Comment on della Porta

In: Johannes M. Kiess and Martin Seeliger, Trade Unions and European Integration. A Question of Optimism and Pessimism? Routledge, London and New York 2019, pp. 46-50.

This is a useful chapter. It summarises the state of the art on an often-overlooked subject, listing the relevant literature in case readers want to explore the matter further. And it supplements this with concise case accounts of recent developments in the relationship between social movements and trade unions in a number of countries. I have nothing to hold against or add to Donatella’s piece. So I will limit myself to one specific aspect of what now tends to be called the “framing” of an issue before I proceed to several, more or less related general remarks on social movement and trade union politics in, and in relation to, the European Union (EU). The intention here is to sketch out a baseline for research and theory on this subject, in the sense of a list of fundamental conditions underneath whatever conjunctural, sectoral, topical, etc., modulations may be observable on top of them. I am doing this because I suspect that much of the work on and discussion of “European integration” is far too occupied with minor fluctuations in current events, to the neglect of deeply rooted priors that remain importantly in force regardless of what happens on the surface.

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Fighting the State

Review of Quinn Slobodian (2018), Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Appeared in Development and Change 50 (3), 2019, 1-12.

Neoliberalism, we learn from this truly eye-opening book, is not new at all; it is, in fact, almost a century old. Why ‘neo’, then? Because it was conceived and intended to promote the return of the stateless liberal Weltwirtschaft (the globally integrated world economy of the gold standard) which even Karl Polanyi sometimes celebrated with a note of nostalgia. Conceived it was by an identifiable, and now precisely identified, group of people who carried it and the project it stood for to its, however preliminary, victory in our time. The end of liberalism and the rise of neoliberalism began in 1918 with the fall of the empires of free trade and their replacement with a host of sovereign and potentially democratic nation states, carriers of a dangerous virus called ‘economic nationalism’. After 1945 followed decolonization and the introduction of majority voting in the General Assembly of the United Nations — anti-liberal political architectures that, together with the Keynesian gospel of national self-sufficiency, threatened not just economic progress but also, this was the claim, the open society, human freedom and dignity. Therefore, neo. (…)

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Greek to a Greek

Review of Yanis Varoufakis (2017), Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment, London: The Bodley Head.

Appeared in Inference: International Review of Science 4 (3), March 2019.

What a strange book—strange but indispensable nevertheless. From January to July 2015, Yanis Varoufakis served as the Greek government’s finance minister. Adults in the Room is an account of his battle with what he calls Europe’s deep establishment. It is often self-indulgent, sometimes sentimental. He also takes pains to show he is human. He describes his happy marriage. He takes dinner with friends. He remembers his student days, and argues with his daughters. He encounters German secret service agents who unaccountably urge him to continue fighting the good fight. His mistakes he assigns to a nature that is too trusting given the intrigues both abroad and at the court of Alexis Tsipras, his prime minister and the leader of Syriza.

And yet, the book is indispensable. For whom? For the journalists who helped the masters of Europe get rid of Varoufakis; for the armies of European functionaries, les ronds-de-cuir; and, one might hope, for teachers and students of the policy sciences. Varoufakis’s book provides an honest account of how our world is governed. It will be plausible to anyone who has tried to make sense of political life without falling victim to the charm of political power. (…)

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Through Unending Halls

Review of Joshua B. Freeman (2018), Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World, New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Appeared in London Review of Books 41 (3), 2019, 29-31.

It was in the early 1960s, I think, that our class at a small-town Gymnasium made a trip to south-western Germany, accompanied by several teachers. We visited Heidelberg and Schwetzingen and similar places without really seeing them; 17-year-old boys have other things on their minds. But we also went to Rüsselsheim, near Frankfurt, for a tour of the Opel car factory. I had never imagined that a place like this could exist: the deafening noise, the dirt, the heat, and in the middle of it all, people stoically performing minute predefined operations on the cars-in-the-making that were slowly but relentlessly moving past their work stations. The high point of the visit was the foundry in the basement – which, as I now learn from Joshua Freeman’s marvellous book, was the standard place for foundries in car factories of that era. Here, where the heat seemed unbearable and there was almost no light, half-naked men carried the molten metal, red-hot, from the furnace to the casting stations in small buckets filled to a back-breaking weight. Trained in the classics rather than the real world, I felt I had entered the workshop of Hephaestus. Looking back, I think it was on that day I decided to study sociology, which I then believed could help me and others to improve the lives of those slaving away in the basements of factories everywhere. (…)

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The fourth power?

