What is politics for? For getting something done, surely. And what needs to be done seems particularly obvious today. From bridges to banking, America is crumbling, while its enemies continue to burn with hatred. It seems beyond dispute that the goal of politics is to ensure security and prosperity; the only question is what means will achieve the ends. But could it be that when we understand the goal of politics as security and prosperity, we underestimate it? Could it be that although there is much for politics to do in these areas, there is also a higher and more specifically political kind of doing? Hannah Arendt’s distinction between three types of human activity-labor, work, and action-can bring some clarity to these questions. I propose that the essential goal of politics is to sustain a space in which action, in Arendt’s sense, can thrive.
If our government succeeds in stabilizing the economy and setting us back on the path to prosperity, this achievement will belong to the realm of labor. Labor (as Arendt defines it in The Human Condition) consists of the routines that keep us provided with goods and services, both necessary and enjoyable. Farming is the most obvious labor: it has to be done, again and again, so that we can survive. Housekeeping is another example: every day confronts us with the usual cleaning and cooking. In the broad sense, labor includes most of our jobs, blue-collar and white-collar alike: we keep satisfying each other’s needs and desires, earning our keep so we can keep consuming. Why wouldn’t politics simply be the job of all jobs, the job of maintaining the whole system of labor? ‘Economics’ is Greek for household management. On this model of politics, a nation is a vast household that has to be kept running.
But this understanding of politics is impoverished. If we reduce politics to labor, we strip it of its ability to set goals. The human good will be determined in advance: to survive and thrive by producing and consuming. Politics is then just a means of perpetuating this cycle. When the cycle breaks down, we fulminate and demand a solution; when it is running smoothly, we forget about government and political debate. But if this is all there is to human life, we are no better than ants or bees-healthy, industrious animals that satisfy their wants. Of course no one wants to be sick and poor, but isn’t human life more than this biological living? As the ancients put it, higher than mere life stands the good life.
Let’s think bigger, then. The goal of politics may be nation building-if not abroad, then at least at home. Our physical infrastructure needs remaking, our legal superstructure needs revising. Law enforcement and national security are included in this project, for defending a nation is a corollary of building it. Politics can do more than housekeeping: it can construct and protect the house itself.
This concept of politics makes it a kind of work, in Arendt’s terms. Work produces durable results, the fixtures of our world. By constructing a world, people rise above the animal level—they build a history, a civilization, a culture. The prototypical work is architecture, and the image of politician as architect is alluring, not least to intellectuals who hope to provide the blueprint. Plato’s Socrates puts it charmingly in the Republic: the philosopher-ruler paints the best possible society. The constitution is his outline, practices his palette and justice his model.
But architectonic politics looks less lovely the more closely we consider it. To begin with, it makes us impatient with the political process, since debating, campaigning, and haggling are obstacles to the implementation of any plan. We might then be tempted to cut a few corners, step on a few feet. Maybe violence is even inevitable, if politics is a craft, for every craft involves reshaping some material and destroying its previous form. To make an omelette, you have to crack some eggs. Or as Socrates puts it in a chilling afterthought to his analogy: what the ruler needs in order to begin the political painting is a clean, white canvas. When people are your canvas, what does it mean to wipe it clean? The extreme architectonic politics of the twentieth century give us an answer: gas chambers and killing fields.
For Arendt, however, politics is not essentially work. Work builds a world as a stage for action, and the point of politics is to sustain a space in which action can occur. By “action,” she means a phenomenon as familiar as it is elusive. Each of us has an impulse to intervene in human relations, to initiate a new development and take part in a shared history. When we take action, we potentially open a new chapter in that history. We also disclose and define who we are: action brings individuals to light in their uniqueness. Although action takes place in a material world and aims to bring about some concrete consequence, it cannot be reduced to its goals or results. Its main significance lies in revealing who the actor is.
For instance, I attend a community hearing on a re-zoning proposal that would allow a new business in my neighborhood. I express my opposition or support for the project. This act may or may not start a chain of significant events in my life or the lives of others; in any case, my little speech on its own will not determine the fate of the proposal, and on its own it has done no labor and no work. But I have done something nevertheless: I have taken a stand in the presence of my neighbors. Now I am someone in public; now my own life story is explicitly connected, by one more strand, to the story of the community. My neighbors and I are closer to sharing a future—a constellation of issues and possibilities. If I had kept quiet on this and other public matters, and had not taken the initiative to speak out, I would not be fully free; I might have liberty—freedom from interference—but I would not be using that liberty to disclose and develop myself as a participant in my community.
From an Arendtian point of view, politics is a kind of action whose purpose is to keep the possibility of action itself alive—to foster further action of all kinds on the part of citizens. The impulse to act is universal, but the opportunity is not; action thrives only if there is a space for it. This space is not essentially a material construct—the Greek agora, the Roman forum, our high-speed Internet lines—but an atmosphere of opportunity that encourages us to speak out and intervene. Laws, directives, speeches, campaigns—the stuff of political life—can certainly assist a community with problems of labor and work, but their higher and specifically political goal is to sustain the space of action. Politics sustains this space by continually reopening a shared future—provoking debates about who we are and where we should go, inviting citizens to participate in these debates.
The political process is essentially interpersonal and discursive. Whereas labor and work can in principle be carried out in solitude and silence, action occurs between people, who need words in order to disclose themselves to each other. It is the rare act that can do without words; words help to reveal the act as a significant gesture, and often, speaking itself can constitute an act. What appears as an obstacle from the architectonic point of view—the messy business of compromise and persuasion—is the lifeblood of politics as action. This is why speeches are still important political acts (and why politics is vitiated when politicians rely overly on speechwriters rather than disclosing themselves in their own words). Barack Obama’s 2008 speech in Philadelphia on race relations was quintessentially political not because the fate of his own presidential campaign was at stake, but because the speech simultaneously addressed a shared American predicament and revealed him as an individual. Obama acted with words, illuminating the situation in a way that encouraged further discourse—a political act par excellence.
In the unlikely event that the world economy started to thrive indefinitely without government intervention, and the security and fundamental institutions of every country were settled to everyone’s satisfaction, would political acts such as this become unnecessary? Not at all. The citizens of the richest and safest land imaginable will still want to be free—and in an apolitical environment, freedom cannot flourish, even if individual liberties are legally guaranteed. Imagine a world—it’s not much of a stretch —in which we spend all our time in our houses, vehicles, workplaces and shopping malls. This is a world defined by the private realm of family and the economic realm of the marketplace. In such a world we are not free in the full sense, because no truly public space exists; we are not encouraged to reach beyond the familiar, disclose ourselves to other citizens, and start something new together. Politics is needed to keep public space, the space for free action, alive. The mission of politics is to keep reopening the future.
But the glorious aura radiating from the concept of politics as action needs to be dimmed by a sober acknowledgment of what Arendt calls the disabilities of action. In principle, labor can be automated and work can be mastered technically, but action, as an interpersonal intervention, exceeds human control. An act depends on others to carry it forward; its ramifications are unpredictable and usually unsatisfying; its meaning can be discerned, if at all, only in retrospect; and it can never be undone. If these dispiriting truths lead us to retreat from action altogether, the shared future will wither away. But if we act while pretending that the disabilities do not apply, we fall prey to the eternal vice of well-intentioned leaders: a foolish hubris.
This much politics can do: sustain the space of action by welcoming all citizens into a discussion of our fears and aspirations. No dictator, no matter how visionary or rhetorically gifted, is able to engage the people in a truly political project. Such a project is not marching or building in unison, but coming together to argue. A lively public debate may generate the shared confidence we need in order to recover our wealth and rebuild our world.