It’s about telling it forward

Interview with Asbjørn Wahl, author of the pivotal book for our time, The Rise and Fall of the Welfare State

Posted in Uncategorized by kristinabozic on September 28, 2013

by Kristina Bozic

proofreading by Amy Skinner; first published in Slovenian in Objektiv, Dnevnik, 10th August 2013


Is the power balance in European states still such that states feel obliged to protect interests of their citizens?


The welfare state was based on a class compromise, on the historic compact between labour and capital. Neither the welfare state nor the state itself has ever been the people’s state in Europe. They were the result of a very concrete development based on a compromise of interests. What we see now, in the current deep systemic crisis of capitalism, is that states play the role as indicated “in the textbook”. Their main task is to protect the economic system and private ownership. States do not behave in the same way all over Europe because situations are different. Yet, everywhere, we can see attacks on the welfare state and on the most important social force that can protect the achievements of the welfare states, namely the trade union movement.


Do the trade union movement and people of Europe realize that this pact, which was the basis of the welfare state, is gone?


Obviously not. And this is one of the greatest challenges we face today. The greater part of the European but also national trade unions’ organisations and bureaucracies are still in the post-war mood. They believe it is still possible to achieve what they want through the so-called social dialogue, by cooperating with capitalist forces. However, the capitalist forces have mainly withdrawn from this compromise and now attack trade unions day and night, almost all across Europe.


Is there a clear blueprint of the steps these attacks on trade unions take?


I do not think there is something like a conspiratorial master plan or a secret office that organizes these attacks. In Europe we see an interests-based struggle. Capitalist forces, their political servants and the new oligarchy pursue their interests, and in the current situation these are mainly the interests of financial capital. If you do that, the logical effect is the limitation of trade union power, by openly undermining their power, introducing legislation that makes it more difficult to strike, using more repression against strikes… This is the logic of the system. They do not need a secret plan, they only have to pursue their political and economic interests.


The promise of freedom and a good life was and remains extremely powerful. Anyone can succeed and join the richest. Is this egotistical promise losing its shine with a wider realisation of an unequal playing field?


This promise-rhetoric is still used in some countries but I do not really understand how people can believe it. When they see what is happening in Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain… Reality is effectively undermining these ideological statements of “successful capitalism” that can solve peoples’ problems and bring a good life. Given what is happening now: increasing unemployment, enormous increase in people living in poverty, more and more people evicted from their homes; I cannot really understand how this message can retain any strong meaning for people.


How does the increasing precariousness of work and life play into this situation?


Precariousness is a very important part of the employers’ strategy against workers and trade unions. They are taking away everything that strengthens worker’s position. Protections of all kinds are abolished, fixed-time contracts are introduced and workers feel more and more insecure. All this is part of the wider policy to increase unemployment. This increases competition between workers to secure a job and earn a wage, and it becomes ever more difficult to develop solidarity between workers. Precariousness, social dumping and removal of all kinds of social and labour protection are parts of the strategy to defeat labour and make labour cheaper. The economic interest, which is fuelling this is the drive to increase profits.


How to fight this? People remain working in these precarious positions, caught in a combination of individual guilt, fear and resignation.


The existing strong hegemony of rightwing neoliberal ideology reflects many things. One is its enormous control over media; it has the power and uses it.

On the other side there is a very deep ideological and political crisis in the trade union and labour movement. Reasons are manifold yet one of the most important ones is the ideology that became dominant in the trade union movement in the post-war period, when social Europe developed in a very positive way; the ideology of social partnership. A great part of the trade union movement still believes it true. It takes time to realize that the power basis for the welfare state and class compromise has disappeared and what they achieved through the welfare state is being attacked continuously. In Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland, where the crisis has become deepest, we see the increase in social struggle. We are at the start of a new era of social struggle. However, we are starting from a very low level.

