When Third Word dictators are ousted, many people celebrate the emergence of a democratic space in society. After years of repression, there is suddenly a micro explosion of multiple freedoms in the streets, in schools, in workplaces, and in the press. Interestingly, it proves that public space is not inherently democratic. It is actually a site between competing political forces and most of the time it reflects the unequal power relations in society. People Power can undermine the hegemony of tyrants but this should be sustained by smashing the various instruments of oppression. Otherwise, the precious democratic space would be used by the surviving forces of the ruling class to revive their reactionary and conservative agenda.
When people complain about the shrinking public space, they are probably referring to the literal loss of the commons where citizens freely converge, share ideas, and practice politics. For a long time, the public space was a specter that has terrorized the elite. After all, kings and despots lost their power when everybody congregated in public to vent their rage and not when everybody played out their erotic fantasies in their private worlds. Afraid of its radical potential, the bourgeois state used brute force to tame the wild public space. But when direct military rule became untenable, the state adopted sophisticated forms of control.
Reclaiming the public space in the name of big business also meant the privatization of public lands. Public space became more valuable because of its profitability. Freedom parks became amusement parks, town squares were replaced by shopping malls, and protected habitats were suddenly turned into logging plantations. The principle of free access was junked in favor of corporate interests. To promote development, ancestral domains were ignored in favor of private property.
The project of emancipatory politics appeared to be more utopian than ever in an increasingly militarized and commodified public space. Promoting order and discipline seemed more realistic goals.
The concept of public space also refers to collective institutions essential in building a democratic community. But these nation-building institutions such as public schools and public hospitals are today replaced by privately-owned and profit-oriented institutions. Basic social services are already in the hands of profiteers whose concept of public space is clearly not guided by egalitarian principles.
Society became more segregated. The rich erected higher walls and electric fences as protection against their imagined enemies in the slums. The poor are allowed to socialize in the malls and they can access public spaces but only as consumers. They are citizens who are partly free to express and organize while Big Brother is watching through the ubiquitous CCTV and predator drones.
In the hands of the utilitarian bourgeoisie, the public space has become a dangerous and expensive place. No wonder there are high expectations that the Internet era would transform the cyberspace into a new frontier where democratic politics could thrive. Indeed, the world looks flat in the Internet world. The rich and the poor are finally mingling, albeit virtually. Perhaps the widespread online ranting against corrupt politicians and greedy banksters is a symptom of the repressed outrage that netizens cannot freely show in the real public spaces.
But sooner or later, we have to realize that the cyberspace is no different from the public space. It is neither neutral nor exempted from the laws of political economy. It exists not as a democratic space alternative but it can be maximized to generate powerful political actions. There are no democratic timelines as there are no democratic town plazas.
But we should not underestimate the hypnotic appeal of the cyberspace. E-mailing, petition signing, tweeting are already mundane online activities but for the owners of foreclosed houses or displaced workers, these are satisfying alternatives which they can perform instead of simply surrendering to the curse of an impotent rage. Networking and instant messaging can briefly empower a person who feels hopeless and alienated.
Online outrage has material basis in the real world. There should be no online heckling for online heckling’s sake. There is more than enough passion and rage circulating in the cyberspace and these powerful emotions have to spill over in the social networks of our real communities. In fact, some of the most impressive protest movements in recent years were ignited by social media activism such as the Arab Spring, Bersih reform in Malaysia, and Million People March in the Philippines.
The people, the grassroots, should never surrender the public space to the enemies of democracy. They should reject false icons of progress such as skycrapers, malls, and cubicles. They should assert ownership of our lands, water, air, our heritage and communities.
The battle for dominance in the public space continues. The ruling class controls the Pentagon, the Capitol Hill, and Wall Street. They are expanding their spheres of influence through military zoning, air strikes, gentrification, gerrymandering, and onerous global trade agreements.
But public resistance is also intensifying. The streets have been occupied, uprisings were launched in town squares, picnic protests were organized in parks, and an agrarian revolution has erupted in the countryside. In other words, democracy is still alive in the public space.
Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org