A Public Sphere Without a Public Good

Scholars have long viewed the public sphere, among other things, as a realm for coordinated action. In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jürgen Habermas recounted how the bourgeoisie developed a sense of themselves as a collective subject and asserted the public sphere as the locus of political authority. In The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey explained that publics arise from recognition of their implication in the consequences of human activity. Publics organized to address these consequences and pursue their interests purposefully, rather reacting haphazardly to societal developments. In her reflections on publics, Hannah Arendt called people’s coordinated activities the constitutive power of human relationships. She wrote that that “power springs up between [people] when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.”[1]

Arendt’s reference to power “vanishing” underscores the contingency of the public sphere, intimating its embedment in wider systems and societies. Action in the public sphere may change society, but society may change the public sphere. These changes may include the assumptions and values that inform coordinated action in the public sphere. In this spirit, a primary assumption is the possibility of coordinated action itself. Scholars have long believed that this action is consequential because when people act together, their activities amount to more than the sum of their individual efforts. Public action transforms individual effort. Working together, people can pursue problems and possibilities that elude them individually. Public action assumes and, in turn, sustains a public good.

But what happens if people lose faith in the idea and practice of a public good? What if people doubt the possibility of a public “we” and insist instead that society consists only of an assemblage of “me”s? Under these circumstances, how, if at all, may the public sphere coordinate action?

We live in such a time. In the United States and elsewhere, public, in its multiple meanings, has become a source of skepticism and, for some, anger. Surveys suggest that people’s trust in government to serve the public interest has plummeted.[2] Across a range of different issues, from municipal trash collection to prisons, local, state, and federal governments have outsourced formerly public functions to private enterprises. Public functions that had previously been regarded as unrelated to pecuniary considerations have now become opportunities for profit maximization. These developments have included the public provision of education, which historically has been regarded as crucial for the vibrant functioning of democracy and the public sphere. Vouchers, charter schools, defunding public education, standardized testing—all of these policy initiatives recast education from a public good serving a “we” that includes students, their families, and everyone else to a private good that leaves individuals responsible for maximizing their educational opportunities and outcomes, and blameworthy if they fail.

These policies represent the enactment of a school of economic and political thought that denies the existence of publics and public goods as anything other than the aggregation of individuals and individual interest. In Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman made plain his view that references to a public constituted a fiction, asserting that “a free man” rightly discerned the constitution of a country “as a collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them.”  A free man, he continued, “recognizes no national goal except as it is the consensus of the goals that the citizens severally serve.  He recognizes no national purpose except as it is the consensus of the purposes for which the citizens severally strive.”[3] As a leading figure in the Chicago School, Friedman outlined an approach that has become axiomatic to present-day neoliberal governing regimes: the body politic exists only as bodies that may be constituted and disciplined as individuals who are compelled to adopt a market rationality. As Wendy Brown puts it, “the body politic ceases to be a body but is, rather, a group of individual entrepreneurs and consumers.”[4] A public shaped through interaction and engagement reappears as an aggregated public.

In this moment, the public sphere appears, as Habermas has remarked in relation to a different period in history, as ideology and more than ideology. Skepticism in a public good has not stopped politicians from appealing to a public good as they pursue policies that undermine publics. For example, when asked about perceived attacks on public education in Wisconsin, the chair of the State Assembly’s Education Committee retorted that the sum of these recent changes “not only challenges the public schools to step up their game, but it also gives parents opportunities that they didn’t have before.”[5] In this response, competition fosters a public good, and choice replaces coordination as a mode of public agency. Nevertheless, this comment also indicates the continued resonance of a common good, as the committee chair asserts that everyone benefits.

An ominous development, the emergence of a public sphere without a public good need not represent a permanent condition of public life. Rather, the current situation is filled with tensions and varied possibilities that may bolster or weaken publics. At the local level, for example, communities have pushed back against attacks on public education. They have demanded a role—a collective, democratic role—in educational decision-making. As rhetoric and communication scholars, our role is to investigate the contrasting pressures on a public good and their implications for the public sphere. In this process, we may discern emancipatory possibilities.

[1] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 200.

[2] American National Election Studies. The ANES guide to public opinion and political behavior [table 5A.1]. 2010. Retrieved from www.electionstudies.org/nesguide/toptable/tab5a_1.htm; James A. Davis and Tom W. Smith, General Social Surveys, 1972-2008. Chicago: National Opinion Research Center, 2009.

[3] Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 1-2.

[4] Wendy Brown, “Neo-liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” Theory and Event 7 (2003). Accessed online at

[5] “Public Educators Are Being Challenged, not Under Assault, Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt says,” Capital Times, 24 May 2015, http://host.madison.com/ct/news/local/writers/todd-milewski/public-educators-are-being-challenged-not-under-assault-rep-jeremy/article_e64116ce-2f47-5190-bb3a-1acd2d226f88.html

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