Political space focuses only on public matters.
Private concerns are not relevant for debates. If politicians would suddenly start to discuss their dinner-plans, their parents’ health or their children’s grades, most people would be irritated. We think that these topics simply do not fit the occasion, that they should be discussed at home, that is, in private. In turn, if we suddenly started discussing these things publicly, the same politicians would have good reason to remind us that we must not stick our noses into their pockets.
Here we have come across the border between the public and the private realm, one of the central distinctions in Arendt’s work. To Arendt, the public and the private are essentially spatial phenomena. In accordance with Greek and Roman antiquity she holds that all private affairs are bound to the household (which in her days was still more closely related to the family than it is today) while all public affairs concern the polis, the world which is common to all of us. In Arendt´s opinion only those affairs that have public relevance can be political. She believes that this fundamental division between public and private has been “entirely blurred, because we see the body of peoples and political communities in the image of a family whose everyday affairs have to be taken care of by a gigantic, nation-wide administration of housekeeping” (HC: 28).
Though the borderline between public and private may be blurred and perhaps out of alignment, we are still very conscious of its existence. But when we talk about it today, we are mostly trying to protect our privacy against intruders, be it the curious neighbour, the government or big corporations. Now it is crucial that, at the same time, we do not disregard the protection of public space and public matters against private interests and private affairs which, from the perspective of the world as a whole, are completely irrelevant. The more we allow private interest and private business to occupy the public, the more difficult it is to separate public from private, to focus on what is actually of public concern and, finally, to prevent private actors from treating public matters and goods as though they were private. We must not forget, in other words, that “this world of ours, because it existed before us and is meant to outlast our lives in it, simply cannot afford to give primary concern to individual lives and the interests connected with them” (BPF: 155).
“In public, only what is considered to be relevant, worthy of being seen or heard, can be tolerated, so that the irrelevant becomes automatically a private matter. This, to be sure, does not mean that private concerns are generally irrelevant; on the contrary, […] there are very relevant matters[, such as love,] which can survive only in the realm of the private.” (HC: 51)
Dinner plans, the parents’ health or the kids’ grades are obviously of no public relevance whatsoever. Nonetheless, they become public concerns and political questions when they are looked at from the perspective of the shared world. For instance: Do we – as a community – allow factory farming? How do we – as a community – take care of the elderly? What do we – as a community – understand as education?
Political action is exclusively concerned with public affairs. Political space thus excludes private business and private interest. Everything that appears in political space must be either a genuinely public concern or it must appear only insofar as it is publicly relevant.