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Boris Holzer, Mads Sørensen

Subpolitics and Subpoliticians
Arbeitspapier 4 des SFB 536 Reflexive Modernisierung München, July 2001

Herausgeber SFB 536 „Reflexive Modernisierung“ University of Munich Boris Holzer*, Teilprojekt A1 Theresienstraße 37-39 80333 München, Germany Tel.: +49 (0)89 2394 4515 Fax: +49 (0)89 2394 4025 email: b.holzer@lsealumni.com Mads P. Sørensen* Department of History of Ideas * University of Aarhus Ndr. Ringgade, Bygn. 328 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark email: idemps@hum.au.dk

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The authors’ names are given in alphabetical order, both authors contributed equally to this paper.

Boris Holzer, Mads Sørensen: Subpolitics and Subpoliticians

Robert Gernhardt: ‘Danke’
Mein Blick fällt aufs Toilettenpapier. Auf dem Blatt steht ‘Danke’. Danke wofür? Danke dafür, daß ich es verwende und keine edlen Ressourcen verschwende. Danke dafür, daß ich es benütze und so die RecyclingIdee unterstütze. Dank im Namen von Wald und Baum: Du sicherst unseren Lebensraum. Dank im Namen von Fink und Star: Du nimmst auch unsre Interessen wahr. Dank im Namen der ganzen Natur: So handeln Auserwählte nur. Dank im Namen des blauen Planeten: Heilig, heilig. Lasset uns beten! Dank für dein Dasein in unserer Mitte! Groß greif ich zur Rolle und sag segnend: Bitte.

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Against suggestions that politics is on the wane, Ulrich Beck has repeatedly argued that such arguments are predicated upon a misconception of current social reality. The fact that the interest in formal politics seems to decline almost everywhere should not be taken as evidence of a lack of political orientation or action in late modern society. For focussing on the traditional forms and arenas of politics alone would lead us to look for politics in the ‘wrong places’ (Beck, 1993). Rather than in parliamentary debates or in elections, we are advised to look for politics emerging – and hiding away – in new places: for instance in the everyday activities and choices of people and in the often informal and spontaneous political actions of social movements – and maybe even in those very private, stille Örtchen where Robert Gernhardt had his personal encounter with what could be considered a small example of ‘green consumerism’. To denote those new places and forms of politics and to distinguish them from the traditional ones Beck coined the term ‘subpolitics’. Generally speaking, the concept refers to small-scale, often individual decisions that either have a direct political frame of reference or achieve political significance by way of their aggregation. Narrowly defined, subpolitics thus bears connotations of being placed beneath the nation-state. More generally, however, it can be conceptualised as a form of politics ‘outside and beyond the representative institutions of the political system of nation-states’ (Beck, 1996: 18), thus referring to transnational politics across and beyond the nation-state as well. The prefix ‘sub’ is not to indicate that this form of politics is less important than formal politics but that it is less institutionalised. In this paper, we seek to explore and elaborate the concept of subpolitics with regard to two different areas: the way in which non-political decisions made in societal spheres such as the economy or science may nonetheless become ‘subpolitical’ on the one hand and the emergence of the phenomenon of ‘political consumerism’ (of which Gernhardt’s poem gives a somewhat satiric example) on the other. In either case, we have to clarify the relationship between ‘political’ and ‘non-political’ rationalities of action. Although the areas are very similar in this respect, the reason why the concept of subpolitics is applicable differs. In our view this is due to the fact that subpolitics is an inherently Janus-faced concept that refers to at least two distinct set of phenomena. In the following, we shall briefly elaborate these ‘two faces’ of subpolitics. We will then contrast Beck’s concept with the related idea of ‘life politics’ expounded by Giddens. Having thus cleared the conceptual ground, we will look at the two dimensions of subpolitics in more detail and suggest to distinguish them as forms of either ‘active’ or ‘passive’ subpolitics. The two faces of subpolitics The concept of subpolitics has been developed in the context of the theory of reflexive modernisation (for the general argument see Beck, Giddens and Lash, 1994; Beck, Bonß and Lau, 2001). The theory of reflexive modernisation contends that western industrial societies have entered a second, reflexive phase of modernity. While first modernity has modernised tradition, second modernity modernises modernity itself. Beck et al. do not talk about the end of modernity as such, i.e. something that could be

