Prospects for Scandinavian Democracy in a Society in Conflict

T Gz MeeNilankco


The Paradox: In many of the oldest and most stable democratic countries, citizens possess little confidence in some key democratic institutions. Yet most citizens continue to believe in the desirability of democracy.
-Robert A. Dahl

The Scandinavian model of Democracy has to varying degrees provided a model for programmatic change in Eastern and Central European countries. This transformation happened in late 20th Century, with the probability of transfer determined by the ‘proximity’ (geographical, ideological and cultural) of the ‘exporter’ party to the ‘importer’ party. Thus, the challenge now is whether it is possible to export the Scandinavian model of democracy in the more globalised 21st Century.

The story of our increasingly global order— ‘globalization’ —is not singular. Globalization is not just economic it is also political for it also involves growing aspirations for international law and justice. There is also another narrative— a narrative seeking to reframe human activity and entrench it in law, rights and responsibilities. The principles of equal respect, equal concern and the priority of vital needs of all human beings are not principles for some remote utopia— they are of central significance to the 21st Century’s legal and political developments.

The three Scandinavian polities— Denmark, Norway and Sweden —constitute an obvious test case for an analytical perspective much in vogue in comparative political studies. The recent focus on public policy outcomes suggests a shift from the view that politics is an epiphenomenal activity determined by social and economic forces towards an analysis which emphasises the role of political structure and political beliefs as independent variables affecting the content of public policy and, thereby, the quality of life experienced by individuals who are members of different political units. During the last half century, democratic socialist politics was infinitely more successful in Scandinavia than elsewhere in Western Europe (O’Kane, 2004). Since democratic socialist ideology strongly emphasises the values of welfare and social equality, the political achievements of Scandinavian Social Democratic parties should in the eyes of the public be matched by achievements in respect of welfare and egalitarianism.

The main objective of this paper is to explore the possibility of applying the Scandinavian model of democracy to Sri Lanka. It looks into specific aspects of the Social Democratic model as the way forward to bring peace to Sri Lanka, and compares that prospect with one for a form of popular democracy or a protective state with grass roots democratic structures that emphasize egalitarian social justice. It also examines if is it possible to transfer the Scandinavian Social Democracy model, in whole or part, to Sri Lanka not as a lasting solution to its current political crisis but as a useful step towards popular democracy or a people’s state. In Sri Lanka, options for future development are narrowing to a choice between totalitarian and democratic routes. This paper is based on a preference for the democratic option such as a people-based democracy.

Democracy is essentially about people and concerns meeting the needs, obligations, rights and development of individuals. Representative government is the political face of democracy. Democracy also concerns economic and social aspects of life. A yardstick of its measurement is the degree of active, voluntary participation of individual citizens in diverse activities of society. As democracy in Sri Lanka can be preserved only through a collective national response of all democratic parties, the call for national unity would take centre stage, and ways remain to be devised to enable that. Some features of Scandinavian democracy could serve to fulfil the purpose of unifying the people.
The essay, in its analysis of social democracy as a model for emulation, will explain how and why transfer occurs within the broader process of ‘policy learning’, and assess from the perspective of the exporter parties the opportunity structures for policy transfer. The two channels explored represent the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors of policy transfer: ‘ideational transfer’ (the attractiveness of social-democratic ideas as a model) and the transfer of policies through interaction in concrete ‘transfer networks’.

Firstly, the extent to which Scandinavian social democracy could serve as a ‘model for emulation’ will be discussed, by exploring how social democracy and its policies could be attractive individually, what makes their transfer desirable, and the aspects which are transferable. It is noted that proximity favours substantive policy transfer because policy transfer relates not just to the desirability but also the feasibility of transfer across different socio-economic and institutional settings. The historical background to the present conflict in Sri Lanka and the state of democratic process will be presented next, followed by a comparison of the class nature of the societies in Scandinavia and in Sri Lanka, in the context of identifying key unifying factors that would enable a people’s movement for achieving popular democracy. The final section addresses issues of applying the Scandinavian model to Sri Lanka and the relevance of the model in the current context.

The Scandinavian Model of Social Democracy

Firstly, we need to be clear about what social democracy has been historically. Gamble and Wright (1999) place at the core of the social democratic enterprise the attempt ‘to build and sustain political majorities for reforms of economic and social institutions which will counter injustice and reduce inequality’. Similarly, Eric Hobsbawm (1996) identifies social democratic politics with the desire ‘to regulate and socialise the wealth-creating and directionless economic dynamism of capitalism, not replace it’. These admirably lucid and economical definitions are, however, not designed to fully describe social democracy. Social democratic experience is hard to be located under a simple unique formulation. Some schools of thought have treated it principally in terms of the name of a political party and analysed it in terms of the dynamics of political parties and party systems. Others have identified it with a tightly-specified model of a strong corporatist regime uniting a party of labour and a centralised trade union organization. Yet others view social democracy as an expansive term covering almost anything broadly ‘left-of-centre’. Besides, there are authors to whom social democracy means the Scandinavian model and at times systems which have sought more or less successfully to emulate it.

