The first critique [of communicative planning practices and methods] begins with a linguistic argument. Writers like Chantal Mouffe and Jean Hillier draw on the linguistic theories of Wittgenstein, Lacan, and Žižek to argue that the ideal of undistorted communication is a logical impossibility. The argument is that speech acts cannot be neutral and undistorted; they must necessarily contain distortion in order to be intelligible. Mouffe (2000) draws on Wittgenstein to make the case: if we actually achieved an ideal speech act we would find ‘we have got on the slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground’ (Wittgenstein, 1953: 46e). The necessity of distortion is picked up in Mouffe’s (1999) and Hillier’s (2003) analysis through Lacan. In everyday practice, they argue, all language can at best represent the actual thing it aims to signify. There is an irreducible gap between signifier and signified (Hillier, 2003). Therefore, a ‘field of consistent meaning’, which we need in order to make sense of language, cannot be anchored objectively, in the concrete things it seeks to represent (Mouffe, 1999: 751). In order for language to be mutually intelligible, therefore, participants must impose what Lacan calls a ‘master signifier’, a crux that sets the relationships between signifiers and signifieds and creates a consistent field of meaning. The master signifier necessarily distorts the symbolic field by arbitrarily elevating one particular representation over others (Žižek, 1992). However, the master signifier also holds the field of meaning together; it makes communication possible. Therefore, removing all distortion would cause the field to disintegrate, and communication would cease. According to this argument, distortion is therefore necessary to make communication possible. Aiming at an ideal of undistorted communication is not merely Herculean, it is futile. That claim is important because it means that language and communication, the centerpiece of the communicative project, cannot be a neutral, fully shared, and undistorted medium. Rather language is always political; it is distorted by power, and those distortions establish hegemonic relations among participants. That realization leads Mouffe (2000) to conclude that we should not be attempting to progressively eliminate distortion and create non-political communication; rather we should accept that distortion and power is necessarily present in communication. She argues we should seek to mobilize that power, not minimize it. Creating elaborate techniques to reduce distortion and power in communication can never neutralize or eliminate them. But practices of communicative action, because they seek to reduce communicative distortion and power, lead us away from a critical analysis of power in language. They therefore put us in danger of masking its operation.
A parallel critique applies to the communicative desire to neutralize power more generally. While the liberal model of democracy ignores power in the private sphere and operates as if social inequality did not exist (Fraser, 1990), communicative action aims at more. It acknowledges the range of existing power differences, and it seeks actively to neutralize them for the purposes of deliberation. It wants to ensure that power is not the driver of political decision-making. That goal necessarily assumes an idea of power that imagines it to be discrete and alienable. That is, it conceives of an agent’s power as a discrete resource that s/he possesses. In that conception, power can be neutralized, set aside, contained and the agent can go on operating without it. Critics see power differently. They draw on the later work of Foucault (1979, 1990, 2003) to see power as relational. In that view, power inheres in the relationship between social agents, such that power operates in the context of one’s relationship with another (Laclau, 1996). Relational power is not an alienable quality that can be temporarily neutralized through skillful mediation. Rather it is ineradicable because it is constitutive of social relationships (Hillier, 2003; Huxley, 2000; Mouffe, 2005; McGuirk, 2001). It is therefore always present and always shaping human relations (Foucault, 1988). We cannot neutralize it any more than we can neutralize social relations themselves. Moreover, as Flyvbjerg (1998b), Hillier (2003) and Huxley (2002) point out, any active attempt to neutralize power through facilitation is itself an imposition of particular relations of power.
The problem with the ideal of a power-tamed deliberation, for Laclau and Mouffe (1985) and Mouffe (1993, 2002, 2005), in addition to its impossibility, is that it tends to diminish emphasis on what Mouffe calls ‘the political’. The political refers to the antagonistic relations that are always present in human society. She does not mean to say that all human relations are antagonistic, only that it is not possible (or desirable) to produce a seamless society without antagonistic, friend/enemy relations. Thus for her antagonism is ‘irreducible’; it is an ineradicable feature of social relations. The task of democratic practice, for Mouffe, is to domesticate antagonism and generate instead what she calls ‘agonism’. In antagonism, the us/them relation casts the other as an enemy to be destroyed. In agonism, the other is an adversary whose interests conflict fundamentally with ours and with whom we struggle; however, we do not seek to eliminate them from the polity. Agonism thus domesticates antagonism in the sense that it prevents conflictual relations from being engaged existentially. However, agonism very much retains the irreducibility of conflict; its vision of society is one that is necessarily shot through with antagonistic fractures that must always be a central element of political relations.5 The communicative ideal, on the contrary, seeks to progressively minimize the us/them distinction, to emphasize ‘shared’ interests, and to constitute a comprehensive ‘we’ (Mansbridge, 1992). Such ‘suturing’ of society’s irreducible fissures, as Laclau and Mouffe put it (1985, drawing on Lacan), is both an impossible and an undesirable project. Politics, in their view, is not the search for intersubjective understanding and agreement; it is necessarily a struggle for hegemony. The goal is not to develop, with Habermas, a priori processes to control, neutralize, or eliminate conflictual relations of power.6 It is instead to transform those relations: to mobilize power to engage in counter-hegemonic struggles to establish new hegemonies. Writing specifically about the current neoliberal hegemony, Laclau and Mouffe (2000: xvi–xvii, emphasis added) argue:
the present conjuncture, far from being the only natural or possible societal order, is the expression of a certain configuration of power relations. It is the result of hegemonic moves on the part of specific social forces which have been able to implement a profound transformation in the relations between capitalist corporations and the nation-states. This hegemony can be challenged. The Left should start elaborating a credible alternative to the neo-liberal order, instead of trying to manage it in a more humane way. This, of course, requires drawing new political frontiers and acknowledging that there cannot be a radical politics without the definition of an adversary. That is to say, it requires the acceptance of the irreducibility of antagonism.
In other words, an approach that confronts neoliberal hegemony with a cooperative search for a shared understanding and agreement cannot foster the kind of counter-hegemonic politics we require to challenge neoliberalization.