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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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8. Comparative evolution of social democratic possibilities 277

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277 8. Comparative evolution of social democratic possibilities The phenomena of growth and change are the most obtrusive and most consequential facts observable in economic life. Thorstein Veblen There is in economics, as also in political theory, a marked ten- dency to indignation when someone suggests that change has al- tered the substance of our economic and political life. […] But let no one be in doubt: where the world of affluence is concerned, reality and truth lie not with what was believed in the past but with what is compelled by the present. John Kenneth Galbraith Economies are complex and dynamic systems. In producing goods and services, they certainly grow, but they also change qualitatively. As we will see, their political preconditions and political implications become more apparent over time, transforming in unheralded directions the social rela- tions that initially defined them. Unanticipated political opportunities thus emerge as economies take on new functions; distinctive trends take shape and new characteristics evolve. Most pertinently for our discussion of so- cial democracy, economic diversity amplifies political options as Ernst Wigforss understood. Further, as economies adapt and mature, they do so in diverse ways. This variation (from each other, from past performance and from any model of an ideal market system) is never independent of context; it de- pends on interaction – sometimes facilitative, sometimes constraining, sometimes contradictory – between economic and non-economic require- ments. The contribution of social and political environments to produc- tive arrangements is what establishes multiple determination, or what we will...

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