requiem for certainty

Dewey on Publics

with 17 comments

In his 1927 The Public and Its Problems John Dewey offered an argument concerning the relationship between publics and the state which is useful for thinking about the changing forms of public space and practice today, especially in the context of my current research on emerging internet practices. Although Dewey’s book is in my opinion needlessly difficult to follow (a common stylistic feature of Dewey’s labored prose), the core of the argument runs as follows. Dewey argues that public associations conceptually precede state associations such that states impress coherence upon publics. This, however, leads to a seeming paradox about contemporary political reality insofar as the state in Dewey’s day seemed very strong and efficient but the public it was supposed to organize was hardly perceptible. Had the state outgrown the public, thus becoming an empty husk of a political form? Dewey suggests that in response to this difficult problem we must work to reorganize the new public forms in which we find ourselves. Such reorganization, however, may require that we abandon the terms according to which the old public forms were organized. These terms were: organization shall take primarily on the basis of a liberal state which will proceed by way of instituting a distinction between public and private spheres. Dewey is not clear what new alternative terms are required but he does at least say this much: the new political organization shall be democratic and is likely to invoke democracy through a plurality of means including states, corporations, civic associations, and other public forms.

In his early chapters Dewey specifies (it is not clear if these are stipulations or explications although presumably they are meant to be both) the conceptual relations between public spaces, private spaces, and states in a way that pretty much tracks the traditional logic of liberalism. Dewey is concerned with the tradition way of demarcating public and private. He argues against the traditional liberal demarcation on the basis of opposing individuality and sociality (13). Instead he offers this distinction: “the line between private and public is to be drawn on the basis of the extent and scope of the consequences of acts which are so important as to need control” (15). Publics are constituted and maintained by actions which form intersections of persons, claims, and values in such a way as to call for the “control” (15) and “organization” (26) of these actions. Those acts and practices are private which do not require such control and organization even though they may form intersections of persons, claims, and values. Now Dewey argues in the early chapters that “in this distinction we find the key to the nature and office of the state” (15). But while the early chapters of The Public and Its Problems seem primarily concerned with the state, it should be noticed that Dewey’s new way of demarcating public from private leaves open the crucial question of whether or not the state is the only means available for achieving the control and organization of the public? While in his early chapters Dewey seems concerned to explicate the issue in the traditional statist terms of liberal democratic political philosophy, things change when he turns his attention to the actual relation between publicity, privacy, and the state in the historic present in which he was writing.

In the fourth chapter the tone of the book shifts dramatically. Dewey begins insisting that the traditional liberal democratic approach is increasingly failing insofar as we find ourselves with a shell of a state which has no coherent public to organize. Here is Dewey: “the Public seems to be lost; it is certainly bewildered. The government, officials, and their activities, are plainly with us…. But where is the public which these officials are supposed to represent?” (117). The problem, for Dewey as for many others in his day including Walter Lippmann and not long before them both William James and Randolph Bourne, is that of ‘the lost public’. The problem, Dewey eventually gets around to saying, is that we find ourselves amidst new public forms for which the old organizational powers of the state are inadequate. The new public forms are plural (126), diffuse (137), and mobile (140). Dewey sums up the difficulty thus: “[A]gencies are not established which canalize the streams of social action and thereby regulate them. Hence the publics are amorphous and unarticulated…. The prime difficulty is that of discovering the means by which a scattered, mobile and manifold public may so recognize itself as to define and express its interests” (131, 146).

In the final chapters Dewey sketches the terms by which the problem of the lost public might be approached, reconstructed, and solved. Dewey is here clear that we cannot specify in advance what forms of political life will be necessary for constituting coherence and organization out of the currently-disorganized plurality of publics (147, 166). This suggests a point which I find important but which Dewey does not make sufficiently explicit, namely that his analysis indicates that the traditional liberal solution of a separation of public and private spheres as achieved by the state will no longer do. That Dewey seems to be moving in this sort of post-statist direction is further suggested by the fact that he insists that the answer to the problem of disorganized publics must be democratic in its approach (148) and yet he emphatically proclaims that, “The idea of democracy is a wider and fuller idea than can be exemplified in the state even at its best” (148). Dewey is not at all direct about his answer but he is clear enough: our pluralistic publics shall be made coherent by democracy but we must not identify democracy with the singular organizational form of the state as liberalism traditionally has done.

