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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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2. Industrial society and social democratic politics: political organisation in Sweden 55


55 2. Industrial society and social democratic politics: political organisation in Sweden From Marx you can also learn moderation. Ernst Wigforss By the time of Ernst Wigforss’s birth in 1881, a modern industrial so- ciety had already begun to take shape in Sweden, and a marxist social democratic labour movement came to prominence within it during his childhood. The social relations of this modernisation process, together with their doctrinal forms and representations, provide the starting points for Wigforss’s practical and theoretical contribution to the development of Swedish social democracy. In this short chapter we outline some of the political conflicts and cross-currents that came from the convergence of industrialisation and marxist radicalisation of the labour movement in the years preceding the first world war. This will sketch in the back- ground to Wigforss’s renewal of social democratic doctrine and strategy in the interwar years. The political economy of early Swedish industrialisation Up to the 1870s, Sweden was a largely agrarian and wretchedly poor back- water of Europe. A long drawn-out agrarian crisis sent around two fifths of the population – largely from the southern provinces – into emigration; its most significant destination was America. Later, the continuing rural desperation would fulfil the same function as the Enclosure Acts in Eng- land, and drive the surplus population into the squalor of the new indus- trial centres. The Swedish countryside was also dotted with small-scale mining communities and other towns which lived off exploiting natural resources (above all forests and mineral deposits), and off...

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