Notes on Freedom

Libertarian, humanist social theory, by Josie Appleton

Tag: public space

From rights to privileges – the refeudalisation of the public sphere

In feudal society there was no such thing as a ‘right’, in the sense of a domain of autonomy held in principle by everyone. Any domain of autonomy was unique to a particular group, the result of their particular status or negotiations. The merchants of a city or a baron might hold certain ‘liberties’ – to elect a mayor, for example, or to export a particular item, be exempt from a tax, or levy toll duties. Feudal society was an intricate patchwork of immunities and benefits, all of which had the status of privileges, an allowance conferred by the grace of an over-lord or the king.

There is something feudal about the status of rights in contemporary society. It has become very difficult for groups or individuals to make a general claim for their rights as citizens, as allied in principle with those of other citizens. Instead, there has been a return to claiming rights only as a form of privilege.

The distinction between positive and negative rights – the classic freedom-from or freedom-to distinction – has been eclipsed. In many cases rights are seen as privileges, and vice versa. People talk about their ‘right to a quiet life’ or ‘right to self-esteem’, but then say that freedom of speech is ‘not a right’ but a ‘privilege’ or ‘responsibility’. In fact, these different claims have the same status, as a benefit conferred by some higher authority.

One of the ways one can defend interests today is by demanding special exemption from a restriction, on the basis of the special qualities or needs of your particular group. Musicians may claim that they should be exempt from entertainment licensing, for example, because of the particular value of music in social life. Or homeless organisations may seek to exempt rough sleeping from public space regulation, on the grounds of this group’s particular vulnerabilities or needs. For campaigners the pressures pushing you to pose your demand in these terms are very strong indeed: this is the existing way in which demands can be put and positions defended.

There is again a sense that one sphere of autonomy is exclusive of and set against those of others. This is why it is common for groups, in defending their own ‘rights’, to call for restrictions upon the rights of other groups. Big Issue sellers in Oxford supported the council’s ban on begging; local buskers supported a busking license because it benefits them over outsiders. Street traders often support leafleting licenses, as do institutions which are already prevented from leafleting as a result of their alcohol licenses.

In feudal times, if you had a right to export cloth, this in principle excluded others from carrying out this activity: a liberty was a monopoly. Now councils horse-trade over the use of public space in a similar way, as if one use were exclusive of other uses.

We are seeing the official micromanagement of public spaces as a patchwork of distinct and rival privileges. Woking Borough Council, for example, has divided up the town centre into a series of ‘event zones’, each with special allowances and restrictions for activities such as busking, leafleting or charity collecting. (The only activity allowed in all areas is ‘council events’: this is the right of the over-lord). So charity collection can take place in seven different zones, but a permit is required, and only one organisation with a maximum of four representatives can collect at any one time. Leafleting can occur in two locations, but is limited to one ‘booking’ a month.

There is no conception within this schema of any rights of free action in public space. Your realm of action exists only as sanctioned by authority, as licensed in some way. There are now licences for busking, leafleting, playing music, charity collecting, even for dancing: one can act only when one has a permission slip, and generally paid a fee. Your activity is not a right but a privilege, and a privilege explicitly set against the unauthorised group who are excluded from performing this action. A local musician will wave their ‘licensed busker’ card at an out-of-town musician who has just set up, showing their permission slip and so claiming their superior rights to use the space. In certain local authorities buskers must actually audition for council officials before receiving their licence.

And yet, the nature of these new privileges are quite different to those in feudal times. Feudal privileges represented fixed status divisions and customary rights, a hierarchical stratification which structured social relations from top to bottom. A particular licence was a recognition of the dues owing as a result of a person’s status as baron or churchman, or of past agreements or custom. By contrast, the pseudo-feudal divisions in today’s public sphere have an artificial quality. They are entirely contingent, constituted only through the whim of officialdom or the chance of circumstance.

There is a great difference between the status of different activities in official regulations, and their status in social life. There is no recognised Woking custom that leafleting should only happen once a month, or in certain areas of the town: Woking Borough council’s ‘public realm usage policy’ is a pristine invention of the realm of officialdom. The licensed busker takes on a status that is quite alien to their status among a public audience or fellow buskers: their position depends not on the quality of their music but on whether they have been compliant and jumped through the hoops. Therefore, the new realms of privilege are not a reflection of social reality, but an official construction laid upon it.

In this context, it is a progressive task to pose claims in terms of general rights, held by all people as citizens. In truth, homeless people have a right to use a bench, or buskers to set up in a spot, not because they are special but because they are citizens as much as anyone else; they have the same rights to use the space as anyone else. It is only by defending such general rights that the interests of groups could coincide, that the autonomy of one is also the autonomy of the other.

There is an objective potential for the uniting of different parts of civil society. The distinctive quality of state regulation today is that it is turned without exception against every part of social life. Public space regulations are not exclusively targeted at homeless people, buskers, or any other particular group, but against activities of almost any kind. War veterans must queue up with Greenpeace protesters to gain their ‘charity collection licence’; lost cat posters and nightclub adverts are equally prosecuted for unlicensed flyposting. The contemporary state has no favourites among the different sections of social life.

This suggests that there is a state-consciousness, already in existence. We dearly need a civil society consciousness to rise up in counter and opposition to these measures.

Why are councils banning pigeon feeding? ‘Public spaces protection orders’ and the destruction of public space

Why are councils banning virtually every conceivable activity in public spaces: pigeon feeding, begging, busking, rough sleeping, smoking in parks? And why are these bans so often popular?

