Rethinking the Cultural Politics of Globalisation: Where Do We Go from Here?

In the days following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union (EU) on 23 June 2016, the same questions appeared repeatedly in the newspaper headlines and media debates: ‘What now?’ ‘What do we do now?’ ‘Where do we go from here?’ These are the cries of people who suddenly find themselves in a confusing, uncertain and immensely complicated situation, facing multiple challenges to which there seems to be no simple answers. They were the cries of many people following the Brexit vote, but, in a wider sense, I think they are also the sometimes silent, but deeply-felt cries, of many people around the world as they contemplate the complex and troubling global system in which they find themselves living.

Critical scholar John Holloway calls this ‘the scream’. We scream, he says, with frustration at the state of the world. The scream is a response to many things:

Sometimes it is the direct experience of exploitation in the factory, or of oppression in the home, of stress in the office, of hunger and poverty, or of state violence or discrimination. Sometimes it is the less direct experience through television, newspapers or books that moves us to rage. Millions of children live on the streets of the world… In 1998 the assets of the 358 richest people were worth more than the total annual income of 45 percent of the world’s people (over 2.5 billion). The gap between rich and poor is growing, not just between countries but within countries (Holloway 2010a, 1).

There are certainly people who scream at these things. But I suspect that there are many more whose response to their own growing awareness of the flaws in our global system are those quieter, less active and less audible, but none the less profound questions: ‘What now?’ ‘What can we do now?’ ‘Where do we go from here?’ We see the problems: wealth gaps that are much greater today than they were in 1998 (the year from which Holloway’s figures are quoted); threats of terrorism whose origins lie partly in those widening wealth gaps; massive displacement of people by war, poverty and disease; climate change which threatens to obliterate whole island nations. But at the same time we are also part of the system, and many people are therefore understandably terrified of taking any action that might help to bring the whole thing crashing down.

Despite the widening wealth gaps within and between nations, the divide between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ is made very complicated today by the complexity of society. In many countries, workers are also the ‘owners’ of capital, in the sense that they have (for example) pensions held in funds which invest on the global stock market. Our dependence on contemporary technology ties us into the global corporate system in a multitude of ways. A simplistic schema of proletariat versus capital no longer works, and the romantic vision of revolution has evaporated under the harsh light of historical realities from the former Soviet Union, China and elsewhere. To cite John Holloway again, ‘we are flies caught in a spider’s web. We start from a tangled mess, because there is no other place to start’ (Holloway 2010a, 5). We try to answer the question ‘where do we go from here?’ and find ourselves first of all having to figure out where ‘here’ is.

These, of course, are questions that have a thousand answers. What I hope to do here is less to give answers than to propose a few possible ways of thinking about the questions. One way of starting to untangle the threads, I will suggest, is to try rethinking the notion of ‘globalisation’. Despite all the complex debates and careful analyses that have taken place in the past few decades, this ‘globalisation’ word confuses and obscures as much as it enlightens. Rethinking ‘globalisation’ is one way of trying to figure out where we are. I am going to suggest two different, unfamiliar terms for discussing what is happening in the world today. One is the term ‘macro-segregation’, which is rather a mouthful, but which I shall explain shortly. In order to explain this, we will begin in Europe, on the border between Hungary and Serbia, and then take some detours through the history of nineteenth and twentieth century Britain and elsewhere. The second term is ‘the social deepening of the market’ which probably also needs further explanation.

This discussion, I hope, will help us to come back to the ‘what now?’ question from a new angle. In the final part of the essay I want to offer a few small examples of what some people are actually doing now in response to their own everyday experiences of a crisis in our system. These examples are not necessarily intended to be ideal models for others to follow, but unless we look closely at what is being done and with what results, I do not think that we can begin to answer that question, ‘what can we do now?’. This final section of the discussion will introduce another unfamiliar term, ‘informal life politics’, which I will also explain later. The discussion of informal life politics will introduce some practical examples from our current project on survival politics in Northeast Asia, which is being undertaken by a team of researchers at the Australian National University.

This will, therefore, be a quick but circuitous journey through space and time. The space and time to be covered is extensive—ranging between the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries, and between East Asia, Europe, and other places—but the essay itself is short, so inevitably this will be a somewhat hasty journey. Fasten your seat-belts, and let us begin.


