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


Presentation Slides

Asbjørn Wahl, Fagforbundet, Norway


The Bigger Picture: From “Great Disorder” to “Sexit”!

4th July, 2016 / Ciaran Cross / guest blogger

After introductions to the fifth GLI Summer School, Asbjørn Wahl from Fagforbundet (Union of Municipal and General Employees, Norway) kicks off the proceedings this week by diving ambitiously into the topic of capitalism and anti-capitalism in the trade union movement.

Since the last summer school, lots of things have changed internationally. Asbjørn noted the growing number of dangerous situations in our social and economic development. There’s a growing uncertainty and instability about the future: mass unemployment, conflict, widespread misery, poverty, warmongering, and an environmental crisis. Established parties and old alliances are falling apart, new initiatives are rising.

Asbjørn Wahl [Photo: Khalid Mahmood]
Asbjørn Wahl
[Photo: Khalid Mahmood]
So, as Mao would have it: there’s “great disorder under the heaven… the situation is excellent”! And Asbjørn’s only half-joking. Because history shows that only one thing is able to alter the course we are currently on: our ability to organise and unite mass mobilisation. In the present crisis, there are also opportunities.

To take these opportunities, the labour movement must adopt a coherent narrative. On his whistle-stop exploration of capitalism, globalisation and neoliberalism, Asbjørn warned of the failures to join the dots. Neo-liberalism did not create a new crisis: the capitalist system itself created the crisis we face today, and we will not solve its contradictions by focusing solely on the neoliberal ideology. Globalisation is not a law of nature, but came about as a result of market deregulation, capital’s strategy for restructuring and expansion.

And the phenomenon of financialisation – which has exploded since the 1980s – is the final result of capitalism’s hunt for profitable investment. This current predicament of unprecedented financial speculation has left us with a gap between the value of total global GNP and the value of global financial assets which exceeds hundreds of trillions of dollars. In the same period, the share of workers’ wages and rates of unionisation have both declined dramatically across Europe.

Beyond social democracy

Asbjørn was keen to warn against any nostalgic reversion to some glorious heyday of European social democracy. Capitalists in the West largely accepted the construction of the post-war welfare state out of fear of communism and radicalism. It was a model built in response to private capital. Its pillars were capital controls, trade protectionism, fixed exchange rates, regulation of investments, labour legislation, and a huge public sector.

But Europe’s welfare state model was also built on exploitation of the Global South. Today it is clear that this model proved insufficient and unsustainable. The major European attempts to regulate capitalism through Keynesian and social dialogue largely ended in the 1970s. Since then, neoliberal ideology has achieved a hegemonic status all over the world, even – we must concede – in Europe’s trade union movement and in social democratic political parties.

If there is there a new alternative to be found, it is one for which examples are few and far between. Asbjørn notes that the rise (and fall) of Syriza in Greece is a critical example. After Syriza’s surrender, the troika imposed such economic conditions on Greece, that the government has no alternative but to implement reforms and cuts to which they are opposed, but powerless to stop. Asbjørn laments: “They are in government, but they are not in power…Why are they sitting there?”

The situation may lead one to conclude that the problem lies in the fact that private ownership is constitutionally protected: it is all a question of power and the state is – always and inherently – on the side of the capitalists.

Nuit debout movement on the streets of Paris  [Photo: Kwikwaju]
Nuit debout movement in Paris, April 2016
[Photo: Kwikwaju – Flickr/cc]
So if not through the state apparatus, where can the labour movement establish the base of on its source of power? To Asbjørn, trade unions need to build their power through numeric strength, organisation, unions and political alliances, strategies and tactics. New alternatives will need new strategies and new movements. There are powerful examples in our times: the Spanish Indignados, the various Occupy movements, Alter Summit, #Nuitdebout, DiEM25.

New tendencies in established political parties have also reinvigorated debate (Sanders in the US and Corbyn in the UK). But Asbjørn holds little faith in new political parties which he regards as often rooted in the middle-classes (and lacking a sense of agency or mobilisation) or in right-wing populism.

Europe & “Sexit”

Europe should pay heed to the latter: the right in Europe is growing as a result of exclusion, discontent and polarization. The problem with the fragmentation of Europe is that the right has been (largely) alone in articulating any critique of the European project. The left supported the construction of the European Union, and maintained its support even when its character changed in 1980s and it became a neoliberal apparatus.

In the face of this, Asbjørn proposes a less-discussed alternative: Sexit – the exit to Socialism!

The challenge for unions

For unions, the challenge remains to address complex issues such as financialisation, austerity and public debt, to promote solidarity across borders, build a system critical movement on new alliances, and encourage our organisations to take a broader political responsibility beyond the workplace.

The presentation prompted some lively group discussions about Asbjørn’s narrative of the failures of trade unionism and social democracy and his visions for the future. In particular, the question of whether the trade union movement is an inherently conservative or emancipatory force produced a variety of different positions.

Non-European participants (from Asia and Latin America) questioned how the international labour movement can build a programme based on international – rather than only European – experiences. To be fair, Asbjørn introduced his presentation as a Eurocentric perspective on the current crisis. But bringing the narrative of imperialism into the debate – and understanding globalisation in the context of historical colonialism – would help shape any way forward.



Asbjørn Wahl, The Rise and Fall of the Welfare State, Pluto Press, 2011.

George Monboit, Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems, The Guardian, April 15th 2016.

Sam Gindin, Unmaking Global Capitalism: Nine Things to Know About Organizing in the Belly of the Beast, The Bullet Socialist Project, E-Bulletin No. 1000, June 18th 2014.

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