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properly regarded as a post-modern condition. Rather than as a sublation or revocation of modernity, second modernity must be seen as a radicalisation and self-confrontation of modernity. The primary medium of this self-confrontation of modernity is the increasing recognition of the undesired side-effects of the programmes and institutions of first modernity. Although those side-effects have always been part of the process of modernisation, they have been long ignored. This was possible to the extent that first modernity, classical industrial society, revolved around the satisfaction of material needs. Technical-industrial progress was not simply a synonym for social progress but for the overcoming of scarcity. Under the cloak of successful wealth creation, undesired side-effects accumulated: ‘The devil of hunger is fought with the Beelzebub of multiplying risk’ (Beck, 1986: 56). Yet industrial society was able to – probably had to – turn a blind eye on its undesired side-effects because it could rely on a strong narrative justifying its main effects: progress and wealth creation. Ironically, at the very point that the dangers of a hostile, external nature seem to be overcome by technological domination, modernity is forced to cope with the problem of self-produced, ‘manufactured’ risks. At the pinnacle of its success, modernity is endangering itself. To be sure, risks and accidents have always been part of industrial society and of traditional society as well. Yet in second modernity those risks which are not local, which reach far into the future and which may affect poor and rich parts of the population in the same manner come to the fore.1 Although there is, as Beck puts it, a tendency towards wealth being accumulated at the top and risks at the bottom (Beck, 1986: 46), the outlook of a fundamental ecological crisis transcends such social and territorial boundaries. Even the polluter will sooner or later be hit by what Beck calls the ‘boomerang effect’: ‘under the roof of modernization risks, perpetrator and victim sooner or later become identical. In the worst, unthinkable case, a nuclear world war, this is evident: it also destroys the aggressor’ (ibid.: 50). In our present context, what is interesting about the process of reflexive modernisation is Beck’s argument of a concomitant politicisation of modern society. According to Beck, the recognition of modernity’s ‘dark side’ and the concomitant breakdown of the ‘grand narrative’ of progress opens the way for a re-politicisation of areas that have up till now eluded public contestation: ‘what was until now considered unpolitical becomes political – the elimination of the causes in the industrialization process itself’ (Beck, 1986: 31). The basic premises of modern society – progress, technological rationalisation and the domination of nature – are not taken for granted anymore, i.e. they are not ‘unpolitical’ in Beck’s terms. To the extent that they are now perceived as contingent they may be challenged and may therefore become subject to political struggles. By stressing the potential conflicts arising from this process, Beck highlights what we would like to call the ‘active’ side of subpolitics, i.e. the contestation of takenfor-granted assumptions of modernity by actors outside the system of formal politics,
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To emphasise the specific qualities of those risks, it has been suggested to call them ‘new risks’ (Lau, 1989) or ‘second-order dangers’ (Bonß, 1995).

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predominantly social movements. Yet there is also another, ‘passive’ side of subpolitics that is much less based upon conflict and contestation.2 In the following we shall distinguish these two ‘faces of subpolitics’ in Beck’s writings and suggest a framework for understanding their relationship. The differentiation of economic and political subsystems or, as Beck puts it, of a techno-economic sphere and a political-administrative sphere, corresponds to a particular division of labour with regard to legitimation. The political sphere plays according to democratic rules. Attached to this sphere are democratic institutions such as a parliament, the principle of publicity and free elections which are, amongst other things, thought to provide legitimacy and support for the maintenance of the political system itself. This again could also be conceived as a source of legitimacy for the economic system: to the extent that the consequences of economic decisions mainly affected those who also enjoyed their benefits (i.e. wealth creation within a national welfare-state system), the costs and benefits could be balanced in a due political process. In other words: so long as the consequences of technological development did not transcend the boundaries of political action, one could stick to the illusion that, ultimately, politics would be at the helm of societal development. This premise no longer holds (if it ever did).3 Self-produced risks and technological innovations seem to have taken over the initiative at the expense of politics: ‘the contours of a new society are no longer expected to come from parliamentary debates on new laws or from administrative decisions, but rather from the application of microelectronics, nuclear technology and human genetics’ (Beck, 1986: 304). In the wake of fundamental social change and technological risk, the techno-economic sphere loses its hitherto ‘non-political’ character without becoming entirely political. Increasingly, according to Beck, this sphere is neither political nor non-political, but subpolitical. This conclusion is based upon the way Beck defines politics in terms of the ‘structuring and changing of living conditions’ in contrast to a conventional view of politics as ‘the defence and legitimisation of domination, power and interest’ (Beck, 1986: 311). According to this definition, the techno-economic sphere is straightforwardly political qua its direct effects on our living conditions. Beck’s reason for introducing the term subpolitics in contrast to politics is that this sphere lacks at least one important characteristic of politics: the need to legitimise itself and to do so via democratic procedures. Thus on the one hand the subpolitical may manifest itself in the fact that ‘epochal fundamental decisions regarding society’s future’ are made in subsystems other than

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For the initial formulation of the idea that we should distinguish between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ subpolitics see Sørensen (2001), where active subpolitics as a forms of deliberate subpolitics is distinguished from passive subpolitics as a non-deliberate form. Considering the paramount position of the economic system in modern society, it is plausible to say that the most ‘important’ decisions have probably never been made in the political system. We are not entirely sure whether it is desirable or ‘normatively valid’ to call for the politicisation or ‘democratisation’ of all those decisions. In our view, it is a great benefit of the concept of subpolitics that it enables us to conceive of those decisions in their entire ambiguity – being neither political nor non-political.

