Asbjørn Wahl: ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’

SSP co-chair Calum Martin (left) with Asbjørn Wahl at the recent Voice Forum in Edinburgh (Photo: Craig Maclean)

Norwegian author, trade unionist and activist Asbjørn Wahl spoke to Voice editor Ken Ferguson on some key themes of April’s Voice Forum

• The Voice Forum in Edinburgh last month took as its theme ‘How can working class people benefit from leaving the EU?’.

It was a provocative theme and consciously set out to challenge the way in which the Brexit debate has turned on a simple Leave vs Remain discussion with virtually no attention focused on the priorities of working class Scotland.

One of the keynote speakers, the Norwegian author and activist Asbjørn Wahl brought a distinct and challenging perspective to bear on the topic which was firmly based around class politics and what he termed “interest based struggles”

In the course of our discussion, Wahl briskly dismissed any notion that staying inside the EU provided any serious route to progressive social change.

“I used to say that the EU had a ban on socialism,” he said, “but now it also has a ban on Keynesinism.”

Sharply criticising the neoliberal core of the EU’s economic policy, he warned that it was just not true to portray the EU as in favour of a “social Europe”.

Rather the policies which anchor its pro-market policies attack living standards and job security, attack working class interests, feeding right wing populism. “It is a disaster that they are making,” he said.

As we explored how this situation might be challenged, he was both sober and pessimistic on the scope of the type of EU-wide struggle proposed by some on the left as a way ahead.

Outlining the view that the various treaties governing the EU such as those of Rome and Lisbon which set a market-led economics at it heart, he warned that the EU is “Constitutionally neoliberal” and that working people inside the bloc need to include using “civil disobedience” to challenge it.

However, unlike some forces on the left, Wahl’s critique does not lay all the problems facing workers and the labour movement at the EU’s door or simply suggest that an exit from the EU—such as Brexit—will, by itself, cure them.

Rather he traces the opening and development of the neoliberal offensive which has weakened working class organisation back to the economic crisis of 30 years ago.

“It is important to understand that neoliberalism didn’t create the crisis but was a response to it as employers developed policies to regain profitability and control.”

Developments both at national and EU level, including attacks on unions, wage reduction and the creation of precarious work, all form part of an employers offensive which has led to today’s situation of insecure work, poor pay and bosses with the whip hand. Of course the central questions are how was this allowed to happen and can it be rolled back?

On this, Wahl placed a heavy share of the blame on the European trade unions and in particular their “30 to 40 years of class collaboration” under the umbrella of “social partnership.”

The partnership approach grew up in the post-war boom when empowered workers were able to prise concessions from employers. Despite the fact that the bosses have long abandoned it, its ideology plays a key part in lowering the unions’ ability to fight back to this day.

With anti-working class neoliberalism dominant, the question we turned to was how could it—if at all—be defeated. Clearly one approach is the often proposed but little implemented building of international structures by workers.

Wahl, who has both worked for and is still active in the International Transport Workers Federation, took the view that such attempts were fraught with difficulties and likely to meet with limited success.

“There is the possibility of action on, say, EU legislation but even there, implementation does not take place at the same time in each country.”

He exampled railways where some national systems such as the UK’s have been privatised for many years, while others are still state-run.

As we discussed some of the recent experiences within the EU to try and break with austerity, we inevitably turned to the high hopes, subsequently dashed by Syriza who were defeated as the ECB “turned off the money.”

Of course, one of the key arguments against those on the Greek left who advocated a break with the EU was that such a move would feed neo-fascism and its Golden Dawn party.

Indeed the rise of right wing populism in countries such as Germany, France and Poland is often cited as a reason for maintaining the EU as a bastion of liberal values.

“It is not the left which is feeding right wing ideas but the hard line austerity of the actually existing European Union,” responds Wahl, arguing that workers facing closures and unemployment in former industrial heartlands “don’t need moralising but a political alternative.”

It is this reality which formed the core of the Forum, and having explored the prospects and limitations of EU-wide programmes, Wahl firmly argues for national action to win back the ground lost by unions and workers over the past 30 years.

Unlike action across the EU, such struggles would largely focus on issues common across a country, such as welfare, wages, education, health and public transport.

He outlined the experience of the approach in the Norwegian based Campaign for the Welfare State which ran a highly successful drive on the slogan of ‘Profiteers out of our Public Services’.

This aimed at taking vital services—with a particular focus on pre-school nurseries and care homes for the elderly—back into local council control and has scored a number of victories for this demand.

Indeed because it is a demand which wins considerable public support, it is now putting pressure on the right wing minority national government elected last year to break with this privatising approach.

Here in Scotland, post-Brexit, there are many issues—housing, railways, care homes and energy—where such an approach could lay the basis for taking a new direction which puts people before profit.

As we ended our discussion, I posed the question to Asbjørn that, given the great challenges facing the working class movement in the teeth of the neoliberal offensive “was he a pessimist or an optimist?”

“Good question,” he replied, going on to say that he always thought workers in Europe would defend the gains made in the post-war boom but had failed to do so.

“I think I am with Gramsci—pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” he concluded.

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