Public, private and communal: what’s in the words?


When I wrote and published the essay, On Commoning (July, 2022), I failed to sharply distinguish the public and private ‘spheres’ from that which could be called the public and private realms, domains, spaces, etc. That is, I did not restrict my application of the phrases and concepts — public and private spheres — to the basic definition provided by Jürgen Habermas, who, to the best of my knowledge, coined the phrase “public sphere”.

At what may turn out to be a superficial level of analysis, the public sphere of Habermas and Arendt, etc., is a realm of discourse, but not of property or formal public decision-making, per se. I didn’t yet have a handle on the shape and significance of the notion of the “public sphere” as Habermas, Arendt and others use the term, and so I muddled it together with adjacent, but differing concepts. And yet, maybe I was muddled because the topic itself is muddy? Who knows?

”The German term Öffentlichkeit (public sphere) encompasses a variety of meanings and it implies a spatial concept, the social sites or arenas where meanings are articulated, distributed, and negotiated, as well as the collective body constituted by, and in this process, ‘the public’.” — Negt, OskarKluge, Alexander (1993) 

“The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor.”  Habermas, Jürgen (1989), The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

Some various senses of the notion of the public sphere existed long before Habermas’ book on that topic. Indeed, some version (or versions) existed in ancient Greece. Immanuel Kant had things to say on the topic, and so have Hannah Arendt, Nancy Fraser and Gerard Hauser. But I haven’t read their books on this topic, so there are many features of the discourse which, presumably, allows for a somewhat clear distinction between “public sphere” and similar nomenclature, such as public and private property, public and private politics, spaces, etc.

What I’ve discovered since writing On Commoning is that I wasn’t using the phrase “public sphere” quite as it was intended to be used by Habermas, who coined the term. Nor was I using it as Arendt, and others, intended it to be used. I blurred the boundaries which (ostensibly) distinguish public and private property, space, politics, domains, etc. I mixed things up.

But then again, quite possibly, the distinguishing boundaries between these kinds of public and private are, in fact, rather blurred or entangled to begin with, and my incapacity for keeping them clearly distinct is a symptom of the way in which they are necessarily, if ambiguously and strangely, entangled.

I recently had occasion to discover (to a greater depth than I had previously understood) that very many of the words we use, which many of us believe to have clear and common definitions, in fact, do not.

Among these are the word ‘civilisation’ and ‘culture’ — two of the more fundamental terms in my adopted field of eco-cultural philosophy (a synthesis of philosophy of culture, human ecology and ecological philosophy). I discovered that these two terms, in particular, are in utter disarray, insofar as we generally don’t provide a definition of what we mean by the term in our writing or speaking. There is simply no commonly agreed upon definition for these terms in anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, and so on — nor within nor between these disciplines.

The problem is most clear in the use of ‘civilisation’. We tend to imagine that when we utter the word ‘civilisation’ we’re designating something as clear as “monkey wrench” or “chair” or “table”, but it just isn’t so. The word ‘civilisation’ designates what could be called a “complex concept,” generally, in that it’s a concept comprised of many features or parts, but there turns out to be nothing close to a consensus on what those defining features or parts are.

The word turns out to mean a hundred major kinds of thing, and a thousand additional minor ones. It is truly a floating signifier.

The words ‘public’ and ‘private’ — standing alone — are similar to ‘civilisation’ in this respect. At first glance, these terms are pretty simple and clear. But get up into the particulars and details and all of a sudden each, and each in relation to the other, begin to look like a ball of yarn which has been attacked by kittens and strewn all over the kitchen floor, and down the stairs and into the basement. It’s just not a ball of yarn anymore. It’s a tangle, a muddle.

Individual words and concepts don’t have meanings inside themselves (independently), but only in relation to other words and concepts. The more complex the concept, the more challenging it will be to be understood when we utter the name which points to the concept.

‘Culture’ and ‘civilisation’ are among the most complex of concepts³ — but so (rather surprisingly) are ‘public’ and ‘private’ — whether or not these last two are connected in a phrase like public domain, private domain, public space, private space, public realm, etc.

There are many kinds of public and private. Some of these are easy to affix a handle upon, so to speak. The distinction between public and private property has a clear legal definition, and that clear legal definition seems to be what we mean by public versus private property in any context. It’s not vague. But in common usage we will say “I’m going out in public” when we plan to go out to a privately owned theatre or restaurant. We don’t necessarily mean we’re heading to a public park, or some other public property. Restaurants and theatres are almost always privately, not publicly, owned. Yet either can be understood as a space in which one is “out in public”, rather than at home in one’s private space.

