Reviewed by Sheila Suess Kennedy, School of Public & Environmental Affairs, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Email: shekenne [at] iupui.edu.
Some scholars stake out an area of inquiry that is tightly focused and contained, scholarly real estate small enough to be examined and parsed so completely as to be effectively “owned” – an academic phenomenon sometimes described as knowing everything there is to know about not very much. Dana Villa is obviously not one of these scholars. To the contrary; in this book, he has shared with his readers an ambitious, intellectually rich and often provocative effort to engage with one of the most persistent questions of political philosophy, and to make a cogent (and I believe persuasive) argument for a particular conception of civic life and the public good.
In PUBLIC FREEDOM, Villa addresses what may be the thorniest issue of governance in a free society – the persistent tension and proper balance between the individualism nurtured in and privileged by liberal democratic regimes and a civic republican tradition that he admits has “often displayed a deep-seated resistance to pluralism and anything resembling open-ended argument” (p.3). Villa’s willingness to confront the dangers of a too-enthusiastic embrace of a poorly-conceived public realm informs his careful, nuanced argument for a reinvigorated and reconfigured public square and a more robust conception of citizenship and the public good. The intellectual rigor and honesty that characterize this book serve to distinguish Villa’s arguments from those offered by advocates for a vague and idealized communitarianism.
Villa believes that the abandonment of active participation in the public sphere (as he defines both participation and the public) is transforming Americans from citizens to subjects, changing them from empowered participants in public life to relatively powerless, passive observers of governing elites. He draws upon Tocqueville, Hegel, Mill and Arendt, among others, to argue for a new balance between the universal and the particular, the common good and enlightened self-interest. At the heart of his argument is an echo of an admonition that has been attributed to both Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry to the effect that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” (Phillips 1853, at 13) – here, that sentiment is expressed as the notion that “citizens must be given something to do for the public if they [are] to become capable of exercising the ‘active and constant surveillance’ of governmental authorities that a representative system demands” (p.17).
The main focus of the book is an extended consideration of what genuine democratic participation might look like – an effort to define what Villa calls “the generalization of interests,” the [*1056] relationship between our individual interests and those of the society within which we inevitably pursue those interests. What, he asks, is the nature of the public spaces our particular governing decisions have created? How do individuals exercise power within those spaces, and how might we strengthen their ability to do so? How do we prevent both the market and the state from dominating and ultimately extinguishing the public sphere? How do we retain the capacity to exercise genuine and meaningful citizenship and how do we protect the rule of law?
In order to answer these questions, and to flesh out his conception of the public sphere, Villa traces the Tocquevillian notions of civil society and local and political associations, reminding readers that the distinctions between our governing institutions on the one hand and religion, the marketplace, and public opinion on the other are relatively modern phenomena. Tocqueville’s signal contribution, according to Villa, was to identify civil society as a mediating realm between and among these newly separated social institutions, a realm where citizens acquire and hone associational and political skills.
Villa proceeds to build upon Tocqueville’s conception of civil society and the public sphere by examining the contributions and arguments of other philosophers, primarily but not exclusively the philosophies of Hegel, Arendt, Mill, Foucalt and Heidegger. In each of these discussions, he offers penetrating insights and displays a sometimes dazzling scholarship. While the language of the book is accessible, the analysis is demanding and closely reasoned (this is not a book to be blithely assigned as undergraduate background reading). I found his analysis of Arendt particularly insightful – especially his interpretation of what Arendt means by the “Social Question” and what she suggests about the differences between the American and French Revolutions.
In his concluding chapter, Villa draws heavily on Arendt as he returns to the question of the proper balance between positive and negative freedom – or, as he frames it, “the freedom to be a ‘participator’ in government” on the one hand (positive freedom), and the “emphasis on civil rights and ‘negative’ freedom” on the other. “We move,” he says “from a civic republican understanding to a liberal (and increasingly economic) one” (p.343). In a particularly penetrating paragraph summing up what he believes to be the proper conception of the public realm, he writes that
“The idea of community that haunts the Western tradition, then, is one that repeatedly sacrifices the fact of human plurality on the altar of unity, wholeness or oneness. It is an idea of political community that is not, in Arendt’s view, political at all. A political community is precisely a ‘community without unity.’ It is an association of diverse equals whose shared care for the public world takes the form of intense and open-ended debate, deliberation and decision. What is at stake in these political discussions and decisions is the best way to ‘preserve and augment’ the space of public freedom these citizens have either constructed or inherited.” (p.352)
This description, it seems to me, is exactly right; it captures the reality – both the promise and the challenge – of the public realm and the American [*1057 community in ways that more idealized versions do not.
Throughout the book, it is clear that Villa’s concerns about the viability of the American public realm have been exacerbated by the actions of the Bush Administration. He notes with disapproval the Administration’s use of fear (notably its ‘War on Terror’) to facilitate the accretion of executive power during the Bush Administration, and he links that phenomenon with the corresponding atrophy of the robust citizenship for which he is arguing. As he concludes,
“At a time when our public world is under attack by an array of economic, technological and ideological forces (to say nothing of the cabal of unwitting Schmittians currently occupying the executive branch), it is important to realize that ‘care for the public world’ is the furthest thing from a ‘leisure-time sport for aristocrats.’ It is, it turns out, a responsibility we all share; a responsibility that grows heavier each day as the boundaries of our public world – and the attention span of many of our fellow citizens – perpetually contracts.”
In his introduction, Villa tells us that this book was written over several years. It was published in 2008, meaning (academic publishing being what it is) that it was completed well before the recent national elections. The obvious question that arises is what Villa would think about the ability of the Obama campaign (aided by the disaster that has been the Bush Presidency) to generate massive participation in the political process. The campaign had in excess of three million discrete donors; even more astonishing, it enlisted millions of volunteers who canvassed their neighborhoods, called their friends, wrote letters to the editors of local papers, delivered absentee ballots and drove people to the polls. Is this increased political activity an anomaly, or could it be the harbinger of a return to the sort of participatory civic life that Villa believes essential?
For obvious reasons, that is a question this book cannot answer. However, in his argument for a more vital and robust public square and a more capacious conception of freedom, Villa makes a substantial contribution, both to the political theory literature and to a more textured understanding of the nature of a genuinely free society.
Phillips, Wendell. 1853. Speech in Boston, Massachusetts, January 28, 1852. – “Speeches Before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.”
© Copyright 2008 by the author, Sheila Suess Kennedy.