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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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1. The struggle over market society: from economic liberalism to the defence of politics 35

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35 1. The struggle over market society: from economic liberalism to the defence of politics The idea of a self-adjusting market implied a stark utopia. Such an institution could not exist for any length of time without anni- hilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surroundings into a wilderness. Karl Polanyi Ernst Wigforss’s political thought and practice encompassed a broad spec- trum of the issues that were always apparent in – and still constitute – the political economy of western society. At the same time Wigforss’s political partisanship was highly focused. With moral passion, intellectual brilliance, strategic adroitness and personal energy as an agitator he was arguably the most formidable opponent that the political programme of economic lib- eralism has faced in any western polity. It is thanks to him more than to any other contemporary that economic-liberal politics in his own country was discredited and lay virtually paralysed for half a century after his party launched its unique frontal attack on it in the early 1930s. Even now, well into the twenty-first century, this revived but unreconstructed political programme continues to underpin liberalising internationalism and eco- nomic rationalism in western political life and lends the retrieval and re- vamping of Wigforss’s legacy particular urgency. By the time of Wigforss’s birth in 1881, and certainly by the time he became politically active in Sweden’s social democratic labour movement in the first decade of the twentieth century, the battle lines between eco- nomic...

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