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The privatisation of public space, and the democratic alternative

By Tristan Ewins - posted Tuesday, 6 November 2007


The capacity for any nation to support a thriving, independent and autonomous public sphere is, at least in part, predicated upon the ready availability of public space, open for free use by the various groups and interests that comprise broader civil society. The Greek, 'Agora' for instance, refers to a public space for such purposes, much the same as the traditional 'city square'. Traditionally, such public spaces were to be found at the heart of civil centres, allowing various groups to organise and articulate their ideas in an open forum.

Today, however, in our suburban centres, with the rise of sprawling shopping malls, the 'public space' of our suburban 'civil centers' has been privatised, and opportunities for expression limited to those with deep enough pockets to pay for the privilege. As a consequence, citizens groups, community organisations and social movements are excluded from any central role in the ‘everyday life’ experiences of most people.

The 'civil sphere' is being reduced merely to a sphere of consumption, with no scope for free, autonomous civil organisation. Modern shopping malls are awash with department stores, food courts, supermarkets and specialty stores. Lacking any other form of social outlet or forum, thousands flock to these sprawling malls on an almost daily basis to partake in consumption as atomized consumers.

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Ironically, with the lack of space provided for community, political and sporting organisations, this spectacle is the closest many communities come to being brought together in collective social activity. The impoverishment of civil society, thus, is tangible.

In our tertiary institutions, also, many universities and TAFE’s lack appropriate space for students to organise cultural, sporting or social events, or publicly articulate and espouse the causes which are so dear to their hearts.

This situation is compounded by repressive ‘Voluntary Student Unionism’ legislation: introduced by the conservatives, and now supported by Labor: legislation which aims to hamstring any kind of campus ‘civic sphere’ and autonomous student organization. The loss of viable student representation, participatory student media, and the removal of funding for student services marginalize dissent and participation in campus life.

Likewise, charities and non-government organisations (NGOs) are threatened with the loss of tax exemptions should they criticise public policy. Suppression of the civic sphere seems to know no end.

'Civil society' has become a popular buzz-word of recent years. Usually, it has been used in opposition to 'the State', and is taken as referring to the sphere of autonomous citizens and civil movements. Of course, the narrow separation between civil society ('good'), and State ('bad'), is the kind of reductive simplification that citizens should be skeptical of. After all, 'Civil Society' is also the realm of monopoly capital, whose power is guaranteed, in turn, by the State.

By contrast, a public sphere characterised by the right mix of public, co-operative and private ownership can better represent the plurality of interests and positions that make up modern society. A ‘mixed public sphere’, rather than appealing to the ‘lowest common denominator’, can instead incorporate a broader tapestry of participants, perspectives and interests.

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The ideal of an autonomous ‘civic sphere’, comprised of citizens’ organisations - consumer organizations, cultural organizations, sporting organizations, welfare and religious organizations, political parties, labour organizations, social movements - is one that lies at the core of liberal and social democratic principle.

For those of us who wish to see a vibrant, autonomous civil sphere act as a counter to the prevalence of one-way information flows, the privatisation of public space is of critical concern.

While the rise of the Internet has seen the development of ‘virtual space’ for participatory forums for debate and discussion, the possible gains here are stymied by the lack of real and physical civic space for the use of citizens’ and interest groups.

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About the Author

Tristan Ewins has a PhD and is a freelance writer, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. He is also a long-time member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.
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