Spreading Ideas to Change the World: Inventing and Institutionalizing the Neoliberal Think Tank
Political Affair: Bridging Markets and Politics/Christina Garsten (ed) and Adrienne Sörbom (ed). Publised by Edward Elgar, Forthcoming
41 Pages Posted: 7 Sep 2014
Date Written: 2014
In The Intellectuals and Socialism, a text written in 1949, Friedrich von Hayek argued for the tight collaboration between a small group of liberal Utopians and a broader network of what he called “secondhand dealers in ideas”. In the long laundry list he then proceeded to give, he did not mention think tanks for the good reason that this type of actors barely existed then. It is unmistakable, though, that think tanks have become important elements in the intellectual structure that has carried the neoliberal agenda forward – moving it from marginal utopia to mainstream ideology. Today, a dense network of neoliberal think tanks is playing a significant role in spreading, entrenching and (in those times of crisis) defending the neoliberal doxa. Within this dense web, one actor has been and remains highly significant and interesting – the Atlas Economic Research Foundation (Atlas).
In 1981, Sir Anthony Fisher founded Atlas in the USA. In 1955, the man had already set up in London the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). As is well known, the IEA played a pivotal role in the spreading of neoliberal ideology within British politics and public opinion in the 1970s and 1980s. With Atlas, Anthony Fisher wanted to take the next step – the mission of Atlas would be to “to litter the world with free-market think tanks”. Atlas, in other words, has been pushing for and helping with, seeding, staffing and coaching of neoliberal think tanks across the world. When there were only a couple of neoliberal think tanks thirty years ago, today there are close to four hundred in more than 70 nations across the world.
Throughout this striking development, Atlas has played two main roles. On the one hand, it has worked as a “business angel” or “venture capitalist” for all those individual think tanks, helping them to build themselves. In parallel, it has also played a second role – as a “meta” think tank, it has been and still is structuring a transnational community of neoliberal think tanks. In this paper, I will focus on this double role, trying to underscore the mechanics deployed for each of those roles. My interest here is to deconstruct the ways in which this particular kind of “secondhand dealers” in ideas comes to influence opinion making and how in turn this reflects upon policy-making. I am particularly keen to understand the transnational articulation of this influence that is so specific to the case of Atlas.
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