Political Poverty as the Loss of Experiential Freedom

Dissertation, University of Helsinki (2021)
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The purpose of this dissertation is to design a conception of political poverty that can address the loss of the experience of political freedom. This form of political poverty is described as separate from poverty of resources and opportunities, and poverty of capabilities required for participation. The study aims to make intelligible how a person or a group can suffer from a diminishing and fracturing of social experience, which can lead to the inability to experience oneself as a capable and credible political agent, political engagement as a meaningful field of action, and democratic politics as a meaningful avenue for changing things for the better. This is a phenomenon which has been heretofore neglected by political theorists. The study presents a heuristic diagnosis of political poverty as loss of experiential freedom that involves four aspects of experience that have specifically political relevance: loss of trust, loss of expressivity, loss of a sense of access to the public world, and the loss of future temporality in experience. Diminishing and fracturing of these aspects of social experience can lead to politically impoverished persons and groups to become complicit in their own marginalisation by remaining unmotivated to challenge it. These aspects of social experience are approached through phenomenological portraits, chosen from literature on social exclusion and poverty. The diagnosis remains open to further development through exploration of other aspects of experience. The study draws on the thinking of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Hannah Arendt to present an account of political freedom as only experienced in co-existence with others. Through a critical discussion of their work, a more comprehensive account of political agency is developed. The experience of having political agency involves not just the cognitive and communicative capacities of the subject, but also the entire perceptual and motor intentionality of their lived body. The experience of meaningfulness is approached by exploring the intersubjective constitution of the self in a dialectical process with their social environment. This experience is described as a form of faith in oneself as an agent and in the meaningfulness of political engagement. Such faith is a practical, meaning-giving intentional relationship of a lived body to their social environment. This study emphasizes the experience of being a capable and credible political agent, and experiencing politics as a meaningful field for engagement, as important aspects of political freedom that should be considered alongside inclusivity of democratic processes, the equality of opportunity to participate, and the equality of the cognitive and communicative capabilities required for effective participation. In order to discuss political poverty as the loss of experiential freedom, we must go beyond objectivist models of social critique and approach the problem with the tools of existential phenomenology.

Author's Profile

Joonas S. Martikainen
University of Copenhagen


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