The Death and Resurrection of the Public

What is the public? It relates to the idea of the People as démos and the body politic. The basic notion is that shared experience and identity is in some sense real, that we aren’t merely a collection of individuals. But a public sensibility has been on the decline. We’ll avoid a thorough analysis here. Instead, let’s look at a couple of areas.

Common identity most obviously is expressed through common appearance, in what people wear, how they cut their hair, and bodily modifications such as tattoos and earrings. In tribal societies and other small communities, this naturally happens through a common culture. The rise of the modern nation-state undermined this organic expression of communal bond. To satisfy the same need, the popularity of uniforms took hold. This has been done formally as symbols of public service such as the military, although uniforms have also been used in the private sector. Even the business suits common among men have become a kind of uniform that disallows much personal expression. The uniform became popular during the world war era and remained popular through much of the Cold War.

A uniform expressed not only a sense of common identity but solidarity and pride. This was true outside of the military, from postal workers and park rangers to gas station attendants and hotel porters. To be in a uniform signified belonging and meant a basic level of respectability, even for the most lowly worker. Besides police and firefighters, uniforms have receded from the public sphere and remain primarily as a symbol of the military — it might be unsurprising, if depressing, that the military is the only part of the government in the United States that retains public trust.

This shift has accelerated over the past few decades. As late as the 1990s, uniforms were still seen more often, although having had become uncommon. For example, some parking ramp cashiers were still wearing uniforms until the early Aughts, but they had already lost their cultural cache as meaningful symbols. These days, postal workers aren’t always immediately recognizable when walking around, as there is barely any semblance of a uniform remaining, and the symbolic value of postal workers has accordingly declined as private delivery services have increasingly taken over this once public service.

We’ve now reached the point where one might go weeks without seeing anyone in a uniform. That isn’t to say that conformity of appearance has disappeared, but we’ve come to embrace the illusion of individual expression through the conformity of consumerist fashion and corporate branding. This is said without any clear judgment in favor of uniforms, simply a social observation and a rather interesting one at that. It represents a deeper and broader change in society.

We can see how fuzzy has become the category of ‘public’, even in ‘public’ debate. It’s extremely unusual to hear a politician invoke the rhetorical force of the People, much less directly refer to the démos and body politic, almost entirely alien concepts at this point. This muddled state of a non-society society was intentionally created as ideological realism — it was Margaret Thatcher who famously declared, “there is no such thing as society.” Until the rise of Donald Trump, that is possibly the single most bizarre statement by a modern leader of one of the global superpowers.

The sad fact is that President Donald Trump as the main public leader in the United States does bizarre on a daily basis, often while attacking public authority, public expertise, and public institutions. It has become nearly impossible to speak of the public good, as a hypocognition has taken hold. This is how Trump supporters are able to hold up signs that say “Keep government out of my Medicare” and to argue that it’s better that this pandemic happened under Trump than President Barack Obama because Trump is wealthy enough to write everyone a $1200 check, in both cases not grasping that these are government responses designed to promote the public good.

For most of human existence, the concept and experience of ‘private’ was rare to non-existent. From tribal bands to feudalism, people typically lived cheek-to-jowl. Look at the growing urbanization of the early empires such as in Rome where everything was a social event — going to the bathroom, gymnasium, doctor, work, etc. So, in speaking of the communal experience that dominated for so long, we aren’t only talking about tribes but even for most of the history of advanced civilization, into the modern era.

It was only in colonial times that the Quakers introduced the practice of maintaining privacy with nuclear families and by having separate rooms or at least separate beds for each family member (Barry Levy, Quakers and the American Family), sometimes with spare rooms for visitors (Arthur W. Calhoun, The American Family in the Colonial Period), but at the time they were far outside the norm (Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were). In early America, to live in a village meant that your business was everyone’s business and there were no locks on the door.

The notion of privacy and the private sector was slow to take hold. Well into the 1800s, many feudal practices remained in place. There was a lingering belief in the commons and, in some cases, it was enforced by law for generations after the founding of the United States. This was seen in land use where ownership didn’t mean what it means today. A landowner couldn’t deny anyone else use of his land, if he wasn’t using it as defined by what land he specifically had fenced off. So, any open land, owned or not, was free to anyone for camping, hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering. This only changed with the abolition of slaves when these laws were eliminated in order to force blacks back into labor.

On a related note, consider corporations. Likewise in early America, they had a very different meaning, as an organization with corporate charter is by definition a public institution. The founding generation made sure that corporate charter were only given in relation to an organized activity that served the public good such as building a bridge and so the charter ended when that public good was achieved. Now the relationship has reversed where corporations have so much power that governments serve them and their private interests. This is also seen in land use, such as how governments subsidize corporations by selling natural resources off public lands at below market prices which basically means giving public wealth away for private gain.

