A Capitalist Path to Socialism? The Swedish Wage-Earner Funds as a Real Utopia

Shannon Ikebe, University of California, Berkeley

This paper examines the trajectory of the Meidner-Hedborg Plan (MHP) proposed in Sweden in the 1970s, as a critical case of an attempt at transition from advanced capitalism to socialism. The plan, developed by the two economists for the Swedish union confederation LO (Landsorganisationen), envisioned a gradual, long-term transition to worker ownership and control of the whole economy through regular, continuous transfer of shares to union-owned Wage-Earner Funds. Even though the MHP was backed by the powerful LO and extensively discussed across the country, it failed to be realized. Rejecting the dominant explanation that attributes the MHP's failure to extensive resources mobilization by businesses for their counter-campaign, I posit that it was due to the absence of social movement mobilization for the MHP, despite having enjoyed overwhelming support among rank-and-file workers. Demobilization was a consequence of the particular form of bourgeois hegemony through social-democratic corporatism that characterized postwar Sweden; it delivered concrete material benefits for the working-class in exchange for labor peace, guaranteed through control of rank-and-file workers by highly-organized and centralized labor movement institutions from above. Social democratic hegemony opened up a space for the MHP to emerge, while simultaneously depriving the working-class of the necessary means to win it. This analysis of the MHP contributes to further developing a theory of "Real Utopias" (Wright 2010), by providing concrete historical contexts in which politics over Real Utopian policies played out. In particular, the MHP's history illustrates that Wright's "symbiotic path" to Real Utopias contains a hitherto underexamined internal contradiction, namely that it is dependent upon demobilization of the working-class, which precludes realization of further reforms along the symbiotic path.

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 Presented in Session 220. Public Investment and Ownership: Right and Left