Proof 2010: Journalists Defending Journalism
Set 2, September 2010   Politics, Postmodern Journalism, and the Public
The Private Public

Mark Beachill

During election campaigns, immense effort and a great deal of money are expended in creating debates on policies and programmes which are intended to reach as many people as possible. However, the public process of electioneering comes to a head only in the voting booth where privacy is guaranteed and voters are thoroughly alone. This is just one example of how the schism between public and private, and also the relation between these two, are engrained in our political culture. What goes for infrequent elections is also a constant feature: throughout our lives, we alternately crave privacy and yearn to “go out” and act socially and publicly.

Perhaps because ideas of public and private are everywhere around us, it is easy to take the link between the two for granted. In recent discussions of the public sphere there has been a tendency to assume the split between public and private rather than to understand how exactly they are connected. And there are further complications. While the public/private division is formally universal, it seems to have been undermined in practice. Various contemporary commentators have observed a “confessional culture” in which people seek to make the details of their private lives into public property – celebrity being just a part of this. Elsewhere the state has moved into regulation of previously private matters, from health and lifestyle to parenting. Hence the slew of references to both “colonisation” of the public sphere by the private, and encroachment on privacy by public bodies.

Difficulties in the public sphere, often attributed to the lack of informed discussion or apathy towards politics, are happening at the same time as the blurring of the line between public and private. This seems more than a coincidence. My essay attempts to create a framework for understanding the public/private combination, at a time when this combination is itself under (partial) revision.

The Advent of Private and Public

Throughout history there have been what might be considered public events. However, it is important to understand that what we mean by ‘public’ cannot be retrospectively applied throughout all human history. The public sphere exists only in contradistinction to private individuals entering into it; moreover, these relations, and the individuals so related, acquired their full existence only in the modern period. In modern times, the close link between the historical development of the individual and the parallel development of the public sphere accounts for the enduring drive to create and recreate the public sphere on the part of individuals seeking to create and recreate themselves.

Clues as to when and how public and private began to interact fully, are writ large in the works of Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s strongest characters, pertinent to this day, are distinctly public figures. However their decisions and actions require long, notably private monologues. Harold Bloom (1998) suggests that in making his characters perform their decision-making in public, Shakespeare is undertaking no less a task than the invention of the human. Bloom argues that such characters are only able to establish their private world because of the conversations they have with themselves. These conversations take place away from the action and outside the interaction between characters – in private, in other words. But they are also soliloquies, performed by actors for appraisal by the theatre audience – in public. Thus the Shakespearean soliloquy shows how public expectations play a formative role in the internal life of the modern individual; conversely, it seems that neither the individual nor society existed, at least not in modern terms, until the interaction of public and private came to exercise a decisive influence on human, historical development.

The comparative novelty of the private and its public counterpart is also illustrated by the development of another interior monologue: silent reading. While writing and reading have, of course, existed for a very long time, reading silently has, with notable exceptions, only relatively recently become the norm (Manguel, 1996). When in the fourth century BC that public character Alexander the Great read a message silently, his troops were amazed (Fischer, 2003: 90). Likewise when Julius Caesar read a note without speaking, his “ostentatious” display caused a furore (Fischer, 2003: 90). The word-separation and ordering required for silent reading, did not become firmly established in the West until the thirteenth century (Saenger, 1997:256).

There seems to have been an overall historical trend towards greater interior (or private) life among the population as a whole, which has, roughly speaking, gone along with greater participation in the public world on the part of “the masses”. Simply put, the development of the private individual, rather than a sign of being inward-looking or insular, can be seen as the condition for public life as we understand it today. After all, only with individuals and their differing outlooks being widely recognised as important, is there the need for a public sphere where individual intentions can be played out, reconciled, modified or fought over.

Expansion of the market; growth of the self

While great historical figures have perhaps long made their own decisions, it is only with the development of market societies, which take the decision-making of the bulk of the population as their essential feature, that there is a clear and general separation of public from private spheres. Market-based societies have at their heart individuals owning property and making decisions about the exchange of commodities – even when the commodity owned and being sold is simply their own labour. Hence it transpires that the private individual acting autonomously in the market is also creating the basis for the public sphere today.

