Two political gestures have recently taken place on the world stage. On May 10, Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, shredded the cover of the UN charter at the General Assembly Building in New York, while, just three weeks prior to that, far-right Slovakian MEP, Miroslav Radačovský, had released a white dove at a plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Such performances are quite fitting for the age of clickbait news and memes that go viral on social media. But what do they say about the nature of the political today?

Complaints about a steady but sure degradation of the public sphere give off the appearance of conservative laments, resurfacing in every new generation. Is it really the case that things were so much better (more dignified, more thought-out…) in the past, compared to the current fad of parochial populisms opposing technocratic “globalists”? Are we not imagining a fake Golden Age and constructing a narrative of the fall from that perfect condition all the way down to the tragic absurdities of the twenty-first century?

Although there are many, oft-times conflicting, definitions of the political, the one we find in the works of Hannah Arendt stands out in its universality and continuing relevance. For Arendt, the basis of institutional politics is the experience of the political. As it was for Aristotle, this experience goes to the heart of the meaning of being human: it signals nothing less than our “second birth,” coming on the heels of our biological appearance in the world in the event of the “first birth.” More concretely, the experience of the political is that of being with others in words and in shared action.

Arendt’s version of politics is at once very common and highly uncommon: it is a feature of everyday life not involving either parties or parliaments and it is a rare occasion when words actually matter and when coming together with others yields a deed, lifting each (if only momentarily) from out of their heedless immersion in private affairs. In fact, parliaments are parliaments—places where speech (from the French verb parler) matters—thanks to their rooting in a primordial verbal experience of the political. More than that, Arendt’s take on the political is not ideologically limited, seeing that she refrains from determining the purpose of speech and action, which may be steered toward right- or left-wing causes.

With politics reduced to spectacular gestures, we witness the eclipse of everything that motivates and keeps driving the political. Not-quite-speech and not-quite-deeds, gestures close off the space for political engagement, surprisingly and surreptitiously joining forces with the technocratic rationality and algorithmic governance, with which they overtly clash. They gain disproportionate significance because they take place within the walls of venerable political institutions, but they also undermine these very institutions, as well as the existential-experiential stuff of political life, described by Arendt with great precision. In a word, then, political gestures are paradoxically anti-political.

Bombastic, attention-grabbing, and condensed, such gestures are unthinking, or, rather, they are the calculated, strategic moves to block the work of thinking, of analysis and interpretation. At the most superficial level, they are unreflective with regard to their immediate consequences and materiality. What happens to the frightened dove, released into a large indoor space? What message does the physical shredding of the UN charter at the podium of the UN headquarters send? Taking the latter question further, it is important to examine the remarks made by the Israeli ambassador immediately before and during his pretentious act. Erdan said, addressing other countries’ representatives, as he produced a miniature paper shredder: “You can see what you are inflicting upon the U.N. Charter with this destructive vote… You are shredding the U.N. Charter with your own hands.” Of course, he was the one engaging in what he criticized, and the shredding was not done by hand, but by a machine. This, in fact, was a clear case of psychological projection—attributing to others one’s own behavior—and Erdan confirmed this diagnosis by referring to his conduct as a “mirror” (although the mirroring did not quite work in the way he intended it).

At another level, pompous political gestures, to which populist leaders and their coterie freely help themselves, block the work of thinking and associated practices that are at the foundations of human existence. The speech that accompanies these gestures is wholly absorbed in the materiality of the act, while the act itself is not a joint deed, but an instance of acting out, a behavioral tic raised to the level of quasi-universality. Political gestures, after all, can be copied, performed by a group, parodied, parroted, and yet they cannot amount to a jointly undertaken project. This observation likewise applies to activist protests that tend to become more and more gestural, as in climate protesters’ attacks on famous artworks at galleries and museums around the world.

The gestural assault on speech and action is symptomatic of a broader tendency, where these are increasingly modeled on a political gesture—just as bombastic, meme-like, or meant to shock. Consider the statements made by the former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in his Telegram channel. Mixing frequent threats of nuclear strikes with personal insults against Western and Ukrainian leaders, Medvedev engages exclusively in political gestures (indeed, in gesturing) that extend to and encompass the verbal register of language. It is within this framework that the behavior or Russian officials, from the chefs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Vladimir Putin himself, is to be scrutinized.

The choice between right-wing populism and neoliberal technocracy, consistently cropping up in electoral campaigns all over the world, is a false one. In different ways, the two “alternatives” obliterate speech and action, without which, according to Arendt, humans would be reduced to no more than their biological appearance in the world. From the national to the international arenas, the degradation of the public sphere goes hand in hand with the destruction of the environmental commons and the evisceration of the good irreducible to either private or group vested interests. If salvaging whatever global devastation has left behind is possible, such work must commence with mending words and shared deeds, irreducible to empty bombastic gestures.