Privatizing Public Things

By Matthew MullinsJune 12, 2017

Privatizing Public Things

Public Things by Bonnie Honig

IN A RECENT ESSAY for the Boston Review, Bonnie Honig examines the Trump family’s decision not to live in the White House as an example of how opting out of public things creates costs that are, nevertheless, public. After all, the additional security expenses will come out of taxpayers’ pockets, not Trump’s. She ultimately argues that the complementary drives to opt out of and/or to privatize public things compromise the integrity of a democracy. “The democratic experiment,” she insists, “involves living cheek by jowl with others, sharing classrooms, roads, and buses, paying for them together, complaining about them together, and sometimes even praising and enjoying them together.” The empty White House raises a question that Honig explores more fully in her new book, Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair: can a democracy exist without public things?

Her answer to this question is no. She claims that a democracy needs public things — the White House, for instance — to thrive. The power of the people to elect representatives and thus determine their own political fate is vital but not sufficient. Public things are a necessary condition of democracy because they create the environments and opportunities that shape citizens into the demos or “the people.” In other words, public things facilitate our “living cheek by jowl with others.” Although she is hesitant to define public things, she provides enough examples to sketch out what she has in mind: bridges, sewage treatment plants, schools, transportation, libraries. Our interaction with one another in relation to these public things forms us into “the people.” If these objects were to be privatized, or if enough people were to opt out of them to the point that they were no longer viable, then the conditions for a healthy democracy would no longer be present.

Have we reached that point, or maybe at least crossed some point of no return? Have the neoliberal values of deregulation and privatization so thoroughly infected our culture that there is nothing left to do but sit back and watch democracy eat itself? Can the United States take any solace in the disparity between the popular vote and the results of the Electoral College? Honig’s avowal of public things offers a certain slant of light in which we can see hope flickering like little motes of dust. If we affirm and protect our public things, she implies, we can save the republic.

The argument itself is straightforward, although the working out of its logic is something of a garden of forking paths. Since the book is a revised and expanded series of lectures given at Western Sydney University in 2013, it makes sense that the structure of Honig’s argument would be a little loose. The lecture series is entitled “Thinking Out Loud,” and Honig herself claims in the opening pages of the introduction that her goal is to follow the ideas of philosopher Hannah Arendt and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott “in order to think about democratic theory in the context of object relations and to ask whether democracy might be constitutively dependent on public things.” The first two lectures get bogged down a bit in the subtleties of these two influential thinkers, but their thoughts illuminate Honig’s inquiry in incisive ways.

Before outlining how Winnicott’s and Arendt’s theories of objects can help us better understand public things, she conducts a diagnostic on democracy in the age of neoliberalism and illustrates what she means by the claim that public things are necessary conditions of a democratic way of life. Honig engages political theorist Wendy Brown at length in her diagnosis, citing Brown’s excellent book Undoing the Demos to show how market logic has not only come to dominate financial markets but also the mindsets of citizens in modern democracies. Brown calls this mindset “neoliberal reason” and maintains that it has become the atmosphere of everything from statecraft to education. Best defined by utilitarianism and privatization, neoliberal reason causes us to see everything in economic terms. Brown argues that neoliberal reason has become our governing rationality and that it threatens to destroy democracy from within by replacing political concerns with economic concerns.

Honig agrees with Brown in general but finds that the power of her argument stifles possibilities for resistance to neoliberal rationality. Brown’s bleak assessment fails to account for the influence of movements like Occupy, for instance. If neoliberalism has become our governing rationality, then Honig wants to know just “[h]ow are these neoliberalized subjects acquiring the wherewithal to protest?” How has the Unist’ot’en Camp been able to successfully fend off pipelines that TransCanada wants to build through its tribal lands? How has a small Vermont town created a self-sustaining community of farmers in the shadow of big agricultural companies like Monsanto? Honig sees such resistance as made possible by public things — rivers, community meeting places, farm-to-table delivery systems. But what does it mean to say that these public things create the necessary conditions for democracy?

Skeptics may object that communal access to private things might accomplish the same goals, but Honig calls on a few brief historical examples to clinch her case that access to public things is constitutive of citizenship:

American streets are open to free use by some citizens, but when frequented by others those same streets quickly turn into sites of surveillance or control. Hoodies in malls, homeless people in parks, ethnic minorities in the “wrong” neighborhoods, Muslims going to the mosque, black protesters sitting at whites-only lunch counters, black teenage girls swimming in a communal pool, dragged out because they are “too loud,” then tackled by grown men in police uniforms, dead bodies left lying in the road. These incidents, familiar from decades of headlines and history, remind us how public things are asymmetrically policed, restricted, controlled, these days without the brazenness of “Whites Only” signs but often no less volubly or effectively. Everyone knows.

Drawing parallels between the segregationist laws of the Jim Crow era and the de facto segregation often practiced today, she makes a compelling argument that full citizenship has historically been catalyzed by and understood in relation to public things. Those who are excluded from public things always demand access to them because, Honig contends, “that access looks like citizenship; and it is.” When there are no public things in relation to which citizens can work out their associations as “the people,” then what you have is not a true democracy, just as the segregationist practices of the Jim Crow era precluded the practice of a fully representative democracy in the United States.

But how does this process of relating to public things function? Honig’s answer draws from Arendt and Winnicott. She is particularly interested in Winnicott because he viewed objects as essential to human development. In his theory of object-relations, Winnicott argues that infants need some type of physical object that he calls the “transitional object,” such as a blanket or a stuffed animal, to develop a sense of the world as a reality external to themselves. Specifically, when this transitional object survives the extremely harsh treatment of being dragged, drooled on, and dropped again and again, the child comes to understand object permanence. As Honig puts it, “The object thus thwarts the infant with its object-ivity, but that very same trait also underwrites the infant’s own developing subjectivity. The object’s capacity to thwart is the same as its capacity to support: Both are related to its permanence.” The child learns that there is a world that persists outside herself and that she is not the center of that world.

Honig takes Winnicott’s theory of the transitional object and maps it onto democracy by asking, “what if democratic forms of life depend partly upon objects to help collect diverse citizens into self-governing publics divested […] of fantasies of omnipotence and invested with a sense of integrated subjectivity, responsibility, agency, and concern?” If objects can teach a child to relate to others and to the world, then perhaps they can also play an important role in organizing the relations of citizens in a democracy. Perhaps there is, as Honig ventures, an “object relations of democratic collectivity.” Perhaps our public schools, highways, parks, and libraries are necessary conditions for the kind of healthy engagement with each other and the world that enables the individual freedoms that might seem more foundational. And perhaps it’s crucial that those things be open to everyone.

Like Winnicott, Arendt values things for how they help us understand the permanence of the world. Honig summarizes this concept by pointing out that “[f]or Arendt, things are part of what provides us with a world in which to move and they provide the friction of finitude that limits or thwarts but also drives human care for the world.” It is this “friction of finitude” that best illustrates the connection between Winnicott and Arendt. We cannot understand who/what we are in isolation, and Winnicott and Arendt have thought through the role objects play in helping us understand the parameters of human existence as we come into contact with things beyond ourselves. For Winnicott, this friction is evident in our experiences with transitional objects; for Arendt, it is most palpable in the tools we make. Arendt thinks about human significance in three main categories: Labor, Action, and Work. As Laborers, humans perform the ceaseless and necessary labors that are the baseline for life. Human Actions are the great acts that establish meaning and significance. As Workers, we are homo faber, the tool-makers who control their environment. In the domain of Work, humans produce the objects that enable us to transcend the threshold of mere survival and become people who might become “the people” whose Actions might become noble and memorable.

It is here, in the thick of her treatment of Winnicott’s and Arendt’s ideas, that the book is densest. Honig herself seems to sense the potential difficulties, anticipating the objection that “[b]ringing Arendt and Winnicott together may seem forced, or at least unlikely, since Arendt hated psychoanalysis for its effort to make a science of human behavior, and Winnicott never attended to political theory.” But there is analytical value in Honig’s instructive, if somewhat painstaking, comparison. At root, a democracy requires that its citizens be able to regard the experiences of others in service to a greater, common, more perfect union. Both Winnicott and Arendt see things, physical objects, as vital “to our capacity to achieve stability, integrity, and adhesion to things and to each other.” Public things help us develop the healthy attachments to the world and to each other that enable us to gather ourselves into collectives. Arendt calls this capacity “care,” while Winnicott calls it “concern.” When we act in concert we become the people who care for one another, and public things create the environments for that collaboration. But have these environments been irreparably destroyed?

Honig’s fear is that neoliberalism’s dual insistence on opting out and privatization may permanently damage or do away with the objects that facilitate our capacity for concern. Unlike the raging child who comes to love his blanket all the more after it is frayed and tattered, she writes,

the public goods that are increasingly privatized may be irretrievably lost by the antipathy to and dismantling of the public thing, as such, in favor of private funding, hybrid models, ever lower taxation. […] When it witnesses the object’s survival, the child finds comfort and nurturance; the resilient object teaches him or her the limits of his or her own powers and in so doing s/he acquires new capacities, including the capacity for concern.

Honig’s implicit speculation is that the democracy whose public things do not survive the abuses of neoliberalism may not be able to be repaired. But what sets her work apart from many other influential works on neoliberalism is her willingness to hope.

In her third and final lecture, Honig attempts both to make her claims more concrete and to offer a vision of hope in the midst of democracy’s disrepair. If her logic is that “[t]ransitional objects survive our destructive passions and moods, help us develop a capacity for concern, and occasion our care for and contributions to others and the world,” then it follows that the preservation of such public things might translate into the preservation of democracy. Here she analyzes the hopeful visions of Jonathan Lear’s book Radical Hope and Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia as models for how we might identify stand-ins when our public things are being destroyed.

