The Web Site for Critical Realism The WSCR Archive[The following paper was originally published in the journal Planning Theory 17 (1997): 43-64. Although the references have been left in the same format as in published version, the footnotes have not been included. The paper is archived here with the permission of the author, who retains the copyright.]

Can We Talk? Interpretive Planning Theory as Comedy


"Can We Talk?" (Joan Rivers)

People often find ethnographic accounts of themselves humorous. Rosaldo (1987: 92) explains this is so because the accounts are like parodies. Among other things, they contain mistranslations, take jokes seriously, miss double meanings, and accept statements intended figuratively as the literal truth. When the gulf between cultures is large, such misunderstandings are common.

Charlie Hoch wants to defend interpretive planning theory from a few marginal comments in my paper (Feldman 1995) and from Lauria and Whelan's (1995) proposal for incorporating regime theory into interpretive planning theory. Unfortunately, Hoch does the same thing ethnographers often do. He filters our comments through his own lens, reading some things into what we say and not recognising others. Doing justice to his comments would require identifying these errors, clarifying them, and then arguing our position. This is a difficult task because Hoch's underlying metatheory, neo-pragmatism, has very subtle but important differences with critical realism, its counterpart in political economy. Any debate between interpretive planning theorists and political economists necessarily involves a confrontation between neo-pragmatism (and similar philosophical positions) and critical realism. I originally set out to take up this task but, like Brer Rabbit, became increasingly ensnared in the philosophy of science tar baby. I still think the task worthwhile, but space limitations preclude doing it here. Interested readers might consult the literature cited below.

Instead, I want to put Charlie to the test by considering his paper as a deliberate parody. He talks about irony and satire depending on one's ability to read a text from the standpoint of multiple audiences. He says: "The audience and not the propositions or logical relations judge the quality of my [Hoch's] reasoning" (Hoch 1997a: 20). If Charlie really means this, surely he would not object to the political economists in the audience finding his reasoning hilarious. Unfortunately, some readers may not get the jokes. The paper parodies widespread misconceptions, many of which are so subtle that only those versed in political economy and critical realism might notice. Like other misconceptions of the world (yes, I intend multiple meanings here), these require rather complex arguments to unravel. Here the comedy motif allows relatively succinct and light-hearted replies in lieu of what otherwise would necessarily be rather lengthy.

In this reply I do three things. First, I give examples from Hoch's paper to demonstrate its parodic and humorous impact, if not his intent. Then I summarise the main jokes (i.e., themes) and explain why they are funny. Finally, I turn to planning itself and ask why what seems like democratic planning to some audiences may seem like a joke to others. (Yes, the irony and sarcasm are deliberate.)

"Who's On First?>" (Abbot and Costello)

Hoch's paper has many of the errors Rosaldo mentions. Consider first its comments on Lauria and Whelan's (1995) claim that Jim Throgmorton ignored alternative, plausible accounts. Charlie (1997a: 7) mistranslates this into the charge that Throgmorton did not test statistical hypotheses. Given that the entire special issue of Planning Theory did not have a single hypothesis test, statistical or otherwise, what else can we conclude except that this mistranslation was a deliberate joke?

Similarly, take the numerous references to "science." Although Lauria, Whelan, and I generally refrain from using this term, Charlie is like an Althusserian W. C. Fields: he submits our paper to a lectare symptomatique and interpolates "science" in the silences of our discourse. Furthermore, when he refers to "science" he gives it a positivist spin. For example, he equates social science with "detached and sceptical research" (1997b: 1). Given political economy's heritage, he no doubt wants to give us a good laugh as we picture detached, sceptical authors writing The Communist Manifesto.

When I mentioned "basic" and "grand" theory (Hoch 1997a: 13) I was being sarcastic and used these terms with double meaning. The substance of my comments should make the sarcasm evident (also see Hoch 1997a: 16-18 and below). In general, I do not use terms like "grand" or "basic" theory because the sort of thought they signify is unavoidable. When people live their lives, they invariably have concepts of themselves and their world, and these concepts entail answers to the questions so-called "grand theory" addresses.