Un-thinking ‘Globalisation’

Most people have seen photos of the scene on the border between Serbia and Hungary in September 2015: the frantic crowds of refugee men, women and children pressing against fences from one side, while from the other armed soldiers hasten to reinforce the barriers with concrete and razor-wire. We have not seen so many photos like this in the past few months. That is not because the refugees have gone away, but only because the global media have a short attention span. The numbers on this particular stretch of the border may have gone down, but many are still there, and even those who have moved on, or are stuck elsewhere, are mostly living in a state of insecurity and displacement. Even before the start of the most recent refugee crisis, there were believed to be some 50 million displaced people worldwide: the figure is now thought to be around 65 million.

When, on our television screens, we see pictures of refugees crowding outside barbed wire border fences hastily erected to keep them out, we seem at first to be looking at a contradiction. We live in an age of globalisation, we are told, and globalisation is all about the opening up of the world to cross-border flows of goods, capital, information, ideas, people, etc. So why is it that these particular cross-border flows cause such angst and controversy, and provoke such flurries of border-control legislation and wall-building? Sociologist Benjamin Muller argues that ‘contemporary refugee politics are characterised by a core paradox, between states’ commitment to globalisation and powerful discourses of threat leading to preoccupations with domestic security’ (Muller 2004, 55, emphasis added). Intelligence expert Tom Quiggin writes: ‘Ironically, as we advance towards a more globalised world, individuals and commodities are increasingly subject to surveillance and interception as they must cross borders to be a part of this globalised existence’ (Quiggin 2010, emphasis added).

These statements seem almost self-evidently true, and I have written similar things in the past myself. But the more we experience this phenomenon that has so glibly been called ‘globalisation’, the more I find myself wanting to question whether we really should be using words like ‘contradiction’, ‘paradox’ or ‘ironically’ in this context. Looking at things from the perspective of the recent history of refugee flows, one cannot help suspecting there is nothing contradictory, ironic or paradoxical about the presence in our ‘globalised’ world of surveillance, controls, and barriers that prevent movement. Increasingly, it seems that this is precisely what the system that we call ‘globalisation’ is all about. It was never a system that caused all kinds of things to flow across borders in all kinds of directions. Rather, it has always been a system that prevents some things from moving from one place to another even as it encourages other things to move. In other words, it is just a way of structuring patterns of movement and blockages.

In a sense, this should come as a surprise to no one. Many of the best analyses of globalisation made similar observations long ago. Zygmunt Bauman, for example, reminded us that ‘globalisation divides as much as it unites; it divides as it unites—the causes of division being identical with those which promote the uniformity of the globe’ (Bauman 1998, 2). But still there is something in the magic of that word ‘globalisation’ which means that the conversation has kept coming back to the flows and linkages and objects in motion, rather than to the bureaucratic roadblocks, the stop signs and the razor-wire fences. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that the term ‘globalisation’ was first popularised by Harvard Business School scholar Theodore Levitt, who is best known for his insights on the importance of marketing (Levitt 1983; Feder 2006). The global spread of the word ‘globalisation’ has been a superlative marketing job.

The New World of Macro-segregation

Can we find some other words that might shed light on aspects of our world that the term ‘globalisation’ obscures? One term I would like to suggest is the long and probably unfamiliar word ‘macro-segregation’. This word has two quite distinct meanings. In the social sciences, some scholars have recently started to speak about ‘macro-segregation’ (usually written with a hyphen) to refer to emerging patterns of residential separation between racial groups in the US (particularly between black and white Americans). In the past, segregation was something that tended to occur between neighbourhoods of the same city, with different localities being identified as ‘white’, ‘black’, ‘Hispanic’, etc. That sort of residential separation seems to be becoming less visible, but there are signs that it is being replaced by separation on a larger scale, with white residents increasingly moving into outer suburban or semi-rural areas, while in a number of major cities the majority of the population is now made up of African American, Hispanic and other ethnic minority groups. In 1980 (to give just one example) 65% of the population of Detroit was black; the figure is now 80% (Lichter, Parisi and Taquino 2015, 844).

