Public and Common(s)
Occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol Rotunda, 2011. [Photo by Peter Patau]
Two terms, or really, two groups of terms, seem to gather competing ideas as to how we might conceive anything like a collective, collectivity, or collective space today. The city figures prominently in both. On the one hand we have the set of concepts assembled around the term “public,” as in public realm, public sphere, public space, public sector, and “the public” itself. On the other we have the set of concepts associated with the term “common”: the common(s), common sense, and common wealth. The latter set resonates with communism, communal, and the like. But neither should its usage by environmentalists to debate an oft-misunderstood “tragedy of the commons” be overlooked; similarly, as the recent controversy over a potential “public option” in American health care reform showed, conventional Anglophone usage associates “public” with the welfare state and with liberal/progressive political reform more generally.
Circulating between these two sets of terms is the category of the “social,” as in socialism, but also as used by the philosopher Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition (1958), to differentiate the modern managerial sphere, including both state- and market-based social or behavioral management, from the classical res publica. According to Arendt, modernity is characterized by the preponderance of managerial practices — “housekeeping,” as she puts it — that have emerged from the classical domestic sphere, the oikos, to organize and dominate the life of the polis, or city. These practices take as their field of activity a newly constituted object — society — thereby blotting out the distinction between public and private life, or the distinction between household management and political life, on which city-states were founded in classical times. Many commentators have pointed out that in accepting uncritically this division of labor, Arendt idealizes the Greek polis, in which only male citizens participated in “public” (i.e. political) life, with women and slaves confined to the household (the “private” realm, or oikos) and its internal, domestic economy.
For Arendt, the polis constitutes a “space of appearance,” in which being-in-public, or “publicity,” is effectively synonymous with politics. More than simply a public square or forum, the space of appearance is potentially ubiquitous. As she puts it, “appearance — something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves — constitutes reality” ; meaning that publics are formed only in the presence of others. In the sort of democratic city-state that Arendt has in mind, these others are equals, to whom fall the responsibilities of governance. Such governance is decidedly agonistic, in that “the reality of the public realm relies on the simultaneous presence of innumerable perspectives and aspects in which the common world presents itself.”  This "presence of innumerable perspectives" renders Arendt’s “public appearance” a kind of struggle among equals for the heart and soul of the polis, which is what differentiates it from the false “objectivity” of the money economy and of administrative rationality more generally.
Jules-Alexandre Grün, Friday at the French Artists’ Salon, 1911.
It is worth noting that Jürgen Habermas, in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), associates in passing Arendt’s “rise of the social” with the emergence of what he calls the bourgeois public sphere (Öffentlichkeit). This sphere is, again, ideally a social space in which transparent communication among equals occurs in such a manner that these individuals (“private persons,” or Privatmannen) come together to form a public capable of laying claim on state politics. It is also, as Habermas says, the space where “public opinion” (opinion publique, or its analogue, öffentliche Meinung) is formed; remembering the 18th-century pamphleteer Thomas Paine, we can add that it is also the space in which “common sense” is formed. The principal matrix of the public sphere comprises the assembled instruments of civil society such as the press (or media), which accompany the “traffic in commodities and news” characteristic of European capitalism from its mercantilist phase onwards. Hence Habermas’s public is a bourgeois “reading public” which, in the late 18th century, frequented libraries, gathered in cafés to discuss matters of state, and published their opinions in daily broadsheets and in monthly political journals. 
Like Arendt’s, Habermas’s idealizations have been vigorously challenged, not least by feminist theorists who note the hidden exclusions, often determined by gender, by which the bourgeois public sphere is constituted. In one important response that is still in considerable sympathy with Habermas, Nancy Fraser has offered the category of “subaltern counterpublics” in an effort to throw off balance Habermas’s implicitly male, white, moneyed, or otherwise hegemonic public sphere; by this Fraser means those groups or categories of citizens and noncitizens that are structurally excluded, usually by some combination of gender, race, and class, from the political commerce of bourgeois capitalism. Fraser’s “subaltern counterpublics” describes a whole host of potentially incommensurable public spheres, or “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs.”  Most critically, these spheres do not simply coexist in a homogeneous gel, a metapublic sphere or space in which their differences can be democratically adjudicated. Rather, they occupy a differentiated field of “stronger” and “weaker” powers, in which the very constitution of counterpublics subordinates them by definition to the pervasive, hegemonic force of bourgeois (i.e., masculinist) norms, thus marking what Fraser calls the “limits of actually existing democracy.”