The Scandinavian model was associated with great progress in living and working conditions, unprecedented in the history of mankind. Public health, life expectancy and social security improved enormously over a short period as the welfare state developed in the last century (Mishra, 2004). It therefore became enormously popular among ordinary people. This social model which developed in a specific historic context cannot be assessed or followed independently of its social and historical origins and the power relations which enabled it. A deeper and more thorough analysis and understanding of this particular social model is crucial to get to grips with the potential, the actual development and the perspective of the welfare state.

The Scandinavian model as we know comprises high quality public health services, national insurance schemes, social security and other public services were introduced and improved upon as a result of the rise in power of organised labour. Public ownership and control of the basic social infrastructure including utilities form an important aspect of these new power relations in the Scandinavian context, and serve as a ‘model to emulate’ for ma countries.

It was the product of power relations and social struggle in the context of specific historic developments of the 20th Century. Contrary to being the result of social dialogue and tri-partite co-operation, as many in the labour movement prefer to have it, the model which created the welfare state was the result of prolonged arduous social struggle and class confrontation (Asbjørn, 2007). Capitalism, since becoming the dominant mode of production globally, has undergone cycles of boom to bust and bust to boom. The capitalism of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century comprised severe exploitation of workers in general, accompanied by extraordinary misery during its bust periods (Esping-Andersen 1990). The response of the working class was to organise and fight― at workplaces as well as politically. Through it the labour movement gradually achieved better wages and working conditions as well as high quality social welfare provisions, especially in Scandinavian democracies. These features make transfer desirable.

The Scandinavian welfare state is thus more than a sum of social institutions and public budgets. It represents, first and foremost, specific power relations in society. Capital control, in particular, enabled governments to pursue a policy of national and social development without continual confrontation with capital’s exit strategies, where big corporations could threaten to flag out and move to countries with more favourable conditions, if their interests were hurt. In essence, public welfare has been a question of power (Asbjørn, 2007).

It is important to note that this social partnership between labour and capital came about a result of the combined strength of the trade unions and the labour movement. The employers and their organisations, having realised that they cannot defeat the trade unions, recognised them as representatives of the workers and sat to negotiate with them. In other words, this peaceful cohabitation between labour and capital rested on a strong labour movement― a strength which came about through the many struggles and confrontations between labour and capital in the previous period (Kautto, 2001). In the 21st Century, however, the power of the capital has risen through multinational companies and neo-colonial policies while the labour movement and organisations have weakened owing to the harsh approach of the government manifesting in strict regulations. Thus attempts to emulate the Scandinavian model in the 21st Century against this backdrop will pose fresh issues.

The welfare state was not the expressed aim of the labour movement but the result of a specific historic compromise between labour and capital, as reflected in the mixed characteristics of the welfare state. The uncertain prospect for compromise between labour and capital in the 21st Century is another issue that stands in a way of transferring this model.

Now, half a century later, we realize that capitalism to a large degree has succeeded in its strategy. With the policy of the social pact gaining massive support among the working class owing to important achievements in welfare, wages and working conditions, the more radical and anti-capitalist sections of the labour movement became growingly marginalised (Swank, 2002). Dominant sections of the labour movement also were inclined to see social progress as an outcome of social peace and co-operation with more amicable capital owners. To many trade union leaders of the time, social confrontation was a negative event with adverse impact on workers’ conditions and thus avoidable; and social democratic parties played their historic role of administering this policy of class compromise.

Another aspect of the capitalist strategy was the restructuring of capitalist production on a global scale. Production chains cutting across national boundaries, lean production, outsourcing, off-shoring and relocation at will of assembly lines as well as of supportive services were salient features of this process. Workers and social models were pitted against each other through this increasingly unlimited freedom of movement of capital, goods and services (Macarov, 2003).  New Public Management now located private sector models within the once state-dominated public sector.

Market freedom and ability to compete on increasingly deregulated international markets became guiding principles of government policy. As a result, the rise in competition in the labour market and a rapid growth of precarious work undermined trade union and workers rights (Hacker, 2002). The welfare state, particularly the Scandinavian model, which represented enormous social progress for a great majority of the population, now came under attack. Why is something, which, despite all shortcomings, was hailed as one of the most successful social models in human history, now attacked and undermined?

Firstly, the social pact was not eternally sustainable. It was only a compromise which came about in a very specific historic context, when the main economic and social characteristics of classical capitalism were still intact. Secondly, the labour movement sleep walked into the delusion that the social pact was a long-term strategy although, despite its value and importance, it was only a short term tactical compromise for both the working class and capitalism. Rather than being seen as a step towards a fundamental social emancipation, the class compromise and its true-born offspring, the welfare state, gradually came to the end of its life. Thirdly, and linked to the previous point, the ideology of the social pact was flawed. Democratic control of the economy was never fully achieved, crises-free capitalism was not created, and class struggle was not over. Fourthly, the labour movement was taken by surprise by the neo-liberal offensive. Rather than mobilise socially to defend the achievements of the welfare state, and take the social struggle forward, a great part of the trade union leadership and the labour movement found themselves on the defensive, clung to the social peace and social dialogue model, and negotiated concessions, while adopting much of the neo-liberal ideology.

