Reclaiming Public Values in the City

These days, with lockdown, I don’t get out much. But I can still talk and meet people—across the airwaves, on Zoom. A few weeks ago, I was in Seoul—well, sort of. I’d been there before, for real, five years back, and this time I was invited to talk at the Seoul Urban Regeneration International Conference, with its big inflexion on post-COVID-19 cityscapes. World Bank and UN-Habitat bigwigs, together with academic planning experts, were all present, rapping away virtually. My own stint was an annex panel called “Special Talk,” tagged on at the end of the two-day meeting, and it comprised a dialogue between myself, Hakjin Kim, Seoul’s Vice-Mayor, Soontak Suh, the President of the University of Seoul, and Mike Batty, from UCL’s Bartlett School of Planning.

Seoul itself, a metropolis of some 10 million people, figured high on the conference agenda: what challenges does COVID-19 throw up for the city’s economic base? What are the new infrastructural requirements for mega-cities like Seoul? How does social distancing affect community solidarity when face-to-face interaction is threatened? Mr. Kim, the city’s Vice-Mayor, said Seoul now faces enormous problems, but equally, he stressed, there are new opportunities. A deeper question voiced was one I want to consider in this blog: what kind of “values” should urban governance embrace? Seoul’s leaders were “seeking advice about which direction to take urban regeneration.”

I said that coming from the UK I felt uneasy about giving advice to a country that has handled COVID-19 so ably. Boris Johnson, after all, has blustered and blundered his way through the COVID crisis, handling it awfully, the worst of all western nations, in terms of per capita death rates, even worse than the United States. So there was little I could tell, wanted to tell, South Korea, whose first confirmed case was on January 24th and since then hasn’t had any major lockdown. Meantime, Britain’s death toll has soared beyond 50,000, whereas South Korea’s has yet to top 500–yes, 500; 497 to be precise! All of which had nothing to do with South Korea being small; it isn’t. It’s a pretty large country, with a population of around 51 million. Nor is it low-density. As at 2018, South Korea had 515 people per square kilometre, compared to the UK’s 281 and England’s 432.

South Korea’s densely urbanised society has been incredibly effective at suppressing COVID outbreaks. They’ve employed excellent contract tracing and vigorous mass testing. Maybe most vitally is its people have unanimously complied with social distancing rules. None of this surprised me, I said, given what I’d seen on my past visit to Seoul, during a lovely week one balmy spring attending a conference. I told Mr. Kim and Mr. Suh that I remember wandering around the city, looking and listening, mindful of Jane Jacobs’s dictum that urbanists “needed an observant eye, curiosity about people, and a willingness to walk.” (Who isn’t nostalgic about those yesterdays when you could roam uninhibited around town?) Strolling through Seoul’s neighbourhoods, I was struck by the quietness of the city, notwithstanding its magnitude and busyness, how peaceable its residents, how dignified their interactions were with each other in the public realm, along the narrow streets, and in the ubiquitous little stores. There was a serenity and mutual respect you rarely saw in Western cities anymore.


In such a city, I said, I imagined mask-wearing wouldn’t be an issue. People would doubtless don a mask in public because they know they have responsibilities towards others. Public space isn’t just about them. It’s a shared experience. Seoul’s citizens seemed to understand implicitly what a social contract meant. Thus, if I had anything to say about Seoul, and South Korea, it would be that they had to defend this dignity in public, this dignity of the public, guard it as a badge of honour. They must continue to affirm the value of the public realm, keeping it robust and healthy, because where I come from it had been denigrated and torn apart. And now we were paying the price. This breakdown of a social contract, I said, was nowhere more evident than in the United States, where an ideology of unfettered self-interest denies any responsibility for other people. What prevails is an absurd anti-social contract, people’s flagrant unwillingness to wear a mask in public because it threatens individual liberty.

Mr. Kim had his own take on this observation, explaining why he thought Korean society was less resistant to mask-wearing. A lot had to do with the city’s rapid development, he said, of how, since the 1960s, after the Korean War, its population increased two-fold every decade. Thirty years ago, the city had no systematic sewerage facility. Mr. Kim, who’s an approaching forty-something, remembers electricity arriving to his household only when he’d reached age fifteen. It was also then that he got his first pair of sneakers; hitherto he’d been walking around in rubber slippers! He, like other people, still retained this memory of backwardness, of a dark age nobody wanted to return to, a life without electricity and sneakers. If we didn’t work together, he said, the COVID pandemic would shut us down, destroy our economic wellbeing, and propel us backwards rather than forwards. Hence Korea’s high social resilience, our favouring of solidarity and cooperation.


