Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Pushed Out of the Public Sphere

Two seemingly disparate local news stories from the past week offer a striking bit of irony.

On Wednesday, the Portland City Council voted to deny Occupy Maine a permit to remain in Lincoln Park, essentially shutting down the three-month long encampment. Then, a few days later, the Urban Outfitters retail chain opened its first store in Portland.

What, you ask, do these events have in common? Space, dear reader. Public space to be precise.

Consider: Progressive activists are forbidden from gathering in a public park and engaging in their First Amendment rights of peaceful assembly and free-speech, yet a multinational, high-end clothing store can swoop into an abandoned part of Portland’s Old Port and essentially “occupy” the space indefinitely.

The distinction is, of course, obvious here. Businesses (especially those that “create jobs”) are sacrosanct and necessary to help the local economy. Citizen activists, however, are a noisy, visual “blight” and too much of a headache for the police department.

In other words, Urban Outfitters (or Starbucks, Reny’s or any of the stores at the Maine Mall) may occupy each and every corner of the city, state, country and globe. But heaven forbid if a motley crew of anti-capitalist activists attempts to do the same.

Indeed, public space has become something of an antiquated luxury in the twenty-first century. Big box stores, fast-food franchises and other corporate, brand-name consortiums are rapidly gobbling up more and more public avenues. Even public institutions like libraries, schools, and universities, once thought to be the last haven from non-commercial space, have become increasingly hijacked by corporate slogans, banners, advertisements and sponsorship.

As a result of this rampant corporatization of nearly every nook and cranny of public life, there are fewer and fewer avenues where we can interact as citizens, rather than consumers. And this poses a dire threat to our democracy.

Naomi Klein traces this erosion of democratic, public space in her book No Logo. Much of the encroachment of corporate advertising into more and more aspects of our lives, according to Klein, is related to the advertising industry’s strategic epiphany that companies do not sell products, but brands. Starbucks, for instance, does not sell mere coffee: It sells community, a place of peaceful, quiet relaxation.

Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s corporations aggressively embraced this marketing mentality. In doing so, they have become less focused on the physical products they sell and more on their brand, or the “idea” the product entails.

“With this wave of brand mania,” Klein writes, “has come a new breed of businessman, one who will proudly inform you that Brand X is not a product but a way of life, an attitude, a set of values, a look, an idea. And it sounds really great—way better than that Brand X is a screwdriver, or a hamburger chain, or a pair of jeans, or even a very successful line of running shoes.”

As companies became ever more disentangled from their actual physical products (most of which are manufactured by children toiling in sweatshops overseas for less than a $1 a day), they were able to focus more money on advertising. This, in turn, lead to larger, more intrusive billboard advertisements, brand-name products on buses, or even entire concert festivals sponsored by your favorite beer.

Once the maxim of “brands, not products” became the norm for companies, they had more space—literally—to work with and, thus, takeover.

Klein’s book goes on to document what she saw as a growing anti-corporate movement to reclaim public space. Ten years later (No Logo was published in 2000), it is tempting to view the book as a clarion call that all but predicted the Occupy Wall Street movement.

And now the Occupy Portland encampment faces eviction. Yet the encampment itself is not the only casualty of this fight. The public sphere—that is, the area where citizens can come together and discuss the pertinent issues of the day, free of corporate or authoritative demands—is eroding and in danger of disappearing completely from civic life.

The people want democracy. Instead we got Urban Outfitters.

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