In the natural sciences, though, macrosegregation (usually written without a hyphen) means something quite different: it refers to the way that variations or areas of impurity emerge in some cast metals. When molten alloys harden, some sections of the alloy tend to harden more quickly than others, and defects may form where liquid and solid metal meet. If we tweak that meaning a little, I think it provides quite a nice analogy for thinking about the global political economy: for thinking, in other words, about the fault lines and defects that form along the divide between the parts that flow and the parts that harden.

Geographer David Harvey has traced the way that ever-expanding capitalism constantly shapes and re-shapes the landscapes of the world. The ceaseless drive for profit leads to the territorial expansion of the competitive economy, as business seeks out new markets and new sources of raw materials and labour. But the same process also leads to territorial concentration of activities in big cities, as economies of scale promote the rise of urban agglomerations (Harvey 2001, 245-249). The world becomes (in the words of another geographer, Peter Dicken) ‘a geographically uneven, highly complex and dynamic web of production networks, economic spaces and places connected together through threads of flows’ (Dicken 2003, 21).

If we think about it, though, it soon becomes clear that this uneven landscape includes not only flows but also blockages which prevent things from moving, and that the patterns of these flows and blockages change over time. ‘Macro-segregation’ emerges from that changing pattern of flows and blockages created by capitalism as it evolves. And, rather like the flaws in metal alloys, the fault lines in the geo-economy often seem to lie at the points where the flows and blockages come into contact.

If the reshaping of the physical landscape by market forces is crucial to understanding the expanding commercial economy, the reshaping of the human landscape is just as important, if not more so. Our expansionist market economy does not just create and destroy factories, roads and cities, it also creates and destroys cultures, languages and ethnic groups. It results in massive movements of people both within and across national borders, but also (as part of the same process) stops the movement of other people; and the state plays a vital part in all of this.

We often speak of the ‘free market’ as though it were something that arose spontaneously and exists independently of the state. However, as the great political economist Karl Polanyi observed some seventy years ago, the laissez-faire system which underpinned the rise of capitalism in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain was in fact ‘enforced by the state’: ‘The road to the free market was opened and kept open by an enormous increase in continuous, centrally organised and controlled interventionism’ (Polanyi 1944/2001, 145-146). State policies to promote the enclosure of farm land and to change property and poor laws helped to create a huge pool of people who had no way to survive except by seeking employment in industrial workshops and factories. These people flowed from the countryside into the expanding industrial cities, providing the workforce that drove the industrial revolution. The ‘free labour market’ was created by state action, which helps us to understand why the height of the laissez-faire era in mid-nineteenth century Britain was also a time of rapidly expanding bureaucracy, wonderfully parodied by Charles Dickens in his fictional depiction of the Circumlocution Office, an all-powerful government department whose endless red tape had the power the paralyse even the most urgent decisions (Dickens 1857).

Flows and Blockages: A Short History

One of the most important ways in which the state creates the conditions for the free market is through its power to encourage the movement of some people across geographical space, and to prevent the movement of others. These shifting patterns of movement and blockage are quite complex, but here let us just consider some important ways in which they have changed since the middle of the twentieth century.

In the postwar decades—from the mid-1940s to the 1970s—demand for workers in the booming industrial economies of Europe, North America, Australia and elsewhere was often met through state policies to encourage cross-border migration. But at the same time, in many places, systems were created to exclude these migrant labourers from full membership in the state, by restricting their access to social benefits and preventing them from settling permanently. The best known of these systems of exclusionary flow were the gastarbeiter [guest worker] programs developed by Germany in the 1950s and also adopted by a number of other European nations. These were country-to-country agreements that allowed workers from the poorer nation to move to the richer nation for employment, on the condition that the workers would return home after a specified time. The gastarbeiter system was designed to ensure that these manual labour migrants did not have access to welfare, education and other benefits offered by their ‘host’ nation. But it turned out that the migrants could not so easily be excluded from the social life of their host communities. They became ill; they fell in love; they married and had children. Many found ways to stay on the host nations, becoming permanent residents and ultimately citizens. As Swiss playwright Max Frisch famously and ironically observed, ‘we asked for labour power, and what arrived were human beings’ (Frisch 1965, 7).