On the other hand, the most important historical lesson of the welfare state, as we see it develop today, is that it stopped well short of taking democratic control of the economy. Although for long the welfare state ensured a fair redistribution of income in society, it left intact the core relations of capitalist production. The growing concentration of the ownership of capital and means of production in the hands of an increasingly powerful capitalist class, in course of time, enabled it to launch an attack on the equitable distribution of goods and services in welfare societies. This is exactly what we witness today in the form of the on-going global neo-liberal offensive (Wahl, 2004).

Finally, social democrats have generally been committed to economic growth and it may be legitimate to argue that elements of their particular growth regime had become counter-productive, politically and perhaps economically (Kitschelt, 1994). Commitment to economic growth is, however, an aspect of modern politics that transcends social democracy. In practice, neo-liberal opponents generated much political capital by claiming that social democracy was inimical to growth than through their repeated insistence that social democracy was the enemy of individual liberty (Zeitlin, 1984). If a key contemporary issue is ‘the politics of less’ of how to slow the juggernaut which ties economic growth to environmental degradation, while also addressing the growing global inequalities of incomes and resources, it is an issue which challenges social democracy, which offers almost the only successful experience of negotiated decrementalism plus social protection. It is important to note here that social democracy has always had to walk the tightrope of hard choices and negotiate fuzzy edges― and this, at least, has not changed.

Democracy in Sri Lanka

There is a broad consensus on the use of a minimalist definition of democracy that goes back to the works of Schumpeter (1993) and Dahl (1977) who describe democracy as a political system that meets at least three conditions: firstly, it features competition among organized groups and individuals over government power on a regular basis and without the use of force; secondly, it allows for political participation through regular free elections that should not exclude defined social groups; and thirdly, it offers a certain level of civil and political rights that ensures competition and participation (Lijphart, 1990).

Applying this definition to Sri Lanka poses several problems. The first criterion― peaceful competition over government power through regular elections ―does not present a major problem. The emergence of political parties representing the different social layers of different communities is as much a feature of Sri Lankan politics as it is elsewhere. There is a great variety in Sri Lankan political parties, based on regional, linguistic, religious, ethnic and caste identities, and secular values as well as on class interests, ensuring some form of competition for political power. The condition that the conduct of elections should be free of force, however, is growingly unmet, with violence as a regular feature of electoral politics.

The next condition to consider comprises the conditions under which elections are held. That is, do civil and political rights such as freedom of press and association, that are meant to ensure fair competition and equal participation, exist? It is hard to quantify the extent to which these criteria are met in Sri Lanka. Media freedom was restricted during the civil war as well as when the ruling party and the dominant media had a close relationship and even shared interests, as was arguably the case in Sri Lanka in the 1980s. There has, nevertheless, been a greater degree of media freedom in the country in the latter part of the 1990s and in the early 2000s.

Thus, even the minimalist definition of democracy confronts several problems in the Sri Lankan context. However, despite problems such as polls-related violence and restricted civil liberties, democracy survives to the extent that elections serve their first and foremost purpose: changing governments. That such change occurs is particularly remarkable in a society with vast socioeconomic inequality. The popular assumption that state resources are readily transformed into political power by the incumbent is not fully applicable to Sri Lanka, although there has been abuse of public resources to defend political power secured by the electoral process.

Discussion of the sustainability of democratic systems has for long been influenced by modernization theories that emphasize the close relationship between economic factors and successful democratic development like Lijphart’s (1990) dictum that “the more well-to-do a nation the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy”.

Przeworski (1996) and collaborators too emphasized the importance of economic factors, especially per capita income, to the capacity for democracies to endure, saying that “with per-capita income of more than $6,000 a year, democracy is certain to survive, come hell or high water”. But transition to democracy in any society is too complex to be explained by economic or other socio-structural variables alone.
The ideological foundations of democracy as broadly understood in Western societies― defined as equality, individual freedom and autonomy, and pluralism ―were realized in the course of political development of social democracy. The pre-capitalist culture in the Asia-Pacific which still holds sway to varying extents along with a political culture deriving from foreign intervention as the mediator in social transformation, have, besides, led to the creation of social norms dictated by a partisan state, dominance of bureau-technocratic elites, and a managed public sphere.

Zakaria (1997) has drawn attention to an increase in such democracies, a category in which he includes regimes where elected governments have tended to restrict civic rights and freedoms but without authoritarian control. He points to the conceptual problem of simply equating democracy with the constitutional liberalism of Western industrialized societies. Pleading for the strengthening of constitutionalism, Zakaria argues that “Western liberal democracy might prove to be not the final destination on the democratic road, but just one of many possible exits.”