In this regard it is interesting to note further that Arendt uses the section heading “The Public Realm: The Common,” to distinguish this category from its private counterpart, which is subtitled “Property.” In this second sense — running alongside the sense of public as publicity — for Arendt what is public is outside the realm of property relations. It is, simply, “the world itself, insofar as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it.”  Whereupon the gradual, historical erasure of the sharp line dividing public interests from private ones also abolishes the sense of a common world, to be replaced with “mass society” comprising merely unrelated, juxtaposed fragments rather than actual or virtual publics, and capable of relating only at the level of economic exchange or its arithmetic equivalents.
Sputnik, 1957. [Photo via NASA]
It may seem odd, then, that Arendt begins The Human Condition with the image of the Soviet Sputnik satellite, humankind’s first instance of mechanized escape from earthly conditions, which was launched in 1957. For Arendt, Sputnik captures the whole modern travesty of enlightened public knowledge (“science,” as she calls it) instrumentalized to enact long-held philosophical and religious fantasies of otherworldly life. Likewise this orbiting machine bears witness to what she understatedly calls the “uncomfortable” political circumstances of the Cold War.  But precisely as such Sputnik and its American counterpart, Explorer, were also the very product of the medium of publicness that was the sine qua non for both (or all) sides of the Cold War impasse: the modern state.
I pointedly describe the state as a “medium” to steer away from disputes over statist versus nonstatist political models that fetishize abstractions in positive or negative terms, and to move toward an infrastructural, almost technological, conception of the state and its institutions. By this I do not mean technocratic, but pragmatic; the state, or the “public sector,” not as an idealized or abstract entity, but as a historical constellation of institutions, practices, protocols, and material complexes. Sputnik and its descendants are products of such infrastructures, a term which connotes in its own right, in its commonest usage, a certain publicness. To put it another way: Sputnik is unthinkable without the material infrastructures of the state, as well as the cultural imaginaries that circulate through those infrastructures, and the reflexive “apparatuses,” or instruments of societal regulation, in which these two levels join (as described by thinkers like Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault). Arendt is able to discern in Sputnik’s orbit a compelling metaphor for humanity’s efforts to delink from that “space of appearance” — Earth — to which public life is ultimately tethered. She is less concerned, however, with the strange fact that the very invention — the modern state — that makes it all possible is presumed at both ideological poles to represent whatever is left of her ideal public, as in a distorting mirror.
Something like this is also at work in the Habermasian public sphere, as well as in Fraser’s counterpublics. In both the state sits firmly in the background, as the locus of bourgeois political address percolating through civil society, or as the ultimate site of contestation over rights, voice, transparency, and equity first elaborated in counterpublic arenas. In that sense it is as though the term “public” shares a fate with the modern state itself.
Books by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri: Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth.
In their collaborative trilogy of Empire (2000), Multitude (2004), and Commonwealth (2009), Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri take this proposition to its logical conclusion. They argue that during the course of the 20th century, the world order based on the sovereignty of nation-states has been gradually and unevenly replaced by what they call “imperial sovereignty,” or Empire, a transnational, biopolitical capitalism coursing fluidly through both affective and instrumental channels. For Hardt and Negri, then, the categories of “public” and “private,” linked historically with state socialism or social democracy on the one hand, and liberal republicanism on the other, simply connote two different means to the same end: the reproduction of capital. Writing four decades after Sputnik, they follow many critics of Soviet-style socialism in suggesting that this system merely substituted a centralized state for a market oligarchy in order to manage industrial/capitalist production, and thus served as a prelude to the new, decentered sovereignty of neoliberal capital. To confront the latter, they propose a political philosophy that substitutes older categories like, “the people” and “the state,” or “private” and “public,” with new ones like “multitude” and “common wealth,” or “singularity” and “common.”
Key to this reconceptualization is the claim that the common is not merely a postindustrial upgrade of the modern state, which is historically linked with the rise of industrial capitalism. Hardt and Negri define this common most succinctly as: 1) the natural environment, its resources and the products they yield; and 2) the products of social interaction, such as codes, languages, affects, information and other forms of knowledge.  Especially in this second form, their sense of the common is wholly immanent to biopolitical practice: that is, a common wealth is constantly being produced and circulated in those everyday processes by which life itself is sustained, enhanced, articulated or otherwise organized, in areas as diverse as manufacturing, health care, and housing, on the one hand, and education, scientific research, and the arts, on the other.
