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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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Conclusion 431

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431 Conclusion There is no paradise at the dawn of human history and there is none at its end. […] Each generation must solve its own problems. Ernst Wigforss [W]e are intuitively familiar with issues of injustice, unfairness, inequality and immorality – we have just forgotten how to talk about them. Social democracy once articulated such concerns, until it too lost its way. […] Social democrats across Europe are hard- pressed to say what they stand for. Tony Judt An alternative to markets and to the disruptions they cause always exists. And nothing can repress movements around ‘moral sentiments’ in aid of social decency and cohesion. Humanistic desiderata do not obstruct any progress worthy of the name, and democratic polities cannot allow flawed ideas to reverse decades of collectivist accomplishment. Rather, they must position themselves to confront and exploit new forms of the antagonism – persisting in the west for seventeen decades – between market-driven development and what Karl Polanyi termed the self-protection of society. Prosperity in any form depends on political will and societal achievements; and it is these that need to be advanced, reconceptualised and maintained in wealthy societies. Social democracy asserts that citizens are entitled to an equitable share of whatever living standards their society is capable of producing. And even though the gap between imaginable and actual living standards in western countries – a gap indicated by unemployment, inequality and unmet social aspirations – has been widening in the past few decades, social democracy continues to resist the unoriginal idea that politics...

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