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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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9. The responsibilities of labour in social democratic politics 343

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344 is never the sole author of the structural shifts, and in the face of main- stream liberalism’s hostility to the labour-dominated arrangements required to effect them. Here we are confronted by a central conundrum in con- temporary social science: the interplay between non-volitional structural developments and the volitional political programmes seeking to exploit them. Why does labour need to act – and with what objectives – if it’s getting much of what it wants anyway? This chapter tackles this conun- drum by arguing that recent intellectual understanding of labour’s capac- ity to influence capitalist development has grossly underestimated that capacity. We will examine the strands of western social and political thought which have suggested that collective self-awareness is able to shunt social, political and economic trends in desirable rather than undesirable direc- tions. Anti-economic-liberal intellectual traditions – including marxian and keynesian political economy, economic sociology, institutionalism, statist approaches to the economy and politics, ‘historical economics’, ‘social economy’ priorities and a resurgent mercantilism – can, if re-appropri- ated, again reveal competing but convergent rationales for labour’s asser- tion of what can be referred to as its ‘macro-political responsibilities’. Con- fronted by evolutionary developments, these need to be re-stated and re-learned. The fact remains that neoliberal domination of politics and policymaking during the period of globally induced economic restructuring has diminished the ambit of labour politics – and labour’s collective confidence – to a greater extent than have actual socio-economic trends. The evolutionary dimension of social democracy, in which, once organised, labour’s political agency is able to...

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