When considering the title of the following presentation “Thinking Unity from the political: in search of the political dimension of human existence as a force for unity”, it is not immediately clear what is meant. The lack of clarity lies in both parts of the title and culminates in the notion of “the political”, for what might be meant here? What is this “political dimension of human existence” and how can it be a “force for unity”?
We live in uncertain and dangerous times, in which we seem to be surrounded by the potentiality of huge challenges, threats or even catastrophes coming along. Ulrich Beck, in 1986 already characterised our modern societies as “risk societies”, in which “manufactured hazards” seem to be omnipresent and on the edge of exploding, and Daniel Innerarity calls our contemporary times the “the era of uncertainty”. (2021) These risks and uncertainties are not only related to international instability due to the ongoing war in Ukraine. There are other challenges that especially the western world is facing in its own current political panorama. We are witnessing the appearance and persistence of phenomena such as populism, political discontent, and post-democratic polarization, not least caused by technological developments in AI and Big Data. Moreover, especially in the current pre-election phase in Spain, political partisanship appears to be as high as ever, and our representatives that should in principle act as examples for a strong political community, are occupied with following party-interests and with their respective campaign activities.
In this context, it seems that politics is rather a force for the opposite of unity, for separating us and tearing us apart. It appears, therefore, as though politics is the problem rather than a phenomenon allowing for unity in the world. But are we missing something? Might it be, that on closer hindsight, this kind of politics is not actual politics in its original meaning and can thus not provide for unity? And if that was the case, what is “actual politics” then?
We normally think we know what politics is, insofar as we can explain its legal, social, or cultural functioning. However, might we not be like a person who is asked about time: "So what is time? If no one asks me (about it), I know it; (but) if I wanted to explain it to someone who asks (about it), I do not know." (Augustine, Book XI, ch.14) For the phenomenon of time holds the obvious and the obscure at the same time. Each of us knows what time is, but when we must explain it to someone, we feel as if we have been knocked on our head. In our distress, we then make do with familiar explanations that refer, for example, to the clock as a timepiece and present time as a corresponding sequence of events. However, we must recognise that these explanations do as little justice to the phenomenon of time as the functioning of politics as an explanation to politics.
Although it is difficult to capture and lay out in detail the essence of the political, as such a phenomenon escapes any intent of defining (de-finire = completely limiting) it, the question of What is politics? should not and cannot for that reason be left aside. The grasping of its significance and the understanding of its content is fundamental for disclosing the profound meaning of the phenomenon as such.
Politics, as the notion is understood here, is essential because it is the manifestation of a particular mode of “being with Others” in the world, which is articulated through the fundamental human activity of action (Heidegger, 2006, p. 118). Action is thus the activity at the heart of the political and acts as the source of politics as such (Arendt, 1958). Furthermore, as “being-with Others” is an existential human trait, action as one of its modes must be rooted in human beingness as such. Politics, therefore, as the phenomenon that manifests this “acting and speaking in concert”, which concert is always to be played in the company of others, is itself a form of being human and in this sense not only significant and essential, but inescapable (Arendt, 1958).
Politics’ inescapability is disclosed by its potential to arise each time we find ourselves in the presence of others like us in the public world, and not, as usually understood, only when in contact with the institutions of the liberal democratic state. The potential is inherent, if not in all spheres of life, yet each time we find ourselves in the public realm, in which arises a common interest (inter-esse) as something that lies in-between people. This rise of public interest as the condition of possibility for politics, is inevitable so long as we are conditioned in our existence to inhabit a common world. Worldliness, thus, is constitutive for politics. “Wherever people are together, says Arendt (1964), no matter what the scale, public interests are formed, and the public realm comes into play. Some public interest now affects a particular group of people - a neighbourhood, or even just a house, or a town, or some other group. Then these people will come together, and they are very capable of acting publicly on these things.” Politics, therefore, arising “in the between-the-people, i.e., quite outside the (individual) human being”, as an “intermediate area”, becomes in this sense inescapable (p.11). In the face of contemporary technocratic governance and free-market intrusion into all domains of common life, however, this means that today we are called to preserve our public realm as much as possible, so that public interest can potentially arise in the first place. This, in turn, as Michael Sandel (2020) so appropriately remarks, “requires that citizens from different walks of life encounter one another in common spaces and public places.” (p. 227) This common and public sphere, therefore, is the condition of possibility for political action and thus for the phenomenon of politics.
Glimpses of the rise of this political potential have appeared repeatedly in recent history through what Colin Crouch (2020) calls “democratic moments”: “when enthusiasm for democracy is widespread and concern for political developments intense;… when many diverse groups and organizations of ordinary people share in the task of trying to frame a political agenda that will at last respond to their concerns; when “masses of ordinary people … discover they have a political voice, and form parties and other organizations to express their concerns.” (p. 4-5) One of these democratic moments he identifies with South Africa’s first general election in which the black majority was included. In this election of 1994, however, the high electoral participation of almost 87 per cent of those eligible was not the sole criterion for it being considered a democratic moment. There was more at stake. This “more” might also have been present in recent “democratic moments” such as certain peaceful episodes of the revolutionary movements of the Arab Spring, of the Occupy Wallstreet movement, of the 15-M movement and the 2018 feminist movement in Spain, or probably even peaceful episodes of the recent “Black life matters” movement in the US, among others. (We could also think about certain counter movements that appeared lately in Iran, Belarus, Hong Kong, etc.) What these movements have in common is that, in the face of huge challenges inherent in the political systems organizing their states, their responses contained essentially democratic and thus political structural moments. In which sense?
Although still involved in making demands to their respective governments as an external source of power, these movements transcended that activity in that they comprised an inward-looking empowerment of the people, which consisted in the creation of a sense of community from within. Observing the limited care for the common good in contemporary liberal democracies, in which the maximal expression of community seems to be found in so-called interest groups, mostly bound together merely by the shared individual interests of their members which they represent towards the government, these moments strike as particularly outstanding.
The sense of community arising in “democratic moments”, to be sure, is the outcome and by-product not only of the most political, but of the highest expression of our condition as fellow men in the world. Politics, therefore, is not just any form of being human, but the phenomenon in which human’s highest potential of “Being-with Others” in the world is fulfilled. (Heidegger, 2006, p. 118).
Arendt, H. (1958). The Human Condition. The University of Chicago Press. Arendt, H. (2003). Was ist Politik? (U. Ludz, Ed.; 7. Auflage). Piper Verlag GmbH. Arendt, H. (1964). Zur Person, Interview with Günther Gaus.
Augustinus. Confessiones [dt.Bekenntnisse], 397-401 n.Chr., Buch XI, Kap. 14. Cavarero, A. (2022). Hannah Arendt y la felicidad pública, congress CCCB Barcelona. Crouch, C. (2020). Post-Democracy after the crisis. Polity Press.
Heidegger, M. (2006). Sein und Zeit (Fünfzehnte Auflage). Max Niemeyer Verlag.
Innerarity, D. (2021). La Era de la Incertidumbre. La Maleta de Portbou, 44 (Filosofías de la Pandemia, Regreso a la condición humana), 43–49.
Sandel, M. (2020). The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (A. Lane, Ed.). Penguin Random House UK.