where he can further elaborate on these critical points.

The Rise and Fall of the Welfare State
Pluto Press
Asbjørn Wahl
Hard cover £54.00 ISBN: 9780745331409
Paperback £17.00 ISBN: 9780745331393
Extent: 256pp
Release Date: 07 Nov 2011
Size: 215mm x 135mm
Illustrations: 10 figures, 4 tables