In short, then, I read Dewey as urging that the old liberal compromise between a unified public sphere organized by the state and a highly differentiated private sphere insulated from state organization was in 1927 quickly losing its intelligibility. As such, Dewey might be seen as occupying the front end of a long and slow historical process which we are now almost eight decades later nearing the tail end of. That process is the increasing blurring of the distinction between public and private, and the corollary loosening of the grip of statism on liberal democratic politics. As the distinction between public and private blurs, the statist idea that public life can be organized according to one single logic as embodied in state institutions, loses its grip. We recognize around us, instead, a pluralization of public spaces and a politicization of private spaces such that the state turns out to be just amongst many tools of political organization. The long and slow historical process which Dewey was at the front end of was one that will culminate not in a post-state politics but in a post-statist politics.

Among those emerging political practices which seem increasingly post-statist in the sense just described are: forms of economic and cultural globalization, new forms of social affiliation as exemplified by crucial categories of race and gender, and new technological forms such as internetworking. All of these are breeding new forms of publics which I suspect can be organized only on a post-statist model of politics.


Written by Colin Koopman

October 13, 2007 at 2:43 pm

17 Responses

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  1. This seems pretty plausible to me.
    I guess I’m just a little unclear about what “statist politics” is supposed to be. It seems to me as long as we’re worried about coercive power, and hence, about justice, we are worried about the nature, jusstification, and limits of state power. Now, of course, that’s not all there is to worry about. I don’t think anyone would claim that “the coercive power of the state” exhausts what there is to be said about “politics”. But I just can’t see what has happened recently so as to stop us from worrying about coercive power, and, correlatively, the state.

    dave rondel

    October 14, 2007 at 4:50 am

  2. Statism is just my name for a political philosophy that takes the state to be of primary or exclusive concern. Contrast to a political philosophy which takes the state seriously but is also deeply concerned with other forms of regulation and normativity as well as with other institutional instances of regulation and normativity.

    My view, increasingly, is that the state does not have a monopoly on the legitimate use of power (as Weber argued following all the classical liberals). This view relies of course on a broad conception of power such that power is not easily pried apart from other forms of regulation and normativity. My view is the Foucaultian one (but it’s also there in Marx!) that there are other applications of power besides those generally countenanced by classical liberalism. This view also relies on the thought that some of these non-traditional forms of power are indeed legitimate under a broad construction of legitimacy.

    So my argument is that denying my anti-statist view requires one of two assertions: 1) power only circulates on the basis of actions by states; 2) legitimacy as a norm for the circulation and application of power only applies to state power. I find both of these rooted in indefensible stipulations.

    While we should still worry much about the state, we should no longer be statists who insist that states are the only legitimate seat or institution or locus of power in contemporary politics.


    October 16, 2007 at 5:44 pm

  3. I like Foucault too. I have no problem with saying, with Foucault and yourself, that the model of Leviathan is outdated in the study of power. Still, noting that some kind of power is at work does not a political claim make. Think of it this way: I may suffer from private fears — fears that make it difficult for me to pursue some of the ambitions that I may have. There is no doubt that I am dealing with a form of power here. Yet it is awkward and cumbersome to describe this situation as “political”. So I’m happy to agree with you that there is more to politics than state power (a point I’ve never denied) but I disagree with the further suggestion (implicit in your last post) that all excersises of power are political. I’m not sure if this makes me a “statist” or not?
    To be honest, taking your account at face value, it almost sounds as though pure libertarians a la Nozick and Narveson are the only genuine statists left!

    One last picky, technical point: you say that statism is a political philosophy that “takes the state to be of primary or exclusive concern”. You contrast it with some other kind(s) of political philosophy for which other (non-state) forms of regulation and normativity are taken seriously. But what about someone who thinks that state power is of “primary” concern, who doesn’t deny that there are other forms of power and regulation that warrant our attention? I’m not sure how strict you want to be about this, but “primary OR exclusive” suggests an enourmous distinction.

    dave rondel

    October 24, 2007 at 2:10 am

  4. I think there are alot more statists around than just the liberterians. Statism in political philosophy is evidenced not only by those who definitively assert that the state is the only arena for the legitimate exercise of power (those who treat exclusively of state power), but also colors the work of those who do not assert this point but yet develop theories of justice which address only those exercises of power which take place on and through the state (those who treat primarily of state power such as Rawls). My view is that the state is merely one of the tools for dealing with power and should not be granted exclusive focus nor primacy of place. (But I agree with you, by the way, that there’s a great deal of slippery space between ‘primacy’ and ‘exclusiveness’ and that I should be more attentive to that. Thanks.)

    It sounds like our disagreement here comes back to the old point of what we want to call politics and what not. I guess my view is something like ‘if power circulates there, then let’s call it politics’ whereas I think you want a more restrictive view of what politics is. It’s tough to know how to resolve that dispute. But I think the difference is best brought into focus by difficult borderline cases in which power is clearly circulating outside of the state and which plausibly look political but may not be political. I am thinking of cases like the racist cabbie or the emotionally abusive father or husband. Here we have power, but it’s not clear if we have politics. I tend to think we do and I suspect you tend to think it’s not politics. Is that fair?

