Shake and Stir: Think Tank Enthusiasm

Researcher at the Institute of Public Affairs, Chris Berg, drew my attention to a tweet by Simon Banks from Simon’s official Hawker Britton (lobbying/PR firm) twitter account:

More proof that Think Tanks are Lobbyists: http://t.co/ZM2q9Kx and my article on why they should disclose their funding: http://t.co/dvbPEyj

It is about the plan to create an industrial relations think tank in the existing Melbourne-based think tank the Insitute of Public Affairs. Support for the new think tank is being provided by those who would benefit the most from a dismantling of the existing Fair Work industrial relations policy:

The [SMH] has learned the former mining executive, Hugh Morgan, has also been a key driver of the process, as has Michael Chaney, a former president of the Business Council of Australia and currently the chairman of Woodside Petroleum. Both have been recruiting executive support.

Bernard Keane has posted an article on Crikey about trying to measure the effect of the existing Fair Work policy on industrial relations. There are a number of measures or indicators for gauging how successful or not the policy has been. He argues that the aspects of industrial relations that would result in the easiest and most beneficial response to the overall economy (the “low hanging fruit”) has been addressed. Now there is the far more “complex challenges” to address to lead to greater productivity:

Now there are more complex challenges like infrastructure investment (and charging for infrastructure), lifting the return from our health and education investment and the “human capital agenda” which the Howard government, under pressure from the Bracks government, belatedly recognised as important to lifting productivity.

Chris got fired up about Simon’s tweet and framed the tweet in terms of whether or not “people genuinely hold views about public policy”:

Australian researcher of social work and welfare, Philip Mendes, describes two of the most common ‘defences’ that think tanks mobilise when critiqued for their role in the production of policy and the influence they have on governance. The first is regarding funding (and it is a similar point to that of Simon Banks regarding lobbyists):

The think tanks claim to be politically independent, and to be offering impartial and disinterested expertise. They insist that their intellectual integrity and hence credibility is protected by their multiple sources of income (Stone, 1996:117; Lindsay, 2000). However, critics argue that they are generally partisan, motivated by political and ideological bias, practice the art of directed conclusions, and have more in common with corporate-funded vested interest groups or pressure groups concerned with political activism and propaganda than with genuinely academic or scholarly institutions (Beder, 1997:75-77; Bone, 2000).

Berg defends this new think tank by following similar lines of argument. He argues that the work of the IPA is funded from 1000+ sources:

At stake here for Berg here is a kind of “cash for comment” type scenario where he is trying to ward off the impression that the IPA simply becomes an ideological mouthpiece for the highest bidder. The other part of the defence is regarding the “truthfulness” or “genuiness” of the beliefs held by members of the IPA or think tanks more generally. The line of argument is that members genuinely hold their beliefs and that they are not bought by those that fund the think tank. Mendes describes part of this point thus:

Finally, they persistently claim to be independent and objective purveyors of truth, uninfluenced by vested or sectional interests. Consequently, their pronouncements, however extreme or bound by ideology, are often granted greater legitimacy and receive less critical public attention than the views of organisations holding more obvious political links and interests.

Of course, the “truth” that Berg is advocating is the “truth” of his own (and it seems those of his fellow IPA members) beliefs in relation to the research he carries out and the arguments he mobilises in his research and opinion-piece writing work. He is making a distinction between think tanks and lobby groups, where he is implying that lobby groups do not genuinely hold their beliefs and are therefore less “true” (or authentic maybe?) than the think tanks, such as the IPA, who are also attempting to intervene in policy debates.
A third defence that Berg mobilises in a tweet in response to me are based around an understanding of the public sphere and whether or not participants in policy discussions in the public sphere should be considered “lobbying”:

Berg is implicitly defining lobbying as the activity of professional lobbyists. If lobbying is understood to happen as the intent of “non-lobbyists”, he suggests, “that would make everyone who participates in public debate a lobbyist, surely”. Well, no. The definition of lobbying that most people understand to be lobbying is defined by the activities of special interest groups, such as those that fund the IPA, to advocate their “genuinely held beliefs” in such a way to influence public debate and therefore government policy. For example, one of the wikipedia definitions of lobbying is:

‘Lobbying’ (also ‘Lobby’) is a form of advocacy with the intention of influencing decisions made by the government by individuals or more usually by Lobby groups; it includes all attempts to influence legislators and officials, whether by other legislators, constituents, or organized groups.