At base, it seems to be because civil society is seen as a war of all against all. Any person’s activity is seen immediately as a restriction upon or violation of another. This is expressed in sayings such as: ‘Your right to smoke violates my right to a smoke-free environment.’ One person’s freedom to play music means that another’s life is ‘made a misery’ . One person feeding the birds means that another gets ‘covered in mess’.

The conceptual model of civil society is that of individuals facing each other as implacable and opposed interests. Any one activity – any freedom of one person – is resolved purely and simply into the negative effect on another. The activity, indeed, becomes defined only in terms of this negative effect: busking becomes ‘noise pollution’, leafleting and pigeon feeding become ‘littering’, ball games become an ‘obstruction’ or ‘nuisance’, begging for money is ‘intimidation’.

It is for this reason that activities previously seen as a benign, even positive part of the urban environment are today classed as ‘anti-social behaviour’ and acquire an aspect of criminality. It becomes inconceivable that anyone would defend the ‘right’ to drink or feed pigeons in public spaces. ‘Are you saying that it is a human right to engage in unsocial behaviours?’ asks one man. ‘Do you really think people should get drunk, publicly beg, do wheelies in carparks, intimidate the public in parks?’ asks another.

These activities are criminalised because they are viewed – and to some extent, experienced – only as a violation of other people. The definition of crime, previously restricted to a significant violation of person or property, becomes generalised to almost any public action which could ‘affect’ others.

Indeed, for some individuals their mere presence in public space is seen as harmful: hence council bans on ‘loitering’ or police crackdowns on young people ‘congregating’. One BBC Radio London presenter suggested that street drinkers should be stopped from ‘lounging’ on a park bench. Councils are banning smoking in parks because it ‘exposes others including children to smoking behaviours’. Your crime is merely that you have exposed others to the sight of yourself or your activity (which is objectified into something foreign and described as a behaviour).

This model of civic life is quite different to that which motivated Victorian bylaws, with their nit-picky bans on playing music in the park or playing cards on the street. In these cases, the ban had a class basis, elite versus masses, and the question of freedom in the newly formed public spaces was almost entirely a working-class cause. It was they who pushed back the legal boundary for protests into Hyde Park, filled the streets with pamphleteers and players and pavement artists. The ban was motivated by an elite fear of the public acting in concert, of the unpredictable, restive energies of the crowd.

Today, by contrast, freedom in public spaces is seen as an effete, ivory tower position, which nobody with any real experience of urban life could possibly support. The model of an unregulated public space is some kind of hell: wheelies in carparks, vomiting, urinating, firing BB guns, shooting up, ‘winged rats’, vermin, bird and dog faeces. It is a cacophony of barbarity. It is supposed that the public lacks any self-constituting power. There is nothing in the free association of individuals which could bring any kind of order or civility, any kind of mutual benefit or pleasure. As a result, it is supposedly only through the state that the public space is established as a compact.

Implacably opposed individuals face one another and cannot resolve their conflict for themselves; as soon as one moves the other is harmed, and vice versa. So the official mediator is called in, to place restrictions on activities – to say, as with Oxford City council, that the city centre shall not be a place for anybody to do anything. Or else, if people must do things, they must do them in discrete ‘zones’, where different activities can be carried out without meeting or coming into conflict. In a park there is a playground area for children (no dogs, no smoking), a dog walking area (no children), a ballgames area (no dogs), a field (no ballgames, no drinking, no dogs). One park even allocated a specific bench for street drinkers to sit on. The public space is sliced up, feudalised into its separate interests.

Yet this appearance of things is misleading. It may appear that the conflict within civil society necessitates state regulation, but in fact the opposite is more the case: that state regulation generates a conflict within civil society. It is the regulation and orchestration of public spaces, the ever-presence of the third party mediator, which polarises individuals as implacable opposed interests. It is the existence of an anti-social behaviour hotline which means that neighbours no longer go around to ask someone to turn the music down: they communicate not directly but through official mechanisms, which polarises a minor disagreement into an all-out conflict.

In fact, the pleasantness of public spaces depends in large part on their freedom from regulation. In the 1960s the American urbanist Jane Jacobs described the intricate web of urban interactions: the way in which people going about their business as private individuals look out for each other and enhance each others lives (1). Drinkers at the soda stand keep an eye on kids playing; the deli owner keeps people’s keys and packages. Jacobs notes how a ‘slum’ neighbourhood – with its soda stands, sweet shops and bars, sidewalks full of kids playing ball and adults loitering and chatting  – was a model of lively civility. By contrast, in the new housing ‘project’ opposite, with its manufactured public meeting rooms and cultural centres, kids were busy squirting fire hydrants through people’s windows.

It was the manufactured, state-constructed neighbourhoods that were the sites of barbarity, not the spontaneous, mixed-use sidewalks, where strangers stepped in swiftly to resolve children’s arguments.

The same would be the case today – except that public spaces have become so regulated, civic relations so mediated by bureaucratic organs that there is rarely any chance for relations to form or be negotiated on independent terms. These points occur not so much as an everyday habit, but more as a moment, something rare breaking through. We all witness these occasionally and find them immortalised on YouTube: with videos of a Liverpudlian drunk starting a crowd imitating his one-foot dance, or a boy stealing a busker’s mike to sing a solo. Here, buskers, street drinkers, children and adults are shown not in hostile opposition, but as enhancing one another. Such unexpected influences and inspirations are as much a part of public spaces as are disputes or disagreements.

The truth is that the ‘public spaces protection order’ doesn’t protect public space, it destroys it. The PSPO is founded on a model of civil society as a war of all against all, and in being enacted starts to bring about this very hell.

(1) The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs

%d bloggers like this: