The Disintegration of the Public Sector: Recasting Public Conversation

Tony Judt, New York University

One striking consequence of the disintegration of the public sector has been an increased difficulty in comprehending what we have in common with others. We are familiar with complaints about the ‘atomizing’ impact of the internet: if everyone selects gobbets of knowledge and information that interest them, but avoids exposure to anything else, we do indeed form global communities of elective affinity—while losing touch with the affinities of our neighbors.

In that case, what is it that binds us together? Students frequently tell me that they only know and care about a highly specialized subset of news items and public events. Some may read of environmental catastrophes and climate change. Others are taken up by national political debates but quite ignorant of foreign developments. In the past, thanks to the newspaper they browsed or the television reports they took in over dinner, they would at least have been ‘exposed’ to other matters. Today, such extraneous concerns are kept at bay.

This problem highlights a misleading aspect of globalization. Young people are indeed in touch with likeminded persons many thousands of miles away. But even if the students of Berkeley, Berlin and Bangalore share a common set of interests, these do not translate into community. Space matters. And politics is a function of space—we vote where we live and our leaders are restricted in their legitimacy and authority to the place where they were elected. Real-time access to likeminded fellows half a world away is no substitute.

Think for a minute about the importance of something as commonplace as an insurance card or pension book. Back in the early days of the welfare states, these had to be regularly stamped or renewed in order for their possessor to collect her pension, food stamps or child allowance. These rituals of exchange between the benevolent state and its citizens took place at fixed locations: a post office, typically. Over time, the shared experience of relating to public authority and public policy— incarnated in these services and benefits—contributed mightily to a tauter sense of shared citizenship.

This sentiment was crucial to the formation of modern states and the peaceful societies they governed. Until the late 19th century, government was simply the apparatus by which an inherited ruling class exercised power. But little by little, the state took upon itself a multitude of tasks and responsibilities hitherto in the hands of individuals or private agencies.

Examples abound. Private security agencies were replaced (and disbanded) in favor of national or municipal police forces. Private mail services were made redundant by the development of national post offices. Mercenaries were forced out of business, replaced by national conscript armies. Private transportation services did not disappear—retreating instead into luxury provisions for the very wealthy—but were displaced as the primary means of communication by publicly-owned or regulated buses, trams, trolleys and trains. The patronage system of artistic support—well adapted to private operas for independent princelings and isolated courts—was steadily displaced (though never entirely) by publicly-funded arts, supported by national and local taxation and administered by state agencies.

The point can be extended indefinitely. The emergence of national football (soccer) leagues across Europe served simultaneously to channel popular energies, forge local identities and establish a nation-wide sense of space and shared enthusiasms. Much like France’s famous turn-of-the-century geography text, Le Tour de la France par deux enfants, which socialized a generation of French schoolchildren into an appreciation of the map of France, so the formation of the Football Leagues in England and Scotland introduced young fans to the geography of their country through the competition of teams from its various regions.

From its early years through the 1970s, the Football League was always a single entity: ‘meritocratic’ in the sense that teams could rise or fall through its various divisions according to their performance. Footballers, recruited locally, wore the colors of their team. Such advertising as there was confined itself to placards mounted around the pitch; the idea of attaching commercial announcements to the players themselves would simply never have occurred to anyone—the resulting cacophony of color and text would have detracted from the visual unity of the team.

Indeed, visual representations of collective identity used to matter a lot. Think of the black London taxi, its distinctive monotone emerging by consensus between the wars and serving thereafter to distinguish not only the taxis themselves but something about the austere unity of the city they served. Buses and trains followed suit, their uniformity of color and design emphasizing the role they played as common transporters of a single people.

The same purpose may be ascribed in retrospect to the distinctively British enthusiasm for school uniforms (not unknown elsewhere, but usually associated with religious or communitarian identity—parochial schools, for example). Looking back across the chasm which opened up with the ‘individualist’ enthusiasms of the ’60s, it is hard for us today to appreciate their virtues. Surely, we now suppose, such dress codes stifle the identity and personality of the young?

Rigid dress codes can indeed enforce authority and suppress individuality—an army uniform is intended to do just that. But in their time, uniforms—whether worn by schoolchildren, mailmen, train conductors or street-crossing wardens—bespoke a certain egalitarianism. A child in regulation clothing is under no pressure to compete sartorially with his better-off contemporaries. A uniform makes identification with others, across social or ethnic boundaries, involuntary and thus—in the end— natural.

