Space for democracy

When corporations smother buildings with their messages, it's advertising. When citizens do it, it's vandalism. Why?

Robert Francis
29 August 2014

sticker: wikimedia

Along with may other activists, I was recently involved in mobilising for the People's Assembly 'No More Austerity' march in London. And whilst I tried to put up stickers and posters in my area, I was confronted with something, that has become pervasive all around us: Private Property!

Many people discouraged me from the beginning. I was made aware that it was illegal. When I was seen fixing a sticker on a ticket machine, one of my relatives was severely shocked. He felt, that private property had to be respected. He criticised me for having given the station staff the extra work to remove the sticker (when I was hoping they would just leave it there). When I tried to hang up a poster in one Tube Station on a sleepy Sunday morning, a Security Officer came to me and asked: “Why do you think it would be okay to hang up stuff like that here?” My answer was: Because this his public property!

He told me, this was no public property at all. That the station happened to be the private possession of Transport for London (a public company, as it happens). When I put up a sticker in one Overground station, the manager (who must have seen me on CCTV) came straight to me, saying: “This is vandalism”. I was probably lucky that he just asked me to remove the sticker. I went on to another nearby station and put up several stickers with trembling heart, as inconspicuously as I could. It made me appreciate political dissidents in other countries who try to spread their information. To be sure, they risk infinitely more than me. But it seemed ironic to me that, whilst they are chased by the security police, I risk to be hunted down by the agents of private capital. Maybe I overestimated the risk because I lacked experience. But I felt quite intimidated nevertheless. Even the stickers I actually managed to hang up disappeared in the shortest amount of time.

All around us we can see how public space is privatised. Just one example: The London Borough of Newham, where I lived, saw its funding from the Central Government severely cut. One way in which the council tried to address the shortage of money was to sell its public football grounds. A place that once had been openly accessible for everybody thus became bared for the community. And that in a place that offers little for young people anyway. At the same time, more and more public space is made accessible and reserved exclusively for commercial adverts. I once heard the suggestion the council should retreat from keeping up public playgrounds and finance them through adverts instead. Never mind the moral quality of that proposition, we are bombarded with adverts in ever new spaces, creatively explored and ferociously marketed. It stands as a witness to the commodification of our life. A grass root organisations like the People's Assembly already struggles to finance a march. They could certainly not afford to pay for adverts. It follows that the space for adverts all around is largely reserved for Big Corporations.

An active and engaged civil society is a necessary pre-condition for democracy. But as this challenges the hegemony of politicians in the democratic process, they have little interest in providing the necessary infrastructure, which is hard to create without the resources of the state. To me, this underdevelopment of civil society seems the major reason for the weakness of our democracy. At the same time, most people don't really feel represented by the current political system. And as they see nowhere else to turn with their aspirations and dreams, they either vote for shallow protest parties like UKIP or become apolitical altogether. This undermines democracy and may well lead to its eventual overhaul. To avoid this outcome, a first step would be to provide public space: space for people to express their opinions, where they can be heard by other people. Space for community organisations in the neighbourhood to advertise their activities (like marches). In short: space for a lively public debate. Space that is for free, and just as prominent and numerous, as space reserved for commercials. This would give back to the people a feeling of ownership in politics.

Neoliberalism has a powerful grip on all mainstream parties and mass media. It reduces us to consumers, ignoring our role as citizens (or workers, for that matter). Neoliberalism declares private property as sacrosanct; and to stick on it material advertising political events without paying is prosecuted as vandalism. This way, neoliberalism atomises us and undermines collective action. It does not build up democracy, but diminishes it. It hands over the political system to the influence of big corporations that are always in a stronger position than individual constituents lacking organisation. To sum up: That the respect for private private property always has to be considered as the highest good is in itself a political opinion and by no means an innocent one. Not that I would advocate to wilfully assault private property. But sometimes, there are higher considerations. We need the space, to make another voice heard: the voice of the majority.

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