Public Sphere and Private Sphere

The difference between the public sphere and the private sphere is one of the guiding principles of community building.

This entry will first discuss the difference between them. Secondly, a question: is the state private? Thirdly, despatches from an invasion: private invades public.


Towards a distinction between the public and the private spheres

The private sphere consists of everyday matters of love, health, work, money, food, trouble, gossip. Your family, and any others in your private sphere—your small group—are likely to know quite a lot about such personal matters. They may even know about your verruca. There is a sense of being at home when someone you love is around, and yet, being at home sees you at your most blunt, at your worst as well as your best. There is a quality of behaviour in the private sphere which is unvarnished and untaught. You are accepted as you are; there is little deference to rules, custom or ceremony, unless invented, or specifically affirmed, at home. In the private sphere, actions correspond, sometimes all too closely, with thought. It is your occupation to be plain. You get to know each other, well. But if the community you live in consists only of the private sphere, you will feel the need to get away.P108

The public sphere is different. Here a structure of rules and civilities is accepted, not because it is immediately evident that they are sensible, but because they exist—they are part of the culture, the rules of a game. They are expressive of the community as a whole, rather than of material and instrumental needs and relationships between individuals. The public sphere does not intrude; it does not tell you more about private lives than you want to know. Public life is guarded in what it reveals.

But the public sphere also plays. It invites wide participation. There is immersion in the play, but the rules keep the distance between the players. In a healthy public sphere, there is a sense of reserve, even reticence—there is also excitement and enthusiasm, vitality and invention, but play is not a good setting for a player to open up his heart to the other players. It is best to wait until the game is over, and if the culture is organised around the principle of play, it is never over, except at focused moments of privacy—for instance, in the family. And yet, despite the reticence, or perhaps because of it, there is also a sense that it is in the structured public context that your identity is being shaped. Your imagination is stretched: you can develop your game persona and, towards your game partner, display aggression which you would not contemplate for real.

The public sphere, then, reaches beyond people’s concerns with instrumental needs. It can accomplish serious things, too: it can build a church or a hospital; and yet, its element is play; festival and carnival are public in this sense, as is some theatre, music and architecture. There is decoration, humour, deliberation, even a sense of collective enchantment—a sense of the spirit of the place, where the anarchic power of people to organise themselves is unleashed. Conversation between friends may border on the public sphere if it is not instrumental in the sense of discussion about, or seeking help on, personal problems. The public sphere is both impersonal and rich in emotion, imagination, art—in things which transcend the self. There is a combination of creativity and a self-distance, in that you are expressing yourself but not necessarily revealing a lot about yourself.P109 The public sphere establishes a presence behind which people can actually maintain their own privacy: a strong public sphere keeps privacy private, and indeed the two spheres depend on each other—the public sphere is built on private-sphere foundations.

All these things are expressed by, and comprise, a society’s culture. And in the presence of a living culture, the public sphere comes alive; it rises above the daily grind; it has a story to tell; it is awash with music. If there is to be an artistic culture, there has to be a public sphere—its habitat. If there is to be a public sphere, there has to be an artistic culture—its natural resident. There is a social ecology here, as interactive and self-stabilising as Gaia—or, perhaps, there was, as Edmund Burke wrote:

All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonised the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beatify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.P110


Is the state public or private?

For most of the period of post-Roman history in the West, the distinction between private and public has been reasonably clear. There was some substantial crossing of the boundary so that (as so often in Lean Logic) there were fuzzy borderlines, but there were also central areas of sharp definition. The public sphere was large and strongly present.

And then, events began to stir into life which reduced the scale and significance of the public sphere. It was a long, slow process and it started a long time ago. It could perhaps be traced to the invention of money in seventh century BC Greece. In our own culture, a decisive move came with the dissolution of the monasteries. Monasticism had been a powerful expression of the public sphere. It had its flaws; it had elements of politics and privacy and money-making in it, but at its best, and in intention, it was a public institution. It was funded in part by charitable giving; its chief expression was in terms of art and culture, especially music, of the highest order; and it carried out a vital public function in that it provided hospitals, schools, colleges and systems of care and subsistence for the poor. Monasteries and convents provided care for the elderly (called corridans) and for people unable to work. Such schemes were not comprehensive, but they were important, and they set a standard.P111

When they were dissolved (1536–1541), much of that work simply came to a stop. In particular, the task of care and maintenance for the poor was left undone and, since no other public institution was available to take it over, the matter was left to the government. But the government had no instinct for the task: one of its first acts on taking over responsibility for the poor in 1547 was to pass a law requiring that idlers and wanderers should be branded. That law was repealed two years later, but the question of how the government ought best to carry out its responsibility towards the poor was never resolved. The friendly societies—set up by citizens as insurance against financial trouble, and one of the most significant accomplishments of the public sphere—took off in the nineteenth century, but this in turn was unpicked when, in 1911, the state established its own system of national insurance, making it the responsibility of the state to administer pensions and welfare benefits, and to tinker with them as the unintended consequences were revealed.P112

