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Europe and the Global Crisis: An Interview with Andreas Bieler

by Cat Moir on January 10, 2019
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Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy and Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on international political economy, European integration, and resistance to neoliberalism, particularly as it occurs within and around trade unions and labour movements. He is the author of a number of books, including, most recently, Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis (Cambridge University Press, 2018), co-authored with Professor Adam David Morton (Sydney). I caught up with Andreas on the fringe of this year’s Historical Materialism Sydney conference, where he delivered a keynote on water struggles as sites of contemporary resistance to neoliberalism in Europe. We talked about class, social reproduction, and the crisis in the European project.

CM: The first question I wanted to ask you goes back to work you’ve been doing for a long time on the European Union and the project of European integration in relation to the dynamics of globalisation. Can you say a little bit about what role you think the dynamics of global restructuring have played in the long process of European integration, as well as in the context of the more recent crisis in the European project?

AB: My main argument would be that, if you look at the revival of European integration since the mid-1980s with the Internal Market program and economic and monetary integration, we can only understand that if we see this as part of a revival of integration at the global level. People have observed at the global level that from the 1970s onwards, but especially from the early 1980s onwards in response to the declining rate of profit, capital restructured the way in which production is organised, renouncing national class compromises and shifting production towards countries in the global south where they could access cheap labour. So production was reorganised and transnational production became ever more important in the way in which production was organised across borders. And I think those elements also underpin how European integration was reorganised: an increasing transnationalisation of production in Europe too, with a lot of northern European producers drawing on cheap labour from the European periphery. And you have this rise of the neoliberal economic consensus in Europe too, which with the four freedoms – free movement of goods, capital, services and labour – of the Internal Market underpins European integration. So in a way I would argue that European integration from the mid-1980s onwards has been part and parcel of what happened at the global level. A lot of people have seen it as the creation of fortress Europe, but I don’t think it was ever a protective project, it was a process of bloc building but via the external trade policies of the EU also pushing trade partners towards restructuring elsewhere in the world. At the end of the day it was always about tightening internal integration combined with openness towards the global economy.

CM: It’s interesting that you mention that two-faced logic. I’ve just been teaching a course on the relationship between regionalism and identity within the EU, and one of the key questions we’ve been looking at is how the project of a Europe of the regions, which on the one hand many people saw in the 1990s as a means of undermining the centrality of the nation-state, has in many cases given rise to peripheral nationalisms that have paradoxically flourished by appealing to ideas of national identity that are now asserting themselves against the European idea.

AB: Yes, and I would say that these too are expressions of neoliberal restructuring. You have this idea of regions of high growth in Bavaria, Northern Italy, certain areas of France for example that could cooperate based on their economic status and create a transnational identity that way, which as we saw did not work. But at the same time I would argue that the state has always had a role to play as kind of a nodal point of how capitalist accumulation is organised.

CM: So if that’s the bigger picture of how European integration is connected historically to the dynamics of globalisation, how would you construe the role of the global or globalisation in terms of the more recent crisis in the European idea? One narrative would be to say that the process we’ve just talked about has had winners and losers, and one reason for a loss of faith in the project of European integration is that many ordinary citizens and workers have lost out in this process. Is that how you see it?

AB: Yes, I think that’s exactly correct. As I said a moment ago the restructuring of global capital has included the transnational integration of financial markets so I think it’s no surprise that the moment we had the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States, which brought down US banks in 2007-8, it completely impacted Europe because European finance markets had been completely integrated with the global financial market so Europe was completely dragged down by this crisis. As a result, countries in the southern periphery of the EU who as Eurozone members had had access to very cheap credit as part of the single currency suddenly found it almost impossible to refinance their debts. So in a way the EU crisis can be understood as a result of this global integration. And I would also argue that one of the results of globalisation has been increasing inequality within societies. So some have done extremely well out of it, and whole parts of populations have done extremely badly. In economically good times, particularly in the 1990s but also in the period leading up to 2007-8, the inequality wasn’t so visible because there was still enough to be shared around, but the moment you have an economic crisis and austerity policies, this inequality becomes very visible and leads to general unrest, and opposition to European integration.

