INITIATIVE

 

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Political space encourages personal initiative.

Participation is voluntary. Nobody can be forced to actively participate in a debate, no material reward can guarantee that somebody will participate, as distinguished from just being 25 present, and there is no reliable measure for the sincerity of contributions. We are left behind only with the impression – which in most cases is pretty accurate – that somebody was either engaged or uninvolved or something in between.

To be politically active means to show personal initiative which means to insert oneself into the realm of human affairs. It means to appear in front of others, to affirm one’s own existence, to influence the course of public affairs and to leave traces behind in the history of the common world. “This insertion”, Arendt argues, “is not forced upon us by necessity, like labour, and it is not prompted by utility, like work. It may be stimulated by the presence of others whose company we may wish to join, but it is never conditioned by them” (HC: 177).

“[It is] the joy and the gratification that arise out of being in company with our peers, out of acting together and appearing in public, out of inserting ourselves into the world by word and deed, thus acquiring and sustaining our personal identity and beginning something entirely new.” (BPF: 259)

Survival does not require political initiative, and in turn, political initiative does not – is not meant to – result in personal, material benefit since at the centre of politics lies concern for the world and not the individual. Hence we cannot expect, for instance, to stimulate political initiative with monetary rewards. Similarly, participants in political business cannot expect and should never be promised the same rewards that are so typical for architects, craftsmen or writers who are the solitary masters of their projects and who can take full pride in their achievements. Political action, since it always depends on other people, is less predictable than work; and since it always means to act in concert, success or failure can never be clearly attributed to individuals afterwards.

But this is true only under the condition that s/he who participates sees more in politics than just another way to “make a living.” And only insofar as s/he does not believe to be the single mastermind or puppeteer behind a political project. Unfortunately, Arendt argues, this is precisely the tendency of modern labourer societies where “all serious activities, irrespective of their fruits, are called labour, and every activity which is not necessary either for the life of the individual or for the life process of society is subsumed under playfulness.” (HC: 127) And in a tradition of political philosophy which, ever since Plato proposed that the polis should be ruled by a philosopherking, is so much concerned with the substitution of making for acting that it “could easily be interpreted as various attempts to find theoretical foundations and practical ways for an escape from politics altogether” (HC: 222).

Be that as it may, what really springs from political initiative is delight. This delight is bound to the moment of action and it can under no circumstances be stored up. Hence what matters most for those among us who feel the urge to act is the performance itself and not material achievements or tangible results. This is why the Greeks always employed such “metaphors as flute-playing, dancing, healing, and seafaring, to distinguish political from other activities, that is, that they drew their analogies from those arts in which virtuosity of performance is decisive” (BPF: 152). Moreover, since it cannot be stored up for longer periods of time, political initiative needs to be actualised and put into practice when it is felt, just like the poet needs to write in the moment when s/he feels inspired.

Political action rests on personal initiative. Political space encourages us to show personal initiative. It allows immediate access and it does not lure citizens with monetary rewards. Political space is not only focused on tangible results but also and especially on the performance, the moment of action as such.

 

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