The Care of the Common: Politics in an Age of Uncertainty

The Care of the Common:

Politics in an Age of Uncertainty

Hans Sluga


We are standing today on the edge of a cliff and notice the ground before us falling away: we see an uncontrolled growth of world population, a quickly disintegrating environment, the accumulations of resources in the hands of the few, the cynical transfer of powers from the state to private interests, an unstable shifting of weights from one side of the globe to another, education swamped by ever more ruthless varieties of entertainment, the academy divesting itself of its erstwhile humanism, philosophy abandoned as a luxury we can do without. These and other such signs alert us to the precariousness of our condition – an uncertainty that manifests itself in all walks of life but not least in the political arena.

At a moment like ours, when the political institutions are mutating or coming apart or when we despair of them for some reason, the question of the meaning of politics, of its bearing on who we are, the question of our concept and conception of the political becomes inevitable and urgent. Our greatest political dilemma today is certainly not what party to vote for or what cause to espouse, but why, when, to what extent, and how we should engage ourselves at all in political matters. This uncertainty manifests itself in the rampant apathy that is now affecting all democratic societies, in the unwillingness or inability of citizens to decide political questions and the resulting split between opposing political forces – their even balance not an indicator of political maturity wisdom but of the randomness of our decision-making. We waiver between the thought that politics can be left to the professionals at the upper levels of government and the realization that it may call for everybody’s active engagement. In short, our concept of the political has come apart and with it the sense we once had of what our role might be in the political order.

Our conception of politics was once built securely on the institutions of government and the state. Politics, so Plato and Aristotle taught us, is the rule of the polis or, as we learned, it is government of the state. But it is precisely the institutions of government and the state that have become problematic for us – their identity no longer quite determinate and their legitimation no longer assured. In the face of this situation we ask ourselves: can we recover a sense of politics, a concept of the political without presupposing from the start the existence and legitimacy of the old institutional order? This is, indeed, what some political thinkers have been asking themselves in the course of the last seventy-five years or so, most prominent among them Carl Schmitt in his indispensable essay on “The Concept of the Political” and subsequently Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault in various writings. To this end Schmitt sought to show that all our political terms are constructed on a basic friend-enemy distinction, Arendt that the concept of the political coincides with that of action in which we freely reveal ourselves to each other in the public arena, and Foucault that politics is to be grasped as a system of circulating power-relations. Are such characterizations, however, adequate, we are forced to ask. Each of them provides, no doubt, some illumination of what politics is about, but it must be said that none of them generates a viable concept of the political. Schmitt’s formula fails to provide any direct positive meaning to the interactions of those who recognize each other as political friends. Arendt separates free action so sharply from the satisfaction of basic and persistent human needs that politics threatens to turn into something of a philosophical extravagance. Foucault, finally, sees human beings so entirely in the grip of power relations that the space for political action is reduced to the unexplained hope that power always permits resistance.

It appears that we cannot attain a fully satisfactory concept of the political along the lines these authors suggest. Even so, there is much we can learn from them. They show us, in particular, that there are two distinct ways of understanding politics. The first is to conceive it in terms of an institutional order and its operation, the second is to think of it dynamically as a process that may or may not issue in an institutional arrangement. Our traditional concept of the political is certainly of the former kind and our traditional political philosophizing is, therefore, characteristically always a philosophy of the polis or the state and more generally a philosophy of institutional and structural order. The political philosopher undertakes, for instance, the description of the organs of a political system, the classification of its inhabitants, He charts maps of hierarchical structures of offices and office holders; or he formulates normative political principles, considers the structure of the arguments to support them, and lays out the proper order of their application. One typical concern for such a philosophizing is the classification of possible forms of government and the question which of them is to be considered the best. Plato’s and Aristotle’s political writings are certainly full of this kind of consideration and in our time Rawls may be considered a sophisticated representative of such a institutional, structural, static, and statist understanding of politics. Schmitt, Arendt, and Foucault, on the other hand, do not take any institutional order for granted. They say for that reason almost nothing about the possible forms of government and about which of them might be preferable and they also do not try to understand politics in terms of a fixed, normative structure. For Schmitt the fundamental political phenomenon is, rather, an act of decision, for Arendt it is an act of mutual recognition, for Foucault it is a set of power relations or, as he also says later on, it is action directed at other action. Political philosophy becomes for Schmitt and Arendt (as well as for the later Foucault) thus part of the theory of action. They propose a dynamic and activist account of the nature of politics. But when it comes to saying precisely what makes an action political action, these three seem to lose their footing. Is political action always and fundamentally of the nature of decision-making, as Schmitt maintains? Are all and only acts of mutual public self-revelation genuinely political in character, as Arendt has it? Does the formula that power is action directed upon action capture what is essential to politics? We must ask, above all, whether Schmitt’s, Arendt’s, and Foucault’s proposals are sufficiently strong to displace the traditional concept of the political. And recognizing that they may not, we must, so it seems, dig deeper than they have done.

