Four Approaches to the Power of Ideas

As part of my dissertation research, and for a smaller side project, I have been thinking a lot about “the political power of economic ideas.” Peter Hall famously used that phrase as the title of his excellent 1989 edited volume on the rise of Keynesianism across different nations. Since then, several relevant literatures have emerged which all try to tackle this question of the relationship between politics and ideas. Something about these literatures confuses me: I still can’t quite get a handle on how they are operationalizing “power.” Puzzling through that question led me back to the work of Stephen Lukes and his influential essay on the three dimensions of power (originally published in 1974, revised in 2004).

As a quick summary, Lukes was entering into the pluralism/elite theory debates to argue that everyone was being a bit foolish by focusing so much on overt conflict in their search for the power elite. If you define power as simply being when A gets B to do something A wants but B doesn’t, you miss all of the times when B wants something but never even gets to broach the issue (what we now might call “agenda-setting” power) and loses that way, and all the times that A convinces B to not want something in the first place (what we would call hegemonic or ideological power). Lukes argues that we need to focus on all three faces of power, and thus proposes a “three-dimensional” view of power. Lukes also argues that types 1 and 2 overly emphasize behavior and individuals; the third face emphasizes groups/collectivities and real, rather than subjective interests.

This emphasis on real interests is very Marxian in origins, and puts Lukes at odds with most readings of Foucault and other post-structuralist thinkers who argue that subjectivities – and thus interests – are historically constructed through and through. This form of power – call it Foucauldian or performative power – arguably forms a distinct fourth dimension (Digeser 1992). Performative power is the power to reshape reality that exists in relationships and power/knowledge and all that. Advertising might make a good simple example to distinguish power-as-hegemony and performative power: Coke advertises to you and convinces you that you prefer it to Pepsi, and thus exercises type 3 power (changing your subjective interests). But advertising in general also reshapes subjectivities by creating consumes who understand their lives through their consumption (or rejection thereof). And while Coke may, somewhat, intend to produce “Coke fans”, the broader kind of modern liberal subject constructed (partially) by advertising is not really Coke’s goal, and not really an exercise of type 3 power but rather the messier, Foucauldian stuff.

So, reading through those slightly old (but still very relevant and insightful debates), let’s come back to the original question: how could we think about the political power of ideas (economic or otherwise)? Trying to translate these four dimensions, I came up with the following schema:

1. Ideas as arguments. Type 1 power is all about winning observed, rational fights. I think some of the policy paradigms literature (following Hall) has this flavor. The ideas that matter here are the ideas held by powerful people – politicians, bureaucrats, etc.

2. Ideas as frames. Type 2 power is all about agenda-setting. The framing literature fits neatly into this mode: the way a topic is discussed alters the politics of it. If you can convince everyone that something is a privacy issue, not a security issue, maybe you win without even having to fight, or at least you change the rules of the game to make it easier to win.

3. Ideas as ideologies. Ideas are almost easiest to talk about in terms of type 3 power, as ideology and hegemony have ideas “built in.” For example, “development” arguably became a governing ideology in the mid-20th century, and nations and powerful international NGOs worked very hard to produce development, independent of whether or not development (as defined and understood within the ideology, i.e. increased GDP/capita) was in the interests of the individuals working for it.

4. Ideas as actors. Ok, I’m cheating here, but I can’t think of a clever term to fit aside from the intentionally provocative and obscure language of ANT. Type 4 power is most associated with Foucault (e.g. governmentality, the formation of subjectivities), but I think ANT, and especially Callon’s recent stuff on “economicization” fits nicely here – by making a particular topic or thing economic when it had not been in the first place, it changes the set of actors who have relevant things to say about it and struggle over it, along with the stakes of that struggle. From a different direction, Elizabeth Popp Berman’s work on innovation economics and economic policy could fit in here. You could read her story in two ways: did various policies get enacted because of ideas-as-arguments (e.g. there was a pro camp and an anti camp and the arguments of the pro camp converted the antis) or because economic ideas reshaped our understanding of academic science to make it into an economic activity, one which drives economic growth, and that this entirely changed the rules of the game by moving the playing field onto one in which those arguments were then determinative (in other words reading her case as one of both type 4 and type 1 power).

I’m not sure how useful this scheme will be, except that I think it highlights how much easier it is to talk about the type 3 and type 4 power of ideas, and especially economic ideas, than the type 1 and 2 power. And in turn, it might be the case that if we went looking for economic ideas and economists (who I would argue are very hard to distinguish for political purposes) exercising type 1 or 2 power, we’d struggle. For example, we do not see a lot of high profile cases of economists wading into messy policy disputes, pronouncing the facts of economics, and then policy simply settles on what the economists say. For good examples of the opposite, see the Smoot-Hawley tariff, the recent debates over the consequences of not raising the debt ceiling, or debates over climate change and carbon taxes. Professional economists have spoken out en masse, and their preferences have had very little discernible effect.

Perhaps another way of restating what I’m arguing here would invoke Isaac Reed’s (2011) distinction (drawn from Aristotle) between “forcing” and “forming” causes. It’s a lot easier to see the power of economic ideas (and maybe ideas more broadly) when we are interested in “forming” causes, that is, in the histories of the sets of actors and institutions we have at present and the dynamics govern their interaction, than it is to pin down ideas as “forcing” causes, where an idea would somehow push a particular political debate from one well-defined set of actors winning to another.

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