Gramsci and the literature on think tanks

16 March 2015
SERIES The On Think Tanks review of books 7 items

Of the many metaphors used to describe what think tanks do, few are as ubiquitous as the notion that they supply ammunition in the ‘battle of ideas’. Hence, it is unsurprising that Antonio Gramsci’s grand theory – with concepts as rich as ‘hegemony’ and ‘organic intellectuals’ – has influenced several studies on these organisations. Here we will cover three seminal instances where Gramsci’s ideas have inspired research on think tanks.

One of the first was Rhadika Desai’s 1994 article “Second hand dealers in ideas: Think tanks and Thatcherite hegemony.” She explores how new-right think tanks contributed to the ascent of monetarism and the shift in the British political agenda around the rise of Thatcher. According to her, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), after years of building policy proposals and ideas that were thought beyond the politically feasible, in the 1970s seized the opportunity to storm the debate, precisely when the post-war consensus started to wane. That is, in an instance of ‘organic crisis’ they sought to attain ‘hegemony’, in Gramscian parlance. This was based on Hayek’s insight that in order to change the ‘climate of opinion’ it is necessary to convince ‘second hand dealers in ideas’ – journalists, academics and other opinion formers, and nowadays, policy experts. In this ‘war of position’ the IEA was accompanied by two key intellectual allies, the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) – closely linked to the Conservative party – and the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) – that provided radical hands-on policy recommendations.

Another example of this influence is Hartwig Pautz’s book “Think tanks, social democracy and social policy”. In it, Pautz applied a Neogramscian framework to research the impact of a new generation of think tanks in the transformation of social-democratic parties in Britain and Germany around the fall of the Berlin wall. He argues that after a wider move in the political climate towards free-markets, it was thought that the centre-left needed to rebrand its discourse. In this effort – which amounted to reassessing the sector’s relationship to the welfare state as a political project – think tanks such as the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in Britain and the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation became central to Labour and the SPD, respectively. Pautz’s central argument, consequently, is that think tanks are particularly influential within parties in periods of political uncertainty.

Thirdly, Dieter Plehwe and Karin Fischer’s “Redes de think tanks e intelectuales de derecha en América Latina” (text in Spanish) take this tradition further by extending it to an international level. Their research on the Atlas network, and their work across Latin America, leads them to argue that the sort of ‘hegemony’ free-market think tanks seek to attain goes beyond the national level, effectively conforming ‘transnational discourse coalitions’. This comes from the realisation that it is much easier to maintain a specific policy paradigm is inescapable if it is global in scope and argued in multiple contexts and domains. As such, in line with Gramscian reasoning, ‘hegemony’ entails both a pervasive and ubiquitous policy discourse and a network of intellectuals to carry it forward.

One could claim that these Neogramscian perspectives tend to understand the policy debate in confrontational terms, frequently from a party-political viewpoint, which sometimes is not enough to capture all of what think tanks do.  Nonetheless, their focus on intellectual change is indeed fascinating, particularly considering the shifting climates of opinion that have followed the 2008 economic crisis.