After Sandy, The Politics of Public Things

In response to the contemporary neoliberal impulse to privatize everything and the difficulty, in such a context, of preserving public things and of articulating the importance of public things to democratic life, it is important to think about public things. A few weeks ago, Sesame Street’s Big Bird became a symbol of this struggle though it was not named as such. We witnessed, after the first US Presidential debate, some discussions and disagreements regarding how much money could be saved by Mitt Romney’s promise, at the start of the debate, to cut government funding to PBS.

The amount of money involved is relatively small, and most of the budget of PBS is raised already through private fundraising, so commentators see this as one more meaningless cut, or as red meat for the right which wants cuts regardless of their size. The former dismiss the gesture, the latter appreciate it, but both see it as a gesture. But what (else) is in that gesture? Surely something other than money is at issue here for both critics and defenders of Big Bird. If there is so much brouhaha over Big Bird, if the attachment to it seems fetishistic or infantile, this may be symptomatic of the fact that it is one of the few public things left in the US.

What is not said, or certainly not enough, is that it is not about the money. It is about completing the privatization and destruction of the public things of American democracy, a project that has been ongoing for over 30 years. To most American conservatives, government itself is only a necessary evil (except on the point where they split: the legislation of virtue or family values) and, these days, even those of its functions that have been historically conceded by conservatives to belong properly to government, like imprisonment, border policing, and military defense or adventurism, are increasingly sold off or subcontracted to private industry. All that is left to government to do is to make the policies whose discretionary implementation these subsidiaries execute. The claim is sometimes that these private companies can do the job better or more efficiently, or that they are better job-​creators than the government. (Either way, note, it is about getting the “job done,” a phrasing that should strike readers of Hannah Arendt as particularly problematic in a political context.)

But the real issue here, surely, is a political orientation rooted in a fundamental antipathy to public things and their sometimes magical properties which, not to put too flat a point on it, Big Bird represents. Everybody loves Big Bird! was the refrain after the first Presidential debate. Exactly. And democracy is rooted in common love for such shared objects, or even in contestation of them (which betrays a common love, more than sentimental claims of devotion do). Is it the object that we love (and contest)? Or is it the seemingly a-​political but really deeply political publicness it instantiates?

This is different from the mass consumerist need to all be in love with the same private object — the newest iPhone, say — and to have one, of which there are millions. That said, this consumer need may well be the ruin, the remnant, of the democratic desire to constellate affectively around shared objects.

The ruin speaks out sometimes, though. For example, after Hurricane Sandy, pay phones, normally treated as part of the city’s ruined landscape, emerged suddenly to become communications life-​savers; relics with an afterlife. As Ben Cohen noted, “Natural disasters tend to vindicate the pay phone” which is “mounted high and sometimes behind glass stalls [and so] generally remain serviceable during power outages, even amid flooding.” Focusing on the only problem would-​be users now face, coin-​overload, however, this journalist misses the real importance of so-​called pay phones. They are, as indeed they were once called, public phones, situated on the streets and available to everyone.

Though not publicly owned (they are now serviced by 13 different local pay phone franchises) they are regulated by New York’s Dept of Information Technology and Telecommunications. Said one new user of the old technology “it’s funny what’s hiding in plain sight…it’s invisible, but when you need it, it’s there.” Surely, that quaint trait of the public telephone stands synechdochally for the quaintness, in our neo-​liberal context, of publicness itself. That is, it is not just the technology of the phones that is like a relic from a past time. What is funny, invisible, but hiding in plain sight is the idea of public goods, goods that conjoin people, and are to be shared among various users from all kinds of backgrounds, classes, and social locations.

At the moment, in the aftermath of Sandy, there is talk about demanding better cell phone towers to secure coverage in emergencies, but this response is rather like the decision to build more roads for cars a century ago, in place of public transportation. There should really be more talk of securing more pay phones and more appreciation of the fact that the ones they have in NYC, that most palimpsest-​like of all cities, in fact seem to work.

The longing for public things may in fact have found expression in this week’s return to discussions of climate change. It could just be one more round of emergency politics. But it could be also, or somehow, a subtle promise of collective goods, demanding our attention, offering a site of constellation to those hungry for public things.

Bonnie Honig is Sarah Rebecca Roland Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University and Senior Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation.

Gratefully republished from Contemporary Condition.

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