The passage about Kondratiev waves also exemplifies an erroneous literal reading. Of course characterising anything we cannot observe directly as a "wave," whether it be the economy or the physical structure of light, involves metaphor. Still, this does not make whatever we call a wave unreal. I personally find regulation theory a more convincing account of capitalism's variations, but I used Kondratiev waves as an example because I thought planners would be more familiar with them (see, e.g., Hall 1985). When I said, "ride the crest of the Kondratiev," I used this metaphor to represent any real, macroscopic causal "force." Whether its own causes lie in volitional individual actions and behaviour, as Charlie seems to assume with tacit reductionism, or result from capitalism's emergent properties, is irrelevant for my point. So is our knowledge of such causes. Indeed, we need not even know about the "force" itself. My point was threefold: (1) we ignore such "forces" at our peril, (2) narratives that ignore relevant "forces" are inherently misleading, and (3) methodological and political programs that endorse such narratives--for example, by maintaining that accounts of such "forces" are "tangential and inconsequential" (Hoch 1997a: 12)--are themselves programs for obfuscation.

On this last point, perhaps neo-pragmatism dismisses all knowledge of things about which we can do nothing. If "you can't fight City Hall," then why bother uncovering governmental corruption? Maybe the proverb about knowing what we can and cannot change, and how to tell the difference applies. If so, readers may have missed several jokes here. Bhaskar (1989) claims critical realism is emancipatory because it licenses knowledge of real possibilities for humanity without being unduly constrained by the (empirical) world as it (currently) is. So in a sense political economy sees itself as distinguishing what can be changed from what cannot. A few readers may have noticed Charlie's joke of including Bhaskar in the references but never citing him in the text. Even fewer readers may be familiar with the "epistemic fallacy"--the practice of turning every question about being into a question about knowledge--which plays a central role in Bhaskar's critique of empiricism. Hence most readers probably missed the humour when Charlie switched the focus from Kondratiev waves to our knowledge of them. Like Lou Costello interpreting Bud Abbot's answer, "Who," as another question, Charlie turns my ontological point into an epistemological one.

"It's Always Something" (Gilda Radner)

Readers who spotted these jokes can probably skip this section safely. Here I will summarise and explain Charlie's parody more systematically. Five jokes run throughout his paper and help organise it.

The first is a real knee-slapper. He begins by claiming interpretive planing theory is a paradigm and therefore "respectable." Kuhn (1972) popularised the term "paradigm" in his account of how science changes through criticism. But Hoch uses the same term to defend from criticism a theoretical approach that does not see itself as science, that has little use for "structure," and that is decidedly counter-revolutionary. Just consult the title to Kuhn's book to appreciate this humour.

Second, in pitting idiographic explanations, like Throgmorton's, against nomothetic, statistical models, which he calls "scientific," Charlie gives us a great malapropism. Political economists have long recognised the value of both extensive (e.g., survey research) and intensive (e.g., ethnographic case studies) research methods (Sayer and Morgan 1985). More fundamentally, critical realism rejects the notion of causal laws as constant conjunctions (Bhaskar 1997), so it rejects the distinction between nomothetic and idiographic explanations in social science. Since society is an "open system," all social studies are case studies. Social causal "laws" are really tendencies arising from historically specific institutions and practices.

So we chuckle when Hoch talks of manipulating "variables," as if measurements were real entities and identical to the things whose characteristics they measure, as if the empirical world were the world, and as if statistical regularities were general laws. Then when he applauds Throgmorton for revealing "how argument works and how we might put this knowledge to use" (Hoch 1997a: 7), as if "argument" itself were subject to nomothetic laws to be discovered empirically and used instrumentally, the chuckle becomes a guffaw.

