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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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5. Statecraft, employment and welfare in the 1930s and 1940s 139

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139 5. Statecraft, employment and welfare in the 1930s and 1940s Only the best is good enough for the people. Gustav Möller When Wigforss realised in the late 1920s that the Swedish union move- ment was not yet in a position to act as the bearer of enterprise democra- tisation, he began to apply one of the main underlying premises of this enterprise – capitalism’s economic irrationality – to a contestation of eco- nomic liberal public policy. This turn became the vehicle for his search for a social democratic electoral majority – a search that his experience of the perils of minority government had made a matter of urgency for him. Under his influence the Swedish social democrats would soon become the first and only major electoral party in the world to launch a head-on chal- lenge to economic liberalism. The devastation it wreaked on this quintes- sential politics of capitalism indicates the brittleness and vulnerability that belies the latter’s perennially resilient image elsewhere in the west, above all in the English-speaking countries. It is an extraordinary irony that much of the political weaponry the social democrats initially deployed so suc- cessfully against economic liberalism in Sweden in the 1930s was forged in England in the 1920s. The social democrats would consolidate an internationally unique hold on power in a democratic polity from the 1930s, and many and varied were the political currents that proffered their services in what con- temporaries sensed was a new heroic age of social reconstruction. The new...

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