The recent special issue of the Journal of European Public Policy reviewed here focuses on the relations between political power and ideas in the European Union policy process. Although scholars working within the ideational tradition have often emphasized the central role of ideas in explaining change and continuity in the policy process, as Daniel Béland, Martin B. Carstensen and Leonard Seabrooke highlight in their introductory article, little attention so far has been devoted to a systematic theorization of the ideational side of power relations (p. 315). Opening with an article by Martin B. Carstensen and Vivien Schmidt, which proposes a new understanding of the notion of ideational power, the special issue then proceeds to present a mix of theoretical and empirical articles, plus a concluding commentary by Mark Blyth. It is particularly on the Carstensen and Schmidt and the Blyth articles that this review will focus in providing an overview of the special issue.

Power through, over, and in ideas

The article by Carstensen and Schmidt has the objective of systematically defining the concept of ideational power. While there is a growing literature in EU studies endorsing a discursive institutionalist approach, and supporting the general tenet that “ideas matter”in politics, an overall framework for the understanding of the relations between ideas and political power is still lacking. The article thus attempts to provide analytical tools for the study of ideas as an explanatory factor in the policy process. The authors start from a notion of ideational power as: “the capacity of actors (whether individual or collective) to influence actors’ normative and cognitive beliefs through the use of ideational elements” (p. 320).

While there is a growing literature in EU studies endorsing a discursive institutionalist approach, and supporting the general tenet that “ideas matter”in politics, an overall framework for the understanding of the relations between ideas and political power is still lacking.

While acknowledging that structures of power constrain the set of ideas entering political discussions, the kind of power the authors describe is a property of agents. The adoption of an agency-based approach in the definition of ideational power is directed to the investigation of “the interaction between élite policy actors in wielding ideational power, along with the interaction between élites and groups less powerful in terms of resources or institutional positions” (p. 320). Ideational power includes both a top-down and a bottom-up process for it consists in “the constitution of intersubjective meaning structures that agents both draw on to give meaning to their material and social circumstances and battle over to affect what ideas and discourses are deemed viable” (p. 322).

Carstensen and Schmidt see ideational power as consisting of three different kinds of processes, which they label power through ideas, power over ideas, and power in ideas. The first works through persuasion, and is composed of a cognitive and a normative dimension. The cognitive dimension refers to the kind of persuasion carried out through the proposal of reasoning and arguments framing the ideational context for policy-making. The normative dimension, on the other hand, refers to acts of persuasion carried out on the basis of the appeal to values present in a given political community.

Power over ideas is the imposition of a specific meaning to ideas by actors endorsed with traditional power resources—whether coercive, structural or institutional. Such control of the collective meaning of ideas is carried out through the diffusion of selected information in all forms of political communication, as well as through educational institutions and intellectual production, and is supported by the use and control over mass media.

Power in ideas, finally, is “the authority certain ideas enjoy in structuring thought at the expense of other ideas” (p. 329). This type of power refers to the background ideational structures—in terms of systems of knowledge as well as discursive and institutional practices—that select certain ideas and prevent others from accessing the sphere of public discussion. Power in ideas is thus based on the background structure of meanings in a given community (based on commonly accepted beliefs and public philosophies), and works silently and unnoticeably by limiting the alternative ideas that are deemed as eligible for political consideration.

A further and consistent interpretation of the relations between power and ideas is provided by Craig Parsons in his contribution. By analysing different approaches within the ideational literature, he reconstructs the various dynamic interactions between ideas and power. According to Parsons, a first way in which power and ideas are connected is what he labels “ideas of the powerful”, which refers to situations when those who hold certain ideas gain power and authority. A second way—“ideas empowering actors”—materializes when new ideas are produced and used by actors in order to gain power. A third way is called “ideas forming coalitions”, and concerns situations in which ideas allow gathering diverse groups into a common goal. A fourth and final way, which he labels “ideas into institutions”, refers to the inherent capacity of ideas to shape and transform institutions.

Mapping the power of ideas

Starting from the theoretical proposal put forward by Carstensen and Schmidt, the other contributors provide empirical evidence of the impact of ideas on the political and policy process. The article by Wesley Widmaier proposes an attempt to understand “the construction, conversion and crisis of economic policy orders” (p. 352) in light of the notion of ideational power. In particular, his study concentrates on the analysis of the emergence and decline of the neoliberal order in the US and the UK through a discursive and historical institutionalist approach. Leonard Seabrooke and Duncan Wigan, on the other hand, focus on a case of global tax reform in which professionals from the NGO community worked to persuade policy-makers to introduce a fair system of corporate financial regulation. By reconstructing the work of the networks of professionals from the advocacy world, the article shows how ideas can be powered through the reference to expertise and moral authority.

