• Posted on: 5/04/2024
  • 4 minutes to read

By Sam Williams

Founded in 1981, Atlas is a global network of right-wing ‘think tanks’ that organise and build power so they can shape the systems and structures we live in, to advance their own interests.

According to its website, Atlas links 550 think tanks in more than 100 countries, including ten in New Zealand and Australia.

Its political alignment is spelt out in its vision “of a free, prosperous, and peaceful world where the principles of individual liberty, property rights, limited government, and free markets are secured by the rule of law”. The network links ideological think tanks, whose approach to issues is driven by this libertarian ideology.

Local right-wing think tanks the Taxpayers’ Union and the New Zealand Initiative are both official partners of Atlas. Atlas ideology also closely aligns with our current government, and its rush of regressive and reactionary policies.

Subtle vehicle for influencing public policy

In 1998, Atlas’ then President Alejandro Chafuen and then CEO Leonardo Liggo co-wrote an article in The Economist magazine, which laid out the organisation’s approach. Atlas promotes think tanks as potentially “the most effective, yet subtle, vehicles for influencing the development of public policy and the deliberations of governments.” They can do this by winning “the respect of journalists and government officials” and helping “shift the climate of opinion in favour of market approaches.”

In that vein, Atlas and its members promote policies that suit corporate interests, including public services cuts, denying climate change, slashing corporate regulations, eroding workers’ rights, privatisation, supporting landlords over tenants, and more. All policies that go against our values and knowledge as a union committed to solidarity and justice and the value of public services.

As Guardian columnist George Monbiot points out, these policies will be familiar to people around the world. Policy platforms by conservative leaders in the United Kingdom, Argentina, and the United States have all been influenced by members of the Atlas Network. Monbiot describes how, for example, Atlas member the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) helped create former UK Prime Minister Liz Truss’ disastrous economic policies. Yet last year, British media platformed the IEA an average of 14 times a day.

Organising in the open

Critics of the Atlas Network often characterise it as a conspiracy. But this framing isn’t helpful, and can make it easier for people to dismiss any critique of the Atlas Network. It’s not a shadowy cabal – Atlas and its associates are open about their aims and influences. Its website and annual report show the network has a deliberate, organised approach to building and maintaining influence.

Stock image of a man in a brown suit and blue tie, with a bag of money for a head, being pointed at by 6 hands.

As a registered charity, the Atlas Network is funded by foundations, individuals and corporates. In 2022 it had revenues of US$20.2 million (NZ$32.8 million). It awarded US$8.8 million (NZ$14.3 million) in grants globally for projects promoting “individual liberty”. About US$75,800 (NZ$123,000) was distributed in Australia and New Zealand.

As well as grants, according to its website, Atlas Network provides seminars, workshops, and mentoring, to build the capability of its member organisation and promote a sense of community among them.

What we gain from understanding Atlas

A useful way of looking at the Atlas Network is as a guide to how right-wing interests build and maintain their influence and power.

If we understand this, we understand that the current status quo is not the natural order of the world. It’s not set in stone. It is a deliberately set narrative, such as the coalition government’s narrative of a “fragile economy”, which is used to justify cuts to public and community services.

"A useful way of looking at the Atlas Network is as a guide to how right-wing interests build and maintain their influence and power.”

The Atlas Network is a structure through which it can be used to allocate resources, spread ideas, and aggregate power. This understanding helps us as we organise and build power and influence ourselves. We may not have the vast wealth that backs corporate interests, but we have people power.

We can still win hearts and minds and inspire people to mobilise for a better future. As CTU policy director Craig Renney says in his Last Word column, “delivering a better future is a choice”. When we see the machinations of the Atlas Network, we can choose to resist them and build something better instead.