    It would probably be helpful to drill down into why we have different intuitions about what’s political and what’s not. I suspect it has to do with deeper intuitions about how we think we ought to address these borderline exercises of power. Maybe?


    October 24, 2007 at 6:47 am

  5. Yeah, I think that’s probably what’s at issue here. I guess my own knee-jerk, unreflective answer is that I want to keep “politics” mainly (though not exclusively) about the “polis”. Contrast this with what you do with your solitude. I have a feeling that our disagreements about what the “political” is probably have their base in our different takes on the private/public split. As you know, I find some version of that split both important and inspiring — your excellent arguments to the contrary notwithstanding.

    dave rondel

    October 25, 2007 at 3:05 am

  6. My own hunch regarding the public/private split is that it’s best described in something like these terms: The “private” describes a domain of affairs where we are willing to tolerate (or see the benefits of fostering) a plurality of practices, subject to the discretion of parties who are not formally integrated into collective decision-making institutions (and who are thereby responsible for the failures of those practices, and enjoy the privileges of their success); and the “public” describes a domain of affairs where we jointly agree that plurality is not possible or desirable.

    This is my very conventional liberal way of describing the difference. I think it nicely captures why I, motivated by concerns and values similar to those of Colin, express myself in the opposite way – rather than calling for an assimilation of private spheres into the public, I call for a decomposition of the public sphere into the private. But the end result is the same: people exercising greater discretion at the ground level, representing themselves as participants in novel ways, subject to novel demands and duties, able to accomplish social modes not yet dreamt of.


    October 25, 2007 at 5:19 pm

  7. That’s a characteristically useful way of stating the difference. I think you’re right that we’re both looking at the same process but perhaps from opposite sides.

    It’s important, of course, that it is just one process and not two processes. So it’s not that there is on the one hand the politicization of privacy and on the other hand the decomposition (or pluralization) of publicity. Rather, these are two ways of analytically distinguishing the very same process or series of events.

    I’m not sure if you would agree with that, but I find it helpful for bringing into focus how it is that certain new forms of post-pub/priv practice actually emerge (descending now to a more empirical level). They don’t emerge by way of the state assimilating something previously private nor do they emerge by way of the state ‘privatizing’ what was previously a state function. Those two sorts of things happen, of course, but they tend to perpetuate the pub/priv division. What I’m interest in are emerging practices which don’t organize themselves on the basis of this division, practices in which politicization and pluralization are more or less taken as assumed.


    October 26, 2007 at 12:41 am

  8. I think I agree with all of this. Yet I think we need to leave space — however fuzzy and imprecise — for something like “private projects”. Following Rorty and other Romantics, I see projects of this sort as congregating around questions of self-creation. Projects of this kind are typically rooted in questions like: “What shall I make of myself?”, “Who shall I become?”, “What gives (or ought to give) my life its value and meaning?” and so on.

    So I guess the version of public/private I want to hold onto is pretty much the one that Rorty gives us. We need a distinction, at least a provisional one, between our duties to others and our duties to ourselves. I happily grant that the boundaries between them are always in question; always subject to redrawing; forever capable of revision. Even after such stipulations however, that distinction seems to me both right and important.
    Would you guys agree?

    dave rondel

    October 26, 2007 at 2:13 pm

  9. Yeah, I agree it’s one process. And it’s one that happens both exterior and interior to existing institutions. But the two moments of it (politicization of the private, and pluralization of the public) aren’t always in synch. Our institutions right now are hybrid, and in some respects pathological, because of that.

    Are hybrid institutions necessarily pathological? At first, I was going to assume they were; but now that I reflect on it, I can’t see any obvious reason why they must be.


    October 26, 2007 at 3:15 pm

  10. Dave, I think a big part of the picture for both Colin and I is that not only is the moment of self-creation made on political (historical) grounds, through political institutions and traditions (“What books do you read?”, “What school did you go to?”, “What religion do you practice?”), and not only does it have political consequences (“What party do you support?” “What do you think should be done about our military?”), but our public world itself depend upon the collective or coincident vision of all of us, as its constituents (“What does it mean for us to be Canadians?”, “… to be post-Christians?” etc.).

    I’m definitely sympathetic to the underlying hunch you’re trying to do justice to here. (I’m much more of a Romantic than Colin!) Maybe another way to put it is that even the public domain is determined by choices that each of us has to make about ourselves.