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politics and therefore in the absence of democratic procedures Beck (1986: 335). According to Beck (ibid.: 329ff.) this is the case in the fields of modern medicine and human genetics, where fundamental social change is prepared in the absence of public accountability. It can also be argued with regard to transnational corporations whose decisions may have consequences far beyond the original horizon of decision-making (Beck, 2001; Holzer, 2001). The argument why politics should play a role in those fields is that society will have to bear the side-effects of those decisions but has no control whatsoever over these decisions themselves and over the criteria which govern them. On the other hand, however, Beck (1986: 304; 1999: 92) also argues that arenas of subpolitics emerge in the form of ‘alternative opportunities for action’ that challenge hitherto unquestioned assumptions and rationalities. Beck contends that this is the case in the area of technological-economic development which has long been governed by ‘practical necessities’ (Sachzwänge) and the ‘consensus of progress’. According to Beck, the currency of these ideas has been seriously dented by the ecological critique. Consequently, technological development can no longer be ‘politically neutralised’ with reference to progress or rationalisation. It becomes contested and thus subject to the dynamics of subpolitics. Evidently, these two faces of subpolitics are not entirely congruent: on the one hand, subpolitics seems to emerge when alternatives, conflicts and new coalitions arise; on the other hand, one should speak of subpolitics in precisely those areas where alternatives are not discussed and which are therefore kept from public scrutiny and democratic control. How are we to reconcile these seemingly conflicting notions of subpolitics? One way to arrive at a more comprehensive definition of subpolitics is to clarify in which respects it differs from formal politics – and in which respects it does not. Accordingly, the pivotal point is the extent to which activities may be said to be political on the one hand, while forgoing the channels of formal, i.e. institutionalised politics on the other. Only if these two conditions are fulfilled we may speak of subpolitics as distinct from ‘normal’ politics. A discussion of the related arguments of Giddens and Greven about the role of politics in late modern society might help to clarify the ‘political’ of the subpolitical. To an even larger degree than Beck, Giddens extends the range of politics by introducing the concept of ‘life politics’; Greven, by speaking of a ‘political society’. Although both theorists share the basic thrust of Beck’s argument, their concepts are more general – and show the limits of an unlimited use of a terminology of the ‘political’ in almost every area of everyday life. Life politics Anthony Giddens’ concept of life politics is often used synonymously with Beck’s concept of subpolitics. The question is, however, whether the concept of life politics actually covers the same ground as the concept of subpolitics. And if not, what exactly is the relationship between the two concepts? These are the questions we will try to

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answer in what follows, but first we will have a closer look at how Giddens himself defines and uses the concept of life politics. Similar to the concept of subpolitics, the idea of life politics is related to an overall analysis of late modernity (Giddens, 1990). Giddens agrees with Beck that we are now entering a new period of modernity. Yet while Beck’s reflexive modernity means a modernisation of modernity itself, a process by which modernity itself becomes problematic, Giddens instead refers to reflexive modernity as a period marked by an increasing level of reflection (Beck, 1994b; 1994a; Giddens, 1994b; 1994c). Late modernity is a post-traditional society, i.e. a society in which tradition no longer structures our lives unproblematically. According to Giddens, we can no longer rely on tradition to tell us how to shape our institutions, our lives and our self-identities. There is no longer a clear and unambiguous script – given by nature or by tradition – that would tell us how to behave and what to choose. Instead reflexivity takes over the role of tradition. We have to choose what to do with our lives. Life courses are no longer given – they have to be made (Giddens, 1991). This means that the individual in his or her everyday life is faced with hundreds of subquestions related to the overall question: ‘How should I live my life?’ This concerns questions like: What career should I choose? Should I have children? Should I have children before or after my education? How many should I have? To what school should I send them? Should I marry or live together with my partner without being married? What food should I eat? It goes without saying that we may choose ‘traditional’ answers to these questions – to do, for example, ‘what my father always did’, ‘what we always did in my family’ or ‘what Christianity prescribes’ – but never without actively having to choose the tradition and having to justify this choice.4 In order to cope with the uncertainty arising from this people choose a particular life style that provides answers in a ‘cultural package’. Giddens’ concept of life politics concerns precisely those kinds of choices – the choices of life styles: ‘Life politics is a politics, not of life chances, but of life style. It concerns disputes and struggles about how … we should live in a world where what used to be fixed either by nature or tradition is now subject to human decisions’ (Giddens, 1994a: 14-15). Yet to what extent is the choice of life styles a form of politics? In Modernity and Self-Identity (1991) Giddens argues that traditional politics is losing its relevance in the post-traditional society. By traditional politics Giddens refers to what he calls ‘emancipatory politics’. Hitherto all forms of politics – radical, liberal and conservative – have been related to emancipatory politics. Radical (Marxist) and liberal politics have revolved around liberating people (the bourgeoisie, the working class, blacks, women etc.) and all conservative forms of politics can be understood as reactions to these attempts at emancipating different groups of society. 5 Emancipatory
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Fundamentalism can accordingly be defined as tradition defended the traditional way, i.e. as something that is held to be self-evident (Giddens, 1994a: 6 and 48). In Beyond Left and Right (1994a) Giddens argues that the old tradition of what is ‘left’ and what is ‘right’ in politics no longer applies to reality. Today the traditional left, the traditional radical political position, is getting more and more conservative in trying to hold on to the established welfare state, whereas the traditional