Yet, the argument on the impact of culture on democracy seems understated. While political systems are influenced by the cultural traditions of the societies in which they are situated, it is almost impossible to isolate specific cultural factors to evaluate their explanatory value. Countries of South Asia have shown that democracy― understood in terms of competitive elections as the instrument of political change ―can function under diverse cultural systems dominated by religious, caste and other dominant ideologies. Notably, in 1972, Buddhism secured foremost place in the Constitution of Sri Lanka, negating the earlier nominally secular state. In electoral political terms the only valid conclusion to draw seems to be that cultural factors play a visible role in influencing voter behaviour and, more importantly, in dismantling democracy. However, the way in which such factors influence democratic development depends on the institutional setting and the motivation of the relevant actors. Social Democracy is of value in this context in facilitating the setting up the platform for popular democracy, through reforming institutional settings and also eradicating actors hindering the development of democracy in the country. Thus an understanding of the link between historical development and institutional and cultural factors as a key element will help to explain what makes ‘democracy’ work. Discussion of the need to consolidate democracy in Sri Lanka at the present juncture could usefully draw on positive features of the experiences of social democracy.

Merkel (1996) developed a model of democratic consolidation that unfolds at four different levels, namely institutions, representation, behaviour, and civic culture. Consolidation starts at all four levels simultaneously but requires different lengths of time to achieve; institutional consolidation, for example, is reached much faster than democratic consolidation of a civic culture.

The foundation of a democracy rests on the state and the endeavours of its leadership in the fields of state- and nation-building. Many models of democratic consolidation take for granted the existence of a state, if not some form of central government. But on close examination of the acts of state- and nation-building, one notices a number of developments that question this assumption. The concept of fragmented democracies would help to explain the similarities of South Asian democracies and their paradoxes by connecting the questions of democracy and consolidation with the problems of state- and nation-building. Political fragmentation can generally be defined as a process by which political institutions are progressively disabled to restrict enforcing of their decisions to their territorial units, and could lead to a situation in which the democratic process takes place under conditions of latent deinstitutionalization in the fields of both state- and nation-building, as has been the case with Sri Lanka in the past several decades.

Attempts to create a commonality of a people as a nation, either by the declaration of a common language or the imposition of a dominant state ideology, have often resulted in conflicts that constitute a good part of identity-based domestic problems in South Asian countries as well as determined the course of democracy. Again, the failure to develop mechanisms by which compromise can be reached between competing aspirations of ethnic groups could be a major obstacle to nation building. The path to integration of the different communities in Sri Lanka had been hindered by the rise of ethnocentric politics in early 20th Century and its consolidation following election to government.
Nation-building has been made even harder by the imposition of religious allegiance on national identity; pressure exerted by Buddhist nationalist groups on the main Sinhalese parties continues to obstruct any autonomous structure that could meet the demand of the Tamils for greater devolution of power.

Sri Lanka provides an instance of how state building fails when one ethno-national group (once the Sinhalese and now Sinhala-Buddhists) attempts to build ethno-religious juridical, political and economic structures to the exclusion of ethnic as well as religious minorities.
In efforts to explain if not rationalise Sinhala nationalism and the ensuing conflict, some scholars point to the over two millennia long influence of Buddhism in shaping an indelible Sinhala consciousness, while others emphasize the colonial presence with its attendant cultural and economic influences and policies of stratification along racial, class and religious lines (Ellison, 1987). There also those who hold that Sinhala nationalism and the subsequent ethnic conflict is more or less the creation of political elites, while Tamil nationalism is cast as a construct of high-caste and middle-class northern Tamils whose design was to subsume intra-ethnic cleavages, especially those emanating from the disgruntled Tamil lower classes (Smith, 1978).

Unfortunately, none of the above adequately explains the nature of the conflict in Sri Lanka. Some useful insights of the decay of democracy are, however, provided by raising the question as to why Tamil mobilization, in fighting for a separate state, generated such enthusiasm among a community which, in the main, had relied on democratic institutions to express its grievances.

One may sum up the essence of the Sri Lankan conflict as follows, in a historical perspective and in the context of Social democracy:
1. Sixty years of Sinhalese-dominated politics and the marginalization and making scapegoats of the Tamils within the context of a “control democracy”― a democracy in which the majority group eschews ethnic compromise with the minorities and instead solely controls the levers of power ―in an attempt to create a Sinhalese ethnocracy. It also juxtaposes the concomitant institutional decay as applied to the Tamils.
2. Tamil mobilization which came up after the massive breakdown of institutions during the anti-Tamil violence of 1983, which marked the creation of a chasm between Sinhalese and Tamils, which explains both the durability and intractability of the country’s civil war.
3. Even after a quarter century of utterly destructive armed conflict, Sri Lanka’s control democracy continues to preclude ethnic compromise and the restructuring of political institutions.

