The public is back — but not as we knew it

In sharp contrast to neo-liberal ‘hands off’ attitudes that shaped its past policies, the Harper government is considering a much greater public role in the economy, strategically targeting certain key sectors. Meanwhile, in response to growing concerns about the implications of cyber attacks, there has been a move to increase the requirement for private companies to collaborate with the government in cases of severe cyber-security breaches. For instance, Bill S-4, the Digital Privacy Act, proposes to make it mandatory for federally regulated businesses to report significant breaches to the federal privacy commissioner.

These are just two examples from a long list of cases—in areas ranging from international finance to development, international security  and environmental governance—in which public actors, concerns and processes  seem to be playing an increasingly important role in our lives.

This is particularly striking after a couple of decades of neoliberal governance that extolled the virtues of the market, and that led many experts to think that the public—and particularly the state—had irrevocably lost its privileged position. In recent years, however, everywhere we look we seem to find examples of public intervention.

Based on these examples, we could be tempted to conclude that the public is back with a vengeance. But is it? Yes and no. As our book, The Return of the Public in Global Governance argues, the public is indeed back, but not as we knew it. Unless we transcend the conventional wisdom about the category of ‘public’, we cannot understand the dynamics and consequences of its apparent return.

For a long time, political scientists have regarded the public and private as separate spheres of social life, governed by different logics and associated with different sites. The problem with this perspective, our book demonstrates, is that it does not allow us to see that whether an actor is regarded as public or private depends much more on what they are seen to be doing as opposed to where they are located. This means that the boundaries between public and private are much more fluid than in the past, as actors move between them depending on their specific practices. It is only by transcending the view of the public as a distinct entity, and by conceptualizing it as a collection of historically specific power-filled social practices, that we can understand the nature and consequences of the contemporary ‘return of the public’.

Using examples drawn from international political economy, international security and environmental and social governance, contributors to this book demonstrate that in many instances the public is back—but it is not where or what it used to be.

Why is this happening now? The global financial crisis, changes in the field of security after 9/11 and climate change have all made it clear that a purely private market-led solution is not up to the challenge. Policymakers have been forced to recognize the need for a stronger public role. Yet rather than leading to a straightforward ‘return of the state’, these challenges have led to a more complex combination of public and private policy strategies.

For example, the financial crisis led to the regulation of certain areas of the ‘grey’ economy, but often using private market actors and processes to do so. In a similar vein, in response to an increasingly complex security environment, many states have sought to build up their security capabilities—but often by relying on private actors, including global security companies. These new policies have complicated previously taken-for-granted definitions of the public, as well as boundaries between the public and private.

Does this change matter? As the chapters in this volume show, contemporary forms of the public generate a series of difficult political dilemmas. A recurring theme of this book is that some recent transformations in the fields of security, international political economy and environmental governance have worrying implications. In particular, recent public practices provide a much thinner basis for legitimacy than do the democratic processes conventionally associated with the public domain. This suggests that the ways in which the public is being reconstituted in the 21st century may make it difficult for late-modern societies to protect key principles—such as the principles of representation and accountability—that lie at the heart of liberal democracy.

Jacqueline Best & Alexandra Gheciu

First posted on the CIPS Blog on September 7, 2014

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