Representations of Equality: Processes of Depoliticization of the Citizen-Subject

  • Sara Edenheim
  • Malin Rönnblom
Part of the Citizenship, Gender and Diversity book series (FEMCIT)


Present demands for inclusion within the feminist movement are not new; since the 1970s, mainstream feminism has been criticized for giving white, heterosexual women a privileged position. This critique gave rise to the formation of marginalized groups both within feminism and in society in general. Today, however, we argue that the effects of this critique have changed due to changes in political forms of governing; that is, the logic of the market is increasingly replacing the logic of the political and this shift has consequences for feminist politics. Within gender-equality policies in Sweden, political demands are turned into administrative or bureaucratic techniques, depoliticizing gender by turning gender equality policies into checklists and tool kits in order to fit the policy to the prevailing systems of audit and quality assessments. Among feminist activists, the reaction to such depoliticizing moves seems to be a retreat to a stable and safe identity whose political activity consists of demands for ever-more-specific recognitions and inclusions into this very audit system. As feminist activists make claims that fit neatly into a liberal rights discourse, even the activist-subject is turned into a self-regulating subject managing its own success or failure—only here success and failure are based on recognized identities, and hence, different identities are cast into a struggle against each other. Our conclusion is that the depoliticized production of rights claims does not generate challenges to the prevailing political order; rather, there is a risk of re-producing this order, where right-wing identity politics is mobilized as a response to left-wing identity politics, and vice versa.


Gender Equality Liberal Democracy Subject Position Identity Politics Feminist Politics 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Demands for inclusion have always been part of a feminist agenda. There have been demands for the inclusion of women into male-dominated spheres such as education, paid labour, and political decision-making, as well as demands for day care and equal pay in order to make these inclusions possible. Today, the demands for inclusion are directed not only towards the society ‘out there’ but also towards the feminist movement itself, in particular claims that are rooted in positions articulated in relation to race and sexuality. These claims are not new; especially since the 1970s, so-called mainstream feminism has been criticized for giving white, heterosexual women a privileged position. We argue that the effects of this critique have changed due to changes in political forms of governing; that is, the logic of the market is increasingly replacing the logic of the political and this shift has consequences for feminist politics (cf. Brown 2015; Mouffe 2013). As the rationale of politics becomes increasingly dominated by an economic logic, gender becomes increasingly difficult to politicize, leaving limited opportunities for feminist claims.

In this chapter, we investigate contemporary claims for inclusion in relation to what we regard as a central aim of the feminist movement: the aim of achieving equality. Here, representation is understood in terms of inclusion; thus, demands for representation are seen as demands to be included in an already-set context. This understanding of representation is related to a liberal tradition in which the organization of politics is not challenged but is seen rather as in need of reform (e.g. Philips 1995). We discuss representation in relation to the depoliticization of the political subject, a process in which the possibilities to articulate collective conflicts in political terms diminish (Mouffe 2013). Our focus is the changing political setting in Sweden, a liberal democracy commonly representing the ‘Third Way’ yet also a nation that has been implementing New Public Management (NPM) since the 1990s. Today, Sweden is the most privatized country in the world (see, e.g., and all governmental authorities are audited in new ways and with increased frequency.1 In relation to these changes, equality has become an issue that concerns individual rights: a way of representing equality that fits with how the citizen-subject is turned into a self-regulating subject managing their own success or failure. We believe Sweden to be a useful empirical case when discussing the consequences of NPM for contemporary feminist claims. Hence, we regard Sweden as a kind of ‘extreme’ case; on the one hand, it is known for being one of the ‘most gender-equal countries in the world’ with a strong and inclusive welfare state and, on the other, it has privatized the public systems for social security and welfare faster than any other country in the Western world. Thus, different feminist articulations of political claims and goals in the Swedish context are used as a case study to illustrate what we regard as more general trends in contemporary feminist analysis and discussions about the aim of equality. We analyse three different forms of feminist articulations of political claims and goals to illustrate and discuss our arguments: a media debate, an analysis of the party programme of the feminist party Feminist Initiative (Fi) and an analysis of national gender-equality policy. Of course we cannot claim that our conclusions are general, but we believe that the shifts in modes of governing illustrated by the Swedish case enable us to point to some general trends in contemporary feminist discourse.

