Are you political? Many of us – young people in particular – tend to say no. Politics is too complicated and abstract to raise our interest. What is more, politics has come to be associated with parties or political organisations and with having to subordinate oneself to a group of people and their ideology. We are often afraid of committing ourselves: it always comes with a feeling of betraying part of ourselves, because we do not fully know or share the group’s actions and ideas. Thus, we are loath to expose ourselves to the criticism of others. We prefer to stay out of politics.
A frequent image of politics is that of an established elite involved in power games and intrigues. Politicians are seen to permanently engage into false promises and backdoor deals in order to sustain the power of their party and their own prestigious position. It is about power and making decisions on behalf of other people. But is this the essence of politics? What do I actually mean when I ask: are you political?
For Hannah Arendt, politics is essential to human life. But she doesn’t refer to politics as a set of institutions. It is not merely the competition among political parties, nor is it the institutionalised process of decision-making in a given state. Political life, according to Arendt, is rooted in action which is one of the three fundamental activities in which human beings can engage. Labour, through which we satisfy our biological needs, and work, through which we create an artificial world, are the two other types of activities. All three types of activities are essential to our life. However, the greatest achievements are in action, because it is only in action that we can express our uniqueness and experience our freedom.
In essence, politics emerges out of living together with other people. But Arendt doesn’t see this living together in a utalitarianist way, i.e. as a way for the participants to maximise their interest by joining forces with the others. Nor does she understand politics as a „space of power, conflict and antagonism“ as Chantal Mouffe, for instance, describes it, i.e. a space of confrontation between discourses and ideologies that seek to determine the organisation of society.
In the Human Condition, Arendt goes back to the origins in the Greek polis in order to find a different purpose of politics. The polis was a gathering of free man, who did not have to devote their lives to labour and work. They could rely on their household, where these activities were carried out to satisfy their basic needs. They, in turn, could step out of the darkness of the private realm into the light of the public realm where they could see the others and be seen by them. This is the realm of deed and words where people would act in concert with others and speak about those actions.
The close link between action and words is fundamental in Arendt’s conception of politics. The reason why one enters the public realm is to overcome the vanity of a life of mere necessity and of satisfying one’s biological needs. The aim of someone who enters political life is to create something more durable that could even outlast one’s own death: „The task and potential greatness of mortals lie in their ability to produce things – works and deeds and words – which would deserve to be and, at least to a degree, are at home in everlastingness“. A work or a deed could however never achieve this permanence without words – through stories told about them, songs sung about them or art to remember them – and thus without the common sphere of human beings.
The motivation to enter political life, according to Arendt, is not only, however, our concern with mortality but a human specificity which she calls our ’natality‘. The revelation of who someone is through words and deeds would not be possible if we were not all distinct from each other. This is what Arendt calls the human condition of plurality. Each of us comes into the world as a unique person, insofar as each of us has the capacity to act, to start something completely new. In this sense, Arendt writes that „men, though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin“. If we were all the same and not free to act, nobody would ever remember anyone. History would not exist. But because we posess the capacity of acting, that is, of beginning something anew, the unexpected is possible.
Politics has lost this original sense of revealing ourselves among other people by starting something new and hence of inserting ourselves into the history of human beings. This loss couldn’t be felt stronger than in a time where we are constantly confronted with the discourse of ’no alternatives‘ or dogmatic speeches. Hannah Arendt’s philosophy is a call to dare the entrance into the public realm, to be a new beginning and hence to freedom. Do not shy away from politics which is the space where you can realise your freedom. And most of all: Do not take for granted discourses and presented options. Go into politics, the common sphere of public life, because it is the sphere where a new beginning is possible and where you can find expression of your own freedom. It is not necessary to end up in the books of History – even small actions disclose our uniqueness and are unprecedented.