Our challenge is whether we can give voice to an activist concept of the political in which political action can be seen to have a positive meaning, in which politics in grounded in need, and from which we can see how the possibility of political action arises and why it can be more than resistance to power. My suggestion is that we turn back at this point to a much older way of thinking about politics – the one from which Plato originally derived the now standard but also now moribund conception of politics as rule of the polis or government of the state. In the dialogue we know as The Statesman Plato refers us to the idea that politics might first of all be conceived as the care of the common, the epimeleia koinonias or alternatively the epimeleia tou koinou. This formula he had previously attributed to Protagoras in the dialogue named after the famous sophist. The formula may, in fact, be much older and linked to the rise of Greek democracy. Plato makes Protagoras, indeed, use that formula to justify Athenian democracy. We may speculate even that the formula constitutes the first philosophical or pre-philosophical attempt to capture the essence of politics which appeared in the period and the context of Pre-Socratic Greek thinking. In The Statesman Plato endeavors, of course, to show that the formula that politics is the care of the common is too unspecific. He argues that we may continue to speak in those general terms but that we must understand political care to be realized only in the rule or government of a qualified expert. In our search for an adequate concept of the political, we may want to return, however, to the older formula in its original interpretation both because it stands at the beginning of our whole tradition in political thought and because its Platonic modification has become questionable for us today. What makes the old formula particularly attractive is that it seeks to characterize politics without reference to any particular institutional order and thus anticipates in effect the activist conceptions of politics advanced by Schmitt, Arendt, and Foucault. Perhaps, we can learn something about this latest turn in political philosophy by turning back to the oldest sources of our tradition.

The faces of care

We may consider it a deep and pervasive characteristic of human life that, in a whole, large variety of forms, we extend care. Thus, in all cultures and at all times human beings care for babies and children; we care also for the sick and we care for the old and dying. We certainly care for those who are near to us; but we care also (at least, occasionally) for strangers such as those who have suffered spectacular misfortune and the strikingly disadvantaged. We care, in addition, for animals (particularly our own) and take care of (our own) plants. We should not forget that we also take care of ourselves thought, at other times, we neglect ourselves. All this is not meant to say that we are often and characteristically in a caring state of mind with respect to ourselves, to others, to animals, and plants, that we feel concern towards … ,  or sympathy, or compassion, or even love. What is of interest is, rather, that we engage frequently and normally in acts of care-taking. How we feel bears, no doubt, on what we do. When we are in a caring state of mind we may be more inclined to engage in acts of care-taking. But the feeling is not the essential thing – certainly not in the context of politics. The crucial thing is rather the practice of care-taking itself.[1]

These observations are intended to state something that is in a way obvious; they are not, in any case, meant to advance a philosophical thesis. I am certainly not saying here anything as grand as that care-taking is essential to being human or that it is an aspect of human nature. Nor am I saying that we should exercise care or have an obligation to do so. I am neither in the business of determining essences or natures nor in that of making moral prescriptions. I am merely recording that caring is pervasive and normal in human life as we know it. Something else may be noted without trying to score heavy philosophical points.  It is that we are who we are only through caring. I would most probably not be alive today, if it were not for my mother’s nurturing. I would surely not lead my present life without the care that my parents and teachers extended to my education.  Looking further a field, I see that I depend on various acts of care-taking that others extend to me just as they depend on acts of care-taking I extend to them. I take care of my pupils, students, patients, clients, or customers and I am or become at times a pupil, a student, a patient, a client, or a customer. It is, in effect, not too much to conclude that what we call human culture is pervasively a structure of care.

That care-structure has failed to draw much attention from our philosophers and I do not plan to make up for that shortcoming here.[2] I will consider, instead, only one of its features that is of particular interest when we are thinking about politics. It is that human care comes in significantly different forms and that we can usefully distinguish between what I want to call nurturing, guiding, and tending. There is, first of all, then the nurture we provide when we concern ourselves with the life and (physical) wellbeing of someone or something. This is the kind of care we extend to babies, the sick, and the old. Babies and children need nurture because they are as yet immature, they are weak, and they are unable to exercise rights. They would therefore most probably not survive for long on their own and would surely not flourish on their own. The sick need care because they are handicapped by their disease, because they may be bound to their bed, because they require therapy, and because they have all kinds of special needs. Without care their survival and health would be uncertain. The old and dying need care because they are worn out, because they are perhaps also mentally confused, and because they are easily taken advantage off. Once again their survival (whatever it is) and certainly their well-being depend on simple care. We can recognize the same in the way we treat animals and plants. The farmer who takes care of his animals and plants as well as the city-dweller who cares for her pet and nurtures her house-plants are concerned with assuring their pet’s and their plant’s life and well-being. Taking care of oneself is also in the first instance a case of nurturing in which we seek to assure our own life and health.

There is, however, a second and significantly distinct sort of care which is directed at actions rather than bodies and their well-being. A mother who nurtures her baby directs her action immediately at her baby and more precisely at her baby’s physical life and wellbeing. But when she teaches her child to walk or to speak, or to eat properly, or to be polite, the object of her caring becomes the child’s behavior, its actions. We can speak of the latter kind of care as action-guiding or simply as guiding. Guiding differs from nurturing in being action directed at other actions. We can speak accordingly here of higher and lower levels of action in order to distinguish the act of guiding which is directed at another action from the guided action at which the act-guiding is directed. We can say therefore also that guiding is specifically a secondary or higher form of activity and that in this sense guiding is always supervenient on other actions. I will try to illustrate the point. Consider then the blow of a hammer driving a nail into a wall. In this action the nail itself or, if you wish, the nail being driven into the wall is the object, i.e., that which the action aims at. But now consider that I stay someone else’s hand that is about to come down on the nail or, alternatively, that I show the other person how to wield the hammer most effectively so that the nail is inserted into the wall in the best fashion. My action has here the character of trying to prevent or enhance another action. My act is an act of guiding and thus an action of higher level than the act at which it is directed, that is in this case the blow of the hammer.

We engage in action-guiding because almost all human activity requires skills that have to be learned. (I leave it open whether all action is of this kind.) This learning may be occasionally self-generated – I still remember how I taught myself reading – but mostly it requires instruction from someone who already possesses the appropriate skills. Such instruction may include the demonstrating of the action to be learned and sometimes also the verbal description and explanation of the action, but it will also typically include the learner’s repeated and supervised practice; it will certainly often involve that the learner be provided with encouragement and motivation and on some occasions it requires that he be disciplined and controlled, it may even rely on the threat of violence or even its direct exercise. (I may reprimand the agent or in some cases punish him for failing to execute the desired action.) Many human actions are, moreover, so complicated that they need continued guiding by means of planning, regulating, supervising, as well as reviewing and assessing. Some actions are, in addition, difficult to execute or dangerous and thus call specifically for guiding by means of exhortation and spurning on, while other actions are so detrimental that they call for guiding by means of restraining, controlling, prohibiting, or resisting. Guiding, we see, involves thus many different activities; guiding is a multi-form thing.

There is one kind of action-guiding that deserves a separate name. I am talking of acts of guiding that relate to a specific and important class of human action, namely those we call interactions. I will speak here of the guiding of interactions as tending. Human beings need guidance for of their interactions for some of the same reasons for which they guidance of their other actions. We engage in tending however also for additional and more specific reasons and tending finds characteristic expression also in actions that are different in kind from acts of nurturing and guiding. Interaction differs from plain action in that it directly engages more than one person. But different human beings, different agents are always on different trajectories, they see the world differently, they have different needs, interests, and intentions, they are embarked on sometimes totally different courses of life. In interactions these trajectory intersect. The outcome may, of course, be intended by neither party; it may be disconcerting and unacceptable to both.  For each of the participants the interaction may, in consequence, mean something different. Human interactions are for that reason highly problematic and they call for intensive and prolonged form of tending. These include the establishing and maintaining of dialogue, they involve acts of negotiating, coordinating, conducting, reconciling, of the recounting of the past, the settling of accounts, the formulating of terms of agreement, the producing of compromises or alternatives, the telling of stories that unite us, they involve acts of enticing and threatening, the breaking of resistance, the enforcement of decisions, etc. etc. In order to interact effectively the parties must come to understand first of all their own needs, desires, and interests but they must also reach some understanding of the needs, desires, and interests of others. The participants must learn to move and speak appropriately (i.e., diplomatically and politely), they need to learn how to interpret signs, gestures, customs, rules, and laws.

Politics as triangulation

When we ask ourselves why there is such a thing as politics at all, why human beings are political, the answer since ancient times has been that we are creatures suffering from lack or deficiency. We have natural, basic needs but are not naturally equipped to satisfy them and can do so only by developing appropriate skills. These we attain through acts of care-taking and specifically through what I have called guiding and tending. Politics, we might conclude, is nothing but tending – though, typically of course a tending organized in some institutional framework. It is tempting at this point to think that we have fully identified now what makes an action political. Tending has certainly characteristics that we can recognize in political actions more traditionally conceived, that is, in actions carried out as part of government business. But tending can also be understood to involve actions that are not governmental in character and we certainly want to recognize some such actions as political in the full sense of the word.