Third, like Groucho Marx and Woody Allen who would not belong to a club that would have them as members, Charlie objects to labelling neo-pragmatism "empiricist." In my original article I gave several references on this connection, but Charlie ignores this literature and its arguments. Instead, he gives us a reading list (Hoch 1997a: 19). "We're not empiricists, really. (Just observe us and you will see.)" Here Charlie also parodies the neo-pragmatic dictum of giving all arguments "equal treatment and respect" (Hoch 1997a: 21). No doubt this is also a political parody of liberalism's principle of "equal opportunity": in philosophy, politics, and planning theory, all positions apparently have equal opportunity to be ignored.

We really appreciate this wit when we look at some of Charlie's references. Innes (1995: 184), for example, tells us communicative planning theorists do not build on abstract definitions of planning. Instead, they "find out what planning is by finding out what planners do." To the uninitiated, citing this as proof of interpretive planning theory's non-empiricist leanings might seem like sophistry. After all, is not Innes' statement a recipe for empiricism? Does it not imply we can know planning merely from observing planners? Is this not the same error of generalisation that systematic empiricism makes and Willer and Willer (1973) criticised decades ago, only now the empiricism is ad hoc rather than systematic? How can we know who planners are, or what it means to say they "do" anything, or the significance of the many things they may do (eat, defecate, make love, etc.) without some theory to help us sort out things? By the same token, everyone communicates, uses rhetoric, etc. So if communicative action defines planning, everyone must be a planner.

Innes (1995: 186) also says communicative planning theory challenges a society's taken-for-granted assumptions. Since professional planning is a social creation, its very existence embodies a society's assumptions. Challenging them would mean challenging the practice too. How can we possibly do this if we take the practice as an empirical given? Yet if we challenge it, we no longer take what planners do as our benchmark.

If we assume "planners" means a certain class of state functionaries, then these questions apply, as would Healey's (1997b) charge of ignoring context. What state functionaries do as state functionaries depends on the nature of the state. What they do today might change tomorrow as the state changes, and what they do in Chicago might be very different from what they do in Newcastle (or Billings, Tokyo, Dakar, or among the Aztecs before the European invasion). To understand these differences we not only would have to observe them (which itself implies theory), we would also have to distinguish differences attributable to individual planners (the choices John Forester stresses see Healey 1997b: 7) from those due to the institutional settings in which they operate. This in turn implies a theory of cause, both in terms of individual volition (sometimes called "agency") and institutional setting (sometimes called "structure"). From here things get much more complex. So taking "what planners do" as unproblematic would be absurd.

David Harvey (1996) reminds us that everybody plans; everyone is a "decision-maker." So when Innes refers to "planners" she makes a, perhaps unintentional, double entendre. She plays on our tacit understanding of professional planners as state functionaries and confuses this with more general properties that all humans share: our status as communicative, social animals and our capacity for future-oriented, intentional action. To theorise professional planning as a distinct human practice, we need to situate it within the state. This brings Healey's issue of context to the fore since the state manifestly varies geographically and historically. Even this is not enough, since many professional planners work outside the state, and lay-people often do what professional planners do: urban planning is more than a profession or government function, but it is not independent of the profession or government. To get a handle on this, we need theoretically informed study of all human practice aimed at affecting the future of human settlements; in other words, a social science of planning. Within this ambit we might study the specific geo-historical institutions a more naïve view of planning theory takes for granted, situate those institutions within their larger social settings, and situate individual planning acts within those institutions.

We find similar moves in Charlie's own paper whereby he masks his own theory behind tacit social understandings. On page 12 he says neo-pragmatism de-emphasises theory, but on page 16 he tells us it starts "with the nasty consequences of current policy and practice" and "recasts them as problems susceptible to change through purposeful human action." He never tells us how he knows what action, or how he knows problems are susceptible to purposeful change without first knowing the specific actions in question. Nonetheless he says neo-pragmatism advocates such action with multiple arguments, "each addressed to different audiences," about what is "more or less desirable and useful" rather than truth with respect to "out there" (i.e., outside the argument) reality (p. 20). Yet through it all we can only hope for "modest meliorism" (p. 22), which presumably will adequately address the problem, within "a thin framework of liberal discourse" (p. 25), which presumably is not one of the practices with nasty consequences.