Surely the point of a think tank such as the IPA or the new industrial relations think tank is to advocate a particular position and in doing so influence decisions made by the government?

Of more interest to me is reframing lobbying activities in a “post-political” era. (And here I am going to go off on a tangent concerned with my own research.) Chantal Mouffe has described the “post-political” as characterised by the negation of antagonisms. Distinct from a rational consensus model, the point of democracy is to promote the confrontation of opposing hegemonic positions. She writes:

This kind of liberalism is unable to adequately grasp the pluralistic nature of the social world, with the conflicts that pluralism entails; conflicts for which no rational solution could ever exist. the typical liberal understanding of pluralism is that we live in a world in which there are indeed many perspectives and values and that, owing to empirical limitations, we will never be able to adopt them all, but that, when put together, they constitute an harmonious and non-conflictual ensemble. this is why this type of liberalism must negate the political in its antagonistic dimension. (10)

The negation of antagonism and the reproduction of a (neo)liberal hegemonic consensus is not simply a philosophical point; it is a political practice. The work of think tanks may, at first glance when taken in isolation, appear to exist purely for the purposes of antagonism. That is, their only point is to advocate their genuinely held political views and work hard to impose their ideologies on the rest of the population by influencing policy decision making. The negation of antagonism and the reproduction of (neo)liberal hegemony does not simply happen through think tanks however. As Mendes notes (writing in the early 2000s):

It should be emphasised that neoliberal think tanks do not promote these ideas in isolation. Other important sources of neoliberal influence in Australia include sections of the media such as the Australian Financial Review and influential journalists such as Alan Wood, Christopher Pearson and Piers Akerman, academics such as Judith Sloan and Peter Dawkins, senior econocrats in Canberra such as Ted Evans and Ian Macfarlane, business economists and financial analysts, overt corporate lobby groups such as the Business Council of Australia, and significant groupings within the mainstream political parties. The think tanks constitute one specific component of this larger ‘economic rationalist’ coalition (Argy, 1998:56-57 & 231-239; Stone, 1998:153 & 157). (32)

This coalition or ‘media ecology’ has changed to some degree over the last decade or so, but there are enough familiar names in Mendes’s list for the point to stand. They all work in concert to reproduce the hegemonic ‘common sense’. Mouffe’s (and Laclau’s) arguments about “hegemonic articulations” focus on their apparently self-positing character. A classic example of this is when someone explained to me that “We shouldn’t have illegal immigrants because they are illegal”.

Another way to frame the post-political era that relates to the work of think tanks is regarding the production of political enthusiasm. “Political enthusiasm”, particularly in any kind of liberalist context, would appear to be an oxymoron. “Enthusiasm” was traditionally understood to refer to the religiosity (and therefore, irrationality) of the public in the pre-Enlightenment era. It was the work of great Enlightenment figures to banish enthusiasm (in its religious guise) from the public sphere. It would seem that the (neo)liberal think tanks would align themselves on the side of Enlightenment figures who advocated on the side of rationality in the face of religious enthusiasms. As Mendes (writing about another think tank, the Centre for Independent Studies) notes, they advocate “an economy based on free and competitive markets, and individual liberty and choice, including freedom of association, religion, speech, and the right to property (Beder, 1997:81)” (39). Hence the apparent contradiction in me suggesting that the work of think tanks and the rest of the hegemonic media ecology is not ideological per se, but primarily regarding the (real or apparent) induction of enthusiasm in a given population for particular policy outcomes. The appearance of population-wide anxiety is a good indicator that the hegemonic media ecology is working to produce enthusiasm for a given set of ideological policy imperatives.