From the first half of the 1970s onward, then, as the world economy entered a phase of recession and restructuring, one country after another moved away from this approach, creating new and tighter restrictions on immigration (see for example Cohen 2006, Chapter 6). So-called ‘globalisation’ was born from the midst of that restructuring. It was a complex new order with many facets. It involved the rise of transnational corporations, new information technologies, and the creation of a global financial system in which transactions across oceans and continents could be completed in a matter of seconds. But at its core was the ‘new international division of labour’ in which the operative word was division.

Rather than labour flowing across international borders to work in foreign factories, construction sites or offices, production itself would now become a transnational network that reached out in all directions. The whole purpose of the network was to take advantage of the differences in wealth and social structure of various countries and cities around the globe. Consider, as just one example, the giant Korean corporation Samsung Electronics, which has 320,000 employees in 84 countries. Its largest number of production bases and factory workers are in China and Southeast Asia, where the most labour-intensive parts of the production process occur. Almost 100,000 of Samsung Electronics’ manual workers are in Vietnam, where wages are around one-tenth of Korean levels. The corporation’s research and development is widely distributed across the globe, with substantial amounts occurring in Korea, the US and Europe, though also in China; and sales centres are heavily concentrated in Europe; and so on (Kang 2015).

This is a dynamic, not a static system. People move around from one place to another: managers and researchers travel the network, coordinating and consulting; workers are sent from production base to headquarters for training. Meanwhile, in certain areas of the economy, workers are still allowed and encouraged to move across borders. This is particularly true of workers in the personal care sector, who continue to migrate legally in large numbers, because that is one part of the economy where labourers and consumers have to meet face-to-face, and where production therefore cannot be ‘outsourced’. Since many care workers are women, this helps to explain the much discussed ‘feminisation of migration’ in recent years (Piper 2013).

But in other sectors of the economy, workers, managers and consumers become increasingly geographically separated, and movement becomes more and more controlled and differentiated. Governments around the world create ever more complex hierarchies of visa systems, allowing some groups of people (generally the wealthier and more highly skilled people) to move quite easily, while keeping others in their places, or imposing very tight controls over their rights to movement (see for example Zimmerman and Fix 2014). The Australian government, for example, currently has 82 different types of visas for various categories of migrant, each offering distinct sets of rights and governed by distinct sets of restrictions. Needless to say, there is also a rapidly expanding immigration bureaucracy to match—despite having been reorganised and losing some of its functions to other sections of the bureaucracy, the relevant department’s staff roughly doubled in number between 2003 and 2015, from around 4,800 to around 9,500. A great many people, meanwhile, do not fit into any of the 82 categories, and are therefore excluded altogether.

How do these excluded people respond? In our world of macro-segregation, they do what people have always done: they ignore the rules, or try to bend them to their needs. People continue to flee war zones and poverty; they move from places with lower wages to those with higher wages; they cross borders to survive or to get a better future for their children. They seek to assert their rights by trying to squeeze their enormously diverse personal circumstances into one or other of the ill-fitting official visa categories: categories designed to create and institutionalise difference and inequality, because difference and inequality form the growth medium in which our ‘globalised economy’ thrives.

Governments and international regulatory agencies see this behaviour by border-crossers as extremely threatening, because it challenges the state’s fundamental claim to a monopoly of power over movement into and out of its territory. It is for that reason that even states with supposedly liberal and democratic governments often subject undocumented border-crossers to extreme and arbitrary human rights abuses. This violence is symptomatic of fear. It is a desperate effort to demonstrate the power of the state to control the uncontrollable.

The Social Deepening of the Market

The word ‘macro-segregation’ helps us rethink the image of the world as a place of ‘globalised’ spatial flows. But there is also another reason for questioning the dominance of the word ‘globalisation’. By encouraging us to focus on spatial processes (how things move from one place to another), the term ‘globalisation’ has distracted attention from another aspect of change in our world which is equally important. I call this aspect ‘the social deepening of the market’.