How can we know if "nasty consequences" are due to specific policies, social institutions, or sunspots without a theory of causality? When we make claims that certain human actions will ameliorate things, aren't we making representational claims about a reality "out there"? Even if everyone involved in a problem were present to discuss it in itself a dubious assumption since social, spatial, and temporal divisions usually preclude this actions are different from discussions about them. So references to things outside the conversation are unavoidable. From this standpoint Hoch's argument seems absurd, and that is what makes it funny.

Fourth, Charlie asks, "What if language and rhetoric possess materiality?" (Hoch 1997a: 11). Here again, we have to read this as parody. Geras (1995), for example, uses language's materiality to argue against Richard Rorty's neo-pragmatism. Given political economy's heritage, it would be absurd to think it denies language's materiality.

"Concrete" abstractions like "value," "capital," and "property," for example, are central themes in Marx's Capital. His thesis was that such concrete abstractions are inextricably bound up in capitalist social relations, simultaneously obscure and distort our understanding of these relations, and play a vital role in reproducing them. We can extend this mode of analysis to other concrete abstractions like law, government, the family, and perhaps professional planning itself. For example, does professional planning presuppose certain social relations, does it reproduce them or other social relations, and does its social definition as a function of the state obscure these relations? In more recent times critical realists have emphasised how choice of language itself confers different meanings and how all theory has a hermeneutic dimension (Sayer 1992). In this regard, communicative theory and political economy have much to offer each other. In any case, although political economy sees the connections between ideas and other, non-ideational practices and institutions, it does not deny the materiality of language in particular or of ideas in general.

Fifth, Healey (1997a) observes that many Europeans at the Toronto Congress found the planning theory sessions Americo-centric. She gives examples of different planning contexts, but neo-pragmatism itself might have seemed parochial. Europeans may have experienced this as just a vague feeling rather than as open recognition because neo-pragmatism is a philosophy and therefore seems universal. Nonetheless, it is very American (Novack 1975).

As a philosophy, neo-pragmatism raises fundamental questions about being, knowledge, science, and politics. One might therefore expect it to refer to relevant European philosophers and their work. It does refer to some not only those Charlie mentions (p. 11), but also Descartes, Kant, and a few others but it usually ignores others whose work relates to neo-pragmatism's themes (e.g., Carnap, Popper, Husserl, Bachelard, Althusser, or Bhaskar). The more socially minded might expect references to certain social theorists: not only Giddens, but also Lukacs, Gramsci, Bourdieu, Raymond Williams, and others. Such expectations, though reasonable, take neo-pragmatism far too seriously.

Some Europeans have seen the humour (e.g., Geras 1995), but most will not recognise it as a version of what we Americans call "the reality joke." To understand American neo-pragmatism, one ought to listen to Firesign Theatre, a comedy group out of Los Angeles. An episode on the group's Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers album has a speaker addressing a high-school assembly. From the audience a heckler yells out, "What is reality?" This is "the reality joke." It reveals how much American culture considers such questions funny and unworthy of serious consideration.

Neo-pragmatism makes this joke with a straight face by using something we call "the God trick" (Haraway 1988). The trick comes in two forms. Positivism sought knowledge of reality that would be certain, objective, and independent of the knower. This was knowledge "from no place," and the trick gets its name from the image of positivism trying to turn humans into gods. Neo-pragmatism plays the trick in reverse. It says the magic words, "you can't have a God's-eye view of the world," and poof! Reality disappears in a puff of hot air to be replaced by arguments and discourse (which often slip into discussing reality until someone utters the magic words again). Since we can make rational judgements about what reality is, this version of the trick which implies we cannot know reality at all tries to turn humans into something less than human (Geras 1995; Harding 1991).

