But do they think?

Incredulity: how else was one to react to the news that an American think tank had recently dished out a series of awards to other think tanks—including the locally based Institute for Security Studies (ISS). On a little reflection it is easy to see how this is possible. As political philosopher Hannah Arendt once remarked: “The trouble with think-tankers is that they don’t think!”

True, Arendt was talking about the United States as the Cold War deepened and the Arms Race escalated.
Looking back on those days it is easy to see how it was that claims to authority and the command of a specialist language drove even the freest of thinkers to doubt their judgement. After all, it was all a matter of common sense to believe that the Soviet Union was intent on destroying the US with nuclear weapons. And when a demurring idea was raised, if only for a moment, cultural trappings and the talk of politicians brought everyone in line.

So today, when the sound bite and the league table seem more important than closing the Gini coefficient, handing out Oscar look-alikes to those in the same club might be seen as rewarding, never mind that it is impossibly difficult from the outside to see how. The ISS does deserve some recognition, though.

More than any other local think tank, it has passed the three tests necessary for a think tank Oscar. The first is that it has captured, stabilised and popularised the discourse around a single topic—in this case, security.

Second, it has used this base to invade other conceptual space. A good marketing budget has helped but, more importantly, it has captured talk shows and op-ed pieces. So the ISS and its energetic staff are seen as knowledgeable (and certainly quoted) on a range of topics—literally from Aids to Zimbabwe.

Third, this increased authority has leveraged more and more resources from the public purse—especially through development aid programmes—but also from the private sector which wants to promote the idea of security.

Think tanks have to be seen for what they are: entrepreneurs intent on embedding particular policy outcomes at the intersection of politics and management. Mainly this is done by emulation: drawing uncomplicated analogies between two sometimes wholly different situations and suggesting outcomes. Supporters of think tanks argue that their value lies in the necessity to tackle the demands of modern society with technical expertise. This rationalisation follows upon the insights offered on modernity by Max Weber, the 19th-century socio-logist, who suggested that as society grows more complex, the search for solutions that are increasingly technical are required. Aside from the bastardisation of Weber’s thinking, the problem is that contemporary think tanks seldom offer anything new—certainly never anything out of the ordinary.

This country’s experience certainly demonstrates this: although not new—South Africa’s earliest can be dated to the late 1920s—think tanks have played an important role in the diffusion of public policy in the past 15 years. Their chief achievement has settled the case for the neoliberal ideas that marked macroeconomic policy, especially Gear. The spread of this economic gospel in South Africa predates the post-apartheid explosion in local think tanks—the seminal event in securing the neo-liberal agenda was the visit to this country in the early 1970s by the modern father of free market thinking, Milton Friedman.

In quick succession the Free Market Foundation rose to prominence: in its heyday, the mid 1980s, it was the country’s foremost think tank. If the ubiquitous Leon Louw, then its director, was the face of “free” markets during those years, his role model—perhaps unconsciously—was Arthur Seldon, who directed the British Institute for Economic Affairs and whose influence is said to have led to the global implementation of “Thatcherism”. Like Seldon, Louw kept out of party politics but incessantly banged away at a simple but highly appealing political message—free markets can free people.

Absent from this silky mantra were any real ideas. History, sociology and any other effort to embed human relations within wider understandings were said to be beside the point: on offer was an understanding of society based on a particular rendition of common sense. Much like apartheid claimed that race was the defining feature of society, so this market discourse positioned social relations as defined by money. Put in social-theoretical terms, the narrative was reductionist; put in less polite terms, it was simple-minded—not to mention amoral.

Methodology plays an enormous role in securing these kinds of outcomes. So, as social issues are invariably framed as “problems”, deeper forms of the issue are factored away—said to be irrelevant to finding a solution. Around the issue at hand a limited variable is brought into play: each of these is located within the ideological framing of neoliberal economics and—surprise, surprise—the same frame determines the solutions that are on offer. In their method think tanks borrow from another approach to understanding social relations in South Africa, the scenario-building fad that is so keenly associated with the names of Clem Sunter and AngloAmerican.

As a result of this method, think- tankers believe that issues that display difference are resolvable in not unrelated ways. South African policy literature is replete with examples of this. Think-tank advice on higher education, or local government, or the criminal justice system, or the schooling system reveal the same sets of ideas located in tropes which seamlessly travel between disciplines and specialisations.

The passport between them is management-speak distilled mainly from new forms of public management are based in rational choice theory.

The knowledge produced by think tanks invariably mimics mainstream academic work, even though the search for truth—said to be the purpose of all serious scholarship—is of little concern within the think-tank community. Freed from the obligation of public trust, think tanks proselytise and promote self-interested forms of knowledge.

Unfortunately, drawing the distinction between the knowledge produced by think tanks and by universities is, however, not readily drawn by the public.

Peter Vale is Nelson Mandela professor of politics, Rhodes University, and Jonathan Carter is senior research manager in the policy analysis unit at the HSRC

Peter Vale

Peter Vale

Professor of Humanities and the Director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study (JIAS), University of JohannesburgPeter Vale is Professor of Humanities and is the Director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study (JIAS), a joint initiative of the University of Johannesburg and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
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