(to be published in Daniel Gawin (ed): (In honour of Andrzej Sicinski at his 70th anniversary) Warsaw 1999)

Life politics: more than politics and life (style)?

Professor in Social Policy

  Life politics concerns political issues which flow from processes of self-actualisation in post-traditional contexts, where globalizing influences intrude deeply into the reflexive project of the self, and conversely where processes of self-realization influence global strategies. Anthony Giddens in (1991)


        This is a much developed version of a paper I presented at a seminar on social policy in Warsaw in 1997. As I remember it, the concept of life politics did not arouse any enthusiasm among the audience, especially as I committed the cardinal sin of cautioning my colleagues about their eagerness to join the NATO. This was not a first time when I disagreed with my Polish colleagues. Actually, the first time I believe was when we disagreed with Andrzej Sicinski about the advantages and disadvantages of the concepts of life style and way of life.  This disagreement was both of theoretical and practical nature, but it did not prevent us from having a very close relationship - real friendship, I daresay - and doing much work together (see Roos-Sicinski 1987).

       Life politics

       Life politics has become an interesting topic in recent years, related to discussions about individualisation, reflexivity, choice, ethics, mind and consciousness, mind-altering drugs, politics of recognition and identity etc. (Anthony Giddens, Ulrich Beck, Nikolas Rose, Charles Taylor).
    On the other hand, it can be said to be closely related or alternative to such concepts as sub-politics (Beck), anthroponomics (Bertaux), life control, life experience (vécù, Ricoeur), Erlebnisgesellschaft (Schulze), new moral order (Bauman), habitus (Bourdieu), life style (Sicinski/Roos). Of course this is by no means "new": similar discussions exist since Aristotle or perhaps Augustine, but there are some aspects which can be considered very recent and which alter the situation.
   Some of them are related to the increased abilities of all of us to make educated choices about our own lives, to reflect upon our situation and to understand more of the long-term consequences (environmental, health etc) of our actions. Some of them are related to the increasingly intrusive and pervasive medical and genetic technologies which affect many of us directly (choices connected with pregnancy, genetically treated foods, increasingly effective medicine related to personality traits etc.). Together they greate a new field of life politics which is concerned precisely how people make decisions that affect their own lives and also decisions that fundamentally affect these decisions (ethical principles etc.).  But it is also a question of power struggle: many of these decisions are presently taken or based on considerations that are in open conflict with the possibility of life politics in the above sense. In addition to this, the world of consumption is changing in ways which makes it impossible to speak about individual choices or decisions to buy: more and more of consumption is grounded on habits, habituses, constructed entities.
   But there is also the pressure from the side of welfare state: increasingly there is emphasis on individual responsibility, on reciprocity, on turning back areas of public responsibility to private individuals. The taking care of old and sick people is the most significant of these developments but in all personal services it is obvious that there is strong pressure for pulling them back from the salary sphere to the "third sector".
    The development of life politics is thus the product of very conflicting developments which in the final analysis have all served to weaken the role of intermediate social forces, networks, communities and thrust the individuals into direct contact with "the society": anonymous market forces, public bureaucracies, the system in Habermasian sense. But simultaneously they create a possibility of new "sociability", new intermediate institutions; and it is this sociability that life politics will be a cover term for. In fact, the traditional bonds - family, relatives, local communities - are reemerging in new forms, proving that the saying "what you leave behind you, you will find in waiting  behind the corner" is universally true. Giddensian "post-traditional" society is permeated with tradition, but in new, partly unrecognizable forms. One example: Giddens has spoken about the disappearance of generational continuity (Beyond left and right). Yet, new research shows that on the contrary, intergenerational transfers have become more important and may change the whole picture of the generational contract, as Claudine Attias-Donfut and Martin Kohli have shown.
    The term life politics is problematic in the sense that it is actually policy that is envisaged: policies about life, self, identity, reflexivity, life-style. But "life policy" refers interestingly only to actual protection against risks. On the other hand, politics means perhaps more a mixture of very different things so in this sense both politics and policy should be included. To make some problematic boundary rulings: life politics should perhaps not be used to refer to individual life control or day to day-decisions about consumption for instance, i.e. life styles proper. On the other hand, "politics" at it most general level, making collective decisions and negotiations about public affairs is not life politics. But all kinds of more general, strategic policy decisions about one's life and in connection with different social entities would be life politics. Life politics would thus be individual and social decisions and negotiations about life course, life chances, relationships, self-realization, happiness and misery, well-being. Day-to -day life is not life politics but making decisions about it, reflecting about it, making plans or setting up moral principles is. This would then reflect the common sense distinction between politics and administration of day-to-day business in a community.
