Today, we’re bringing you an interview with Dr. Vanessa Bilancetti, Lecturer in Political Sociology at UniNettuno University, in Rome. Vanessa is one of those rare scholars who can bring together Foucault and Marx, and apply them both to the interesting empirical questions of our time. In this episode, she’ll be talking with us about how we can approach their scholarship as a toolbox for analyzing European Governmentality in the context of post-financial crisis political economy.
Vanessa’s research interests include the European Union, financialisation, feminist political economy and critical European studies. I had the good fortune of meeting Vanessa at an online conference this summer, held by the Critical Political Economy Research Network. Vanessa was presenting a paper, called ‘How to study the commodification of social services following a gender perspective.’ Between sessions, we got talking about Foucault and how he is used in political economy, and I found Vanessa’s take on the inherent compatibilities between Foucault and Marx to be really interesting. She later sent me some of her research, which I read, and .. well, that’s when I decided I had to have her on for an interview!
Vanessa is an advocate of allowing the methods of Foucault with that of what she calls, “an anti-essentialist Marxism and a critical feminist political economy approach.” So, in this interview you’re going to hear me ask her to elaborate on that. We’re also going to talk about the case studies she presents in her published work, on the European Fiscal Compact. I’m very grateful to Vanessa for coming on the show, and I hope you enjoy the conversation.
Before I sign off here, just wanted to thank everyone who shared and commented on last week’s “special commentary episode” on the prominence of the K-Hive, in academia. Hope to do more of those “essay”-style pods, in the future.
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American audiences may have heard Keir interviewed by Chuck Mertz a couple of weeks ago, on This Is Hell! We’re kind of hoping this could be a good companion episode to that interview, as we go deep into some aspects of the book that Chuck didn’t have time to address. And there is a LOT going on in this book! It starts by questioning the popular notion that Millennials and Zoomers are a bunch of entitled snowflakes, and suggesting that this myth is actually doing quite a lot of work, politically, in dividing young and old members of the working class, giving them over to the idea that they have fundamentally different interests.
But of course, as with many myths, an investigation of the facts produces a rather different persecutive. It turns out, says Keir, that the generations are stuck in rather different material trajectories. One statement Keir makes early in the book really caught our attention: “the older generation are still tied to the neoliberal hegemony of finance while the young seek to escape it.” But these trajectories are not a given. To the contrary, the logic of neoliberalism forces the Boomer generation to hold onto its material advantages, as a retirement strategy. And, as it does this, it condemns Millennials and Zoomers to a life of debt and forces them into a culture of cynical entrepreneurialism.
In the show, we talk with Keir about the role of events in composing generations. Events, he says, can disrupt our accepted ways of making sense of the world, and lead to the emergence of radically new social energies. But not every disruptive event will necessarily lead to some kind of new configuration, nor will every new configuration necessarily be a progressive one.
One particular event, the 2008 financial crisis, of course looms large in Keir’s story. Unleashing austerity on the developed world, it represents in a sense the apogee of neoliberal governmentality. Milburn cites academic theorists like Wendy Brown, Maurizio Lazzarato, and Jennifer Silva to try to explain how neoliberal capitalism tries to get us to think and act as if there is no alternative to neoliberalism, even tho we all know its not working — we know we can’t all be entrepreneurs. (This reminded us a bit of Adam Curtis, and his hyper-normalization documentary). A key figure for Milburn here is Mark Fisher, and his argument about consciousness deflation.
Whatever we want to call this system (authoritarian neoliberalism? zombie capitalism?), clearly it is making us sick. Throughout the text, Milburn make repeated reference to how we are living in the midst of an epidemic of “depression, insomnia and mental distress.” Yet there’s kind of a mystery to unpack here. He cites Jennifer Silva, for example, to explain how capitalism prefers us to internalize these issues, making them questions more to to do with our emotional and psychic resilience, than anything to do with the structure of the economy.
And, as he argues, this way of thinking about our mental wellbeing even showed up in the “assemblyism” of the occupy Wall Street movement. Nevertheless, he insists, Occupy’s approach to the collective discussion of experiences and struggles did offer therapeutic and even political potentials to the young people who participated. And, as we discuss in the show (admittedly not in nearly enough detail) there are things we can learn here, very much in the spirit of the late Mark Fisher, that might be applied to a new model of treating mental and material health.
Today, the reputation of neoliberalism is today irredeemably tarnished. The question before us is how to build and leverage democratic competence and confidence, to build a new order in the face of zombie neoliberalism. We ask Keir about his own podcast, ACFM, and the role the suggest that might yet be played by the so-called “weird left,” as a way of engaging in consciousness raising. He acknowledges that while counter-cultural practices sometimes get a bad rep (and deservedly so), subcultures like punk and DIY do still offer the possibility of “conscious raising” that could meaningfully counter some of the “consciousness deflating” pressures of neoliberalism.
In the closing chapters of your book, however, Milburn is under no illusions: the left has a long history of melancholia. Ultimately, to succeed, says Milburn, generation left is going to have to bridge the generation gap. As he points out, this won’t be easy — boomers are dependent on financial instruments, 401k, stock markets, property values etc. Equally, we know that as much as they depend on these financial assets, they have very little control over them: 85% of the stock market is owned by the top 10%; property values are dependent on development funds, retirement funds, university endowments, etc. So, considering these interests, it may be hard to bring working class boomers around!