I was glad Koreans remember their past because, I said, in Britain (above) people have forgotten. In the 1980s, throughout my twenties, Margaret Thatcher assumed the mantle of power and famously announced there was no such thing as society, “only individuals and families.” It was the beginning of an ideology of possessive individualism, of a fervent, obsessive inculcation that the public sector was the problem and the private sector the solution. The public sector needed negating, right-wing pundits and ideologues insisted, replaced by free-market entrepreneurialism. New business paradigms devised methods to deliver public services at minimum cost. Health and municipal services were contracted-out to low-balling private sector bidders; whole government departments were dissolved or replaced by new middle-management units whose machinations became as publicly transparent as mud.

Successive generations have been force-fed this ideology that treats anything public with suspicion, as shoddy and inefficient, as a third-class entity, something to be avoided. Only the poor travel by mass transit, right, when the rich drive a car, frequently a big one, often more than one; only the most vulnerable rent property when the better off owner-occupy. Now, this no longer appears ideological: it is embedded in people’s brains as an objective reality, as the way it has always been. It’s a belief system that has taught people how to forget, how to turn their backs on the public realm and ergo on any social contract. Perhaps for good reason: the public state has been hollowed out to such a degree that it is shoddy. It seems perfectly natural nowadays to see public sector core functions—planning and the organisation of services—outsourced to private consultants and contractors.

But as the pandemic raged, the UK government had neither the hardware capacity nor the software know-how to deal with this massive societal problem. Instead, it doled out millions to consultant “experts” like McKinsey who apparently did. When the latter instigated a National Health Service (NHS) test and trace system that hardly worked, we realised they, too, were clueless. COVID-19 has exposed the shortcomings of the privatised state, of the incompetence of private enterprise addressing public health, and of how public health challenges aren’t resolvable by individuals and families alone. Mr. Kim was right to stress the importance of sneakers as cultural items for young people; but when a society prioritises buying sneakers seemingly above everything else, like in the UK, which affirms consumer sovereignty by the box load, we know then that it has lost its collective way.


Mr. Suh, the University of Seoul’s President, seemed to know his Rousseau. He’d recognised I was alluding to the eighteenth-century author of The Social Contract, whose democracy defined freedom as a recognition of collective necessity. There’s plenty of collective necessity involved in dealing with a global pandemic, and in dealing with a city during one. But collective necessity can only work if people recognise the state as “democratic,” know good government from bad. In populist nations like the UK and US, democracy seems like a vision from another planet. We might call these uncivil states because people have lost their sense of duty to one another. They’ve been kidded by demagogues into thinking they’re free agents capable of doing what they like, and if they can’t it’s their own fault. Private inclinations have run roughshod over public interests.

But in Rousseau’s civil state a different morality would prevail. Rather than pursue narrow self-interests, people would “act according to other principles, and consult reason before heeding to inclination. Although in this state a person denies themselves a number of advantages granted by nature, they gain others so great in return—their faculties are exercised and developed, their ideas expanded, their feelings ennobled, their entire soul soars so high…and out of a stupid, limited animal emerges an intelligent being.” Somewhere inside us, then, an intelligent being lurks, one yearning to burst out, someone who reaches out, upwards, towards Rousseau’s high bar, knowing that we’ve hitherto set this bar so desperately low. Intelligent creatures might even acknowledge society again, that there is such a thing after all, that we can be freer if each of us admits we’re part of a public culture that requires collective rebuilding.

Seoul’s leaders shouldn’t only defend public culture, I said, but, post-COVID, they’ll likely have to bring it to bear on private culture—on market culture. The social contract imposes limits not only on anti-social individual behaviour; it equally reins in anti-social organisational behaviour, the behaviour of big businesses concerned only with big business. There are small businesses that serve local needs, that contribute to the public good; and there are big businesses that serve shareholder needs, frequently detrimental to this public good. Defending the public interest is destined to disgruntle certain private interests, and doing so will require courageous leadership, honest leadership, the sort of civic leadership currently in short supply.