With this background, one can see the humour in Hoch's paper. The Planning Theory special issue set out to discuss regime theory and its implications for planning theory. Hoch is like Firesign Theater's heckler. In response to our arguments about urban politics (in the US Healey's point is well taken), he yells out, "What is reality?" Of course he does not want a serious answer because he does not think there is one; besides, it would ruin the joke.

Charlie's paper follows a common formula. It uses "science" as a trope to make the point that "planning" is not scientific. It does so by defining "science" in positivist terms, usually tacitly. This has two effects. (1) It contributes to the argument that "planning" and "planning theory" are not scientific since nobody really practices science according to the positivist description. (2) It subtly excuses planning theory itself from meeting any sort (not only positivist) of scientific criteria. Of course this is sleight of hand: geology can be science without rocks being scientists. The trick works because the formula confuses planning theory with planning and science with positivism. We look for numbers, equations, hypotheses, etc. and find none, except perhaps in a case study of misguided planning practice. The planner's survey may be a rhetorical trope, used more to persuade than to describe the world, but what about the planning theorist's case study?

The formula's next component is a shell game of judgmental relativism (Harding 1991). The theorist starts by claiming arguments can only be better or worse. We find this plausible, so we voice some claims about the world. Then, instead of addressing these claims, much less accepting them as the basis for other action, the theorist dismisses them by reiterating earlier statements about knowledge being uncertain, scientific trump, tended deliberation, etc. The theorist may allow some claims, but only as individual opinion and not as competing claims subject to serious evaluation. For the most part, inconvenient claims dissolve under the shell of judgmental relativism. Like Descartes, who only knew for sure that he thought and therefore existed, neo-pragmatism only knows with certainty from its own status as a narrative that narratives exist. This would not be funny if it were just a (flawed) philosophy. The humour comes when we actually try to apply it. We try to figure out exactly what the neo-pragmatist is claiming about the world. That's the whole joke: claiming is the claim.

"Let's Agree on His Right to Have Babies" (Monty Python)

A positivist, a critical realist, and a neo-pragmatist found themselves living in the US at the end of the millennium. The three argued about democracy. The positivist said, "To know if democracy is effective in the US, we must define it, operationalize the concept, and measure it." So the positivist initially defined democracy as "voting" but, finding fewer than fifty percent of those eligible actually voted, revised the definition to be the "opportunity to vote." After finding most adults had the opportunity to vote, the positivist concluded US democracy was effective. The critical realist said, "We must decide if democracy is a real kind or chaotic conception. This involves carefully examining the concept to see if it refers to something real with distinct causal powers. We also have to identify other real things that may counteract democracy's tendencies and prevent it from having empirical effects." So, the realist set out to do the difficult conceptual and empirical work, and within a few years produced regime theory. The neo-pragmatist laughed and said, "All this academic, theoretical work is tangential and inconsequential. Democracy would be good and useful, so just assume the US has effective democracy."

In contrast to neo-pragmatism's "thin" liberal democracy, political economy's commitment is a rich one that inextricably intertwines democracy, justice, and human emancipation. Healey (1997b: 12-3) detects this when she notes that different groups bring different discursive resources and cultures to the table. We can take this much farther. For instance, different groups have unequal access to information, time to attend meetings, power to implement or thwart policies, and power to make their concerns matters of public consciousness and consideration. Gross inequalities in these resources thwart any meaningful democracy among equals. Hence distributional justice is a necessary, but insufficient, condition for democracy.

Hoch's discussion of democracy involves more sleight of hand. As do many neo-pragmatists, he discusses democracy at two levels. Level I is the purely rhetorical level of principles and openness. This is the realm of tended deliberation, considering all arguments equally, and challenging assumptions. Level II is one of relatively concrete, sometimes empirical, deliberations. It is the realm of public hearings, government policies, and community meetings. Invariably the two levels contradict each other because Level I's principles do not work on Level II. Level II is always more closed than Level I's rhetoric suggests.

