Guy Standing, the economist who has popularised the term “precariat”, presents his view of public space from the standpoint of the commons, which he sees as being a basic part of urban life and essential for the survival of the precariat. He also reflects on the harmfulness of the market’s invasion of public space and, in a nutshell, of democracy. Finally, Standing reveals that his favourite public space is an amphitheatre of Ancient Greece, for him the cradle of democracy.
Publicspace recorded this conversation with Guy Standing when he visited the Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (CCCB) to give the lecture “A Charter of Rights for the Twenty-First-Century Precariat?” on 10 November 2015. This event was the closing session of the DESC Observatory’s Tenth Course on Social Rights.
The British economist, Professor of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, links public space to two ideas. First, it evokes the traditional Greek agora, a place for meeting, deliberation and civic duty and, second, the commons. Standing says that, “… throughout our history there’s always been a demand for richer commons, public wealth.” He therefore sees public space as part of the commons, “… because if you don’t have a rich commons, rich public spaces, then you lose part of your humanity.” Hence, the commons – both from the very earliest standpoint, that of an economic resource, and from the social point of view (public health, libraries, services and so on) – are spaces in a real sense and basic elements of political struggle, necessary for the survival of groups like the precariat.
Standing also warns of the tension that has always existed between the agora and the market, which has been exacerbated in recent years of neoliberal economic hegemony, noting that “…the space of the commons has been shrunk, as the market has moved in.” He gives the example of the open-air market of Istanbul which is undergoing a process of privatisation that has “… increased the size of the precariat because, instead of being an independent trader […], being part of a little community, they have all become commercialised and you’ve removed all those people.” He argues that all of this is part of what in English political economy used to be called the Lauderdale Paradox, according to which, “as the market increases, private riches go up, but public wealth goes down”, and goes on to explain that, “… if you allow the markets to become too dominant, then that happens, and inequality rises, and the insecurities of those people who have to survive in the commons and in the market is increased.”
Standing travels to the south of Italy to reminisce about his favourite public space, the ruins of the old Greek colony of Paestum, which is famous for the conservation of its architecture. In his words, the place is, “… a big hole […] And that hole has layers of earth steps going down and […] when the city was alive, whenever they had a political decision to make, they used to summon five hundred people…” Standing has a special fondness for this place because it is the “… cradle of deliberative democracy, which is public space at its richest.”