| Spring, 2009

Arendt and the Space of Action

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.

 

 

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