During my Zoom encounter with Seoul, I spoke a little about my last blog, “Beyond Plague Urbanism,” with its appeal to government support of struggling small businesses, particularly important in South Korea because of its large numbers of self-employed people—around 25 percent of the total workforce. After I’d left the meeting, I started to reflect on demagogy, on how it destabilises good leadership and undermines public culture. In the UK and US, we’ve seen demagogy thrive. (Is it now history in the US?) Politicians in both countries have freely engaged in what Jonathan Swift, half-a-century before Rousseau’s Social Contract, labelled “the art of political lying.” (Swift’s essay actually appeared in the year of Rousseau’s birth, 1712.) Being honest, Swift said, doesn’t require much crafting, not like “salutary falsehoods,” which, he reckoned, usually demanded great care to fabricate. But the problem, the author of Gulliver’s Travels noted, is that even the stupidest lie has to be believed for only an hour for its work to be done. Twitter helps. “Falsehood flies,” said Swift, whereas “truth comes limping after it.”

Peddling salutary falsehoods no longer seems to disgruntle masses of people, let alone harm a demagogue’s political career. On the contrary, it assures this career, guarantees it, because there’s a popular willingness to believe in falsehoods. Even when we knew Brexit would never save Britain’s NHS £350 million a year, as Boris Johnson had bragged, or that Donald Trump was ever going to make America great again, the lie nonetheless became the necessary mood music for huge numbers of people. They wanted to hear it, yearned to trust, felt the need to believe, and 71 million Americans still do, insisting that Trump can still make their country great and that the election was rigged.

Demagogy harks back to the Ancient Greek word “demagoguery.” Initially, it had neutral and sometimes positive connotations, since it meant simply “leading the demos.” The demos was the Greek popular masses, the bulk of the people, the poorest if largest political class. One of earliest deployments of demagoguery was in Aristophanes’ comic drama Knights, publicly unveiled at the Lanaea festival in 424 B.C., to great acclaim. Pericles had died five years earlier, and Athens was still soul-searching for a worthy replacement. Knights captures the mood of this leadership vacuum and the role of demagogy in the power struggle.

“Hard not to be outspoken/ When your political system’s broken,” the chorus of Knights bawls. Aristophanes’ brilliance was to twist the meaning of demagogy, exposing it in its negative sense. The great playwright had seen how wannabe leaders mobilised rhetoric to manipulate the masses, seducing crowds for their own cynical, unscrupulous ends. (I am leaning here on Robert Bartlett’s Against Demagogy [University of California Press, 2020], which introduces and offers fresh translations of Aristophanes’ plays Acharnians and Knights.) “Demagoguery,” Aristophanes had his character Demosthenes say, “no longer belongs to a man acquainted with/ the things of the Muses or to one whose ways are upright,/ But to one who is unlearned and loathsome.”


The Donald Trump of Aristophanes’ day was Cleon, an arch-demagogue, who flattered the people while secretly despising them, shamelessly slandering his enemies, taking bribes, encouraging wars, lying and manipulating the legal system—it was a West Wing playbook avant la lettre, using every ruse imaginable to retain power and accumulate wealth. Aristophanes had it in for demagogues like Cleon, as well as for the gullible Athenian demos, ignorantly letting the wool get pulled over its eyes, too readily believing in the demagogue’s hollow pledges. As Athenian citizens watched Aristophanes’ drama, they found themselves implicated in the plot, often bearing the brunt of his jokes, of his lampooning and pillorying. They were laughing at themselves, and this, for Aristophanes, was the crux of political theatre: the shock of recognition. (Gogol pulled a similar gag in his equally ribald Government Inspector, when at one point actors turn to point the finger at the audience: “What are you laughing at? You’re laughing at yourselves, that’s what!”)

The unlikely hero of Aristophanes’ Knights is a sausage-seller, a wizened streetwise old man. He pushes his portable kitchen into the agora, starts frying, and soon confronts Paphlagon—“the blusterer”— Cleon’s alter-ego. In front of them both is the demos, whom Aristophanes symbolises as a single Athenian household, and a “chorus” of wealthy Athenians, the said “knights,” riding on horseback. Paphlagon and the sausage-seller hurl abuse at one another. Their verbal combat, full of vulgarity and vaudeville, quickly takes on the tone of the theatre of the absurd. The cunning street vendor, though uneducated, has been round the block a few times and seen plenty; he’s a maestro of ironic put down. And after awhile it is clear to everybody listening that the demagogue has met his match. He’s exposed as the lier and charlatan he really is.