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politics still plays a role in late modernity, but the political reality as a whole can no longer be grasped by just referring to this concept. Instead Giddens argues that today politics is both emancipatory politics and life politics and that life politics is getting increasingly important. This is due to four factors (Giddens, 1991: 223-226): Firstly, the socialisation of nature, i.e. the fact that nature and society can no longer be separated and that our everyday decisions therefore directly influence nature. Secondly, changes in biological reproduction. How should we as human beings understand our own finitude? What rights does the foetus have? Thirdly, processes of globalisation, i.e. the fact that decisions made in one part of the world increasingly impact on the living conditions of people living in another part of the world. And finally that a stable self-identity is no longer given but has to be made. All of these factors raise important moral and existential questions, and it is this new moral/existential dimension of politics that Giddens tries to grasp by his concept of life politics. And it is important to emphasise that this kind of politics has the individual as the central actor. While the traditional political system (parliaments, the party system etc.) still plays a role in shaping the frame or the context in which the individuals take their life decisions, and social movements have a role to play by bringing life political issues to the fore, in the end it all comes down to the individual’s decisions: ‘life politics concerns political issues which flow from processes of self-actualisation in posttraditional contexts, where globalising influences intrude deeply into the reflexive project of the self, and conversely where processes of the self-realisation influence global strategies’ (Giddens, 1991: 214). To conclude this section we can therefore say that ‘the political’ in life politics is to be found in the impact and influence that these decisions have on other human beings and the environment. Giddens’ idea of social change is that if we choose to act in a different way than we used to, then we – potentially, i.e. if enough people do like we do – change the structures and institutions of society. 6 If people are faced with more and more life choices with a life political character – as according to Giddens exactly is the case in ‘the post-traditional society’ – then our institutions and fundamental societal structures are constantly ‘in play’, constantly potentially changing. That is exactly why we, according to Giddens, have to focus more on life politics – on the choices we as individuals make in our everyday life. These choices actually matter politically. Our choices of life styles in fact preserve, renew or change the institutions and structures of our society, and that is exactly what Giddens wants us to be aware of: ‘The experimental character of daily life, it is important to see, is constitutive. How we tackle
conservatives, the right, to a large extent have turned in to neo-liberals arguing in favour of the free market and thereby contributing to the erosion of tradition. The distinction between left and right in politics is therefore no longer helpful. Accordingly, Giddens argues, we should think of politics beyond this distinction. And one of the ways beyond this distinction is to focus more on life politics.
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Such a concept of social change should be seen in the context of the ‘theory of structuration’ (Giddens, 1984). Structuration theory tries to bridge the gap between a sociology of action and functionalistic, structural positions by adopting a view according to which societal structures need to be constantly reproduced.

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the decisions that have to be made in the course of our actions helps structure the very institutions we are reacting to’ (Giddens, 1994a: 83). In a nutshell Giddens’ argument is that life politics ‘is a politics of life decisions’ (1991: 215). In equating decisions with politics, this depiction of current social reality is somewhat similar to the one given by Greven in his book The Political Society. Greven also sees individuals under pressure to decide more and more issues pertaining to their lives in the absence of certainties hitherto provided by tradition. Modernity, on that score Greven is in total agreement with both Giddens and Beck, entails the ‘selfreflexivity of tradition, the necessity of legitimation in contrast to a ritual mode of domination’ (Greven, 1999: 33). In a fashion quite similar to life politics, Greven also observes a process of politicisation ‘from below’ that is based upon a commonly held self-appraisal of modern individuals as ‘responsible’ (mündige) human beings (ibid.: 54f.). The fact that everyday life is rife with decision-making while traditional groupbased forms of politics are in decline, can also be interpreted as an engine of politicisation at a micro-level (ibid.: 247). However, Greven is also somewhat critical of too individualistic a concept of politics. Generally speaking, Greven postulates that a process of ‘fundamental politicisation’ has taken place in modern society. The fact that modern society has to do without the certainties of traditional society leads to an ever increasing demand for decisionmaking. For if traditional certainties applied, decisions were not necessary. If things are open to different points of view, however, the need for authoritative decision-making (i.e. politics in Greven’s terms) arises and increases. In the modern, political society ‘everything has become decidable, everything that is decidable appears as a conflict of interests, for everything politics can claim to be responsible and every adult is regarded as a political subject’ (Greven, 1999: 55). The fact that taken-for-granted premises of decisions are scarce thus extends the scope of politics. It is the contingency of modern life that results in a ‘pressure for decisions’ (ibid.: 9) and thus in a ‘political’ society. Although Greven thus tends to equate politics with contested decisions, he also wants to stick to an identification of politics with the ‘public good’. This is remarkable in the context of an argument that discerns the political not only in governments but also in central banks, in professions and professional associations, in supreme courts, in coalition negotiations, in identity politics, and even in park bye-laws (Greven, 1999: 174). Against this backdrop, Greven still maintains that politics proper is only concerned if decisions are relevant for a ‘society’ and not only for isolated individuals. Yet in precisely what way decisions should be ‘relevant’ for a society remains unclear. Is the orientation of individuals towards a common good sufficient – or should the actual impact and scope of decisions be the criterion? In either case, politics should not be synonymous with decision-making in general. Ultimately, Greven’s conception of a ‘fundamental politicisation’ of modern society shows that an overextension of the concept of politics obscures rather than illuminates the new phenomena that the concept of subpolitics is supposed to highlight. If politics applies to all situations of decision-making, why should we bother to distinguish

