Research Committee on Economics and Society (RC02) presents:
Think Tanks and Global Politics: Key Spaces in the Structure of Power
Griffith University, Australia
The significance and power of the expert knowledge dispersed from Think Tanks does not become clear until we query and or actively oppose think tanks – only then do we discover the depth of their operations. We can see from a superficial gaze that their power is located in their interactive relations with powerful organisations and institutions and that their numbers and reach are enormous: world wide there are over 6,500 currently extant think tanks (McGann 2015). But the politics and funding of these bodies always remains deliberately murky.
What are they?
Mainstream think tanks function as highly professionalized elite networks of experts, policy ‘wonks’ according to Bill Carroll and Elaine Coburn. They are ‘political intermediaries and corporate capitalists, concentrating knowledge and other resources and on that basis constructing and disseminating ideological discourses within relatively exclusivist processes that shape public policy around entrenched interests’ (Carroll and Coburn 2016b) The corporation is central as their funding body but also as the recipient and initiator of the ideas.
How do they work?
Carroll and Coburn argue that throughout the twentieth century think tanks gained importance in capitalist democracies as places for research and policy development, independently of direct control by states and corporations (Carroll and Coburn 2016a). They now see a formative role that mainstream think tanks play in public policy discussions that typically reinforces existing power/knowledge relations within national political theatres and transnationally. These think tanks are linked into the circuitry of policy networks, mainstream media, and corporate elites where ‘think tanks of the right have since the 1970s become important sites of knowledge production and mobilization in the construction of a neoliberal discursive field’ (Carroll 2013). And although the think tanks themselves claim to enunciate a public interest private large corporate and private foundations interests fund them and the corporate directors who populate their governance boards control them. Think takers (that is those who work for think tanks) produce knowledge that largely (but not exclusively) legitimates and sustains capital but which superficially appears to be a rational articulation of public interest. For neoliberal think tanks in particular, the ‘public interest’ is synonymous with the ‘free market’, and public policy, that is, a set of mechanisms for protecting the exercise of private property rights deemed integral to such ‘freedom’.
Globally unifying organisations like the Trilateral Commission work to bring together ‘leaders of influential think tanks and outstanding personalities from business organisations, academic institutions and media firms’ into very successful transnational networks (Luna and Velasco 2016). The US Business Roundtable is another interesting extension of this legitimizing role that think tanks have above particular interests but rather as expressions of a common or national interest as in “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country” (Cronin 2016). And the closed European Bilderberg Conferences also give us another marker as to the direction of elite Think Tanks organization and coordination (Miłosz Zieliński 2016).
Are they different in different countries?
Although think tanks are still different in different countries they share similar political commitments and typical corporate sources of funding. According to Xavier Carpentier Tanguy (2016) in the US, weak political parties allow foundations (Carnegie, Rockefeller and other philanthropic foundations) to play a vital and reliable role. Such organizations, defined by the American federal tax status, design a unique area constituting a real market place for ideas. In contrast, a much more complex institutional framework shapes the European process for negotiating ideas, norms and values. In this region power appears to be geographically fragmented with multiple layers of governance and separated sources of power. Such institutional complex system offers multiple points of access, but also multiple veto points, through institutions, at the national or European (EU-Commission, European Parliament, ECJ) (Carpentier Tanguy 2016).
But national and/or transnational coalitions benefit by uploading ideas, norms and values at the European level too. Karin Fischer and Dieter Plehwe’s work stresses the neoliberal partisan transnational think tank networks in Europe and Latin America and the political character of knowledge production. Their approach is introduced to better understand a “global knowledge power structure” of the think tank networks (Fischer and Plehwe 2016). In Mexico think tanks are a relatively new phenomenon but have rapidly built a key role in coordinating elites in the country to influence public policies and strategies particularly those associated to NAFTA and the reforms this agreement has entailed (Salas-Porras 2016). On the other side of the world Australian think tanks are also seen as the permanent persuaders waging a successful frontline war of insinuation: a battle to get their ideas into the popular consciousness as a common fair dinkum understanding. Although Australian think tanks cover the left-right political spectrum there are many more of them on the right where the dominant ideology is neoliberalism, that is, they openly acknowledge and promote an acceptance of the market driven society that satisfies their corporate funders and convinces workers of the necessity to make sacrifices in relation to their pay and the diminution of the welfare state (Murray 2016b).
