In the contemporary world of neoliberalism, efficiency is treated as the vehicle of political and economic health .State bureaucracy, but not corporate bureaucracy, is seen as inefficient, and privatization is seen as a magic cure for social ills. In Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair, Bonnie Honig asks whether democracy is possible in the absence of public services, spaces, and utilities. In other words, if neoliberalism leaves to democracy merely electoral majoritarianism and procedures of deliberation while divesting democratic states of their ownership of public things, what will the impact be?
Following Tocqueville, who extolled the virtues of “pursuing in common the objects of common desires,” Honig focuses not on the demos but on the objects of democratic life. Democracy, as she points out, postulates public things—infrastructure, monuments, libraries—that citizens use, care for, repair, and are gathered up by. To be “gathered up” refers to the work of D. W. Winnicott, the object relations psychoanalyst who popularized the idea of “transitional objects”—the toys, teddy bears, or favorite blankets by way of which infants come to understand themselves as unified selves with an inside and an outside in relation to others. The wager of Public Things is that the work transitional objects do for infants is analogously performed for democratic citizens by public things, which press us into object relations with others and with ourselves.
Public Things attends also to the historically racial character of public things: public lands taken from indigenous peoples, access to public goods restricted to white majorities. Drawing on Hannah Arendt, who saw how things fabricated by humans lend stability to the human world, Honig shows how Arendt and Winnicott—both theorists of livenesss—underline the material and psychological conditions necessary for object permanence and the reparative work needed for a more egalitarian democracy.
A fast-paced tour de force. Honig explores the role of public things in democratic politics, especially against the background of neoliberal privatization.
John Seery, George Irving Thompson Memorial Professor of Government and Professor of Politics, Pomona College
Although, on the surface, the title "Public Things" is just a routine translation of the Latin res publica, Honig injects into the phrase a radical twist which exposes the "disrepair" of contemporary democratic politics. Although upholding the need for publicly shared concerns, her book also launches an indictment: namely, that increasingly such concerns are reified and objectified and thereby transformed into targets for individual or corporate appropriation.
Global-E, UC Santa Barbara
Public Things like the Postal Service have long been under attack, as political theorist Bonnie Honig powerfully argues in the publication of a series of lectures on "democracy in disrepair." Writing against the culture of "opting out" of public services, spaces, and systems, Honig defends public infrastructures as the things that bind people together, the very things democracy is made of.
"illuminat[es] the need for public things in democratic life when the political economy deprives us of such things. Honig’s arguments and lively prose are compelling and make a convincing plea to shift the gaze away from the iPhone towards the fragile public infrastructure—parks, subways, bridges—around us.
Contemporary Political Theory
First published in the age of Mission Accomplished, Google Me reads as prophetic in the age of America First. Cassin reframes our current debates about the health of democracy in a technological-neoliberal age within a broader philosophical context. Our iPhones and algorithms have not brought forth a new world, they've just added a 21st-century gloss to an ancient problem.
Public Things is a healthy antidote to make a case why things like public schools, spaces, and utilities matter for a healthy democracy. Public Things provides a defense of public institutions, practices, and spaces that transcend the utilitarian calculus of neoliberalism and paves way for a possibly different and more hopeful future.