On commoning: is everything either public or private?

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I still have a great deal to learn about the historical emergence and development of a way of orienting to our world though the conceptual and perceptual (and experiential) lens of the dyadic schema known as the public-private dyad.  

Yet it is perfectly clear to me that our social and political discourses, and therefore our practices of social and political life, are profoundly influenced by the existence of this dyadic conceptual schema which divides our world along the axes of ‘public’ and ‘private’ while presuming this dyad to be a comprehensive model of the domains of our social and political terrain. 

Note, for example, how Wikipedia deploys this model of our social world in the very first sentence of its article on the private sphere: “The private sphere is the complement or opposite to the public sphere.” [my emphasis]

The article does not say “the private sphere is a complement to the public sphere, but rather treats public and private as if they were the two sides of a coin. And coins only have two sides.

Thus, voilà!, the model of social space which saliently features ‘public’ and ‘private’ is ‘complete’. Or so we have been told for however many centuries.

And we’ve built a whole social and political discourse – essentially all of historical political philosophy – and world (theory and praxes) around this dyadic shape of thought. What Wikipedia says is just what pretty much any other source says on the topic. Our world is simply presumed, by almost everyone, to be coin-like in this way. And a coin cannot have three sides, so there is little point (we are told) in speaking in terms of a “third sphere”. 

The public/private dyad, of course, is an invention more than a discovery. It was, in all likelihood, an invention which emerged with the first state, by which I mean the first societies which conjoined all of the necessary features of a state in the polity sense. The most concise definition of a state is also from Wikipedia: “A state is a centralised political organisation that imposes and enforces rules over a population within a territory.”

Here is where we begin to get into some epistemological problems. If I want to say that it is empirically incorrect to divide our social world into domains called public and private while presuming these two categories to be comprehensive in scope, I first of all must presume there is an empirical method of arriving at such a conclusion.

This would imply that the division into of the social world into just these two domains, realms or “spheres” is not merely an arbitrary act of the imagination to begin with, with any arbitrary act of division and naming of social space into domains being equally as valid, useful or true. 

The epistemological problem here is ontological in essence. Here is why this is so.

If I say that the part of a tree which is visible on the ground’s surface is only a fraction of the whole tree, and you know anything about trees, you’ll say, “But of course, roughly half the tree is under ground as its root system.”  (Actually, I’m not at all sure that it is roughly half of the tree. But you get my point.)  

But what would we say to one who denies the existence of tree roots?  Well, we’d maybe get out a shovel and reveal the tree roots to his eyes.  But we cannot perform exactly this same procedure to notions like public, private and communal.  

And yet! And yet there are ways of demonstrating empirically that the public and private spheres in fact do exist.  

Those methods of demonstration are those used by sociology, anthropology and history.  And I’m here to say that by the same methods that we can reveal the real existence of the private and public sphere we can reveal a third sphere which is equally salient and important as the first two.  

More importantly, what I call “the third sphere,” which I call the communal sphere, is systemically implicit at the juncture between our lived social lives and the conceptual space named as the dyad of public/private.  

What is not implicit, interestingly enough, is a fourth or fifth sphere. So this network of implicities is not merely an arbitrary invention. It has aspects of discovery which allow for empirical demonstration. 

The “private sphere,” as we know it, emerged with the state, which is to say with government. Historically, human social governance predates this emergence. So I’m not using ‘government’ as synonymous with ‘governance’. Government is a particular mode of governance, a subset of that set.

The practical notion (theory or praxis) of the communal sphere could not exist except in a context in which social life has already been divided into public and private spheres, but the moment social life is schematically divided into the dyad of public and private spheres the urgent need for a complementary third sphere, the communal sphere, arises.  

I am arguing here that the dyadic model is a wildly inadequate model of the division of social space along an axis of public and private precisely because the communal sphere is implicit in the emergence of a private sphere in relation to the emergence of a public sphere.  

However, the implicit presence of the communal sphere in relation to the public/private dyad (schema) is not obvious as a mere thought experiment extracted and abstracted from empirical social reality.

The communal has always existed in human life as an empirical fact, though it has never (until now) been mapped onto a schema which originates with the historical emergence of the state (government).

