• Book review
  • Asbjørn Wahl on the Rise and Fall of the Welfare State

  • Por Lutz Brangsch | 15 Nov 12 | Posted under: Reviews
  • This book is a manifesto in the best sense of the word. Asbjørn Wahl is already well-known for his studies of socio-political and trade-union issues. Now he is presenting a study dealing with fundamental questions of “the social” in capitalism. It was first published in Norway in 1999, extensively revised in 2011 and translated and published in English in London.

    Wahl is setting himself a challenging task: He wants to question the “conventional interpretation of the welfare state”. In doing so, he deals with the political pressure that has weakened it. He raises the question of why and how this pressure is exercised. According to Wahl, to give an answer would necessary entail an analysis of what the welfare state actually is and how it has come into existence and an assessment of its content, development and present condition. His focus is the “Nordic model”, which indicates a number of fundamental commonalities between welfare states, despite their different shapes in different parts of the world. The decisive commonality is that the welfare state is always about the configuration of power relations. In this respect, the author connects the analysis of social development, of the social and of the world of labour with fundamental power relations in society.

    The conscious focus on these connections and their politicisation in the trade unions and other organisations of working people are seen by Wahl as the crucial moments in the development of the social welfare state. An added attraction is that Wahl supports his arguments by a great number of facts and statistical data. The scientific and journalistic qualities of the book are kept in good balance, so that adepts of the theoretical debates as well as people interested in politics generally are provided with an abundance of fruitful ideas and useful material. 

    The structure of the book follows the approach outlined here. It starts out with a study of the historical background and continues with an analysis of the turning point in the development of the welfare state and the weakening of the position of trade unions and wage- and income earners connected with it. In the next two chapters the author examines the attacks on different areas of social security and the “brutalisation of work”. He lays stress on the privatisation of social security, in particular pension security, growing income inequality, the orientation towards exclusion and the workfare-regime (the right to welfare is increasingly being replaced by workfare: the obligation to accept badly-paid work as a precondition for state support) as crucial factors or aspects of the transformation of the welfare state.

    In the two concluding chapters Wahl deals with the challenges and alternatives to this development. His starting-point is the close connection between workfare and poverty. Since this connection is of a global nature today, it goes without saying that he also understands resistance against it as global, regarding the actions on both the local and the global levels as an inseparable unity. It is understandable from the author’s biography that in his search for alternatives focus is put on the trade unions, but in doing so he does not spare criticism as he demonstrates that they too have contributed to their own weakening by bureaucratisation, social partner ties and other factors.

    First and foremost, Wahl’s interest lies in what is new in current conflicts. In alliances formed in the wake of trade union struggles and in the resistance to privatisation and commercialisation of the social not everything is about defending the status quo. It is also about democratisation, minimisation of bureaucracy and more focus on the needs of the recipients of social benefits. In that sense, Wahl emphasises the importance of the participatory budget model formulated in Porto Alegre as well as community projects in Norway and Great Britain as recent forms of social resistance. The development of global forms of resistance is given broad space. After presenting the developments since the MAI Agreement and Seattle in 1999 he deals with the social forum movement and its crisis. In the author’s view, the forum came into being as a reaction to the ideological and political crisis of the traditional left but was at the same time unable to overcome the weaknesses of the left. The enormous shift of power and the lack of effectively strong movements had great impact on the path the social forum eventually took. Despite all the enthusiasm and good work done the process was characterised by a lack of theoretical and political clarity and unity, a lack of understanding of class relations and social conflicts as well as the question of power in society. In particular, Wahl is inspired by the question of how the different traditional and new strands of social resistance can be combined.

    He sees two obstacles to social struggles: the institutional construction of the European Union and its inner political and ideological limitations. Especially the section on the inner political and ideological barriers invites the reader to further discussion. The author focuses on the trade union movements and calls on it to play a more central, independent and offensive political role in the conflicts. Although it has not yet played such a role, it has an important potential as organiser of those who create social wealth through their labour. As examples of the politicisation and revitalisation which he deems necessary, Wahl cites the impact of part of the trade union movement in Norway, while observing positive trends also at a European level.

    Still, his reflections on the social forum process can be extended also to other resistance movements. It would be advisable to use Wahl’s broad approach to examine the role of other actors reaching new segments of the wage- and income-earning population and emerging from these segments as self-organised protagonists. The same holds true for the big mass of unorganised people or people who remain passive even if they are members of organisations. From the reviewer’s perspective new challenges arise for the modes of organising, the position of the trade unions in the spectrum of social resistance and thus also for their self-conception.

    With reference to the continuous attacks Wahl expects, he demands a “new course” for both trade unions and social movements when it comes to defending the welfare state and trade-union and social rights. More radical responses than those so far given are required, he claims. The author emphasises the following issues around which to organise: a halt to the “speculative economy”, defence of the progress immanent in the welfare state, struggle against poverty and social injustice, an end to workfare-politics, (self-) empowerment of trade unions, defence of trade-union rights, mobilisation from below as well as defence and expansion of freedom and democracy.

    Wahl concludes the book with a short chapter, the title of which comes quite unexpectedly: a chapter on freedom. He demands that the “freedom tradition” of the labour movement be taken up again. For him this means, among other things, a more fundamental critique of the system, a focus on questions of power and on the question of ownership of the means of production. What is at stake is a politics for a greater freedom for the individual obtained through collective action. Both democracy and welfare have historically been won only by hard struggle. And especially in times of crisis, those who want to defend the welfare state have to act offensively and not defensively.

    The book provides many suggestions and ideas for self-conceptualisation and self-criticism in left movements. At the same time it opens up new paths for the readers along which to develop their thinking. Perhaps there are two points in particular which catch the eye: The focus on trade unions is definitely the book’s strong point, but at the same time also its limitation. It permits the author rigorously to analyse the problems, but the active moment “from below”, to which it is supposed to lead, as he emphasises in his elaborations on the “new course”, remains somewhat vague. Moreover, the book is partly blind to challenges arising from processes of the global crisis. Hunger, the climate crisis, etc. represent factors which are by no means negligible and therefore have to determine the nature and directions of struggles also in Europe, if resistance is not to be replaced by a new nationalism of locations. The problem is that the necessary processes of self-transformation demanded by Wahl, which means a fundamental change of action on the part of trade unions and movements, coincide with these completely new challenges. Thus the principle of the labour movement, that the free development of the individual is the prerequisite for the free development of all, gains an importance that is not to be overestimated.

    The readers are invited to follow the author’s focus on the development of social and political constellations and from this to draw their conclusions and to act. The obstacles to our actions are not only those erected by others but are also inherent to the movements themselves. Without the courage to look beyond the single-issue concerns one has always been focusing on – and this is demonstrated by Wahl in many examples – nothing is going to change. This open-mindedness and the challenge to the reader, the combination of analysis, critique, self-reflexion and self-criticism make the book a successful synthesis of manifesto and textbook. 


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

Related articles