The contemporary media apparatus in general trains audiences to be anxious about “complexities”. A “complexity” is the hegemonic term adopted by nearly everyone in politics for the site of what Mouffe calls an “antagonism”. The next key term in (neo)liberal discourse when negating antagonism and producing enthusiasm is “challenge”. A “challenge” denotes a political contingency that cannot be easy incorporated into existing perceptions of whatever is at stake. It is often used in the phrase “the challenge of [issue]”, particularly in speeches. If you do a cursory search for the keywords [“challenge of” speech] you’ll see what I mean. Isolating the “challenge of” in political discourse signals the emergence of a heterogeneity in the normally hegemonic dialectical (for example, us vs them) order. A “challenge” has relatively unique onto-epistemological characteristics in that various populations with various partisan interests can engage with the same, single contingency presented in the social or political order in different ways. (Here is some earlier writing on the subject.)

For example, if you suggest, as Bernard Keane does in his Crikey article, that “more complex challenges” are coming in industrial relations debates, then most casual or informed observers from any side within politics will probably agree in the first instance. In the second instance, the “challenge” will be rearticulated in such a way so as to strip it of its heterogeneity and antagonistic potential. This is the work of the hegemonic media ecology and in particular this is the work of (neo)liberal think tanks to present “ready-made” policy positions so as to frame such heterogeneity in ways that negate the “complexity” of social and political issues. The heterogeneity of antagonisms is important in the political arena as the absence of consensus indicates a site whereby the collective imagination of a population must strive to find a way to accommodate such heterogeneity.

My interest in all this and an area of possible future research is the function of think tanks to produce enthusiasm for a given set of ideologies within a population and thus mobilize a population according to the ideologies of that of the think tank and its funders.

Mendes, Philip. (2003) “Australian neoliberal think tanks and the backlash against the welfare state.” Journal of Australian Political Economy, 51: 29-56.
Mouffe, Chantal. (2005) On the political.

Is this politics or poetry?

If politics is “the art of the possible,” what are we to make of moments when human beings living in modern societies believe that “all is possible”? We know with assurance that such moments occur, if only because those who experience them are acutely conscious of their unusual state. Speaking with tongues, they urgently record their most intimate feelings. Furthermore, they are often aware of affinities across time and space with others in similar circumstances. Are the; moments when politics bursts its bounds to invade all of life, or on the contrary, are they moments when political animals somehow transcend their fate? So much in the conventional paraphernalia of political science is founded on axiomatic instrumentalism that we do not know what to make of events in which the wall between the instrumental and the expressive collapses. Is this politics or prophecy? Is this politics or poetry?

In his 1972 essay “Moments of Madness” Aristide R. Zolberg outlines how a number of contemporary French writers framed the events of May 1968 in comparison to other revolutions or semi- or quasi-revolutions (e.g. liberation of Paris 1944, factory occupation June 1936, Ploclamation of the Commune in March 1871). He argues that “the meaning of moments when “all is possible” can be better apprehended if we seek instead to share the experience of participants in order to understand the place of these moments in the political life of a modern society”.

Overcoming the Failures of Political Enthusiasm

Although my focus is on the composition of power relations that constitute a given scene of enthusiasm and the ways amateur labour is commodified, the other bigger project that I hope to eventually turn to (after doing my existing project justice) is the question of contemporary political enthusiasm. Hopefully this will explain why I am seem to be fascinated by enthusiasm. One of my theses is that the emergence of enthusiasm within a citizenry of a given democratic nation state is framed by the mainstream media as an exception to its normative functioning. Enthusiastic uprisings are represented as exceptions. The problem is that the world faces problems on a scale that require the drive of enthusiasm. Working back from Ralph Emerson’s observation that “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm” is that for something ‘great’ to be achieved requires ‘enthusiasm’.

