A Call for “Open Space”

To the question, “Is nothing sacred anymore?”

The answer: “It depends on who your gods are.”

Much has been written about the privatization of the public sphere.  As more aspects of our lives become commoditized, it is difficult to find the sacred, the moral, the things which are not for sale. Added to that list is “space.”

Elements of our society have become more closed, in-person interactions are waning, yet we emote more on social networks.  Opinion appears as truth, and thoughtful reflection is undervalued.  When we do communicate, we have less protected space for reasonable dialogue, as that expanse has been filled by confirmation bias.

If we are not filling the void ourselves, we seem willing to cede our collective physical and metaphysical space to others.

Enter “The Brand.”

In the retail world, missed opportunities for advertising/marketing are referred to as “white space,” with the goal being to fill up as much of this area as possible. If you are like me, you have noticed more corporate branding occurring in multiple venues.  Whether it is on TV, “This portion of the segment of this excerpt is brought to you by…,” or the narrowing of our web screen content—ads on the side, ads in the middle, wack-a-mole pop-ups, among others. Clothing of professional athletes have become billboards.  Arenas display more and more advertising, venues require enhanced corporate suites while average seat prices preclude family attendance… Naming of institutions is no longer based on accomplishment related to the subject at hand, it is bestowed upon (bought by) the highest bidder.  A recent Washington Post article headline read, “Why NASA’s next rockets might say Budweiser on the side.”

Branding implies competition, and marketing invariably hedges the truth.  Branding refers not only to the object/item being sold, i.e., “the brand,” but the marking of the individuals in receipt.

We seem to be both drawn to and repulsed by the concept of branding.  For many, there is a longing for belonging.  However, as “in-person” (vs. virtual) institutions dwindle, there have been varied attempts at pushback against the corporate filling of space.  There is an uptick in the practice of mindfulness, the eloquence of the empty.  There is conversely also a “beat them to it” response: despite humans becoming physically larger over generations, we have proportionately less “open skin.”  We have tattooed our bodies; branding ourselves either in attempt to literally feel part of a group, or to claim ourselves–reassurance that the name or symbol chosen won’t change unless we decide.  We try to say to the world, “No, you listen-this is who I am…” Yet, our uncertainty is reflected in our continually adding more cutaneous emblems.   The issue appears to be more than skin deep.

Who is “us?”  Some have translated the word “community” from its Latin roots as meaning “the gift of togetherness.”  Historically, community has included the notion of “the public square.”  Throughout our country’s history we have struggled with the dilemma of how to fit “social justice” into the favored “market justice” paradigm.

In the mid-1700s, Rousseau discussed the Social Contract-the concept that individuals give up certain rights for tangible and intangible benefits to both them and society-but that the populous remains an important part of sovereignty.  The U.S. had leaders in the past who understood this contract-Teddy Roosevelt, the “Trust-buster” (read “corporatocracy-buster”), who also left the legacy of the National Parks.  FDR and the New Deal.  Over the past 100 years or so, part of the giving up for the greater good has been the obligation of paying taxes.  Being willing to relinquish a part of our income as an investment in our country and fellow citizens.  To pay for infrastructure, public well-being, etc…The assumption has been that our elected officials would spend wisely and that special interest influence would be minimal.  The social contract was to reflect who we are, a nation of individuals willing to work hard for ourselves and when needed, for our neighbors.  Implicit in the social contract is the concept of fairness.

The purpose of the establishment of the U.S. Constitution was quite simple, and profound.  “We the People, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Who “the People” are requires discussion.   Are they the wealthy who essentially have controlled government, (in early days, land-owning white men)?  Do they include “the 99 percent?”  Of what “people” are the government?