Hardt and Negri therefore encourage us to look “beyond public and private” for philosophical concepts and political practices capable of challenging and transforming the “republic of property” that underlies both categories. Most frequently they find models in the insurgent, bottom-up politics of the counter- or alter-globalization movements that proliferated in the 1990s, or in the autonomous democracy practiced by groups such as the Mexican Zapatistas. They see the heterogeneous, sometimes fractious “multitude” that comes together in these and countless other, less visible movements as the contrary to the homogenized modern masses or an abstract, universal “public.” But this multitude does not merely replace or multiply these earlier versions. Instead, for Hardt and Negri, the multitude constitutes a novel historical subject that draws its energies from the constant production of common goods and, especially, common knowledge and services, provoked by resistance to capitalism but not wholly determined by it.
Zapatista Army Subcomandante Marcos, Zitácuaro, Mexico. [Photo by Oriana Eliçabe]
What are these goods and services? Hardt and Negri place a great deal of emphasis on the productivity of “immaterial labor,” the type of labor characteristic of what is sometimes called the service sector. They have therefore been criticized for deemphasizing or ignoring manual labor and the working class. In response to this they argue that under these new conditions it is not a matter of one class or sector replacing another, but of one logic — applying to all classes and sectors — replacing, or at least displacing, another. Immaterial labor is based above all on communication, and it is this they seek to release in radically transformative, revolutionary directions. Think of Sputnik, then, as a triumph of immaterial labor held captive by the state.
Here too we can discern an etymological resonance — common(s), communication — that is sharpened when Hardt and Negri claim that “the common does not refer to traditional notions of either the community or the public; it is based on the communication among singularities and emerges through collaborative social processes of production.”  (In their idiom, a singularity is more like a unique, internally divided and incalculable point, rather than an individual unit.) Elsewhere, they add one more term to the etymological chain by arguing “what the private is to capitalism and what the public is to socialism, the common is to communism.” 
Hardt and Negri are quick to distinguish this communism from the state-based authoritarian socialisms to which that term became affixed during the course of the 20th century. And if anything, many of their practical proposals for “a reformist program for capital” are distinctly neo-Keynesian: provide the physical, social and educational infrastructure for biopolitical production; open the intellectual and cultural commons to all; establish “open citizenship” across borders; enhance economic freedom with a guaranteed income; build participatory democracy into all levels of government. For Hardt and Negri, “saving” capitalism from its self-destructiveness in these ways is not an end in itself, but the first stage of a transition that “requires the growing autonomy of the multitude from both private and public control; the metamorphosis of social subjects through education and training in cooperation, communication, and organizing social encounters; and thus a progressive accumulation of the common.” 
What is less clear, however, is the medium by which communication becomes common. Unlike many theorists of the communicative public sphere, Hardt and Negri have relatively little to say about the specific forms of mediation by which collective subjectivities are formed. By this I mean not only technological mediation — as in the properties of those communications systems by which a multitude comes into its heterogeneous being-in-common — but also other mediating instruments, like social structures (the family, the nation) or institutions (schools, hospitals, housing, workplaces, prisons, communications networks). If the segmented realm of public and private is to be replaced by the networked realm of the common, what will replace these mediators?
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. [Photos by Fábio Goveia, left, and Grupo de Estudo de Fotografia da UFES GEF, right]
In this sense Hardt and Negri’s common is subject to criticisms analogous to those that have been leveled at Habermas’s version of the public sphere. Not that it homogenizes otherwise heterogeneous subjectivities or submits them to the rule of an arbitrary norm; but rather that in subsuming the dyad singularity/multiplicity into a common, non-homogeneous substrate, it potentially underestimates the differentials, interferences, and asymmetries comprising that substrate’s communicative infrastructures. From its beginnings communications theory has emphasized the necessary loss of information in any communicational transaction. Hardt and Negri seem to assume that this loss is ultimately negligible, and that the interference and distortions that accompany all communication are superseded by the common wealth generated by cooperative labor among singular subjects. I do not wish to argue the contrary: that the inevitable mediations of intersubjective life render any common impossible from the start. Rather, I want to ask whether the exhausted category of the public, and with it the ruined infrastructures of the state — including Sputnik’s descendants — might be reappropriated as media, or as fragments of a media system, in which life-in-common can take place.
At a practical and political as well as a philosophical level, this reappropriation entails modulating the directness of direct or participatory democracy with a media theory of communications. Hardt and Negri suggest as much when they cite recent scholarship on radically democratic media practices. And by no means do they argue that the common emerges out of some primal, unmediated field of social and economic activity. But nowhere do they work through the structural, rather than circumstantial, particulars of the very mediating infrastructures by which they propose to “save” capitalism from itself while simultaneously preparing the ground for its multitudinous alternative.