   The Giddensian concept of second chances combines in an elegant way the worlds of life control and risks. As a policy principle, the idea of "second chances", leaving a person's options always open, has much to recommend to itself. Typically in a welfare state the regulations that cover all kinds of "second chance" situations (unemployment, retirement, change of profession) are much too restrictive. But there are some problems which do no appear from Giddens extremely individual-centred perspective. A second chance does not exist in vacuum. If an individual decides to change his or her life completely, several other people are often involved, who may not have anything to say. So second chances may involve loss of chances for somebody else; which brings about an interesting problem related to life politics. Increasingly as life decisions are understood as life political they bring about new kinds of responsibilities and involvements. Life politics creates new interdependence in connection with new sociability. But even individually the downside of "second chances" is obvious: taking of a second chance means loss of other possibilities (and the "first chance"). This is also a problem of life politics which should be considered.
  Another problem is the question of increasing/unchanging dissatisfaction with increasing welfare. It seems clear that being really poor and excluded makes people unhappy, but after a certain level there is very little connection. Why do not increased possibilities for life politics increase one's sense of satisfaction and well-being? It is also an open question, whether it increases reflexivity or self-realization. Instead we hear increasingly about feelings of emptiness, hidden depression, all kinds of addictions. On the other hand, this is precisely the field of active life politics in practice! In fact, there is much in the Giddensian approach to life politics which is highly normative: life politics is in all the positive measures that enhance one’s self-realization.
Thus, according to Giddens, life politics consists of the following aspects:
  1. political decisions flowing from freedom of choice and generative power (power as transformative capacity)
   2. Creation of morally justifiable forms of life that will promote self-actualization in the context of global interdependence
   3. Develops ethics concerning the issue "how should we live" in a post-traditional order
    Or as he puts it in a rather grand manner: a new moral basis for existence in a situation where people have  choice, resources and risks.  Let my point out htat this precisely the concept of life style as developed by Andrzej Sicinski, or more precisely, he developed a historical life-style typology where the extreme type represented no choice, no roesources, and very little willingness to risk at all and in the other extreme there were both choices, resources and risk-taking (Sicinski 1987, 46). He was very close to a life political perspective.
   The question is: how shall we understand life politics in a situation where, on the one hand the welfare state casts already a very long shadow on the conditions in  which the choices, resources and risks have developed, but on the other hand, in the transitional post-socialist societies where the resources are limited, choices are difficult and risks are very high. Is it possible to speak of life politics under such conditions and in what sense?
   Many researchers in these countries like to emphasize that the situation is extremely different from that of the welfare state (and especially the Nordic, i.e. Scandinavian plus Finland, variant) and that there simply are not enough resources to embark on the same route. Especially as the end result is seen as problematic, i.e. undesirable. It seems that a large majority of sociologists and economists in the post-communist countries believe implicitly that a welfare state is the worst possible outcome, even worse than the period of extremely inequal mafia capitalism that they are presently experiencing. However, the real lesson from  the Nordic countries may be very different.
  The first is that the demise of the welfare state is very much overstated. Even during the economic crisis of the early 90's, the Nordic countries did not have to give up the welfare state, on the contrary. The really drastic cuts were made in countries where the welfare state does not exist (United States) or is very weak (UK). The robust Nordic welfare states took the crisis as they were supposed to: increased the cushioning, and paid what they had promised to pay (this is shown in a conclusive manner in Kautto 1999).  Even during the relatively strict budgetary requirement for the entrance to the European Monetary Union, welfare state financing was maintained.
    It can also be pointed out that in the more developed transitional states, such as Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovenia, the level of economic development is already higher or similar to that when the Nordic states embarked on the road of the welfare state. I.e. the commitment to relative equality and social security is to a large extent independent of the resources. Of course, the situation was quite different at the time in that free market capitalism did not actually exist as an option...
   The same argument could have been used against Andrzej Sicinski and myself when we discussed life styles (and ways of life) in Poland and Finland: the comparison was impossible and the life style choices completely different. In both cases, I believe that this argument does not hold: life politics, as well as life-style are (were) viable and useful concepts. They treat a different, more fundamental reality than that of immediate political and social concerns. There is perhaps a homology to the relationship between welfare state and life politics: welfare state is a systemic concept just as way of life was, whereas life politics reflects agency and the subject, just as life style did.
   But to return to the diagreement I mentioned in the beginning, I do admit that Andrzej Sicinski was  right (and I was wrong), when he insisted on the concept of life style instead of way of life. This is clear both in the context of the demise of socialism and in the context of theoretical considerations. Life style is still very much alive as a practical concept and as noted above, can be easily associated with the new concept of life politics. I hope Andrzej Sicinski will be able to agree with this view.


Anthony Giddens: Modernity and Self-identity. Polity Press, London 1991
Anthony Giddens: Beyond left and right.  Polity Press, London 1994
Mikko Kautto et al (eds): Nordic Social Policy. Changing Welfare States. Routledge, London 1999
J.P.Roos - Andrzej Sicinski: Ways of life in Finland and Poland. Avebury, Aldershot 1987
J.P.Roos-Tommi Hoikkala (eds): Elämänpolitiikkka (Life politics). Gaudeamus, Helsinki 1998.