The competitive corporate economy pursues an unending search for profit, not just by expanding outwards into new places, but also by expanding ‘inwards’, into areas of life such as recreation, physical and mental health, child care, education, aged care, personal and national security, etc., which were once beyond the realms of the market. This is part of the phenomenon that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri refer to as ‘intensification’. Hardt and Negri argue that the spatial expansion of capitalism has virtually reached its limits. There is little ‘outside’ left for the market economy to incorporate, so ‘capital no longer looks outside but rather inside its domain, and its expansion is thus intensive rather than extensive’ (Hardt and Negri 2000, 272). Corporations are becoming more involved in the production, not just of conventional material commodities, but of all kinds of information, culture and personal services. Ultimately this means that people themselves increasingly become ‘products’ of the market economy: ‘The great industrial and financial powers… produce not only commodities but also subjectivities’ (Hardt and Negri 2000, 32).

This intensification is, of course, just the latest phase in a very long process that goes back at least to the commercial and industrial revolutions of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. With the rise of the capitalist economy, people came to rely on the market for a growing share of the goods they had once produced at home. During the twentieth century, the market extended still further into daily life. Now, not only were more and more goods commercially exchanged: corporations also created a growing range of entirely new commodities for which they also had to create a need. The new science of marketing was used to stimulate demand for this range of products—things like radios, refrigerators, automobiles, hair dryers, televisions, computers, mobile phones, etc. Little by little, the social structure of cities and homes became organised around these commodities so that many people today literally cannot live without them. As novelist Shirley Hazzard once put it, ‘invention is the mother of necessity’ (Hazzard 1980/2006)

But in the age of so-called ‘globalisation’ from the last decades of the twentieth century onward, intensification began to take on radically new forms. If we use the term ‘the social deepening of the market’, I think we gain a gain a clearer picture of what this means for everyday life. The corporate consumer economy reaches ever more deeply into areas of everyday life, with profound consequences for our social relationships and our sense of self.

Think, for example, of global corporations like Richard Branson’s business conglomerate Virgin, which is among those investing large amounts in the worldwide fitness industry. Many people now rely on this industry to maintain their health in a world of soaring medical costs, fast food and growing time pressures on everyday life (Business News Australia 2015). As of late 2015, over 480 of Australia’s child care centres were run by a rapidly-expanding corporation, G8 Education, which operates them under a range of appealing cosy brand names like ‘Jellybeans’, ‘Buggles’ and ‘Pelican Childcare’. G8 Education was created by transport and finance entrepreneur Christopher Scott, and its other major shareholders include J. P. Morgan, Citicorp and the French-based bank BNP Paribas. In Japan, since the passing of the Kaigo Hoken [Aged Care Insurance] Law in 2000, private enterprises including foreign investment funds and the giant restaurant chain Watami have moved into the lucrative and growing aged care business (Brasor and Tsukubu 2014). In areas like university education, where the state continues to play an important role, declining state funding goes hand in hand with growing reliance on corporate tie-ups and sponsorships.

Even more striking examples of the social deepening of the market come from the worlds of biotechnology and genetic engineering; for it is here that we encounter the growing private and corporate ownership of life itself. In 1988 the US patent office for the first time issued a patent on a living mammal: the oncomouse—a mouse whose genetic makeup had been altered to develop cancers that mirror human diseases. By 2009, with surprisingly little public debate, over 660 patents on modified animals had been granted to individuals or companies (Burgunder 2010, 572).

This social deepening of the market, although it is partly linked to declining state provision of welfare and other social services, also (like macro-segregation) actually goes hand in hand with the expansion of state intervention in many other areas of life. If enclosure acts, new property laws, etc. provided the essential framework for nineteenth century laissez faire, the social deepening of the market in the age of so-called ‘neo-liberalism’ requires a host of other rules and regulations. This is particularly true because many of the social spheres now being absorbed into the market economy—from knowledge creation to modified animal species—cannot easily be turned into ‘private property’ in the conventional sense of the word, so new rules and regulations (expanded patent and copyright laws, etc.) are needed to turn them into commodities which can be owned, bought and sold. Further regulations are also needed to standardise things like childcare and fitness centres so that they fit into recognised corporate models and can compete on the market. As David Graeber brilliantly shows in his book The Utopia of Rules, the age of so-called ‘neo-liberalism’ is therefore also the age when ‘bureaucracy has come to pervade every aspect of our lives, [but] we don’t notice it’.