Our discussion draws on both Chantal Mouffe’s distinction between politics and the political (Mouffe 2013) and Wendy Brown’s articulation of the paradox of liberalism and the interrelation between economics and politics (Brown 2005). These two post-Marxist scholars have both discussed the collapse of politics as we know it, Brown by focusing on the breakdown of liberal democracy, and Mouffe by making a distinction between the established institutions and practices of politics (i.e. parliament, political parties, etc.) and the dimension of collective conflict that is needed in order to articulate power relations in politics (what Mouffe calls agonism). Further, they both discuss and analyse what could be called a neoliberal shift in government. One way of describing this shift is to talk about a collapse between the state and the market, where a market rationality of government has come to permeate all of society. The technologies of neoliberal government reach from, in the words of Wendy Brown, ‘…the soul of the citizen-subject to education policy to practice of empire’ (Brown 2005: 39). In this context, the politics of representation and rights is no exception and can be (and has been) adapted, with little effort, to these rationalities, turning demands for rights into individualized responsibilities, and democracy and societal change into a question of values and regulated, legitimized knowledge. Inspired by Mouffe (2013) and her distinction between politics and the political, we are interested in analysing the shifts to which Brown points in terms of processes of politicization and depoliticization in contemporary forms of governing, focusing on how equality is produced within feminist discussions and practice. Is the dimension of agonism part of feminist politics or not?

In our analysis, we see the notion of individualization as important, because we regard the dimension of individualization to be crucial in how political claims are articulated. We have chosen the concept ‘citizen-subject’ to indicate that we are focusing on how the political subject, that is, the citizen, is produced within this discourse, and how neoliberal governance changes the conditions for citizenship.2

Most importantly, this chapter is an attempt to develop a theoretical framework for understanding issues of power and representation in an era when liberal democracy as we know it is about to fail. Here, representation implies both traditional political representation and representation as the production of, for example, subjects. What does it mean to claim to be represented as a citizen when liberal representative democracy works within the same logic as capitalism? How can we formulate a new understanding of the citizen-subject that begins with a different logic of the political subject?

The chapter opens with a discussion of the issue of representation, and then discusses equality in relation to rights politics, including how representation has been dealt with in Sweden, both generally and within feminist movements. We then present some empirical examples of feminist politics in Sweden and finally conclude with a discussion of the relationship between standpoint feminism, rights politics and neoliberal demands.

‘Equal Representation’ in a Representative Democracy

Unlike rights politics, the general idea of representative democracy is not inherently liberal. There are many different models of representative democracy both within and outside of liberal nation-states (see, e.g. Manin 2002). What they all have in common is the basic idea of common elections where all citizens vote for a party or individual to whom they give the right to pass legally binding resolutions. A representative democracy makes it possible for citizens to show discontent in two ways: by guaranteeing the opportunity to form a public opinion (freedom of speech and freedom of organization) and by providing a voting system that guarantees more than one alternative and the anonymity of citizens (free elections). In Sweden, the proportional election model is mainly based on party representation, within which the Social Democrats have dominated since the 1930s, and then through a delegate model of representative democracy, where the elected representative acts in accordance with the party line and is expected by both voters and other politicians to represent the party manifesto regardless of other circumstances. From the 1990s onwards, this has slowly changed; even though the introduction of the possibility to vote for a specific party representative in 1998 has not led to the ‘Americanization’ of political campaigning that was feared, it is still an interesting sign of a shift from the delegate model to the so-called representative model, within which parliament is expected to be a cross-section of the population in terms of gender, class, religion, race, age and so on (Philips 1995). Equal representation, then, can mean two things: to have the equal opportunity to vote for a representative, or to have representatives of an equal (or proportional) number.

Both these versions fit a liberal subjectivity and both can serve as a depoliticizing praxis, that is, a practice where the dimension of agonism between collectives disappears, although in different manners. The central question for both is how the relation between opinion and subject position is defined.

‘Can a white man represent anyone other than white men?’, a rhetoric question that is often asked when representation is questioned from a feminist perspective. Even though his party adheres to feminism and anti-racism, his credibility may be questioned in relation to different aspects, for example, in relation to how many other white men are found in ruling positions within the party. The delegate model, where anyone—regardless of subject position—can and ought to represent nothing but the party line, has, of course, historically been prone to white male bias and has served as a depoliticization of normative subject positions. Feminists, activists and scholars have for a very long time challenged the idea that such a version of representation of values is possible, due to the power relations that permeate society and constitute us as subjects (Squires 1999).

One response to this assumed neutral political subject was (implicitly and explicitly) inspired by standpoint feminism. The introduction of a standpoint power analysis problematizes the idea of a possible ‘pure’ or ‘just’ representation detached from individual experience and subject formation. In relation to representative democracy, this critical move encourages the representative model, based on the necessity of the presence of different subject positions among rulers for a ‘correct’ representation of a population. From this perspective, parliament cannot consist only of men, even if they have different opinions and political positioning. The ideal of the standpoint version of representative democracy, we suppose, would be a numerical mirroring of all subject positions in a given population. Also, this numerical mirroring (form) has priority over opinion or values (content), since it is implicit in standpoint representation that opinions and values are already an effect of a specific subject position. In other words, ‘form’ will automatically give rise to a changed ‘content’, since the representative model guarantees that different experiences are present and these experiences will, for epistemological reasons, mirror the opinions and values of those represented (cf. Jónasdóttir 1991).