Here is one example. Among the many sites in which they discern “specters of the common” is the contemporary metropolis, or really, the global city. One measure of the city as a site of biopolitical production appears in the vexing problem (for traditional Marxists) of ground rent. In urban economics, a labor theory of value has some difficulty in accounting for the intangibles of location, services, and other “quality of life” factors, which economists sometimes term “externalities.” Hardt and Negri point out that these seeming externalities actually register “the general social circuits of biopolitical production and reproduction of the city,” which are subject to reappropriation.  Another way of saying this is that the city mediates value production through its material infrastructures; among other things, these infrastructures typically support transportation, communication, education, security, health, housing and commerce, and are variously associated with the state, the private sector, or both.
Elsewhere, referring to the metropolis as the “inorganic body of the multitude,” Hardt and Negri suggestively argue that “the metropolis is to the multitude what the factory was to the industrial city,” in three ways.  First, the contemporary city is “the space of the common,” a privileged site in which an “artificial common” of “languages, images, knowledges, affects, codes, habits, and practices” is produced. Second, the city is (and long has been) a site of aleatory and “joyful” encounter among singularities along the lines of Baudelaire’s flâneur, as well as a site of insurgent political organization. And finally, the contemporary city is, like the factory, a site of exploitation, antagonism, conflict, and hence, of potential rebellion. Leaving aside the urban-rural interdependencies and antagonisms that their account underplays, Hardt and Negri thereby recast the global or globalizing city as a “biopolitical city,” a collective space of productive, life-or-death struggle against biopower, or the coercive management of everyday life. 
Police clash with protestors, Plaça de Catalunya, Barcelona, May 27, 2011. [Photo by Fotomovimiento]
To illustrate, they single out rent as paradigmatic of the neoliberal financialization of urban (or exurban) life: “Rent operates through a desocialization of the common, privatizing in the hands of the rich the common wealth produced and consolidated in the metropolis.”  Thus Hardt and Negri contrast land privatization not with public ownership, but with a common that exists beyond or outside of property relations and hence beyond such concepts as “private” or “public.” Superficially, their argument shares some characteristics with Garrett Hardin’s much-invoked “tragedy of the commons” — but only in the inverse. Hardin, a biologist, argued in 1968 that the environmental commons, like the common agricultural lands that had been progressively enclosed as private (or public) property in Britain since the 16th century, is finite. The “tragedy” to which he refers is the proposition that the free pursuit of self-interest — for instance, the effort to increase one’s share in the land’s output — inevitably leads to degradation of the finite common resource and thus mutual loss. For Hardin, who assumes the all-powerful lawfulness of self-interest, the commons is therefore a “horror” to be abandoned in favor of privatization or administrative enclosure — what Arendt calls housekeeping — which he construes as lesser evils to that of resource depletion, figured mainly in the specter of overpopulation. That Hardin’s most concrete proposal entails eugenic restrictions on the “freedom to breed” directed at the world’s poorest populations, rather than an assault on poverty itself, is enough to remind us that here, too, biopower is at work. 
In contrast, Hardt and Negri construe the common as a sort of force field that overspills those processes that seek to expropriate it. They regard earlier collectivist projects such as socialism, with its state-centric language of “public” and “private,” as philosophically if not practically distinct from what they call a “governance” of the common, accomplished through horizontal networks of democratic decision-making by an autonomous, self-organizing multitude of singularities.
In a lively exchange in Artforum, David Harvey has challenged their near-exclusive emphasis on these relational protocols over representative systems or other regimes of mediation. If the multitude is capable of commandeering biopolitical production toward revolutionary ends, “[h]ow,” Harvey asks, “will this new value be represented and objectified in daily practice?”  Harvey reminds us, for example, that what Marx terms “fictitious capital” is value objectified as representation, or money, which recirculates in the form of securities and other higher-order financial abstractions. He is therefore asking, with some impatience: What will take the place of money, rent, and finance more generally — as representations of value — in the new forms of governance that Hardt and Negri envision? Rightly dismissing any romantic notion that conventional regimes might easily be abandoned (“don’t tell me global bartering is feasible”), Harvey implies that the common, like the socialist state or the communist international before it, requires institutions of its own, beginning with a medium of economic exchange.