Another sequence of events, linked in many ways with that, and starting at the same time, was the enclosure of common land which farmers had formerly maintained and relied on as a collective village asset. Enclosures—transfer of the commons into private ownership—matured from being rare to being a transformation, spreading through the land at the cost of rebellion, resentment and disempowerment. Their consequences—the loss of jointly-managed responsibility for local land, of accessible land for grazing, and of shared rotations and very small-scale plots—are also still with us, complicating progress towards wider participation in food production. The management of the commons had been an expression of the public sphere. The meetings of the Manor Court and its field jury in Laxton in Nottinghamshire—the last remaining area of land which is farmed in common—are a luminous remnant of the rural self-monitoring public sphere in action.P113

The deconstruction of the public sphere did not reach its climax in the United Kingdom until the twentieth century, after early warnings such as the decisive state intervention in primary schools in 1870.P114 In the second half of the twentieth century, encouraged by its experience as an organiser of war, the state’s intervention in matters which had belonged in the public sphere advanced without restraint.

The question is not whether that was a good thing or not: Lean Logic would argue that, in terms of efficiency and guaranteed access, the schools, hospitals and universities—and social security in the form of the friendly societies—would have been superior beyond recognition as compared with the present state-run standards, if the public sphere—which had created them and brought them to their world-class standard—had been able to continue its work during the period of post-war economic recovery. But that isn’t something we need to agree on, and it is not the point. The point is that this state takeover of services, and the other forms of takeover discussed above, were not additions to the public sphere, they were subtractions from it. They were forms of privatisation.

It makes no significant difference whether the services and responsibilities taken away from the public sphere finally end up in the hands of public companies or those of the state: their removal from the self-organising culture of presence and participation is a dismantling of the public sphere, and sucks meaning from citizenship. State ownership is a process of privatisation. Even though some of the money comes via taxation rather than direct exchange, the state, in its role as manager, paymaster and service provider, has the function of—has in essence become—a private-sphere institution.


The private invades the public

The distinction between private and public is no mere naming of parts: it matters. And it is not only about the loss of citizenship in a practical sense; it is about the whole ethic of interaction and relationship. For one thing, when the private sphere enters the space which would otherwise have been occupied by public civility, its characteristic benign, uninhibited bluntness can become ugly. Just as public formality does not work in the private sphere, so private bluntness does not work in the public sphere, where it implies an intimate knowledge of the other person which is in fact intrusive, incipiently violent: the other person’s independence and distinctive identity are invaded—and so is the foundation for social order. Tribal groups that merge too quickly into large-scale societies may not have time to develop a culture of public manners, which can be a route towards becoming paternal tyrannies, with the tyrant claiming the title of “father”, carrying forward the uninhibited culture of family privacy, and applying it to strangers.

The public sphere still exists in some instances (monarchy is one), but only in remnants. In the space where there was a public sphere, there is now (the remnants apart) only a big private sphere. Citizenship had meaning, responsibility, common purpose and presence, but the takeovers by state and commerce disempowered citizens, and told them to go back home to their private lives. At the same time, they plunged the state itself into the detail of an impossible top-down management structure, redefining the inherited institutions and services in terms of price and exchange as the previously self-motivated participants did as they were told. The public sphere was vacated.

And the consequences for the private sphere are profound. If there is no public context for private life, you tend to wonder if there is any point: is that all there is?P115

And yet, the private sphere—the real thing—is itself non-negotiable. It nurses and cultivates; it produces the person who in due course will engage in the public sphere, if there is one; it is the place of love and sleep, home and close friends, childhood and lifelong conversations. Communities will need to protect their private sphere. They may begin with a strong sense of collective existence, but they will also need to be able to go home and shut the door.

The public sphere and the private sphere rely on each other, but if there is a survivor in the attrition between them, it is the private sphere. Bad manners drive out good manners, and future building up of the public sphere will have to start from the basics. But it may be that it will have instinct on its side. One of the most dramatic rebellions against the assault on the local public sphere by enclosures was the one led by Ben Kett in Norfolk in 1549. When he rallied his pitchfork-armed troops under the oak tree in Wymondham—public address systems not having yet been invented—his message was amplified by the obviousness and resonance of what he was telling them. The case for being a responsible member of a self-regulating community, charged with the deeply informed and skilled management of the local land, was not one that had to be heard in detail. Every man there already knew it. The distant music of his words was enough.P116

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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