Network member Mike Waghorne warmly recommends Asbjørn Wahl’s new book ‘The Rise and Fall of the Welfare State’, published by Pluto Press and available for browsing or purchase here. Mike writes:

Many unions will be offended by this book because Wahl criticises their ignorance of how the welfare state came to be won but also because too many of them remain overly committed to social dialogue in circumstances where it is no longer a valid model, given that ‘the other two sides’ have repudiated, in fact if not in PR stances, the consensus and class compromise on which it was built.

Too simplistically, I would summarise his argument as suggesting that too many unions seem to believe that the welfare state created the basis for social dialogue and the great compromise between capitalism and unions and the working class, instead of realising that the welfare state and social dialogue are the result of workers and unions having used power and conflict to force capital to compromise, a conflict that was aided by the fear that capital had of the spread of communism after the formation of the USSR.

Wahl does not decry social dialogue – after all, unions negotiate with the worst of employers all the time – but he shows, with loads of very useful data on the destruction of so much of the welfare state, how capital and governments, (including and sometimes especially so-called ‘left’ parties) have walked away from the old compromise now that the global workforce and, especially, the freedom from capital controls, have enabled capital to turn on workers and to hold governments to ransom, a ransom that many governments are only too willing to pay.

Much of his critique is aimed at unions in Europe, including his illustration of how, in some trade issues, some such unions have allied themselves with northern governments against the interests of workers in the south. Too often, he argues, union leaders have accepted the thinking of the EU institutions (which he rightly excoriates) even if they have been appalled at recent decisions of the European Court of Justice in key labour disputes.

It would be too much in this review to outline his description of the welfare state, which he sees as much more than good pensions, health, education and unemployment benefits, and the way that much of it benefits capital as well as labour but this makes for good reading.

Again and again Wahl comes back to the need for unions and others to recognise the power relationships that govern society and working life and the need for unions to rediscover the need to amass and use that power. He ends with a list of the areas where this needs to be done and the kinds of things that unions are going to have to do to beat back the assaults of capitalism.