Consider the following list of activities that strike us as being political in nature and consider the question whether the proposed conception of politics as a form of tending can account for their political character. (1) There are, first of all, those actions we might call governmental or state actions, the actions performed by officials in the exercise of their instituted function. These actions are, naturally, always of higher order; they are supervenient on other actions and are characteristically meant to regulate human interactions in the various spheres of our existence. (2) We have come to think in recent centuries also of revolutionary activity as political and are forced to acknowledge that terrorism also is a variety of political action, though one, perhaps, of a noxious kind. These actions can also be seen as political because they aim at changing actions of our instituted governments. But to do so involves already stretching of our classical notion of politics as government of the state. We are saying now that anything that bears directly on government, even if it is not itself governmental action, is also political. This differs certainly from the strict conception of politics as rule of the polis. For Plato and Aristotle, revolutions and civil unrest were not political activities at all, but could be understood only as disruptions of the political process. (3) An extension of the Platonic-Aristotelian conception of politics is, in any case, inevitable from the point of view of a modern democratic politics. Ancient, e.g., Athenian democracy could understand the process of democratic deliberation and decision-making as an instance of governmental action. But in modern representational democracy government and the democratic process are separated from each other. The political agitation characteristic of the representational system, the formation of parties, the attempt to form public opinion, the entire process of electioneering are not as such governmental actions; they are rather like revolutionary upheavals actions that bear more or less directly on the exercise of government. From a modern perspective, the strict Platonic-Aristotelian conception of politics tends, on that ground, to an anti-democratic understanding of the political. (4) One reason for adopting an activist as against a statist conception of politics is that we also want to accommodate political activism as such in the realm of politics. That activism has, however, two different faces. Much of it is directed towards the governmental process; it seeks to affect government policy through direct action and is as such not very different from either revolutionary agitation of democratic engagement. But there is also another side of political activism which seeks to bring its power to bear directly, for instance, on corporate practices or which seeks to affect and change public behavior. There are, for instance, two forms of environmentalism. There is the Sierra Club environmentalism which aims at convincing government to adopt environmental legislation and policy. There is, on the other hand also Greenpeace or Earth First environmentalism which seeks to bring changes in corporate behavior, bypassing government, and wants to engage citizens directly in adopting more environmentally responsible forms of behavior. (5) There is finally, a form of direct action that appears to be set not primarily and exclusively on changing government, nor on affecting primarily and merely human action and interaction, but that wants to confer on some part of the non-human world a moral status. I am thinking here of such political movements as the Animal Liberation Front. I am certainly inclined consider the actions of that movement political. Its agitation is, of course, directed, in part, toward changing laws and thus government action, it also wants to bring changes about in other non-institutional structures such as medical and research institutions in corporations and universities, it also wants to reform public practice directly, but we musty also see it as setting out to confirm a new status on animals. This makes it difficult to subsume activities under the formula that politics is the tending of human interactions. Animal liberation seeks to affect not only our social interactions, but just as much our individual human behavior, and in setting animals free its actions appear at times to be concerned first and foremost with the lives and the well-being of the animals themselves.

Is it possible then that we might have to expand our understand of the political beyond the formula that politics is tending and to admit that at times is may also involve what I have called guiding and even nurturing? Are all these three forms of care to be conceived as potentially political in nature? I am inclined to think here more cautiously that politics is, first of all and most of the time a tending of human interactions and that the guiding of individual actions or the nurturing of the living world are to be thought of as political to the extent to which they concern our capacity for maintaining a life together. Politics, so conceived, is based on two distinct facts. The first is, as already said, that our interactions are in principle uncertain. They call therefore for a sustained and ever-renewed tending. This presupposes, of course, that our interactions are not resistant to tending and this, we might think, is due in some way to the uncertainty inherent in our interactions. But there is still a second and distinct fact to consider. It is that as humans we are capable of extending care and that, in particular, are capable of tending.

We are capable of what might also be called acts of social triangulation. These involve actions in which one human being A intervenes in the interactions of two others B and C. In order for A to engage himself or herself in this manner A must be able to objectify and represent to him- or herself in some fashion the binary interactions between B and C and this clearly presupposes more developed abilities than the elementary, binary sort of interrelation. Our fundamental capacity for binary action does not by itself guarantee a capacity for triangulation. But it is this capacity that underlies, as we see it, the political process. This observation throws a critical light on social theorizing from Georg Simmel to John Searle which has generally assumed that social (and political) institutions and practices can be understood as products of collective action and thus as the outcome of a collective intentionality. We have reasons to doubt that account on two grounds. The first is that the identification of intentions is more difficult and more problematic than that of actions, that we can recognize collective activity more easily than we can recognize collective intentions. We can go even further and say that the collective action does not, in fact, require collective intentions. We can see that most clearly when we consider political inactivity which is, of course, also a form of collective action. Such inactivity comes about precisely when agents and parties are after different and opposing ends. But even where they decide to act positively together, we know only too well that such practical agreement is often based on very different intentions. The second and more serious objection to the social theorists’ account of social institutions and practices is that they want to see them as coming about through an accumulation of binary interactions. But triangulation cannot be reduced to this simple schema. It is, as I have argued, a capacity of a different and higher order.


