Public crises, public futures

We need to develop new understandings of public action, public culture, public space and the public sphere and what impact it has on these when people see themselves as in crisis.
Nick Mahony John Clarke
23 February 2012

The idea that ‘we’ are in the midst of pervasive crisis is currently shaping our everyday lives, in Europe as well as other regions of the world. The ‘we’ that is being addressed in such conceptions of the crisis-ridden present nevertheless varies quite considerably. If new kinds of public futures are to be collectively created out of the conflicts of the current moment, it is vital to recognize and robustly engage with how different versions of ‘crisis’ are currently working to position ‘the public’.

We think it is worth distinguishing three types of position into which the public is being summoned. Firstly, the publics of the current crises are being summoned as abject collectivities. They are imagined as selfish and irresponsible causes (sub-prime mortgage holders, greedy and debt-ridden consumers), subdued or numbed victims (rendered unemployed, homeless, impoverished), or dully-responsible debt bearers (the public of the public debt). These publics are represented in narratives that are highly immersive, such as the endlessly re-iterated figures of ‘debt-mountains’, ‘systemic failure’ and the ‘tightening grip’ of austerity and recession. These narratives simultaneously call for the withdrawal of welfare, the suspension of established political routines and everyday politics and the need for strong government, firm leadership and technical virtuosity. Publics are cast as the bearers of both the cost of bank rescue and the cost of austerity.

The second position to which publics are summoned by crisis resembles that of an audience-public. Here publics are summoned as ‘choice-bearers’. Whether this is by activists, politicians, pollsters or even those convening forms of innovative participatory experimentation, these are publics being offered pre-framed scenarios and a limited number of ‘options’. Choices, for example, between ‘paying down the debt quickly or more steadily’; or between ‘pinning the blame on bankers, politicans or public sector workers’; between ‘spending scare resources on A, B or C’. This is a public with limited capacity for choice and creative and considered forms of interaction and decision-making and, a public in need of rather behaviorist forms of facilitation.

The third position that can be discerned identifies an active public. This is a public not known in advance as a fixed collectivity or one that has an established and shared political identity. Here the public is understood as emergent and interdependent. It is an entity formed through co-operation, negotiation, argument, participation and forms of engaged reflexivity. This position is less one that engages a public in the process of convening around a pre-constituted analysis or political programme. It is instead one that embraces the unknown, indeterminacy and forms of public creativity. This position therefore opens out – for better or worse – possibilities for new and experimental political pathways. These pathways could lead ‘us’ to as yet unknown – but possibly more hospitable – public futures.

These are rather crude distinctions, and in practice many instances will blur or merge such positions. However, the distinctions point to ways in which ideas of the public can be interpreted and inflected differently through some of the many different ways that ‘the crisis’ is currently being mediated – whether this is by politicians, established commentators and public organisers or by more recent forms of activism. 

Strategies addressed to the crisis and its resolution are currently distributing its costs and misery unevenly through reforms centred on austerity and authoritarianism.  The ways in which the crisis is narrated and how its febrile mixture of urgency and threat is deployed have formed a sort of political spectacle. These dramatic visions of crisis can work to suspend normal politics, invert common-sense ways of doing things, re-animate old debates in new ways; and mobilize or disable groups of citizens in new ways.

Different representations of crisis therefore can contribute to the unsettling and potential reconfigurations of ‘pre-crisis’ divisions of political and public labour. Seen in this light, it is perhaps not surprising that ‘the crisis’ has given birth to an astonishing proliferation of new political actions – whether these are new ‘top-down’ forms of governmental or inter-governmental action or more ‘bottom-up’ experiments with new forms of public participation and public creativity. One of the many challenges of the current moment is therefore that of being constantly vigilant and reflective of how our own preferred understanding of ‘the crisis’ imagines and helps to underwrite a role for publics, now and in the future.

Further links:

1. Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance (CCIG) Publics Research Programme at the Open University

2. The ESRC 'Emergent Publics' seminar series 

3. Nick Mahony, Janet Newman, Clive Barnett Rethinking the Public (Polity Press, 2010).

4. Call for papers for the forthcoming workshop Creating Publics, Creating Democracies (call for papers deadline: 16 March; event to be held, 18-19 June in Central London).

5. Creating Publics project at Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance (CCIG) at the Open University

6. Creating Publics blog.


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