There are many facets to the general character of the individual associated with the market. In the 1920s, a legal theorist by the name of Evgeny Pashukanis, sought to understand why today’s individual was at the same time a legal subject. He started by examining market exchange or, specifically, the exchange of commodities. Pashukanis concluded that in societies organised around the market there are three aspects of the private individual which can be derived from the process of exchange:

“The party to the exchange must be an egoist, i.e. be guided by naked economic calculation otherwise the value relationship cannot appear as a socially necessary relationship. The exchanging party must be the bearer of a right, i.e. have the possibility of making an autonomous decision, for his will must ‘be embedded in objects’. Finally, the exchanging party must embody the basic principle of the equality of all human personalities, because in exchange all types of labour are equalized and are reduced to abstract human labour.” (Pashukanis 1924: 102)

What Pashukanis is saying here is that the modern individual has particular characteristics – rather than simply being “private” or wanting their own space – which are traceable to the ever-present trading of commodities. Because commodities cannot trade themselves there is an underlying requirement for individuals to act privately: to be able to own commodities and make their own decisions on what to exchange and in what ratio their commodities might be best exchanged for their own benefit. Individual calculations in which each seeks to get the best deal, give expression to the regulation of the working time of society by market trading – what Adam Smith might have called the hidden hand of the market. In trying to establish the basis for the private individual being also a legal subject and the form that law takes “independent of the content of legal norms” (Arx cited in Miéville, 2005: 91), Pashukanis identified a set of underlying characteristics essential to that individual as private actor. His analysis presents us not with the individual as such – outside history, but with the bourgeois individual – the individual in the time of capitalist society.

This analysis opens the way to understanding why the ideas of rights, freedom and equality are felt so strongly by modern individuals and are so significant a feature of the public sphere. These ideas can be clearly linked to the stamp that commodity exchange puts on the world. Rights are established through the contract made implicitly in exchange, in being able to own commodities. Freedom from restraint, for the exercise of will, derives from the freedom to act on one’s own will in the market in the disposal of commodities. From the form of commodity exchange, Pashukanis derives the idea of private individuals as being equal – expressed in terms of equality before the law, or as having an equal vote, or, as the Unites States’ constitution puts it (even stating it as birthright), “all men are created equal”. The comparison made in exchange strips away the particular qualities of the individual producer and their particular labour, transforming all efforts alike into an amount of undifferentiated money. Similarly, in the exchange relationship the people who meet via their products are just labourers in the abstract: all personalities are equal (Pashukanis, 1924: 101-102; Rubin, 1972). This equality of personality also occurs at the point of exchange where buyers and sellers meet as owners of commodities. In exchange the person’s goods, not the person, are taken into account. With the sale of labour, for example, the question being asked, strictly speaking, is not who you are, but what you cost compared to what you can produce.

The link between the independence of private individuals and the market is to a degree hidden because this independence is presumed to be established outside the market prior to exchange taking place. Being fit to take part in exchange becomes the business of all individuals to be undertaken (partly in the sphere of consumption) before they come to market. The private sphere becomes a necessity in market societies as the time and place for rest and reflection, so that these preconditions can be met. Individuals must take responsibility for their own physical upkeep and for establishing their own sense of self in private reflection. By comparison, in feudal societies, the obligations, roles and decisions of most people were much more fixed, and required far less autonomy.

Rather than the market, the “intimate sphere” of the family is the central location for private reflection. The family is an institution for social reproduction. At its most basic, it serves as the mechanism for nurturing new generations, but it also provides for intimacy, privacy and some material support (hence Engels’ description of the family as a “haven in a heartless world” ). Intimacy allows for behaviour which is not judged with the same harshness as the outside world. However, intimacy in the family, although it might act as a place to test out one’s personality, does not transcend the need for that other aspect of privacy in which it serves as the domain for establishing a level of independence that is to be taken into the outside world and applied there.