Even though standpoint feminism grew out of a critique of positivism, and hence differs from liberalism’s belief in rational and objective subjects by emphasizing the importance of subjectivity in both research and politics, we will show that the identity politics to which standpoint feminism gave rise has also influenced a new version of the representative model. These two different ‘standpoints’ on representation and the political subject—the liberal subject who stands ‘above’ bodily representations and experiences (cf. Åse 1997) and the feminist standpoint subject who stresses the need for including social and bodily experiences—are frequently blurred.

We want to understand how standpoint representation has become part of a late modern liberal democracy, where the problematizing of classic liberal representation has, to a certain extent, been successful, but has not moved outside the limits of liberal democracy. Even though male bias has been questioned, it has been replaced with a multiplied identity-based representation that runs the risk of enforcing moralistic and essentialized identities. However, standpoint-inspired representation is not the only cause of this development; it also works in relation to other individualizing processes, and we would now like to focus on the use of human rights discourses in relation to equality claims. Feminist research has considered how discourses on civil rights politics both open up and limit political arenas and societal change for women and other marginalized groups (Brown 1995; Scott 1996; Spivak 2005). The simultaneous possibilities and limits of rights, which historian Joan Scott has traced back to the French Revolution, is an effect of a political paradox:

Feminism was a protest against women’s political exclusion; its goal was to eliminate ‘sexual difference’ in politics, but it had to make its claims on behalf of ‘women’ (who were discursively produced through ‘sexual difference’). To the extent that it acted for ‘women’, feminism produced the ‘sexual difference’ it sought to eliminate. This paradox—the need both to accept and to refuse ‘sexual difference’—was the constitutive condition of feminism as a political movement throughout its long history. (Scott 1996: 3–4)

Within liberal democracies, rights are presented and treated as ahistorical and natural, with universal claims that depoliticize certain local particularities and politicize others. This institutionalizes a complex codependency between normative subjectivities and those that are marginalized and/or discriminated against, where the latter need to make themselves comprehensible and heard through the discourse of rights. However, by not defining this need as inherited in each individual, but rather seeing it as a consequence of a specific political organization, an analysis of how rights discourses have formed and influenced social movements and claims for emancipation is possible (see also Scott 1996: 2).

The genealogy of rights discourses, feminist or otherwise, is intimately linked to the liberal and modern subject—constituted by assumed natural identities (i.e. apolitical and pre-social) with autonomous and rational desires. It is this subject who can both harbour and make use of ‘equal rights’. Still, rights discourses have been, and still are, employed by many different groups and in many different kinds of political context, not all directly related to traditional liberal universalism. It is because of this complexity that Brown asks: ‘What are the consequences of installing politicized identity in the universal discourse of liberal jurisprudence? And what does it mean to use a discourse of generic personhood—the discourse of rights—against the privileges that such discourse has traditionally secured?’ (Brown 1995: 97).

Feminist politics, then, can be seen as recurring efforts to adjust to, use or transform this liberal paradox within which political equality can only be obtained through essentialized and depoliticized differences. In the 1980s, standpoint feminism was one such effort; based on a collective understanding of identity, the argument was that your experience of subordination makes you better equipped both to analyse the power processes at play and to challenge them (Harding 1986; Hill Collins 1990). It is important here to acknowledge the emphasis on group identity, that political analysis as well as political struggle was understood in collective terms. We interpret standpoint feminism as a form of identity politics, but where identity was initially understood more in collective terms than as an individual project, with less emphasis on inclusion and more emphasis on separatism.

Today, standpoint feminism has returned, but in a very different political landscape than that of the 1970s and 1980s. What happens when the ontological claim to experience, as made by standpoint feminism, meets neoliberal restructurings and redefinitions of politics? We believe an answer to that question can be found in the Swedish feminist debate of the 2010s when the concept of ‘identity politics’ had an unexpected renaissance (unexpected for us, as poststructuralist feminists) as classic standpoint feminist claims to experience became mixed with claims to individual rights and inclusion. Before presenting and analysing these debates, however, we need to provide a broader context, mainly concerning the relation between representation and feminism in Swedish politics.

Rights Politics, the Swedish Case: Creating the Liberal Subject

In one way, the representative model has always existed alongside the delegate model in the Swedish context. It is more a question of which model is emphasized and, most importantly, why it is emphasized and what the implications are for the political context. There is, of course, no clear shift from emphasizing one to emphasizing the other, and there are many intertwined events and organizations involved. If all these were put together, however, we believe that the latest shift can be seen to have begun during the 1990s when the question of women’s representation in parliament once again came onto the agenda because of a sudden drop in the number of female MPs, the first drop since the 1920s. This led to the establishment of a ‘secret’ network, the Support Stockings (Stödstrumporna), a group of women, mainly academics and journalists, who put pressure on the political establishment, using the slogan ‘Half the power and full salary!’ and threatening to form a new political party (Eduards 2002). Even though most feminists knew, of course, that power is more complex than equal representation in parliament, for the Support Stockings, the demand ‘half the power’ meant, quite literally, half of the seats in parliament. Their claim forced the other parties to put gender-based equal representation on their agendas as well, leading to a parliament where all party leaders officially claimed to be feminists. In the following election, the proportion of women in the Swedish parliament broke the international record (43 %).