That is, when the state appeared as a manifestation of cultural evolution, it appeared as a specific kind of division of public and private. Both public and private, as categories, emerged and evolved with the state — and in various permutations in various times and places in which the state appeared.

I can think of no good reasons not to adopt Max Weber’s definition of “the state,” in which the state is defined as that entity which holds a monopoly on violence within its polity (jurisdiction).  Of course, the state holds many other monopolies beyond the monopoly on violence (e.g., creating money, making and enforcing laws, taxation…), but these are all dependent upon the monopoly on violence.

Thus the state was born as a coercive social power. Coercion defines the essence of that which emerged historically as the state. And since the state defines that which is ‘public’, ‘public’ is ultimately defined by the power of coercion.  Private social space is thus ultimately defined as a social domain outside or beyond the state’s capacity or inclination to intervene coercively.  

It may have the power to intervene but not the inclination. Or it may have the inclination to intervene coercively, but not the power — as in states with constitutional rights which restrict state power and contain it within boundaries.

These boundaries are, of course, drawn by the state itself.  Mostly, of course, private social space (the private sphere) is defined and shaped by the state’s own constraints and restraints on coercion.  

There is also the very concrete dimension of social space, which is geographical.  A human body is always emplaced, either on water or on land – or flying in the air in an airplane, balloon, etc.

Land is divided as property / territory (and often water, too). Land and water is the property or territory of either the state or of entities designated as ‘private’ (persons, families, corporations…).  

Constraints on the use of land will depend upon whether the land is publicly or privately held (owned) and how its owners have decided those constraints. The ultimate basis of this constraint is the potential of enforcement through coercion or violence. 

Just as the shape and structure of the private sphere is ultimately determined and constrained by the state (the public sphere), where there is a state (which is almost everywhere), the shape and structure of the communal sphere is always to some extent determined and constrained by the public sphere.  

For example, the state does not acknowledge “the third sphere” (communal sphere) as existing, and so all property ownership must (as determined by the state) be either public or private. Were the communal sphere to fully slip the bounds of the coercive powers of the state, it could be self-determining in every conceivable respect, as would the private sphere.

But if either the public or private sphere, in some geographical place, left the domain defined by the coercive power of the state, in that place there would be no state, and thus no social space defined and determined by the coercive power of the state.  

Communities in such geographical places could be socially autonomous – self-determining.  They could, for example, embody a social agreement that all land within its territory would belong equally to each and all who dwell within this land. They could invent and practice entirely distinct forms of democracy from those we are presently familiar with, such as forms which have no scheme of representation, or forms in which there is no hegemonic power held by majorities. 

What is hegemony?  Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it this way.

he·ge·mo·ny | \ hi-ˈje-mə-nē  , -ˈge-  ; ˈhe-jə-ˌmō-nē \

1preponderant influence or authority over others DOMINATION battled for hegemony in Asia  2the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group 

The state emerged historically as a hegemonic form. It has always been a hegemonic form, and it did not cease to be a hegemonic form of coercion in modernity, as the modern state – this despite the fact that most modern states now identify as forms of democracy which ostensibly embrace an egalitarian ethos. 

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an ethos as “the distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature, or guiding beliefs of a person, group, or institution.” A culture, therefore, can be defined as a social grouping’s ethos. 

It is at this moment in my argument that I want to bring up the concept of what I call “the cultural unconscious” and “the cultural shadow”.  

Just as individuals have some portion of themselves (their psyche) dwelling below the level of conscious awareness, so it is with a culture. This is also to suggest that a culture itself has a psyche, and that psyche is not restricted to individuals.  It is for this reason that a culture can also manifest a “cultural shadow”.

And by “shadow” I am evoking and invoking an essentially Jungian psychological concept.  For Jung, the shadow is basically that aspect of the individual’s being of which the individual is largely or entirely unaware. It is “unconscious”.  

Thus, in my theory of the cultural shadow a given culture’s shadow is that part of itself which the culture is generally unaware of.  In both the case of the individual and the cultural shadow, there is a resistance toward acknowledging that which lay in the shadowy realm, in the unconscious. 