Of course no man is an island: in general it can be asserted that the private individual, despite being so constituted, cannot exist in isolation and must at least to a degree seek out the public world. While the egotistical individual might see himself ideally as an atom – as a self-sufficient, Robinson Crusoe figure – the reality is that each of the activities and attributes of individuals require resolution and satisfaction through others with the means to meet these demands. Social reality transforms the egoism of the individual “into a hunger for the objects and people of the external world” (Marx cited in Pashukanis, 1924: 81). Individuals are compelled through self interest to attempt to make the social connections which will result in their needs being met. Thus, “[h]owever alien they may seem to one another, the members of civil society are united through self interest.” (Marx cited in Pashukanis, 1924: 81)

Barriers to Growth

More specifically, among the earliest generations of fully fledged, private individuals, it was those with the closest association to trade whose private interests first led them to attempt public interventions with much wider ramifications. There is a particular self interest exhibited by those in pursuit of private commercial interests as traders. Their ambition to expand trade and increase its profitability requires them to make more and more products commensurate, and this is what constitutes the expansion of markets. Their self interest might then cohere around obstacles to this expansion, in particular the pre-modern state and the monarchy which headed the ancient, feudal system.

The English Civil War in the seventeenth century is one of the earliest conflicts between the old and new orders. And, to attract support, the civil war was at the same time a hotbed of debate and pamphleteering, a public sphere given sharp impetus, in which the clash of ideas variously took natural, religious, or abstract-rational forms. On both sides, ideas and arguments were brought to bear in the attempt to break people from old loyalties and fixities: now you must decide.

One episode from the English Civil War in particular serves as a pointed example of how developed this public sphere became, and how the influence of the market was already making itself felt. In 1647 the Putney Debates within the New Model Army set the Levellers against the army grandees. The Leveller-inspired manifesto An Agreement of the People, argued for “our just freedom” and for “common rights and liberties” (Purkiss, 2007: 488). The poorest sections of the army were attempting to grasp power and take what they needed. As one Leveller, Thomas Rainsborough, had it: “the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he” (ibid: 495). Opposing Rainsborough, the rights-based case for the defence was put by MP Henry Ireton:

“If you will resort only to the law of nature…you have no more right to this land, or anything else, than I have. But here comes the foundation of all right that I understand to be betwixt men, as to the enjoying of one thing or not enjoying of it; we are under a contract, and, we are under an agreement, and that agreement is what a man has for a matter of land that he hath received by a traduction from his ancestors, which according to the law does fall upon him to be his right (ibid: 492)

When Rainsborough asked whether “the soldier” had fought to “give power to men of riches…to make him a perpetual slave” (ibid: 494). Ireton responded that the soldier had fought the danger that “one man’s will must be a law”, and so that the law was better decided by “common consent” on the part of “fixed men” that “had the interests of the kingdoms in them” (ibid: 494). Ireton’s argument was that the vote – which could determine law – was for everyone. However, each voter must have a stake in property relations as was: otherwise there might be a law that ordered redistribution of property, resulting in anarchy rather than the stability of “fixed men”. In other words, in this case, ‘equal’ rights qualified by property trumped anything approaching absolute equality. Ireton’s measure of equality could carry conviction in debate (aside from carrying the day by force of arms), because the debate itself was prompted primarily by the expansion of only that qualified form of equality inherent in the exchange of property.

With unusual clarity, perhaps because unguarded by precedent, the Putney Debates crystallized the rights of bourgeois man. Liberty and equality were ideas put forward by both sides in the argument. Ireton’s response shows how the legal form of the enforcement of rights could be used as a defence of property and the conditions of rule by his (bourgeois) class, even if the latter depended on (limited) common consent and had been forged against monarchic tyranny. Also note the address to “he” and “man”: political rights were only discussed for men, as women were then dependants with limited autonomy (ibid: 509). The forces of popular involvement unleashed by the Civil War were to be firmly put back by repression of the Levellers and confirmation of Cromwell’s dictatorship; but only after prior removal of the power of the monarchy to block reform completely. This power was taken off in 1649, along with the head of the king.

