I recently participated in a session on the concept of the public organized by Malcolm Tait for the joint AESOP/ACSP Planning Conference in Dublin. This was an audience of planners, and so my comments were geared toward their ears, but it still might be interesting to a wider audience. The panel was great, and it included Lucie Lauien, Lucy Natarajan, Christopher Maidment, Mattila Hanna, and Sanjeev Vidyarthi.
The Public Without the State
In the opening session of this conference, the Irish Minster for Housing and Planning said, “I want to demystify the planning system, and give it back to everyone.” I want to think through what it would mean to take her literally.
The backbone of my comments will be this question: what would happen if we decouple “public” from “State”? How would we think public if there were no State? I should say that by “State” here I mean a transcendent power, a constituted power, a centralized power, a sovereign power.
I want to pose this question in two registers:
A theoretical register: how might we think the idea of public without the State?
And an empirical register: how are people actually thinking and enacting publics without the State?
So in prompting the panel for the session, Malcolm asked a series of questions, which I will try to address most of. He asks, How might communities identify and support the interests of those outside their own community, even if they clash with their own interests?
Theoretically, we could offer a further question: what would happen if we explored this question without recourse to a State? If we forced ourselves to think only in terms of immanent communities, and in terms of horizontal relations of affinity or antagonism among them. If we got out of the habit of thinking in terms of State-mediated relations between communities, and into the habit of thinking in terms of direct relations between communities.
Empirically, we would want to ask: how are local groups actually identifying and supporting the interests of those outside their community right now in the absence of State mediation? Not in some mystical land where there is no State, but in the many, everyday real-life cases of inter-community relations where the State is not actively managing those relations for communities.
Malcolm also asks: How might public participation activities better encourage communities to identify with broader constituencies and publics?
Theoretically, we could ask: if there were no official (i.e. State-sanctioned) public participation activities/processes, how might communities themselves manage tensions between “us” and those broader groups of which their “us” is a part?
Empirically, we could ask: how are they managing these tensions when the State does not tell them how?
Malcolm again: What is the role of the professional planner in identifying wider (public) interests?
Theoretically: how would wider public interests be imagined if there were no professional planners? If we all were responsible for deciding our own affairs, how would we define “public interest”? Would we even use the term at all?
Empirically: how are public interests being defined by people when there are no planners around?
Malcolm: What is the role of the State in promulgating wider public interests against the wishes of individual communities? and Under what circumstances might the State impose a solution that is deemed in ‘the public interest’?
Theoretically: in the absence of a State or transcendent authority, how would we understand the question of conflict between wider public interests and the interests of individual communities? What might we judge the problem to be if there were no transcendent power to “deem” what is in the public interest? If we did decide that there was a conflict between the wider public interest and the interest of a small community, what would we do?
Empirically: how are people actually judging the problem of the public interest when the State is not judging it for them? What solutions are they inventing when they are able to managing their affairs for themselves?
[Some examples I prepared, thinking planners would ask me to give concrete examples (though they didn’t)]
Disaster zones, like New Orleans, Japan, New York
Autonomous zones, like villages in Chiapas, or land occupations in Brazil, or recuperated factories, or informal settlements
Self-managed moments, like Taksim, Tahrir, Puerta del Sol, and Syntagma
Immanently created institutions, like asambleas barriales in Argentina or Spain, comitate di base, social centers, worker-managed co-ops, CORE in CTU, CEDICAM
Immanent initiatives, like guerrilla gardens, free software, co-housing, squats, or the global anti-neoliberalism movements
Everyday practices, the myriad ways we organize our collective lives without law: rule of thumb, norms, custom, habit, culture