You Can’t Pee for Free: Notes on the Privatization of the Public Sphere


In his 1994 book entitled The Location of Culture, post-colonial theorist Homi Bhaba writes that “cafes are part of the social phenomena of the ‘third place’ [which] . . . people occupy outside of the home and work.  It’s a place to relax, to be alone, to socialize, to read, to gossip, to meet people, to debate, to plan, organize, write, draw, think, vegetate, prevaricate, hide, chew over, swallow, digest, and ruminate” (11).   (Please notice that the word ‘consume’ does not appear in Bhaba’s description.)  Any reader steeped in critical theory will note, however, that Bhaba appropriates the language of the “third space” from Frankfurt School theorist Jurgen Habermas’s oft-cited 1962 magnum opus The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, wherein Habermas positions cafés as intermediary sites of socio-political intercourse produced in and through the emergence of the European bourgeois public sphere.

Throughout The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas describes an episode in the social and political history of Europe beginning at the dawn of the 18th century in which the quickly growing bourgeoisie would gather in salons and in cafés to discuss matters of public concern.  (From a cynical perspective, it is possible to argue that from the beginning cafés also served a deflective social function in that they provided patrons with the illusion of civic participation while simultaneously insulating the actual power of the pseudo-aristocracy.)  Far from egalitarian, the public sphere initially constituted a set of sites and conventions in the 18th century in which bourgeois men (no women allowed!) could forge a “third space” to mediate between domestic (filial) concerns and matters of state.  That is, the café spatialized social gender asymmetries by excluding women from sites that implied bourgeois ideals of self-governance and political participation.

Habermas contends that the emergence of the café as a social space was enabled by a communicative revolution, that is, through the spread of literacy and the rise of inexpensive printing in Europe.  (Do you see how conspicuous the Marxian base-superstructure subtext is here?)  Moreover, he asserts that because “third spaces” are historical they are perpetually subject to contestation, revision, and/or decay.  By the daybreak of the 19th century cafés had become much more inclusive.  The democratic revolutions in the United States and France, parliamentary reform efforts in England, and the unsteady lurches toward republics in Germany and other parts of Europe eventually codified many of the democratic objectives of the public sphere: openness, inclusiveness, and fairness.  Cafés rapidly became the spatial embodiment of these ideals, firmly grounded in the highest aspirations of the early defenders of the public sphere.  “Third spaces,” in many ways, began to enable intercourse between public and private life.

Against this historical backcloth Habermas engages in a larger genealogical project of cataloguing the nexus between bourgeois practices and social spaces.  That is, he’s interested in indexing both the ways in which 1) social spaces quicken the proliferation of bourgeois practices and 2) bourgeois practices sustain the generation of the public sphere.  Throughout his examination he repeatedly contends that the public sphere — in its simplest iteration — constitutes a realm where issues of public import are freely and openly adjudicated between people unconstrained by external coercive pressures.  Habermas, however, also states repeatedly that the ideal of the public sphere has never been achieved and, in fact, thirty years after the publication of his text writes that “third spaces” have become “the gate through which privileged private interests invade the public sphere” (in McChesney, 1999).  This is a key insight.  The sustenance of the public sphere — and “third spaces” — must not be taken for granted.  And just a few years ago Habermas presciently warned that we “should not harbour any illusions about the condition of a public sphere in which commercial[ization] has set the tone” (in McChesney 1999).  Indeed, “third spaces” in their truest sense have all but vanished as well as the seemingly intractable civic contradictions inhering within them: inclusion/exclusion, explicit rules/implicit norms, public/private, diversity/homogeneity, and politics as conversation/politics as consumption.  These messy dialectics have been supplanted by the self-justifying logic of privatization — of goods, of services, of life itself.

Still, the public sphere theoretically remains a space punctuated by elements of universality, openness, and accessibility (and, in many ways, accountability).  Conversely, the private sphere is marked by particularity, each niche of it representing the interests of those who own it.  Café proprietors operating within the larger contemporary context of mass privatization (health care, education) and the disinvestment in the public sector (rampant cuts to public transportation, education, and municipal libraries) unfortunately have little political-economic incentive to pursue the aspirations that “third spaces” once promised.  Now, the re-creation of “third spaces” is antithetical to the ideology of life itself.  The overreaching logic of “my-ness” is externalized and applied to private property without first considering the damage such a practice inflicts on the notion of the public good.

The very decay of the “third space” is perhaps rendered most visible by the cultural consequences left in its wake.  That is to say, café life has changed considerably since the 18th-century European context in which it emerged.  Today, typing away frenetically on one’s laptop while in the presence of potential interlocutors in a café epitomizes a trend to atomization and privatization taken to a pathological extreme.  Such practices have become normalized through their ritualistic re-iterations on a mass scale.  The scene is all too familiar: we enter so-called “third spaces” like cafés only to retrench ourselves immediately in private performance, in kinesthetic soliloquy.  What once served as a place to convene and converse over public issues has been slowly transformed into a site that provides us with the illusion of collectivity but within which we “choose” to occupy ourselves privately.  We, of course, do not really choose to privatize ourselves but rather we are atomized through deeply encoded, yet unspoken, social norms embodied in the café experience.  (How often have you actually met a stranger at a café and carried on a conversation of significant weight?)  I am convinced now more than ever that the continued allure of these spaces demonstrates our unflagging need for human contact and desire for intimacy proportional to the ever-increasing threat of alienation that both domestic and civil privatization essentially guarantees.

The future of the café and of other spaces that serve like functions lies at the mercy of the crushing currents of neoliberalism which limits the role of the public sector to that of guaranteeing private contracts and establishing conditions for free trade.  It is precisely our collective nostalgia for café as “third space” which renders forced consumption (free trade, by implication) so scurrilous an offence.  And perhaps the final gasp of the “third space” is contained in the expression emblazoned on the façade of at least a dozen cafés in Berkeley, California: “Welcome All!  Bathrooms Are for Patrons Only.”  Such a conflicted message is itself a plea for reflection, for the ways we choose to balance inclusion and exclusion will ultimately influence the way we debate the purpose of democracy itself.

Bhaba, Homi.  The Location of Culture.  London: Routledge, 1994.

Habermas, Jurgen.  The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into the Category of Bourgeois Society.  Boston: The MIT Press, 1991.

McChesney, Robert.  Rich Media, Poor Democracy.  New York: New Press, 1999.

Christopher Petrella is a Ph.D. student in African American Studies and Education at the University of California, Berkeley.  Cf. Note the function of the tea shop in Qalandar Bux Memon, “Those Struggling for a Different Pakistan” (MRZine, 17 September 2010); and Qalandar Bux Memon, “Blood on the Path of Love: The Striking Workers of Faisalabad, Pakistan” (Monthly Review, December 2010).


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