These events coincided with the consolidation of new perspectives within feminist research and activism, where women as a homogeneous category, and also to some extent the political establishment, were challenged by an academically inspired poststructuralist queer and postcolonial critique. This destabilization of categories shifted the focus away from the representation of ‘women’ as the sole feminist aim and opened up a critique of the identity-based representation model. However, this destabilization became entangled in ongoing identity formations with other needs and aims than a poststructuralist critique of liberal subjectivities. It is, we believe, at this point that the standpoint version of identity-based representation begins to fuse with a liberal discourse of inclusion and emancipation; a liberal discourse which had by then reached the so-called postpolitical era, where bipartisanship was preferred and argued for as the only way to overcome differences and avoid political chaos (see Mouffe 2005; Rancière 2004; Zizek 1999).

The formation of an actual feminist party (Feministiskt Initiativ) in 2005 followed the postpolitical logic almost to its extreme: The party presented itself as transgressing the traditional left–right coalitions by claiming to be neither socialist nor liberal, which would guarantee a more flexible agenda that focused on women’s rights. To legitimately claim that the party represented all women, the appointed spokeswomen, individually and explicitly, each represented one group of women (working class, non-white, lesbians, etc.). The aim was to combine form and content, yet legitimacy was sought by emphasizing form.

Although feminist academics during the second half of the 1990s and onwards challenged the demands of women’s representation as a priority in itself, leading feminist activists and writers began to present feminism as a fight for ‘being yourself’ by claiming ‘your right to be included’—at first mainly in relation to gender expression and sexuality and later on also including race.

Here, we want to present three examples of such discussions on representation, inclusion and identity politics in contemporary Sweden: (1) identity politics in the media debate, (2) identity politics when articulating party political claims and (3) institutionalizing identity politics. The examples are taken from three key sectors of society: the public media, party politics and government policies, providing us with three case studies from each sector. They do, of course, overlap; for example, politicians take part in media debates as well as in regulating state institutions and policies, and activists can be found in both parties and the media debate, as well as sometimes influencing policies. We therefore see this rather as a slice of cake, showing us three layers that influence each other and cannot be completely separated but that nevertheless represent different parts of the discourse of feminism. As we will show, the different layers are surprisingly similar, each making use of the others in one way or another, where the media debate very much resembles the Fi party programme at the same time as the party programme makes use of state-regulated policies on gender discrimination.

Identity Politics in the Media Debate

If feminism, as well as postcolonial and queer critique, was seen as ‘anti-identity’ 15 years ago in most public debates, it is now becoming increasingly linked to an explicit identity politics. Those feminists who express concern about this development (see, e.g. Linderborg 2014; Björk 2014; Westerstrand 2015) are met with quite harsh resistance from other feminists, who insinuate that their whiteness, socialist backgrounds and/or university degrees blind them to the fact that identity politics is the new, and necessary, politics of the left. This new identity politics is commonly referred to as an intersectional feminism that does not exclude anyone and feminism, in this context, is seen as a given example of identity politics, as is anti-racism or queer activism. Here is an example from the feminist journalist Judith Kiros, in her answer to the feminist and socialist writers Åsa Linderborg and Nina Björk: ‘Like feminism, other analyses or organizational methods based on identity politics are tools to make oppression and exploitation comprehensible. And just as with feminism, the goal can be practical (representation) or visionary’ (Kiros 2014; our translation).

This debate has been taking place in two of Sweden’s leading newspapers (Aftonbladet and Dagens Nyheter) and this setting is not without its own complications, which is not possible to address in this chapter. What we want to focus on in this quote is how representation is explicitly mentioned as the practical goal, while the visionary is less distinct. This is, of course, not unusual: The visionary is always difficult to name. However, as we will also see in relation to Fi’s party programme, the critique is directed towards a structure (e.g. sexism or racism), but when forced to give examples of how to ‘dissolve a system that justifies assaults and exploitation’ (Kiros 2014; our translation), the example given is the practice of criticizing norms (in this case, Kiros brings up the so-called cis-norm), which in itself does not carry any ontological definitions of either gender or norm. The assumption is that it is possible to be critical of ‘cis’ (conformed gender identity) from a trans perspective because the trans position itself stands free of this norm: ‘To criticize the cis-norm (that everyone should identify with the gender they were allotted at birth) opens up space for an understanding of gender oppression and widens the feminist analysis. This creates space for more bodies and expressions’ (Kiros 2014; our translation).