To re-examine and reassess the social partnership ideology some internal, very hard discussions and struggles may be needed within the trade union movement. We have to realize that the situation today is completely different and that we are under attack. It will take time to change consciousness. In the current situation people feel very weak. Demoralisation is one of the consequences yet I do not believe that people ever actively accept such a situation.  They rather see no alternative. This is the great problem of our time. The political crisis in the labour movement is even deeper than the crisis in the trade unions. Social-democratic parties have completely shifted to neoliberal policies of some kind, and left parties have not been able to develop clear alternatives or clear policies in the current situation.


Do you recognize representation of workers’ interests at all in the spectrum of political parties in Europe?


Many parties name themselves as if they represented labour: workers’, social-democratic or even socialist parties. Some left parties represent some workers’ interests but they are very weak and only few seem to be up for the challenge we face today in this crisis. The party-political picture of Europe is not very rosy for the time being.


Paul Mason in his book Live Working or Die Fighting says he sees more parallels between today’s situation of labour and the time in the beginning of the 20th century, when workers’ solidarity joined anarchist, socialist, even republican workers, than with the post-war time. Would you agree with such parallels?


I do not really understand the possible similarity. We do not have many anarchists, socialists or communists left today who could join forces. We lack all of these ideas. In my view the situation today is different from all earlier phases and very difficult to be compared.

One of the most important differences is the great shift to the worse. We have a labour movement, trade unions and workers, who have lived through a period in which they experienced enormous social progress. It lasted thirty, forty years. Now they face the deepest crisis since the 1930s. This is extremely confusing. We have to remember that the predominant part of the labour movement in the 1950s and 1960s believed they had achieved a completely new society and got political control of the economy. They believed that mass unemployment of the 1930s was history and that we will reform ourselves into an ever better society. Yet now we find ourselves again in a very harsh class struggle. It is this big turnaround that makes it difficult to change in a short time the consciousness in the labour movement.


At the same time there is a growing population of younger workers, who have never experienced the gains of the past labour movement. They are relatively well-educated but used to uncertain and unregulated working conditions. They seem to form an important part also of the new social movements. Is there communication and cooperation between these younger and older workers with their different labour experiences?


This is a very difficult issue. We have seen some positive developments, these two forces have carried out joined actions at times but the examples are few and far between.

For example, the indignados in Spain are deeply sceptical of the trade unions but also the trade unions remain deeply sceptical of these new movements. The problem is that they both have some very good reasons for their scepticism.

Young people think that trade unions operate too top-down, accept too many compromises and downscaling in their negotiations with governments and employers. This is true. It has been happening and I can very well understand the scepticism of the young. But on the other hand many young people refuse to organize, to build structures in their struggle, they act very spontaneously and this presents a danger that the movement will be very short-lived.

However, it is paramount to bring these two forces together. Both will have to change and the change can only come through the struggle in solidarity.

The young will be more and more important. They hold a potential for mobilisation. The unemployment among young people is very high, over 50 percent in Spain and Greece. They are a generation without hope within the system. The potential for politicization and radicalization is great but we need to develop certain unity. And I do not see it happening in the short run. The bureaucratic unions and very spontaneous movements continue to have problems in meeting.


But is there also a danger that this younger generation closes in into despair and passivity? What can generate this politicization?


Of course this danger exists. Also the danger that they will be mobilised by the extreme right, which has happened before. There will probably be a competition between the extreme Right and the Left for their support. To live without hope, given the enormous potential in politicizing this population, presents a great challenge. Their loyalty and value systems are based on the lack of future they see for themselves. But for politicization we need political organizations, strong organizations on the Left that we do not yet have. It is extremely important to organize and politicize them. Otherwise the Right can do it.


You write that we should go beyond the social pact and welfare state. Towards what?


The era of the welfare state is more or less over. The power basis on which it was built, is gone. Profound deregulation and freedom for capital to move wherever whenever it wants has given the capital such enormous power that the past power balance is gone. It is only a matter of time when the best parts of the welfare state will be defeated.

The alternative must be based on what people want, what they expect, in what kind of society they want to live. They need work, they need social security… We need to be very concrete about this and build on peoples’ own dreams and ideas how our societies should be. Very few support the financialized, neoliberal class system we experience today.

