Reinventing Social Democratic Development

Neil Webster

At first sight, the edited volume appears a little idiosyncratic in setting out on a comparison of Indian and Scandinavian experiences with social democratic development with a view to identify potential ways forward? After all, quite a few analysts believe that the social democratic project in Europe lies in the past and is not part of the future. At second sight, it might also appear politically retrogressive with the suggestion, albeit implicit, that there is something constructive in northern Europe’s development experience that might have great relevance for countries in the south. However, the relevance of the volume quickly becomes apparent in Olle Törnquist’s opening chapter. 

The case for the title, Reinventing Social Democratic Development, is further supported by a well-structured set of subsequent chapters. These take the reader through a series of complementary perspectives as to what might be relevant in India’s, Sweden’s, and Norway’s more recent pasts, what might not be and, most importantly, the strong case for revisiting the Scandinavian version of social democracy. It might at times be more of an exploration of the past, but the most critical insights refer to the future. What is perhaps not so clear until the concluding chapters is that there are several futures at stake here.

The obvious future is that of India and thereafter, other countries facing uneven development, significant poverty and inequality, weak industrialisation and low state capacity. The challenges facing the future of social democracy in Scandinavia are not so apparent until later on. Here, the vulnerability of the social democratic approach to politics and economic development becomes clear. It is a vulnerability that has become even more apparent in the short period since the book was completed as the Scandinavian governments struggle with the needs and expectations of thousands of refugees and economic migrants. Commitments to human rights are increasingly being set up against the financial sustainability of current levels of welfare provision and thereby to political commitments by the Scandinavian governments to their citizens (and taxpayers). Inequality in Scandinavia is increasing, albeit from a starting point of considerable equality; the sustainability of their present welfare systems are under economic pressure; and the universality of the same systems are facing political challenges, not least with an increasing use of arguments rooted in a politics of identity.

The book is framed around four processes identified by Törnquist as being necessary for social democratic development. Namely: (i) Broad sets of interests and ideas being translated into democratic political collectivities; (ii) The emergence of strong democratic linkages between state and society; (iii) The pursuit and acceptance of universal civil, political, and social rights around welfare and work; and (iv) The establishment of growth coalitions (social pacts) between capital and labour, and between labour and agrarian producers. The various chapters and their authors then explore these dimensions from their respective fields of expertise.

There is much detail in the book, not least historical. Interpretation of such detail will always lead to debate and disagreement, but the trick is to see the broader argument being developed in the volume and not to become lost in contesting the detail too much. Here the coherence of the volume’s structure is in many ways excellent as one is guided through different histories of political formation, governance reforms, social rights and welfare achievements (and failures) in India, Norway, and Sweden.

Can a new (reinvented) social democratic development present a potential future for India and Scandinavia? In considering this question the volume leans more towards the political case for or against, as seen in the four processes that provide the framework. Kalle Moene’s contribution on ‘Social Equality as a Development Strategy’ shifts the focus more towards the economic however, paving the way for a strong infusion of economic considerations in the book’s conclusions and not least the economic case for seeking a reinvention of social democratic development.

If social and economic inequality is undermining the possibilities for a future social democratic development, then pushing for economic readjustments rooted in the organisation of production and the distribution of gains thereof, is critical. Making the case for such an economic transformation provides the focus for the political case to be made: Tripartite agreements and social dialogue to improve the condition of labour, universal social rights and improved state provision of welfare; measures needed to benefit labour and, through workers’ improved livelihoods, to the benefit of capital. It is a political case that needs to argue that while wage compression might, in the short term, appear to benefit workers, the socially and economically marginalised, at the expense of the those who own the means of production or help to administer its organisation, but in the longer term the gains will prove to be mutually beneficial. As such, the potential for (re-)generating a coalition of interests around growth with welfare emerges as does the potential for a weakening of identity-determined inequality.

How such a strategy might come to lie at the heart of a government’s approach to development more generally still remains with more questions than answers. One central and recurring question concerns the sequence of transformation; the middle class in its emergence and political orientation is a recurrent factor it seems from several of the chapters. Does a country require a middle class in order to bring about a democratic transition? If so, economic growth and the political dominance of the owners of production and their economic interest will dominate until the middle class(es) begin to assert their political interests. Did India develop political collectivities too effectively and too soon, undermining the potential for a broader economic transformation? This partly appears to have been the case according to John Harriss, Törnquist, Pranab Bardhan, Neere Chandhoke and N. C. Saxena. It has introduced an ‘upside-down’ scenario in comparison to the Scandinavian experience and this limits the potential for economic growth with social equality and strong welfare policies as uneven economic development meets with weak collective actors and poor governance. But will a social democratic development continue to characterise Scandinavian development? Törnquist and Harriss conclude with an element of optimism in the case of India. For Norway and Sweden the reader is left with a rather brief statement that social democracy has been sustained in Norway and not Sweden and that in the case of Norway, it is very much linked to high oil revenues.

To move between the anti-colonial struggles of Kerala and West Bengal and the politics of collective action in Swedish forests and Norwegian valleys to inform the broader discussion is no mean feat. The volume more than succeeds in doing this in a strong analytical and richly detailed manner. In this and in much else it provides an insightful read and, perhaps more importantly, contributes to a discussion that will hopefully grow and take root not only in the works of political scientists and development theorists, but also those of development policy makers and practitioners. Much in the world today could benefit from reinventing social democracy.