Informal Life Politics

What do we do now? How can we possibly hope to make any impression on a system that seems so vast, impersonal, ungraspable and relentless in its growth? Our political systems, instead of generating analyses of these underlying problems and attempts to address them, increasingly seem to produce populist politicians who build their personal careers by offering spurious ‘quick fixes’. ‘Illegal immigrants’ are popularly presented as the causes of systemic crisis, rather than as its symptom and victims. Education to promote ‘family values’ is touted as the solution to the increasing commodification of human relationships.

When we consider the scale and complexity of the problems we confront, they look daunting and disempowering. Yet people do respond. They take action, often in small ways, and sometimes because it is the only way to survive. To cite John Holloway again, a mass of people around the world are driven by a ‘determination to take a space or moment into their own hands and shape their lives according to their own decisions’ (Holloway 2010b, 21; see also Gibson-Graham, Cameron and Healy 2013). Groups of people who decide that their lives and the lives of their families are imperilled take the decision to move across international borders without waiting for the official visas which are either unattainable or, at best, would take years to arrive. Japanese people who live in places with raised radiation levels as a result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster ignore official policies and assurances, and make their own decisions as to what they think is an acceptable risk for themselves or their children. As of May 2016, over 168,000 people were still believed to be living displaced as a result of the tsunami and nuclear disaster, and in October 2015, a group of those people formed the ‘National Association of Refugees to Demand the “Right to Refuge”’ (Hinan no Kenri o Motomeru Zenkoku Hinansha no Kai; see Tokyo Shinbun, 30 October 2015; Too Nippō, 28 May 2016). As the Association of Refugees’ representative Uno Saeko puts it, the group asserts the ‘important right actually to make an autonomous choice between taking refuge or continuing to live [in affected areas]’ (Tokyo Shinbun, 30 October 2015, emphasis added).

People ‘actually make autonomous choices’ in many other ways too. They reject the development plans for their communities devised by governments or large corporations, and create and enact their own plans instead. They establish their own alternative education systems, or make their own alternative currencies as ways of reducing their dependence on the consumer market. They become ‘citizen scientists’, producing results that challenge the official findings of governments, international organisations or corporations. They create cooperatives and mutual aid schemes that work on principles different to those of the capitalist corporation; and so on.

This process of direct action in everyday life can be called ‘informal life politics’. It is ‘political’ in the sense that it involves ‘collective choices that shape the way people live’ (see Runciman 2014). But it is very different from our conventional image of politics, which tends to focus on national constitutions, parliaments, cabinets, prime ministers or presidents, elections, party platforms, etc. Informal life politics is made up of everyday decisions and acts of self-protection or self-realisation—often, indeed, acts of desperation—in the face of profound crises emerging from the broader economic, political and social crisis in which we live. It is not an ideology, but rather a way of doing things. It is an experimental and improvisatory way of doing things: a matter of ‘trying, and seeing what happens’.

Migrants and refugees are, of course, among the most active practitioners of informal life politics, because their needs are so poorly addressed by existing institutions. In the early years of migration at least, many border-crossers find themselves disenfranchised, excluded from the vote in the country where they live. Even if they acquire citizenship or voting rights, cultural differences, language barriers and discrimination often create social marginalisation and isolation. Examples of migrant informal life politics abound throughout the world, and have done so for centuries, but the practice and focus of this invisible political action has changed over time. In the Australian context, some creative recent examples have involved the creation of shared spaces where migrants and refugees can pass on cultural traditions, build skills and confidence and simply enjoy sharing and relaxation with others. In the Sydney suburb of Fairfield (to give just one example), Chit Aye Oh, a Karen farmer who arrived in Australia from Myanmar as a refugee, has worked with others to create a Karen community garden which gives practical training to other Karen migrants, provides raw materials for Karen cuisine, and creates a sense of security and community for people who have often undergone traumatic experiences of violence and displacement. In Brighton, a beach suburb of Melbourne, the group RAW (short for Resilient Aspiring Women) also uses food growing as well as story-telling and other activities to build skills, social connections and confidence amongst a group of women from a range of ethnic backgrounds. Co-founders Somali-born Mariam Issa and German-born Katharina Kons see the project as welcoming, but also reaching beyond, migrant communities to ‘develop empowerment and resilience’ in a world of anomie and isolation (Kermond 2014)