I do not see the development of alternative ideas of how our societies should be as the biggest problem, but to mobilize sufficient social forces to start this fight, this social unrest or uproar, strong enough to get there.


But in the last three or more years we have seen more protests, strikes and demonstrations than probably in the last thirty years before. Nothing changes. Are the tools used the right ones? What kind of social mobilization have you got in mind?


It has started but we are up against very strong forces. Capitalist forces combined with the states are using their forces to prevent the system from being defeated. The fight is still at a very low level and it more or less remains national. Last November trade unions in six European states decided to strike on the same day and at least symbolically that was very important. But much more is required.

We need to further develop the social struggle that has started in the most crisis-ridden countries but we also need to coordinate across Europe. It is very difficult in Europe today to fight a decisive struggle only on the national level. We face an enemy that is well organized and structured on European but also global level. Symbolic strikes will not suffice. We need an open-ended general strike across Europe if we are to frighten our adversaries.


But this means police in factories, disputes among the workers; the fight can become much more radicalized and bloody compared to what we have seen so far.


Well, police are already on the streets. In Greece, Spain, Italy… The state apparatus will defend its interests, of course. What is important in this regard is that the labour and social movements should mobilize on the principles of non-violence. If the other side chooses to use violence to oppress people it will be a challenge but it should be met with mass mobilization. We saw what happened in Tunisia and Egypt. Masses have enormous power when they are mobilized in their millions.

There will be hard struggles and hard confrontations, no question about that. You say people might die. But people are already dying. For other reasons but nonetheless, as a consequence of the policies that are dismantling social security, increasing poverty, unemployment and suicide rates in all crisis-ridden countries. The enormous onslaught on people, on workers, is taking place as we speak.


You write in an article that material preconditions for restoration of neoliberal policies have to be dismantled in the long term. Can you explain what you mean by this?


We have to start the discussion that has been missing in the trade unions and labour movement for the whole period of the welfare state and class compromise; namely the question of ownership and control. The private ownership of banks and financial institutions is the first in line to be challenged. We saw the speculations and financialization of capitalism and how they used their power to destroy the economies of many countries at the global level. They turned countries into casinos.

I am surprised that the reaction to this has not been stronger. The few people who own these institutions can still continue their speculation and destroy the lives of millions of people.

So, firstly it is important to raise the demand that banks and financial institutions come under social and democratic control. Then we should discuss these questions further. There are few very big multinational companies who wield enormous power to manipulate people and governments. We therefore also have to discuss the ownership over the means of production.  It is a discussion that has been missing during the era of the welfare state. During the class compromise it was agreed that capitalism should continue in a regulated form. It worked for thirty, forty years until capitalism was haunted by crisis again, and capitalists started the neoliberal offensive that has continued for the last thirty years.


Does the robotization increase the need for democratic ownership over the means of production? It seems that great profits can be accumulated with very few workers, leaving societies away from controlling the redistribution process of profits back to the society.


I am not sure that automatization or robotization is the big problem we face. It is not true that today less and less workers are needed. The global workforce has never been bigger than it is today. It is being relocated all around the globe but I do not think mechanization is the biggest problem, quite the opposite, it will form the basis for a considerable shortening of working hours. As long as employers and capital owners are depended on the creation of surplus value they remain depended on workers. The more important question is control of capital, the relocation of industries and workplaces. They call it globalization, but this is not a law of nature rather a conscious strategy of employers in their interest-based attack against workers, which they pursue through deregulation. Deregulation of the labour market, what they call structural reforms, informalization of work, fragmentation of workers, social dumping and the defeat of workers’ organizations are the main problems we face. Not robotization.

However, it is evermore important that societies have political and democratic control over these developments. Because they define how we can gain the means with which to develop as societies and over life. We need a democratically designed, radical redistribution of wealth.


You come from Norway, which is not an EU member state but is part of the common EU market. The country is rich, life is good. Why do you worry about these processes?