In the end, the vision is of a multitude of possibilities, where the individual is supposed to be able to choose to ‘be who they want to be’ without any norms dictating this want. The definition of agency is reduced to the notion of a liberal subjectivity that is able to autonomously (re)create itself when free of all oppression. In this case, a trans-identity is also, somewhat paradoxically, assumed to already exist notwithstanding gendered norms even though the vision is not yet realized (while cis-identities are all effects of the norm). A poststructuralist definition (as well as some structuralist definition) would rather assume that trans-identity is a side effect of the same patriarchal and heterosexual structures as the cis-norm and therefore a critique of the norm would not be seen as in itself enough to either change or explain gender oppression. The identity-based approach hence runs the risk of individualizing trans-identity and moralizing cis-identity (rather than politicizing both), but it also turns feminism into a struggle for classic liberal emancipation, where again, equal representation, human rights and freedom of individual expression are the visionary goals.

The implicit argument for this identity politics is standpoint feminism, even though that concept is not overtly used. It is the idea of pure knowledge, untouched by capital, liberalism or intellectual knowledge, that is proclaimed ideal. Here is an example from the editors of the popular feminist monthly magazine Bang, in an article that claims to take a neutral position concerning the above-mentioned media debate on identity rights and feminism:

From a privileged position it is unreasonable to self-reliantly make claims about being able to interpret society and what is needed. It is generally those groups that have themselves been met by oppression that can best identify needs and work for change. This pattern is completely unrelated to who has the most university credits or is able to communicate most dispassionately in the media-scape. This pattern only follows the material logic on which our society is built. (Echeverría and Palmström 2014; our translation)

The similarities to classic standpoint feminism, and also some Marxist versions, are quite evident here, giving credibility only to those who have ‘true experience’ and disqualifying any other position of argumentation. The same can be seen in other feminist debates and articles in Sweden (e.g. Martinsson and de los Reyes 2015; Ramnehill 2014).

Identity Politics When Articulating Party-Political Claims

The Fi party platform3 (Fi 2013) is presented as a holistic approach to politics in relation to all aspects of human relations and society, an approach which the platform calls ‘feminist politics’. The main goal of this politics is defined as ‘the building of a society that generates space for all humans to develop their full potential, in an equal co-relation with others, regardless of gender, gender identity, age, functionality, sexuality, religious belief, skin colour, ethnicity or citizenship’ (Fi 2013: 3).

The main way to achieve this goal is anti-discrimination laws, which is a recurring feature in all areas of political interest in the platform. Likewise, great stress is given to the importance of ‘observing human rights’ to enable the political vision of an equal and non-discriminatory society.4 At the same time, inequalities based on gender, sexuality and ethnicity are defined as structural, and the platform stresses the importance of making sexist and racist structures visible. Undoubtedly, the platform provides a structuralist definition of discrimination and inequalities. Yet there is a gap between this initial position (where ‘patriarchy’, ‘heteronormativity’ and ‘racist structures’ are common terms) and the political reforms defined as necessary to change these structures.

Interestingly, there are no corrective measures suggested in relation to labour rights or conditions; rather, those reforms are based on extended surveys, action plans, visibility, rehabilitation and knowledge production. Perhaps corrective measures are seen as the responsibility of unions rather than political parties. Fi presents itself as a radical party that works for economic redistribution, yet there are no examples of how redistribution itself will take place; perhaps there is a presumption that it will happen automatically when discrimination has ended and therefore it does not have to be forced or sanctioned? If so, it makes sense that force, sanctions and corrective measures are instead found within the section on equal treatment and anti-discrimination (Section C.2). The structural position is evident from the beginning, where it is stated that ‘[s]exism [könsmaktsordningen], racism, inaccessibility, and other structures of power generate conditions that lead to workplace discrimination’ (Fi 2013: 9). To solve this problem, the platform suggests that it is necessary to focus on ‘those who discriminate’ (Fi 2013: 9) by both punishing them and preventing them from discriminating. Action plans for gender equality, equal treatment and so on are part of the strategy too, but here they are enforced by a mandatory anti-discriminatory clause in all public procurements, making the employer liable if workplace discrimination is not acted upon, higher compensation in court cases, sanctions directed towards companies and a so-called code of conduct giving ‘a more detailed description of how employers should act in accordance with the laws on anti-discrimination’ (Fi 2013: 9).

Thus, the proposed measures suggest that a structural problem should mainly be handled by punishing those who discriminate and forcing them to act in accordance with a code of conduct. The assumption is that structural discrimination based on gender, race, functionality and so on will disappear through the correction and punishment of individuals. Since there is no other definition of what causes discrimination, discrimination is more or less individualized and the solution is seen as enforced reforms on equal treatment, based on checklist procedures with moralist sanctions.