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between a realm of formal politics and a realm of informal subpolitics (or between politics and anything else, for that matter)? At the rather general level of both Giddens’ and Greven’s argument, the idea that everyday life is increasingly ‘political’ lacks a clear grounding in a sociological concept of politics. If we accept that the function of politics is the capacity to provide collectively binding decisions, 7 i.e. decisions that bind both the decision-maker and a given collective (be it the state, an organisation or any other group), then the question of whether individual life decisions can be meaningfully described as ‘political’ needs more thought.8 Subpolitics and life politics – similarities and dissimilarities What Beck and Giddens agree on is first and foremost the overall analysis of modernity – not in every detail but in the overall picture of a new period of modernity, a period that entails fundamental uncertainty and contingency.9 They also agree that the transition to second or late modernity makes it necessary to adopt a broader concept of politics; one particular way in which such a broader definition of politics gains relevance is in the blend of private decisions with ‘political’ – and in that sense also public – criteria. There is also an important normative agreement. Beck’s and Giddens’ work with new concepts of politics can also be understood as a form of enlightenment (‘Aufklärung’) in the Kantian sense of the word. Giddens and Beck urge us to look for the political in places different from traditional political ones. But they want to do more than that. They also take a normative stance: they argue that only understanding those activities as being political allows us to accept the concomitant responsibility. In order to be mündig today, so to speak, one has to understand the subpolitical in everyday life. But where Giddens with his concept of life politics primarily focuses on the private life of the individual, Beck’s concept of subpolitics covers both the individual and the collective level of political activities outside the traditional political sphere. This renders Beck’s concept more useful if we want to understand non-formal forms of politics. For although life political issues can lead to collective political actions, and although a phenomenon like political consumerism – to which we will turn in the following – is exactly something which can only be understood as ‘individualised collective action’ (Micheletti, 2001), Giddens’ concept lacks a sensitivity for the rather straightforwardly collective forms of political action taking place outside the traditional political sphere, e.g. the activities of NGO’s. Taking account of social movements’ activities and other

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For the elaboration of such a functional understanding of politics see Luhmann (2000). One of the places where new concepts are being developed in order to grasp the political character of everyday life is in the relative new, poly-disciplinary research area of ‘political consumerism’. A good example of this is the Swedish-American political scientist Michele Michelettis concept of ‘individualised collective action’ (Micheletti, 2001). By this concept Micheletti tries to answer the question: ‘How can individual consumers be understood as ‘political’ consumers?’ The question of whether contingency is a general feature of modernity (Luhmann, 1992; Therborn, 1995: Ch. 1) need not concern us here for it seems that the consequences of this uncertainty have only recently achieved prominence in the general self-description of modern society.

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forms of collective political action outside the traditional political sphere as well as of individual forms, Beck’s concept of subpolitics is more comprehensive than Giddens’ concept of life politics. However, we want to argue that the aforementioned ‘two faces’ of subpolitics should be distinguished more clearly and that they involve rather different relationships to formal politics – and different forms of power. Both Beck and Giddens point out that there are new actors outside the formal political system who actively pursue a political agenda. Such actors, for instance NGOs and political consumer movements, try to effect social change by other means than the use of formal state power. Though clearly not located in the traditional political system those movements and organisations are still firmly oriented towards the political. They ‘aim to’ do politics. In contrast, the argument Beck makes with regard to corporations and professions, i.e. that they ‘illegitimately’ influence our living conditions,10 highlights that there are extra-political sources of power in modern society that run counter the assumption that the political system is at the helm of social change. On that score, it is important to stress that actors who exert those forms of power are not interested in gaining political power or ‘doing’ politics per se. Rather, they happen to do politics as it were as a side-effect. Their involvement in (sub)politics is therefore a passive one. Active subpolitics: NGOs and consumer movements The obvious, active dimension of subpolitics is most clearly visible in the manifold activities of social movements and protest groups or, to use the currently fashionable terminology, non-governmental organisations (NGOs).11 Traditionally, these groups have been discussed under the label of ‘new social movement’ theories. 12 At the time when the idea of ‘new’ social movements was formulated the novelty was seen in their addressing issues radically different from the ‘old’ agenda of labour movements. Feminism and environmentalism seemed to be more about identity, quality of life and cultural politics than about the distribution of social wealth. The new social movements were thus less interested in seizing state power than in diffusing their ideas by means of

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‘Illegitimate’ because, according to Beck, those actors are beyond democratic control. Whether it is possible – and desirable – to change this, as the derogative term suggests, is a completely different question. As Boli and Thomas (1999) demonstrate in their reconstruction of the growth of transnational (in their terms: international) non-governmental organisations, there has been a continuous expansion of both organisational structures and activities across the globe for more than a hundred years. The growth in numbers of transnational non-governmental organisations has been enormous during that period, with an especially pronounced growth since the 1970s (Smith, 1997). Currently, there are about 20,000 transnational NGOs concerned with a wide range of issues (Willetts, 1998: 200). According to one estimate, 27 per cent of these organisations are concerned with human rights issues, 14 per cent with the environment, and 10 per cent with women’s rights (Smith, 1997: 46). The new social movement approach (NSM), which was formulated in contrast to the resource mobilisation paradigm in social movement research (cf. McCarthy and Zald, 1977), stressed the role of ideology, claimsmaking and identity issues in the formation of social movements. Theorists such as Habermas (1981), Melluci (1980), Offe (1985) and Touraine (1981) argued that the relevance of these movements was related to societal changes which they discussed under the headings of ‘late capitalism’ or ‘post-industrialism’. For a review of the debate see Buechler (1995).