Today, to the extent that we even acknowledge shared social obligations and claims, these are characteristically met in private. The mails are increasingly beleaguered by the private delivery services which cream off profitable business, leaving the Post Office to subsidize costly delivery and collection services for the poor and in remote areas. Buses and trains are in private hands, festooned with advertisements and garishly decorated in loud colors that announce the identity of their owners rather than the service they provide. The arts—in Britain or Spain, for example—are funded by the proceeds of privately administered lotteries, raising money from the poorer members of the community through the encouragement of legalized gambling.

Football Leagues across Europe have devolved into ultrawealthy Super Leagues for a handful of privileged clubs, with the remainder mired in their poverty and irrelevance. The idea of a ‘national’ space has been replaced by international competition underwritten by ephemeral foreign funders, their coffers recouped from commercial exploitation of players recruited from afar and unlikely to remain in place very long.

London’s taxis, once famous for their efficient design and the astonishing local knowledge of their drivers, now come in myriad colors. In the latest retreat from functional uniformity, non-conventional makes and models are permitted to advertise themselves as official taxis—even though they can neither perform the hitherto mandatory turning circles nor meet longestablished load capacities. Within a predictable future, we may expect the famous ‘knowledge’—the intimate familiarity with London’s maze of streets and squares required of every licensed taxi driver since 1865—to be abandoned or diluted in the name of free enterprise.

Armies, especially the American army, are increasingly dependent for logistical support, material provision and transportation security upon private services—the latter furnished at great expense by companies hiring mercenaries on short-term contract: at the last count, 190,000 ‘auxiliary’ private employees were ‘assisting’ the US armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The police once incarnated the modern state’s ambition to regulate social intercourse and monopolize authority and violence. Less than two centuries after their first appearance, they are being displaced by private security companies whose function it is to serve and secure the ‘gated communities’ that have sprung up in our cities and suburbs over the past three decades.

What exactly is a ‘gated community’ and why does it matter? In its initial American usage—now enthusiastically applied in parts of London and elsewhere across Europe, as well as throughout Latin America and in wealthy Asian entrepots from Singapore to Shanghai—the term denotes people who have gathered together into affluent subdivisions of suburbs and cities and fondly suppose themselves functionally independent of the rest of society.

Before the rise of the modern state, such communities were commonplace. If they were not actually fortified in practice, they certainly represented a distinct private space, its boundaries well-marked and secured against outsiders. As modern cities and nation states grew up, so these fortified enclaves—often owned by a single aristocrat or limited private company –blended into the urban surroundings. Their inhabitants, confident in the security now offered to them by the public authorities, abandoned their private police forces, dismantled their fences and confined their exclusivity to distinctions of wealth and status. As recently as the 1960s, their reappearance in our midst would have seemed quite bizarre.

But today, they are everywhere: a token of ‘standing’, a shameless acknowledgment of the desire to separate oneself from other members of society, and a formal recognition of the state’s (or the city’s) inability or unwillingness to impose its authority across a uniform public space. In America one typically finds gated communities in far-flung suburbs. But in England as elsewhere, they have sprung up at the heart of the city.

‘Stratford City’, in east London, covers some 170 acres and claims the power to control all activity in the (public) streets under its jurisdiction. ‘Cabot Circus’ in Bristol, ‘Highcross’ in Leicester, ‘Liverpool One’ (which spans 34 streets and is owned by Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster’s property company) are all privately-owned and privately-controlled spaces at the heart of what were once public municipalities. They reserve the right to impose a range of restrictions and regulations according to taste: no skateboarding, no rollerblading, no eating in certain locations, no begging, no vagrancy, no photographs and of course a myriad of private security and closed circuit cameras to enforce the above.

A moment’s reflection reveals the contradiction of such parasitic communities-within-the-community. The private security firms they hire are not entitled by law to act in the name of the state and must thus call upon the police to assist them in the event of serious crime. The streets they purport to own and maintain were initially surveyed, built, paved and lit at public expense: so today’s privatized citizens are the undeserving beneficiaries of yesterday’s taxpayers. The public highways that allow members of a gated community to travel freely between home and work were also provided—and are still maintained—by society at large, as are the public services (schools, hospitals, post offices, fire engines and the like) on which ‘gated citizens’ may call with the same rights and expectations as their un-privileged neighbors.

It is claimed on their behalf that gated communities act as a bulwark against violations of their members’ liberties. People are safer within their gates and pay for the privilege; they are free to live among their own. Accordingly, they can insist upon rules and regulations with respect to décor, design and deportment that reflect their ‘values’ and which they do not seek to impose on non-members beyond their gates. But in practice these excessive exercises in the ‘privatization’ of daily life actually fragment and divide public space in a way that threatens everyone’s liberty.