Hardt and Negri certainly acknowledge as much. But they do not preempt this critique simply by suggesting that the abstractions of money and finance could, in principle, be turned against themselves to “provide the instruments for making the multitude from the diverse forms of flexible, mobile, and precarious labor.”  To Harvey they reply directly that, whereas in the earlier era of industrial capitalism it may have been possible to regard economic production (labor and its products) as “real” and finance as “fictitious,” in our own era "the form of finance is symmetrical to the new processes of biopolitical production of value,” such as codes, languages, and images. The project hence becomes one of “reappropriating socially what finance now possesses.” 
What applies here to banks and financial institutions could presumably be said for other mediating institutions of the biopolitical commons, such as schools and universities, museums, libraries, laboratories, satellites, and so on. But how, exactly? Hardt and Negri insist repeatedly on the interdependence of revolutionary insurrection and patient institutional transformation, or of a Gramscian “war of movement” and “war of position.” On the side of institutions, they essentially ask: If socialist identification with the public and its analogues (the people, the proletariat, the general interest, the state) has become ineffective or obsolete, then what, if any, forms of networked mediation might enact globally a “democracy of the common” that is not one of surreptitious enclosure?
In response to such questions, Hardt and Negri argue that the pliable networks governing the neoliberal metropolis might be turned into both revolutionary instruments and genuinely democratic institutions. But if this turnaround is possible, it is also possible that the ruined infrastructures of the socialist or social democratic city might be more closely interrogated for their transformative potential. From the point of view of the stagist model of history that Hardt and Negri rather too quickly adopt, these infrastructures — public education, public healthcare, public housing — may indeed be vanishing into obsolescence, partly due to their earlier role in shoring up the capitalist state. But these and other remnants of the state remain very much part of the urban fabric and very much part of collective consciousness worldwide. Emptied of their ideological force, these disused ruins also await reappropriation as instruments to redirect — to remediate, that is — the vectors of finance capital and its abstractions.
Top: Étienne-Louis Boullée, Bibliothèque du Roi, 1785. Bottom: Henri Labrouste, reading room, Bibliothèque nationale de France, 1868. [Photo by Vincent Desjardins]
In 1785, the French architect Étienne-Louis Boullée was commissioned to design an expansion of the Bibliothèque du Roi (King’s Library), located in the Hôtel de Nevers portion of the former Mazarin Palace in Paris. Boullée famously proposed converting the Hôtel’s courtyard into a vast basilica-like reading room under a skylit vault, lined at its base with four tiers of books running the entire length of the perimeter. Prior to this, a series of other architects had developed plans to relocate the library to the Palace of the Louvre. Ironically, Boullée argued his approach to be more practical. In the aftermath of the Revolution, however, the project to relocate or expand the library was abandoned; the existing royal library was nationalized, and the palace became a museum.
In 1854, Henri Labrouste began his long-term renovation and replacement of the Hôtel de Nevers buildings to better accommodate what was then the Imperial Library and later, the National Library. As a precursor to Labrouste’s vaulted room for bourgeois readers, Boullée’s monumental proposal aligned despotic power with classical learning. Retroactively, it has been celebrated as “revolutionary” for giving form to an Enlightenment republic of letters, the sort of communicational public sphere thought to be necessary for informed democratic citizenship, on a grand scale. Like the actually existing royal/national library (now expanded into a massive complex with corporate overtones), Boullée’s project, had it been realized, could possibly have functioned as such. It also could have functioned as an apparatus of state control, or as an archetypal medium of immaterial production. As is, it would be most accurate to regard the project as a ruined monument to monarchy that later circulated as an enigmatic sign. That is, as a nonfictitious unit of rereadable information that, in this case, combines medium and message. This complicated little piece of the common wealth is now stored and circulated in books and silicon chips, which are in turn hooked up to media complexes into which the project’s dream of universal knowledge — and communication — has been tendentiously deformed.
Such media complexes are cobbled together from the leftover infrastructures of incomplete or obsolete sovereignties, be they royal palaces, aristocratic hôtels, or bourgeois national libraries. As Marx once famously said of revolutions: “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”  In Boullée’s day a city, on the brink of revolution, begets an imaginary royal library, which in turn yields, eventually, to a national and then supranational space of knowledge production. Today governments and corporations, and other bits and pieces of modernity, combine to produce sovereign networks, all the nodes of which — including museums and libraries in the great metropolis, and satellites orbiting the earth — belong to the neoliberal republic of property. If another, common world is to be assembled outside of these networks, it would necessarily include the richly textured ruins of the public, as a medium and as a message.
Design Observer © 2006-2011 Observer Omnimedia LLC