Follow-up Discussion – ‘Survival Politics in East Asia Conference’



Thinking Differently

Shuge Wei

“We are studying about losers,” Prof. Chung concluded, when he was asked to give a final remark about our workshop on “Survival Politics in East Asia.” Laughter burst out among the audience, indicating a mixture of feelings of doubt, self-amusement and inability to deny the element of truth in it. Indeed, success and failure depend on the criteria. Most of the grassroots activists discussed during the workshop are non-privileged groups without direct access to financial resources or political power. Yet what characterizes them even more strongly is their denial of the established political, economic and cultural structures, and their desire to make a change even though the chance of winning is small. They extract themselves out of the conventional system by escaping from cities (Ou Ning) and converting to a different worldview (Shoko’s animism case). As Tom commented in his presentation, escaping itself was a form of resistance. In a way, the grassroots activists are “losers” from the start, since they never have an interest in and intention to subject themselves to the conventional system nor to play with the rules set up by someone who aspires power rather than justice. They “lose” not because they score less, but because they refuse to play the game. When the majority follows the tide and by doing so reinforces the mainstream, there are others who dare to say “no” and work out their own ways. There is always a certain level of “deviation” embedded in the individuals or groups we examine. Maybe it is more accurate to say that we are studying about “eccentrics” who think differently from the majority. And we are trying to discern how they perceive what the right order of life should be.

Yet cases presented during the workshop suggest that being eccentric is difficult. It takes some sense of adventure to become an activist. There are no set formula or examples to follow; fears about dissidents are great in certain societies where suppression or persecution is common; and there is always the promise of certainty that lures the eccentric back to the conventional system. By deviating from the convention, those activists throw themselves into an unknown world, where hope is the motivation to keep experimenting with risks.

What the grassroots activists are trying to achieve is usually very specific. Even if they might start from a grand plan, what they eventually aim for is merely to survive the movement (Tom’s case) and take care of the locals (Tessa, Wuqi, Yonjae, and Ou Ning’s cases). While they detest the hierarchical structure and the corruption as a result of it, they also suffer from the inability to handle a large scale event as they follow anarchist principles. In a democracy, a large number of supporters do matter, as they offer the primary legitimacy for a change of policy. That is why the limit of grassroots movements have been brought up several times during panel discussions and round table talks. Cho-han believes that “success and failure” do not matter but the process itself does. Simon suggests that if there is no obvious evidence of the efficacy of a social movement, it is valid to ask what the case would be without such an effort. Non-development in a way is already a form of progress, because things could otherwise get even worse.



Opening Your Eyes to Politics

Tom Cliff

The conference brought together a diverse array of scholars and practitioners involved in some way with movements for social change. The scope of the conference was broad, so as to allow the identification and discussion of what we call Informal Life Politics movements (including their histories, actions, and objectives) without limiting what was discussed to examples that precisely fitted an ideal notion of Informal Life Politics. Those practising an ideal notion of Informal Life Politics do not, for example, appeal for state intervention in order to solve the problems and challenges that they face. Rather, they attempt to solve the problems themselves. The conference underlined how groups that we identify as practising Informal Life Politics often, if not always, have engaged or do engage with the state on some level. That is to say, Informal Life Politics actions are intimately interwoven with more formal political practices.

By incorporating empirical studies of what may not superficially fit the strict
definition of Informal Life Politics, the conference demonstrated that Informal Life Politics can be found in many different situations, practised by diverse types of people who are all unaware of each other, and be backed or driven by wildly varying ideologies. A brief but important discussion arose around the perception and assessment of whether a given group can be called successful or not. This led to a discussion about the terms of success – is success the attainment of a particular objective, or is it something more subtle, for example? A blind intervention by a narrator of the film Precipitations provided a significant response to this question. The narrator was talking about process and involvement in alternative politics at the bottom end of Hong Kong. He described how the group he was involved with tried to imagine alternative politics through reading and discussing, and through living their lives in alternative ways. These practices did not necessarily change the direction of 2 Hong Kong, writ large, but they were successful in his terms because they got people active and raised awareness. Implying the political apathy of a workaday existence, he ended with a somewhat weary exhortation to “wake up… At least wake up.” In politics, process itself is an outcome.



A Reflection on Survival Politics in East Asia: Socio-Environmental Crises and Grassroots Responses

Eun Jeong Soh

Summing up the cases presented in the conference, I observe the following commonalities in grassroots responses to social challenges.

First, grassroots responses find legitimacy in their “proximity” to the existential threats. This proximity differentiates grassroots responses from perceptions and interests of a larger scale entity, i.e. the state and the government. A crisis enlarges differences between local and state-centric perception of threats. “Grassroots” responses are rooted in local perceptions of threats, though these responses are collaborative and constructed efforts involving interactions of various actors, including external and elite actors. These are constructed responses in a sense that the responses involve uncovering local knowledge of historical experience, presenting to the outside world the local understanding of the nature, culture and identity, reinterpretation of human conditions, and application of religious and philosophical ideals to a local context. Researchers play an interactive role in this constructive process. By enlarging and contrasting the difference between grassroots responses and governmental responses, they challenge the totalitarian nature of governmentality under all forms of governments.

Second, therefore, researchers study the processes of how various actors put together these collaborative and constructed responses. In the cases presented in the conference, the processes include: meaning-making and restoring justice, overcoming isolation of the locality, strengthening, reviving and promoting local identity and culture, knowledge formation, solidarity formation, linking the past to the present and the future, identifying one’s existence with that of others, challenging the dominant culture and raising consciousness, and more. The processes essentially require cooperative and conflictual interactions among various actors involved, and there seems to be a need for greater understanding of the processes.

Third, these interactive processes create spaces that are transgressive of governmentality. This space may be community economies, small cohesive self-help communities bounded by philosophical and religious values, and transnational networks of shared identity and values. ILP is different from past social movements in a shift of focus from directly challenging the authority and the dominant culture to discovering one (self)’s connectedness to others, community, and to the nature. This is an effort to overcome atomization of self. It is simultaneously a response to formal politics that have become void of and distant from life and living. ILP puts the scale of politics back into scales that better accommodate self’s connectedness to others. Therefore, ILP is a community-building exercise, and it has implications to the existing communities including national communities, i.e. disassociation from national communities. The existing or past social movements may not have disappeared but may have become embedded in new types of smaller scale movements of community-building.

The role of the researchers in studying Informal Life Politics may be multifaceted. Katherine Gibson identifies a number of roles: recovery of lost history, story-telling, inventory mapping, and action research. A key challenge to the researchers would be acquiring depth in understanding the concerns and perceptions of the grassroots movement actors and presenting them to the outside audience in meaningful ways. I foresee three potential tasks for researchers: (1) to build typologies and idea types of Informal Life Politics, (2) to compare evolution of social movements in Japan, Korea and China with a focus on ILP, and (3) to identify how ILP spaces challenge governmental politics, policies and governance objectives in general. By doing so, researchers should contribute to re-covering of autonomy of self and communities.



Questioning my “zero presence” in the field


Number of activists came to our international conference “Survival Politics in East Asia: Socio-Environmental Crises and Grassroots Responses”. One of them is Ms Arahmaiani Feisal. Her activities of picking up trash in the Tibetan Plateau have gradually brought a change in the relationship between the local residents and the local environment. The other activist is Mr Ou Ning. In a small village of Anhui prefecture in China, he is realizing his rural construction by range of activities, such as hosting a stall Film Festival and opening a library. Through these activities, Ou Ning deeply involved in the villagers life. Their activities in the field/village made me rethinking my relationship to the field, where I doing case-studies as a researcher.

It is clear that activists and researchers are different in relation to the field. Activists are practicing their own ideas in the “real world/field”. While practice, they observe how locals think about their activities, and how their activities bring any changes to the local life and politics. Changing the field/village is the ultimate goal of activists. In contrast, although researchers do have their own fields/village but they often keep a distance from the field. For example, my field is in a small village in Inner Mongolia. However, to actively participate in changing the local realities is not my work. The “correct” way to do my fieldwork is to observe what happens in my field, and to collect academically valuable data. For me, as a researcher, having zero presence in the field which is a kind of success in terms of never bring trouble to the field/village. However, for activists it would never be the case.

On the other hand, from the last century, researchers already started thinking about that the possibilities of beyond boundaries between activists and academia. Ian Maxey, the author of “Beyond boundaries? Activism, academia, reflexivity and research” (Area 1999.31.3:199-208), points out that “we are in a sense all activists, as we are all engaged in producing the world. Reflexivity enables us to place ourselves actively within this process”(Ian 1999: 201). If we agree with Ian’s idea of that we are all activists, so, I should questioning my “zero presence” in the field.



Drawing the boundaries of informal life politics

Yonjae Paik

First of all, I would like to summarise the previous discussion on the concept of informal life politics (hereafter ILP)[1] based on Tessa’s view. Although each member should have his/her own definition of ILP that best reflects the uniqueness of individual cases, I would like to use Tessa’s view as the common ground for a collective theory-building process.

The (Ongoing) Evolution of Informal Life PoliticsIn 2011, ARC Proposal Informal life politics is “…a more specific form of transgressive action, which occurs where non-elite groups feel that their health or livelihoods are imperilled by official policies, and respond by taking the tasks of self-protection into their own hands.”In 2014, ‘Invisible Politics“By ‘informal life politics’, I mean groups who are impelled by threats to their life, livelihood or cultural survival to engage in self-help, non-governmental forms of politics.” (p. 58)

In 2014, ILP Workshop
“So – in informal life politics, members of a commonalty take action to influence their own collected future by direct action outside the framework of formal political institutions. This often relies heavily on informal choice making, and it involves making and implementing choices through discussion and negotiation rather than by violence. For all of these reasons, informal life politics tends to be fairly small in scale: it is difficult to make and implement choices informally and through discussion if very large groups of people are involved.”

In 2015, ‘Living Politics
“Their living politics is an act of collected self-protection – often an act of desperation – in the face of the profound deficits of institutional politics.” (p. 6)

 While this summary does not include all key terms related to ILP, the themes of the last conference’s presentations seem to resonate with certain features of ILP. For example, people’s use of networks rather than an organisation, and local self-help activities in the face of state’s incompetence or deliberate inactivity, and the creation of alternative knowledge and norms that transgress the state’s official reality were among the themes that repeatedly arose during the conference. On the one hand, the conference showed that the concept of ILP has great potential as a platform to explain the political nature of various grassroots activities in East Asia. On the other hand, its flexibility sometimes blurs the boundary between ILP and existing concepts and makes it hard for general readers to grasp ILP’s main point. Overall, further elaboration on this new concept of ILP seems necessary, and I would like to share my interpretation of ILP using Kojin Karatani’s concept of association.[2]

 The political nature of ILP

My starting point is to ask what makes people’s self-help activities political (and in what sense). Previously, our discussion focused on the domination of state politics in defining politics, and tried to restore the space for non-governmental politics.[3] The reason why self-help activities can be interpreted as political is because they have a transgressive nature. If this is so, how can these activities be transgressive if they are not directed towards state politics (especially when the state or its absence caused the crisis) while they keep their activities grounded in their everyday lives and livelihoods rather than, say, government offices or street marches? In short, borrowing Rancière’s words, can people’s self-help activities be transgressive when ‘the voiceless’ do not seek to be heard?