“How could there be a citizen, O Demos,” Paphlagon proclaims, “who feels more/ friendship for you than I do?” But the sausage-seller doesn’t buy this tosh, responding: “he’s the bloodiest bastard, O dearest little Demos, who’s done the/ crookedest misdeeds!/ When you stand agape,/ He breaks off the stalks of officials undergoing an audit/ And gulps them down, and with both hands/ He sops his bread in the public funds!” “I’ll teach this very thing to you first,” says the sausage-seller to the demos, “that he isn’t your friend or well disposed,/… he gives no thought to you seated here on such hard rocks.” “Why don’t you judge, Demos, which of the two of us/ Is the better man when it comes to you and your stomach?”

The sausage-seller isn’t sophisticated. But he’s a good man, a better man than Paphlagon, an honest man connected to real people because he is a real person himself. He cares about the public and knows the value and importance in government of “noble and good gentlemen.” And he’s bothered about social betterment, not just about himself. Before long, the demos recognises his worthiness, somehow comes to its wits, and is won over by the sausage-seller’s more earthy rhetoric, words of a mere-man rather than those of a conceited, self-professed God-man like Cleon. Aristophanes would have needed to wait six centuries to see his sausage-seller participate in Rousseau’s Social Contract, stalking its pages as “the public person,” “formed by the union of all other persons.”

Rousseau’s public person is an archetype of the social contract, a representative of the “reciprocal commitment” between an individual and society. The public person singularly personifies the demos much the same way as Aristophanes had it personified in a single household. We can also read this person as a paradigm of the reciprocal commitment we’ve seen breakdown over recent years in the Anglosphere, gone because we know it’s gone, because Rousseau said its presence would make people “aware less of what belongs to others than what does not belong to oneself.” We’re no longer aware of this. And yet, reciprocal commitment is the bedrock of a public value—the bedrock, moreover, of public virtue.

Rousseau never tells us how we might reach this virtuous state, attain a society in which the social contract bonds together its citizens, maintaining the delicate balance between freedom and necessity. Nonetheless, he does give us a few hints about what needs to be in place beforehand, and I’d caught glimmers of this, in its modern everydayness, out on Seoul’s streets: “Just as the architect, before erecting a great building,” says Rousseau, “observes and plumbs the ground to see if it can bear the weight, so the wise founder of institutions does not begin by drafting laws good in themselves, but first examines whether the people for which he intends them is capable of supporting them.”

Fast forward several hundred years, and we can see Rousseau’s public person get reincarnated in Jane Jacobs’ “public character,” her wily earth-spirit patrolling the sidewalks of Death and Life of Great American Cities. “The social structure of the sidewalk,” Jacobs says, “partly hangs on public characters,” those men and women who have “frequent contact with a wide circle of people.” Storekeepers and barkeepers are obvious public characters in city life (Joe Cornacchia, a deli owner along her Hudson Street block, actually sells salamis); yet there are plenty of public characters anchored to the sidewalk, too, she says, “well-recognised roving public characters.”

Public characters know stuff, see things, engage in city affairs, even if it means sometimes sticking their noses into these affairs, like Aristophanes’ sausage-seller. Their main qualification is that they are public, that they are visibly out in public, in public spaces, there talking to lots of different people. With public characters, “news travels that is of sidewalk interest.” Their presence helps create a certain “togetherness” in neighbourhood life, connecting people to other people, spreading the word “wholesale,” Jacobs says, enlarging our notion of the public.

Rebuilding public institutions in the city will doubtless require not a few public characters, helping change both the public and political mindset. Maybe, post-COVID, as an increasingly outdoor, open-air urbanism takes hold, we can hope for a few more sausage-sellers on the block, confronting the structures of political power and demagogy, doing so in the new and necessary agoras we have yet to invent. These al fresco street markets might go back to the future and reenact our own version of Athenian public-political theatre, whose dialogues, like Aristophanes’, will prompt greater civic and critical awareness on the part of citizens as well as leaders, who’ll both have their legs pulled by the actors. Turning on us, the amused audience, they might even ask: What are you laughing at? You’re laughing at yourselves, that’s what!

Ah, if only life were that funny.

About Andy Merrifield

Writer, Urbanist, Marxist, Educator
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1 Response to Reclaiming Public Values in the City

  1. Thanks Andy. Great article. Covid has certainly robbed us of our ability to interact on the street. With that serendipity gone, we’re leaning more into digital channels (social media) for these exchanges, but as we all know (although Rousseau couldn’t possibly have guessed) this is a weaker and more emasculated version of that wonderful exchange we might have in the real world. Maybe it will return or maybe it will be changed forever, if it comes back at all…


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