Politics and promises

Could we imagine the presence of politics without promises? Could we think of the last election in the city without those hopes and sweet promises heralded from podiums?   

As politics deals with the coexistence of human beings, promises readily throw light on human’s capacity of initiating actions to furthering the good life. However, promises are fragile in politics. Too often, promises are cynically deemed as lip service that is meant to be forgotten rather than to be fulfilled. 

Yes, promises are fragile. In an essay ‘The Fragility of Political Language’, Paul Ricoeur relates promises to the use of the political language or political rhetoric. Political language or rhetoric is basically a fragile use of language. “It is so owing to its uncertain position halfway between the higher level of rational demonstration and the lower one of sophistic argument, by which I mean the construction of clever fallacies, intended to extort belief from the audience by means of a mixture of false promises and real threats,” Ricoeur writes.

Continuing his point, Ricoeur writes that this fragility is not ‘as the result of some accidental flaw but in essence’. Why? Conflict has been the essence of the true nature of politics as public space. The absence of conflict is a ‘chimeric idea’ since politics is an arena of plurality, where political deliberations may be conflictual and political priorities may be irreducible.  Hence, “Political language functions best in modern democracies as a language that brings rival claims into confrontation and that contributes to the formation of an acceptable outcome. Hence it is a language that is conflictual and consensual at the same time. But this is why it is so vulnerable.”

If political language is vulnerable, it must be logically asserted then that promise which is much employed in that language must retain the same trait. And, the question is: can we do away with promises?  

Ricoeur has convincingly shown us that political space won’t get rid of plurality. Plurality intrinsically implies the unpredictability of human actions within political realm. This unpredictability owes to the inalienable freedom each person possesses within this realm. Regardless of its frailties, man’s capacity for promise and fulfilling it will remain a guarantee in the exercise of this freedom. In any case, this simply underlines man’s potential for redemptive actions.      

When speaking of ‘The Unpredictability and the Power of Promise’ in her The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt says: “The unpredictability which the act of making promises at least partially dispels is of a twofold nature: it 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. Man’s inability to rely upon himself or to have complete faith in himself (which is the same thing) is the price human beings pay for freedom; and the impossibility of remaining unique masters of what they do, of knowing its consequences and relying upon the future, is the price they pay for plurality and reality, for the joy of inhabiting together with others a world whose reality is guaranteed for each by the presence of all.”

Many could be said of this quote. Yet, the bottom line is clear: those who have made promises, delivered with good or bad rhetoric, are bound to fulfill them. Quoting Arendt, “Without being bound to the fulfillment of promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each man’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities.”

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