The operational character of enthusiasm has not changed much since the pre-Kantians discussed it as a synonym for ‘fanaticism’. Subjects of enthusiasm pursue a singular task at the exception of all others and, at the same time, enthusiasm is affectively contagious. The work of many thinkers over the course of the 18th and 19th Centuries was to use ‘enthusiasm’ as a negative example in the functioning of a rational citizenry and representive government. They were on the side of Enlightenment Rationality fighting the forces of Religious Mystification. Except for a few asides, it was not until Kant’s comments on the character of spectators supporting the French Revolution did ‘enthusiasm’ gain a positive political meaning. Kant argued that the general support of spectators for the revolution meant that they recognised the Idea of the Good in the revolution and therefore the collective valorisation by spectators of the revolution demonstrated that the revolution transcended practical judgement and was an example of good moral judgement.

The problem in the contemporary era is not judgement per se, but firstly the problem of collective mobilisation born of collective disenchantment (and therefore a lack of enthusiasm) for the mode governance of modern representative democracies. Public debates represented in the media thwart enthusiasm, or, to put it another way, enthusiasm is modulated and harnessed in hegemonic ways. Most citizens are encouraged to be enthusiastic about their own interests, which they are told are shared with many others, at the expense of larger social problems. In Australia this is best represented by the hegemonic relation between the conservative media and the conservative side of politics (that is currently dominant in both major parties). Columnists like The Australian’s Andrew Bolt present his readers’ own enthusiasms back at them as the fundamental truth of a given situation. Conservative politicians, such as Tony Abbott, militantly corral this enthusiasm, shaping it into a blunt weapon to attack the progressive elements of the nation.

The danger in this for conservative politicians is that they must continually ride the wave of enthusiasm and therefore can never properly formulate rational policies based beyond facile arguments about refugees. When a conservative government does try to introduce policy that can’t help but be understood as against their constituents’ own material interests (such as the Howard government’s Workchoices industrial relations policies), enthusiasm turns in a flash against them. The progressive elements of Australia’s representive democracy (as well as the progressive elements of other representative democracies) are curently experiencing a failure of enthusiasm. It doesn’t matter how ‘correct’ (scientific or otherwise) they are in their policies, without a collective enthusiasm behind them whatever project they hope to introduce or catalyse in the population shall fail.

Greater visibility has to be produced around the progressive enthusiasms already set to the tasks of producing a more equitable and sustainable world. Beyond the collective drive that it produces, the other political efficacy of enthusiasm is that it is contagious. Progressive political enthusiasm has to be represented in the media to effect any change.

Enthusiasm: The Existential Territory of the Challenge

For the development of “ploys” depends upon finding some method for distinguishing among practices to find those that are politically useful: how is it possible to separate out practices that “the system of products effects within the consumer grid” from those that are “art” or maneuvers by consumers in the room left to them by the system — a task made even more difficult if, as de Certeau admits, all the practices that count as “art” or “culture” aggregate to legitimize the system some of the time and displace it at other times (PEL xvii)? In that case, we would not be able to distinguish among practices on the basis of their effects: as de Certeau explains, “[s]imilar strategic deployments … do not produce identical effects” (PEL xvii). So which features will mark out “culture” from the system? How to separate the system of capitalism from the “culture” of creative consumption that takes place only in and through capitalism? It seems that no bright line devides complicitous practices from resistant ones. — Rotherberg, The Excessive Subject (2009), p 68

Molly Rotherberg engages with a discussion of Bourdieu and de Certeau in her relatively new book The excessive subject: a new theory of social change. This is of particular interest to me as I also engaged with Bourdieu and de Certeau in my dissertation but from a very different theoretical orientation.

