Incumbency tactics – build a “common sense” (a la Gramsci)/capture the policy networks and possibilities

One of my favourite quotes about politics, policy etc is this

“The definition of alternatives is the supreme instrument of power.”

It’s by a basically forgotten American political scientist called E.E. Schattschneider.

It kinda gels with a bunch of other stuff about institutional guard-rails, and Gramsci’s notion of hegemony and common sense (as opposed to good sense).

It all comes back to the ways in which incumbencies are formed, maintained, defended and how new mindsets come up. The current dispensation, neoliberalism, was painfully and determinedly fought for, constructed, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, before taking over from the late 80s onwards. This has been covered (via a focus on outfits such as the Mont Pelerin crowd, the IEA, the Atlas Network) by many different scholars and journalists.

Part of the ways to consolidate the victory is to create an echo chamber, mutually reinforcing networks that can seem “sensible” and “reasonable.” Laura Tingle alludes to this in her recent Quarterly Essay (Tingle, 2020).

Here’s what I mean –

“As Shaun Goldfinch writes in his book Remaking Australian and New Zealand Economic Policy, the powerful personal networks of which Douglas was a part “allowed them to resist criticism, as their beliefs would receive support from the network. As key members of this network obtained senior position throughout the bureaucracy and private sector, they were able to dominate policy formulation.” A crucial step was to lock in business behind the reforms: a group that had often prospered in the protected economy.”

Tingle, 2020: 48

[Sidebar – one of the best PhD theses I ever read was by one Guy Pearse. The clue is in the name – The business response to climate change : case studies of Australian interest groups covers this – the capture not just of a regulatory process, but the actual policymaking process itself.]

Later on in her excellent essay Tingle points out

“The mantras that dominate Australian politics now are just as entrenched as the ones which once endorsed centralised wage-fixing and high tariff barriers. They are so entrenched they are almost unspoken, but often couched in Australian in the mode of thwarted ambition rather than philosophical endpoints: government spending should be lower; taxes should be lower; government does things worse than the private sector; there are too many blocks to development; the wages system is not flexible enough.

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is the hollowness of many of these presumptions….”

Tingle, 2020: 99-100

I could get all poetic and talk about William Blake’s mind-forg’d manacles, but a bit of Ursula Le Guin, from November 2014, suits just as well-

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings …


Laura Tingle, L. 2020 Quarterly Essay: The High Road: What Australia can learn from New Zealand. Melbourne: Carlton Victoria: Black Inc

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