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Towards the end of Matthew Taylor’s recent speech and accompanying pamphlet on the 21st century enlightenment, he emphasised the need to reinvigorate our public sphere, to rekindle the places where we can both know ourselves and one another better as well as have a ‘reflective public discourse’ over the challenges facing us in the coming years:

Towards the end of Matthew Taylor’s recent speech and accompanying pamphlet on the 21st century enlightenment, he emphasised the need to reinvigorate our public sphere, to rekindle the places where we can both know ourselves and one another better as well as have a ‘reflective public discourse’ over the challenges facing us in the coming years:

“We will need ... a revival of a public sphere in which we might debate who we are as social beings, how we should connect to other people and the natural world, how we should adapt and innovate to new demands, and what really matters in life. Just as institutions, like the RSA, created this space in the eighteenth century, so we need new and reformed institutions to create a twenty-first century public sphere and a pluralist, more democratic political system that is open and porous to the currents of debate taking place within wider society.”

The thrust of Taylor's argument was that it is vital that we adapt our institutions into public spheres and places that enable the conditions allowing for healthy debate and which are suitable given the changing state of play in a 21st century society. Only recently, Involve published a report Talking for a Change arguing that the looming challenges of the 21st century – an ageing population, climate change and mass migration, to name a few – are such complex, seemingly intractable issues, deeply embedded in the way we behave and consume and with no clear solution, that they require radical grass-roots deliberation, trade-offs and choices. This is not simply a discourse over rational cost-benefit analysis but also a tackling of moral and ethical dilemmas and a deep reflection on what ‘the good life’ actually means.

There is a strong case then – or rather an absolute necessity – for a robust, healthy public sphere and a vibrant public discourse. One that allows us to reflect on our lifestyles and together decide within reasoned debate about our own future as opposed to being a passive company of strangers that is bound up in what Habermas criticised as an over-arching “representational culture”.

Yet these public spheres are eroding all around us. Habermas blamed this decay of the public sphere on mass communication, mass consumption and the welfare state, which he argues have made the public submissive to control and subject to the whims of bureaucracy and the logic of efficiency. Michael Sandel, on the other hand, recently argued that it is the forces of inequality that have narrowed the remit of the public sphere. Inequality, he points out, has meant that we live increasingly separate lifestyles and move in different circles. Living in gated suburbs, sending our children to different schools, using different public transport, socialising in different places – all of which has meant that the more affluent remove themselves from public places; citizens from different backgrounds encounter one another less often; and ‘the institutions that once gathered people together and served as informal schools of virtue become few and far between.’

There are clearly a number of conflicting arguments given as to why there has been a hollowing out of the public sphere, but whatever their disagreements they all believe one thing: that we are in dire need of finding new spaces that can nurture public discourse. The question is where can these spaces be found? In his essay, Matthew highlights the RSA as one particular institution with a rich history of providing a public sphere through tackling difficult debates and nurturing thoughtful discussion. Right now, within the Citizen Power programme of work, we are embarking on a Civic Commons project that aims to provide an opportunity for citizens to build knowledge and confidence in a range of themes and to understand different perspectives on local and national challenges.

But in addition to this, we should be aiming to tap into existing spaces that offer far more informal means of engaging in deliberation and day-to-day conversations, bringing together a much wider and more diverse set of ‘participants’. The same age of austerity that has racked up the pressure for increasing public discourse is at the same time leaving us all not just income-poor but also time-poor, unable to fill the vacuum that the state has left behind. Moreover, expecting people to come to formal settings and enter into structured discussions is simply not appealing for most people and neither is it cost-effective. For the public sphere to be equal and to be democratic, it must be open to all – to the haves and the have nots. We therefore have to go to where people are and bring out latent opportunities for turning existing places into public spheres.

Which is where places like Glastonbury come in. Returning to Habermas, he noted that the best way for democratic public life to thrive is if we have an “ideal speech situation.” That is, where actors are equally endowed with capacities of discourse, where they recognise each other’s basic social equality and where speech is undistorted by ideology. Arguably, places like Glastonbury represent a future public realm. These kind of festivals are level playing fields when it comes to social status, allowing people to ‘be themselves’, free from bureaucracy and able to act out their moral and ethical viewpoints with an honest conviction. Places like Glastonbury, although certainly not all festivals, offer up a public sphere that is mostly free from private domains, undistorted by ideology (apart from the odd Che Guevera flag) and which enable the conditions for a more candid discourse.

Glastonbury as a future hub of deliberation may seem slightly wayward but it highlights the need for our public spaces to return to the same spirits in which they were founded. This means opening up heritage sites; utilising village greens; saving local pubs that act as mini-public realms; encouraging initiatives such as The Big Lunch; using urban design to re-create truly public spaces; and using the arts as a way of stimulating debate and flourishing discourse on the hardest issues we may have to face. In short, encouraging enlightening debate and discourse in the future will be less about constructing ‘new’ institutions but rather, it will be about reclaiming the public sphere and making the most out of existing activities.


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