I was attempting to tackle precisely the problem that Rotherberg isolates in the above quote regarding the character of the system of capitalism versus the “culture” of creative capitalism that de Certeau famously wrote about. ‘Resistance’ in de Certeau’s writings is produced almost as an accident. The tactical engagement with the gaps produced by the overlapping strategies of power is a question of opportunity and singularity. I ended up framing it differently to Rotherberg (above), instead of seeking ‘resistance’ as an identifiable practice (thus incorporating a dialectical mirror of the capitalist system in the very practice that may or may not elude it), I examined how the productive and creative labour of amateur enthusiasts could be commodified and used to produce surplus value for the creative industry that services the given scene of an enthusiasm. Or to put it another way, how can the enthusiasm of amateurs be harnessed by commercial interests belonging to a creative industry while at the same time still be experienced more or less by the enthusiasts as ‘authentic’ in character?

I went back to Kant’s conception of enthusiasm and rather than treating enthusiasm as a “sign of history” as the effect of an imagination that attempts to come to terms with an Idea (i.e. Revolution) that exceeds the capacity to understand the Idea (as is the case in Lyotard’s reading of Kantian enthusiasm, based on how Kant reads the French Revolution), I treated Kant’s writings more as a description of the general structure for an affective mobilisation that produces practical knowledge. In general, enthusiasm is the linking of an Idea with an Affect. For example, enthusiasm can be said to be morally good when the Idea of the Good is the Idea which is linked with an affect. Others have read Kant in this manner and have described what they’ve called a ‘moral sublime’.

The concept of Enthusiasm can be mobilised in other ways however. Before the affect can be linked to an Idea, an Idea that the faculty of understanding cannot grasp and which ‘inflames’ the power of imagination, a kind of contradiction is presented in Kant’s discussion of enthusiasm. How can enthusiasm be ‘an affect linked with an Idea’, if it is the Idea that cannot be grasped as such and relies on the power of the imagination to think it? Does the Idea exist yet? The Idea of the ‘good’ does, at least in Kant’s philosophy. What if instead of relying on the categories, Ideas were differential relations between the virtual and actual, actualised according to their singularities (as in Deleuze’s philosophy)? Then a different diagram for the concept of enthusiasm present itself. The content of the Idea cannot yet be grasped by the subject of enthusiasm, instead there is only the challenge posed by its relative absence.

A general example of this relating to the problem of resistance/complicity in de Certeau’s work can be found in the everyday practice of enthusiasts. Enthusiast practice is based around the objects or events of their enthusiasm. I researched car enthusiasts who work on, observe and drive cars. More often than not enthusiasts engage with various problems presented by the objects or events of their enthusiasm. ‘Problem’ is meant here in its most general sense. For my car enthusiasts, it was when there was a breakage or some kind of mechanical failure. An enthusiasts does not engage with ‘problems’ however, I am using the term ‘problem’ because that is how most non-enthusiasts would instantly perceive such a breakage or mechanical failure. The singularity that de Certeau described is at the heart of such ‘problems’; there are the actual co-ordinates of the ‘problem’ (the broken mechanical parts), but the singularity also has an intensive dimension.

It is at once a question of perception in general (enthusiast vs non-enthusiast), but also subject to the developmental capacity of the enthusiast to transcend the singularity as an unknown contingency without initially knowing precisely what went wrong. The enthusiasts effects what Deleuze and Guattari call an incorporeal transformation. The actual ‘objective’ co-ordinates of the singularity as a ‘problem’ have not changed, but through an experience-based practical knowledge — know-how — the enthusiast is able to deduce the more precise coordinates of the ‘problem’ and thus translate the singularity from the objective conditions of being a ‘problem’ (where the contingency of the ‘problem’ is unknown, how did it go wrong?) into that of a ‘challenge’. This is the moment that ‘know-how’ begins to be produced.

