Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Commons and the Public Sphere: Five Clarifications

Below I clarify how I view the relation between the commons and the public sphere (plus related concepts such as public property, muen and no-man’s-land).

Clarification 1: The relation of the commons to public and private property

The words public and private are used in many senses. Often, they are used to designate ownership (as in “public sector”). In this sense, the words belong to a wholly other dimension than words like commons or no-man’s-land. The reason is that the latter words have to do with usus, not with dominium or formal ownership. The commons does not negate property. A resource is “free”, according to Lawrence Lessing, if it can be used without permission (or if the permission is granted neutrally). The question is thus not who owns the resource but whether it can be used freely (Lessig 2007). A squat house is a house that has been made into a commons despite being privately or publicly owned. What squatters want is the right to use the house, not to own it. In many countries, public or private land such as forests, mountains and beaches approximate commons since they can be used freely by visitors for camping, making fires, or picking berries, mushrooms or nuts. The commons, then, is what can be freely used, regardless of who owns it.

Clarification 2: The difference between the commons and the public sphere

Many who use the word "commons" focus on the economic aspects of the commons, on its opposition to capitalism and private propoerty (e.g. the fine articles by Nick Dyer-Witheford available here). Here I will highlight the political aspect of the commons by focusing on the relation between the commons and the public sphere.

Affirming what I have called commons or no-man’s land is not incompatible with endorsing a public sphere. To a large extent the public is of course a common, since speech and debate is freed up for circulation (as long as it doesn’t come with copyright). More importantly, the commons is what endows the public sphere with its best and most sympathetic trait: the idea of an arena without hierarchies in which anyone is welcome to participate. My argument for that can be read below. This argument also suggests that the commons is what nourishes the public sphere, the source of the constant renewals without which it would stagnate.

The “public sphere” is, however, a narrower notion than that of a “commons” in three respects.

Firstly, the term “public sphere” evokes a specific form of verbal interaction, namely rational deliberation on shared concerns among citizens, the outcome of which is the “general will”. The sphere of work, family and everyday life, by contrast, are consigned to the private sphere, a sphere in which our statements are denuded of general relevance and whatever we do is our business alone. Compared to the “public” the “commons” is a much wider concept, since it includes not only language and discussion but also nature, environment, all kinds of resources that can be used, the items and activities of a shared everyday life, the toil of work as well as that of festivities. It allows for the expression and manifestation of life, whereas the “public” generally demands that we "behave", that we bracket whatever is private and not of common concern.

Secondly, while one of the chief characteristics of the “public” according to Habermas is its opposition to state power, the commons is much more: any form of shared life partakes of the commons. Intriguingly, the commons appears to work as a concept without having to be counterpoised to anything corresponding to the “private”. Indeed, it is often used in ways that suggest that it includes many of the areas of life – daily life, the economic activities of production and consumption – that are usually considered private.

Thirdly, the “public sphere” has never ceased to be accused of foul play: of complicity with order, of reproducing social hierarchies, of excluding women, slaves, the working classes, foreigners, children, all groups considered beneath the dignity of responsible male bourgeois citizens. In short, of being a club for the privileged. Not only are people excluded. We also see an exclusion of “unworthy” topics, of “unserious” media, of dialects and sociolects (and entire languages), of times and places deemed unfit for serious discussion, and so on. These exclusions contradict the universalistic ideal of openness, but ultimately follow from the fact that public sphere is constituted by, or founded on, a distinction between public and private and on an exclusion of the private. Although the content of exclusion is variable, exclusion as such will probably remain endemic to the public sphere as long as it founds itself on a separation from the private.

Oh sure, there has been lots of resistance too towards this exclusion. The “private” has always reappeared with a vengeance, idealized on the one hand as a “sheltered island” and feared on the other as the unruly abode of the excluded. Think of the working class cafés functioning as “incubators of revolt” (Haine 1996) or the “subaltern counter-publics” that so often have provided disgruntled minorities with “bases and training grounds for agitational activities” (Frazer 1992:124). Typically, these resistances have resulted in an expansion of the public, in the lifting up of topics to be treated in public discussion from the private sphere to which they had been relegated (“the personal is political”), in apparently ever closer approximations of the Ideale Sprechsituation. However, although the borderline between public and private has repeatedly been challenged and renegotiated, the distinction as such has remained firmly in place. It is as if, already from the beginning, as soon as we began thinking the notion of a “public”, the stage was set for a dialectics to unfold whereby the subaltern or excluded would take refuge in the private only to return, emboldened and empowered, to claim their rightful place in the mainstream public and thereby expand its limits without ever abolishing them.

