Manchester-based academic Dr Damian O’Doherty reviews Manchester University Press’s “The Politics of Airport Expansion in the United Kingdom” for Manchester Climate Monthly.
In this study of airports and aviation Griggs and Howarth draw extensively from the corpus of work produced by the political scientist and philosopher Ernesto Laclau who in collaboration with Chantal Mouffe has written some of the most important contributions to contemporary Marxist and post-marxist political theory. From this body of work Griggs and Howarth deploy a whole series of concepts including ‘hegemony’, ‘floating signifiers’, ‘empty signifiers’, ‘nodal points’, ‘radical contingency’, ‘undecidability’, ‘constitutive outside’, ‘dislocation’, ‘antagonism’, and ‘fantasy’. With these tools, their thesis develops the argument that successive UK governments have sought to establish an equation between national economy, economic growth and social well-being, and the expansion of aviation. Liberalisation and deregulation in the 1980s helped increase passenger numbers and this led to infrastructural capacity constraints that a series of commissions (Roskill, and now Davies) and white papers have sought to address. Using the discursive apparatus developed by Laclau and Mouffe, Griggs and Howarth show how two antagonistic political blocs formed during the expansionist drive of the last Labour government (1997-2009): ‘Airport Watch’ and ‘Freedom to Fly’. Both are shown to have emerged out of a contingent alliance of cross-cutting differences and tensions that defined their respective patterns of membership and support.
As one makes progress through the book ‘sustainable aviation’ begins to appear as the critical and dominant rhetorical trope that aims to mediate and reconcile those who support and those who oppose airport expansion. Central to the development of this thesis is the role of the term ‘empty signifier’ within the theoretical master-narrative of the Essex school of political discourse theory. Borrowing heavily from Foucault (via Laclau and Mouffe) Griggs and Howarth posit that ‘sustainable aviation’ is a signifier within a ‘discursive regime’, or rather a signifieraround which a discursive formation comes into being – in other words a discursive consensus is built to enable the design and implementation of public policy. In the theory of Laclau and Mouffe, ‘empty signifiers’ operate as ‘points of fixation that hold together multiple and even contradictory demands in a precarious unity’ (Griggs and Howarth, p.21 citing Laclau, 1990, 1995; emphasis added). However, as we follow the narrative of Griggs and Howarth we discover that sustainable aviation cannot function as an empty signifier because it gets defined in so many different and contradictory ways; indeed for many it is an absurd oxymoron. It therefore becomes a ‘floating signifier’ subject to multiply contested constructions deployed to help forge and consolidate the political activities of various interest groups. This leads to paralysis and stand-off between the contending parties and is the essence of what the authors call a ‘wicked problem’ (drawing from the work of Donald Schon, and before him Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber)
The question we are inevitably drawn to ask is whether the investment in such theoretical sophistication is worth the pay-off? Does it just dress up the obvious in arcane academic theory? At times the nuance between floating signifiers, nodal points and empty signifiers struggles to retain much clarity as these terms are utilised to extract and analyse data culled from a range of archival sources. In the exhaustive collection and treatment of this empirical material the attentive reader may recall that nodal points are ‘privileged points of signification … that partially fix the meaning of practices’ (p.21) and empty signifiers provide the ‘symbolic means’ to ‘represent these essentially incomplete orders’ – these orders referring to the contingent and constructivist logic of ‘discursive formations’. However, it is easy to lose sight of these nuances and its overarching theoretical meta-narrative as the authors build their account drawing on cabinet office papers, parliamentary briefing papers, Department for Transport official reports, and House of Commons Library notes and Committee reports, an archive that when itemised in the reference section runs to 9 pages of primary sources (p.334-342). Whilst the wealth of empirical material is an impressive feat (pp.51-54), it is precisely this quest for a totalising and exhaustive empirical description that is perhaps most problematic given the theoretical ambitions of the authors.
The most debilitating problem with this book is its quest for scholarly detachment, which is typically applauded as the very essence of good ‘scientific’ research. Laclau and Mouffe wanted to re-invigorate ‘strategies for the left’, to uncover and expose sites of articulation and politicisation for emancipatory struggle, something they call elsewhere in their oeuvre a recall of ‘radical democracy’. For many on the left, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy was exciting because it seemed to extend the terrain upon which political struggle had to be imagined and exercised. Science, as it is deployed in ‘scientific socialism’, with its quest for determination, dialectical laws of economy, the history of class struggle, etc. is precisely the target of their critique and their efforts to recreate and extend the scope for agency and contingency. This would of course prompt us to ask whether Griggs and Howarth produce a political analysis at all, or whether instead they produce a technical and scholarly value-free analysis. However, there is little effort to judge the respective claims of the various political disputants based, for example, on an assessment of the credibility or reliability of the evidence available. The paradox is, however, that this reluctance is precisely the product of the kind of value-commitment implied in the academic project. If on the other hand we ‘follow the money’ as Lester Freamon would counsel in The Wire, we would inevitably be drawn to the conclusion that this Manchester University Press publication will help promote Political Theory at the University of Essex and Local Governance at DeMontfort University, and no doubt draw in additional readership and subscription for the Critical Policy Studies journal. In other words it has political effects. No doubt these are both political projects that are likely to attract widespread support, but when one considers that the journal is published by Taylor and Francis – a none too reputable corporate conglomerate and according to some extracting extortionate rent and profit from the free labour of academic labour and supported by government underwritten student debt – the complexities, antagonisms and contradictions of the politics are revealed. More strictly then, this text is the product of an ‘undecidable’ value-commitment suggestive of the possibility that Griggs and Howarth themselves have become the phenomenon – products, ironically, of the very same discourse they wish to deploy. This is surely the most ‘wicked problem’ of them all.