Corporations and governments have become so enmeshed that they are inseparable. The idea of what is public has become conflated with government, and government has increasingly become identified with big biz. When the government is controlled or influenced by private interests in declaring that a company or bank is too big to fail, it is essentially declaring that something private is to be treated as part of government, which further erodes the sense of the public. If the last bastion of the public is government, and if government serves the private sector of a plutocracy, then what meaning does public have left remaining?

Instead of the public as a people determining their own self-governance, we have a private ruling elite who by owning the government control the people, that is to say inverted totalitarianism. Whatever remains of pubic rhetoric becomes a mask to hide authoritarian power, as seen in how the U.S. has become a banana republic. One study has shown U.S. federal politicians rarely do what their supposed constituents want, instead doing the bidding of the wealthiest (Martin Gilens & Benjamin I. Page, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens), and it can’t be rationalized by a ludicrous claim that the poor want to be ruled over by a plutocracy (Nicholas Carnes & Noam Lupu, Do Voters Dislike Working-Class Candidates? Voter Biases and the Descriptive Underrepresentation of the Working Class).

Growing concentration and inequality of wealth inevitably coincides with growing concentration and inequality of not only political representation but of power and influence, resources and opportunities. Even the most basic necessities for survival like clean air and water are not evenly distributed, something that would be a human right if we lived in a functioning democracy. When clean air and water don’t fall under the guaranteed protection of the public good, the ideal of a society built on a public has lost all meaning.

It’s unsurprising, under these conditions, that the overt symbols of public good have been particularly under attack. With this comes talk of privatizing Social Security, eliminating welfare, and much else. At one point, the public good was understood to be integral to national security. This is why the U.S. federal government in the past invested so heavily to ensure cheap education, housing, travel, etc — even if we might question some of these investments such as the creation of car culture and suburbia through government funding. My parents’ generation essentially got free college and great jobs in an economy boosted by big gov simply for being born in the post-war period.

The point is that, in an earlier time, the understanding and support of the public good was strongly held across American society and within both of the main political parties. After all, it was President Richard Nixon who, as a Republican passed the Environmental Protection Agency and proposed universal healthcare and universal basic income, the latter policies being now considered as communist by conservatives and too far left-wing by mainstream liberals. How far we’ve fallen.

Right-wing Republicans complain about high taxes while corporatist Democrats seem to agree, but not that long ago both parties supported immensely higher tax rates than we have now, specifically for the upper brackets. When looking at public opinion, Americans do still support taxing the rich far more. The problem is the plutocracy owning our government don’t agree with the public on this issue. Hence, so-called public policy has become disconnected from the reality on the ground of public opinion.

Loss of taxes hasn’t stopped the government from going into permanent debt by pumping immense public wealth and resources into the highly profitable military-industrial complex. This is seen with how Amazon, by way of the Pentagon cronyism Jeff Bezos inherited from his grandfather, has made huge profits from its government contracts while operating its private sector business at a loss for decades (Plutocratic Mirage of Self-Made Billionaires). Then when corporatism crashed the economy in 2008, government bailed out failing banks and corporations because they were too big to fail, which is an argument that they were so essential that they no longer should be allowed to operate according to market forces in a free market. It was another step further into fascism. Now, in this COVID-19 pandemic, most of the relief money once again is going to big biz in conflating private interest with public good.

The role that government used to play was in promoting areas of society that genuinely were for the public good. This included fundamental things like massive investments into education, housing, and infrastructure; but it also went into equally necessary things like basic research. This created immense knowledge that helped with technological invention and innovation. It funded the kind of research that benefits the public but doesn’t directly benefit corporate profit, although it is highly useful for private research companies in using it to build upon in their own research. In the slashing of government funding for research, it’s forced companies to do more of it, even though never to the degree as ween before. For-profit businesses are too conservative to take the risks that lead to new scientific discoveries. It’s a public good that can’t be re-created on the private market. The loss of that funding was also a loss of a mentality of public service, as demonstrated by Jonas Salk’s refusal to patent the polio vaccine.

Strangely, even ‘public’ media no longer gets most of its funding from government. NPR, for example, is now primarily supported by corporations and other private organizations. When sponsors of public media are listed, it essentially comes down to another form of advertisement. And anyone with a lick of sense realizes this influences what gets reported and not, along with how it gets reported. Some analysis has shown that a disproportionate number of guests on NPR come from right-wing think tanks (NPR: Liberal Bias?) that often advocate corporatist ideology or else simply presume capitalist realism.

