MJD 59,145

This entry is part 9 of 21 in the series Captain's Log

The terms public and private seem to form a balanced opposition, but they don’t really. In modern usage, private is a bounded and circumscribed domain, while public is an open-ended space defined via negation as non-private. It was supposedly the opposite in ancient Greece, at least by Hannah Arendt’s account. In her version of events, public was a bounded and circumscribed domain, and private was an open-ended survival warfront against nature. I’ve come to see her version of events as mistaken on crucial points, due to her over-indexing on the Greek origin myth for the notion of the public. A bunch of islands in a third-generation civilization is not a good prototype for civilization in general, which mostly arose in continental interiors along river valleys.

We don’t notice this asymmetrically larger nature of the public because a lot of important stuff, and almost everything of material value, gets put into the private bucket, and then we go live in that bucket, our attention consumed by everything in it, making us consumers rather than citizens.

Private is fundamentally a less expansive concept, but contains more actual stuff.

The normal pathway for this condition to emerge is expropriation followed by privatization. First, a wild proto-public — say a forest — is expropriated for a state purpose (say scientific forestry as in the prototypical example in Seeing Like a State), in the process legibilizing it and constructing it as property, with a value. Then it is privatized via cronyism (crony capitalism is a specific pattern of cronyism in general; feudalism for example is cronyism, but not crony capitalism in the modern sense of giving your buddies in the oil industry drilling rights in Alaska).

So private contains more stuff than public, but it is degenerate stuff, thanks to the legibilizing process that creates it.

What we think of as the civilized idea of a public, as opposed to a wild proto-public, is really something like a leakage in this transformation pipeline from wild public to civilized private crony property. Somewhere along the pathway from forest to mansion, a few dregs leak out and turn into public squares and such. Transformation into public property is the exceptional outcome of “civilization” presented as the rule. The idea that public funds, when deployed for frontier expansion, should result in the creation of new public wealth, is honored more in the breach than observance. In practice, the return flow from public investment in frontiers is almost entirely diverted to private ownership in short order, with no more than lip-service to non-cronyist theaters of fairness and justice.

The wild notion of a proto-public is expansive, and non-exclusive. The civilized notion is literally a square, containing people performing constricted mask-identities in ceremonial ways, within a zero-sum finite game over legalistically construed notions of political agency. Not only is the wild proto-public unbounded, and illegible, nobody makes an exclusive claim on it. It is not “owned” by “the public” (as in a free people). It is a pristine state of materiality where ownership has not yet been constructed as a legibilizing notion. Wildlife is seen as legitimate competition. Animals and plants get coded as pests or weeds only via the civilizing effects of expropriation-and-privatization.

This process of creating property out of proto-publics incurs an initial debt to all life, in the form of opportunity cost. A first big externality. This observation is, as I understand it, the animating idea of Georgism, and the basis of justification for all Land Value Taxation (LVT) theories. That makes Georgism an economic theory founded on a secular notion of original sin.

Expropriation is perhaps the wrong word for this wilderness proto-public transformation process, since it is not a case of the state taking what was legibly coded as civilized public property, but a case of the state using civilized public wealth (taxpayer dollars) to effectively create more private (or easily crony-privatizable) property out of proto-public frontiers (which include wildernesses, forager spaces, hunter-gatherer spaces, and pastoral-nomad spaces as subcategories). You could call it theft, but then that presumes notions of property and ownership. You could call it civilization, but that is perhaps a bit reductive. You could do both and brandish the slogan civilization is theft, but this seems more memetically potent than actually true.

Whatever you call it, the best modern example of this of course, is the history of the settlement of the Western United States. The US Army cleared the way, exterminating Native Americans coded as pests (with the occasional setback a la Custer’s Last Stand). The privatization that followed was rather unique in history in favoring small-scale settlement by individual cronies (the manifest-destiny homesteading movement enabled by the Homestead Act) alongside, and to a degree in competition with, large-scale privatization for institutional cronies like the railroads and mining companies. Much ink has been shed over the use and abuse of eminent domain in the settlement of the West, but the larger-scale process was the expropriation of a proto-public followed by privatization in the large and small. The conflict within the privatization process looms large in the imagination of Americans, but is a minor detail in the overall story. A hostile dismissal would be to call it petty criminals fighting big criminals in a footnote to the civilization-as-theft memefied story.