The distinction between power through, over, and in ideas. Indeed, this is not a distinction between different ways in which ideas play a role in agent-based power relations, so much as a more general interpretation of how ideas matter in social and political life.

The contribution by Matthias Matthijs concentrates on the causal power of ideas and argues that the adherence to German ordoliberal ideas of fiscal austerity and structural reforms by EU policy makers can explain the exacerbation of the Greek financial crisis. In a similar vein, the article by Oddný Helgadóttir shows how Italian economic ideas originally stemming from the liberal tradition of Luigi Einaudi, and then re-elaborated by a network of “Bocconi boys”, gained prominence in the European policy response to the crisis, and helped in establishing the doctrine of “expansionary austerity”.

The contribution by Daniel Mügge highlights the power of macro-economic indicators in shaping the understandings and opinions of both citizens and policy makers. The article critically engages with them and argues that, given the highly consequential effects of those indicators on collective choices, their definition and usage should be refined and put under careful scrutiny. Finally, the article by Daniel Béland and Robert Henry Cox discusses the coalition-building capacity of ideas by focusing on three different cases of ideas at the basis of new policy coalitions: “sustainability”; “social inclusion”; and “solidarity”. They call ideas of this kind “coalition magnets”, which are able to make groups with otherwise different interests coalesce thanks to their ambiguity and polysemy.

A solution or a new problem?

The collection closes with a critical commentary by Mark Blyth. Previous scholarship on the power of ideas, Blyth argues, “spent a lot of time fleshing out the ‘ideas’ part of that phrase, but have not spent as much time thinking about what power is, and does, in this research program” (p. 465). The collection, he continues, should be welcomed as an attempt to correct that shortcoming. However, too tight a definition of the relations between ideas and power may end up in the same loop that characterized the historical institutionalist attempt to override the problem of endogenous change by bringing agency back in the picture.

As Blyth points out, “if one starts with an agent-based view of power, one ends with a structural account of agency, and vice versa” (p. 466). In particular, Blyth argues that the trichotomy of power through, over and in ideas may be less fruitful than it appears at first sight when applied to empirical cases. Indeed, with the exception of Widmaier’s article, the other empirical studies in the collection do not make use of the trichotomy, and actually highlight aspects of power that are not included in it. Seabrooke and Wigan, as well as Helgadóttir, in particular, interpret power in a different way, which may be defined as “centrality in a network” (p. 469).

Power is for Blyth an “old whine” because scholars are involved in irresolvable disputes about its definition. As a consequence, he adds: “since there is no single workable theory of power, why there should be a single workable theory of ‘ideational power’?” (p. 469). The attempt to provide “new bottles”—in the sense of specific power categories—for the contested notion of “power of ideas” should thus be highly appreciated as an intellectual enterprise, but it may come with the cost of leaving out relevant cases of ideational power.

Ideas as both resources for, and constraints to power

To Blyth’s convincing arguments it is possible to add that the difficulties in matching Carstensen and Schmidt’s framework with empirical research may be due to the partially misleading nature of the distinction between power through, over, and in ideas. Indeed, this is not a distinction between different ways in which ideas play a role in agent-based power relations, so much as a more general interpretation of how ideas matter in social and political life. Power through ideas is the only case in which ideas are considered as a condition for an agent’s power. In this case, ideas are described as the means, the specific resource to which the agent resort to for the attainment of particular ends.

Power over ideas, by contrast, refers to the quite common intuition that those who are vested with power—in terms, for example, of position of authority, but also of less institutionalized but effective power resources—have the ability to shape the content of ideas that circulate within their community of reference. Lastly, the notion of power in ideas refers to the widely accepted assumption that the set of ideas circulating in a particular community at a particular time and place restricts the range of the new ideas that can emerge within the community itself. In this sense, ideas constitute a structural constraint not only for the emergence of new ideas, but also for the emergence of power based on ideas. However, in this last case ideas play no role in the definition of an agential form of power: they only constitute the ideational structural setting in which agents shape their ideational power strategy.

In sum, while the theoretical framework for the study of ideational power proposed in this special issue deserves praise as both interesting and fruitful, it will be able to express its full potential only once the problematic aspects blurring the distinction between the three interpretations of ideational power will be sorted out.

Photo Credits CC: Stijn Nieuwendijk

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Daniel Béland, Martin B. Carstensen and Leonard Seabrooke (eds.), “Ideas, political power, and public policy”. Special issue of the Journal of European Public Policy – Volume 23, Issue 3, 2016.


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