This dialectic cannot be found in the commons. The common does not exclude. It’s where you end up after you are excluded. It’s where the zabbaleen are looking for garbage, where the homeless sleep. It’s what’s left. It’s what always accepts you, no matter how poor it is or how poor you are. It’s where you don’t need keys.

Note that many of the things, and activities found in the commons – take sleeping or eating on the street – are not only distinct from what you find in respectable “public” intercourse. They are also liberated from their confinement in the private. Let’s say that you want to be alone: if you can lock the door around you, then that’s private space, but if not, then it’s the commons. So: how do you do to ensure that you’re not disturbed? Either you walk up into the mountains, or else you ask the others to let you be alone for a while. In either case, you’re in the commons. You manage without keys.

Clarification 3: The persistence of the commons within the public sphere

Here the argument is going to be a bit intricate. I mentioned that the commons somehow inhered in the public sphere, as what constituted the core or foundation of the freedom, egalitarianism and openness which we associate with the idea of the public sphere. This openness and egalitarianism is not simply an ideological pretense but also expressive of a certain “truth-content” which in reality is often betrayed.

Here’s the first step of my argument. To put it simply, we need to relativize the usual explanations of why the public would be a well-spring of freedom, egalitarianism or openness. In the canonical account by Habermas, this potential is located above all in the force of reason inherent in language or communication, in the fact that whatever is said will survive critical scrutiny only to the extent that it is supported by good arguments. Whenever we try to achieve understanding through communication, we let ourselves be guided by the ideal of a free and egalitarian discussion in which no-one concerned is excluded. There is thus a tendency in language itself to counteract the distortions of the public sphere. To Habermas, the liberating potential of the public sphere is therefore located in language. The more that is transposed from the realm of unquestioned belief to the realm of communication, the greater the emancipatory effect will be. To Arendt too, the freedom inherent in the political act is inseparable from the word, from public speech. “Only sheer violence is mute” (Arendt 1958:178).

My criticism of Habermas and Arendt here will be very mild. All I want to add to their account is the word “sometimes”. Discussion is the best way to increase freedom and equality, but only sometimes. A very easy way to make this point would be to refer to Albert O. Hirschman: sometimes our freedom is best furthered not by “voice” but by “exit”, by deserting rather than protesting. Here, however, I will try to advance a slightly different argument since I’m more interested in where the emancipatory potential of the public sphere actually originates than in attacking the belief in the benefits of communication per se.

My next step is to make a very simple point: even Habermas, in his Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, mentions a source of freedom and egalitarianism in the emerging public sphere of the 18th century that has nothing to do with language per se. In the coffee houses, salons and Tischgesellschaften, he writes, status was disregarded in social intercourse. The nobility and grande bourgeoisie “met with the ‘intellectuals’ on an equal footing”, and the “sons of princes associated with sons of watchmakers and shopkeepers” (Habermas 1989:33). Neither social hierarchies nor economic dependencies were supposed to have any influence on the discussions, which at least in principle were left solely to the “authority of the better argument”. This certainly indicates the ascendancy over traditional status of communicative reason, to use the term which Habermas would later make famous. Here we should point out, however, that this semblance of equality was also simultaneously the result of a systematic bracketing of status. Space for rational discussion was created by leaving things unsaid. To put it concisely: an important source of freedom and openness in the public sphere was silence.

The realization that bracketing is crucial for freedom can be found in Arendt too, when she points out that participation in public life requires a form of theatre or play-acting. “Theatre”, she says, is the political art par excellence (Arendt 1958:188). The public is the realm to which people, who are normally deeply embedded in a variety of dependencies, withdraw in order to meet as equals, where they engage so to speak as abstract citizens, stripped of the power-relations in real life. This doesn’t mean that public life is “fake” or divorced from reality. On the contrary, to Arendt play-acting is essential for the constitution of the perhaps most emphatic reality we will ever know, the public realm in which we make ourselves visible to the world. “Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest form of intimate life – the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses – lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence...” (ibid 50). Paradoxically, the only way we can become “visible” as political beings, is by keeping our concrete social circumstances and our rootedness in economic and biological necessity invisible.

