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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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7. Union organisation as the bearer of substantive rationality 225


225 7. Union organisation as the bearer of productive rationality Social democracy has the task of transforming society according to principles that we can simply call democratic. We see ourselves as the bearers of the democratising tendency that has long character- ised western societies, by which the great majority of the popula- tion has step by step won increased citizens’ rights, equality before the law and so forth. We have gradually achieved all that is called legal rights. It is now our task to ensure that even the remaining economic privileges which exist in our capitalist society disappear through the populace freeing itself from the power that private capital owners exercise, and itself claiming decision-making power over economic life, thereby creating a community of solidaristically working citizens. Ernst Wigforss The only thing that makes men likely to listen to women and take them seriously is women’s solidarity. Elin Wägner Unions were essential to the implementation of social democratic political strategy, both as forms of mobilisation and as central institutions in the democratic reorganisation of economic life, as our review of the development of Ernst Wigforss’s thought and career has shown. Union organisations have always opposed economic liberalism. They rely on collective as opposed to individual bargaining so as to influence distributive and productive out- comes; they implicitly contest capital’s domination of the employment relationship; and they nurture a growing sense that labour’s centrality in a capitalist economy could empower it as a transformative social force. In this chapter we...

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