CM: What’s especially interesting to me about that is that in addition to the inequality between different EU member states, and particularly members of the Eurozone, which you mentioned just now, there’s also inequality within individual states. And in the context of the Eurozone crisis it seems that inequality between states functioned discursively to displace antagonism arising from inequality within states. So for example we saw that happening in Germany, which despite being a rich EU country has also seen rising inequality and falling living standards for many, and in the wake of the Greek debt crisis economic disparities between Germany and Greece seemed to function as a lightning rod for resentments within Germany about falling living standards, which also generated distrust in the EU project that was exploited for example by the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a right-wing political party.

AB: I think that’s a very good observation because there has been a general sense that the German export model functioned so fantastically well and Germany has been an overall winner in the process of global neoliberal restructuring, which of course it has comparatively, at the expense of others. Nevertheless, the result has been drastically intensified inequality also within Germany. The casual labour sector of the German economy has been one of the fastest growing in Europe and a significant proportion of German workers have not benefitted at all from the gains of the export boom, which is often overlooked. Historically, there’s no doubt that support for European integration has been very strong in Germany, and it remains very strong, but it’s also correct that the AfD has been able to exploit Eurosceptic sentiments. Germany is not immune in this respect.

CM: Given what we’ve just been talking about in terms of transnational cooperation and European integration, I was wondering what you think the prospects are for reviving the project of a social Europe, if there ever was such a project, and what role transnational cooperation on the left might play in that.

AB: At the moment because of this increasing inequality across Europe, we have witnessed the rise of the extreme right, although it has different expressions in each country. So in the UK it’s heavily constellated around Brexit with this strong anti-migration rhetoric connected to the Eurosceptic idea. In Austria, there’s also a very strong anti-migration sentiment exploited by the far right but it’s not linked to criticism of the European Union. However, there’s this shift towards the right as people are concerned about their security and the right come up with the simple answers. In addition, the question as always is where’s the left, can it offer an alternative to these answers? I remember in 2002 at the first European Social Forum (ESF) in Florence, there were 60,000 people together for a week discussing alternatives to neoliberal economics. It was an amazing experience that was really the high time of the European left trying to think about an alternative project for Europe. Unfortunately, since then, the European left has become very much fragmented. The ESF no longer takes place. There are people saying we need to restructure the EU from the inside, though one can also be very sceptical about that. Others are saying we need to abandon that project altogether because it’s irrevocably tainted with the neoliberal logic. There are all kinds of different groups such as DiEM 25 started by Yanis Varoufakis, but it’s questionable how much following they actually have on the ground, or whether it’s just actually a grouping of relatively elite figures. I was recently at a meeting of the European left in Bilbao. There were about 400 people as opposed to 60,000 in Florence. It was good, I don’t want to be negative about it, but it was mainly people from radical and left-wing political parties represented in the European parliament. So its focus was essentially on electoral politics in the EU parliament and potentially domestically. While not unimportant or meaningless in itself, this on its own I don’t think is enough to generate change. On the more positive side, there was this Stop TTIP campaign in Europe, which did bring together an enormous number of civil society organisations, trade unions and so on in opposition to the TTIP, which is no longer being discussed in that form. This was a kind of success. There was also the European Citizens Initiative on water is a human right, which again brought trade unions, social movements, environmental and other NGOs together in favour of declaring water to be a human right within the European Union. Therefore, there are some mobilisations within Europe on the left, which have been promising. However, whether that’s enough really to put forward a green left alternative for the EU is questionable and the forces on the right are very strong and organised at the national level with a xenophobic nationalist rhetoric dominating.

CM: That leads us into another question about your recent book Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis. There you talk about the tension between the dynamics of class and social movements as forces or agents of change. That speaks to the issue we just discussed of electoral politics alone being insufficient. What role do you think social movements have in Europe today, then, and how do you see that related to class-based movements as more traditionally conceived?

