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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Hello everyone! Welcome to Episode 25 of Fully Automated. This week we are joined by Dr Philip Cunliffe, Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the University of Kent. Phil has been a guest on the show before actually. He joined us in Episode 16, for our “What the Brexit?” debate, at the 2019 ISA Convention, in Toronto. And listeners may also be familiar with his voice from the podcast Aufhebunbga Bunga, which he records with Alex Hochuli and George Hoare.
Today we are going to talk with Dr. Cunliffe about his new book, Cosmopolitan Dystopia (Manchester Press, 2020), which is a detailed study of the negative impact of human rights discourse on global politics since the end of the Cold War. Now, for many on the left, this will be a controversial point. As he notes in the book, many see human rights discourse as a cover for US imperial ambitions. Yet, says Cunliffe, we can’t explain the popularity of global human rights discourse, or the extent to which it is invoked even by European powers, solely through the lens of American hegemony. You need a more nuanced account. And this is where Cunliffe brings in the idea of reading human rights discourse as a counter-utopian, or anti-political, symptom of the neoliberal era.
On the surface, this argument might appear paradoxical. How can human rights be anti-utopian? But I think any listeners who might have watched the Adam Curtis documentary HyperNormalization will already have an insight into where Phil is taking this argument. As he notes, a key value at the heart of contemporary liberalism is an aversion to the so-called “fate of utopians.” Human rights violations happen, according to this schematic, because people want to change the status quo.
In this interview, we cover a range of issues. For me though, one of the highlights is our discussion about the complete lack of critical self-awareness of people like Juergen Habermas and, more recently, Samantha Power. In their support for interventions in Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s, liberals invoked the idea of the ‘just’ liberal war, and paved the way for the liberal justification of future American wars, from Iraq to Libya and Syria. But this book is not just a critique of American wars — it also examines the bloody interventions of the British and the French, in Africa. The common element to all these cases is the fervent belief among cosmopolitan liberals that the world is better disposed to their ideals than it really is (which is not to say the world isn’t oriented to cosmopolitan ideals — just that they might not be liberal cosmopolitan ideals!).
Now, I’ll say that I don’t know that I fully agree with all of Phil’s positions here. On the one hand, I do think he makes a compelling case that there’s been a substantive “restructuring” of world order going on, as a result of what he terms the “cumulative weight” of interventions since the Cold War. But I am just not sure I am as persuaded as he, that self-determination and sovereignty are necessarily the solution to the problems of contemporary capitalist order. I may be wrong about this, and certainly I think the left would be foolish not to try to leverage the power of the state as much as possible, to achieve its goals. But I think there’s a risk of maybe fetishizing the benefits of what some call ‘delinking’ at the expense of engaging on the terrain of international and transnational institutions. For more on this, listeners might want to revisit Episode 14, where we talked about this a bit with Lee Jones.
Anyway, that all said, I think this is a magnificent and politically important book. And I think Phil has made a real contribution with it. It should be widely read, and discussed.
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.
Our guest for Episode 12 of Fully Automated is Maïa Pal, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Oxford Brookes University. Among other things, Maïa is a scholar of early modern European history, focusing on the colonial origins of the modern state. She is an editor for Historical Materialism. And she is currently working on a book project, entitled Jurisdictional Accumulation: an Early Modern History of Law, Empires, and Capital (forthcoming, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). You can find her on Twitter @maia_pal
This episode represents the third installment in our occasional series, on Marxism in International Relations. Previous guests in this series include Bryant Sculos (Episode 9), on the the topic of Marxist pedagogy, and Kevin Funk and Sebastian Sclofsky (Episode 10), about the sorry state of Marxism in IR, and in Political Science more generally. In this episode, however, Maia helps us begin to think about what it might mean to apply Marxism, in IR.
I invited Maïa on the show after I read her recent piece, Introducing Marxism in International Relations, in e-IR. In this piece, she argues that the contribution of Marxism in IR is to reveal what other, less critical approaches may contrive to hide. That is, how many concepts we normally take for granted in IR, like the international itself, can distract us from analyzing the social relations that comprise them, and the history of the material conditions that shape those relations, in turn.
As we discuss, some of even the most critical scholars in IR eschew Marxism because they fear it constitutes a kind of dogmatism. In the interview, however, you’ll hear Maia refer to a letter that Karl Marx wrote, to Arnold Ruge, in which he states:
“But if the designing of the future and the proclamation of ready-made solutions for all time is not our affair, then we realize all the more clearly what we have to accomplish in the present—I am speaking of a ruthless criticism of everything existing, ruthless in two senses: The criticism must not be afraid of its own conclusions, nor of conflict with the powers that be.”