From Battlefield to Coffee House

The more conventional starting point for a discussion of the public sphere is not the battlefields of England in the seventeenth century, but the coffee houses and salons of Europe in the eighteenth. In many ways this period has been taken as an ideal or model for the public sphere in general. Nonetheless the nascent bourgeoisie meeting in new public arenas were continuing the programme of the English parliamentarians and continuing an assault on the ancien regime with a trade wind behind them. The freshness of an emerging ruling class in the eighteenth century with novel ideas and growing confidence explains why the period might be attractive as an ideal. However, these particular qualities also make it difficult to generalise from this situation – especially to today’s public sphere.

Likewise the “normative”, or standard, analysis of the eighteenth century public sphere found in Jürgen Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989), despite many insights, is problematic in taking the particular features of the period as the starting points for an analysis of the public sphere in general. For example, when in Structural Transformation Habermas takes up the point that civil society came as the “corollary of depersonalized state authority” (Habermas, 1989: 19) this becomes a “basic blueprint” (ibid: 29) for his understanding of public and private: “The line between state and society, fundamental for our purposes, divided the public sphere from the private realm” (ibid: 30). However, one might say instead that elements of civil society had long been striving to depersonalise the state and that the division of public and private did not follow so neatly the division between state and “society”.

Similarly, Habermas appears to make categorical distinctions which are premature, applying them to an historical period in which the social contradictions that comprise the basis for such distinctions, were not yet fully formed. Conversely, in Habermas’ analysis, the role that the family economy began to have in home manufacture and trading becomes an argument that “the private sphere comprised civil society in the narrower sense, that is to say the realm of commodity exchange and of social labour; embedded in it was the family with its interior domain” (ibid: 30). Because private life, intimacy and commodity production often happened in the same place and at that stage seemed so closely tied together, Habermas does not adequately distinguish between the domestic, private sphere and the market demanding greater private independence as the corollary of profitable, public interaction. It seems there are fundamental limitations to generalising Habermas’ “idealisation of historical processes” (Hardy, 2009: 29) in the analysis of public and private within market economies.

The Recent Past

It might be said that his concern with the eighteenth century only partly explains why Habermas’ model of the public sphere has become so influential. The second half of the book, which compares the earlier Golden Age of public life with the commercialisation of public life that seems to have followed, is perhaps more pertinent to its popularity. When Habermas, writing in 1962 in West Germany, castigated the market for undermining public life, he was implicitly excusing the Left in Germany for being unable to make much of a mark even against the deadly dull establishment politics of the day. Similarly, when in 1987 Margaret Thatcher won a third term of office, thereby confirming the reconfiguration of UK politics (Jenkins, 2007), the Left in Britain, it could be argued, set about blaming the media, or else structural changes in society – anything rather than address the problems with its own politics. Habermas’ book arrived in English to order, and it chimed in with the expansion of Media Studies as an academic discipline in the UK. Unfortunately, current complaints against Fox News in the USA seem set to repeat the scapegoating of media for the problems of the public sphere, and the public failure of the Left in particular.

For our purposes, what is perhaps most striking about the public sphere of the eighteenth century, even with its revolutionary class on the up, is that the interests of the individuals meeting together by no means readily coalesce. As Habermas argues, existing institutions were subjected to a rational critique (1989: 28). This infused the bourgeoisie with clarity and belief in the idea that their material, class interests were the best for society; the use of rationality could put their opponents on the defensive; and this presentation, using the “liberty, equality, rights” ideas that had spontaneous expression in material relations, could be used to garner support among other sections of society. It seems, however, that common interests were unevenly felt. Long clarification from argument, debates and political organisation was required to establish a sense of collective interests. And the political was not the only important constituent in this process. Manners, morals and attitudes were established and came to be held in common by means of literature and journalism, not least through the good offices of magazines such as the Tatler and Spectator. Here, identification of self with class, occurred via the “delightful exercise in taste and reason” – regarded as a goal in itself by those with the wealth, leisure and discernment to aim for it. Thus the consumption of culture shown in the “very form of the discursive community itself” became an identifiable, cohering form of bourgeois existence (Eagleton, 2005:27).