Hoch (1997a: 12, 25) hints at this when he distinguishes "theoretical" from "practical" knowledge, with the latter being useful for "coping with the pressing problems of the day." This distinction, which the realist critique of positivism and empiricism attacks, is key to understanding the parody. All knowledge has pragmatic and political dimensions. Contrary to positivism's assertions, science is not a distinct mode of thought (Phillips 1990). Consequently, political economy rejects the distinction; Hoch, on the other hand, retains it while simply rejecting positivism's claim of science's intrinsic superiority.

Furthermore, political economy produces knowledge of the material conditions of people's existence, the social relations embedded in these conditions, and the dynamics arising from them. It asserts these are existential conditions of human being and therefore present in all human situations; what people do in any concrete situation simultaneously is constrained and enabled by these social relations and reproduces and/or transforms them. So Charlie's distinction between kinds of knowledge has a parallel in his distinction between economic and political spheres. He reduces the political to "the rules and strategies of citizenship" and simultaneously exempts it from the "economic" which he circularly equates with "rational expectations based on economic exchange" (Hoch 1997a: 23). As its name implies, political economy rejects this distinction just as it rejects the one between theoretical and practical spheres and corresponding forms of knowledge. A serious critique of political economy might argue against this position, but one that imposes neo-pragmatism's distinctions can only parody political economy.

Charlie's reasoning also leads to vicious circularity at Level II. His insistence on playing no-trump deprives him of any external criterion for distinguishing practical from theoretical knowledge. Implicitly, practical knowledge is any knowledge lay-persons use to achieve some purpose: people make "theoretical" knowledge "practical." They cover their mouths when they cough so they will not spread germs; they buy homes instead of renting apartments to protect themselves from inflation; they send their children to college to improve their life-chances; they make revolutions to free themselves; etc. We cannot tell what knowledge is "practical" ex ante, and this undermines the distinction by making all "theoretical" knowledge potentially "practical." Yet deliberations systematically include some narratives and exclude others. We hear that business creates jobs but not that capitalists exploit, that families need housing but not that the nuclear family reproduces patriarchy and heterosexual privilege, that electric power provision needs proper regulation but not that industrial society is antithetical to human aspirations. If people understand they can only do what they have the power to do, then their narratives may only address things within their power. If planning theory labels these narratives "practical" and others "theoretical," then it tacitly licenses the power relations that confer practical standing on any given knowledge. Neo-pragmatist democracy can be profoundly anti-democratic.

Now this does not follow from neo-pragmatism's logic. Its vague, thin claims at Level I leave open the possibility of considering any and all arguments. Closure only comes at Level II. Since some closure is unavoidable, closure itself is not the issue. For the purpose of evaluating neo-pragmatism's democratic claims, we must study how it deals with the systematic exclusion of certain narratives and interests. To understand neo-pragmatist democracy we must examine its advocates' readings of concrete deliberations.

Consider first who participates in deliberations, who does not, and what licenses participation. In his residential segregation example, Hoch (1997a: 24) invites "realtors, bankers, elected officials, government employees, teachers, school board members, club officers, and neighbours" to deliberate. Those who suffer most from residential discrimination, minorities residing in the inner-city, are conspicuously missing from the guest list. This is not an accidental oversight because the scenario's plausibility depends on this omission. Talk is cheap when one is on top, but inner-city minorities are unlikely just to shrug their shoulders and leave if they fail "to persuade willing participants to stop discriminating" (Hoch 1997a: 25). Groups who feel oppressed have the nasty habit of taking things into their own hands, whether it be with the pacifism of Gandhi and Martin Luther King or more violently as in the ghetto rebellions in Warsaw and Watts. Images of genteel, tended deliberation would yield to something more militant and conflict-laden.

