(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
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 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
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
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
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
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
Anthony Giddens: Beyond left and right. Polity Press, London
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,
J.P.Roos-Tommi Hoikkala (eds): Elämänpolitiikkka (Life politics).
Gaudeamus, Helsinki 1998.