Are Alternatives to Main Stream Think Tanks Possible?
Sue Bradford thinks left wing, left funded, non corporate funded think tanks are not only possible but necessary to provide a sensible balance. She writes interestingly as an activist-former-politician to give a perspective that provides an alternative forum with an alternative set of goals and material proposals. Her detailed dream is a road map for ‘a major left-wing think tank in Aotearoa’ but this has implications for others elsewhere in what she outlines as a plan for action for further non partisan think tanks (Bradford 2014).
If you want to hear more come to the ISA think tank stream and then next year buy the book – Think Tanks and Global Politics: Key Spaces in the Structure of Power.
Bradford, S. 2014. “A major left wing think tank in Aotearoa an impossible dream or a call to action?”. Auckland: Auckland University of Technology.
Carpentier Tanguy, Xavier 2016. “Europe: needs for Nodes (Non Operative and administrative Experts): Euro Think Tanks as diplomats and entrepreneurs of ideas.” in Think-tanks – key spaces in the global structure of power, edited by Alejandra Salas-Porras and Georgina Murray. Asia Pacific: Palgrave Macmillan.
Carroll, William K. 2013. “Networks of Cognitive Praxis: Transnational Class Formation from Below?” Globalizations 10(5):651-70.
Carroll, William K., and Elaine Coburn. 2016 “Counter-hegemonic projects and cognitive praxis in transnational alternative policy groups.” in Think-tanks – key spaces in the global structure of power, edited by Alejandra Salas-Porras and Georgina Murray. Asia Pacific: Palgrave Mcmillian.
Cronin, B. 2016. “The Rise and Decline of the Business Roundtable: Large Corporations and Congressional Lobbying.” in Think-tanks – key spaces in the global structure of power, edited by Alejandra Salas-Porras and Georgina Murray. Asia Pacific: Palgrave Macmillan.
Fischer, Karin, and Dieter Plehwe. 2016. “Neoliberal think tank networks in Latin America and Europe: strategic replication and cross national organizing.” in Think-tanks – key spaces in the global structure of power, edited by Alejandra Salas-Porras and Georgina Murray. Asia-Pacific: Palgrave Mcmillan.
Luna, J., and J. Velasco. 2016. “Power without representation in a transnational Governance Network: the coherence and closeness of the Trilateral Commission.” in Think-tanks – key spaces in the global structure of power, edited by Alejandra Salas-Porras and Georgina Murray. Asia Pacific: Palgrave Macmillan.
McGann, J. 2015. “For think tanks, it’s either innovate or die.” in The Washington Post: Outside Publications
Miłosz Zieliński, Aleksander 2016. “The importance of informal governance for elite cohesion – the example of the Bilderberg meetings.” in Think-tanks – key spaces in the global structure of power, edited by Alejandra Salas-Porras and Georgina Murray. Asia Pacific: Palgrave Macmillan.
Murray, G. 2016 “Australian think tanks: key sites in a global distribution of power? .” in Think Tanks and Global Politics: Key Spaces in the Structure of Power, edited by Alejandra Salas-Porras and Georgina Murray. Asia Pacific: Palgrave Mcmillan.
Salas-Porras, A. 2016. “Think-tank networks in Mexico and how they shape economic and political reforms.” in Think Tanks and Global Politics: Key Spaces in the Structure of Power, edited by Alejandra Salas-Porras and Georgina Murray. Asia Pacific: Palgrave Macmillan.
Alejandra Salas-Porras Soulé, Facultad de Ciencias Políticas y Sociales, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México, Mexico City. She holds a doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She specializes in entrepreneurial networks, globalization, and development.
Georgina Murray, Centre for Work, Organization and Wellbeing, Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. She lectures in political economy. She is the author of many articles and papers as well as Capitalist Networks and Social Power in Australia and New Zealand (Ashgate, 2006), co-author of Women of the Coal Rushes (UNSW Press, 2010), and co-editor of Financial Elites and Transnational Business: Who Rules the World? (Edward Elgar, 2012). Her research has focused on several areas of sociology including networks of power, gender, work and sustainability.
Banner Image: Stylized world map and web of neurons (Editor).