    October 26, 2007 at 3:30 pm

  11. Yes indeed! That’s a nice way to make the point.
    But note, first, that I’m not advocating that there be “purity” or “autonomy” of the spheres, or anything like that. Secondly, and more importantly, the “privacy” I’m interested in is political, not philosophical. I’ve urged this on Colin in the past as well — perhaps, though I’m unsure, leaving him unmoved. The basic idea is that self-creation be viewed as private, in the sense of “private” that Mill had in mind, not the sense Berkeley had in mind.

    So, yes, in that political sense, “What religion do you practice?” is indeed a private matter. “Private” here doesn’t mean, “I’m all by myself, just like one of Locke’s heroes, who just walked out of the jungle to join my fellows in society with a ready-made self already in hand”. It means something like: “You can’t tell me what to do here; this is a matter for me to work out on my own.”
    I’m sure both of you would be ok with this. right?

    dave rondel

    October 27, 2007 at 12:13 am

  12. I sure would be. That kind of privacy is the most important thing of all. Everything else follows from it.


    October 27, 2007 at 3:04 am

  13. I deny neither Romance nor Utility — I deny rather the continued efficacy of their separation.

    I should repeat that I’m not denying that we should distinguish between public and private spaces, where that is interpreted as state-run and non-state-run spaces. But while true, I find that claim increasingly irrelevant (see Deleuze, e.g., on truth versus relevance in epistemology, but Deleuze is really just making a pragmatist point there).

    So I don’t deny the truth of your claim, Dave, that some of our most precious dreams shouldn’t be forcefully wrenched from us by the state. But I do deny that this, as Jeremy said, ‘is the most important thing of all.’ It’s important, sure, but it has nothing like fundamental importance. While it may be very important, it is increasingly (this is a somewhat of an empirical historical claim) unimportant or irrelevant. Consider an analogy. It’s also true that my inmost relationship with my God shouldn’t be wrenched out of my Soul by the agents of the Holy See. That truth may have been immensely important for about 300 years there. Today though it is rather quaint for most of us, is it not? Relatively irrelevant even for many of the most bona fide believers in the Baptism or the Congregation? “Sure it’s true,” we might respond to someone venting such a view, “but it’s really not necessary to get so excited over it.” And so it goes these days, I am arguing, with similar claims about the state. (This is the sense in which I am anti-statism.)

    In a world where the state is being increasingly superseded by other forms of governance and a rapid pluralization of state governance itself, these sorts of claims lose much of their relevance. The protections and gains we once sought from something like ‘a private sphere insulated from state influence’ are increasingly better delivered and secured by something like ‘a pluralization of forms for political organization’. But if we recognize this too late, or if we don’t sufficiently explore how we might use such a plurality of publics to secure democratic gains, then we might find ourselves forcing our practices of democracy to conform to institutions that are increasingly not well-suited for them. That’s the underlying worry for me.


    October 27, 2007 at 7:53 am

  14. I took the “You can’t tell me what to do here” to be directed not just at a state, but at a community. I think the need for that kind of stand remains alive.


    October 27, 2007 at 4:19 pm

  15. That’s what I had in mind as well: If X is a private matter, in the sense of “private” distinguished above, then neither state nor fellow citizen nor community, can tell me how to go about dealing with X. This is hardly controversial stuff. It’s pretty much the least common denominator that runs through the whole history of liberal theory — from Locke, through Jefferson and the American founders, to Rawls and Rorty. The entire vocabulary of rights depends on this basic idea for its intelligibility, after all. If you have a right to X then other people (or the state) can’t tell you what to do with or about X. That’s what having a right to X means!

    dave rondel

    October 27, 2007 at 10:44 pm

  16. This is fair. But there remain difficult questions regarding how we might realize such freedoms. I am not sure that privacy, relying as it seems to on a single institutional framework for the enforcements protecting such freedoms, is the way to go. I suspect that we are nearing a time when plurality, invoking a multiplication of institutional frameworks in which freedoms are made available, will be a better option.

    In any event, this is a belated reply, and perhaps we should close this round, though it would be useful to reflect on what we’ve learned this time around.


    November 5, 2007 at 8:04 am

  17. It was a useful round of posts for me. I think that one conclusion I’m inching towards is that the pluralism you’re advancing is probably best characterized as a “supplement” rather than a “replacement” for the prevailing liberal wisdom. Putting it that way makes old crumudgeons like me a little less nervous. Yet I remain of the view that what Rawls calls ‘the basic structure of society’ is special in a way that other institutional frameworks are not. I don’t know exactly what I mean by “special” and if you were to push me on it I’d be in trouble.
    Anyhow, until next time…

    dave rondel

    November 7, 2007 at 5:25 pm

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