Political modernity is largely a product or development of a cultural evolutionary  process which emerged in 17th and 18th century Europe, which historians call “the Enlightenment”.  A very salient feature of the ethos (culture) of political Enlightenment was a turn away from what were regarded as inappropriate and unjust forms of political hierarchy toward political egalitarianism.

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, egalitarianism is …

1 :  a belief in human equality especially with respect to social, political, and economic affairs

2:  a social philosophy advocating the removal of inequalities among people

Curiously, however, ostensible attempts to manifest the ethos of egalitarianism in the wake of this egalitarian “Enlightenment,” regarded at the time as revolutionary, resulted in examples of nation states such as the USA, in which ‘revolutionaries’ were exclusively self-appointed property-owning white men who excluded women, indigenous people, and black slaves (kidnapped in Africa), etc.

They also excluded ‘free’ white men when those men were not holders of property.  In other words, they formed a pseudo-democratic, racist (white supremacist), oligarchical republic.  They created a hierarchically tiered hegemonic state exclusively designed of, by and for rich white men just like themselves.  

In time, this republic became widely defined and described as a democracy and as a beacon of egalitarian ‘liberty’ for the rest of the world to emulate.  

These ‘revolutionaries’ and ‘founding fathers’ appointed themselves to gather together in what is called a “constitutional convention” in which not a single woman, slave, native American or poor white man was invited to participate.

This, clearly, is precisely what a cultural shadow looks like.  And we (or, rather, they) are continuing to repeat the general pattern to this day. 

I struck the word “we” because I am to a very large extent devoted and committed to an actual egalitarian ethos, culture and politics, and therefore to an actual egalitarian form of democracy, and thus for me to identify as an American citizen presents me with an enormous conundrum which can only lead to cognitive dissonance.

I was, after all, not invited to the constitutional convention. And if I had been, I would have likely been forced out of the convention on the grounds that I was a very unhelpful troublemaker.  

For the founding fathers explicitly feared and despised democracy as egalitarianism – largely because they feared losing their status as slave-owning oligarchs bent on creating a disguised and masked white supremacist authoritarian hierarchy in collaboration with men of power, ‘wealth’ and leisure. 

All politics is the politics of an ethos. Ethos is at the heart and core of any politics. And the ethos of genuine egalitarian democracy never has ripened into a democratic, egalitarian society in the modern world.

It is because all politics is a politics of an ethos, and because the state has always been a systematic embodiment of what I call the ‘centripetal’ concentration of decision-making and economic power (as juxtaposed to ‘centrifugal’ distribution of such power), that the state – in every known or existing form – has been bent on erasing from our collective psyche the memory of any traces of the communal sphere from ‘public discourse’ as much as from our experience and conscious awareness.

It is the totalising, hegemonic nature of the state itself which resulted in the subsumption of the discourses and practices (praxes) of the communal sphere into the dyadic structure which presumes that all of social reality falls into one or the other domain of ‘public’ or ‘private’.  

And it is for these reasons that any future progress toward a more egalitarian, just and democratic society must begin by violating the unwritten code which would have us define what we egalitarian communalists would call ‘the communal sphere’ as one, either, of public or private.  

Public and private are terms which emerge within property relations. Communal is a term which emerges not within property relations, but within relational being.

The premise of egalitarian communalists is that our relations with one another are vastly more important than property relations, and that property relations constrain our being in ways which do our psyche and our bodies harm.  

The communal sphere is a social space in which giving, caring, nurturing, supporting, collaborating… on egalitarian terms is the core ethos, that which informs and inspires our aliveness, our ethos, our politics.  

In the communal sphere, we are not set into competition with one another, but rather do quite the inverse. We seek to empower one another by distributing power centrifugally, as opposed to hoarding it and concentrating it centripetally.

Our aim is to liberate ourselves by liberating one another, and to liberate one another by liberating ourselves. In short, we are not interested in hegemony. We are motivated by love.

The perverse and impoverished map of social space provided by the longing for hegemony (rather than loving, kind and generous relationship) is, henceforth, not our vocabulary.

We transform the very meaning of public and private by daring to proclaim the communal sphere as existing, real, and growing, evolving, and necessary.  All social spaces, henceforth, always will include the naming and honoring of the communal sphere.  

We intend to come home to one another, with one another.

Love is the revolution. The revolution is love.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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