We can flesh this idea out by looking somewhat more closely at Foucault’s thoughts on the concept of the political. He is, in fact, one of my sources for the thought that politics is to be conceived as a form of care. Foucault is, of course, generally identified with a very notion of the political. He is held by both followers and critics to have advanced the formula that everything (and hence, all action) is political. It is not difficult to see how this misunderstanding may have arisen. It stems from his observation that relations of power are ubiquitous and that the domain of politics is that of power relations But we can come to see the inadequacy of that interpretation of Foucault’s political views when we consider more closely his view of the nexus between power and politics. A convenient point to enter into that view is an interview Foucault gave in 1977 shortly after the publication of The History of Sexuality, vol. 1. Lucette Finas, Foucault’s questioner on the occasion, tried to get him to expand in this interview on the broad theme of human sexuality and to situate his book in the context of his earlier work. But Foucault quickly deflected her requests at such elucidation by declaring that the whole point of the book had for him been “a re-elaboration of the theory of power,” adding sarcastically: “I’m not sure that the mere pleasure of writing about sexuality would have provided me with sufficient motivation.”[3] But why should the problem of power be so urgent for him, the interviewer asks. The impetus had come to him, Foucault explained to Finas, “during the course of a concrete experience that I had with prisons, starting in 1971-72.” (p. 184) His engagement in prison reform had left him convinced that “the question of power needed to be reformulated,” and that one needed to substitute a “technical and strategic” understanding of power for the traditional, “judicial and negative” one. He himself, he said, had previously thought of power in terms of “exclusion, rejection, denial, obstruction, occultation, etc.,” but he now considered it necessary, “to change the emphasis and make positive mechanisms appear.” (pp. 183 and 186) One momentous conclusion he drew from this shift in perspective was that the state could not account “for all the apparatuses in which power is organized.” (p. 188) There existed, in fact, relations of power “between all points of the social body,” as, for instance, “between a man and a woman, between the members of a family, between a master and his pupil, between everyone who knows and everyone who does not.” (p. 187) One needed, in other words, to assume the existence of a myriad of particular mechanisms of power. Given the close association of politics with power so understood it was clear that the classical conception of politics as belonging exclusively to the public sphere, as something reserved fro the level of the polis or the state and their rule or government had been rendered obsolete and had to give way to a new and broader understanding of the political.

This only raised the question, however, of how the political was now to be taken. If power relations were ubiquitous, as Foucault said, and if the political was to be conceived in terms of power relations, would it not follow that everything is political. By the time he was being interviewed by Finas, some of his more adventurous readers were, indeed, drawing exactly that conclusion and some of his recent readers still continue to proclaim the idea one of Foucault’s major insights. The same possibility was clearly also on the mind of Foucault’s interviewer when she asked: “Can one adopt a political standpoint regarding power? You speak of sexuality as a political apparatus. Could you define the sense you give the word ‘political’?” (p. 189) Foucault was, however, not so easily trapped into endorsing the simplistic formula that was being ascribed to him.  He responded cautiously instead: “To say that ‘everything is political’ is to affirm this ubiquity of relations of force and their immanence in the political field but this is to give oneself the task, which as yet has scarcely been outlined, of disentangling this indefinite knot.” (p. 189) One had to remember, he added, that “political analysis and criticism have in a large measure still to be invented.” (p. 190) He certainly understood that there was something seductive in the formula. It might seem at first sight illuminating in its stark generality but it would prove itself on closer examination to be empty of meaning. The question was therefore, how one might disentangle the ways in which the concept of the political is employed.  Foucault was ready to grant that all social relations belong to “a political field” but he meant to speak of politics itself instead and more precisely as a “more-or-less global strategy for coordinating and directing those relations.” (p. 189) This encapsulates, of course, in essence the thought that political action is tending or triangulation. The simplest picture would be, Foucault suggests, to imagine two sharply distinct domains of power relations such that the first consists of ordinary, non-political social relations and the second of relations that coordinate and direct relations within that first domain. On this model, it is only the power relations within this latter domain that we should consider political. But this picture is not yet quite right and that for two reasons. Strategic relations are, first of all, themselves a subset of social relations of power and so themselves once again are possible subjects to possible strategies of co-ordination and direction. Secondly, those relations to which political strategies are initially said to apply are by no means to be considered “elementary and by nature ‘neutral’” (p. 189); they belong, rather, themselves once again to a “political field,” by which Foucault means presumably that they belong to a field of relations that is always already subject to political co-ordination and direction.

It appears, thus, that we must replace the empty formula that everything is political by a series of conceptually modulated observations. Namely:

(1)  There are strategic relations that co-ordinate and direct force relations in society. Politics consists precisely in such strategic relations; it is constituted, in other words, very precisely in terms of power relations coordinating power relations, that is, of power directed at power or of action directed at other action.

Politics is, as I have put it, a higher order, supervenient phenomenon.

(2)  All political strategies can, in turn, be subjected to new acts of coordination and direction. There exists therefore a whole potential hierarchy of strategic relations that apply, in turn, to other, lower-type strategic relations. Politics has to be understood, in other words, as a process capable of reproducing itself at ever higher levels of coordination.

(3)  There are also non-strategic relations in society, “the set of relations of force in a given society [that] constitutes the domain of the political,” i.e., the set of relations to which political strategies are directed. But not every relation in that domain is likely to be subjected to strategic political interventions at every moment. Political economy inevitably forbids this. Many power relations will at any given point be politically dormant. When a relation of power is, however, actively subjected to intervention, we can call it “politicized.” Politicized social relations must evidently be distinguished from the strategic interventions that have politicized them.

(4)  Currently unpoliticized relations within the social body can become politicized at a later moment. They then become politically agitated. This is one of the things recognized in the formula that all relations of power exist in a political field. We can also say that all social relations are potentially politicized, that all such relations are politicizable. Merely politicizable relations must, of course, be distinguished from actually politicized ones as well as from the political strategies directed at them.