Class content of Social Democracy and relevance to Sri Lanka

Marxists emphasise class and class struggle, and hold that state welfare has to be seen in terms of the ’needs of capital’ and/or the ’limits on state action’ imposed by the capital accumulation process. This is not to argue, however, that the Marxist account of the welfare state is an overly simplified functional explanation. The principal theoretical concern of Marxist analyses of the welfare state is that ‘an examination of the functioning and management of state welfare suggests that it remains part of a capitalist state which is fundamentally concerned with the maintenance and reproduction of capitalist social relations’ (Ginsburg, 1979).

The Marxist emphasis is, in the first place, accompanied by analysis of the ’contradictory’ nature of state welfare. For example, Fine and Harris (1976) see state expenditure as being both ’indirectly productive’ and an ’unproductive burden’ for capital in the sense that it is a drain on surplus value. Gough (1979) notes that, while the welfare state tends to benefit capital, ’the very scale of state expenditure on the social services has become a fetter on the process of capital accumulation and economic growth’.

Secondly, the functional account of state welfare is supplemented and/or qualified by a class struggle perspective, in which the actions of the state are seen as the outcome of class struggle, for the state is not fully ’determined’ by the needs of capital but rather is conceived as being relatively autonomous. Thus welfare policies are seen as the net outcome of conflict between the needs of capital and demands of the working class. The precise articulation of these two elements varies and may be combined with other elements such as the decisions of a “class conscious political directorate” within the state machine.

Saville (1957) argues that ‘the welfare state, through social democratic principles, has come about as a result of the interaction of three main factors: (1) the struggle of the working class against their exploitation; (2) the requirements of industrial capitalism for … a highly productive labour force; (3) recognition by the property owners of the price that has to be paid for political security’. Most Marxist accounts of the welfare state and social democratic theory, their structural emphasis notwithstanding, see the working class as a central actor.

The Marxist notion of ’the working class’ is an abstraction which conceals a diversity of experiences and interests within the class. Of particular historical importance has been a division between the labour movement and the unorganized residuum. Here too it has to be recognized that the labour movement is really a metaphor, and cannot be treated as a single unified entity. Furthermore the class has historically been divided along lines of race and gender. This fractioning and diversity have major implications for the form of class struggle. For the class as such does not enter into struggle― class struggle usually involves sections of the class pursuing their particular interest. This sectionalism which serves to reproduce intra-class divisions, is the material basis of reformism, and is reflected in state welfare provision. Any analysis of class struggle and the welfare state must take into account the relationship between ’class’ and ’popular-democratic’ struggles. These points indicate the directions to be taken for a proper understanding of the role of class struggle in the development of state welfare.

In the Scandinavian context reference to ’working class pressure’ too is an abstraction, since the labour movement as such did not enter into class struggle, while struggles almost always involved specific sections of that class. The point concerning the need to examine the relationship between ’class struggle’ and what may be termed ’popular-democratic’ struggles will be examined further in the context of Scandinavian model.

Working Class Campaigns:  Since in Scandinavian countries ’class struggles’ does not involve any class as a whole, it becomes questionable whether these struggles, be they against capital or have as their object the state, are necessarily in the interest of the whole working class or to promote consciousness of class interests. They may nevertheless involve only sectoral aims and competition among sub-groups of the class, thus serving to reproduce the divisions referred to earlier. Far from the struggle promoting a consciousness of collective class interests, the pursuit of sectoral interests provides the material basis of reformism, the pursuit of piecemeal reforms within the existing system. As Hall (1982) comments, the fractioning of the class ‘has helped to sustain the reformism and economism of the labour movement by stimulating competition between different sections of the class, turning it inward into compromise and negotiation within the class.’ The way in which working class struggle has been involved in the pursuit of perceived sectoral interests at the expense of the interests of significant sections of the class is particularly evident in the support shown for racist and sexist assumptions and practices in Scandinavian countries.

It is argued, however, than an analysis of intra-class division and the way it is reflected in class struggle is necessary for a complete understanding of the state’s welfare activities. In other words, it is argued against a tendency within ‘functional’ or ’structural’ accounts to explain the state’s activities in terms of conscious strategies and initiatives on the part of the capitalist class and to downgrade the specific form of working class pressure (Wetherly, 1988). In this view, the welfare state is seen primarily in terms of a response to ’working class pressure’ with the state and the capitalist class as central actors. For example, Ginsburg (1979) argues that ‘in many examples of welfare reform… conscious initiative has been made by the bourgeoisie in order to forestall and contain the potential or veiled threat to capital… which the working class inevitably represents’.

In other words, in this explanatory agenda, working class pressure is important but plays an essentially secondary role. The problem is that in taking working class pressure as given, failing to analyse the form of agency, and by focussing instead on the response of capital and the state, there is danger of seeing the form of state welfare purely in terms of the strategic actions of the ruling class and failing to see how it is rooted too in working class reformism.