If we look carefully, we notice that even on Level II, Charlie's guest list consists of abstractions: "realtors" instead of this or that individual, for example. So license to participate depends on one's social role: the role confers power on the individual. Such roles are themselves socially created but for the most part neither they nor their preconditions have ever been subject to democratic vote or deliberation. For instance, bankers and realtors depend, both for their existence as social categories and for their identities within those categories, on the prior existence of a money economy, private property, discrete household units, etc. In opposition to this, imagine solving the segregation problem with a housing lottery. People would sign up for a certain kind of housing unit (a two-bedroom flat, a room in a kibbutz-like commune, etc.) in a locale, and a stratified, random public lottery (televised live) would assign units for a period of, say, seven years. To be even more democratic, neighbours, co-workers, and others could discuss and vote on someone's merits, and weight the chances in the lottery accordingly. Of course this system would require new solutions to problems such as adjusting supply and demand or creating sufficient aggregate demand that capitalist markets solve by removing housing allocation from conscious, democratic decision, but this may be a small price for making housing more democratic. Since markets not only solve resource-allocation problems but also confer social power (look again at Charlie's guest list), removing housing from market allocation would have triple democratic payoff: it would distribute housing more democratically, it would remove segregation as a systematic impediment to participation in a democratic society, and it would eliminate housing-related social categories that unduly confer social power. With this alternative system in mind, and remembering his comments about arguments based on better or worse, we might wonder why Charlie stacks the "democratic" deck by limiting the guest list to occupants of power-laden positions in current institutional arrangements.

Apparently Hoch thinks Throgmorton (1993) describes a good example of democratic deliberation. In this episode, a power company (Com Ed) wants to renew its agreement to provide Chicago's electricity, but others want to make electricity a public utility. Throgmorton describes a hearing at which Com Ed's consultant defends his survey against criticism by government officials and representatives of community groups. He takes the participants at the hearing for granted and never explains their privileged license to participate. Why, for example, should a Com Ed executive have more right to participate than a consumer of electricity or a South African miner who provides uranium for Com Ed's power plant? Why should Chicago's businesses be represented but not Central American workers who make the garments sold in Chicago stores? The principle in both Hoch's segregation scenario and Throgmorton's episode seems to be that "stakeholders" participate. Both authors are rather sanguine about who counts as a "stakeholder" given the social construction of both "stakeholder" status and the roles that have this status conferred upon them. Fortunately, political economy gives us some insight into this process. In Chicago, for instance, Com Ed's president led a business coalition to do such things as bring a World's Fair to the city. Over several years a coalition of community groups formed in opposition (Holupka and Shlay 1993). So Throgmorton's episode was just one scene in a larger drama of regime politics, and the contending groups won their places at the table through years of struggle.

We understand neo-pragmatist democracy even more if we ask how decisions are made. Most accounts of democracy include some version of majority rule, but not Charlie's. His democracy is a libertarian one in which everything depends on persuading others to act willingly. Of course, people may voluntarily submit to majority rule, but if they refuse he would not coerce them. One problem with this is that most of us have no choice in many aspects of our lives. Or more precisely, the choice is like Sophie's Choice: the lesser of evils. We either obtain shelter through an institutional system with banks and realtors, or we go homeless; we either woo businesses for jobs in our locality, or lose our source of livelihood; etc. At least during my lifetime in the US, the relevant institutions have never been subject to the democratic deliberations Hoch advocates. Yet they (and the people who hold high positions within them) have coercive power over our lives. Hoch's sanguine attitude towards such institutions reveals he is not against all coercion, but he does oppose using coercion to end segregation.

