What are the public spaces of modern life? This is a central question raised in Hannah Arendt’s work since Arendt insists on the importance of public spaces for the flourishing of the human condition. To be human, Arendt writes, is to be free in public, which means to act and speak in ways that matter in the public world. Public freedom requires spaces where our actions are attended to, considered, and taken seriously enough to merit a response. Such spaces—the Greek Agora, the Roman Senate, the town square, the New England town meeting, the French debating societies, the Russian Soviets, the American jury, and all those civic institutions that spring up to give the power of collective action to individual citizens—are the pre-political and yet necessary conditions of democratic politics.
The problem today is that such spaces are ever more rare and in decay. Town hall meetings are largely gone or ceremonial. Local governments have ceded all real power to state or federal authorities. And even democratic elections—the most sickly form of political participation, has been corrupted by both money and size so that voting has come to be seen as so meaningless and ineffectual that few people bother to do so. As Albert W. Dzur writes in a recent essay in The Boston Review, we lack the public spaces that call us to attention and encourage our engagement in a collective civically minded world:
In our time of late modernity, the public is even more scattered, mobile, and manifold. Zygmunt Bauman and other leading social theorists write of contemporary social structures that, paradoxically, destructure common life, distance us from each other, and make it increasingly hard for us to interact with others in anything but a partial, superficial, and self-selecting fashion. Absent are the places that, in the past, helped us realize who we are as a public, as Tony Judt has illustrated in sketching the lost civic world of his childhood. We lack sufficient means today for calling ourselves to attention, for sobering ourselves up to our responsibility for the world all around.
Dzur offers a remedy for our diseased democracy. We need, he writes, to re-think the spaces and places of modern democracy.
Democracy, he writes, is usually thought a political movement and participatory democracy points to public involvement in protests, plebiscites, and public action aimed at governmental change. But democracy may also be thought of as a way of life focused on individualism and respect for the power and judgment of each person. Might it be, Dzur wonders, that the space of democracy is shifting from governmental to professional institutions?
The spaces of democratic participation Dzur has in mind are schools, prisons, hospitals, and other institutions of government bureaucracy. Such institutions too often, he writes, adopt rationalist and rule-bound ideologies that insulate them from the very people they are supposed to serve. What is needed, he suggests, is a new vision of the democratic professional administrator.
Democratic professionals in schools, public health clinics, and prisons who share their load-bearing work are innovators who are expanding, not just conserving, our neglected democratic inheritance. … Democratic professionals adapt the formal rationality of institutions to appreciate and act upon substantive contributions that lay citizens can make to a reflective legal judgment, a secure environment, or a stimulating education. And, importantly, democratic professionals bring citizens together who had not planned to be together.
In short, Dzur argues for a new vision of the professional administrator or bureaucrat, one inspired by intelligence, flexibility, and a willingness to replace rationalist bureaucratic rules with a determination to do justice by attending to particular individuals and persons.
Dzur’s vision of the new professionals who inhabit new democratic spaces is, whether explicitly or not, related to the insights of the recently popular French thinker Pierre Rosenvallon. It is always difficult to keep up with academic fashions and I only recently learned of Rosenvallon from one of our Arendt Center Fellows Jennifer Hudson, who is finishing up an excellent dissertation that addresses Rosenvallon’s vision of an intelligent and adaptive bureaucracy. In a nutshell, Rosenvallon addresses what is typically referred to as the crisis of legitimacy in representative democracy, the widespread sense on both the left and the right that government simply has become too big, too distant, and too impervious to citizen change. Rosenvallon’s answer is to empower government administrators—what we usually call the bureaucracy—to act more autonomously and freely outside of set rules and solve problems with more attention to local and individual conditions.
Dzur takes a similar approach in what is now promised to be a new series about participatory democratic politics in the typically administrative spaces of schools, offices, and courtrooms, Dzur generalizes about those who are engaged in this kind of “trench democracy”:
[Democratic professionals] take their public responsibilities seriously and listen carefully to those outside their walls and those at all levels of their internal hierarchy in order to foster physical proximity between formerly separated individuals, encourage co-ownership of problems previously seen as beyond laypeople’s ability or realm of responsibility, and seek out opportunities for collaborative work between laypeople and professionals. We fail to see these activities as politically significant because they do not fit our conventional picture of democratic change. As if to repay the compliment, the democratic professionals I have interviewed in fields such as criminal justice, public administration, and K-12 education rarely use the concepts employed by social scientists and political theorists. Lacking an overarching ideology, they make it up as they go along, developing roles, attitudes, habits, and practices that open calcified structures up to greater participation. Their democratic action is thus endogenous to their occupational routine, often involving those who would not consider themselves activists or even engaged citizens.
The attraction of Dzur’s embrace of administrative democratic legitimacy is clear. At a time when public democratic institutions are broken, it is tempting to turn to professional administrators and ask them to solve our problems for us, to not only make the hospitals work better but also to revitalize democratic attention. There is the hope that intelligent and flexible administrative rule can not only make the trains run on time, but also make the train schedules more responsive to the needs of their riders and the trains themselves more comfortable and inviting. In short, democratically inclined professionals can make our public institutions more open to citizen feedback and energy.
The turn to what might be termed an administrative or executive democracy, however, comes with potential costs. In empowering professionals, administrators, and bureaucrats to revitalize and improve democratic participation, we turn attention away from the political concern with a public world and focus, instead, on the technocratic aim of efficient administration. Given the seeming incompetence and obstructionism of elected officials in the United States and around the world, taking refuge in professional administrators is tempting. And yet, it carries the seeds of a technocratic turn that will further weaken the participation in more traditionally political institutions and activities that turn us away from our parochial self-interests and toward a common political world. In short, the worry is that the shift from democratic politics to democratic administration will trade the rarefied human activity of forming meaningful political communities with the everyday desire for institutions that work.
Dzur’s essay is well worth attending to. We will be following his future inquiries as well. For now, enjoy Dzur’s “Trench Democracy: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely Places.” It is your weekend read.