(5)  Most, if not all, existing relations of power within the social body have at some point or other been subject to political co-ordination and direction. We can say then that they have been politically constituted. That thought, too, is expressed in the proposition that social relations occur in a political field. To be politically constituted does not mean the same as to be politicizable though it may be the case that everything that has been politically constituted at some time in the past but has then become politically dormant can be politicized once again at some moment in the future. Whether this is so or not will once again depend on the considerations of political economy. To call something politically constituted does, in any case, not mean that it is now politicized. The contrary is often the case. What is politically constituted is in any case also always different from the strategies that have brought about the political constitution. There is, in other words, a significant difference between political relations of power and politically constituted relations.


Such schematic distinctions call, of course, for illustration, in particular so because what has been neatly separated in concept is not always equally distinct in reality. The difference between political strategies of co-ordination and direction and the domain to which they are said to apply is, perhaps, most easily understood in the case of law making. Making a law is a paradigm case of political action which is to be distinguished, of course, from those activities which the law forbids, permits, or requires. Thus traffic rules regulate the relations between people engaged in driving. Economic legislation organizes and legitimates new kinds of business activities. Such law making can, in turn, be reviewed by an appropriate court which is in turn, once more controlled and regulated by constitutional law. An entire hierarchy of strategies of direction and regulation thus becomes manifest. There are social arrangements which appear at some point or other to be exempt from political intervention. The household and the family are often considered to be such points of exemption. But we recognize that relations between parents and children and between marriage partners may also become actively political issues and can thus become politicized. It is in this sense that we must understand Foucault’s broader remark that it is necessary now to “oppose a politicization” to existing techniques and mechanisms of power. The basic political challenge of our time is for him, indeed, not the choice between political positions in “a pre-existing set of possibilities.” The important task is, rather, “to imagine and to bring into being new schemas of politicization.”  (p. 190) To illustrate the point Foucault adds: “To the vast new techniques of power correlated with multinational economies and bureaucratic states, one must oppose a politicization which will take new forms.” (p. 190) Corporate and bureaucratic power have, in Foucault’s eyes, been for too long outside the purview of politics and he considers it necessary to subject them now to political intervention. We must imagine then that ever new and ever different areas of social relations of power become politicized over time or may cease to be so. Foucault recognized in this way that “the frontier of the political has shifted, and so now subjects such as psychiatry, internment, or the medicalization of a given population have become political problems” and that politics has in this way “colonized areas that had been almost political yet not recognized as such.”[4] There are here affinities between Foucault and Schmitt for whom every domain of culture can also, in principle, become the subject for a political friend-enemy constellation. And for Schmitt, too, whatever is now politicized may cease to be so at some later point while new parts of the culture become, in turn, politically activated. Schmitt seeks to explain in this way the pivotal role that religious belief played in sixteenth century European politics which then became diminished in terms of subsequent concerns with issues of natural right and economic interest. The rise of political Islam shows us, of course, that these processes are not irreversible and that an agenda that has been depoliticized can once again regain a political momentum. Foucault goes beyond Schmitt, however, in suggesting that all or practically all social relations within society have at some point been politically constituted. Thus, it is one of his major claims that the normative system of human sexuality which we now operate is nothing but a political construct of an earlier period. Our normal and normative family may not strike us as political in character may be or may have been politically dormant, may still have been politically constituted and thus be understandable only in political terms. That claim calls, of course, in each case for empirical confirmation. It is, certainly, not a conceptual but an empirical truth and as such not empty in the way the proposition that everything is political has proved to be.

Foucault’s reflections on the concept of the political take us quite some ways beyond Schmitt’s and Arendt’s considerations. Neither of those two has properly noted the peculiar higher-order quality of political actions. It is, in fact, far from obvious that Arendt’s conception of political action as acts of self-revelation can even accommodate that idea. Every act of mutual self-revelation in the right public setting is for Arendt political in character. She does not see that political actions are properly speaking just those by which we enable and regulate our interactions. Arendt proves to be here close to theorists like Simmel and Searle whom I have already criticized in passing. Schmitt’s characterization of politics in terms of the friend-enemy schema is more adaptable to Foucault’s insight, but he, too, fails to recognize that the acts of decision he considers fundamental to politics are actions of higher order. The weaknesses of Foucault’s construction of politics in the mid-nineteen seventies lies elsewhere and the first is his lack of a concept of action and, hence, also specifically of political action. He seeks to interpret social and political phenomena, instead, in terms of relations of power and to reduce what we think of as actions to particular kinds of power relations. While Schmitt and Arendt treat the notions of choice, decision, and action as fundamental and Arendt, in particular, develops a richly articulated account of action, Foucault has almost nothing to say on this topic in the nineteen seventies. For this he did, of course make up in the eighties by addressing himself directly to “those intentional and voluntary actions by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct but also seek to transform themselves.”[5] by defining power itself now in terms of action, that is, as action on action. He retained in this late period an interest in those higher-order actions by which we enable and regulate our actions. But his focus shifted now to actions in which we set out to regulate or tend our own actions or those of individual others. He spoke of such actions as care of the self, a term he derived from Plato’s Alcibiades. That practice, though focused on the techniques by which men seek “to change themselves in their individual being” had, so he argued, for the Platonists at least still a political dimension. “Generally speaking, anything that would contribute to the political education of a man as a citizen would also contribute to his training in virtue; and conversely, the two endeavors went hand in hand.”[6] But he also recognized in later antiquity and in the Christian tradition the concern with the self and the concern with politics would come apart. There occurred, at that point, “a differentiation between the exercises that enabled one to govern oneself and the learning of what was necessary in order to govern others.”[7] As Foucault traced the issue of the care of the self and of techniques of the self to the modern age, it was then inevitable that his theoretical investigations would turn increasingly away from political considerations.

