The capacity for any nation to support a thriving, independent and autonomous public sphere is, at least in part, predicated upon the ready availability of public space, open for free use by the various groups and interests that comprise broader civil society. The Greek, ‘Agora’ for instance, refers to a public space for such purposes: much the same as the traditional ‘city square’. Traditionally, such public spaces were to be found at the heart of civil centres, allowing various groups to organise and articulate their ideas in an open forum.
Today, however, in our suburban centres, with the rise of sprawling shopping malls, the ‘public space’ of our suburban ‘civil centres’ have been privatised, and opportunities for expression limited to those with deep enough pockets to pay for the privilege. As a consequence, citizens groups, community organisations and social movements are excluded from any central role in the ‘everyday life’ experiences of most people.
As a consequence, the ‘civil sphere’ is being reduced merely to a sphere of consumption, with no scope for free, autonomous civil organisation. Modern shopping malls, thus, are awash with department stores, food courts, supermarkets and specialty stores. Lacking any other form of social outlet or forum, thousands flock to these sprawling malls on an almost daily basis to partake in consumption as atomized consumers.
Ironically, with the lack of space provided for community, political and sporting organisations, this spectacle is the closest many communities come to being brought together in collective social activity. The impoverishment of civil society, thus, is tangible.
The problem does not end with the proliferation of shopping malls, however, with their sole focus on consumption to the exclusion of any other expressions of civic life.
Many universities and colleges lack appropriate space for students to organise cultural, sporting or social events, or publicly articulate and espouse the causes which are so dear to their hearts.
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‘Civil society’ has become a popular buzz-word of recent years. Usually, it has been used in opposition to ‘the State’, and is taken as referring to the sphere of autonomous citizens and civil movements. Of course, the narrow separation between civil society (‘good’), and State (‘bad’), is the kind of reductive simplification that citizens should be skeptical of. After all, ‘Civil Society’ is also the realm of monopoly capital, whose power is guaranteed, in turn, by the State.
By contrast, a public sphere characterised by the right mix of public, co-operative and private ownership can better represent the plurality of interests and positions that make up modern society. A ‘mixed public sphere’, rather than appealing to the ‘lowest common denominator’, can instead incorporate a broader tapestry of participants, perspectives and interests.
The ideal of an autonomous ‘civic sphere’, comprised of citizens’ organisations – consumer organizations, cultural organizations, sporting organizations, welfare and religious organizations, political parties, labour organizations, social movements – is one that lies at the core of liberal and social democratic principle.
For those of us who wish to see a vibrant, autonomous civil sphere act as a counter to the prevalence of one way information flows, the privatisation of public space is of critical concern.
While the rise of the internet has seen the development of ‘virtual space’: participatory forums for debate and discussion, the possible gains here are stymied by the lack of real and physical civic space for the use of citizens’ and interest groups.
Attempting to regulate development and planning so as to secure the existence of central, highly exposed, public centres for civic organisation, mobilisation and debate, would no doubt raise the ire of the massive industry which has grown around shopping centre development.
This, however, should not prevent us from taking the principled stand, and from putting into concrete practice some of the rhetoric that has arisen, in recent years, around the term ‘civil society’.
The goal of promoting a vibrant, active and diverse civic sphere can also be well complemented by incorporating an active and critical citizenship agenda in the curricula of our schools. Here, the role of the humanities and social sciences – including history – is core. Such an issue is well-deserving of an article in its own right, however: so for now we will focus on the concern of physical civic space.
As a priority, political parties the world-wide need to establish planning legislation, accounting for the compulsory provision of high exposure, centrally positioned public space for the purposes of free civil expression, mobilisation and organisation.
Experts in the field should be commissioned to assist in the drafting of such legislation, with the intention of providing, through planning and development legislation, the regulatory foundation for the creation of civil space, and thus of an invigorated, participatory civil society.
Finally, across the political spectrum, activists and policy makers need to reconsider the role of the public sector, especially in the provision of social and public space. Were new developments to be provided and owned by local government, with the benefit of state and federal funding, it would be far easier, in the public interest, to argue against the corporatist logic that results in the marginalisation of public activity outside of consumption.
For some of us this may seem a trifling concern, say, compared with ongoing assaults on worker’s rights, public health, public education, and a crisis of living affordability which the welfare system is plainly failing to address. The question of public space, however, is at the core of who we are, how we organise and live, and how we relate to each other on a daily basis.
‘Virtual space’ provided for through the internet is important. The internet provides many new channels for ‘virtual mobilisation’, as evidenced by the rise of web-based movements such as ‘Avaaz’ http://www.avaaz.org/en/about.php and, in Australia, by the ‘GetUp’ movement. http://www.getup.org.au/ .
The question of providing civic ‘virtual space’ is, in fact, worthy of attention in its own right. Virtual space, as with electronic participatory media are, in some ways, a ‘new horizon’.
But bringing people together in common cause on a ‘face to face’ collective basis: such mobilisations can still be tremendously powerful. Here, there is the real potential for ‘virtual public space’ and ‘physical public space’ to complement each other in a virtuous circle. From Non-Government Organisations and lobby groups; to more overtly political organizations and parties; to sporting clubs, charities and community organizations: the broad gamut of civil society stands to benefit form the expansion of both virtual and physical ‘public space’
Along with the provision of participatory online media, any revivification of active citizenship in Australia and elsewhere depends at least partly on the provision of the actual physical and public infrastructure and space necessary for its realisation. Now is the time for courage and policy innovation: to promote a participatory public sphere that reaches beyond the stifling commons of mere consumption.
Tristan Ewins is a freelance writer, long-time member of the Australian Labor Party and qualified teacher. He has been widely published: in The Canberra Times, the Centre for Policy Development (CPD), On Line Opinion, ZNet, Arena Magazine, Australian Socialist – and elsewhere.
Many of the author’s works can be found at the following URLs: