I wanted to come back to Andreas Bieler's contribution to Saturday's proceedings, 'Class Struggle and the Analysis of European Integration in the Global Economy' because he presented it as an exercise in Neo-Gramscian analysis. Say what? No, I don't know anything about Neo-Gramscianism either. But at least I was a touch wiser after the lecture.
Gramsci's contribution to Marxism and social theory has certainly been influential, but how influential has been a topic of debate in international relations scholarship. For Bieler the basic positions on Gramsci's legacy boil down to two camps: austere and absolute historicism. The former holds that Gramsci's work was conceived at a particular point in time and is only meaningful in this context, which of course was 1920s and 30s Italy. If we take this argument to its logical conclusion, then knowledge is always contingent and context-specific. It means forever starting from scratch. Against this, absolute historicism acknowledges the historical origins of Gramsci's perspectives, but says concepts can transcend their origins provided they are adapted, reformulated and applied critically. If theory is to be useful it must adequately grasp and explain new phenomena. It becomes an obstacle if it coalesces into schools of concepts, ignoring new approaches and developments. Because this set of concepts has outgrown its origins, it is necessary that we speak of Neo-Gramscianism.
As with any Marxist analysis the starting point are the relations of production. For Neo-Gramscians the core collective actors are class forces and the struggles between them. Also, class forces are always fractionalised. This is hardly news, Marxists have previously analysed the contradictions within class forces around finance/industrial capital, blue/white collar workers, and public/private sector capital. But for Bieler these in the main have succumbed to the fusion of capitals and proletarianising/deskilling processes. In the European Union of today, class fractions tend to be organised around a complex of nationally-oriented, internationally-oriented, EU transnational and global transnational fractions of capital, which are in contradictory relationships with one another and, of course, are subject to the overarching antagonism with labour.
For those who operate with vulgar notions of Marxism (who, in the main, tend to be its opponents) the importance of class struggle should not be confused with economic determinism. After all, does not struggle imply openness? Capital is economically compelled to intensify the exploitation of labour power, and it is so driven to compete among other capitals. But this by no means guarantees the economy gets what the economy wants. In this sense, the economy conditions and determines the social in the *first* instance. For Neo-Gramscians class forces become conscious of their conflicts and ultimately their interests on the terrain of ideology. More often than not discourses of struggle do not assume an explicit class character, but they have the effect of mobilising class forces.
Right wing British euro-scepticism is a case in point. The language of class is never used, but the language of sovereignty, independence, Brussels bureaucrats and the like have successfully cohered a bloc of forces representing national and international capitals who believe they would lose out from further European integration. This is where 'old-style' Gramsci comes to the fore. Each class fraction engages in hegemonic projects to try and win influence in civil society and bend the polity to its will. But not all projects have an equal chance of succeeding. Looking at the spectrum of euro-scepticism in Britain, it tends to assume a right wing character owing to the resources at the right's disposal and the overall balance of class forces in capital's favour. They have hegemony over opposition to the EU. When was the last time you heard opposition to the EU expressed in anti-neoliberal terms outside the left press?
To illustrate the framework in action, Bieler looked at the case of Austria's accession to the EU in 1995. In the early 90s Austrian capital was more or less split down the middle between national and international orientations. The latter was for EU membership as the free trade area would give it greater market opportunities. The former however was protected by tariffs and regulations that, as a condition of membership, would have been swept away. Analysing this contradiction means identifying the key representatives of contending fractions and their actions. These typically would be employers associations, unions and political parties. In this case, the Federation of Austrian Industrialists were united behind a discourse that would make Austrian capitalism more 'efficient', but also its organic intellectuals contrived to answer concerns about Austrian security and the 'neutrality' it managed to maintain throughout the cold war. Compare this with the tensions that divided the Austrian Peoples' Party. It has traditionally drawn support from business, agriculture and white collar workers, but any unity the party had was swept away by the debate. The dominant bourgeois pole of the party tended to support the FAI's stance, whereas the middling and agrarian elements backed the no campaign.
Internationally-oriented capital won the eventual referendum because it was able to cohere a more convincing hegemonic project than its opponents. As the tide of history was flowing in neoliberal globalisation's favour, EU membership seemed common sense. But as we have seen in Ireland's referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, this is not sufficient in and of itself. Here the Campaign Against the EU Constitution was able to pursue its own variegated hegemonic project and negotiate the contradictions between the class forces grouped behind it to win the referendum.
Much ink has been spilt over the ramifications of the Irish decision, so I won't be adding to it. But what I took from this application of Gramsci to European integration is a change in my perception of his contributions to Marxism. It showed how Gramsci's abstract theorisation of socialist strategy in the context of a (relatively backward) nation state is flexible enough to explain its subsumption under the emerging sovereignty of the EU at a very different historical conjuncture. What it demonstrates is the essential openness of Marxist analysis and its unrivalled ability to produce convincing social explanation.