Tending can, indeed, have three very different kinds of objects. It may be directed towards one’s own interactions with others. It may be directed at the interactions of individual others, but it may also be directed at the interactions within whole collectives and communities. Thus, (1) a man may be said to attend to his own interactions with others when he endeavors to become more patient, more understanding, or more forgiving in his relations to them, (2) a mother may be said to tend her child’s interactions with others, when she encourages and monitors their games or when she directs and constrains her child’s engagement with some adult, and (3) the state can be said to attend to the interactions of its  citizens when it makes laws to circumscribe their commercial, social, and political behavior. These forms of tending must not be confused with each other. If the first is the epimeleia heautou, the care of the self, of which the late Foucault has so vividly written, then the second can be identified with what the Greeks called paideia, that is, the educational process by which we are taught to become mature human beings. The third, finally, is the care of the common of which politics is an instance. The care of the self takes the forms of exercise and discipline, of controlling one’s own needs, potentials, and limitations.  The care of others involves encouraging and deterring, nurturing and educating, and more specifically holding fast and letting go, praising and reprimanding, rewarding and punishing but may also have the more egalitarian character of various kinds of cooperative and mutual endeavor. The care of the common, finally, displays all the variety of action that we find in politics. The three sorts of tending are neither the same nor inevitably linked together. The care of the self may go hand in hand with a neglect of others and the care of others with carelessness towards oneself. Both differ, in turn, from the kind of care that is political in character. The care for oneself or that for a few select others may overcome the wish to partake in the care of the common.

It appears that Foucault did not always distinguish sufficiently sharply between these varying situations. But in blurring the boundaries between them, he alerted us to the affinities that link the various sorts of care, the mechanisms by which we manage to live with ourselves and those surround us are not so different from the ones we employ in the political arena. That is why it makes sense to us to recognize with Foucault that there can a politics in the family and a politics in friendship just as much as there can be in the state. It is precisely this recognition that serves as a springboard for rethinking our concept of the political and makes us realize that politics cannot be defined simply in terms of the ruling of the polis or the state. In the end, we may find it useful to distinguish between different uses of the term “political” and to separate more precisely between pre- and proto- and para-political phenomena and political phenomena more precisely conceived. But even then we will no longer be tempted to describe the narrowly political in terms of certain existing institutional structures but rather as the kind of action that communities direct to themselves and we will seen then also that among those actions will have to be those in which communities establish themselves and maintain themselves as such. Like all ancient terms it has wider and narrower uses. There is, in the traditional sense, the kind of political tending that takes place in formally instituted order. We can speak here of organized politics. But there is also a tending in temporary and informal groupings. That allows us to recognize a communal politics of the kind characteristic of tribal societies but also of families and friendships, and of voluntary and temporary associations. By extrapolation we can speak even of a politics of the self which would mean the practical devices by which we get along with ourselves. If that makes sense, it is because of affinities exist between the different forms of care and because, as Foucault appears to have seen, the interconnections between them.

Politics before philosophy

The formula that politics is care of the common was conceived by the Greeks before Plato and Aristotle founded political philosophy as we have known it. The formula harks back to a time of deepest uncertainty. It was clearly conceived after the breakdown of the great culture of Crete and Mycenae. Then powerful kings had ruled over a submissive rural population. And those kings resided in mighty palaces which were at once centers of power, of religion, and economics. Such royal residences were known by the name of “polis” a term, no doubt, with military associations (as we can recognize from the affinities of the terms “polis” and “polemos”). After the decline of the Cretan –Mycenaean system the Greeks experienced a process of urbanization in which formerly rural populations moved to the centers where kings and their retinue had once lived. This was the moment of the birth of the Greek polis as we know and only from that moment onwards could our term political come to acquire its distinctive and still familiar meaning. At the same time economic activity began to develop according to mere individualist patterns. The Greeks became merchants and traders and after centuries of isolation began to make contact with the surrounding Mediterranean civilizations – an event akin to our own process of globalization. The world became both larger and smaller in this way and the Greeks found themselves faced with competing powers. Differences in religion and customs confronted them with challenge of relativism and the need to justify their own system of values. Population growth and the arid nature of their native lands forced upon them emigration, colonization, and with that the conscious reflection on how to organize their political coexistence. It may be no accident that Protagoras subscribed to the formula that politics is the care of the common and also, on Pericles’ request, set up the democratic constitution of the Athenian colony of Turii. Contact with other cultures, gave the Greeks new sciences and above all taught them literacy. They underwent, in other words, a revolution in knowledge and communication – comparable once again to our own experience. They found it difficult now to interpret their social existence in terms of their olds myths. The gods were absent and they no longer took care of human life, as both Protagoras and Plato saw it, and hence those humans were no forced to take care of themselves. Politics was, thus, in a sense, the human response to the silence of the gods. But in having to take care of themselves, the Greeks came to see that the human condition is deeply uncertain and that survival is assured only by acting in concert.