Class Struggle and Popular Democratic Struggles: The trade unions, as organizations of the working class, are the main organs through which the class exerts pressure on the state and influences society. The point to note here is that it is not solely, or even mainly, class organizations which are active in the field of welfare provision. Indeed it could be argued that, historically, it is the relative absence of trade unions from this field that has a parallel in the plethora of pressure groups that press demands for welfare reform upon the state and which together constitute the ’welfare lobby’. As Ginsburg (1979) notes, ’a political space has developed in the area of welfare in which pressure groups and interest groups of a great variety of social and political complexions bargain over small-scale reforms’. The development of these groups largely mirrors the expansion of state welfare to the point where the state, through its welfare activities, generates sites of resistance or struggles for reform around which campaigns and pressure groups emerge.

These groups, then, are neither generated by nor arise directly from, class relations of production. Nor do they form around the capital-labour division in society but are based on counterpoising the ’state’ and the ’people’. For this reason they may, for ease of understanding, be grouped under ’popular-democratic’ struggles as they involve various categories of people organized around demands for restricting the activities of the state.

In the Scandinavian perspective this poses the important problem of the relationship between ‘class struggle’ and ’popular democratic struggles’. It should be noted that the two can neither be radically separated from, nor collapsed into, one another. Separation is not possible, firstly, since ‘class’ and ’the people’ do not represent distinct or discrete groups. For example, individuals could be organized in trade unions as well as be active in welfare campaigns. In other words, individuals are situated simultaneously along both the capital-labour and state-people axes of division in society so that their interests are structured around both class and popular democratic issues.
Secondly, a radical separation of class and popular-democratic struggle is unfeasible since the actions of the state are not simply determined by the people but are, in part if not predominantly, responses to the needs of capital and therefore as determined by the class relations of production.

Nevertheless, despite any relationship of popular-democratic struggles to class division, the two do not collapse into one. The pressure groups and campaigns which make up the ’welfare lobby’ in Scandinavian countries have diverse social composition and political complexion. They are not working class organizations and embrace different classes and social strata which cannot necessarily be associated with the working class or labour movement.

The case of Sri Lanka

Several Third World Marxists assert that the national struggle is a matter of class struggle. While it is true that, over the past century, the development of the national question in Sri Lanka has been based on contradictions between the ethnic majority and minority, what has escaped the attention of many is that class issues underlie the development of the national question. Failure to recognise the central feature that the political forces that champion the cause of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism have been the representatives of the ruling classes with a feudal-capitalist lineage blinds one to the class relationships inherent in the national question. The class content that forms the essence of the national question could be understood only through an analysis of the objective realities of the Sri Lankan social structure (Imayavaramban, 1988).

The Sri Lankan national question cannot be approached in a superficial and detached manner or be based on subjective desire, ignoring objective reality. The breadth and depth of the national question need to be assessed by considering the historical circumstances in which the seeds of national conflict were sown and nurtured before as well as after formal independence in 1948. It is thus that the historical role of the nationalities and classes, their relationships and contradictions could be understood (Imayavaramban, 2007).

To review the development of the political history of Sri Lanka or to examine the current political situation is not possible without considering class. Class considerations have continued to be important among the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Hill Country Tamil nationalities. Hierarchical differences between the propertied and un-propertied, the exploiting and exploited, and the ruling and ruled classes persist so that class identity cannot be easily ignored. Pompous utterances about democracy, people’s era, free elections and the possibility for anyone to be elected to parliament fail to defy the unwritten rule in Sri Lankan politics that, for one to reach the top in the bourgeois parliamentary democratic government, one has be in ‘high’ position by class, nationality, race and religion. Considerations of class, nationality, race and religion and feudal social values have been decisive in determining the endurance of the political leadership of the ruling classes.

It is from among the feudal elite that the Sinhalese capitalist class emerged to develop into comprador bourgeoisie, national bourgeoisie and big bourgeoisie. This development was invariably guided, in theory and in practice, by feudal ideology and hindered the democratisation of society. Bourgeois parliamentary democracy and the electoral system were mere façades that if at all blocked the implementation of broad democratic practices. Instead, the descendents of the afore-mentioned caste and class based ruling elites extended their respective dominant positions into parliamentary democracy.

In the context of democracy in Sri Lanka, the class divide has been the dominant force and working class struggles have at their most effective been uprisings rather than rebellions or ‘popular struggles’ as in Scandinavia. Thus it is important understand the sharp difference between Sri Lanka and Scandinavia in the matter of class struggle.

Relevance of the Scandinavian model to Sri Lanka

Let us now turn to the important question of applicability of the Scandinavian model to Sri Lanka. When we seek to apply a model that has served one country well to another country, it is useful to know the current status of the model to be applied. A brief review of the current status of the Scandinavian model is thus necessary to assess the prospects for its application elsewhere. Attention needs to be paid to two major developments:  firstly the effect of globalisation and secondly the demographic changes in Scandinavia.

The Effect of Globalisation in Scandinavia: There is ample evidence of the impact of globalization. Abandoning of capital controls has reduced the macroeconomic repertoire of domestic governments. Increased mobility has affected the incentive for capital to participate in corporatist arrangements, making ‘exit’ a less costly option. Tax regimes have become flatter and less progressive. The capacity to operate across borders has further empowered multi-national corporations. The need to attract and retain foreign investment has become an important consideration to the national treasuries. However, globalisation has not been a ‘pure loss’ for social democratic forces.

