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Politics against pessimism

Social democratic possibilities since Ernst Wigforss

Geoff Dow and Winton Higgins

Neoliberalism has now failed, so can a social democratic resurgence replace it? This book retrieves the political thought of Swedish politician Ernst Wigforss to explore the unrealised potential of social democracy. Wigforss drew on many schools of thought to produce an alternative social democratic strategy.
It outflanked economic liberalism, allowed his party to dominate Swedish politics for a half-century, and his country to achieve affluence and social equity as converging rather than competing objectives.
OECD economies have since evolved political capacities – the welfare state, corporatist regulation, expanded citizen entitlements, civic amenity – far in excess of pessimistic evaluations offered by mainstream analyses. This book suggests that such developments confirm Wigforss’s ideas, confounding conventional pessimism.
Full employment, social equity, economic democracy, new political institutions, and transformative economic management are now more imaginable than ever in western countries. But their achievement depends on a radical reformist political mobilisation of the kind that Wigforss inspired, one which integrates these aspirations as mutually reinforcing goals.

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Introduction 15

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15 Introduction In the final analysis, conceptions of self, reason and society and visions of ethics and politics are inseparable. Seyla Benhabib As a socio-economic system, capitalism delivers progress at the expense of economic dislocation, social insecurity and tangible deprivation. It has thus also summoned forth collectivist and leftist political movements that set out to ameliorate these disorders. Throughout the capitalist era, the conflict between the system’s economic-liberal promoters on the one hand, and on the other those who seek to impose social and moral priorities on it, has accounted for the main cleavage in western political life. Among other things, that conflict has moulded the mixed economies of the post- war era. As with other widespread conflicts, their course has never been predetermined; it always depends on historically unique starting points in different countries, and on each side’s ability to achieve programmatic clarity, to creatively exploit possibilities, and to crystallise its gains in new institutions. Hence each national mixed economy manifests in distinctive ways. But international impulses regulate the terms on which the conflict itself plays out. From the mid-1970s, neoliberalism – a new, allegedly necessary, ren- dering of perennial economic liberalism – came to dominate western po- litical life, starting in Australia, the UK and the USA. This more virulent recension of the old economic-liberal creed sought once again to impose a utopian and unfettered capitalism, now on a global scale, with minimal regulation and punitive welfare provisions, and maximal monetisation and marketisation of the mechanisms that allocate resources and...

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