The 1991 Swedish election produced the victory of a coalition of four bourgeois parties dedicated to bringing about a ‘system shift’. Their preparedness to break with the Swedish social-democratic model stands in marked contrast to the bourgeois governments of 1976–82. The change can be understood only in relation to the deep crisis of that model of development. This crisis is not simply one of the model’s economic institutions and political compromises. It is also a crisis of representation, involving the detachment of the represented from the organizations that have long represented them. As such, it is a crisis of an earlier paradigmatic consensus about the very ‘who’ and the ‘why’ of the Swedish model.footnote1

This article explores the current crisis of representation in Sweden. In doing so it focuses on the characterizations of the inhabitants of the ‘People’s Home’, which is now in disarray.footnote2

There are two distinct stories of postwar Sweden.footnote3 The best-known one is class-centred, told by power-resource theorists like Martin, Korpi, and Esping-Andersen, and their critics such as Therborn and Pontusson.footnote4 There is another story, focused on gender, told by feminists such as Baude, Schirmer, Holter, Hernes, Eduards and Hirdman.footnote5 While the first ignores or downplays the inequities of gender power in the Swedish model of development, the second tends to take the class story for granted, and concentrates on making the power relations of gender visible. Here we weave both stories together, showing that social-democratic Sweden was based on the (temporary) hegemony of particular representations of gender identities and relations as well as those of classes and on the power relations which these represented.

‘Bringing gender in’ is necessary not only as a means of righting the historical record. Disputes over gender representations and gender power are assuming political centrality today, just as are those over class.footnote6 As the Swedish labour movement finds it more difficult to continue to assert a class-centred definition of political identities and sustain long-standing practices, some on the Left are coming to see women wage-earners as potential ‘saviours’ of the social-democratic project.

The Swedish model—so long considered the one in which reformist strategies had the most potential for transforming class and even gender relations—is thus in crisis. The People’s Home was the product of a set of political compromises worked out from the 1930s through the 1950s. The familiar policy results of these were an elaborate welfare state, supported by economic policies which transcended the limits of narrow Keynesianism. This welfare state both employed women in large numbers and provided the services needed to enable their labour-force participation, which is one of the highest in the oecd countries. In the labour market, solidaristic wages strategy, driven by Landsorganisation i Sverige (lo), the blue-collar trade-union central association, led to a significant levelling of wage differentials, across industries and across sex.

The intimate relationship between lo and the Swedish Social-Democratic Party (sap) kept the latter in office from 1932 to 1991, with the short exception of 1976–82. Now, despite the fact that public-opinion polls promise a return of the sap to government in the 1994 election, the old model is in tatters. Both wings of the labour movement question their historic alliance. Within the party itself major policy rifts exist over the future of the welfare state and Sweden’s application to join the European Community. At the same time, Swedish business has tightened its links to the global community, threatening the longstanding corporatist relationship with the labour movement upon which so much of its earlier successes had relied. This is, in other words, the most serious crisis of representation since the 1930s.

To understand the power relations organizing a model of development and the political dimensions of its crisis, it is necessary to analyse the dual processes of representation through which the model was constructed and reproduced. On the one hand, representation involves the representation of self to others via the creation of a collective identity. On the other hand, it is also the representation of interests via parties and organizations in civil society that constitutes the normal stuff of political analysis. These two processes are closely linked because they both involve power: the power to give meaning and visibility to social relations, and thereby the power to represent and dispute interests. Politics as understood here thus includes actors’ struggles to name themselves and their protagonists by generating support for the formulation of their own preferred collective identity, as well as by enunciating their interests.