So, in this spirit, Pal outlines for us what we might perhaps want to call a relentless Marxism — one unafraid to examine itself, and its own suppositions about the world.
As Maia says in the interview, the function of Marxism in IR is to challenge and destabilize many of the concepts it cherishes, and which might appear otherwise stable to the scholar: not just the division between the national and the international, but that of the political and the economic. Marxism, Maia suggests, shatters the “linear progressive narrative of the history of international relations,” as a discipline, and opens us up to the possibility of a much more messy and brutal history; a history of empire, and imperial conquest!
We covered A LOT of ground in this interview, and the result is a slightly longer episode than usual. But I hope you’ll stick with us to the end. Later in the show, you’re going to hear us talk about some of the implications of Maia’s work for the left today: whether or in what respects can we say the state in globalization still has political capacity, and how might the left conceive of this capacity as it grapples with the question of anti-capitalist strategy; and how debates about xenophobia among the working class and so-called ‘deplorables’ can overlook not only the nuances of working-class electoral preferences, but can distract us from thinking about the ‘normal’ racism of the state as it works to categorize migrant populations as undeserving of access to wealthy zones and spaces, within globalization.
Towards the end, we’ll also chat about what its like to be an editor with a left-academic journal like Historical Materialism, and get a little bit into the rationale behind the journal’s latest issue, on identity politics. Finally, we get into Maia’s current book project, and why she believes that Marxists need to pay more attention to the significance of ‘jurisdictional accumulation’, both in the pre-history of capitalist globalization, and as a specific condition shaping the play of global capitalist dynamics today.
This episode continues a short series of podcasts on the place ofMarxism in International Relations. Last episode, we had Bryant Sculos, of Florida International University discussing his piece “Marx in Miami: Reflections on Teaching and the Confrontation with Ideology,” co-authored with Sean Walsh, of Capital University. If you haven’t listed to that episode yet, check it out. We got into some great discussion about various techniques and exercises that allow us to use Marx in the classroom, and create space in students’ minds for thinking about the historically-situated nature of human consciousness. And I think what we took away from the conversation was this idea, simply, that while perhaps its not our role to ensure that our students buy into Marxism as a political program, there’s nevertheless a really worthwhile payoff if instructors are willing to take the time to model for students how Marxism can help us think historically about who we are. Where do our ideas come from? What is subjectivity? Marx offers a range of useful thoughts on all these subjects.
Sebastián Sclofsky is a PhD Candidate in the Political Science Department & Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida. His research focuses on the politics of criminal justice and urban policing — Looking primarily at South Los Angeles and São Paulo, he examines how negative encounters with the police shape residents’ racial identities, local space, and sense of second-class citizenship.
Kevin Funk is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Law and director of International Studies at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. And his main research focus right now is on the globalizing discourses of transnational corporations, and the emergence of micro-level zones of global-urban capital, like the “Sanhattan” neighborhood, in Santiago, Chile.
Meanwhile, on this episode, we are joined by Bryant Sculos, an adjunct professor at Florida International University (FIU), to discuss an 2015 piece he co-authored with Sean Walsh, of Capital University, entitled “Marx in Miami: Reflections on Teaching and the Confrontation with Ideology,” which appeared in the journal Class, Race and Corporate Power. In this interview we talk about the particular challenges of teaching Marxism in a city like Miami, with its high population of Cuban immigrants. You’ll hear Bryant discuss some of the unique challenges he encounters in the classroom, and some of the pedagogical approaches that he and his co-author have developed, as they seek to overcome them. Marx, of course, was one of the great thinkers of the historical situatedness of human consciousness. And, regardless of your take on his wider political program, the value of his approach to questions of human nature and political power, cannot be gainsaid.
Towards the end of the interview, we’ll also ask Bryant about his recent run-in with the far-right media, who’ve picked up on a recent piece of his, on the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast, which Bryant argues is exemplary of toxic capitalist masculinity … we’ll ask him why he refused to go on television and defend the piece.
The wonderful people over at Disorder of Things have posted an extended version of my recent review of Dave Eden’s excellent ‘Autonomy: Capitalism, Class and Politics.’ The original version, which appears in the current issue of New Political Science, is focused more on the book itself. This version tries to offer a more developed response to Eden’s thoughts on the place of the critique of the commodity in contemporary Marxism. Sincere thanks to Wanda and Pablo for hosting the piece. ~ Nick