The contemporary impulse to live in such private spaces with people like oneself is not confined to wealthy property owners. It is the same urge that drives African-American or Jewish students in colleges today to form separate ‘houses’, to eat apart and even to learn primarily about themselves by enrolling in identity studies majors. But in universities, like society at large, such self-protective undertakings not only starve their beneficiaries of access to a broader range of intellectual or public goods, they fragment and diminish the experience of everyone.

People who live in private spaces contribute actively to the dilution and corrosion of the public space. In other words, they exacerbate the circumstances which drove them to retreat in the first place. And by so doing, they pay a price. If public goods— public services, public spaces, public facilities—are devalued, diminished in the eyes of citizens and replaced by private services available against cash, then we lose the sense that common interests and common needs ought to trump private preferences and individual advantage. And once we cease to value the public over the private, surely we shall come in time to have difficulty seeing just why we should value law (the public good par excellence) over force.

In recent years the idea that law should always have precedence over force has fallen into disuse: were it otherwise, we should not so readily have signed on for a ‘preventive’ war in defiance of all international legal opinion. To be sure, this is a matter of foreign policy, an arena in which realism has often trumped allegiance to treaty or the recognition of law. But how long will it be before we import such criteria into our domestic arrangements?

In an age when young people are encouraged to maximize self-interest and self-advancement, the grounds for altruism or even good behavior become obscured. Short of reverting to religious authority—itself on occasion corrosive of secular institutions—what can furnish a younger generation with a sense of purpose beyond its own short-term advantage? The late Albert Hirschman spoke of the “liberating experience” of a life directed to action on the public behalf: “[t]he greatest asset of public action is its ability to satisfy vaguely felt needs for higher purpose and meaning in the lives of men and women, especially of course in an age in which religious fervor is at a low ebb in many countries”.{{1}}

One of the moderating constraints of the ’60s was the widespread impulse to enter public service or the liberal professions: education, medicine, journalism, government, the arts or public sector law. Few—very few—graduates before the mid-’70s sought out a ‘business’ education; and the numbers applying to law school were far lower than they are today. Instrumental self-advancement conflicted with the acquired habit of working with and for one’s fellow citizens.

If we don’t respect public goods; if we permit or encourage the privatization of public space, resources and services; if we enthusiastically support the propensity of a younger generation to look exclusively to their own needs: then we should not be surprised to find a steady falling-away from civic engagement in public decision-making. In recent years there has been much discussion of the so-called ‘democratic deficit’. The steadily declining turnout at local and national elections, the cynical distaste for politicians and political institutions consistently register in public opinion polls—most markedly among the young. There is a widespread sense that since ‘they’ will do what they want in any case—while feathering their own nests—why should ‘we’ waste time trying to influence the outcome of their actions.

In the short-run, democracies can survive the indifference of their citizens. Indeed, it used to be thought an indication of impending trouble in a well-ordered republic when electors were too much aroused. The business of government, it was widely supposed, should be left to those elected for the purpose. But the pendulum has swung far in the opposite direction.

The turnout in American presidential and congressional elections has long been worryingly low and continues to fall. In the United Kingdom, parliamentary elections—once an occasion for widespread civic engagement—have seen a steady decline in participation since the 1970s: to take an exemplary case, Margaret Thatcher won more votes in her first electoral victory than on any subsequent occasion. If she continued to triumph, it was because the opposition vote fell even faster. The European Union parliamentary elections, inaugurated in 1979, are notorious for the low numbers of European citizens who bother to turn out.

Why does this matter? Because—as the Greeks knew—participation in the way you are governed not only heightens a collective sense of responsibility for the things government does, it also keeps our rulers honest and holds authoritarian excess at bay. Political demobilization, beyond the healthy retreat from ideological polarization which characterized the growth of political stability in postwar western Europe, is a dangerous and slippery slope. It is also cumulative: if we feel excluded from the management of our collective affairs, we shall not bother to speak up about them. In that case, we should not be surprised to discover that no one is listening to us.

The danger of a democratic deficit is always present in systems of indirect representation. Direct democracy, in small political units, enhances participation—though with the attendant risk of conformity and majoritarian oppression: there is nothing as potentially repressive of dissent and difference as a town hall meeting or a kibbutz. Choosing people to speak for us at some distant assembly is a reasonable mechanism for balancing the representation of interests in large and complex communities. But unless we mandate our representatives to say only what we have authorized—an approach favored by radical students and revolutionary crowds—we are constrained to allow them to follow their own judgment.