The public realm is therefore not constituted by communication alone, but rather by a delicate balance between what is said and what is unsaid, by what is visible and what is not.

To avoid misunderstanding, let me underline that the unsaid is not at all mysterious or ineffable. It is silence only from the point of view of the public that excludes it or pretends not to hear it. It is the sound of daily life – the trivial speech that surrounds us like air, the murmur that never makes it to the public, but which nevertheless structures daily life. It is everything said in jest, every irresponsible remark; it is all the speech by which we litter our everyday lives. It’s the criticism that’s too controversial to be “taken seriously”. It can be abrasive speech, garrulous speech, tactless speech, indecent speech, speech with the wrong accent or in the wrong dialect – everything that must be bracketed in order for speech to attain the dignity of public speech.

The best account of this balance between said and unsaid is Georg Simmel’s classical analysis of play and sociability in the salons of the haute bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. In the witty conversations and the coquetry differences in status or wealth were tactfully disregarded. Interaction had a “democratic” character, since everybody behaved as if they were equal. This interaction has the character of play since it aimed at nothing but the success of the sociable moment itself, separating itself from the "objective interests" of the real social world. “Wealth, social position, erudition, fame, exceptional capabilities and merits, may not play any part in sociability”, and “the purely and deeply personal traits of one’s life, character, mood, and fate must likewise be eliminated” (Simmel 1964:46). In other words, the democratic semblance of equality is premised on a systematic bracketing of the real world, on a leaving things unsaid. At the same time, this pretense is fragile. It breaks down whenever social reality reasserts itself - through lack of tact, by bringing up too "serious" subjects for discussion, or by falling in love. It works best when interaction takes place within the same social stratum, and breaks down if class differences are too great.

The democratic semblance is not entirely ideological. As we recall, it is exactly what Habermas extolled as a quality of the early bourgeois public sphere where the nobility would interact with intellectuals and watchmakers on an equal footing. The sociability of salons, cafés or pubs distance themselves from social reality, but at the same time create an atmosphere in which life in social reality can be viewed through a kind of Utopian distortion, as something that can be changed according to the playful imagination unfolding in the public discussions. An inebriated soberness is created in which we get a taste of how human relations without wealth or power might look. The lightness of a sociability divorced from the seriousness of social reality paradoxically means that you are for ever tempted to commit yourself, to fall in love or to become a revolutionary.

Similar mechanisms of bracketing appear to be crucial in all large-scale arenas that have a semblance of egalitarianism. What they all have in common is that they abstract from large areas of social reality, offering at least temporary relief from that realiy. Thus every game creates its own free zones of things it does not thematize. Chess, lottary and soccer allow you to forget about status, wealth or ethnicity. Games creates “equality” in the sense of a separation from the hierarchies of the real or secular order, but can also give rise to new forms of inequality by virtue of their own rules.

We can even generalize a step further: We participate in an arena not only because of what it highlights, its officially stated aim, but also because of what it leaves in the shade. As Simmel points out, the prominent economic role of minority groups like Jews, Armenians or the Parsis can be explained by the fact that the market brackets ethnicity. Karatani Kôjin argues that a similar mechanism holds true for politics. What protects the dissidents and the minorities from the revenge of the powerful, he points out, is not rational debate but anonymity. The “liberal” principle of anonymous voting, along with mechanisms for preventing the concentration of power, are more important than the “democratic” principle of common deliberation. The public is constituted by a freedom to keep silent and not to be a subject, just as much as it is constituted by the freedom of expression and of being a subject (Karatani 1999:128f).

I think the point is clear enough: much of the freedom, openness, egalitarianism and sense of empowerment that can be experienced by participating in the public sphere derives not from the “said” as such, but at least as much from what is “unsaid”. The reason is that a public in which people are allowed to participate on an equal footing can only come into being through bracketing.