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innovative protest actions which challenged the established channels of formal politics (Melluci, 1980; 1989; 1996). Some theorists noted that this implied a ‘challenge to the boundaries of state politics’ (Offe, 1985). However, this claim concerned the character of new social movement activities within a nation-state context and not their boundarycrossing nature. It was hardly recognised that this was the second major novelty in social movement activities. Precisely because the issues of women’s rights, human rights and environmental protection have implications beyond national borders, movements have increasingly sought transnational connections and addressed their claims at a transnational public. Beck therefore argues that single-issue cases like the Brent Spar case or the protest against French nuclear tests in the Pacific give us an idea of the contours of a global public sphere, a Weltöffentlichkeit, and thereby the possibility of active, global subpolitics. But Beck also says that the case of Brent Spar and similar cases first and foremost are to be understood as symbols of our bad conscience, and he emphasises that this is a barrier for active subpolitics. In that sort of cases we are handed over to the symbolic politics of the media (Beck, 1997: 57). As actors in the new political culture we face a situation where private companies are competing with traditional organisations of interests, NGO’s and others to get us to buy their descriptions of reality and where all sides of the conflict claim to be ‘rationalised’ actors (see also Holzer, 2001: Ch. 6). Even though Beck thereby points to the failing transparency of the market as something which has to be taken into account, and even though he at the same time underlines that a ‘Weltöffentlichkeit’ only reveals itself in single-issue cases, he is still positive in his judgement of the Brent Spar case and similar boycott cases. Based on the cumulated successes of ‘single issue’ campaigns, he argues, the ‘global civil society realises its direct power’ (Beck, 1997: 60-61). Undoubtedly, the aim of transnational social movements is to influence politics – though not necessarily via party politics and the state. The most obvious manifestations of such activities are spectacular (and short lived) events such as the boycott campaigns mentioned above. Beyond these direct confrontations, however, the influence of social movements lies in their ability to relate their topics and agenda to the everyday life of supporters – in other words, to relate them to the ‘life politics’ of individuals.13 Consumers who through their shopping actively try to gain influence on their own lifeconditions and on the life-conditions of others have been referred to as political consumers (IFF and ELSAM, 1996). A political consumer can be defined as a consumer who in her shopping is guided by conscious attitudes towards the community. Via a double strategy that implies actively choosing and refusing (boycotting) certain goods the political consumer tries to change or maintain her own life-conditions and the lifeconditions of others. Surveys have shown that about 30% of the Danish consumers
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This has also been a much discussed topic of NSM theories which contend that these movements have actualised and mobilised the ‘identities’ of movement participants much more than earlier social movements. See also Hellman (1996).

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could be characterised as political consumers (IFF and ELSAM, 1996; but also IFKA, 1996; Vilstrup, 1997; Mandag Morgen, 1995). If we look at how the political consumer judges her own consumption then a survey made by the Institute for Future Studies (IFF) and Greens Institute of Analyses showed that 40% of the political consumers think that political consumption is a good way of gaining political influence (IFF and ELSAM, 1996: 117). This survey also shows that the respondents as a hole judge the political influence they can get through their shopping as being at the same level or even a little bit above the level of other unorganised ways of political participation as for example work in a grassrootsorganisation or participation in a manifestation (IFF/ELSAM, 1996: 116). The survey demonstrates furthermore that Ulrich Beck’s prediction that in the future companies must legitimise their activities directly in a new kind of ‘public sphere of consumers’ is very much in line with what many Danish consumers already think. 25% of the people in the survey accordingly said that they believe that ‘companies should have visibly attitudes towards fundamental political questions’ (IFF/ELSAM, 1996: 117). It must be described as a remarkably high number of people when it is taken into account that the techno-economic sphere is supposedly based upon non-legitimisation. Of equal if not even higher significance for corporations is the emergence of ‘political’ or, as it is usually referred to, ‘ethical investment’. The increasing importance of funds advocating environmental, ethical and social principles puts further pressure on corporations to improve their respective record (cf. Gray, Bebbington and Walters, 1993: Ch. 10). For most large companies, it is less the financial power of such funds than the potential publicity resulting from a decision to invest or divest that may trouble corporations; for such a decision may not only affect financial markets but customers as well. Taken together, political consumerism and political investment are relatively powerful subpolitical levers. Though no one actually ‘controls’ them it is nonetheless obvious that protest groups can wield power to the extent that they are able to mobilise such preferences and dispositions. Therefore the challenge this form of subpolitics poses for some economic agents should not be underestimated. Passive subpolitics: politics as a side-effect In addition to the publicly visible face of active subpolitics, there is another, more clandestine form of ‘passive’ subpolitics. It refers to those cases which are ‘political’ in the form of a side-effect of an otherwise non-political action or decision. In the Risk Society Beck illustrates this kind of subpolitics with the example of the medical profession. Along with advances in technology, hitherto unknown therapies, diagnostics and options emerge. With regard to new possibilities of genetic diagnostics and therapy, for instance, regulatory politics appears to be inevitably ‘lagging behind’. Since politics has to start from the decisions already made in the professional realm (first of all because politics often lacks the expertise to make any decision at such an early stage), the professions thus force politics to accept their decisions as unalterable premises for its own decision-making. In that sense, they do of course prejudge political decisions. However, this does not mean that scientists purposely try to make politics. It is just

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something that happens, as a side-effect as it were! The researchers involved in ‘the Human Genome Project’, for instance, are not driven by the desire to set a new political agenda. A side-effect of their research is, however, that they will inevitably change the living conditions for millions of people throughout the world. Their activities in the laboratories should therefore, according to Beck, be characterised as subpolitics. A similar example may be taken from the economic sphere: industrial production and investment decisions may have a deep yet often unnoticed impact on people’s lives. This applies both to their intended consequences, e.g. regarding employment opportunities and tax payments, and to their occasional and unwanted side-effects, e.g. regarding accidents and pollution. The decision-making processes of corporations are of course not subject to democratic procedures or public participation (and if they were we would of course have to bear the side-effects of such an arrangement!). Neither are their benefits distributed among the population (and their shareholders would certainly object to that). Yet the side-effects of their operations, the externalities of production, must be borne by society at large. Of course there are limits to this particular form of ‘influence on people’s living conditions’ since the side-effects of industrial production are reined in by state regulation. Following John Dewey’s argument we may say that the state is first and foremost an agency that addresses – and temporally resolves – the problem of side-effects.14 If, however, the side-effects and harmful consequences of production transgress state boundaries the case is entirely different. In that case the structuring of living conditions by distant decisions and operations may be considered illegitimate – a case of subpolitics from outside, as it were.15 In addition to transgressing political boundaries, side-effects crosscut institutional boundaries qua ‘overflowing’ (Callon, 1998). This is the case if property is not only used as an indicator of disposability of capital but also as one of political power. We are less interested in the most obvious form this may take, i.e. if property is intentionally used for political purposes. There is a common sense and legal vocabulary for this – the one of corruption – that ensures that this sort of boundary-crossing remains ephemeral. It is therefore an important yet entirely unspectacular phenomenon for it runs directly counter the differentiation of modern society and is therefore suppressed by legal and institutional arrangements. If on the other hand, however, the use of property only results in politics as a side-effect these precautions do not hold. This happens if economic wealth is used to establish a potential for negative sanctions. While corruption still is a case of positive sanctions (someone gets paid for doing something), the mobilisation of economic resources to influence a political community, for instance
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‘When indirect consequences are recognized and there is effort to regulate them, something having the traits of a state comes into existence.’ (Dewey, 1946: 12) More generally speaking, corporations exert power on the basis of their economic wealth. It goes without saying that this power must be considered as legitimate in a liberal social order since it is based upon property. Property as such does not depend on legitimacy – for it is a mechanism of legitimation itself. If legitimacy may be understood as a form of taken-for-granted consensus, property ensures that a certain consensus regarding the disposition of things can be taken for granted. Or, as Luhmann puts it: ‘The meaning of property lies in suspending the need for consensus. The success of certain communications depends on the agreement of the owner and on no one else.’ (Luhmann, 1993: 454)

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through the threat of relocating industrial production, works through negative sanctions. In that case, we are faced with subpolitics. Precisely for the proliferation of the latter the function of property seems to be under increasing pressure. As mentioned above, Beck predicts that in the years to come a new political culture will demand that the techno-economic sphere legitimises the crucial changes of our living conditions that it creates. Thus the direction and results of technological change come under pressure for legitimation to a previously unknown degree. Economic action acquires a new political and moral dimension, which had seemed alien to it: ‘the devil of the economy has to sprinkle itself with the holy water of public morality’ (Beck, 1986: 305). There is indeed evidence that such a development is gaining relevance – in particular when it comes to the transnational consequences of industrial production. From a global perspective, transnational corporations are confronted with the problem of diverse and often contradictory legal frameworks and societal expectations. Therefore, the need for ‘legitimation’ – in the sense of a public display of good intentions to a transnational audience – becomes more and more acute (for the example of Royal Dutch/Shell and other TNCs see Holzer, 2001). In the latter development we can observe how the dynamics of active and passive subpolitics intertwine. The clandestine operation of passive subpolitics provides the impetus and the agenda for the active subpolitics of social movements: protest groups challenge what they perceive as the illegitimate imposition of side-effects on society. In so doing, however, they do not protest the fact that scientists’ or corporations’ decisions are ‘political’. Rather, it is the relationship of those actions to specific forms of power which the criticism revolves around. In the final section of this paper we will now briefly address the relationship between power and subpolitics. The power of subpolitics: coping with contingency Much of the current debate about subpolitics revolves around the question of whether phenomena like green consumerism and ethical investment as well as the economic power of TNCs should be regarded as ‘political’. The aim of such discussions usually is to either show why those activities are political (and therefore: interesting) or why they are not political (and therefore: not that interesting after all). But perhaps this way of structuring the debate is fundamentally misleading. In contrast to a common prejudice that associates ‘political’ with ‘important’, quite the opposite should be the starting point of analysis: in the first place, it is interesting to understand why the phenomena under consideration are not political – and nonetheless of societal and sociological relevance. We take it that this is also the point of departure of Beck’s analysis. For what he is concerned about is that societal change takes place ‘in the form of the nonpolitical’ (Beck, 1986: 303). In order to draw attention to this fact, he introduces the term subpolitics – but precisely to emphasise the difference of subpolitics from formal politics. It is therefore questionable whether a discussion about the ‘political’ character of subpolitics actually serves the purpose. Maybe we should rather continue the debate