The idea of citizenship in a civilized public had fragile origins on the margins of this wilderness-expropriation-for-crony-privatization process. Hannah Arendt’s Greek-roots theory does not satisfyingly account for its dynamics. A more robust multi-start origin story for citizenship as a construct would place the origins within the more global pattern of a fragile middle class collectively buying itself some dregs of built environment out of the leaks from the civilizing process. In medieval Europe for example, free cities began emerging when landed gentry found themselves in financial trouble and sold a subset of near-serfs their freedom in exchange for bailouts.

Free citizens, in my alternative origin myth, had more agency than slaves and true serfs, but not as much as the nobility. That agency emerged out of technology use unattached to land use. Technological agency was converted into microeconomic agency (trades practiced in exchange for money), which was then converted into political and macroeconomic agency (free cities) via fire sales of distressed crony-private properties. And that’s how we got cities, citizens, and public squares.

Citizenship then, defines a space that had to be carved out via application of opportunistic economic leverage on the margins of civilization. Far from being the core of civilization as in the Greek origin myth, it was a disruption on the margins of wilderness-expropriation-for-crony-privatization process. The actual core of civilization in this version of the story is cronyist mansions. Civilization is really the effects of late-stage bankruptcy of mansionization.

But the interesting thing is, as the /etc folder of civilization created by leaks from distressed mansionized crony private property, the civilized idea of a public ends up as the container for everything that is not private, and almost everything that is interesting. So the dimensions of public life — artistic and scientific life, civic life, communal life, ceremonial life, religious life, frontier life, end up creating an overloaded notion of a frontier++ for the psyche. There’s not a whole lot out there on the frontier++, but what there is (or remains, after millennia of mansionization into proto-wealth) has a potential for open-ended richness and unboundedness by virtue of being negatively defined as not-private. But for this potential to be realized, the degeneracy of the source — civilized crony proto-wealth in mansionized form — has to be fought. Citizenship is the rewilding of the mansionist psyche. So curiously enough, to the extent that citizenship in a true public is the essence of civilization, it emerges through a process of rewilding.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. but what about a view point based on extraction of the good stuff (boons) from the wilderness-public while simultenously a dumping of the poop back out to the wild?
    in the vain of privatization of profits and a publication of the losses?

    rather than civilization as theft I speak of empire as extracion of the good stuff.

    • An excess of rich poop deposited too thickly kills the plants and leaches ecosystem-unbalancing contaminants into the hydrologic cycle.

  2. The private is always an invention. And it can only exist to the degree there is a power structure, typically a state in the modern world, to legally and violently enforce its private status. Private property is always a socially-constructed and state-sanctioned entity that disappears or loses its valence when the state no longer functions.

    The public is a looser concept with a more ancient lineage. It has its origins in any shared, communal worldview. It’s somewhat associated with the feudal commons, but it preceded even that. In the ancient world, the equivalent of public space was simply the world in which people inhabited. Anything beyond the public, was simply contested territory, wilderness, the land of Barbarians, or the unknown.

    Even ancient concepts of private property were more communal in nature. It wasn’t so much about what an individual possessed but what a particular group or family possessed and so what each generation inherited, along with concomitant expectations and responsibilities. In some ways, people were possessed more than they possessed. As with land, all property laid claims upon identity and identity was always social, never merely individual.

    My sense is that ancient mentality still exists within us. It’s more fundamental to human nature. Our modern property still possesses us, even as we pretend to possess it. Our identities are an extension of what claims us, not the other way around. We are secondary effects of what we inherit, but modern consciousness obfuscates this and so we are blind to what otherwise would be obvious.

    The private, as such, doesn’t really exist or only to the extent that it’s a convenient fiction for certain power structures. That state of affairs could quickly change again. The older sensibility would reassert itself in some new form without skipping a beat. The present system is unstable and unsustainable, requiring immense effort and resources to keep it propped up, and involving massive externalized costs and internalized benefits.

  3. Alma Diamond says

    I think everyone should read this: https://granta.com/the-only-way-out-is-through/