‘Informal life politics’: empowering people towards positive social change

16 April 2018

This week marks the end of the ARC Laureate Project ‘Informal Life Politics’ led by Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki. The Laureate is the crowning achievement of her many years of research and teaching.

At the recent conference ‘Living Politics: Self-help and autonomous action in East Asia and Beyond’ scholars gathered to rethink the boundaries of the ‘political, and explored innovative and autonomous ways in which people in the region collaborate to solve challenges which conventional political systems fail to address.

The launch of the book ‘The Living Politics of Self Help Movements in East Asia’, co-authored by Tom Cliff and Shuge Wei, was launched by Professor Hyaeweol Choi at the conference. Professor Choi gave an incisive commentary and reflection of the research of the book and the research. The following is an excerpt of her remarks.

“We are living in a world that is increasingly marked by a conservative, almost reactionary political, economic and cultural environment. We have seen a “dramatic upsurge of populism,” a rapid decline in democratic procedures, a widening gap between the rich and the poor, the disregard for human rights, the degradation of the environment, the proliferation of right-wing rhetoric and activism against social justice and the prevalence of neoliberal arrangements throughout the world.

“‘The Living Politics of Self Help Movements in East Asia’ presents a new way of being political. In contrast to the conventional notion of politics, which refers to formal institutions, like political parties and parliaments, the book explores innovative, alternative and empowering ways for people to engage in politics.

“A key concept in this book is “informal life politics,” which serves as an analytical lens for investigating historical and contemporary examples that show “the hidden, less-known faces of politics in daily life” led by grassroots people in their pursuit of a good and virtuous life.

“Informal life politics is characterized by four key components.

"Improvisation: in the face of specific, imminent, local challenges that threaten basic survival, people organize themselves through spontaneous ideas and plans of action firmly “grounded in everyday life”. Rather than being controlled by a strong leader with a singular idea, informal life politics unfold with flexible, fluctuating or sometimes conflicting ideas. The essence here is spontaneity, creativity, flexibility and openness that allow people to explore, test and revise ideas and strategies in the process of tackling concerned issues.

“Imagination: in the era in which there are no clear alternatives “to an all-encompassing global capitalist system,” informal life politics is ultimately a pursuit of “everyday utopias” that are firmly based on very real, concrete everyday environment but are imagined as a little closer to a desirous world. Given the extraordinarily complex and intersecting global capitalist system that affects literally everyone everywhere, it is very easy to feel powerless and give up. This book captures remarkable examples of “informal life politics” in which small groups of ordinary people imagined a better world and took concrete actions to achieve that imagination despite all kinds of barriers. The interplay between ideas and action is one of the most powerful features of informal life politics.

“Small Scale: Unlike formal political practices, informal life politics is practiced on a small scale that allows participants to look after each other and to “experiment with new ideas without the risk of catastrophe in case of failure”; While small in scale, informal life politics makes connections beyond the boundaries of specific society and time”; people draw ideas from philosophies, historical precedents, and models from different regions and countries and connect local members with people and experiences elsewhere.

“Non-violence: Informal life politics tackle all kinds of physical and symbolic violence through non-violent strategies. The ultimate aim of informal life politics is “to defend life and livelihood.” Thus it’s about creation and construction of alternative living in an increasingly dangerous, unequal and invasive world.

“In the end, the book seems to propose a radical shift from “the bigger, the better” to “the smaller, the informal, the better.” Throughout history, there have been many Great revolutions (Russian Revolution, Cultural Revolution, Islamic Revolution), but the authors of the book show us examples of multiple little, informal, invisible revolutions from the grassroots to secure basic humanity and livelihood.

“Informal life politics is the politics of care ( rather than self-interest). It is the politics of compassion for others (rather than dominance over). It is the politics of mutuality (rather than me only). It is the politics of preservation (rather than consumption and exhaustion). Above all, informal life politics presented in this book is ultimately the politics of hope, potential and possibilities in creating a better community and the world.”

Professor Morris-Suzuki will continue her work at CHL as an Emeritus Professor. Her next project is Long Journey Home: The Repatriation of Indigenous Remains Across the Frontiers of Asia and the Pacific, in collaboration with the National Museum of Australia and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies (ANU).

Purchase Living Politics of Self help Movements in East Asia.

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Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team