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The Cost of Community

A Response to Reclaiming the Commons

Margaret Kohn

8 David Bollier makes a convincing case that privatizing collective resources benefits the corporate class at the expense of ordinary citizens. To draw attention to the social consequences of commodification, he artfully reappropriates the terms "commons" and "enclosure." In so doing, he forcefully exposes privatization in some of its more subtle forms. For example, rather than focusing on school vouchers, he shows how advertising has infiltrated the classroom through brand names in textbooks and commercials in educational programming. Since Bollier's exposition of the problem is both elegant and convincing, I will focus my remarks on his solutions.

The first solution he proposes is the idea of "stakeholder trusts that give all citizens a personal stake in public assets." Having citizens "reap personal dividends from public assets" is undoubtedly preferable to giving those resources to private corporations. But the example of the Alaska Permanent Fund, a trust for oil revenue from drilling on the North Slope, should make us cautious. The individual dividend—$1,770 in 1999—may motivate each Alaskan to act more like a corporate stockholder than a citizen when deciding about the trade-offs between short-term profit and civic responsibility (for example, in areas of conservation and the environment). Take for example the controversial issue of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). In a recent survey, 70 percent of Alaskans favored drilling while 60 percent of Americans in the rest of the country opposed drilling, even if oil prices continued to climb. Stakeholder trusts may actually encourage the process of enclosure by creating a strong financial incentive for some citizens to support sales of public resources.

Bollier also proposes developing "local commons" to govern local and regional resources. This solution reflects a communitarian bias in favor of local government over national regulatory bodies. But Bollier does not explain why local "trusts" are more likely than the federal government to be immune to political pressures and the influence of business elites. The link he assumes between local control and sustainable development is based on wishful thinking. Often local residents are interested in commodifying their own natural resources while out of town visitors—with the security of a regular pay check—want to preserve a pastoral landscape in its "pristine" state.

The most troubling proposal, however, is increased reliance on hybrid public-private partnerships. In the areas that I study—cities and suburbs—these partnerships have been carefully designed to limit public accountability while spending public money. One particularly effective tool has been the Business Improvement District (BID). BIDs—now numbering over one thousand in the United States—are geographically distinct parts of cities that decide to levy a special assessment on property owners in order to provide additional services. Although regulated by state statutes, they are autonomous from municipal governments. The BID's governing board is usually chosen in an election in which voting is confined to property owners. This is not especially democratic, however, as large owners receive more votes. More importantly, because BIDs are not, strictly speaking, state actors, their policies do not receive the same oversight from the courts. While BIDs have been widely lauded for providing additional security, landscaping, and cleanliness in downtown shopping districts, they have also been criticized for turning diverse public spaces into privileged places for the upper middle class.

I suspect that Bollier would criticize BIDs as part of the enclosure problem rather than part of the commons solution. The debate about BIDs, however, demonstrates how difficult it is to decide whether a particular public-private partnership is protecting the commons or enclosing it. Unlike gated communities, BIDs do not build fences to keep the public out, but they do have private security forces that exclude undesirables. Many were instituted as part of a strategy to protect the vitality of downtown business districts by helping them compete more effectively with suburban shopping malls. Admirers often credit BIDs with enhancing public space.

But BIDs are also a way for business interests to consolidate their control and circumvent municipal decision-making processes. Emblematic of this process is Bryant Park, located behind the main branch of the public library in Manhattan. In 1980, the Bryant Park Corporation, a private, non-profit organization, took over administration of the park. The park was closed in 1988 in order to make major renovations. The corporation installed new lighting, improved the landscaping, instituted a series of free cultural events, and hired private security to keep out the homeless. The costs were covered in part by renting out areas of the park to entrepreneurs for a restaurant and outdoor cafes. Public funds provided $5.7 million, two thirds of the total cost of the project.

By most accounts this revitalization effort has been a hugely successful at restoring public life in the area. The park is a multi-use space that allows commercial and non-commercial uses and attracts a wide range of users. The park is crowded with office workers at lunch and 10,000 people attend the free movie series screened in the summer. Many more people frequent the park today. Yet some of the most vulnerable citizens—street people—have been excluded. Bryant Park is now a site of cultural consumption and leisure for a middle-class public and no longer a refuge for the downtrodden.

The case of Bryant Park suggests a more general problem. When thinking about the problem of enclosure, it is tempting to focus on examples that pit ruthless corporations like pharmaceutical companies and media conglomerates against hapless citizens. More complicated are phenomena like gated communities which pit different classes of citizens against one another. Affluent suburbanites create gated enclosures not to pursue profit (of course property values play a role) but in the name of community. In places like Celebration, Florida, purchasing private property becomes a way to buy into a simulacrum of public life. Inspired by the principles of the New Urbanism, these residential developments have narrower streets, front porches, small yards complemented by large parks, sidewalks, higher densities, and "traditional" downtowns. The goal is to foster interaction between neighbors and revitalize public life. But with real estate prices higher than other Orlando suburbs, Celebration is affluent and exclusive rather than diverse and accessible. Public life itself becomes a commodity.

To reclaim the commons, then, we must recognize the complexity of the problem of enclosure. While continuing to focus on the losses incurred when the commons is given away to big corporations, we must also pay more attention to the social consequences of a society in which community itself can be purchased by affluent consumers. <


Margaret Kohn is professor of political theory at University of Florida, Gainesville and author of Radical Space (forthcoming).

Click here to return to the new deomocracy forum, Ruled by the Market? with David Bollier and respondents.

Originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of Boston Review



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