 As an answer to the question, I rely on Karatani’s concept of association to argue that there is an intrinsic conflict between ILP’s self-help communities and state politics. According to Karatani, an association refers to a social formation that is counteractive to the capitalist social formation, which he defines as the complex of the nation, the state, and capital.[4] More specifically, an association is counteractive to capital (and the nation state which upholds the capitalist order) as it tries to restore reciprocal exchanges within a community.[5] An association enforces reciprocal modes of exchanges, while a capitalist state enforces the combined modes of exchanges – the state’s redistribution and capital’s commoditised exchanges.[6]

 What is important in the East Asian context is that the countries in this region share similar experiences, with similar timing, of colonisation, modernisation, industrialisation, and globalisation. The competition[7] among the new post-colonial East Asian nation states through the Cold War period contributed to maximising the state’s mobilisation power, as demonstrated by the similarity of national campaigns in different countries, such as the Great Leap Forward, the Chollima Movement, and the New Village Movement. In that process, nationalism realigned the existing order at the community level, by replacing reciprocity within the community with reciprocity between the nation and the individual.

 Another important point is that the state in East Asia is deeply imbedded in the economy. State intervention in the economy and in people’s self-help activities existed prior to the creation of the nation state. However, through state-driven economic development projects, such as five-year economic development plans, East Asian countries have intervened in the (re-)distribution of resources to maximise the nations’ wealth.[8] Whether a country is now capitalistic or not, the history of national economic mobilisation means that economic reciprocity at the community level has been interfered with by the state to a great extent in this region. Overall, the self-help activities that we witness in East Asian countries are unique because of the previous dissolution of traditional communities during the rapid growth of the nation states.

 Therefore, I argue that the self-help communities in ILP cases are equivalent to Karatani’s association in terms of restoring the reciprocity at the community level that had been destroyed by the state. Within a capitalist nation state, the reciprocal relationship between an individual and the nation overrides the relationships in sub-national communities. Also, the modes of exchange are defined and enforced by the state. However, the self-help activities in ILP are different from general communal activities because they originate from the state’s failure to meet people’s expectations of reciprocity.[9] Their transgressive nature – which makes these activities political – lies in the fact that self-help activities happen as an effort of individuals to escape from their bilateral relationship with the state.

[1] Provisionally, I continue to use the term ILP rather than ‘survival politics’ or ‘living politics’. At the roundtable, Prof. Katherine Gibson raised a question about whether the binary division between formal and informal politics might instantly lead to the domination of formal politics in the discourse. However, my opinion is that the binary division and the sense of domination provide a better explanation of the project’s stance of reflecting the views of the dominated.

[2] Kojin Karatani. (2006). Sekai kyōwakoku e: shihon nēshon kokka o koete [世界共和国へ, Toward the world republic], Iwanami Shoten. An article that summarises his ideas in English is also available: Karatani, K. (2008). ‘Beyond capital-nation-state’, Rethinking Marxism, 20(4): 569–595.

[3] Definitions of politics may have been narrowed down to state politics not because political discourse came to focus on state politics, but because other politics disappeared. That is, changes in the definition of politics may faithfully reflect reality rather than distorting it.

[4] Although not all of the countries in our project are capitalist countries, it is still important to remember that the nation state regulates the mode of exchange within the territory even in non-capitalist countries.

[5] Here I use the term ‘community’ as a tentative translation of 共同體 in Korean and Japanese.

[6] Karatani argues that associationism was proposed by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Karl Marx, despite the common understanding of Marx as the founder of communism, was an associationist. Karatani suggests that anarchist movements and cooperative movements are practices of associationism. This may explain (1) the boom of anarchism in the late 19th century in Japan, Korea, and China, and (2) the decline of cooperative movements under authoritarian regimes in Korea and China.

[7] Karatani also suggests that a nation state is not created spontaneously from a community, but by the emergence of other nation states.

[8] As for capitalist nation states (e.g. Japan, Korea, and Taiwan), according to Karatani, economic activities through market exchanges happen outside the community because reciprocity is the mode of exchange within the community. Therefore, the expansion of the market economy (just like the expansion of nation states) is likely to indicate the decline of community.

[9] People’s responses to the state’s breach of reciprocity may appear in many different ways other than self-help activities. Self-help activities can be chosen by a specific community, or forced upon a community when all other modes are unavailable. The relatively small size and unorganised nature of the self-help community in ILP can be considered to be related to the community’s motivation to choose self-help activities.


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