Professeur d'ethnologie à la faculté des arts et des sciences culturelles de l'université de Lund (Suède).


The Making of the Swedish Middle Class: From National Romanticism to FengShui.

Defining and describing the Swedish middle class is not a simple matter. Sweden, after all, is a country that spent the better part of the twentieth century developing a reputation for itself as having found a means of developing its economy in a unique way that lay somewhere between capitalism and communism – a phenomenon that the American journalist Marquis Childs referred to as “the middle way”. The “middle way” metaphor was never a perfect description of the situation in Sweden, and it has become even more problematic over the course of the past few decades as the economic and social policies of the ruling governments (whether they have been governments led by the Social Democrats on the left, or the Moderates on the right) have increasingly pulled towards the right of the political spectrum. Despite this shift, Sweden remains a country in which it is difficult to define “classes” in simple economic terms. It is not unusual to find plumbers, electricians, and construction workers (individuals working in traditional working-class professions) who are capable of earning significantly better incomes than their peers who work as school teachers, nurses and assistant university professors. To understand the state of the Swedish middle-class today, it is, thus, necessary to move beyond economics and into the cultural realms of symbolic capital and aesthetic dispositions that play a more significant role in distinguishing the middle class from other segments of the Swedish population.

Industrialization, and the basis for the development of a middle class came late to Sweden, only appearing towards the end of the nineteenth century. This was a time in which national romanticism came to flourish in Sweden (as it did throughout much of Europe), waves of emigration to the United States caused concern, and questions were increasingly raised as to what it meant to be Swedish. What was the core of Swedishness? At the same time a new group of industrially based laborers was growing in size and making demands for better wages, better living conditions, and the right to vote. In this context, the Swedish bourgeoisie came to idolize the peasants of Dalecarlia. Dalecarlia was a region northwest of Stockholm which had never been subjected to the enclosure acts of the nineteenth century, and thus it came to symbolize Sweden’s “true” past, and the essence of what it once meant to be Swedish. These were people who were seen as working hard together. The women of Dalecarlia, easily identifiable by the unique folk costumes they wore, were known in Stockholm for coming to the capital in collective groups to conduct garden and household work. Their wages were negotiated by a leader in the group, and once this was done, they did what they were instructed to do;they worked diligently; they stuck together;they did not squabble, and when they were done, they left quietly. Here was a group that came to symbolize solidarity, diligence, hard work, and productivity. They stood in contrast to the industrial working class, on the one hand, who were perceived as dirty, drunkard troublemakers who knew nothing about solidarity or national integrity, and the aristocracy, on the other hand, who were portrayed as unproductive individuals, full of false airs who did little more than exploit (for their own gain) the labor of the poor peasantry around them.

In the image of the Dalecarlian peasant the Swedish bourgeoisie found a link to the countryside and romanticized notions of a simpler life anchored in ideals of solidarity and hard work which would remain important to the middle class’ understanding of itself throughout much of the twentieth century. But even if many of the values and ideals embedded in the image of the Dalecarlian peasant would remain important to middle class perceptions of the self, they would also be challenged and augmented with time. By 1930, for example, the political leadership of Sweden, as well as many of its societal leaders had come to the conclusion that all this idolization of peasants was non-sense. If anything characterized the Swedish countryside, it was poverty, filth, backwardness, and a slew of irrational beliefs in folklore and supernatural beings. This was nothing to base Sweden’s future upon – or so the political, intellectual and social elites of the time argued.

The Stockholm Exhibition of 1930, which showcased the ideals and aesthetics of functionalism, marked a clear break with the past generation’s romanticized rural orientation. The aesthetics of functionalism did away with all unnecessary ornamentation, highlighting clean uncluttered surfaces, somber color combinations, and architectural and design patterns in which every detail in a design filled a purpose. From now on the middle class would increasingly turn its back to the rural past and re-direct its attention towards an industrial future marked by a series of ideals and aesthetic dispositions that would come to be known as Swedish Modernity. In line with this, the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s would be a time in which Social Democrats would lead the country down a path defined in terms of rationality, functionalism, and a belief in the power of science and engineering to fix any and all problems. If Sweden’s industrial base could be strengthened by investments in knowledge and technology, then it was believed that social problems, from poverty to alcoholism could be met through policy choices and forms social engineering that would lead to the production of a new type of citizen, which in the rhetoric of the 1930s was called the “A-person” (as opposed to a less fit “B-person”).

To the extent that Swedes are sometimes stereotyped as being reserved, emotionally cold, conflict avoiding, rational individuals, the stereotypes have roots in the social and cultural developments that occurred in this period spanning from the 1930s to the 1960s. But as other Swedish ethnologists, such as Jonas Frykman, have argued, it may also be possible to partially explain these stereotypical dispositions through a recognition of the degree to which this was also a period marked by a high degree of upward social mobility in Sweden. To be sure, social mobility at the time, wasfacilitated by the fact that Sweden remained out of World War II, placing its industries in a position to expand rapidly after the war, but it was also catalyzed by social and economic policies implemented by the government (including investments in education, housing, family planning and health care) intended to help the expansion of the middle class. However,even as Swedes climbed the socioeconomic ladder, there was ever the risk that the small things in everyday life (the way they held a knife and fork, the sports they enjoyed to watch, an interest in needlepoint sewing) could betray them, and reveal their origins in a lower socioeconomic position. In this context, it could be a strategic asset to have a reserved disposition in public life1.