A non-enthusiast, when faced with such a ‘problem’, will simply take their car to a mechanic and request that it be fixed. A non-enthusiast does not transcend the actualised singularity as a ‘problem’. An enthusiast mobilises before actualising the singularity of the ‘problem’ as the enthusiast first has to transcend the previous conditions of possibility of his or her previous capacities of ‘know how’. That is, he enthusiast still does not know what is ‘wrong’, but like a ‘problem’ the existential territory defined by a ‘challenge’ (or in de Certeau’s language, an ‘opportunity’) is open ended. A ‘challenge’ still has to be met, so to speak, just like a ‘problem’ needs a solution or an ‘opportunity’ needs to be capitalised on. This movement of the enthusiast to meet the challenge is characterised by the active (Spinoza) or strenuous (Kant) affects of enthusiasm. In such moments the non-enthusiast suffers from passive (Spinoza) or languid (Kant) affections. It is why there is often an economy of respect within enthusiast cultures that is determined by the experiential character of challenges that a given enthusiast has ‘met’.

The solution to how enthusiasts labour in such a way as to produce surplus labour for the creative industries that service an enthusiasm is through the way ‘challenges’ are valorised through enthusiast discourse distributed hrough enthusiast magazines and the like. The creative industry presents certain challenges as worthy of enthusiastic mobilisation. The real question then, is not how to identify resistant practice, but how to produce a properly revolutionary ‘know how’.

Theory and Research

I am going over my writing from the last few years and sorting out what should go where. The problem I face is that there is a paper I really want to write to do with Kant’s discussion of enthusiasm and there is no way, that I have figured out at least, that I fit a proper discussion of Kant’s discussion of enthusiasm into the context of my empirical research. This is not a simple matter of me trying to ‘apply’ some theory or another to my empirical research, rather my concept of enthusiasm was developed through my empirical research (fieldwork and archival research of 30 years of magazines and other materials). Therefore it is annoying, almost disheartening, to realise I am going to have split my work into two papers. One that deals with enthusiasm as a concept and is therefore primarily a philosophical work and the other that delves into my empirical research to outline a historical example of a culture and political economy of enthusiasm. This separation should not exist in my mind but there are good reasons for it.

1) Readers of the two papers would be very different. The philosophical paper is essentially a reading of Kant. The cultural studies paper is essentially a Foucaultian genealogy of enthusiasm within modified-car culture. On the one hand, I hardly think too many bourgeois academic philosophers would be interested in my empirical work. On the other hand, the empirical work presents a strong example of the ways enthusiasm can be harnessed as a resource by cultural industries and with the emergent dispositif of labour relations organised around immaterial labour and so on it is a useful way to understand what is at stake.

2) I have misgivings about my own abilities to do a reading of Kant justice. Some philosophers specialise in Kant and his various works (and secondary readings) are practically all they study for their entire lives. I am a competent reader of Kant, I think. In that I recognise an interesting argument made about Kant’s work when I read it. Maybe I’ll present some readings of Kant here? (I just created a Kant category for my blog.) The issue of course is that I am only interested in his discussion of enthusiasm. His general philosophy about the legislative function of reason as a synthesis of the faculties is not that interesting to me at the moment. Anyway, a separate paper on Kant’s enthusiasm would force me to properly engage with Kant’s enthusiasm in a sustained manner.

3) Theory. I loathe the notion. I am not sure what people were thinking when they thought it was a good idea to invent this category of academic work. There are only conceptual tools. Theory should be banished. I don’t want my Kant paper to appear as if it were ‘theory’. That is why I am so reluctant to give up on a paper that incorporates empirical research.

4) My style of writing is to trace influences on my work and influences on others’ work to the page or series of pages and reference these pages so readers can follow exactly where I am getting ideas from. One of the best things about A Thousand Plateaus for example are the footnotes. There is a question of competence here, particularly when reading or using something in a particular way, so others familiar with the work can follow what you are doing. There is also a question about a creative ecology or milieu to which my own work belongs. Its totality is only ever a partiality of another totality and so on. I want to be able to frame the horizon of intelligibility of my understanding and imagination. This makes my writing rather dense and requires a patient reader. Splitting what I am working on at the moment into two papers will at least save the reader having to be patient on two counts for the philosophical stuff (Kant, Deleuze, etc.) and the empirical historical work (magazines, newsletters, etc.). I can understand why Foucault chose not to include footnotes in some work. Splitting it will make each paper appropriately energetic or at least less of the inverse.