Political space rests on mutual promises.

The outcome of a debate is unpredictable. It may lead to groundbreaking agreement or end in persistent disagreement. It may offer delightful insights and inspiring thoughts or bore us with repetitions of truisms and clichés. What is more, the course of a debate can change suddenly, from one moment to the next, and when it does, it usually surprises everybody, even the participants themselves.

“[Unpredictability] arises simultaneously out of the ‘darkness of the human heart,’ that is, the basic unreliability of men who never can guarantee today who they will be tomorrow, and out of the impossibility of foretelling the consequences of an act within a community of equals where everybody has the same capacity to act.” (HC: 244)

Arendt writes that in the political realm, “one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation” (HC: 190). To her, this unpredictability is part and parcel of human freedom which resides in our capacity to act and to begin something new. Unpredictability in politics obviously can be very frustrating. Arendt claims that therefore it has been attempted many times, both in theory and in practice, to exclude it from human affairs altogether. She famously called this the “substitution of making for acting” (HC: 220). In stark contrast to action, making is very reliable. The production process does not only have a definite beginning but also a definite end which determines and justifies all means necessary or qualified to achieve it. Not only after the object – whatever it may be – is finished, but also while it is still in the making, it is easily possible to evaluate the (intermediate) result on the basis of the idea or the model which guides the entire process. Even though Arendt does not believe that, as long as we are still human, our freedom to act and hence the unpredictability of the future of the world could ever be entirely suppressed, she emphasises that the recurring attempts to substitute making for acting have too often turned leaders into rulers. They have dramatically changed the way we understand politics and influenced our expectations towards political action and political space.

We are afraid of unpredictability in the political realm for very good reasons. But we should not overlook that surprises are not only hazardous but also a source of delight and joy. In the cultural sphere and also in our personal lives, for instance, we think much more positively about unpredictability than in the field of politics: Who would like to watch movies if the end was clear from the beginning? go to the theatre if we would know exactly what to expect? or put money on a football match if it was possible to calculate who is going to win? How boring would our lives become if we excluded all the serendipitous and also the tragic moments which we cannot foresee? In the end, most of us are happy that, as Forrest Gump’s mother used to say, “life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you gonna get.”

Moreover, our capacity to act is not only the source of unpredictability but also provides us with a remedy against it. This remedy, which limits but never erases unpredictability, lies in our power to make and to keep promises. Promises are not impeccable; we might not be able to keep them or break them willingly. Still, they are like “islands of certainty in an ocean of uncertainty” (OR: 244).

Political action is unpredictable. While political space must always leave room for surprises it simultaneously relies heavily on the capacity of its users to make and to keep mutual promises.


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