Anthony Giddens and the Emergence of Life Politics

In Modernity and Self-Identity (1991), Anthony Giddens (like the late Ulrich Beck of “risk society” fame) argues that transformations within modernity itself have precipitated a new form of politics he names “life politics”. Giddens assumes that the modernist project (increasing knowledge about the social and natural worlds would enable us to control and direct it towards human flourishing for all) has been derailed.

Today, he says, we live in a world of “manufactured uncertainty.” By this Giddens and Beck mean that the world we now inhabit contains the rather bitter consequences of human intervention to change the course of history and alter the depth structures of nature. Global warming threatens all species. Who could have predicted this outcome in the heyday of modern glorification of technological triumphs?

With the decline of collective will and action to stop the degradation of the human and natural worlds, some human beings have crafted a new life politics. To help us grasp this new politics, he distinguishes emancipatory from life politics. For Giddens, “emancipatory politics as generic outlook is concerned above all with liberating individuals and groups from constraints which adversely affect their life chances. Emancipatory politics involves two main elements: the effort to shed shackles of the past, thereby permitting a transformative attitude towards the future; and the aim of overcoming the illegitimate domination of some individuals or groups by others” (pp. 210-211).

The nature and vision of emancipatory politics

Emancipatory politics achieves substantive content when it focuses on divisions between human beings (like class, for instance). Whether the division is class, ethnicity or gender, rich or poor nations, the “objective of emancipatory politics is either to release underprivileged groups from their unhappy condition, or to eliminate the relative differences between them” (p. 211). Emancipatory politics wants to reduce or eliminate exploitation, inequality and oppression.

Emancipatory politics is guided by the imperatives of “justice, equality and participation.” The norms of justice determine what passes for exploitation. Above all, emancipatory politics is preoccupied with overcoming exploitative, unequal or oppressive social relations. Its orientation, says Giddens, is “away from” rather than “towards.” The actual content of emancipatory politics is not fleshed out. Behind most versions of emancipatory politics lies the principle of autonomy. “Emancipation means that the collective life is organized in such a way that the individual is capable—in some sense or other—of free and independent action in the environments of her social life….The individual is liberated from constraints placed on our behaviour as a result of exploitative, unequal or oppressive conditions; but she is not thereby rendered free in any absolute sense” (p. 213).

Jurgen Habermas’s framework for emancipatory politics offers the ideal-speech situation, immanent in all language use, as an animating vision of emancipation. “The more social circumstances approximate to an ideal-speech situation, the more a social order based on the autonomous action of free and equal individuals will emerge” (p. 213). The substance of the choices is left open.

Life politics is expressive of the conditions of late modernity

Giddens believes that life politics is more expressive of the conditions of late modernity than the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century working class politics. If, as Beck argues, unmoored individuals have been forced to be the “stage director of their own biography, identity, social networks, commitment and convictions” (U. Beck, “The reinvention of politics: towards a theory of reflexive modernization,” in U. Beck, A. Giddens and S. Lash (Eds). Reflexive Modernization: politics, tradition and aesthetics in modern social order [1994]), then we might imagine that we would see a decline in emancipatory politics (the position of Manuel Castells and Zygmunt Bauman). In its stead, a “politics of self-actualization” appears as collective agency retreats from grand theatrics.

Life politics “concerns political issues which flow from processes of self-actualization 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” (p. 214). Life politics, then, is a politics of life decisions. They are decisions affecting self-identity itself. Unhinged from traditional scripts, individuals must now reflexively craft their own biographies in a world of great risk, insecurity and anxiety.

“Only if the person is able,” Giddens argues, “to develop an inner authenticity—a framework of basic trust by means of which the lifespan can be understood as a unity against the backdrop of shifting social events—can this be attained” (p. 215). A tall order, given the volatility erupting in power-infused domains like work and state systems.

Life politics plays itself out on the terrain of body and self-image. Feminist analyses and politics have made us aware over the last four decades how significant life politics (identity and constructing new life-plans) has been to their liberatory project (likewise, with various strands of gay struggles for recognition). Giddens thinks that the “body” used to be simply given, but today it has “become emancipated—the conditions for reflexive restructuring” (p. 218).

The increase in reflexive practices of everyday life—weight watchers, appearance, exercise, lovemaking manuals–indicates that the body is no longer simply the object of industrial discipline. Rather, it is immediately pertinent to the individual’s identity. As stage directors of their shifting identities, individuals must “make choices concerning strategies of bodily development in life-planning, as well as to determine the “disposal” of bodily products and bodily parts” (p. 219). These choices force a reflexive engagement with power, coded into vari0us products pushed (or branded) by the promotional culture. This, I think, is the essential argument of Naomi Klein’s text No Logo: taking aim at the brand bullies (2000).

The emphasis on “choice,” however, requires considerable caution for the left humanist project. Critics might raise a skeptical eyebrow, pointing out how easy it is for choice of “lifestyle” or “life plan” to be little different from picking a piece of clothing or specialized hamburger. Giacomo Marramao (The Passage West: Philosophy after the age of the nation state [2012] offers a normative position for our consideration: “Yet the deliberate decision—the free and responsible decision—which permits an individual man or woman to develop his or her own possibilities is qualitatively different in character.

This cannot merely be a rational choice for the simple but decisive reason that it intrinsically involves the relational dimension of our affects and emotions. And that is why we must place the idea of happiness as human flourishing at the centre of our understanding of human action and political endeavour: namely, the unfolding of human talents, abilities and emotions, of the personality of each and every man or woman” (p. 235).

Personal decisions link person to planet

The discussion thus far draws in the world of social relations external to the self mainly in terms of their reflexive impact on self-identity and lifestyle. But personal decisions, Giddens insists, also link person to planet. Ecological concerns, largely responsible for the “unexpected renaissance of a political subjectivity” (Beck, 1994, p. 18), acknowledge that “reversing the degradation of the environment depends upon adopting new lifestyle patterns” (Giddens, 1991, p. 221).

As Giddens observes, “Widespread changes in lifestyle, coupled with a de-emphasis on continual economic accumulation, will almost certainly be necessary if the ecological risks we now face are to be minimized” (p. 222). A poignant example of the linkage between the person’s body and the planet is EarthSave Canada’s stark message on their brochure. “What you place at the end of your fork,” they observe, “has profound implications for the environment…”

Like other eco-activists, EarthSave connect our Western eating habits (a diet with excessive amounts of protein, saturated fat, cholesterol, pesticides) with many of the main environmental issues –desertification, fresh water availability, ocean pollution, biological diversity, and rainforest destruction. They argue that, once the veil on the ecological perils of the meat-centred diet is lifted, a plant-based diet can transform one’s fork into a “powerful tool for environmental protection and restoration.”

In sum, Giddens believes that the life-political agenda has been produced by the emancipatory impact of modern institutions. It emerges from the centrality of the reflexive project of the self in late modernity. What is the sense of politics in “life politics”? All issues of life politics, says Giddens, involve questions of rights and obligations, and the state thus far continues to be the main administrative locus within which these are settled in law. We don’t want sludgy oil seeping into our agricultural fields and gardens. We want the governing bodies to act decisively in the interest of the flourishing of all creatures.

Life-political issues are likely to assume greater and greater importance in the public and juridical arenas of states. Today life-political issues permeate many areas of social life in late modernity. In the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, where I lived for a time, a significant minority of citizens have chosen lifestyles that continuously confront the economic and political elites with demands to protect wildlife, watershed areas, urban wilderness parks, river walkways and estuaries, wild salmon, fresh water and toxic free goods. We shouldn’t, I think, write off these instances of life politics as mere reformism.

But Giddens reminds us that emancipatory politics will not simply come to an end. For one thing, “In late modernity, access to means of self-actualization becomes itself one of the dominant focuses of class division and the distribution of inequalities more generally” (p. 228).

For another, the ecology movement is a potent illustration of the fusion of life politics and the old emancipatory orientation to overcoming fundamental splits in the human community and natural world.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.