Also, consider how HBO as a private company has bought the rights to the PBS show Sesame Street, one of the greatest shows ever produced by any public media in the world. HBO has also gained exclusive rights in the United States to streaming BBC’s Doctor Who. Or look at how the BBC has partnered with for-profit media: Netflix, AMC, FX Networks, etc; one example is the Hulu-BBC show Normal People. This is a growing trend.

So, despite accusations to the contrary, not only is public media not always clearly public but not even particularly liberal in a meaningful sense, except maybe in the historical sense. I’m thinking of how American liberals were some of the strongest Cold Warriors during the McCarthy oppression with red-baiting and blacklisting, not to mention the liberal fear of the likes of Martin Luther King jr. It’s similar to how German liberals supported the Nazis in their opposition to left-wingers. Liberalism, in practice, too often becomes yet another variety of reactionary.

The casualty in this has been the public — the public as the people and as the common good; the public as a guiding concept, principle and vision. This allowed public rhetoric to be usurped by authoritarians who use it to great effect, maybe for the simple reason that the public is so hungry for someone, anyone to powerfully invoke a public message, however distorted. That could be taken as a positive sign. This moment of national and global crisis is ripe for a re-awakening of the public sensibility as a genuine force of inspiration and political will toward reform. This might be a new age of rebuilding public institutions and shoring up public authority. The public might begin to remember they are a public, that they are the majority (US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism). Government as self-governance is an important part of what defines the public, but the two should never be conflated. It is we the people who are the public.

 

The Head of Capital and the Body Politic

What is capitalism? The term is etymologically related to cattle (and chattel). The basic notion of capitalism is fungible wealth. That is property that can be moved around, like cattle (or else what can be moved by cattle, such as being put in a wagon pulled by cattle or some other beast of burden). It relates to a head of cattle. The term capitalism is derived from capital or rather capitale, a late Latin word based on caput, meaning of the head.

A capital is the head of a society and the capitol is where the head of power resides — Capital vs. Capitol:

Both capital and capitol are derived from the Latin root caput, meaning “head.” Capital evolved from the words capitālis, “of the head,” and capitāle, “wealth.” Capitol comes from Capitōlium, the name of a temple (dedicated to Jupiter, the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Zeus) that once sat on the smallest of Rome’s seven hills, Capitoline Hill.

But there is also the body politic or the body of Christ. The head has become the symbolic representation of the body, but the head is just one part of the body. It is the body that is the organic whole, with the people as demos: national citizenry, community members, church congregants, etc. This is the corporeal existence of the social order. And it is the traditional basis of a corporation, specifically as representing some kind of personhood. At one time, objects and organizations were treated as having actual, not just legal, personhood. The body of Christ was perceived as a living reality, not just a convenient way for the powerful to wield their power.

If you go back far enough, the head of a society was apparently quite literal. In the ancient world, when a leader died, they often lopped off his head because that was the source of the voice of authority. Supposedly, bicameral societies involved an experience where people continued hearing voices of dead kings and godmen, presumably why they kept the skull around. The earliest known permanent structures were temples of death cults with headless imagery, and these temples were built prior to humans settling down — prior to agriculture, pottery, and domesticating cattle. They built houses to their gods before they built houses for themselves. The capital of these societies were temples and that was the convenient location for storing their holy skulls.

Gobekli Tepe, like many other similar sites, was located on a hill. That has long been symbolic of power. After bicameral societies developed, they built artificial hills such as mounding up dirt or stacking large stones as pyramids. The head is at the top of the body and it is from that vantage point that all of the world can be seen. It was natural to associate the panoramic view of a hill or mountain with power and authority, to associate vision with visionary experience. Therefore, it made sense to locate a god’s house in such a high place. Temples and churches, until recent history, were typically the tallest structures in any town or city. In this age of capitalism, it is unsurprising that buildings of business now serve that symbolic role of what is held highest in esteem and so housed in the tallest buildings. The CEO is the head of our society, quite literally at the moment with a businessman as president, a new plutocratic aristocracy forming.

What we’ve forgotten is that the head is part of a body. As a mere part of the body, the head should serve the body in that the part should serve the whole and not the other way around. In tribal societies, there is the big man who represents the tribe. He is the head of the community, but his ability to command submission was severely limited. In Native American tribes, it was common for clans to make their own decisions, whether to follow the tribal leader or not. The real power was in the community, in the social order. The Amazonian Piraha go so far as to have no permanent leadership roles at all.

Even in the more complex Western social order before capitalism took hold, feudal lords were constricted by social responsibilities and obligations to their communities. These feudal lords originated from a tradition where kings were beholden to and originally chosen by the community. Their power wasn’t separate from the community, although feudalism slowly developed in that direction which made possible for the takeover of privatized capitalism. But even in early capitalism, plantation owners were still acting as the big men of their communities where they took care of trade with the external word and took care of problems within the local population. Store owners began taking over this role. Joe Bageant described the West Virginian town he grew up in during the early 20th century and it was still operating according to a barter economy where all outside trade flowed through the store owner with no monetary system being required within the community.

