Public Space and Private Interests

By Kapferer, Judith | Journal of Australian Studies, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Public Space and Private Interests


Kapferer, Judith, Journal of Australian Studies


The law doth punish man or woman That steals the goose from off the common But lets the greater felon loose That steals the common from the goose

(Anon., On The Enclosures, eighteenth century)

The core question that I pose here concerns the issue of symbolic and real property rights and ownership, and the shifting relations between and among people, state and market, relations that have been becoming ever more volatile and seemingly random over the last quarter of the twentieth century. My observations and analyses, as a work in progress, are tentative, and somewhat polemical; my goal is to raise some questions about the fate of the welfare state in an age of hyper-individualism and a perceived decline in notions of the possibility of a common culture and community solidarity. As such, I am taking Australia as an example of globalist/new imperialist policies of cultural enclosure, containment and management. I will examine a number of public and private spaces and places with the object of gaining some purchase on the ways in which properties which were once publicly owned, that is, 'owned' by the people, have become colonised, privatised and corporatised, and placed into private hands. Despite celebrated cases of resistance, for example, Mabo, Telecom, and the Victorian ambulance service, such cases are isolated and all too soon viewed as faits accomplits as the focus of news moves elsewhere. (1) Here I ask who is it that 'owns' and controls such intangibles as the public culture, as well as the material wealth--the land and finance capital--of the nation? Who owns the national debt? Whose responsibility is public welfare and the wellbeing of the nation? Who are 'The People' or 'the Public', and how are their material and symbolic goods distributed? To what extent are the interests of the state dictated by hegemonic notions of 'the public interest'? In effect, I ask, 'whose country is it anyway?' (2)

By way of background, I want to make some brief observations about the quicksand relations between the interests of the state and the interests of the people. I begin by identifying three aspects of perceptible re-alignments of public and private interests in the areas of public ownership and responsibility: the appropriation of public lands; the appropriation and privatising of public instrumentalities; and resistance to appropriation by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, environmentalists and others. My purpose is to analyse some ways in which the rationalising and minimalising state has gone, as it were, underground. Silently slipping away into the night like the wreckers of the Bellevue Hotel in the Brisbane of the 1970s, the Australian state has become more subtle and practised at dissembling its political and commercial deals from the Australian public, the assumed shareholders of national and nationalised goods. (3) The state and the financial markets, which have become virtually synonymous in the eyes of politicians and business people, have become adept at spinning a benevolent tale of mutual support and national wellbeing premised on the economics of privatisation and globalisation.

The enclosure of common land in eighteenth-century England has some parallels with the enclosure of what David Harvey calls the enclosure of 'the intellectual commons'. (4) It could be argued that the diminishing cultural capital of the intelligentsia and such public intellectuals as editorialists, feature writers, opinion makers, academic report writers and the occasional demagogue, pamphleteer or polemicist in

Australia has likewise contributed to an enclosure of the public interest. The circumscribing of topics fit for serious debate and discussion in open forums, and the enclosure and expropriation of the public interest, have progressively reshaped long-standing (if always contested) understandings of a common culture into the image of a managerialised and globalised culture. Like the people of Jonquil Street, but with perhaps less cause for anxiety and pessimism, many erstwhile dissidents, militant trade unionists, political activists and once-enthusiastic writers and researchers now find themselves feeling 'fortunate' to have paid work.

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