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The nature of life politics

Life politics presumes (a certain level of) emancipation, in both the main senses noted above: emancipation from the fixities of tradition and from conditions of hierarchical domination. It would be too crude to say simply that life politics focuses on what happens once individuals have achieved a certain level of autonomy of action, because other factors are involved; but this provides at least an initial orientation. Life politics does not primarily concern the conditions which liberate us in order to make choices: it is a politics of choice. While emancipatory politics is a politics of life chances, life politics is a politics of lifestyle. Life politics is the politics of a reflexively mobilised order -- the system of late modernity -- which, on an individual and collective level, has radically altered the existential parameters of social activity. It is a politics of self-actualisation in a reflexively ordered environment, where that reflexivity links self and body to systems of global scope. In this arena of activity, power is generative rather than hierarchical. Life politics is lifestyle politics in the serious and rich sense discussed in previous chapters. To give a formal definition: life politics concerns political issues which flow from processes of self-actualisation in post-traditional contexts, where globalising influences intrude deeply into the reflexive project of the self, and conversely where processes of self-realisation influence global strategies.

The concerns of life politics flow directly from the principal themes of this book and I shall attempt to document them in some detail below. Although life-political issues can be traced further back, life politics only emerges as a fully distinctive set of problems and possibilities with the consolidating of high modernity. As mentioned previously, the concerns of life politics presage future changes of a far-reaching sort: essentially, the development of forms of social order 'on the other side' of modernity itself.

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Emancipatory politics Life politics
1 The freeing of social life from the fixities of tradition and custom. 1 Political decisions flowing from freedom of choice and generative power (power as transformative capacity).
2 The reduction or elimination of exploitation, inequality or oppression. Concerned with the divisive distribution of power/ resources. 2 The creation of morally justifiable forms of life that will promote self-actualisation in the context of global interdependence.
3 Obeys imperatives suggested by the ethics of justice, equality and participation. 3 Develops ethics concerning the issue `how should we live?' in a post-traditional order and against the backdrop of existential questions.

Life politics, to repeat, is a politics of life decisions. What are these decisions and how should we seek to conceptualise them? First and foremost, there are those affecting self-identity itself. As this study has sought to show, self-identity today is a reflexive achievement. The narrative of self-identity has to be shaped, altered and reflexively sustained in relation to rapidly changing circumstances of social life, on a local and global scale. The individual must integrate information deriving from a diversity of mediated experiences with local involvements in such a way as to connect future projects with past experiences in a reasonably coherent fashion. Only if the person is able 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. A reflexively ordered narrative of self-identity provides the means of giving coherence to the finite lifespan, given changing external circumstances. Life politics from this perspective concerns debates and contestations deriving from the reflexive project of the self.

In exploring the idea that the `personal is political', the student movement, but more particularly the women's movement, pioneered this aspect of life politics. But they did so in an ambiguous manner. Members of the student movement, especially those associated with `situationalism', tried to use personal gestures and `lifestyle revolts' as a mode of throwing down a

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challenge to officialdom. They wanted to show not only that daily life expresses aspects of state power, but that by overturning ordinary daily patterns they could actually threaten the power of the state. Seen in this way, however, the politics of the personal only vaguely foreshadows life politics, and remains closer to the emancipatory form. For the objective is to use lifestyle patterns as a means of combating, or sublating, oppression.

Feminism can more properly be regarded as opening up the sphere of life politics -- although, of course, emancipatory concerns remain fundamental to women's movements. Feminism, at least in its contemporary form, has been more or less obliged to give priority to the question of self-identity. `Women who want more than family life', it has been aptly remarked, `make the personal political with every step they take away from the home.' 6 In so far as women increasingly `take the step' outside, they contribute to processes of emancipation. Yet feminists soon came to see that, for the emancipated woman, questions of identity become of pre-eminent importance. For in liberating themselves from the home, and from domesticity, women were faced with a closed-off social environment. Women's identities were defined so closely in terms of the home and the family that they `stepped outside' into social settings in which the only available identities were those offered by male stereotypes.

When Betty Friedan first spoke of `the problem that has no name', some quarter of a century ago, she meant that being a wife and mother failed to provide the fulfilling life for which many women, almost without knowing it, yearned. 7 Her analysis of this problem led Friedan directly to a discussion of identity and the self. The real `question which has no name' turns out to be `who do I want to be?' 8 Friedan specifically related the issue to her own experiences as a young woman. Having just graduated from college, she felt she had many options open to her, including that of following a professional career as a psychologist. Yet instead of taking up a fellowship she had won for a doctoral programme, she abandoned that possible career without really knowing why. She married, had children and lived as a suburban housewife -- all the while suppressing her qualms about her lack of purpose in life. In the end, she broke away by acknowledging and facing up to the question of her self-identity, coming to see that she needed self-fulfilment elsewhere.

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Betty Friedan's deep disquiet about personal identity, she made clear, only came about because there were now more options available for women. It is only in the light of these alternatives that women have come to see that modern culture does not `gratify their basic need to grow and fulfil their potentialities as human beings ...'9 Her book concluded with a discussion of life-planning, the means of helping women create new self-identities in the previously unexplored public domain. Her `new life-plan for women' anticipated many features of self-help manuals that were to come later. The new life-plan involved a commitment to personal growth, a rethinking and reconstruction of the past -- by rejecting the `feminine mystique' -- and the recognition of risk.

Date: 2016-04-22; view: 1207

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