In Lear’s book and von Trier’s film, time-tested rituals have become obsolete and people must improvise new points of contact that will allow them to persevere. Acknowledging some of the problematic aspects of Radical Hope, Honig posits that it nonetheless offers a useful model for the regeneration of public things. Lear’s research is driven by the question of how the Crow people have survived the near-total destruction of their way of life by settler violence and conquest. The key figure for Lear is a chief named Plenty Coups. His life and legacy are not without controversy, but Lear’s argument is that even if Plenty Coups’s countermeasures to white supremacy were entirely self-interested, they still represent the kind of radical hope that is necessary to endure the attempted destruction of one’s way of life. What is important for Honig are the public things Plenty Coups endorses and creates in his efforts to “refurnish” the Crow world, from participating in a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to donating his home as a national park. She sees in his life a model for how public things are integral to the survival and success of the people.

The setting of Melancholia is thoroughly neoliberalized. The entire plot unfolds on the expansive private estate of John and his wife, Claire, where Claire’s sister, Justine, is getting married. Things don’t go as planned after the marriage, and Justine comes back to the estate alone. She suffers from a crippling depression and yet winds up being the most well equipped to face the film’s central conflict: a giant planet named Melancholia is on track to collide with Earth. John opts out, taking his own life with sleeping pills. Claire wants to drink wine on the terrace. Justine refuses these old rituals. The landscape of the estate is marked by a wide-open lawn between the house and the sea. It is on this empty lawn that Justine helps her nephew Leo build a “magic cave” out of sticks as the rogue planet bears down. Perhaps this film is a poor choice for a vision of radical hope since the collision ultimately happens. But Honig insists that we can view the new ritual pioneered by Justine in the face of destruction as hope for the possibility that there may be a future after neoliberalism to which these new practices belong and which we cannot yet imagine.

In her epilogue, Honig distinguishes between public things, shared spaces, and the idea of the commons. She maintains that thingness is what is most important in her assessment: “If we focus only on shared space or the commons, we get either a more individualistic political subject than the subject of public things or one that is less so.” It’s not that public things are necessarily universal or inclusive; we’ve seen enough evidence to the contrary. Rather, they can provide something to which we can attach as well as boundaries that mark common spaces as public and prevent the encroachment of private interests. All three models are good, but Honig’s point is that public things are necessary.

Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but I find the kind of hope Honig sees in public things radical, yes, but not unrealistic. She offers a tangible approach to keeping democracy alive: identify the public things that create common cause among the people and preserve them. What would this look like practically? It would look like participating in the public events in our local communities. When towns and cities spend the money to build and maintain parks, host events, and get kids out on the field together, vibrant participation acts as a deterrent to the selling off of the land, buildings, and equipment around which people gather.

In my own hometown, we host an event called Meet in the Street where the very roads serve double duty for one day each spring as food trucks, businesses, churches, and town departments host booths. When I was a kid, the event occupied about three or four blocks of one street in our tiny downtown, but this May it stretched over three or four blocks across three parallel streets, and thousands attended even though it rained that morning. The town hall courtyard played host to multiple bands last year, and this year the green space next to the police department adjacent to a park featured bouncy castles in which kids pushed and shoved each other up a steep climb and down the other side.

We must come out; we must show up. These principles apply at the national level as well. To preserve our national public things, we must elect those who share our values, who believe that participation and not abnegation is the cornerstone of democracy. We must refuse to opt out of the things it might be easier to leave to those who have the leisure but lack the inclination to maintain. What I find most persuasive about Honig’s central idea is that it is accessible and actionable. If there is a public thing near you, use it, visit it, and invite others along. If others threaten to take that thing away, do whatever you can to preserve it. Visit a town hall meeting, talk to your local mayor, write your representative or senator. Embracing public things can’t hurt, but it might just save democracy.

On April 26, President Trump signed an executive order instructing the Interior Secretary to review all national monuments created since 1996. His target is what he sees as abuse of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which gives the president power to create national monuments out of federal lands, especially when those lands contain natural or cultural features that are deemed worthy of protection. The spirit of the act is that these sites are public resources, and President Theodore Roosevelt signed the act into law after 25 years of work by interested individuals and organizations. In his press conference announcing the executive order, Trump claimed that “[t]he Antiquities Act does not give the federal government unlimited power to lock up millions of acres of land and water, and it’s time that we ended this abusive practice.” The irony here is that Trump sees these public lands as locked up when, in fact, they are mostly open to the public. So, the question we should ask is, “locked up from whom?” From the public? Obviously not. Perhaps he means that these lands and their resources have been locked away from private interests who might be able to capitalize on them in some way. If nothing else, the notion that public lands are somehow “locked up” is evidence that neoliberalism has become the air we breathe. If we agree with Bonnie Honig, then the battle for the preservation of public lands and monuments is also a battle for the health of our democracy.


Matthew Mullins is the author of Postmodernism in Pieces (Oxford, 2016). His essays and reviews have appeared in American Book Review, Arizona Quarterly, First Things, SubStance, and other venues.

LARB Contributor

Matthew Mullins is the author of Postmodernism in Pieces: Materializing the Social in U.S. Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2016) and Enjoying the Bible: Literary Approaches to Loving the Scriptures (Baker Academic, 2021).


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