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Sabeel Rahman’s argument against the privatization of public goods and services contributes to a rich stream of contemporary critiques of neoliberalism that rightly focuses on how privatization creates and maintains forms of exclusion and hierarchy. In response to privatization, Rahman calls to make public goods public again—that is, to design and bolster government programs that foster social inclusion and equality, broadening both our conception of public goods and the populations whose membership grants them access to those goods.
Rahman’s argument, however, rests on a notion of the opposition between public and private that obscures the full range of political possibilities. Indeed, many critiques of neoliberalism assume that the only solution is a return to economic projects of Keynesian state control, usually combined with political discourses of classical liberalism (Rahman’s primary touchstone is the Progressive Era). Older notions of state provision and regulation may well be preferable to the neoliberal rule of private property, but they carry their own forms of exclusion and injustice. Rahman himself recognizes the history of racial and gender hierarchies embedded in state structures of public goods. One might add the exclusion of migrants and indigenous populations, among others, from membership in the political community.
The private and the public are not our only options. The common—defined by open access to, and shared democratic management of, social wealth—provides an alternative.
Fortunately the private and the public are not our only options. The common—defined by open access to, and shared democratic management of, social wealth—provides an alternative. In fact, Rahman’s argument points at times, ambiguously, in the direction of the common.
I will offer some examples of how social wealth can be shared as common, but before I do that, I want to address some basic conceptual distinctions, the first of which regards the nature of property. For the purposes of this discussion, I adopt the commonsense understanding of private property as defined by the right to exclude others and exert a monopoly over decision-making. It is true that modern private property, as every first-year law student will tell you, is characterized not by an absolute right of ownership, but by a bundle of rights such that ownership is conditioned by others affected by property. Such plurality, however, is always restricted and does not alter the ultimate authority and power of exclusion afforded by ownership.
Furthermore, public ownership, by which I understand state regulation and control, does not fundamentally alter the basic exclusions of property. More people may have access to public property than private property, but the state retains the right to decision-making and restricts access to those who “belong.” Rahman calls this power the codification and institutionalization of membership—or its denial. The public, in other words, maintains its own forms of monopoly over access and decision-making. Indeed private and public frequently function together to maintain exclusions and hierarchies. For example, many authors have detailed how public housing projects in the United States have not lessened the racial segregations created by private property but instead reinforced them.
The common, in contrast to both the private and the public, is defined by open access and democratic decision-making. It thus designates not a third kind of property, but a non-property structure for sharing social wealth.
Second, by invoking the common I do not intend to harken back to precapitalist social arrangements that were destroyed by the enclosures, but to indicate new means for sharing social wealth today. I also reject tragedy-of-the-commons style objections, which claim that unmanaged social wealth, such as a field for grazing, will inevitably come to ruin and that the only effective means of management are private ownership or state control. Such preemptive objections serve as a red herring that closes down debate. The common of course must be managed, but a politics of the common rests on the wager that shared social wealth can be managed democratically, outside of either private or public control.
Third, distinguishing the public from the common is critical, since in English (and many other languages) the term “public” is ambivalent, referring in some usages to state control and in others to the common. When one refers to a reading public, for instance, or to making one’s ideas public, the “public” in question refers primarily to the common. This ambivalence of standard usage conceals an important divide between circumstances under which state decision-making and the state’s powers of exclusion are central versus those under which decision-making is democratic and access open and equal. In discussions of public property and public goods, I thus use the term “public” only in reference to the state, so that the common can come into view.
Rahman’s discussions of the public are ambivalent in the way I have just outlined. Whereas in the major portion of the essay he addresses state provision and regulation of public goods, a minor line of argumentation gestures toward the common. For example, lamenting the unequal distribution in the United States of access to safe water, health care, and housing, he calls for a more broadly inclusive “we.” Presumably, access would then be open equally to all, including migrants and all previously excluded populations.
Rahman’s call for a newly democratic conception of public goods could also point toward the common, assuming this would oppose any monopoly of decision-making, private or public. That assumption suggests a final conceptual point: differentiating the common from the public requires a distinct understanding of democracy. Rahman seems to conceive of democracy in terms of just and responsible structures of representation, highlighting the accountability and responsiveness of public officials. The common, in contrast, requires a fuller notion of democracy in which all participate in making decisions about access to and management of social wealth. It is beyond the scope of this short piece to debate the feasibility of such a participatory notion of democracy; my point is that how we define democracy is central to questions of public goods and the common.
A politics of the common rests on the wager that shared social wealth can be managed democratically, outside of either private or public control.
All these conceptual distinctions are salient in contemporary social movements that demand a right to the common. Just as Rahman claims housing is a right, so too does the Spanish Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Platform of Those Affected by Mortgages), known as the PAH. Whereas Rahman proposes public means, such as rent control and rent subsidies, to create greater access and counter the neoliberal powers of finance and gentrification, the PAH defends the right to housing through various forms of social action and civil disobedience: the group not only protects those threatened with eviction or utility shut-offs, but also occupies empty apartments owned by banks to provide housing to the homeless. The PAH does engage the state—for instance, to demand reforms of housing laws and the enlargement of laws that defend renters’ and debtors’ rights—but its center of gravity resides in the common, not in the public. It seeks to make housing available to all through democratic decision-making structures.
The Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock illuminate another face of the common. Led by an extraordinary gathering of North American tribes, the movement did not contest the pipeline route based on property rights. Nor did it appeal for greater state regulation or control. It posed a much more fundamental challenge, the implications of which extend well beyond the issue of pipelines: a new relation to the earth—to view the earth as common and to develop practices of care and participation on that basis. To share the earth in this way would require a radical transformation of the current social order.
Social movements such as the PAH and the pipeline protests render visible the common, which is so often obscured in discussions of public goods. They demonstrate that the public is not the only means of combatting neoliberal privatization and open up a wider range of social and political alternatives.
Rahman astutely notes that what is at stake in the debate is not only the distribution of social wealth but also the production of subjectivity: who we are. Neither the private nor the public, however, will ever produce the “broadly inclusive ‘we’” he aims for. Genuine inclusion and social equality can only be constructed through the open access and democratic participation that characterize the common.
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