This project could now be pursued in a new manner. The spread of literacy created the possibility of a new stress on writing, on written contracts and published law (nomos) and, hence, finally on the idea of the even-handed application of these laws (isonomia). From this emerged in due course the speculative ideal of a general political equality which was hailed by some as an advance of the common man and contested by others, like Plato, as destructive of every order. It was in this context, this turmoil, that the Greeks came to identify the political and the human, that they came to see human life as inherently political, and that they first conceived of the proposition that man is by nature a political animal. The people of Homeric Greece had been subjects of ancient kings; the Greek peasants of the dark interregnum had been under the rule of their local lords. Neither of them could have thought of themselves as inherently political animals. But two generations before Plato, in the midst of the democratic revolution of fifth century, the Greeks could all of a sudden assert with confidence that everyone possesses a capacity for politics.


The pre-philosophical age came in this way upon the idea and the ideal of a new politics and it captured this new understanding in the formula that politics is “the care of the common.” The pre-philosophical Greeks understood that, in a sense, every form of political order, whether monarchic, oligarchic, tyrannical, or democratic is part of a common endeavor, that all forms of political order and all concepts of the political share common features. Any form of political organization and any understanding of what it is to be political exemplify the human need for a care of the common even though not every form of such care is an exercise undertaken in common. But they also thought that democracy was more truly and more fully political, not just one among other forms of political organization. It was crucial, in other words, to their thinking that in thinking of politics as the epimeleia koinonias the term “koinonias” can serve as both subject and object. The realization of the inherent uncertainty of the human condition led them not only to understand the need for a care of the common but to conclude also that this care had to be achieved through common endeavor. The pre-philosophical Greeks thought, in a word, that politics must be taken to be both a care directed towards the community and one exercised by it.

We generally call this new politics “democracy” failing to realize that this term was, in fact, an invention of the opponents of this new political understanding. The opponents said that this new politics amounted, in fact, to a tyranny of the masses, the exercise of might (kratos) by inferior people (demos). At first sight, such a democracy might look “as though this is the finest or most beautiful of the constitutions, for, like a coat embroidered with every kind of ornament, this city, embroidered with every kind of character type, would seem to be the most beautiful,” as Plato, the inveterate enemy of this kind of politics, was to put it.  (Republic, 557c) It was a city, he wrote, which, in fact, “distributes a sort of equality to both equals and unequals alike.” (558c) A city of “extreme permissiveness,” of “excessive action,” and of “extreme freedom” which was bound to turn into tyranny and “the most severe and cruel slavery.” (563d-564a) This is not what the pre-philosophical Greeks expected. They sought rather to replace might and rule with cooperation, subjection to kings with civic friendship, the political power of the few with a system of political participation. They created thus an entirely new form of political organization with which we today still identify – even though our political realities differ so radically from that of the pre-philosophical Greeks. We only see dimly now that the invention of this new form of politics went hand-in-hand with the creation of a new concept of the political and that it was this conception that gave life to the new political forms. We find ourselves now in a state of uncertainty not unlike the one that those Greeks experienced – an uncertainty that affects all aspects of our existence: not only our political institutions, but also our economics, our traditional beliefs, our values, our knowledge, and our means of communication. We may for that reason find it fruitful to turn back to those dark beginnings of our political culture in order to ask ourselves how we can renew the project of a care of the common under our own modern conditions.























[1]  Harry Frankfurt speaks of caring as an “indispensably foundational activity through which we provide continuity and coherence to our volitional lives.” (Harry G. Frankfurt, Necessity, Volition, and Love, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1999, p. 162.)  For Frankfurt caring is a “reflexive” activity “constituted by a complex set of cognitive, affective, and volitional dispositions and states.” (Harry G. Frankfurt, The importance of what we care about, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1988, p. 85)

[2] An exception is Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time which examines some of its characteristics though not ones that bear immediately on the understanding of politics as the care of the common.

[3] Michel Foucault, “The History of Sexuality,” in Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, edited by Colin Gordon, Pantheon Books New York 1980, p. 187. 

[4] Michel Foucault, “Prisons et asiles dans le mécanismes du pouvoir,” in Dits et Ecrits, vol. 2, p. 524, quoted from Didier Eribon, Insult and the Making of the Gay Self, translated by Michael Lucey, Duke U. P., Durham and London 2004, p. 293.

[5] Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, translated by Robert Hurley, Vintage Books, New York 1986, p. 10.

[6] Loc. cit., p. 76.

[7] Ibid., p. 77.

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