To fix this, he claims, we will need to engage in a “dual strategy.” On the one hand, we will need to get serious about wielding the power of the state, and building economies of the commons, to show Boomers that socialism can work for them, too. On the other hand, however, we will need to build political movements capable of holding our representatives in the state to account. This isn’t going to be easy, however. Time and resources are thin on the ground. Solidarity economies, UBI, UBS, etc, can be one answer here. But, as he concludes, the key fact is that we need to build these alliances. If the generation gap really is a class gap, as he argues, then solidarity economies and the like may be the vital tool we need, to help us achieve the the kind of inter-generational unity we need, if we are ever to win.
This weeks guest is Lee Jones, a Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary, University of London, and one of the people behind the blog, The Full Brexit. I’ve known Lee for a number of years, and I find him to be a thoughtful and provocative commentator on a range of issues. He was one of the early voices, for example, to challenge the mainstream liberal analysis of the 2016 US election, and the idea that blame for the election of Donald Trump should be lain at the feet of white working class voters and other so-called “deplorables.”
Yet, I have found it harder to agree with Lee when it comes to the topic of Brexit. Drawing on the scholarship of Peter Mair, among others, Lee and his fellow bloggers at The Full Brexit have been developing a serious critique of the EU. At the core of their argument is a claim that the EU is a fundamentally anti-democratic project. One that was designed, from the outset, to disempower voters, by transferring jurisdiction over decisions to do with the economy from member states, to an anonymous technocratic body, called the European Commission — a body which, mind you, has only one directive, and that is to advance the European neoliberal project.
Now, to be clear, I pretty much agree with all of this critique. My problem, however, is that I find myself deeply confused about what the left ought to be doing about it and, thusly, what to do about Brexit. On the one hand, I am very sympathetic to the likes of Grace Blakeley, who has an excellent piece on Novara right now, arguing:
At its heart, the problem the EU presents to the left is not enough democracy and too many veto players. Even if the left managed the heroic task of taking control of the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council both have a veto, and both continue to be strongly influenced by both the national interests of the most powerful states and special interest groups. The combination of these factors would prevent any attempt at socialist transformation within the EU.
Equally, however, I do find it helpful to try to step back and listen to people like Yanis Varoukfakis, who argued in a recent appearance on The Dig podcast that we simply may not have a choice but to take our battle to the EU itself. This is the so-called remain and rebel strategy. Now, sure, as folks at Novara Media will be quick to argue, there is no European Demos — and in the absence of an authentic European polity, its hard to imagine how the EU could ever be reformed. But as Varoufakis points out on The Dig, the existence of a demos may be beside the point. If the European Union falls apart, its not like the alternative will be a return to nation states. It will likely be something much, much worse.
So, obviously, two very well-reasoned left positions, with diametrically-opposed strategies. This is the first in a series of episodes we’ll be doing on Brexit, and the European Union more broadly. And this one, I think, couldn’t be coming at a more relevant time. Lee and I recorded this interview on December 3, at the start of one of the most tumultuous weeks in British parliamentary history. One week earlier, the European Council had agreed to the terms of Prime Minister Theresa May’s draft withdrawal agreement, a large technical document which sets the schedule and terms of Britain’s departure from the EU, beginning in March 2019. But, as I post this episode, it is anyone’s guess what it going to happen next. This coming Tuesday, December 12, the draft is set to go before the British parliament, where it is expected to fail. After that, a confidence vote could be called for, but as James Butler of Novara Media has been arguing, that’s no easy proposition, either.
And there are a number of reasons why, especially from a Left perspective, we might want it to fail; principally, its commitment to a (potentially permanent!) version of the so-called backstop, which would put serious constraints on state aid, and thereby tie the hands of any future government led by Jeremy Corbyn. But in a dramatic development on Tuesday, Conservative backbencher Dominic Grieve passed an amendment stating that parliament can amended whatever deal May comes back with, which she must, within 21 days, according to the EU Withdrawal Act. This may make a no-deal Brexit impossible, tho Tory Brexiters have suggested the motion cannot be binding. So, we’ll see.
Anyway, all that to say, much is up in the air right now, in Brexitland. Perhaps all the more reason, then, to take a moment to step back, and spend some time thinking about the EU, and its democratic credentials. So, to get our Brexit series off the ground, here is Lee Jones.
Note: Lee’s latest article, referred to in the interview, can be found here.
As some listeners may know, I have myself been working on a book about the role of culture in Irish austerity. And I’ve always found Colin to be a really great writer on this subject. He has a real knack for seamlessly blending together both analysis of the material dynamics of the Irish financial crisis, with a critique of the role of culture as force sustaining the legitimacy of austerity as the necessary solution. This cultural project is one being carried out by government institutions, to be sure, but also by a number of other cultural agencies that exist within Irish society, as they seek to orient Irish people better to understand their responsibility in causing the crisis.
But Colin also has an analysis of how certain strains within the Irish academic left have perhaps enabled this process — namely by overlooking questions to do with the production of capitalist culture. Colin explains the role of capitalist culture in Ireland in a really accessible manner, so its great to have him on the show. I think you’ll really enjoy the interview.
You can find a copy of Colin’s article on my Dropbox. Remember, if you like what you hear, please leave us a positive review on iTunes. As ever, if you have any feedback, you can reach us on Twitter @occupyirtheory. Enjoy the show!