Beyond social democracy: new institutions, new subjects

So many of the debates on the contemporary left come back to the legacy of social democracy. The Swedish experience came closest to fulfilling social democratic ideals in the post-war era and so speaks to these debates in a unique way. Earlier this year, I talked to Petter Nilsson of Sweden’s Left Party about the legacy of social democracy in his country and its broader meaning. This was one of my favourite interviews of the year and one that stuck with me for a long time. I’ve transcribed it here for it to be shared more widely. It’s been edited for length and clarity.

Michal Rozworski: Sweden is still seen by many around the world as a model for the welfare state but it has changed dramatically over the past couple decades. Can you give a quick summary of what it means to look at Sweden, as you’ve put it, “without illusions”?

Petter Nilsson: There’s this joke on the Swedish left that everyone would want the Swedish model and the Swedes would want it perhaps more than anyone. What’s considered to be the Swedish model peaked in maybe the late 70s, early 80s and has since gone through quite the same developments as the rest of Europe with the neoliberal wave. Because Sweden started at a high level of wage compression and equality terms of gender, it is still very equal compared to other European countries. Yet, at the same time, we have the fastest growth in class differences within the OECD.

When the Social Democrats turned rightwards in 1986 or so, a lot of the developments that had taken place in other European countries came to Sweden in a few swift blows. In just a few years we had huge increases in class differences and this affected our universal welfare system. This system was always based on the high wage compression, which included the middle class in same welfare system as the rest. Its members felt that since the quality of welfare programs was so high, they were prepared to pay taxes to finance them. But as soon as financing for the welfare sector is cut, then quality drops and the middle class opts out for private solutions. (more…)

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On talking about priorities: Oil spills and teachers strikes

On the same day one week ago, teachers in British Columbia began a full strike and the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline was approved by the Canadian government. With such telling coincidences, it is hard not to juxtapose the two broad social conflicts in which BC has become a flashpoint: that over the quality of public education and that over the expansion of fossil fuel development.

This juxtaposition is made across the board. Writing in support of additional education spending financed by higher taxes, SFU economist Krishna Pendakur closes with this point:

B.C. must be one of very few places in the world where “invest in our future” means “invest in liquefied natural gas” and not “invest in the education of our children.”

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Economic history in the present: The wage fund and the minimum wage

How many bushels of wheat do you make a year? While this is not the most relevant question to be asking about wages today, some of the discussion around the minimum wage is taking inspiration from a very old economic idea according to which questions like this would be right at home. The idea is that of a “wage fund”: a fixed amount of total wages available to an economy for a given period that dictates the average wage. If such a fund exists, then any aim to raise wages within the period for which the fund is fixed will inevitably end up harming workers – most likely those with the lowest wages and the least power. Today’s arguments against increasing the minimum wage at times mirror this flawed logic – and for reasons that, oddly enough, reflect on why the theory was discarded in the first place. (Click here if you want to skip the history and get to the present; otherwise read on.)

wagefund2 (more…)

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The in-and-out trick: Thoughts on Canada Post, CPP and your child’s breakfast

The past few days have not been great for public services in Canada. Canada Post will be phasing out home delivery of mail. Expansion of the Canada Pension Plan was scuttled at the finance ministers’ meeting. In the grand scheme of things, however, these are not extreme cutbacks. It’s not as if Canada Post is to be dismantled completely or our public pension fund to run completely dry. This government has long brought us death by a thousand paper cuts and those from the past days are just a continuation of the strategy.

There is a particular common thread that runs through all such small cutbacks. Corey Robin’s recent article in Jacobin, “Socialism: Converting Hysterical Misery into Ordinary Unhappiness”, helped greatly in seeing and naming it. Let us call it insourcing.

This kind of insourcing refers to taking a collective public service and making it into an individual responsibility. Perhaps James Moore recently summed up the insourcing philosophy best, “Certainly we want to make sure that kids go to school full bellied, but is that always the government’s job to be there to serve people their breakfast?” Serve your own breakfast, get your own mail, don’t wait too long to die.

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