What is unsaid is also what is left outside official discourse: unwanted, unidentified, without social definition.

This in turn means that the public sphere itself can only come into being by actively creating socially undefined domains. Such domains are what I have called no-man's-land or commons. They are domains that become off-limits to and unregulated by public speech, and whose fate becomes entrusted to the murmur of daily life.

The commons therefore persists indelibly in the public sphere.

The unsaid is not only the excluded flipside of public communication, but it also a condition and a source of the latter. Excluded, but at the same time reproduced and protected by the public sphere, the common is crucial to the latter’s vitality in two respects. Firstly, creating a commons outside of itself is a precondition of the semblance of openness and equality in the public sphere. As mentioned, this semblance is not totally ideological since it always involves the temptation to realize this equality in the real life of the surrounding society itself.

Secondly, the murmurings of the commons are the seedbed of what may one day become public speech – the speech of subalterns having had enough. This tactless reappearance of the subaltern in public brings about the collapse of the semblance of democratic equality, but also opens up the possibility of political struggle, of a participation in public that is no longer premised on the semblance of equality, and which lifts the reality of inequality up into the realm of the "said" only in order to denounce it. This too contributes to the public, to a better public. The commons is indispensible whenever opposition is to be renewed and counter-publics born. It is what helps turn the public into an arena of political struggle.

Clarification 4: Muen, public, and commons

It is because the commons is so crucial to the public sphere that Amino Yoshihiko can see muen – which I associated with no-man’s-land or the commons in my earlier post – as predecessors of a public sphere in Japan. At first sight this might seem bizarre, since muen didn’t have much to do with public deliberation or rational debate (the practice of kôron, a form of rational debate among monks, was an exception). It did, however, have much to do with bracketing: the cutting off of status relation and all other secular bonds of feudal society, and the semblance of the equality of all living beings in the eyes of Buddha. This bracketing, as I have shown, is just as crucial to the public as communication. Furthermore, bracketing is not only functional for the maintaining a “democratic pretense”, but also for generating movements challenging the established order. Just as salons, cafés and pubs were incubators of revolt, Amino believes that muen inspired the ikki, rebellious federations in late medieval Japan with a strong element of egalitarianism.

Clarification 5: The commons and no-man’s-land

All of what I’ve written so far about the commons also holds for no-man’s-land. However, there may be a point in keeping the two concepts separate. To put it simply, the commons is usually imagined as a space in which the question of sharing is more or less solved, in which people have already agreed, implicitly or explicitly, to let a resource to used freely. I picture no-man’s-land as a slightly wider concept that would also include the wilderness, a space in which nothing is yet resolved. No-man’s-land does not necessarily give birth to a commons. Interaction in no-man’s-land can also take the form of war.


Amino, Yoshihiko (1996a) Muen-Kugai-Raku: Nihon chûsei no jiyû to heiwa (Muen, Kugai, Raku: Freedom and Peace in Medieval Japan), Tokyo: Heibonsha.

Arendt, Hannah (1958) The Human Condition, Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.

Dyer-Witheford, Nick (2006) “The Circulation of the Common”.

Frazer, Nancy (1992) “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy”, pp 109-42, in Calhoun, Craig (ed) Habermas and the Public Sphere, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Habermas, Jürgen (1989) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Haine, W. Scott (1996) The World of the Paris Café: Sociability among the French Working Class, 1789-1914, Baltimore & London: The John Hopkins University Press.

Hirschman, Albert O. (1970) Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, Cambridge, Mass. & London, England: Harvard University Press.

Karatani, Kôjin (1999) Hyûmoa to shite no yuibutsuron (Materialism as humour), Tokyo: Kôdansha gakujutsu bunko

Lessig, Lawrence (2007) “The Vision for the Creative Commons: What are We and Where are We Headed? Free Culture”, pp 36-49, in Fitzgerald, Brian (ed) Open Content Licensing: Cultivating the Creative Commons, Sydney: Sydney University Press.

Simmel, Georg (1964) “Sociability: An example of Pure, or Formal Sociology”, pp 40-57, in The Sociology of Georg Simmel (ed. Kurt H. Wolff), London: The Free Press.

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