10 December 2010


A newspaper alerted me to an interesting editorial in the new In These Times in defense of "the public" against a shallow libertarian individualist onslaught that consistently grades "public" inferior to "private." Eve Ewing sees a need to combat a growing prejudice in favor of privatization that she blames on capitalism.

The logic of this mode of thought has skewed roots in the principles of supply and demand, and it goes something like this: if something is scarce, it is desirable and valuable; conversely, if it is abundant and readily available it must be cheap or worthless. This calculus can reduce any and all things into commodities, the relative value of which can be determined by their level of unfettered availability to average people.

That's just the beginning, really. In my discussions with Republicans, they explain the innate inferiority of the "public" by blaming it on the inherent inefficiency of political bureaucracies who are somehow immunized from and unaccountable to the usual market disciplines that supposedly enforce efficiency. Recall Mr. Right's frequent contention that war is the only thing the public sector can do better than the private. The fallacy here is that bureaucracy is something exclusive to the public sector, and that there's no such thing as office politics that work to protect the inefficient in the private sector. Cynicism about the public sector is fueled by misplaced idealism about the private, but I don't think you can explain the growing aversion to the public and the accelerating privatization of social life entirely in structuralist terms -- unless you want to get more ambitious and attribute all demands for greater privacy in general, in all aspects of life, to an idea of individualism that is capitalist in origin.

Ewing defines the public as "the embodiment of a promise, a social contract, that we make to one another: to be mutually accountable and dependable, to cooperate in pursuit of the common good and to communicate openly and honestly when we can’t easily agree on what the common good is." Mutual accountability is the sticking point. Just about all of us mark off areas of our life where we deem ourselves unaccountable to other people; sexuality is the most obvious or common case. A large part of our disagreement over the common good is a dispute over mutual accountability. Am I accountable to everyone else for what I do in the bedroom? Some will say my acts have public consequences (children I can't afford to raise, for instance) and should be subject to public scrutiny or censure. Since the Sixties, if not earlier, Americans have struggled to liberate themselves from forms of accountability that seemed outmoded or no longer justifiable. The struggle has put the principle of accountability itself at risk. I'm open to someone tying this to capitalism, but it's not so easy to identify this privatizing impulse with the "Right." If anyone believes that redeeming the "public" is a struggle against the Right exclusively, they're most likely mistaken.

As Ewing notes, "Public does not mean government institutions or government ownership." It's not just the stuff that right-wingers don't like. It's also an essential part of the identity of any citizen. It used to be a standard American belief, from the Founders at least through the Progressive Era, that an American citizen's character was defined in large part by his public activity. You proved your virtue or your morality by public-spirited activity. Somewhere along the way that ideal has been lost as we've been sold on a new ideal of personal autonomy in which neighbors count for less than self-selected circles of virtual "friends." Our sense of citizenship may be dangerously close to LeBron James's sense of teamwork. James doesn't join a team in order to help it win a championship; he joins so the team can help him win a ring. So it is with Americans who think the nation is only worth defending so long as it maximizes their personal freedom and personal profits. Ewing's article is full of touchy-feely language about "belonging" and "emotional comfort," but stronger language might be helpful in these times. "Obligation" isn't bad, but "duty" might be better.


Anonymous said...

So you think your sex life is not accountable to others? I guess that is only true if you are not a member of the gay/lesbian/bi/transgendered crowd.

The entire notion of marriage=1man+1woman proves that at least some people in this country believe that any individual's sexuality is accountable to every one else.

Samuel Wilson said...

My point is that many Americans, including those in the oppressed category, think that this is an area of their lives in which they shouldn't be accountable to the community at large. Many other Americans obviously disagree, just as there are other areas of disputed accountability. In the past, heterosexuals weren't exempt from accountability for their sexual conduct, whether at the legal or social level, but in liberating themselves (if not others) from oppressive accountability they've helped throw the general idea of accountability for "private" conduct into disrepute.