Few Swedes in the immediate post-war period spoke of themselves as belonging to the middle class, per se. “Class” was not the word which distinguished them. Instead there was a compact, implicit understanding that what they were was “normal”. And those who deviated from the toned down aesthetics of Swedish modernity were viewed with suspicion and disapproval. In this sense, social control also played a role in narrowing down the forms of behavior and expression which were deemed to be acceptable in the middle class. If you belonged to the middle class, in the nineteen fifties and sixties then you did not stick out in public – you did not wear flashy, brightly colored clothing, or scream of sing loudly, or drive expensive large American cars.

But this did not mean that the middle class was condemned to a grey and colorless existence. If one’s activities in the public realm of everyday life could favor the maintenance of a reserved disposition, then the privacy of the home has offered the middle class an opportunity for greater experimentation. In the confines of the home, somewhat protected from the prying eyes of neighbors and colleagues, Swedes were able to play and experiment with new ideas, designs, and identities without risking immediate disapproval. Cobra telephones, streamlined refrigerators, and Gense cutlery designed by FolkeArström or Pierre Forssell,were all consumer goods and material objects which the middle class could incorporate into their homes – not because they fell in line with the aesthetics of functionalism – butbecause they were fun and playful.

The home and the private sphere have been, and continue to be, very important but sensitive arenas of daily life for middle class Swedes. When they socialize, they have traditionally done so in the home, and this remains the predominant pattern (Sweden does not have quite the same pub or café tradition as can be found in other parts of Europe, although this is changing).In the home, one could demonstrate an awareness of international trends. Interior design magazines of the nineteen seventies increasingly presented articles inspired by the counter culture movements from the European continent and North America explaining how you could make the home a bit less formal. Why not try an orange lamp above the kitchen table, or pillows on the family room floor? Wasn’t it time to get rid of the sofa – the symbol par excellence of the past generation’s middle class lifestyle?

The past few decades have been a period in which the middle class has increasingly moved away from a strict adherence to the aesthetics of Swedish modernity. The countryside and the possibility to live close to nature still hasa strong appeal to the middle-class. Owning a second home in the countryside is not just a middle class dream, but a reality for very many. But the situation has also changed. New generations of Swedes have grown up, first with MTV, and now social media, opening the middle class even more to ideals and aesthetic impulses emanating from far beyond Sweden’s borders. Immigration has not been entirely problem free – segregation, discrimination and processes of marginalization are a real problem for all too many “New Swedes” – but a growing number of these people are also moving up into the middle classes bringing their own values and aesthetic appreciations with them. Globalization has left its mark. And to some extent it can be argued that to be middle class means to have an open and somewhat cosmopolitan orientation to the surrounding world.

Most middle class Swedes confidently explain to tourists and foreigners that they are secularized, but new age movements continue to grow in popularity in the country. In the first years of the new millennium newspapers were filled with articles describing the newest and most serious problem to hit the middle class: stress, leading to burn-out. Following the headlines, it seemed as though burn-out had reached epidemic proportions, leaving large numbers of Swedes on long-term sick leave. Discussions at dinner parties focused on the latest neighbor or friend whohad fallen victim to burn-out and could no longer work. The spa industry which had nearly withered up and died in Sweden over the course of the 20th century, exploded as spas filled up with middle class visitors who were looking for an opportunity to “recharge their batteries” and avoid burn-out. Suddenly, yoga, tai chi, qigong, Do-in, and meditation were all activities that growing numbers of the middle class were willing to try – and increasingly getting hooked on. Eastern philosophies, practices, and forms of spirituality have, consequently, made their way into middle class life in ways that few Swedes reflect upon.

This is perhaps what it means to be part of the middle class in Sweden, to be able obtain cultural impulses from abroad and rework them in a way that makes them feel “natural” and Swedish. And thus, if I close by moving from the spa and back to the home, via New Age, it is interesting to see how readily many Swedish homes could be “easternized” without anyone batting an eye, as fengshui became fashionable in the years of the new millennium and middle class Swedes began refurbishing their homes with the help of the Eastern philosophy (which emphasizes the uncluttering of the home and the need to find balance and harmony in interior design). In the end this was possible because fengshuiseemed to go very comfortably hand in hand with the aesthetics of Swedish modernity. Here was another way to be modern that felt new, but which was still subtly linked to a much older Swedish aesthetic appreciations that continue to define the middle class in Sweden.

  1. For a larger discussion of the cultural processes at work here see Jonas Frykman’s articles, “Pure and Rational. The Hygenic Vision.A Study of Cultural Transformation in the 1930s.The New Man”, in EthnologiaScandinavica.from 1981, and “Social Mobility and National Character” in EthnologiaEuropea from 1989.
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