It is true that the end of the Breton Woods era led to an epoch of completely unregulated international finance and trade. Indeed, in many ways, the terrain of ‘global governance’ is now more crowded and ‘enmeshed’ than ever. The World Bank, the IMF, the GATT, WTO, the meetings of the G7 (G8 for a while), large corporations and a wide range of international NGOs are all a part of this process. Critics draw attention to the neo-liberal agenda of these organizations and their power to dictate terms to impoverished nations (a function which imperialist states alone performed earlier). But a sub-theme is that the global economic order is certainly subject to rules and regulations and, within limits, to co-ordination while the global economy has heightened inequality and forecloses on the options of the disadvantaged social classes as well as nations. It is true that globalisation matters and has in many ways made life particularly hard in the 21st Century for social democrats, notably in Scandinavia. It has forced social democracy to abandon its traditional garb of egalitarianism to compromise social justice to economic efficiency.

Demographic change in Scandinavia: Demographic change presents all developed states (especially social democracies) with a range of serious challenges and even unenviable choices. The intensity and urgency of the challenge vary and may, in most instances, be addressed through a process of measured incremental reform. The issue before us is whether demographic change poses a more acute problem for social democratic politics than for their centrist and the rightist rivals. Is there a special ‘premium’ or ‘penalty’ to pay for addressing issues of demographic change within the framework of social democracy? Much depends on where the perimeter of a social democratic politics is drawn. New Social Democracy relies on the rejection of much of what it calls ‘old-style’ social democracy. This includes the reconfiguration of equality as inclusion, now seen as a principle that concerns not the redistribution of wealth but rather attachment to ‘the social mainstream’ (Giddens, 1998).

Giddens makes similarly accommodating moves to downplay the role of the state, redistribution (at least of resources rather than opportunities) and public provision. Is such a reformulation the only way to salvage social democracy is from itself, for itself?
Whoever governs, the challenges are profound and unavoidable. At the same time, its severity varies considerably between states. Given the generally incremental nature of the policy changes that are likely to be introduced (as in the most costly area of pensions) and the differences in existing regime types, both urgency of the reform agenda and the institutional structure of the ensuing reforms are likely to show considerable international variation. Even with real and sustained policy convergence, there will be a range of differing policy regimes. Would these regimes be ‘less’ social democratic than those before them? Thus, there is no prima facie case to argue that the only way for social democratic politics to survive in the 21st Century is by redefining its goals to coincide with those of the leading institutions of global economic governance.

A more serious challenge is likely to arise in the long term from the interaction of the consequences of ageing and ecological limits to growth. These could be among major issues which will determine the political trajectory of the social democracy in Scandinavia. Among the many ways in which Sri Lanka and Scandinavian countries differ, three stand out in the context of contrasting backgrounds and the ground reality.

1. Nature of ethnic composition: Scandinavian countries are each effectively mono-ethnic, with minorities in very small number, and there is no imminent ethnic divide of significance. This has considerably facilitated social change these countries. Even on question of religion, religion has not been an issue when the social democratic process was in place. Thus, building a society with social democratic norms as the backbone of the social system was easy for the advocates of social democracy.

Sri Lanka on the other hand is multi-ethnic: Sinhalese 73.9%, Sri Lankan Tamils 12.7%, Indian Tamils 5.7%, Muslims 6.9% and others 0.8%, according to census figures for 1981. The distribution by religion is: Buddhists 69.3%, Hindus 16.4%, Muslims 7.1%, Roman Catholics 6.9%, various protestant Christians 0.7%, and other religions 0.1%. Ethnic and religious identity has played an increasingly important role in the making of the Sri Lankan polity. The social democratic project is likely to face considerable resistance because of the difficulty in persuading the population to transcend ethnic and religious considerations in the interest of social justice. The class factor too will play a strong role, with the capitalist classes, who are beneficiaries of a capitalist system subservient to imperialism, seeking to undermine the project to safeguard their class interests.

2. Economic stability: In Scandinavia, discovery of rich oil resources contributed to a strong economy in Norway while Denmark & Sweden benefited from heavy industry. The fishing industry helped all three countries in a big way. The availability of resources and the ability to convince the population and implement the social democratic agenda enabled simultaneous democratisation of society and providing of welfare.
The open economic policy pursued in Sri Lanka since 1978 contributed to the decay of the national economy and widened the gap between the rich and the poor. The rich strengthened themselves economically and politically by tightening their grip over political power by every accessible means. The failure of the open economy to help national economic development is a major explanatory factor for the socio-political downturn. The specific characteristics of the social, institutional and political structures of Sri Lanka ensured that whatever the potential gains that the recent transition was said to offer did not materialise, and determined the way in which the proposed reforms were imagined and implemented.