Overall, the main discourse within the party platform is based on human rights and identity politics, where human rights are seen as able to secure an equal relationship between already-constituted identity positions. This tendency is most pronounced in the sections concerning gender identity and sexuality, where sexual freedom and the right to define one’s own gender identity are prominent (Sections E2, F1, and all through the recurring stress on ‘LGBTQ-education’). Since there is no ontological definition of gender or sexuality, it is possible for the platform to suggest reforms based on gender as sometimes pre-discursive (as in reforms concerning transsexualism) and sometimes implicitly ‘socially constructed’ (as in reforms concerning intersexualism). This generates a mishmash of ontological assumptions, mostly following an elusive assumption of the individual right to freedom of choice. It is such recurring arbitrary and non-explicit ontologies that, in relation to the dominance of reactive and corrective legal reforms (such as mandatory codes of conduct), could lead to a moralist politics where neither political adversaries nor supporters can be sure about where the party stands or, most importantly, why it stands there. As already suggested in the media debate, such inconsistencies can create insecurity and nervousness, especially since ‘wrongful behaviour’ (including pointing out inconsistencies) is punished, but not explained.

The poststructuralist and postcolonial critique of the homogeneous white, middle-class, heterosexual woman, which was intended to point out the limits and paradoxes of identity-based politics, has here been superseded and instead we see a new form of identity politics coming in through ‘the back door’, where representation in relation to bodily experience is put forward as one of the most important feminist claims, in combination with a splitting of these experiences into a multitude of identities. It is hence possible to see how a liberal subjectivity has (re-)entered the political agenda and been allowed to (re-)write it, along with the poststructuralist definitions of power and subject.

How was this ‘mixing up’ of power definitions and subject ontologies enabled? We believe that the substitution of a public discourse of equality with a public discourse of rights has been one important part of this process. Therefore, we now turn to Swedish gender-equality policies, where NPM has long been implemented, and hence seems to foretell the destiny of other claims to equality and representation.

Institutionalizing Identity Politics: Mainstreaming Gender Equality

The Swedish concept of ‘gender equality’ (jämställdhet) carries the same connotations as the French parité and implies an assertion that gendered differences are essential and must be preserved, while the rights of women should be made equal to men’s. Joan Scott and Wendy Brown have already pointed out the inherent paradox in this specific case, but for some reason, Swedish feminist researchers have never made the obvious parallel with the Swedish concept—a concept willingly chosen in the late 1960s as a better alternative than ‘equality’ (jämlikhet), because as the leading feminist debater Eva Moberg famously argued: ‘women and men are as different as blueberries and lingonberries and they shall not be equal as in the same, but equally positioned next to each other, equivalent’ (Moberg 1961). This fear of erasing gendered differences is still explicit in gender equality policies, for example, in this quote from a national report on gender equality in schools: ‘It is hence not the case that boys should be made into girls and girls should be made into boys’ (SOU 2010:83, Rapport XI; Delegation for gender equality in school: 61).

This preservation of gendered differences is today also connected to an idea of freedom of choice and even to the preservation of democracy:

[S]ince difference constitutes the foundation, and is an asset, for a democratic school, it is perhaps not advisable that boys and girls become more alike. The main problem is rather that girls and boys are met and valued in different ways in school, which leads to unequal terms. (SOU 2010: 83, Rapport XI Delegation for gender equality in school: 53)

An earlier study of Swedish gender equality policy (Rönnblom 2011) shows that ambitions to include some kind of power analysis in public policy on gender equality seem to stay at a rhetorical level, not reaching the implementation of policy measures. While, in a national Swedish policy document of 2005, gender equality is represented as a problem related to men’s domination and women’s subordination, and as a problem that concerns the unequal distribution of power between men and women ten years later, the problem that is to be solved through gender mainstreaming is a lack of administrative routines. The main results show that gender equality is transformed into administration and into different forms of administrative techniques. Prominent forms of governing include different forms of auditing, through checklists, evaluations and methodological tools for change. In addition, it is also possible to discern a gap between how the problem of gender equality is represented in overall policy goals and when the policy is to be implemented. A representation of the problem as related to issues of gendered power relations is transformed into a representation of the problem that fits the rules of auditing.

From this point of view, it is not surprising that gender equality politics is so easily assimilated into neoliberal discourse and regulations. Political issues have been replaced by moralism, and issues that started off as collective demands have been reduced to an individual responsibility to make oneself employable and be clear about which anti-discrimination category is relevant to your specific identity.5 It is hence to these kinds of policy regulations that the Feminist Party turns, along with most other parties in Sweden (including the Left Party), when arguing for equal representation and anti-discrimination measures as a means to end not only the exclusion of women and minorities but also patriarchy and structural racism.

