The bourgeois novel and the self-loathing of the middle class
In recent years, the middle class has been the focus of Swedish politics. Nya Moderaterna’s (the New Moderate’s) image is mainly as a middle-class party whose politics raises reactions like Medelklassuppropet (the Middle Class Petition, where middle-class voters united and declared that they had had enough of tax reductions). The 2014 Swedish election will be a battle for the middle class’s votes. In an article in Dagens Arena in the autumn of 2013, Anders Mildner notes that the word middle class is being used far more often than in a long time: “In recent years, journalists’ use of the word has literary exploded. Today it is being used over 20 times more in Swedish print media than two decades ago.”
So, we like to talk about the middle class today. But what does the middle class in Sweden look like? Class is a complicated concept today. Someone who is self-employed in the construction business can for example make considerably more money than a social worker with an academic education, at the same time as a doctor can have more radical values than a conservatively minded worker. On their own, neither money, education nor values seem to define who is middle class.
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) talks about different kinds of capital: economic, cultural and social. Economic capital simply means money. Cultural capital involves awareness of the knowledge, language and codes that characterise those who are considered cultivated. Social capital involves connections (such as family connections and acquaintances) within the field – also one of Bourdieu’s expressions: a part of society with specific rules – where one wants to operate.
It is with the help of Bourdieu that I will define middle class here, and middle class will then consist of people who have access to these kinds of capital. Economic capital in the sense of being able to live well, eat well, go on holidays; cultural capital in the sense of being culturally aware, well educated, knowing social codes, and social capital in the sense of operating in attractive industries and having connections there.
What descriptions are there of these people in contemporary literature? I will take a look at a number of novels, published within the past seven years, with the one thing in common that they take place in a Swedish middle-class context. In most of the novels, the actual experience of being middle-class is central. Feminist debater Maria Sveland’s breakthrough novel Bitterfittan portrays the difficulty of living in an equal relationship in the Swedish middle class. Hans Koppel (pseudonym for Petter Lidbeck, previously author of a number of novels for young readers) writes in Vi i Villa about envy and status hunting in a residential area. In Fågelbovägen 32, journalist and author Sara Kadefors discusses the conflict that arises when a middle-class woman suddenly finds herself being one of those who has hired an illegal housekeeper, and how her principles collide with reality. Helena von Zweigberk’s Ur vulkanens mun, which is one of several novels set in a middle-class venue that she has written, portrays a middle-class marriage in crisis. Author and literary scholar Carina Burman’s novel Kärleksromanen revolves around a group of middle-class people in Visby whose paths cross in the local Rotary Club. And Erik Helmerson, who in addition to being an author is an editorial writer for Dagens Nyheter, has with Den onödige mannen written something so unusual as a defence for the middle class.
These novels have been chosen because they each highlight different aspects of middle-class life and together constitute a cross-section of the themes that are addressed within it. What picture do they paint of the contemporary Swedish middle class?
According to Harry Martinsson in Nässlorna blomma (1935), there are four kinds of middle class: “1) with education and a piano, 2) with education but without a piano, 3) without education but with a piano, 4) without both education and a piano.” The first category possesses both economic and cultural capital, and can be considered traditional, old-fashioned bourgeois, while the entrepreneur without formal education but with enough economic capital to compensate for the cultural capital – to speak Bourdieu – can be said to belong to category number four. Are all these shades of middle class represented in contemporary literature? What characterises the descriptions of contemporary Swedish middle class?
 Mildner, Anders (2013), Den förlorade medelklassen. Dagens Arena, available 2014-01-07, <www.dagensarena.se/opinion/den-forlorade-medelklassen/>.
 Broady, Donald (1991), Sociologi och epistemologi : om Pierre Bourdieus författarskap och den historiska epistemologin. Stockholm: HLS Förlag.
 Martinson, Harry (1935), Nässlorna blomma. Stockholm: Albert Bonniers förlag.