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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