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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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10. The state and deliberation: on the economic possibilities of politics 383


383 10. The state and deliberation: on the economic possibilities of politics Without the making of theories […] there would be no observation. Charles Darwin Followed to its logical conclusion, common sense will now lead to paradox. Edward J Nell It must be said that the implosion of political principle in the advanced countries in recent decades is largely a problem for social democracy. Cen- tral to Ernst Wigforss’s conception of political progress was that human action was responsible for developmental tendencies, or disruptions to them, that marxism had variously seen as fated. Political activity should never be a passive or accommodative response to trends determined else- where.1 By silencing discussion about the purposes of politics and disa- vowing those knowledge-production activities that had contributed to dis- tinctive possibilities throughout the twentieth century, official parties of the left have contributed to failures of understanding and of vision.2 The distinctive social democratic alternative that emerges in our previous chapters (one built on deliberative action programmes) therefore challenges conceptions of the possible that have long claimed to embody deeper ana- lyses of capitalism and more radical, yet also darker, less spirited political conclusions. Marxism is most commonly presented by its adherents as 1 Re-stated as recently as 1962 in ‘Manifestet tände elden’ (‘The Manifesto lit the fire’). ‘The working class’s liberation must be the workers’ own work’, Wigforss wrote (1962, pp. 154, 156). 2 The point has been made strikingly in respect of Swedish economic policy reversals from the 1980s to the...

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