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The View from the Left

In the 1970s the planning profession and planning as practiced began to come under heavy criticism from the political far left. Much of the attack came from what might loosely be called neo-Marxism. Marxist theories made a comeback in academe during the 1970s and 1980s. The radical might argue that this was due to their inherent virtue. The skeptic might respond that the cause was historical, namely the radicalizing effect of the Vietnam War.

The radical position was not a majority position among planning educators, but it was much more common among planning educators than among planning practitioners. One reason is that in a great many planning jobs, although not all, radicals would feel uncomfortable because they would be cooperating with a system that they did not respect and achieving ends to which they could not feel committed. That sort of psychological dissonance is not easy to live with.

What was the radical view? America's liberal capitalism, or welfare capitalism as it has been called, is regarded rather dimly (though many radicals will concede it to be more humane than the capitalism of earlier years).

Radicals saw it as containing vast and inexcusable extremes of wealth and poverty and as largely dominated by and therefore run for the benefit of the capitalist class (bourgeoisie). They also believed that the working class, or the "masses," accept the system largely because they have been prevented from seeing the truth by those who control the flow of information and ideas. In this view the media and the educational system disguise reality and convey a picture that is favorable to the interests of the capitalists because they are owned or controlled by or in some way beholden to the capitalists. Planners, inadvertently or otherwise, cooperate in this process by depoliticizing (that is, converting what should be political issues into technical questions), thus co-opting those with serious grievances against the system.15 It is therefore a view that is profoundly cynical about planning and about our society as it now exists.

How might the centrist respond? He or she might begin simply by questioning the most basic assumptions of the critique. For example, he or she might assert the basic goodness rather than badness of the system, perhaps by comparing it with other systems. He or she might argue that the amenability of the system to a long series of reforms and ameliorative measures, from the abolition of child labor to food stamps for the poor, says something very positive about the system. If one finds the system to be good, on balance, then one should have no overarching problems of conscience in cooperating with it. The centrist might attack the radical critique by asserting the pluralism of society. Although admitting that capitalists do indeed exercise much influence over the state, the centrist might note that other groups, including labor, academe, federal and local government workers, and so on, also exercise major influence over the actions of the state. He or she might thus deny the basic Marxist postulate that the state is the "executive committee" of the bourgeoisie. If it is true that the state, by virtue of this pluralism, does not confine its services in the main to a single small class, there is little reason to be troubled about serving it.

The centrist might argue that the radical critique regarding the planner as a co-opter or a disarmer of discontent is not a very strong argument. Rather, it is an obvious truth cast in a negative way. If one satisfies grievances, whether they be about poverty, housing, or some much smaller matter such as street noise or the need for a new stop light at the corner, of course one is reducing discontent. But what is wrong with that? Should we deny food to the hungry lest, when their stomachs are full, they will lose their righteous anger about being hungry?

The centrist may also agree with the radical that the planner does indeed depoliticize and cast what could be political issues in technical terms. But does not reducing the political heat and introducing some facts and numbers increase the chances of rational solutions? In short, is not depoliticizing a good thing to do?

Finally, the centrist might note that the radical academic who takes the planning profession to task for not waging the fight for radical change is asking the working planner to take risks that he or she is not required to take. As planning educator Michael Brooks has said,

Certainly the progressive spirit thrives more readily in the halls of academe— where there is virtually no risk attached to its espousal—than it does in the nation's city halls.16

The radical critique has unsettled many planners, since many people go into the profession out of idealism. Thus a critique that accuses the profession of allowing itself to be used as the tool of an unjust system tends to cause some soul-searching and psychic pain. To the extent that such pain causes productive introspection, it is useful. To the extent that it demoralizes, it is destructive. The critique just described never gained much ground with practitioners, for reasons noted earlier. Its heyday among academicians is also past, though one still hears echoes of it. The tide of academic Marxism peaked sometime in the late 1970s or perhaps in the early 1980s and has receded since then. The overwhelming popular repudiation of the socialist dream in Eastern Europe during the 1980s, and then the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, drained much conviction out of Marxism in the West.

In the last three decades or so, the political pendulum in the United States swung to the right. At least some planners were happy simply not to lose ground, whether that was in court, in property rights-type referenda, or in the public anger after the Kelo decision. At this time the radical critique is more a matter of historical and theoretical interest than one of immediate practical concern.

 
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