In the research project that we are currently engaged in at the Australian National University, we focus on informal life politics, not because we think that formal institutional politics is irrelevant or should be ignored, but because we feel that—in order to answer the pressing question ‘what do we do now?’—we need to know a lot more about what people are actually doing in everyday life to respond to the crises that they, and we, confront. Informal life politics has a long history, but it is a history that has been little studied, because so much of our interest in politics has been directed to ideologies (like liberalism, socialism and Marxism) and institutions (like parliaments, political parties and presidencies). Informal life politics is not primarily about ideology or institutional structure, but about what people do. A number of the historical movements that are generally—rather awkwardly—classified as ‘utopian socialism’ or ‘anarchism’ are in fact good examples of informal life politics. These include (for example) the cooperative shops created by Britain’s Rochdale Pioneers in 1844 (North 2007); William Morris’ schemes for creative communities of handicraft workers (MacCarthy 2015); Tolstoy Farm, the experiment in communal living established in South Africa in 1910 by Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) and many others.

These social experiments have had a surprisingly large influence in East Asia, at least since the 1910s and 1920s. Key ideas and actions of thinkers like William Morris, John Ruskin (1819-1900), Leo Tolstoy and others, inspired Japanese and other East Asian social critics to develop their own experiments in alternative living. Though many of these movements were suppressed with the rise of militarism in the 1930s and 1940s, some resurfaced after the Asia-Pacific War, and gained growing influence in the 1960s and 1970s with the rise of anti-pollution movements and other forms of grassroots activism. The impact of the triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami and meltdown) of 2011 has further enhanced the importance of informal life politics in Japan.

Let us consider just a couple examples. One instance of informal life politics that I have been studying and learning from is the story of a loose network of grassroots groups in and around Saku City in Nagano Prefecture. This relatively rural area has a history of informal political action going back at least to the 1910s and 1920s. During the early period, local school teachers, in particular, were inspired by the ideas of thinkers at home and abroad including William Morris, Tolstoy and Gandhi, and developed these into their own experiments in education and in promoting local handicraft industries.

In the postwar years, these ideas were revived and expanded through the influence of new social education and environmental movements. The result was a nexus of interlinked local groups engaged in activities like environmental protection, rural social medicine, adult education, organic farming, and preserving and disseminating traditional craft techniques. For the past twenty years, one node linking these activities has been a regular gathering known as the Miyamoto School [Miyamoto Juku], inspired by the work of eminent environmental economist Miyamoto Ken’ichi. The core philosophy of the Miyamoto School is ‘endogenous development’ [naihastuteki hatten]—economic and social development based on local natural resources and human skills, which returns most of its benefits to the local community. In the gatherings of the Miyamoto School local individuals and groups develop their own visions for the future of their community, with the help of ideas and input from outside experts, to whom people like Professor Miyamoto help provide access.

One of the groups which maintains a close link to the Miyamoto School is the Ma~yu local currency scheme, based in the nearby city of Ueda. This is just one of a number of local currency schemes in Japan, many of which were set up around the start of the twenty-first century. The main aim of the scheme is to reduce dependence on the commercial consumer economy, increase local community ties and develop human skills by exchanging some (though not all) goods via an alternative currency called the Ma~yu (adapted from the Japanese word for ‘cocoon’, because Ueda has a long history as a centre of silk production). The group, which was created in 2001, now has about 200 members of all ages, and is involved in a wide range of activities: running markets, growing organic food, operating its own community centre in an old house which it has restored, offering classes, seminars and film showings related to issues of environmental sustainability, etc.

The Ueda Ma~yu group in turn is linked to Japan’s Transition Town movement. Transition Towns originated in Totnes, England and Kinsale, Ireland, in 2006. Their concept is to engage communities in the fundamental reshaping of their own social and physical ecologies, reducing the community’s environmental footprint, increasing self-sufficiency and resilience, and so both slowing and preparing for an age of global warming and resource exhaustion (Bulkeley 2013; Barry and Quilley 2009). The movement spread to Japan in 2008, with the establishment of transition towns in Fujino, Hayama and Koganei, but its most rapid growth occurred in the wake of the triple disaster of 3/11. By September 2012 there were 32 active Transition Towns in various parts of Japan, while town communities established before 3/11 had embarked on new projects in response to the disaster.