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in the opposite direction – and elaborate the ways in which forms of power in fields different from politics are essentially non-political and therefore even more important.16 An entry point for such a discussion could be to have a closer look at the different kinds of power and influence that the phenomena discussed so far are based upon. To that purpose we may distinguish between three forms of power: uncertainty absorption, positive sanctions, and negative sanctions. 17 To begin with the last form, the employment of (or rather the threat with) negative sanctions, which is the most obvious way in which power may be exercised. It is also, so to speak, the most powerful and direct. It enables the ‘power holder’ to structure a social situation so as to define the future in terms of a desired course of action and an alternative, undesired option (Vermeidungsalternative). The possible yet undesired alternative needs to be known and undesired by both sides of the power relationship: neither side wants it to happen. But of course, the power holder should have less problems if it actually does happen (Luhmann, 1988; 2000: Kap. 2). With regard to subpolitics, negative sanctions do not seem to be of paramount importance. They are of course relevant for some forms of active subpolitics (e.g. consumer boycotts) and for the power play between corporations and the state (e.g. in the form of threats of withdrawing investments). In both cases, however, the negative sanctions are ‘parasitic’ upon a prior allocation of positive sanctions: consumers refuse to buy a brand or a product that they used to buy; TNCs threaten to withdraw investments and wages from an area where people used to receive those benefits. This form of subpolitics qua negative sanctions thus depends on a longer history, an established relationship between societal actors. It is powerful, highly visible – and rather demanding. In contrast, positive sanctions may be employed quite spontaneously. All they require are resources – usually economic ones – that can be deployed to reward a specific behaviour. Thus consumers or investors can use their financial resources to acquire products or shares that they regard as compatible with their environmental, religious or moral preferences. To see those activities as positive sanctions immediately points out the difficulties of this form of subpolitics: the sanctions must be ‘positive’, i.e. large enough, to warrant a change or at least a confirmation of behaviour. This may result either from an aggregation of individual preferences and decisions or from the fact that other actors anticipate the possibility of positive sanctions and therefore actively seek to achieve them. For instance, companies may see the existence of ‘green consumers’, ‘ethical consumers’ and so on as a market opportunity and thus decide to provide the range of products and services they demand. To sum up, subpolitics qua positive sanctions is less direct but also less conflictual: it may be perceived as an opportunity for ‘win-win strategies’.
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This also corresponds much better with Beck’s general argument concerning a Funktionsverlust of the political system. Such an argument requires that we are able to show that non-political forms of power are relevant to society as a whole. These forms draw on a systems-theoretical concept of influence (Luhmann, 2000: 41ff.). Luhmann reserves the term ‘power’ for a more restricted range of phenomena. In the present context, however, such a differentiation is not necessary and we thus use influence and power interchangeably.

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The least obvious and clandestine, but therefore maybe most interesting way in which influence may be exercised is by means of what so-called ‘uncertainty absorption’. The term was coined in organisation theory and refers to situations in which ‘inferences are drawn from a body of evidence and the inferences, instead of the evidence itself, are then communicated’ (March and Simon, 1958: 165). Those who are recognised as ‘uncertainty absorbers’ command high authority and usually are in a position of privileged access to information. Evidently, this is the case for scientists working in highly technical and new fields like human genetics. By the very nature of their subject matter, they will be able to impose their definition of reality on others – including actors in the political system. To some extent, politics cannot help to rely on the uncertainty absorption provided by scientists, engineers and their representatives, e.g. professions. It is important to understand the influence that the function of uncertainty absorption has on politics and on society at large. Beck has rightly emphasised the lack of understanding regarding those phenomena. Their relevance, however, seems to lie precisely in their essentially non-political character. Conclusion We have argued that we must differentiate between two kinds of subpolitics in order to highlight two similar but at the same time very different phenomena that Beck treats under the label of subpolitics. On the one side Beck refers to non-formal – i.e. noninstitutionalised – forms of politics where politics is the goal of the actions (e.g. activity of NGO’s). We have suggested that we call this kind of subpolitics ‘active subpolitics’. On the other side Beck also discusses how medical science, economic agents and other non-political forces influence our common living conditions and therefore should be seen as (sub)politics. We agree and have above suggested that we name this kind of subpolitics ‘passive subpolitics’ in order to highlight its indirect and accidental character – in other words: in order to see it as ‘(sub)politics as a side-effect’. In order to adequately understand the significance of subpolitics in general – and of its passive variant in particular – we consider it necessary to go beyond a debate that revolves around the question of what politics is. To this purpose, we suggested an elaboration of the concept of subpolitics in terms of its societal impact via different, not necessarily political forms of influence. The question of whether such forms of power, and forms of ‘uncertainty absorption’ in particular, could or should become political, and whether that would mean to subject them so some form of democratic control is beyond the scope of this essay. But it certainly deserves discussion.

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