Monday, 23 June 2008

Gramsci and European Integration

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.


Alex said...


Bieler's contribution, 'Class Struggle and the Analysis of European Integration in the Global Economy' sounds particularly timely given the Irish rejection of the Euro-federalist, neoliberal super-state. The wannabe political elite aren't very good at winning popular referendums are they?

I'm not clear whether it is part of Bieler's argument or just your commentary on it below, where you write:
"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?"

That strikes me as something of a circular argument. I mean, for a start when was the last you heard anything expressed in anti-neoliberal terms outside the left press?

The point about opposition to the Euro-integrationist project in the UK is that for a variety of exigencies much of the left is uncomfortable in expressing a clear rejection of Euro-federalism. Partly this is a long-term hangover from the detritus of Euro-Communism and its various sub-categories, which in common with a rejection of class politics marked out a line of retreat from defending the social gains of the post-war period, the overwhelming majority of which were constructed at the national level. Additionally, there are other factors such as confused, liberal, post-colonial guilt, the substantial economic resources channeled through EU institutions that mediate against politics , media, academia and even avowedly anti-neoliberal projects such as the European Social Forum taking a clear stance against Euro-federalism and last and probably least the bizarre allure that the notion of a so-called 'Socialist States of Europe' holds for some trots, which even were it a desirable end, I hazard is not what the Euro-federalist political project offers.

In many ways what you seem to be arguing - that "the language of sovereignty, independence, Brussels bureaucrats and the like" is 'right wing' - is merely a self-fulfilling prophecy as long as you continue to define such language as right wing. Yet, you would have a hard time in Ireland arguing that national sovereignty and independence are necessarily right wing, or that Irish opposition to having their laws and economic policy decreed from abroad by a 'Chief Secretary for Ireland' operating to a 'laissez faire' doctrine is right wing. Try telling that to Joe Higgins.

In other words, I fear you are in danger of setting up something of a straw man with your argument about "Right wing British euro-scepticism". Isn't it just right wing because you choose to confine your definition of euro-scepticism to UKIP and The Daily Mail?

In fact, as Bieler points out in his book 'The Struggle for a Social Europe: Trade unions and EMU in times of global restructuring', despite the TUC's conversion to the European Social Model following Delors' visit in 1986 the trade unions remain deeply sceptical about European intregration:
".. the TUC General Council argued in its report to the 2003 TUC Annual Congress that an expansion of the social model as well as assurances that EMU membership would have no detrimental impact on public investment were equally important. In the event, this statement could not overcome the resistance of those unions, opposed to EMU membership (TUC Annual Congress, 2003)" - (2006) Manchester
University Press. PP.1-254. ISBN 0-7190-7252-2

In 2005 the TUC Congress overwhelmingly voted to oppose the proposed EU Constitution - admittedly after the French and Dutch people had already holed it beneath the waterline - and in 2007 adopted a GMB resolution demanding a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and narrowly failed to support the RMT resolution that would have committed the TUC to campaign for a "No" vote in any referendum in the UK.

So, three questions for you.

Firstly, in your argument that:
"... the spectrum of euro-scepticism in Britain,.. 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

I don't see any evidence that makes this different from the national context in Ireland, France or Holland, where nearly all major political parties, media and press outlets supported the EU-integrationist project by calling for a "Yes" vote in their referendums. Why are the Irish able to reject 'Brussels bureaucrats' without being right wing, but not the British?

Secondly, I'm not clear from your report whether this is your view, or now also Bieler's. Could you clarify?

Thirdly, why doesn't the British left do something internationalist for once and learn from the Irish example by defending national democracy, instead of this endless handwringing that they might be considered right wing?

Phil BC said...

Cheers for writing, Alex. I'll try replying to the best of my ability!

You got me with anti-neoliberal opposition to the EU. What I was trying to say was seldom do you hear opposition to the EU couched in terms other than those set by the right. I might for example go into my local and overhear people moaning about council tax, the boss at work, and local forced demolitions. But "common sense" anti-EU sentiment mostly takes the form of UKIP-type rantings. I have never met anyone outside of our branch meetings that articulate their opposition to the EU in radical/progressive terms. And this is because the right have secured their hegemony on this question. (Btw, it was my argument - I have the unfortunate habit of inserting my thoughts and not make clear the distinction between them, something I'm rectifying from now on).

On "the language of sovereignty, independence, Brussels' bureaucrats", no, I don't think these ideas are inherently right wing. Again, the right has hegemony over these terms and this is partly because the left has ceded ground on these questions. Most of the left, my organisation included are guilty of this and prefer to talk neoliberalism, cuts, privatisation etc when in fact we should be championing these questions and offering an alternate vision of a democratic, socialist Europe.

In reply to your three explicit questions:

1) I would suggest the no camps are of a different character in Ireland and Britain, if we use Bieler's Neo-Gramscian framework to analyse them. Ireland as a small state in the EU Has benefited from membership in terms of attracting transnational capital from EU sources, but also from overseas. The sections of Irish capital tied to the former favoured greater integration. Those tied to capital outside (particularly US-sourced capital) tended to be against. Unions, Sinn Fein and the far left as various representatives of labour and middling elements were against further integration.

Britain is different because of its historic role as a major prop of global capital. All forms of capital make their presence felt and crucially, the labour movement is split. Against the EU you find representatives of national-oriented and internationally-oriented capital, small domestic capital, and some of the labour movement. On the other are EU-oriented capital and again, some of the labour movement. The hangover of British imperialism combined with a concentration of internationally and nationally-oriented in most of the media and the severe weakness of the labour movement would make any 'no' campaign the play thing of the Euro-sceptic right. This wasn't the case in Ireland because of the specific national identity that grew up in the context of being an historically oppressed nation, and the comparative strengths of different capital fractions vis a vis the labour movement. That's how I would see it anyway.

2) I think I've answered, and 3) I think the left should take democratic questions more seriously. And we have to if we are to have that vision thing.