Reviving (communicative/critical) Planning Theory: A debate

In reading much on the debate of communicative planning theory (CPT) I recently delved into a brand new book by Tore Sager, Reviving Critical Planning Theory. In this text Sager argues that CPT can be restored with a more critical outlook, and that much of its critics do not delve into the valuable nature of CPT in actually resisting power.  A central question is how to deal with CPT and neo-liberalism, responsibility, and power, such that existing power structures and inequities are not furthered through planning initiatives and outcomes.  The planner, for Sager, is an activist, advocate, communicator, and deliberator who must strive for fairness in consensus building processes through increasing participation, diffusion of information, and coalition-building.

One immediate question comes to mind: if planning is political, and if to move forward, to get things done, we must build actionable consensus, then how do we deal with power relations that suppress alternative ideas and inevitable conflict and dissensus? This question is central to the debate over CPT, and numerous thinkers from a number of tangential disciplines, other than planning, have attempted to tackle this question, and from this we can learn. Sager claims that CPT has been criticized for not adequately addressing power dynamics outside of intellectual discussion, in which actors use their power and social status to influence planning process and outcomes such that communicative processes and participation are merely superficial and do not actually influence decisionmaking. The second major critique of CPT is its use in furthering political economic conditions and dominant ideologies rather than maintaining a critical stance. Planning and public policymaking is itself undermined by the neo-liberal trend of eschewing power from government agencies and instead allowing planning outcomes to be decided by the market and private enterprise. Sager sees this as a major deficit in planning theory, that is, the problem of dealing with neoliberalism, power, and accountability/responsibility.

Sager is ultimately concerned with justification for planning processes and especially to legitimate CPT in the face of these criticisms. He explains his motivation and main arguments: “I respond to the no-strategy-against-power critique by shaping an activist role compatible with CPT. The idea is that the planner builds an alliance with activist organizations external to the planning process and encourages them to put pressure on stakeholders that act too self-serving at the expense of broader interests. The serving neo-liberalism critique is addressed by identifying substantive criteria for good plans that are closely associated with the procedural values that CPT is promoting. When the outcomes of communicative planning satisfy these criteria, it will be unreasonable to describe the plans as serving neo-liberalism” (xix). So clearly, Sager wants to revive a more critical CPT, but I am not sure he is terribly successful in doing so.

I bring this up because of the recent Foucault/Habermas posts I have come across. In Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth, Vol. 1 of The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984, some of Foucault’s ideas on Habermas are revealed in an interview (Rabinow was the Series editor and editor of Vol. 1. The New Press, 1997). In that interview, Foucault explains that he thinks Habermas has utopian ideas of society and that he privileges communicative relations without adequately addressing power: “The idea that there could exist a state of communication that would allow games of truth to circulate freely, without any constraints or coercive effects, seems utopian to me. This is precisely a failure to see that power relations are not something that is bad in itself, that we have to break free of. I do not think that a society can exist without power relations, if by that one means the strategies by which individuals try to direct and control the conduct of others. The problem, then, is not to try to dissolve them in the utopia of completely transparent communication but to acquire the rules of law, the management techniques, and also the morality, the ethos, the practice of the self, that will allow us to play these games of power with as little domination as possible” (298).

full text available here (Pg 298)


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