Essentially Related: the Commercial, Cultural and Political

Where some see the commercialisation of public life as a major problem, my analysis shows that the modern public sphere is inextricably linked with commercial exchange and private individuals taking part in the market. Understandably, this creates a demand for goods to satisfy the rest, recuperation and character-formation which tend to be achieved in private. Moreover, as people in their free time enter into the public domain, they express their material interests often through ideas that in many ways are coloured by the organisation of society around exchange and its division into classes. Through interaction in the public sphere – in the various forms of politics, culture, morals and ideas – there can be a solidifying of collective identities. In this arena the state and other institutions are fought over and reformed, and new institutions created. This is done around programmes reflecting these interests and ideas, and often through the familiar prism of freedom and equality. Rather than the commercial form of the provision of cultural goods, it is issues of ideas, programme and agency and their ability to satisfy the interests and aspirations of private individuals as they bring their interests into the public, that seem to be the pertinent issues.

Moving to today, there seems to be a qualitively different problem in expressing private concerns in the public sphere. The shift towards a more individualistic society and the parlous state of the public sphere, have been identified as long term trends by various commentators. For example, Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone identifies a decline in public participation in the USA, arguing that “we need to create new structures (public and private) to facilitate renewed civic engagement” (2000: 403). Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man notes the historical specificity of public and private, and argues that we have a “tyranny of intimacy” stemming from a fear of any impersonal life (1992: 335). Christopher Lasch noted that the classical obsessive-compulsive mental problems of modernity have been supplanted by problems of narcissism signalling a new age (1979). Lasch and latterly Bauman argue that the default position of elites is to avoid taking responsibility for society (Lasch, 1994; Bauman, 2000:10).

While some of these writers have traced such trends back to the 1970s and even earlier – depending on the precise topic of their enquiries – it was only during the 1980s that they became so widely apparent. Zygmunt Bauman notes that in this period a series of new theories emerged – post-modernity, the end of history, second modernity and surmodernity – all of which “articulate the intuition of a radical change in the arrangement of human cohabitation and in social conditions under which life-politics is nowadays conducted” (2000: 10). One possibility is that the problems these authors variously identify, as subsequently synthesised by Bauman, were held in check by the Cold War which acted to cohere meaning and purpose under threat of extinction, thus partly energising otherwise exhausted institutions. An account of international politics A World Without Meaning by Zaki Laïdi offers a view of the Cold War as just such a “battle for the appropriation of meaning” (1998: 15). With the thaw there was a “divorce of meaning and power” (Laidi 1998: 14) and “[p]ower is nothing when it has lost meaning” (ibid: 16).

While it is beyond the scope of this essay to fully explore today’s public sphere, its renewal would seem difficult in the absence of frameworks of meaning that point to the future. With wider views of progress under question – indeed sometimes in the face of hostility to progress itself – spontaneous notions of rights, freedom and equality seem to lose their purchase. Support has ebbed away from the ideological forms that emerged alongside commodity exchange as guides to collective interests. Thus an erstwhile liberal political programme cedes all responsibility to individuals tightly regulated by the state. Meanwhile what might be called left-wing politics has difficulty in relating to contemporary individual problems or posing any relevant collective solutions. Among left-wingers, there is a widespread desire to recoup old forms of collectivity in what Ulrich Beck refers to as “zombie” institutions (Bauman, 2000: 6) – or even in the use of new communication technologies. In this context, however, institutions created by previous activity in the public sphere, and often now subsidised by the state, might even act as barriers to new initiatives.

An important part of reinvigorating the public sphere might be to take seriously the notion of the autonomous individual that comes with it. The close link between the public sphere and the development of the free autonomous individual suggests that attempts to protect, regulate and set controls on individual behaviour may get in the way of the re-building of a public sphere. On the other hand, a concerted effort to defend and expand this distinctively modern, human figure may serve in its reconstruction. Perhaps it is through the defence of the freedom for individuals to govern themselves without regulation that a public sphere is best renewed today. For example, some opposition to the “personal safety state” (2006: 154) that seeks often through law to guarantee happiness or safety, may be given in how people continue to experience the world through rights, liberty and equality. Similarly, the defence of individual autonomy might provide the groundwork for cohering common interests and renewing the public sphere.

Mark Beachill recently graduated from UEL with First Class Honours in Journalism. He is now reading for a PhD.


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Mark Beachill,
24 Sep 2010 11:17