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.