Academic journal article Canadian Review of Social Policy

Building Capacity for Alternative Knowledge: The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Social Policy

Building Capacity for Alternative Knowledge: The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

Article excerpt

Introduction: Think Tanks and the CCPA

Over the course of the twentieth century think tanks gained increasing importance in capitalist democracies as places where research and policy development could occur, independently of direct control by states and corporations. James McGann (2011) has identified 6480 currently extant think tanks, worldwide, 30% of which are in North America, although there is a great discrepancy between the number of think tanks in the US (1816) and the number in Canada (97).

As is well documented, think tanks have generally been funded by and inclined toward the principal propertied interests - the corporate sector - reflecting the structural power that resides in capitalist control of both productive economic enterprise and financial resources (Carroll 2004; cf. Brownlee 2005; Burris 2008; Domhoff 2014). Think tanks furnish 'a crucial infrastructure and increasingly professional transfer capacity for their class based constituencies' (Fischer and Plehwe 2013: paragraph 10), combining expertise in research, consulting, lobbying and advocacy, in a multifaceted practice of political and social 'knowledge shaping' (Bonds 2011). In Canada, Carroll and Shaw (2001) have traced the development of a 'neoliberal policy bloc', composed of several key policy-planning groups, whose boards of directors form a dense network of interlocks with each other and with the boards of the largest corporations in Canada.

Particularly significant has been the rise of 'advocacy think tanks' (Abelson 1995) such as Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, which have played influential roles in championing the neoliberal policy agenda 'market-driven politics' (Leys 2001). Neoliberalism is an evolving and variegated paradigm, yet at its centre is 'the project of imposing market-disciplinary regulatory forms' (Brenner et at 2009:183) upon political and social life - thus the priorization of free markets, privatized assets, the free flow of capital, 'consumer choice' and even the 'right to work', in preference to public programs, goods and investments, regulations on business, and the collective rights of workers. But regardless of whether they are strident advocates of neoliberalism or more moderate voices, think tanks of the right and centre-right contribute to the hegemony of corporate capital - its prestige, perceived legitimacy and the credibility of pro- corporate policies. These groups function as embedded elements of a social network, within which neoliberal business activism has taken shape and form. Ties between the corporate world and the world of policy groups - and the direct participation of corporate directors in policy- group work - enable a continuing conversation in which political frames can be aligned and adjusted, effecting a moving consensus between capitalists and their organic intellectuals (Carroll and Shaw 2001).

The field of policy formation, however, has not been entirely monopolized by business interests. Alternative policy communities of practice have also developed, nationally and transnationally, as labour movements, left intellectuals and critical social movements have created capacity not only for collective action but for the frameworks of knowledge that might enable such action to go beyond immediacies of protest and resistance (Carroll 2014). In Canada, it was in the Great Depression of the 1930s that a community of alternative thinking and practice emerged in the League for Social Reconstruction. Founded in 1931, the League was a formation of left intellectuals mainly in Montreal and Toronto whose work helped establish the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Indeed, the CCF's founding document, The Regina Manifesto (1933) was authored by some of the League's core members (Horn 1980). But the League, and groupings of its kind, were distinct from think tanks - they lacked formal organization, budgets, physical plant, etc. - though they sometimes produced similar products (as in the League's Social Planning for Canada (1935) and Democracy Needs Socialism (1938), and its stewardship of the monthly Canadian Forum). …

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