One should note in particular the long history of patronage that moulded Sri Lankan economy and politics, and of the strength of the strong religious, ethnic and class divisions that have been essential organising principles in Sri Lankan politics (Senthivel, 2007). It took a package comprising economic liberalisation, a new constitution with an executive presidency, and a calculated attack on the checks and balances of a democratic society to set the country on a path of socio-political decay within two decades. Once set on this path, economic reforms produced outcomes that were not just unexpected but altogether undesirable, and served to accelerate and reinforce the steady downward spiral.

3. Geographic location: The geographic location of Scandinavia somewhat isolated the region from power rivalries in Europe in the era of imperialist upsurge so that, except for Nazi invasion during the Second World War. Again, the suffering during this invasion was considerably less than in the rest of Europe partly due to the rather pliant attitude of the regimes towards the Nazis invaders. This isolation has also meant some degree of economic isolation.

Sri Lanka, first colonised in 1505, remained colonised until 1948. The colonial rule stretching over 443 years― although not in the entire island until after the British subdued the Kandyan Kingdom in 1815 ―had a powerful impact on the country. Again unlike India w3hich had to fight bitterly for its independence, Sri Lanka was granted independence by the colonial regime to ensure that the country was ruled by a loyal elite group; and the class and communal divide which matured from the dawn of the 20th Century was already sharp. Also, Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean just to the south of India has made it a bone of contention for any power seeking hegemony in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. Key bidders were India and the US followed by competing interests of China, Pakistan and Russia (far less than in the Brezhnev era of the Soviet Union) arising from a desire to pre-empt domination by their rivals. The aggravation of ethnic conflict in the island suited some interests, India especially, which hoped to gain through intervention in the country has since around 1980 been a powerful influence in Sri Lankan affairs.

Concluding Remarks: The 1993 Nobel laureate for Economic Sciences, Douglass North observed in his Nobel lecture that “…transferring the formal political and economic rules of successful Western economies to Third World or Eastern European economies is not a sufficient condition for good economic performance. Privatization is not a panacea for poor economic performance”.

We could go a step further in the light of Sri Lankan experience to add that not only are they insufficient to ensure good economic performance but, in specific settings, they may be implemented in ways that yield little short of social and economic disaster. The Sri Lankan experience asserts that much more than purely techno-bureaucratic policy solutions and programmes are needed. Reform programmes, to have broad-based success, should not only address fundamental economic issues but also be tailored to suit specific institutional settings. Where major class, ethnic or religious fault lines exist, the process needs careful management, with policies sensitive to multi-faceted distributional issues, and taking into account predictable responses of different actors; trade-offs are inevitable to maintain social cohesiveness.

But to realise this sustainably and effectively, there must be mutually independent political and legal institutions with adequate checks and balances to protect democratic freedom. The revival of the economy and the reinvigoration of society require an immediate political response. Nothing seems more pressing in Sri Lanka than the immediate abolition of the executive presidency as the essential first step along a long and difficult journey towards a prosperous economy with social harmony and a vibrant democracy.

Application of the Scandinavian model of democracy in full or part to Sri Lanka faces serious challenges as discussed; and perhaps, a mass uprising of some kind may be needed to show the way forward for social democracy. Given the complexity and sensitivity of the economic and national problems in Sri Lanka, social democracy cannot be the first step in the process of solving then. This suggests that the Scandinavian model of Social Democracy, despite its many attractive features, cannot be emulated fully or partly as a means to solve the problems faced by Sri Lanka, whose primary need is to secure a form of popular democracy. The Scandinavian model, however, could be a model to emulate in the long run, after the obstacles and hostilities by way of class conflict and identity-based prejudice are overcome.

The existing system of government in Sri Lanka has exhausted its potential to provide valid solutions to the country’s problems; the classes that presided over it have no alternative to offer but a more repressive and authoritarian form of regime (Deshabakthan, 2006). Thus Sri Lanka has a pressing need for transfer of power from the ruling elite to the true representatives of the people. This means a major shift in the role of the state and its exercise of power.

Today, a political climate prevails in which the vast majority directly confront the oppressive ruling classes. Given the alignment of forces nationally and internationally, the fundamental social change necessary to resolve that conflict demands fresh popular mobilization and the emergence of a radical political leadership that could unite the oppressed across ethnic, religious and other boundaries including class.
Those who endorse mass uprisings as the path need to recognise new meanings, new forms and new workings for mass struggle for social change, and the imagination to develop programmes for an alternative economic defence, actions to isolate the oppressor, and a culture that integrates struggle with the lives and livelihood of the people. Mass uprisings cannot be enforced, and struggles do not transform into mass uprisings through announcements and appeals. Mass spontaneity must link to political organization and be cautious that violence is not an end in itself, even when armed struggle is inevitable. Mass uprisings need to be guided by democratic principles and be accommodative of ethnic and ideological differences for the process of struggle too serve as training ground for participants to rebuild society as a true democracy aspiring to the goals of social democracy as obtaining in societies with less complex social structures and greater economic resources.


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