The problem is not primarily the EU but capitalism. The problem with the EU is that it has mostly been structured, institutionally, established and developed in the era of neoliberalism. This makes it a very strong power-tool to pursue neoliberal policies, which is coupled with its enormous democratic deficit that has been only increasing during the crisis.

Norway is strongly integrated into this global, neoliberal economy. Being signatories of the European Economic Area agreement, most of the EU legislation is also applicable to Norway. We are part of the single market and the labour market with a great many EU directives enforced.

However, our situation is specific first and foremost because of our oil revenues. We are the only country in Europe with a surplus in our state economy. Our unemployment rate is low at about 3 percent and trade unions therefore retain relatively strong power at the negotiating table. Real wages have been increasing year by year for the last thirty years. We are incomparable, however, we know that if the welfare state falls in Europe, it will fall in Norway. If the trade union movement is defeated in Europe, they will try to defeat it in Norway. Soft neoliberal policies are already pursued in Norway, and they are weakening some parts of the welfare state, while cutting away or deregulating other parts. We experience social dumping – particularly through the single EU labour market. We feel and see it. Many people understand that if the situation in Europe gets worse, it will get worse in Norway as well.

All the reasons to take part in this struggle and stand in solidarity with those, who are today in the forefront of the struggle, are therefore there. Their destiny is our destiny. It might be true that Norway today is on the upper deck of the global ship, but there is no guarantee we are not on the upper deck of the Titanic.

We should remember that it was not Norway but Sweden that was used as the example of the best welfare system not long ago. Today this is no longer the case. Both social-democratic and right-wing governments of Sweden over the last twenty years have cut social welfare benefits, pursued deregulation and privatisation. Many Swedish workers today say they have hardly any welfare state left, although it is still at a higher level than in the South European countries.


You mentioned that people are already dying and that it surprises you how easy the financial institutions got away with the crash. We have governments that keep repeating policies that do not work, totally disconnected from the reality and people. How can we understand the lack of outrage and continuing destructive policies?


Never in history did the ruling classes lean back and say: finally, we are satisfied. We will not see this in Europe, either. They will not lean back and say: finally, we have achieved enough. They will go on and on until they meet resistance. As long as they do not meet resistance, they will continue to restructure and change Europe to fully and completely reflect their interests and no others. This is happening.

If we think back to 2008, when the financial meltdown happened, there was some hesitation among the oligarchy, the leading businesses and governments. They feared that the enormous speculation which triggered off the crisis would meet resistance and social unrest. But it did not happen. There were no strong social or political forces to start that. As soon as they learnt that, they forgot all about the promised regulation of the financial markets and continued with what they had been doing. There is sort of a feeling among them that there is no danger, no threat. The class compromise that was the base of the welfare state was the consequence of a completely different balance of power between labour and capital, in which capital interests feared the results of a confrontation in Europe and decided to compromise rather than go into conflict. They did not enter into this compromise because they wanted to contribute to a better society for workers. They did it in order to avoid something worse. It is this fear we have to create again. We have to mobilize sufficient social forces to make them understand that it will be impossible for them to go on like they do today. Then I am sure they will again start to talk about reforms and regulations to soften the resistance. That is the only reason why they do it, why they compromise.


But will re-regulation suffice or are greater changes of the whole framework needed?


In the current situation in which the political consciousness and the level of activity is not very high, we have to start from the immediate material, economic and social interests of people as a basis for mobilisation. Then we have to develop also a vision of another society. I do not think there is a basis for that today. When the European Trade Union Confederation asks today for a new social compact in Europe, for a new class compromise, it is at best an uninformed act. The balance of power is simply not such that this would be possible at all. The financial capitalists probably laugh all the way to the bank when they hear this demand from the trade unions. There is no realism in recreating the welfare state of the 1960s. We have to base our social development on something else and then we have to discuss what that should be. On what kind of principles should we base our future societies?

In my view we should aim for some kind of socialism, with which I mean democratic control of the economy, and I really mean democratic control. What was missing in the previous attempts to build socialism, was exactly democracy, the real participation and the real democratic control by the people.


There are negotiations going on for a Transatlantic trade and investment partnership agreement (TTIP). What do these pacts and agreements mean?  


TTIP is just one of the bricks in the building they are raising. The trade tariffs between the US and EU are already very low so there is not much to be achieved there. The most important aim of TTIP is therefore rather to serve as a motor of further deregulation. For neoliberals, most regulations are trade barriers. They want them gone. However, regulations are there to protect workers, food security, public health, environment… When regulations are cut through these agreements, they take away even more power from democratic bodies and transfer it to market forces. This is the greatest threat of the TTIP. It will serve for greater deregulation and neoliberalization of our societies.

However, their project in whole is much bigger. They are building a whole new Europe. The EU Competition Pact is in that way even more important. In the EU they are now institutionalising neoliberalism without any democratic legitimacy. They have sidelined the already powerless European Parliament and are developing new pacts and regulations that are hardly discussed. They disguise their actions in different ways but the speed by which they do it is unprecedented. They are really using the upper hand they now have and they feel very strong. They see today’s situation as an opportunity to fully secure and establish the society of their interests.


What do you mean by the new Europe?


The neoliberal Europe of the bosses and the oligarchy. Capitalism is now obviously in its most destructive phase. It is a very harsh and nasty Europe we will see, if they succeed. We have to prevent them. Because what is coming we can already see in parts. We are not talking really in future tense. One third of people are unemployed in Greece, unemployment among young in Spain is above 50 percent, more and more people are begging, sleeping on the streets. It is happening around us – now. And they do not care. That is important. They do not care. If they did, if there was any sort of humanity in the system, this would not be happening. But there is no humanity in the system. They do not care. Their economic interests are above and over everything else.


How far can this go, what can people tolerate?


People do not continue in this situation willingly. They tolerate it because they do not see an alternative, because there is no strong collective response. We have to start building the alternative and it has to be built from the bottom up. We all have to do our part in our local communities and countries and then gradually build the sufficient social forces that can confront and change this tide. Then we have to start to build the Europe we want. There is no other way, there is no quick fix. No shortcut, only hard work.

We can be sure people do not accept the present state of affairs. When people start to see the glimpse of an alternative, an alternative that can get them out of the humiliation they live under today, they will join in. But we have to be quick, before the extreme right takes over.

Crisis consciousness is still lacking in the countries that are not so badly hit by it. The neoliberals have also been quite successful in re-interpreting the crisis, that it is the result of people having lived beyond their means and countries having spent too much money. No longer is the reason for the crisis capitalism itself, the financial meltdown, speculations… So yes, there is hard work ahead of us.


How can we understand the role of the state in the present situation? It seems as if people do not trust it any longer, but also that neoliberals want to do away with it as an enforcer of regulations.


The states have played an important role in the neoliberal offensive, but they have played different roles in different countries. We would not have seen the enormous deregulation, neoliberal policies and privatisation we have seen in the last 30 years had there not been strong states- American, British or German. Even the strong supra-state of the EU. So the state has really been important. And it is not true that neoliberals want to get rid of it. They want to get rid of the welfare state, but they use the state apparatus as their instrument to carry out their policies. The state makes the laws and regulations but can also change and abolish them.

In the periphery of Europe it is also very important that the EU is seen as divided between the core states and the rest. In the last years we have seen how Germany and France have decided between themselves the policies that are then enacted on the European level.

The reasons for the enlargement of the EU in 2004 were not to create a united Europe and bring peace. That was rhetoric. The enlargement’s real aim was to use the enormous wage gap and the gap in social security levels to promote social dumping in Western Europe: to reduce production costs and wages and social costs of the state, and that is what is going on. Cheap labour is imported and is being used to undermine the levels of protection that have been established in Western Europe in the past. In this regard the plan is clear. It is written in the documents of the European Round Table of Industrialists. When Angela Merkel and François Hollande have meetings with them, they move closer to executing their plan. It is not a conspiracy. It is nothing else than the pursuit of their immediate economic and political interests. That is what they are doing.



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