The men and women who dominate western politics today are overwhelmingly products—or, in the case of Nicolas Sarkozy, byproducts—of the ’60s. This cohort of politicians have in common the enthusiasm that they fail to inspire in the electors of their respective countries. They do not seem to believe very firmly in any coherent set of principles or policies; and though none of them—with the possible exception of Blair—is as execrated as former president George W. Bush (another baby boomer), they form a striking contrast to the statesmen of the World War II generation. They convey neither conviction nor authority.

Beneficiaries of the welfare states whose institutions they call into question, they are all Thatcher’s children: politicians who have overseen a retreat from the ambitions of their predecessors. Few—once again, with the exception of Bush and Blair—could be said actively to have betrayed the democratic trust placed in them. But if there is a generation of public men and women who share responsibility for our collective suspicion of politics and politicians, they are its true representatives. Convinced that there is little they can do, they do little. The best that might be said of them, as so often of the baby boom generation, is that they stand for nothing in particular: politicians-lite.

No longer trusting in such persons, we lose faith not just in parliamentarians and congressmen, but in Parliament and Congress themselves. The popular instinct at such moments is either to ‘throw the rascals out’ or else leave them to do their worst. Neither of these responses bodes well: we don’t know how to throw them out and we can no longer afford to let them do their worst. A third response—‘overthrow the system!’—is discredited by its inherent inanity: which bits of which system and in favor of which systemic substitute? In any case, who will do the overthrowing?

We no longer have political movements. While thousands of us may come together for a rally or march, we are bound together on such occasions by a single shared interest. Any effort to convert such interests into collective goals is usually undermined by the fragmented individualism of our concerns. Laudable goals—fighting climate change, opposing war, advocating public healthcare or penalizing bankers—are united by nothing more than the expression of emotion. In our political as in our economic lives, we have become consumers: choosing from a broad gamut of competing objectives, we find it hard to imagine ways or reasons to combine these into a coherent whole. We must do better than this.

Recasting Public Conversation

Most critics of our present condition start with institutions. They look at parliaments, senates, presidents, elections and lobbies and point to the ways in which these have degraded or abused the trust and authority placed in them. Any reform, they conclude, must begin here. We need new laws, different electoral regimes, restrictions on lobbying and political funding; we need to give more (or less) authority to the executive branch and we need to find ways to make elected and unelected officials responsive and answerable to their constituencies and paymasters: us.

All true. But such changes have been in the air for decades. It should by now be clear that the reason they have not happened, or do not work, is because they are imagined, designed and implemented by the very people responsible for the dilemma. There is little point in asking the US Senate to reform its lobbying arrangements: as Upton Sinclair famously observed a century ago, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” For much the same reasons, the parliaments of most European countries—now regarded with sentiments ranging from boredom to contempt—are ill-placed to find within themselves the means to become relevant once again.

We need to start somewhere else. Why, for the past three decades, has it been so easy for those in power to convince their constituents of the wisdom—and, in any case, the necessity—of the policies they want to pursue? Because there has been no coherent alternative on offer. Even when there are significant policy differences among major political parties, these are presented as versions of a single objective. It has become commonplace to assert that we all want the same thing, we just have slightly different ways of going about it.

But this is simply false. The rich do not want the same thing as the poor. Those who depend on their job for their livelihood do not want the same thing as those who live off investments and dividends. Those who do not need public services—because they can purchase private transport, education and protection—do not seek the same thing as those who depend exclusively on the public sector. Those who benefit from war—either as defense contractors or on ideological grounds—have different objectives than those who are against war.

Societies are complex and contain conflicting interests. To assert otherwise—to deny distinctions of class or wealth or influence—is just a way to promote one set of interests above another. This proposition used to be self-evident; today we are encouraged to dismiss it as an incendiary encouragement to class hatred. In a similar vein, we are encouraged to pursue economic self-interest to the exclusion of all else: and indeed, there are many who stand to gain thereby.

However, markets have a natural disposition to favor needs and wants that can be reduced to commercial criteria or economic measurement. If you can sell it or buy it, then it is quantifiable and we can assess its contribution to (quantitative) measures of collective well-being. But what of those goods which humans have always valued but which do not lend themselves to quantification?

What of well-being? What of fairness or equity (in its original sense)? What of exclusion, opportunity—or its absence—or lost hope? Such considerations mean much more to most people than aggregate or even individual profit or growth. Take humiliation: what if we treated it as an economic cost, a charge to society? What if we decided to ‘quantify’ the harm done when people are shamed by their fellow citizens as a condition of receiving the mere necessities of life?

In other words, what if we factored into our estimates of productivity, efficiency, or well-being the difference between a humiliating handout and a benefit as of right? We might conclude that the provision of universal social services, public health insurance, or subsidized public transportation was actually a cost-effective way to achieve our common objectives. I readily concede that such an exercise is inherently contentious: how do we quantify ‘humiliation’? What is the measurable cost of depriving isolated citizens of access to metropolitan resources? How much are we willing to pay for a good society?

Even ‘wealth’ itself cries out for redefinition. It is widely asserted that steeply progressive rates of taxation or economic redistribution destroy wealth. Such policies undoubtedly constrict the resources of some to the benefit of others—though the way we cut the cake has little bearing on its size. If redistributing material wealth has the long-term effect of improving the health of a country, diminishing social tensions born of envy or increasing and equalizing everyone’s access to services hitherto preserved for the few, is not that country better off?{{2}}

As the reader may observe, I am using words like ‘wealth’ or ‘better off’ in ways that take them well beyond their current, strictly material application. To do this on a broader scale—to recast our public conversation—seems to me the only realistic way to begin to bring about change. If we do not talk differently, we shall not think differently.

There are precedents for this way of conceiving political change. In late-18th century France, as the old regime tottered, the most significant developments on the political scene came not in the movements of protest or the institutions of state which sought to head them off. They came, rather, in the very language itself. Journalists and pamphleteers, together with the occasional dissenting administrator or priest, were forging out of an older language of justice and popular rights a new rhetoric of public action.

Unable to confront the monarchy head-on, they set about depriving it of legitimacy by imagining and expressing objections to the way things were and positing alternative sources of authority in whom ‘the people’ could believe. In effect, they invented modern politics: and in so doing quite literally discredited everything that had gone before. By the time the Revolution itself broke out, this new language of politics was thoroughly in place: indeed, had it not been, the revolutionaries themselves would have had no way to describe what they were doing. In the beginning was the word.

Today, we are encouraged to believe in the idea that politics reflects our opinions and helps us shape a shared public space. Politicians talk and we respond—with our votes. But the truth is quite other. Most people don’t feel as though they are part of any conversation of significance. They are told what to think and how to think it. They are made to feel inadequate as soon as issues of detail are engaged; and as for general objectives, they are encouraged to believe that these have long since been determined.

The perverse effects of this suppression of genuine debate are all around us. In the US today, town hall meetings and ‘tea parties’ parody and mimic the 18th century originals. Far from opening debate, they close it down. Demagogues tell the crowd what to think; when their phrases are echoed back to them, they boldly announce that they are merely relaying popular sentiment. In the UK, television has been put to strikingly effective use as a safety valve for populist discontent: professional politicians now claim to listen to vox populi in the form of instant phone-in votes and popularity polls on everything from immigration policy to pedophilia. Twittering back to their audience its own fears and prejudices, they are relieved of the burden of leadership or initiative.

Meanwhile, across the Channel in republican France or tolerant Holland, ersatz debates on national identity and criteria for citizenship substitute for the political courage required to confront popular prejudice and the challenges of integration. Here too, a ‘conversation’ appears to be taking place. But its terms of reference have been carefully pre-determined; its purpose is not to encourage the expression of dissenting views but to suppress them. Rather than facilitate public participation and diminish civic alienation, these ‘conversations’ simply add to the widespread distaste for politicians and politics. In a modern democracy it is possible to fool most of the people most of the time: but at a price.

We need to re-open a different sort of conversation. We need to become confident once again in our own instincts: if a policy or an action or a decision seems somehow wrong, we must find the words to say so. According to opinion polls, most people in England are apprehensive about the helter-skelter privatization of familiar public goods: utilities, the London Underground, their local bus service and the regional hospital, not to mention retirement homes, nursing services and the like. But when they are told that the purpose of such privatizations has been to save public money and improve efficiency, they are silent: who could dissent?

[This essay is an extract from the author’s new book Ill Fares the Land (Penguin Press, 2010). Reprinted with permission by Penguin Press.—ed.]

Go to Overview: Public Institutions & the Public Good Essay Series

[[1]] Albert O. Hirschman, Shifting Involvements: Private Interest and Public Action (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982), p. 126.[[1]]

[[2]] Fred Hirsch, The Social Limits to Growth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), p.66, note 19.[[2]]

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