Supra-minority (The 1% and Corporate) influence rules.  The idea that a rising tide lifts all boats is only true for boats that are actually floatable.  The lower/middle classes don’t have the resources to patch the holes, and blame is thrown toward them for not being industrious enough.  In Rev. Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic Moral Man and Immoral Society, he noted, “…it has always been the habit of the privileged groups to deny the oppressed classes every opportunity for the cultivation of innate capacities and then to accuse them of lacking what they have been denied the right to acquire.”

Recently Congress passed a tax law which relies heavily on the mythos of “trickle-down economics,” a model not shown to be of sustainable benefit to the lower and middle classes. Neoliberal economics has failed the lower/middle income majority.  Unfortunately, and paradoxically our citizens have given away greater amounts of our resources through “tax relief” under the guise of promises of jobs, unleashed innovation and the “keeping of our own, hard earned money.”  Money in the pocket is an immediate reinforcer (including for votes).  However, it is a mistake if we believe this makes us the shareholders.  The true shareholders are those who have privatized the formerly public sphere.

If “the people” are the government, unfettered capitalism is antithetical to true democracy.   The public sphere is no longer publicly supported… “Public” has been replaced by “Public/private” with gradual diminution of “public” so that “corporate” rules.  Public institutions become beholden to a more narrow, private group (or, individual). The term most recently used: “corporatocracy.”

While no one would doubt that governmental bureaucracy can slow enterprise, it is a natural response to rampant capitalism.  Regulations are necessary, not only to keep unbridled corporations in reasonable check, but to dis-incentivize fraud and unethical behavior.  Indeed, there are times when government over-reaches or over-compensates.  The hope has been that there would be reasonable time taken and (perhaps) unbiased review of the benefits vs. the risks to society (particularly the health of our population and the environment) as new technologies or products are brought forward.  Instead, the primary rule appears to be, “what the market can bear.”   And, as is often the case with allowing corporations to “control the flow from upstream,” it is often late in the game that we discover the negative downstream impacts. Reminders of inadequate safeguards? The 2008 market crash with entities “too big to fail.”  Books such as “Silent Spring” or “The Jungle,” though written long ago continue to be germane today.

Important aspects of government protection and functions are being eroded due to lack of committed resources.  A notable exception has been the military-industrial complex; the consistent largesse of military spending, which President Eisenhower himself noted as a threat to democratic government.

Who then makes up for what government was once able/willing/allowed to provide via our social contract?   Who walks back the idea that everything and everyone is a “commodity?”

Countries with better health outcomes than ours have a higher ratio of social services/health care funding.  We lead the world in firearm fatalities and the use of prescription drugs.  Our temporal space for solutions is limited to that of election cycles (actually less, due to extended, and expensive campaigns).

We spend large amounts on healthcare without the preventative and social service foundations-resulting in continued poorer outcomes.   Our free market capitalistic economy continues to produce significant income inequity and less income redistribution compared to healthier countries. Suicide rates are up, substance use issues are ubiquitous, income inequity is rampant.  A 2018 Lancet article reviewing 2016 Healthcare Access and Quality Index data noted the (US) ranked 29thin the world, despite having the highest per capita expense.

The last Commonwealth fund survey (2015) noted that half of privately insured working-age adults with low incomes had high health cost burdens.  The U.S., by default, has required its citizens to succumb to individual fund raising.  Your ability to avoid or postpone medical bankruptcy can be dependent upon how well you organize and how connected you are to people who will contribute.  If you are unfortunate enough (or choose) to be less connected, you are at a significant disadvantage.  If you aren’t an active member of a congregation, work for a large employer or have the skills or wherewithal to self-advocate, you won’t raise funds.   Traditionally such fundraising has been best exemplified by “the spaghetti feed,” but the virtual world has again stepped in.  GoFundMe declares themselves, “…the world’s #1 site for medical fundraising & crowdfunding.”

Our current political discord is literally killing us.  As pertains to health and resilience (both individual and community), a key aspect is social connectedness.  If we are to truly be the government, “we the people” need to reclaim the public space.

Andrew McLean is a psychiatrist in the U.S. Midwest.