Political space is a space of deliberation.
The participants deliberate. To deliberate means to weigh different opinions and interests against each other, that is, to look at one and the same thing from various perspectives.
Arendt characterises deliberation as the process of liberating ourselves from our personal standpoints. This means, above all, to form an opinion that transcends our personal interests. It is sometimes assumed that our opinions are nothing but the articulation of material interests. If this was true, we could not have opinions about things which do not concern us personally. Moreover, we would be determined by everything that increases our personal utility or secures our private interests, unable to consider other criteria such as justice, equality, peace, moderation, courtesy etc. Fortunately, this is not true: We can think beyond our own direct interests.
“Interest and opinion are entirely different political phenomena. Politically, interests are relevant only as group interests, and for the purification of such group interests it seems to suffice that they are represented in such a way that their partial character is safeguarded under all conditions […] Opinions, on the contrary never belong to groups but exclusively to individuals, who ‘exert their reason coolly and freely’, and no multitude […] will ever be capable of forming an opinion.” (OR: 227)
While my personal interests, which, politically speaking, are only relevant as the interests of a group, can be represented by somebody else, nobody can deliberate in my stead. Therefore, if we would like people to form opinions that reach beyond their direct personal advantage, we have to encourage deliberation, which is a process that, even though everybody has to do it for themselves, depends on the presence of others. Only where I am confronted with different perspectives do I have the chance to leave my own standpoint behind. And the more present these other perspectives are, the easier it will be for me to begin the process of deliberation. (Where other perspectives are mediated or not present at all we have to represent them in order to deliberate.)
Further, since our opinions are not determined by our interests, group interests – measured for instance along the lines of age groups, gender, belonging to a social class, ethnicity etc. – are not actually a valid criterion for selecting people to participate in politics. Other evidence like personal initiative, courage, persuasiveness and especially the capacity to put oneself in the position of others, are much more relevant. In turn, the fact that a political decision is taken by a “representative” share of the population, though it does contribute to its credibility, does not automatically justify it.
To be sure, to deliberate does not mean that we cut ourselves loose from personal interest altogether. Interests “constitute, in the word’s most literal significance, something which interest, which lies between people and therefore can relate and bind them together” (HC: 182). Thus to break away from our interests would mean to break our relations to the world and to other people – and this is certainly not desirable.
“[I]n cutting ties to our own interests, we run the danger of losing our ties to the world and our attachment to its objects and the affairs that take place in it.” (PP: 168)
To act politically means to liberate ourselves from our own personal standpoint without thereby forgetting or suppressing personal interest altogether. Political space is a space of deliberation. It encourages deliberation by confronting us with people who have different standpoints, hold different opinions and have different interests.