Through these three empirical ‘layers’, our intention has been to illustrate how neoliberal governing processes permeate politics in different spheres, from public debate to feminist party politics to institutionalized national policy; although there are exceptions and some dissident voices, the depoliticizing processes create few opportunities for articulating claims beyond this frame of depoliticized reactionary foundationalism. In agreement with Brown, we thus believe it possible to claim that the recent (re)turn to identity politics in Sweden on both the left and the right sides of the (non-acknowledged) spectrum is part of a general Western reaction to the postpolitical state, where political activism has been redefined as a struggle for inclusion in liberal democracy and human rights. Discursive alternatives are limited by both radical and liberal forces and delegitimized as anti-human rights and hence discarded as part of a patriarchal and/or racist agenda. In the end, this is not as surprising as it may look:

As much a symptom of a certain powerlessness as a redress of it, identity politics may also be read as a reaction to postmodernity’s cross-cultural meldings and appropriations, as well as its boundless commodification of cultural practices and icons. Identity politics emerges partly as a reaction, in other words, to an ensemble of distinctly postmodern assaults upon the integrity of modernist communities producing collective identity. (Brown 1995: 35)

It is in the light of this development that human rights discourses and anti-discrimination policies seem to fill a never-ending soothing, but self-affirmative, satisfaction for those who can prove an injured identity.

Feminism as Equal Rights, Representation as Mirroring, Inclusion as Acceptance of the Forms of Rule

To accept that feminist demands are articulated in terms of human rights and anti-discrimination—which sadly is seen as one of the most radical versions of what the concept of equality implies today—ironically runs the risk of foreclosing differences (gendered and others) and their connections to bodies that matter (the Butlerian connotation is intended). A redefinition and redistribution of power are equally important, and in that process, there is neither a liberal win-win solution nor room for the preservation of (some) identities: ‘For the political making of a feminist future that does not reproach the history on which it is borne, we may need to loosen our attachments to subjectivity, identity, and morality and to redress our underdeveloped taste for political argument’ (Brown 1995: 51).

In accordance with this position, we would like to point to the feminist need to recognize neoliberal rationalities of government, and to understand how these are related to processes of depoliticization. Neoliberal forms of government involve the translation of marketized processes, relationships and values into arenas previously considered social and/or political, rather than economic. They also involve ‘responsibilization’, that is, the discursive strategy of locating responsibility for problems and their solutions in individuals and institutions at some distance from the state. In this way, technologies of the self are involved in governing the subject (see also Brown 2015). Neoliberal rationalities of government also include technologies of government like the so-called audit culture, in which processes and practices need to be arranged in an auditable way. As shown by Spivak in this volume, this form of audit culture is also present within human development analysis: only including what can be measured in a specific way, what can be auditable, leaving out the importance of education. Within gender equality policies in Sweden, political demands are turned into administrative or bureaucratic techniques, depoliticizing gender by turning gender-equality policies into checklists and tool kits in order to fit the policy to the prevailing systems of audit and quality assessments (Rönnblom 2011). Among feminist activists, the reaction to such depoliticizing moves seems to be a retreat to a stable and ‘safe’ identity that is always ‘right’ and whose political activity consists of infinite demands for ever-more-specific recognitions and inclusions into this very audit system, based on moralist codes of conduct. These are processes of individualization and depoliticization that could be regarded as a global phenomenon, although one that takes specific and situated forms in different contexts. As feminist activists make claims that fit neatly into a liberal rights discourse, even the activist-subject is turned into a self-regulating subject managing its own success or failure—only here success and failure are based on identity, and hence, different identities are cast into a struggle against each other, where all sides claim to have the correct experience to support their legitimacy. The depoliticized production of rights claims does not generate challenges to the prevailing political order; rather, there is a risk of re-producing of this order, where right-wing identity politics is mobilized as a response to left-wing identity politics, and vice versa.

Coming back to Chantal Mouffe’s distinction between politics and the political, we therefore believe that the politics of equality needs the political in order to work as a potential tool for change and that this in turn demands new forms of feminist methodological approaches. To enable this, claims of equality need a strong positioning in an ontological politics, as defined by the political philosopher Annemarie Mol. She points to a position on reality as produced in ongoing processes. Or, in her own words from a 1999 article:

Ontological politics is a composite term. It talks of ontology—which in standard philosophical parlance defines what belongs to the real, the conditions of possibility we live with. If the term ‘ontology’ is combined with that of ‘politics’ then this suggests that the conditions of possibility are not given. That reality does not precede the mundane practices in which we interact with it, but is rather shaped within these practices. So the term politics works to underline this activity mode, this process of shaping, and the fact that its character is both opened and contested. (Mol 1999: 74)

To demand ‘one’s rights’ has, ever since the dawn of liberalism, been a demand to be included in the universal. The paradoxes this creates for those deemed ‘particular’ have been pointed out by numerous poststructuralist feminist theorists. It also implies a claim to be part of a normative formation (legal or social). For example, claiming the right to vote has hitherto implied a desire to be a recognized part of a democratic nation-state and being able to take part in that specific political formation. Historically, this claim has been difficult to separate from nationalism (even though it may not be a necessary condition). Our point is that any claim to inclusion must be carefully thought through—achieving the right to vote may be important enough to be worth having to overlook (other) normative claims that come with it. However, this does not mean that ‘achieving the right to vote’ overrules the normative connotations that such a right implies; these connotations remain the same and are now also the responsibility of the newly included voter.

