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: and my article on why they should disclose their funding:

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.

7 replies on “Shake and Stir: Think Tank Enthusiasm”

Comments are closed.