STIGMERGY: The C4SS Blog
Public vs Private Dualities and Contextual Analysis

Among the most enduring and pressing of questions for social scientists has been the nature of the public and private spheres. A great many political battles have been fought over control or delineation of these respective spaces. Some of these battles have been fought by the Civil Rights Movement and labor movement. Both of which sought to make claims of control or access to contested public/private spaces. These conflicts cannot be resolved without a nuanced contextual understanding of the issue. This requires dialectically transcending a strict public-private dualism.

This dualism shows up linguistically when discussing government vs non-government ownership/control. The common usage of the terms private ownership and public ownership are to identify government and non-government ownership. In this parlance, public refers to government ownership while private refers to non-government ownership.

The underlying assumption here is that the government and the public sphere are the same. Dictionary.com defines public as follows:

  1. of, pertaining to, or affecting a population or a community as a whole: public funds; a public nuisance.
  2. done, made, acting, etc., for the community as a whole: public prosecution.
  3. open to all persons: a public meeting.
  4. of, pertaining to, or being in the service of a community or nation, especially as a government officer: a public official.
  5. maintained at the public expense and under public control: a public library; a public road.

It’s certainly possible for a non-government controlled space or institution to meet the criteria above. An example is a privately owned local library called Linda Hall Library that is nonetheless open to the public. This example also shows the problematic nature of the dualism between private and public. You have an entity that is privately owned in the sense of non-government owned and yet accessible to the general public. This shows the importance of contextual analysis in deciphering what is private and public under what definitions. It depends on the context. In one context, public may be a reference to government ownership, but that’s not what it means in the context of anarchy.

Anarchistic public space is an important part of a free society. It would involve a public right of way and accessibility through some kind of cooperative control. A sense of solidarity could ensure access to people not living in the local community or cooperatively controlled area. One way to go about creating anarchistic public space is to homestead government controlled areas and engage in management of the newly created anarchistic commons. I look forward to seeing people try this out!

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