In the highly important book The Rise and Fall of the Welfare State (Pluto Press, 2011) Asbjørn Wahl reveals the underlying structural dynamics of the welfare state. It was the structural power of trade unions, gained through intensive social struggles, which had forced employers into the class compromise of the welfare state, not consensus politics and tripartite co-operation. Hence, today too when defending the welfare state against the neo-liberal onslaught, the emphasis has to be on labour’s power in society.
Wahl critically engages with the idea that the welfare state was primarily the result of social dialogue based on consensus between the trade unions and employers’ association. ‘According to the social partnership ideology, as it was developed by the leading echelons within the trade union and labour movements, the social progress of the welfare state was not the result of the preceding struggles but of class cooperation and tripartite negotiations in themselves’ (P.35). In fact, however, tripartite negotiations, i.e. the willingness of employers and state managers to take demands by the working class seriously, were themselves the result of trade union’s structural power in society. Against the background of system competition with the Soviet Union and support for socialism amongst workers and in view of the increasing organizational power of trade unions built through successful struggles in society, employers were forced to accept social progress during the 1950s and 1960s.
Nevertheless, especially the deregulation of financial markets since the 1970s and 1980s has increased the structural power of capital. The privatisation of public services, the brutalisation of work and the submission of people’s needs to the requirements of the market are a direct consequence of this shift in power structures. Not to understand the power dynamics underlying the emergence of the welfare state has, however, drastic implications for the defence of it today, when the welfare state is under increasing pressure by capital. Simply relying on social partnership ideology and what Wahl describes as symptom and symbol politics will not be enough, since this does not challenge the underlying power structures (P.173). Instead, the struggle has to focus on changing the power structures in favour of labour.
‘The struggle must be based on concrete analyses and experiences gained under the new conditions – including a revival of the political-ideological struggle, a broad alliance policy, the development of real alternatives to the neoliberal reforms, and by the trade unions achieving political autonomy’ (P.19). In order to defend the welfare state, it is not enough to engage in symptom politics. ‘We must go beyond the distribution policy perspective’, Wahl argues, ‘to contradictions linked to power relations between people which relate to the economic conditions in society …; it is in production that power relations are constituted, not in consumption’ (P.209). In other words, it is the private ownership of the means of production by capital, which must be challenged. More democracy at the workplace and about how work is organised may be the way forward in this respect.
Nevertheless, if Wahl is correct in this respect, then the objective of these struggles cannot simply be the re-establishment of the welfare state of the 1950s and 1960s. The welfare state, Wahl makes clear, was never more than a compromise with capital. Employers, sometimes motivated by social-liberal ideas of the social state, also gained from the welfare state in the form of maintained social order, a highly skilled workforce and the generally ordered reproduction of labour (P.21). Historically, ‘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’ (P.65). In other words, the welfare state as a compromise never challenged capitalism as such. If a socialism for the 21st century is to be secured, a socialism where work is adjusted to people’s needs instead of people having to adapt to ever more brutal working conditions, a socialism where everyone has free access to the services required regardless of their ability to pay, then the labour movement has to go all the way this time and must not stop with a compromise.
Wahl concludes that ‘trade unions are decisive in these struggles, ‘because trade unions organize those who through their work create values in society. This gives them a strategic position that no other organization or movement can replace in a highly developed society …; the time has once more come for the trade unions and working class to take centre stage’ (P.206).
This is a must-read for everyone, who is interested in the possibilities of resisting neo-liberal restructuring in general and the dismantling of the public sector in particular. I highly recommend this book.
Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website: http://www.andreasbieler.net
13 January 2012