Plenary Presentation – Capitalism, Anti-Capitalism and the Trade Union Movement


Asbjørn Wahl, plenary presentation


Presentation Slides


“We demand too little and accept too much”

 6th July, 2015 / Sean Sayer / guest blogger 

Asbjorn Wahl
[Photo: Khalid Mahmood]

After a warm welcome from Jill Westerman, the Principal of Northern College, the 2015 International Summer School got well and truly underway. Never afraid of jumping in at the deep end, the School began with a presentation by Asbjorn Wahl on the small issue of ‘Capitalism, anti-capitalism and the trade union movement’.

With a nod to the dormant and not so dormant Marxists in the room, Wahl began by explaining that the current economic crisis is a systemic crisis born from the contradictions inherent within capitalism. The globalisation of capital and boom and bust economics, he said, is not a law of nature, but the result of market deregulation and part of a broader strategy to restructure the global economy in capital’s favour.

The over-financialisation of corporations and the resulting surplus of capital has reduced opportunities for profitable investment. Wages have stagnated while prices have risen, reducing the purchasing power of working people, and further strangling growth.

Wahl explained that it’s too easy to place the blame wholly with the shadowy champions of capital and neoliberalism. We also need to look critically at the labour movement. Trade unions have failed to effectively resist austerity, which in itself must be seen as capital’s latest attempt to restructure the global economy in the wake of the 2007-8 financial crisis.

According to Wahl, this failure stems from the breakdown of the post-Second World War ‘class compromise’ – the deal between the labour movement, capital and governments which created the welfare state in many western countries.

For thirty years welfare states delivered rising living standards, declining inequality and relatively stable growth. Drunk on the success of this compromise, the labour movement forgot that this success was a political victory that in turn was due to the radical mobilisation of working people.

From the 1990s onwards, the class compromise began to be seen as the cause of social progress, not a political settlement which had to be continually fought for. Trade unions were increasingly seen as the mediator between labour and capital, not the radical movement representing working class interests.

“who really benefitted from the class compromise? Capital or labour?”

The labour movement thus became increasingly de-radicalised and depoliticised, and when the 2007-8 financial crisis came around, trade unions were unable to put up any kind of effective resistance. This state of affairs begs the question: who really benefitted from the class compromise? Capital or labour?

Wahl then gave some practical advice that the trade unionists in the room would be foolish to ignore. The labour movement needs to regain control over the political narrative of the economic crisis and use it to disarm the proponents of neoliberalism.

Only the trade union movement has the potential to lead people into a fair and secure future. The public sector should be used to anchor growth, prevent financial bubbles from emerging, stabilise the economy and reduce inequality. Formidable mobilisation is needed, and we must radicalise our messages and have more open discussions about what we stand for, and how we will fight for it.

“We demand too little and accept too much”, Wahl asserted. We must fight for the right to strike and recognise that oppression and authoritarianism is on the rise around the world.

Further Reading

Book: The Rise & Fall of the Welfare State, Asbjørn Wahl (2011)

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