Liberalism as that ‘which we cannot not want’ (Spivak 1993: 45–6) is hence a difficult feminist insight that must be taken seriously and calls for careful consideration of what we are claiming and why. Among other things, it calls for an articulated agenda that can identify the universalities we need alongside a definition of power and subjectivity that can account for this need. In other words, it calls for a very cautious approach to claims for inclusion. For this reason, content (political demands) must always be prioritized over form (as in the representative model)—not because content will automatically manage to change the form so that it becomes more representative of a population’s different subject positions, but because the content can be changed when and if it turns out that it does not lead to a less hierarchical relation (economic as well as symbolic) between these subject positions. While form can be regulated to become an almost perfect reflection of the population, it is a grave mistake to assume that this in itself will change the content. Form cannot be trusted to change anything by itself. This does not mean that form is unimportant—or that it should not be regulated. On the contrary, political demands should always be wary of a homogeneous form since it quite often implies an unfair distribution of power in the very structure of society, yet it is the content that needs to change to achieve a better form—not just the form itself.

Perhaps this is a complicated way to explain how we interpret Wendy Brown’s call for a political agenda that asks not who we are but what we want (Brown 2005).6 In order to move from moralism to the political, we need to rely on both an awareness of our own dependency on liberalism and the formulation of alternatives that make ontological political claims. It is only such claims that can reveal the implicit claims made by liberalism, and only in this way can a political option become available.

To clarify, to claim one’s rights as ‘female’, ‘gay’, ‘black’, ‘trans’ is not an ontological political claim. It may be many other things, and indeed it may be absolutely necessary in certain contexts for survival. But it is not political in Mouffe’s sense of the word. Because the right that we claim (‘right to marry’, ‘right to work’, ‘right to equal pay’, ‘right to be part of Swedish feminism’) is not given as an option, it presents itself as natural, apolitical and hence impossible to criticize. Be careful what you wish for—once you have been given your right (given, of course, by a righteous universal that expects gratitude in return), you will find yourself not only married, at work, and part of a capitalist, nationalist system, but also part of a system that only recognizes identity-based rights claims, since anything else would be incomprehensible, and most likely, deemed undemocratic. What then?

Therefore, whenever someone articulates the right to be included, this articulation must be driven by something other than moralism; it is not a good enough argument to claim that it is universally wrong to exclude. Moralism has the tendency to use guilt rather than politics to change people, but this is a change that can only consist of confession and redemption—not changed subject positions. Guilt produces fear. And fear leads to a longing for safety, a safe and righteous identity based on who you are; this goes for everyone, regardless of who you are, and right now, in present-day Europe, this is not a road we want to walk down, again. Instead, we see the need for articulations that are driven by political arguments, arguments tied to an idea of what is needed in order to create what we mean to be an equal society.


  1. 1.

    NPM was introduced and supported by Social Democratic governments during the late 1980s, and was enhanced and followed up by major privatizations during periods of right-wing governance (especially 2006–2014). Hence, both Social Democrats and the various right-wing parties are part of this development (see also Edenheim and Rönnblom 2012).

  2. 2.

    Although citizenship per se is not central to our analysis, we are well aware of the existing scholarship on feminism and citizenship (e.g. Lister et al. 2007; Philips 1993), including the ambitions to challenge non-feminist and especially liberal understandings of citizenship. Because our analysis emphasizes how neoliberal rule challenges the conditions for political change, we are not focusing on the specific content of or definition of citizenship per se.

  3. 3.

    In this chapter, we are only analysing Fi’s party platform as an example of feminist party politics. We believe that a broader analysis, including different sets of material, could have given a more complex picture of their political claims, and we would like to stress that we use the party platform as one of several examples of a trend in feminist politics.

  4. 4.

    For example, ‘The Feminist Initiative has a vision of a society where everyone can travel well through life. This requires that society in all aspects observes human rights and secures the right to health, work, home, education, social care, and safety. […] Human rights will apply to all humans residing in Sweden. People without documents and people applying for asylum will have the same rights as citizens or as people with a permanent residence permit’ (Fi 2013: 4).

  5. 5.

    The current official grounds for discrimination are ‘gender’, ‘ethnicity’, ‘gender identity or gender expression’, ‘religion or other belief’, ‘sexuality’, ‘disability’ and ‘age’.

  6. 6.

    ‘Surrendering epistemological foundations means giving up the ground of specifically moral claims against domination—especially the avenging of strength through moral critique of it—and moving instead into the domain of the sheerly political: ‘wars of position’ and amoral contests about the just and the good in which truth is always grasped as coterminous with power, as always already power, as the voice of power’ (Brown 1995: 45).


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sara Edenheim
    • 1
  • Malin Rönnblom
    • 1
  1. 1.Umeå Centre for Gender StudiesUmeå UniversityUmeåSweden

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