Review of Joseph Vogl (2017), The Ascendancy of Finance, trans. Simon Garnett, Cambridge: Polity Press.
First published in German as Der Souveränitätseffekt (2015), Zürich-Berlin: diaphanes.

Appeared in New Left Review 110, March-April 2018, pp. 141-150

Like blood in Goethe’s Faust, money ‘is a very special fluid’. It circulates in the body political-economic, whose sustenance depends on its liquidity. [1] And it is surrounded by mystery. In fact, money is easily the most unpredictable and least governable human institution we have ever known. Allegedly invented as a general equivalent, to serve as an accounting unit, means of exchange and store of value, it has over time penetrated into the remotest corners of social life, constantly assuming new forms and springing fresh surprises. Even Keynes had to admit that his attempt at A Treatise on Money (1930) ran into ‘many problems and perplexities’. How money came to be what it is today, in capitalist modernity, may perhaps with the benefit of hindsight be reconstructed as a process of progressive dematerialization and abstraction, accompanied by growing commodification and state sponsorship. But how money functions in its present historical form is more difficult to say; where it is going from here, harder still. This social construction has always been beset with, and driven by, unanticipated consequences—caused by human action, but not controlled by it. (…)

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Review: Bruno Amable, „Structural Crisis and Institutional Change in Modern Capitalism: French Capitalism in Transition“

Review of Bruno Amable (2017), Structural Crisis and Institutional Change in Modern Capitalism: French Capitalism in Transition, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Appeared in ILR Review 71 (2), 2018, 550-552.

This book is historical-institutionalist political economy at its best. Obviously it is on industrial relations, but it is also, as it should be, on capitalism and the state, on politics and markets, and most important, on their dynamic over time. One thing that we learn (unless we have learned it previously) is that industrial relations cannot be understood outside of its capitalist-political context, and it must be conceived as a story, a movie, not a still, embedded in the long history of modern capitalist society. That history, quite appropriately, can be recounted as one of “modernization,” but not in the 1950s and 1960s American sense in which it stands for quiet, steady, universal, and basically self-driven development toward ever-higher levels of prosperity, democracy, and general happiness. Rather, what Bruno Amable identifies as modernization is a political project of a state under capitalism trying to design a regime that overcomes the dysfunctions of liberalism while avoiding the lure of socialism or communism—a perennial political search for a “Third Way” and for a political coalition capable of sustaining it that goes back to the beginning of capitalist industrialization in the 19th century. […]

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What about capitalism? Jürgen Habermas’s project of a European democracy

Review of Jürgen Habermas, The Lure of Technocracy, Polity: Cambridge, 2015

European Political Science, Vol. 16 (2017), No. 2, 246-253. Manuscript finished January 18, 2016.

The book to be reviewed here – The Lure of Technocracy – is Jürgen Habermas’ latest statement on Europe, its crisis, its politics and its prospects. It is the English translation – a remarkably good one – of Im Sog der Technokratie (Habermas 2013). The German original came out as Volume XII of Kleine politische Schriften, a series that dates back to 1980 and which, according to Habermas (2013, 10), it is to conclude. The twelve volumes, all of them collections of occasional papers, interviews and public lectures produced alongside Habermas’ main works, have long become an object of wide admiration, in Germany and beyond, for their unique combination of political activism, profound scholarship and, not least, brilliant essayistic prose, and they can already now claim a prominent place in the political and cultural history of postwar Germany. The Lure of Technocracy consists of ten pieces from the last three or four years, seven of them more or less directly concerned with European integration and its crisis since 2008. (…)

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