Large parts of the western working class now seem to congregate around right-wing populists, demagogues and racists. They vote for reactionary and fascistic political parties. They helped to vote the UK out of the EU, to make Trump US president, and they give such massive backing to far-right political parties that these have power in sight in several of Europe’s most populous countries.
Since working people are traditionally expected to vote for the left, this creates unrest, insecurity and confusion among experts as well as commentators and mainstream politicians – particularly in the labour movement. There is no lack of moralizing condemnation of those who go to the far right. An increasing number of commentators, however, are now beginning to suspect that this shift may be an expression of protest against the prevailing state of society. Not all have benefitted from the globalization success story, they say.
Many politicians and activists on the left have great difficulties orienting themselves on this new political terrain. People who otherwise would have been for Britain’s withdrawal from the authoritarian, neoliberal EU, for example, have told me that they voted to stay, “not to be made cannon fodder for the racists and anti-immigration forces in the Brexit camp.” Thus, they left it to the far right to voice the necessary opposition to the anti-social, anti-union policies of the EU.
Maybe it would have been more important and more helpful if the left had taken a somewhat more self-critical look at their own role and policies. Could it be that they have failed their constituencies, that left parties are not seen as dependable tools to defend the interests of those who have the least power and wealth in today’s society? Perhaps there has been too much identity politics and very little class politics. Can it even be that the left’s social analysis fails to grasp the essential reality of the current economic and political state-of-play?
What most people on the left can agree on is that the situation is serious, even dramatic. In Europe, the level of unionization has almost halved over the last 30 years, and labour rights, labour laws and collective agreements have systematically deteriorated and/or been completely abolished. Most things are worse than here in Norway, but that does not mean that we are unaffected by this development. There is no doubt that Norway is still on the upper deck of the global welfare ship, but much indicates that it is the upper deck of Titanic.
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In short, inequalities in society are increasing here too, more authoritarian relations are emerging at the workplaces, including through an Americanisation of organisational and management models. Wage growth for those at the bottom of the ladder has stagnated.
At the same time, we experience more and more offensive and aggressive employers, who, among other things, escape an employer’s responsibility through outsourcing and the increasing use of temporary agency workers – weakening trade unions. Furthermore, employers strongly benefit from the ever more anti-trade union policies of the EU/EEA and their courts. Work is increasingly emptied of content in many parts of the labour market. It is becoming more and more fragmented and standardized, employees are being subjected to increased monitoring, control and management – and work intensity is increasing.
In addition, welfare-to-work ideology contributes strongly to shifting attention from organizational structures and power relations to individualization – with moralizing, suspicion and a brutal sanctions regime against individuals.
Of course, this development is based on the economic crisis. Capitalism is experiencing its deepest crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and capital owners have changed their strategy to regain profitability. Neoliberalism became their political/ideological response to the crisis, but there is nothing which so far suggests that they will overcome the internal contradictions of capitalism in this way. It is important also to note that neoliberalism and unrestrained financial speculation are both effects of the capitalist crisis, not the reasons for it. And globalisation, which many claim “has come to be,” and that trade unions only “have to adapt,” is nothing but the result of capital’s strategy and counter-crisis offensive.
In Europe, it becomes increasingly clear that important goals of this policy are to get rid of welfare states and defeat the trade unions. This is indeed what is taking place – under political leadership of the EU Institutions. That millions upon millions of workers worldwide become “losers” in this process of globalization should not surprise anyone. Nor that they will eventually react with mistrust, rage and blind rebellion. That part of the working class, given the absence of left political parties with analyses, policies and strategies to address and meet this crisis and offensive of capitalist forces, is attracted by the extreme right’s verbal anti-elitism and anti-establishment rhetoric, is against this background understandable.
To understand, however, is not the same as to accept, let alone support. That some people on the left allow themselves to be dazzled by the apparently worker-friendly policies of many of the new parties on the far right, even want to ally themselves with them, is thus a dangerous development. There is nothing new in our history that the extreme right panders to “the little man in society.” It also happened during the emergence of fascism in the 1930s. Then, as now, there were also people on the left, though not many, who switched sides in a blind belief that “national socialism” was a form of socialism, and not its diametric opposite, as history so clearly proved.
What is important to understand, is why many of the most exploited and powerless in our society are attracted by far right anti-elitist rhetoric. And in trying to understand this, we should recall how power relations at the workplaces have shifted dramatically in favour of the employers, how the brutalization of work increases, how insecurity increases for large groups of employees. This is also decisive if we want to develop an interest-based policy that responds to these challenges.
The reality is that worker’s exploitation, increasing powerlessness and subordination now hardly command a voice in public debate. Labour parties have mainly cut the links with their old constituencies. Rather than picking up the discontent generated in a more brutal labour market, politicizing it and channelling it into an organized interest-based struggle, middle class left parties offer little else than moralizing and contempt. Thus, they do little else than push large groups of workers into the arms of the far-right parties, which support all the discontent and do their best to channel people’s rage against other social groups (immigrants, Muslims, gays, people with different colour, etc.) rather than against the real causes of the problems.
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If the left is not able to anchor the struggle against capitalism and its crisis in people’s everyday workplace experiences, they will lose this battle for the heart and soul of the working class. If we want to avoid such a development in Norway, we also must stop talking about “the Nordic Model” as if nothing has happened when in large parts of the leadership of the trade union and labour movement, that model of cooperation between labour and capital has been elevated to a general phenomenon which is “to the benefit of both parties” – completely decoupled from the power relations that develop at the workplaces and in society. It is seen as a higher form of rationality and surrounded by a rhetoric of common interests that more and more workers have trouble in recognising.
If it remains true that social dialogue and tripartite cooperation favour “both parties” in the current situation, shouldn’t we then expect employers to want to establish such good relations in areas where trade unions are weak, such as in hotels and restaurant, in shops, in cleaning, etc.? The opposite appears to be the case. Rather, it appears that the social partnership ideology has contributed to a depoliticization and deradicalization of the trade union and labour movement – while employers are increasingly attacking labour laws and agreements which they previously accepted in the spirit of the class compromise.
In summary, the balance of power at workplaces has shifted dramatically – from labour to capital, from trade unions and democratic bodies to multinational companies and financial institutions. Over a few decades, capitalist interests have managed to abolish the main regulations that made the welfare state and the Nordic Model possible; international monetary cooperation, capital controls and other market regulations. In this situation, social partnership ideology constitutes a barrier to trade union and political struggle.
The left’s main challenge today is to organize resistance against this development. Only in this way can right-wing populism and radicalism be pushed back at the same time. Once again, we must be able to construct the vision of a promised land – i.e. perspectives of a better society, a society with a radical redistribution of wealth, where exploitation ends and where human needs form the basis for social development. If so, statements, protests and appeals to a tripartite cooperation that is constantly drained of content will not suffice. It is all about power – economic and political power. This will require massive social mobilization – in the way that trade unions built their strength to win power and influence at the beginning of the last century. Are we prepared for that?
Asbjørn Wahl has had a long career in the trade union movement at national and international levels. Retired from his formal positions, he is currently a trade union adviser, political writer and activist. Until recently he was president of the Urban Transport Committee of the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) and leader of the ITF working group on climate change.