Why even bother?

thats it-01-01 (360 x 360)


To Arendt, political action is not just a way of resolving conflicts between different groups and different interests, an everlasting struggle caused by the troublesome human condition of plurality. It is not just the government of public affairs, a never-ending argument about how we want to live together. To be sure, Arendt does not deny that conflicts of interests are dealt with in the political arena day in and day out, and she would agree that government, as distinguished from administration, is at the very centre of politics. But against prevalent definitions and understandings, Arendt highlights that acting politically means, above all, to take initiative and to insert oneself into the common world, to be among one’s peers, to experience freedom and not just liberty, to actively distinguish oneself from everybody else thereby forming a personal identity, and to share the world with others instead of just existing in it at the same time. Since political action always involves different people and since its one and only concern is the common world, political actors depend on worldly spaces where they can gather. But these spaces – and that is the crux – are not only, perhaps not even primarily important because they are spaces of democracy. The standard argument about “true” democracy claims that those who are in power do not actually represent the majority of the people. But we can aspire, it is claimed, to a more democratic political system if we manage to “throw open the corridors of power to the public; to embrace social and civic movements; and to emancipate all levels of government from bureaucratic and corporate power” (DiEM25, 2016). It is true that political space matters for “real” democracy where the interests of the majority are also represented by the majority, because the public simply does not fit, and for the most part is not even allowed into to the existing political spaces. Still, the meaning of political space, according to Arendt, goes beyond representation!

Political space matters because those of us who do have political passions – “courage, the pursuit of public happiness, the taste of public freedom, an ambition that strives for excellence regardless not only of social status and administrative office but even of achievement and congratulation” – have nowhere else to go. Just as performers depend on theatres, party people on clubs and football players on pitches, those who would like to participate in politics, not because they have to or because they see the need to claim their rights and interests, but simply because they care, depend on the availability of adequate spaces for acting politically. These passions “are perhaps not as rare as we are inclined to think, living in a society that has perverted all virtues into social values; but they certainly are out of the ordinary under all circumstances” (OR: 275f). We probably need not be afraid, so to speak, that political spaces would be flooded by the masses; but that of course does not make them any less important for those who are passionate about politics.

Moreover, political space matters because without it the common world will perish until it is reduced to a necessary minimum, just enough for all (or at least most) of us to survive and to live our own individual lives one next to the other. For decades now the modern world has been described as increasingly individualistic, not only by scholars from different academic disciplines but also by journalists, in talk shows and at dinner tables. Today we tend to celebrate every new initiative that opposes individualism and aims to bring people together again. Nonetheless, oftentimes these initiatives – the paradigmatic example in this respect is urban gardening – only bring together people who share one or several particular interests anyways. Though they change the world, perhaps for the better, they are not interested in the world as such but only in one or a few selected aspects of it; and by no means do they offer spaces where the world is at the centre of attention. This is perfectly fine and we may even find that, in certain ways, people act politically inside them. But for the most part we will have to admit that these initiatives and spaces merely replace individualism, so to say, with “groupism”. If instead we really care about the common world, we should pay more attention to political space since it is the only space where we come together and act as citizens of the world in which we all live together.


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