No Rules, Just Right?

As I was driving through Ithaca, New York, on the weekend of the Grassroots Folk Festival, a guy with long curly hair and a beard — the sort of ‘sixties revenant common in college towns — strode into traffic on a red light.  I stopped my car, momentarily annoyed, and he grinned and flashed me a V-for-Victory sign, which I suspect he must have thought meant “peace.”

He seemed happy with himself. as if he had asserted his freedom from both the automotive world and the petty tyranny of stop lights.  If that’s the case, I wonder what he would say if I told him that his version of freedom was exactly the same as George W. Bush’s.

When we play red light, green light at an intersection, we are all modestly and equitably constrained.  We take turns.  When our libertarian pedestrian decides to cross the street, though, all the rest of us are constrained to get out of his way.  (He can count on our doing this, since the only alternative is killing him.)  The total amount of constraint in this system is not diminished.  It’s just forced upon a single party — me — instead of being shared.

In other words, the pedestrian’s (apparent) notion of freedom is simply the power to force other people to comply with his wishes.  This is the same definition implicit in Operation Iraqi Freedom and the other projects of the New American Century.  It might be described, with apologies to John Stuart Mill, as “My right to swing my fist extends only as far as I can send you flying.”

This is not a good way of structuring a community.  But we need some way to keep interactions from deteriorating into a Hobbsian free-for-all.  No human community is without such standards.  They are not the result of any original social contract; surely they spring up spontaneously, they way they do among other social animals, like the pecking order among chickens.  Unlike chickens, though, we humans are happier if we have some say in what those standards are.

In that sense I can sympathize with the jaywalker.  What galls us is the feeling that the system is everything and we are nothing.  It just so happens that under capitalism this is an accurate perception; none of us has any power over the real decisions that shape our lives, not even the capitalists.  We’re all forced to do whatever tends to the accumulation of capital.

So why can’t we sit down and start thinking over how we really want to live?  It isn’t likely that we would need to renegotiate the rules of the road periodically.  But the bigger questions surely should be mulled over and debated.

This sounds like the kind of reinvigoration of the public sphere that Jurgen Habermas urges, with carefully-drawn up rules of dialogue and deliberation.  But that, too, is unappetizing.  Is the best we can hope for a future of endless meetings, public forums, and bad coffee in styrofoam cups?

It would be better not to go in that direction.  The real problem isn’t what we do in the public sphere.  It’s in the notion of the public sphere itself, its complementary private sphere, and the way we think of these as human universals.

Public and private spheres are problematical and even loaded concepts.  We take them for facts of nature, but they are social facts — foundational ones, on which everything else depends.  Before we could talk about private or public spheres we had to create that distinction and set the boundaries between the two.

This central fact of our experience is thus something that happens outside either public or private life — these obviously can’t exist before we create them.  And the same social act is endlessly repeated, since our definition of public and private worlds is maintained moment by moment through our own unspoken agreement.  Yet it’s unquestionable in normal discourse.  No discussion “in the public sphere” can alter the underpinnings of the very world in which we’re debating.  That would be like examining the inside of our heads or pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. 

Yet look at how thoroughly that division affects our lives.  It put us on the road to the impoverishment of public life and social power.  Set aside religious or mythical sanctions, and what gives the public sphere any authority at all?  Nothing, it seems.  We no longer see it as the overt side of the common life that creates both public and private experience alike.  Instead, it’s a literal no-man’s-land where we maneuver to win extra space for our selves.

In the public/private division of the world it’s the private part that has intrinsic value.  We participate in public life only if it makes our private lives better.  By the same token, no decisions about what makes private lives good or bad can take place in the public sphere.  That’s how the egocentric, aggressive “freedom” of neoliberalism, which gives people absolute license to pursue private ends, can be dressed up as the fulfillment of history.

In a way that’s exactly what it is, with one small proviso: it’s the fulfillment of capitalist history, which splits the single world of human creativity and mutual self-constitution into the market on one side and the worker and consumer on the other — helpless participants in a game over which they have no control.  The public/private split finds its social grounding in the split between the economy and its human slaves.

So no revival of public discourse will return the fullness of our lives to us; this was lost from the moment we divided the world and created public discourse itself.  No open meetings or procedural refinements can change the fact that our powerlessness is implicit in the structure of capitalism and is one of the elements out of which we build our worlds. Reinvigorating the public sphere is a doomed project.  The only thing left that we can change is everything.  Anything less is really nothing at all.

Michael Steinberg is the author of The Fiction of a Thinkable World: Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism published this year by Monthly Review Press and essays in professional journals in history, music, and law. He and his wife Loret, a photographer and professor of documentary photography, live in Rochester, New York, under the supervision of two domestic medium-hair cats.