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Social Science History 24.1 (2000) 75-110

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Class, Masculinity, Manners, and Mores:
Public Space and Public Sphere in Nineteenth-Century Europe

Madeleine Hurd

The politics of public space are often conceptualized in terms of social geography. Scholars have shown how the crowd’s invasion of municipal spaces, the transgression of local ethnic boundaries, or the rituals of particular street festivals have structured political protest. Public space can also be discussed in more general terms. Space has always served as a means of pressuring state or local authority, an arena in which subaltern groups—women, workers, sansculottes—expressed and enforced their moral economies. By the nineteenth [End Page 75] century, these immemorial uses of public space had undergone significant change. In many cases, riots and charivari were complemented by soldierly public marches, quiet meetings, and well-disciplined strikes. This respectable use of public space was linked to subaltern groups’ increasing exploitation of a new form of political authority: that of public opinion and public debate, the realm of the “bourgeois public sphere.”

This article suggests ways in which the public sphere influenced male workers’ use of public space. It first considers the norms of the liberal public sphere and the rules governing its different forums. It then looks at how these combined to delegitimize the participation of the supposedly vulgar, rootless, and mentally dependent working-class male. Finally, it examines workers’ responses. These included campaigns to reform workers’ political demonstrations, speeches, and meetings. Reforms went further, indeed, to workers’ public dress, manners, and leisure occupations. These adjustments were, I argue, more than bourgeois cooptation. Organized workers used public sphere norms against the political elite. They might attempt to reconstruct themselves as autonomous and self-disciplined, perfectly suited to the public sphere. But they could also use the requirements of respectable public and political behavior to redefine their political opponents as illegitimate public sphere participants—dangerously irrational, selfish, greedy, and lust-ridden.

The Liberal Public Sphere

By the early nineteenth century, liberal and democratic challenges to absolutist or corporatist orders were appealing to the ultimate legitimacy of public opinion, as expressed within the growing public sphere. Jürgen Habermas gives the classic description of the public sphere’s history and norms. What Habermas calls the bourgeois public sphere originated in the interests and public habits of the European Enlightenment’s middle- and upper-class males. The most dedicated of these sought to replace the opaque, arbitrary, and unsupervised “representative publicness” of Europe’s Old Regime with a restricted, transparent state, closely supervised by a watchdog public. The reformed state would be controlled by the new sovereign, public opinion, as formulated through public communication. This public discussion originated in eighteenth-century coffeehouses, salons, cafés, voluntary associations, clubs, and the like; letters and novels expanded its conceptual and geographic universe; [End Page 76] with the Enlightenment, it spilled over into the world of political print. No longer were godly rules, traditional rights, or corporatist identities to influence public policies. Riots and festivals, icons and patronage, the authority of blood and tradition were to give way to rational, well-informed public debate. Here, enlightened, educated, well-informed men would publicize the information, establish the guidelines, and reach the conclusions needed to guide the state toward policies in the public interest. By the nineteenth century, public sphere forums were fully developed, in the newspapers, political pamphlets, public speeches, and meetings familiar to modern politics.1

The arena of public debate, with its powerful ability to establish the categories and focus the gaze of the new political sovereign, also changed the norms of political participation. As Habermas points out, the public sphere was, in principle, universal. Neither status nor occupation nor religion nor any other private attribute affected participation; for public reasoning is to be judged only on the merits of the person’s argument. In practice, however, the public sphere’s definition of the public citizen also defined the citizen’s antithesis. State authority was, of course, one antipode, but so were those who were incapable of participating in...


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