These practical actions are not driven by an explicit shared ideology, but they do have certain important things in common. They take place in the midst of everyday life, as people shop for food, seek medical care, attend evening classes, grow vegetables, heat their houses, etc. They are not revolutionary actions that set out to destroy the existing political or economic system. Most participants in the groups I have described would readily acknowledge how much their own lives are tied up with, and depend on, that system. But they are efforts to push back against the endless social deepening of the market, and against the state intervention and macro-segregation which accompany and promote that deepening. When the social deepening of the market reaches a point where it threatens to undermine the fabric of human society and the natural environment, people say ‘enough, and no more. These parts of our lives we will not hand over to the impersonal forces of the commercial economy. These we will take and keep in our own hands.’

But importantly, even though they are small and seldom proclaim a grand agenda of political change, the implications of these small actions of informal life politics (as Polanyi recognised decades ago) are quite radical. For the essence of our corporate market economy is its demand for the right to boundless growth. Untrammelled growth, indeed, is claimed as capitalism’s birthright and life-blood. Since the system raises capital on the promise of expanding that capital and returning a profit, growth is fundamental to survival. Static capitalism is a contraction in terms. So, informal life politics’ implicit cry of ‘enough, not more’—even in small areas of life—is a profound challenge to the system (see Polanyi 1944/2001, Chapter 11)

So, Where Do We Go From Here?

Informal life politics is, by its very nature, difficult to classify and impossible to quantify. Studying and trying to learn from it requires us to think and observe in unfamiliar ways. It requires what Holloway calls a focus on ‘doing’, which is also ‘projection-beyond’—trying to make imagined possibilities real (Holloway 2010a, 23-24). The case studies that we have been exploring (which include cooperative organic farming in Taiwan and South Korea, mutual aid networks in China and citizens science networks in Inner Mongolia and Japan) all prove hard to define in terms of class, social identity and ideology. All of them are networked structures which bring together people from a variety of social backgrounds and with a variety of social perspectives.

These actions may ultimately lead in variety of different directions. Some groups disappear without fulfilling their hopes and dreams, though this does not necessarily mean complete failure, since the practice of doing may have changed the ideas and skills of participants, who may in turn put those ideas and skills to work in other times and places. Other groups may disappear or change in form because they have achieved some goals and developed new ones. In other cases again, informal life politics actions achieve such influence that they lose their ‘informal’ character and become part of the institutionalised political or economic system.

The small-scale, dispersed and varied nature of informal life politics means that the horizontal links between different groups are often weak or non-existent. As we focus attention on, and develop ways of studying, informal life politics, our project also seeks to promote connections, making diverse groups more aware of one another’s existence, and creating opportunities for mutual learning. The mutual learning process has only just begun, and will certainly continue beyond the formal end of our project. In this sense, the ‘doing’ of informal life politics and the ‘doing’ of our research is not sharply separate, but flows together. We, too, are changed by participating in the journey of informal life politics. This journey, I think, recalls one depicted in the writings of African American writer Maya Angelou: ‘I looked up the road I was going and back the way I had come, and since I wasn’t satisfied, I decided to step off the road and cut me a new path’ (Angelou 1994, 36-37). Once you are off the road, the paths become small, multitudinous and often very confusing, but the choice of directions is enormously enriched.

Download the reference list PDF.
Photo Credits: (1) Brexit, Vincent Bernamont, 2016; (2) Refugees at Röszke, Sandor Csudai, 2015


Tessa Morris-Suzuki

Tessa Morris-Suzuki is Professor of Japanese History and ARC Laureate Fellow in the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University. Her research interests include survival politics and grassroots movements in Northeast Asia; the emergence of the Cold War in Northeast Asia; Japan’s role in the Korean War; migration and minorities in Japan and its region; and issues of historical conflict and reconciliation between the countries of Northeast Asia.

Subscribe to Made in China

Made in China publications are open access and always available as a free download. To subscribe to email alerts for each issue of the Journal, newly published books, and information about upcoming events, please provide your contact information below.

Back to Top