AB: Institutionally, as an expression of the left, trade unions have of course become much weaker throughout Europe, despite internal differences. Parties of the left, whether more radical like the German Die Linke or social democratic parties, are also generally weaker, with the exception of the Labour Party in the UK. Therefore, from a class perspective resistance needs to be much broader than just being based on trade unions, parliamentary politics or workplace struggles. As we heard from Lisa Adkins’ opening keynote at HM Sydney, the site of struggle has been expanding into spaces of social reproduction, ecology and so on. Once we have accepted that, then we can see that any kind of movement around social reproduction is also a part of a class struggle, and I think the big challenge for trade unions—and some are better at this than others—is not to continue to see themselves as a kind of privileged actor, but to open up to cooperation with these other groups and movements in order to achieve change. That’s one challenge. The other challenge, and I think we can see this especially in the UK with the emergence of more radical, activist trade unions with the organisation of cleaners for example, is how to create a much more rank and file kind of trade union organisation that is open to more direct action rather than focusing on simply discussing conditions with employers. From a labour perspective I think the ‘social partnership ideology’ has run its course, engaging with employers in corporatist, social dialogue institutions is longer enough to achieve concessions for workers. The globalisation of capitalism has shifted the balance of power so much in favour of capital that organised trade unions need to be much more creative and activist, even confrontational, in the ways they go about pursuing their demands. Water struggles are a good example.

CM: Could you give me an example of a case where that has happened?

AB: Certainly. In the Italian referendum about water privatisation in 2011, the CGIL public sector union was a key partner in a very broad alliance of movements including environmental groups such as Legambiente, other trade unions, and  development NGOs. This was a structure that was replicated at the municipal level where the trade unions organised the workers locally. In this case you saw trade unions coming to understand that they have a responsibility not only for pay and working conditions in the narrow sense, but much more broadly for the social conditions of labour beyond the workplace, concerns affecting the whole of society.

CM: So in a way some trade unions have accepted that they have to fight on the ground of social reproduction, that’s really interesting. Could you say a bit more about how you see production and reproduction connected in water struggles in Europe, and maybe also where else you see the front line of struggles around social reproduction in Europe?

AB: I think it’s important to remember that capitalist domination and hegemony is never uncontested. There are always ruptures. It’s easy to be too one-sided and emphasise the power of capitalism and hopelessness of resistance, but all kinds of things are overlooked if we do that. Water is a very important site of resistance globally and nationally in different countries, but there are others. In Spain, for example, you have a social movement supporting people who in the wake of 2008 were being evicted from their houses because they can’t pay the mortgage and there has been a struggle against house evictions in response to that. There are struggles against the privatisation of the health services in Spain and the UK. In the UK there’ve been rent strikes by students against universities using housing as a way of making more surplus with housing that’s often unaffordable for students. So I think there are all kinds of areas in social reproduction where you have resistance, but also in the sphere of production, represented for example by the cleaners’ unions I mentioned a moment ago who have struggled for holiday pay and pensions, which are not a given in this context. But in the end, I’m not sure we can distinguish so clearly between production and reproduction. Take the UK with the struggle against the privatisation of healthcare: on one hand it’s a social reproduction issue because it’s about the provision of healthcare becoming unaffordable and the intergenerational aspects of that as well, but when you privatise you also change the way in which the service is produced so it also has implications for workplace politics and the social relations of production now and in the future. It’s the same with water. Moments of class struggle around service provision are always struggles across the spheres of production and reproduction. That’s why it should be possible for trade unions to cooperate with social movements. It’s not automatic, but it should be possible. I think it’s important on one hand for trade unions to develop a broader appreciation of why water and health are important for workers, and on the other hand for members of social movements to understand why workers as workers are concerned about their pay and working conditions. As E.P. Thompson said, class consciousness emerges out of moments of joint struggle.

CM: Thanks so much Andreas. I’d like to finish by asking a more conceptual question if I can. Yourself and Adam position the Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis book as an intervention into debates about ‘the international’, and I was thinking about how you conceptualise the relationship between the global and globalisation, the international, and the transnational. Given that we’ve been talking about the resurgence of the nation as a salient political attachment, is part of your mission with the book project to assert internationalism as an alternative to globalism?

AB: One of the big issues we cover in the book is how can you conceptualise the relations between global capitalism on one hand and the interstate system on the other. We criticise approaches that oppose the state to the market, but also those who talk about the transnational state emerging as a result of globalisation. We argue that forms of state continue to play a crucial organising role of how global capitalist accumulation is administered differentially. The question is how and to what extent have the interests of transnational capital become internalised within particular concrete national forms of state? So it’s not about the global economy constraining what states can do, nor is it about states simply constraining global capital, but it’s a doubly internalised relation that differs from one context to the next.

Cat Moir
Cat Moir is Senior Lecturer in Germanic Studies and European Studies at the University of Sydney. Her research specialises in European intellectual history, with a particular focus on the German-speaking world.

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