It’s not uncommon to divide politics into public versus private. The distinction is pretty clear in most — all? — cases. Private politics refers to political activities and decision-making processes that occur within private organisations or among private individuals (including friends deciding together where to go for dinner), rather than within the government or public sector. Public politics refers to political activities and decision-making processes that occur within the government or public sector.

Private politics can occur in public or private spaces—which is to say in places owned by the public or by private entities. Public politics almost always occurs in public places and spaces, however—in the sense of the ownership of the space or place. And it’s now not uncommon for privately owned ‘public’ spaces to exist — as in the example of a park. Privately owned property (real estate) is often treated as public space in contemporary cities, often with formal agreements between the private (usually corporate) owner and the municipal government.

The terms ‘public’ and ‘private’ have their meanings in the context in which they are used. But this context, upon careful examination, can often be murky, confused, confusing, strange, difficult to discern.

In some contexts, one will say “public” to refer to a social space we all share, which belongs to all of us—equally—as members of the common ‘public’. In this context, it is assumed (roughly) that we dwell within a society of social and political equals in a social space characterised by this mutual equality of participation and access — some form or another of what we want to call ‘democracy’. But does such a ‘public’ exist — anywhere?

I don’t believe it exists anywhere at the scale of a whole society, civilisation, nation or state. Where it does exist is within a very few, very small—and very rare—local communities who somehow enact with one another a politics of commoning, of power sharing—or intending to share—both ownership (of land, of ‘the means of production’…) and decision-making power.


Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines gaslighting as “psychological manipulation of a person [emphasis added] usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”

For a more in depth explanation of gaslighting, see Wikipedia’s article on the topic.

But Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s emphasis on how gaslighting impacts a person fails to acknowledge how persons exist in a social context in which gaslighting can also be understood as a social phenomenon, and even a political one.

Philosophers—like myself—tend to be interested in how particular instances (or instantiations) of a phenomenon can be understood as generalizations of myriad particular instances or instantiations. So let us now turn to an op-ed piece by Naomi Klein, titled AI machines aren’t ‘hallucinating’. But their makers are.

This essay from Naomi Klein demonstrates how Big Tech companies are appropriating nearly all of the world’s intellectual property in complete disregard for intellectual property rights — in the name of growing “the commons”. That is, Big Tech corporations are expropriating (stealing, theft) the world’s intellectual property by simply pretending that this property is the common property of us all.

Now, in my ideal world, “intellectual property” — at least very often — ought to be treated as a commons—as common property. But we’d have to have a very different economic system than the present (dominant) one for this not to be a form of theft.

Klein is completely right to call what is happening now through Big Tech nothing other than theft — because access to the benefits of one’s labor, intellectual or otherwise, is presently the principal means of access to livelihood for vast numbers of labourers.

In another possible (but wildly different) culture, producers of intellectual property may not own what they produce through their labor.But in this alternative economy and culture, the access of these producers would presumably be freely given to the commons in the form of gifting to the commons, as in Creative Commons. But the Creative Commons is entered into voluntarily, not by theft and expropriation.

I’m here to say a number of things, and among these is that the Commons cannot be created by theft, but only by giving—meaning it is a system built on trust, care, compassion, generosity and kindness. The theft, which private tech corporations are expropriating into “the commons”, is the latest form of enclosure of the commons in service to private corporations, which Klein rightly says will certainly have a price tag attached, which will benefit not the communal sphere but the private sphere, realm, domain, or whatever we agree to call it.

But for us to be a “we” we will need to be full participants in the decision-making process, which is to say we will require some form of democracy.

And it has long been my aim to reveal the myriad ways in which we do not have anything like democracy in our world—yet. What we have, instead, is a world of thievery from the commons, be it “intellectual” or material. And if we’re going to have a functioning commons, we’re going to have to devise an entirely different form of politics, one which isn’t just another of the myriad forms of gaslighting which has the whole world in its thrall at the moment.

I’m trying to point out that “the system” can always be “gamed” by sociopaths, narcissists and thieves. And long it has been so. And now is the time for us to enact another kind of politics, a politics of commoning. And let’s enact this now. For time is growing short.

But we will have to be a creative commons. And that means we will probably have to get angry. And anger is not such a bad thing. Anger, as Francis Weller has so wisely explained, is a way of letting others join us in relationship, of inviting others to dwell with us in a just, fair, and appropriate way.

Anger is not to be treated as generally toxic, in other words. Anger can be a kind and generous way of saying, enough is enough! “I am a person, and I expect to be treated as such”. (See: Francis Weller on Grief (2013) – YouTube).

Not everyone will yet be ready to meet us in commoning. But some will. And these are the friends we will be needing as we deepen our insight that …

Love is the revolution.

The revolution is love.

And this is just another way of saying that … gifts shall set us free.

This post first appeared on The R-word.

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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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