A major difference of the early societies is how important was social order. It was taken as reality, in the way we today take individuality as reality. For most of human existence, most humans would never have been able to comprehend our modern notion of individuality. Primary value was not placed on the individual, not even the individual leader who represented something greater than himself. Even the Roosevelts as presidents still carried a notion of noblesse oblige which signified that there was something more important than their own individuality, one of the most ancient ideas that has almost entirely disappeared.

Interestingly, pre-modern people as with tribal people in some ways had greater freedom in their identity for the very reason their identity was social, rather than individual. The Piraha can change their name and become a new person, as far as other Piraha are concerned. In Feudalism, carnival allowed people to regularly lose their sense of identity and become something else. We modern people are so attached to our individuality that losing our self seems like madness. Our modern social order is built on the rhetoric of individuality and this puts immense weight on individuals, possibly explaining the high rates of mental illness and suicide in modern society. Madness and death is our only escape from the ego.

Capitalism, as globalized neoliberalism, is a high pressure system. Instead of the head of society serving the body politic, we worship the detached head as if a new death cult has taken hold. A corporation is the zombie body without a soul, the preeminent form of our corporatist society with the transnational CEO as the god king standing upon his temple hill. We worship individuality to such a degree that only a few at the top are allowed to be genuine individuals, a cult of death by way of a cult of personality, power detached from the demos like a plant uprooted. The ruling elite are the privileged individuals who tell the dirty masses what to do, the voices we hear on the all-pervasive media. The poor are just bodies to be sacrificed on the altar of desperation, homelessness, prison, and war. As Margaret Thatcher stated in no uncertain terms, there is no society. That is to say there is no body politic, just a mass of bodies as food for the gods.

The head of power, like a cancerous tumor, has grown larger than the body politic. The fungible wealth of capitalism can be moved, but where is it to move. The head can’t move without the body. Wealth can’t be separated from what the world that creates it. Do the plutocrats plan on herding their wealth across the starry heavens in the hope of escaping gravity of the corporeal earth? If we take the plutocrats hallowed skull and trap the plutocrat’s divine being in a temple hill, what would the voice tell us?

At the end of the Bronze Age, a major factor of the mass collapse of civilizations was the horse-drawn chariot. Horses were an early domesticated animal, a major form of fungible wealth. Horses and chariots made new forms of warfare possible, involving large standing armies that could be quickly moved across vast distances with supply chains to keep them fed and armed. Along with other factors, this was a game-changer and the once stable bicameral societies fell one after another. Bicameral societies were non-capitalistic, but the following Axial Age would set the foundations for what would eventually become modern capitalism. Bicameral civilization remained stable for millennia. The civilization formed from the Axial Age has maintained itself and we are the inheritors of its traditions. The danger is that, like bicameral societies, we might become the victims of our own success in growing so large. Our situation is precarious. A single unforeseen factor could send it all tumbling down. Maybe globalized neoliberalism is our horse-drawn chariot.

A head detached from its body is the symbol of modernity, grotesquely demonstrated by the guillotine of the French Revolution, the horror of horrors to the defenders of the ancien regime. Abstract ideas have taken on a life of their own with ideological systems far outreaching what supports them. It’s like a tree clinging to a crumbling cliffside, as if it were hoping to spread its limbs like wings to take flight out across the chasm below. In forgetting the ground of our being, what has been lost and what even greater loss threatens? Before revolution had begun but with revolution in the air, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in 1750 (Discourse on the Arts and Sciences), “What will become of virtue if riches are to be acquired at any cost? The politicians of the ancient world spoke constantly of morals and virtue; ours speak of nothing but commerce and money.” That question is now being answered.

* * *

There was one detail I forgot to work into this piece. Feudalism was on my mind. The end of feudalism was the final nail in the coffin for the societal transformation that began during the Axial Age. What finally forced the feudal order, upon which the ancien regime was dependent, to fall apart or rather be dismantled was sheep, another domesticated animal.

Feudalism was dependent on labor-intensive agriculture that required a large local peasant population. With sheep herding, fewer people were required. The feudal commons were privatized, the peasants kicked off the land, entire villages were razed to the ground, and probably millions of people over several centuries were made destitute, homeless, and starving.

Vast wealth was transferred into private hands. This created a new plutocratic class within a new capitalist order. There is an interesting relationship between domesticated animals and social change. Another example of this is how free-ranging pigs in the American colonies wreaked havoc on Native American villages and gardens, making impossible their way of life.

This process of destruction is how civilization as we know it was built. Some call this creative destruction. For others, it has been plain destruction.