Working on Level I, Innes (1995: 186) says interpretive planning theory encourages planners to challenge "assumptions because hidden within these are power relations." Does this actually happen when interpretive theorists move to Level II? In Throgmorton's episode the consultant had surveyed Chicago's business community and claimed the survey showed the business community would flee the city if electric power became a public utility. He defended the survey's validity against criticism from community activists and public officials, but neither he, the activists, the officials, Throgmorton, nor Hoch challenged the assumption that Chicago's business community's intentions should constrain public policy. Chicago's bourgeoisie did not have to attend the hearing to have its interests protected; its interests framed the entire "democratic" debate. The only questions were: would making electric power a public utility threaten the bourgeoisie and did the bourgeoisie perceive it as a threat? How did our interpretive theorists miss this? Perhaps neo-pragmatists reject "scientific trump" but not "bourgeois trump." Maybe the theorists' conceptual tools and theoretical framework hid this from them. Maybe they so focused on talk that they did not hear the silences. And just maybe the community activists and government officials knew that the problem was not in their assumptions; maybe they knew all too well that power is not solely or even primarily rhetorical and that some things are better left unsaid.

If we take this one step further, we see this is not just a matter of power or distributive justice. Suppose Chicago's business community follows the rules of capitalist competition as, say, neo-classical economics portrays them. Suppose further that firms make the decision to stay in Chicago or leave by following these rules. There may be uncertainty or misinformation, but each business owner follows the rules as best he or she can on pain of becoming uncompetitive. Finally, suppose Chicago had a lottery system similar to the one described above, only this one is for business ownership. Every seven years or so everyone in Chicago has an equal chance to own a business. This hypothetical situation would satisfy the Rawlsian conditions of an original position and distributive justice, but it would still be anti-democratic and pernicious because the rules, rather than conscious democratic deliberation, would determine what happens.

This, I think, gives us better insight into political economy's commitments. Like all intellectual projects, it has underlying social interests, but we do better to characterise them as "emancipatory" than as either democratic or distributive. "Human emancipation" in this context means developing both the individual's and society's potentials to the fullest extent possible starting from given historical conditions. Consequently, political economy seeks to distinguish what we might schematically characterise as universal human conditions, specific geo-historical institutions, and developments within these institutional limits. Its emancipatory interests and critical edge lie in removing institutional limits that unduly keep humanity from realising its potentials. Its substantive narratives provide a powerful set of tools for understanding the social world in terms of a structured hierarchy of causal efficacy. But these are not just narratives: they are claims about actual causal efficacy in the world and therefore are inherently fallible. Moreover, political economy's fallibilism and concern for a reality outside its narratives open it up. In the past few decades it has incorporated knowledge about gender, race, and even communicative action. Often it discarded or revised the received theory when it did not allow for these new dimensions.

My criticisms of interpretive planning theory played a minor role in my earlier paper, and I welcome this chance to clarify them. Basically they boil down to a charge that, despite their own rhetoric, many interpretive planning theorists choose to ignore political economy rather than engage its arguments seriously. They evade this engagement by clinging to a set of methodological dogmas and misconceptions while claiming to eschew methodology. Ultimately the evasion turns out to be nothing but radical, ontological scepticism contradicted by the most commonplace practices of daily life. Afraid to venture out into a reality beyond their narratives, interpretive theorists frequently become trapped in their own rhetoric. They want to challenge assumptions, but they give up any basis for challenging them. They want to change the world but find themselves anchored to a planning profession that may be reactionary or inconsequential as often as it is progressive. Political economists are well aware of the underlying issues and, I think, have much to offer by providing some ways out of the trap.

I also think interpretive theory has much to offer political economy, although it will take much more than a parody to persuade me to leave a good amount of baggage behind. Perhaps the most important contributions will lie in the realms of determining what is possible, unmasking power in communications, and learning how to organise wilful collective action. Although I think political economy already learned its lesson the hard way, Hoch provides a useful reminder about the importance of humility and not using firmly held beliefs about the world to license the most inhumane acts in the name of humanity. Indeed, as he points out quite cogently, the issue of persuading a comfortable populace to change its way of life and confront power in the name of social justice, ecological survival, or human emancipation is a sort of Catch-22. This may yet turn out to be the cruellest joke of all.


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Copyright © 1997 Marshall Feldman

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