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Critical European Studies Need More Than Foucault

How can we create spaces for critical discussion about the European Union? Vanessa Bilancetti writes in response to Rachael Dickson Hillyard’s article on alternative approaches to EU Studies. Through her own research on institutional responses to the economic crisis, Vanessa Bilancetti identifies dissenting voices that can enrich an ongoing debate.

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I have read with interest the blog written by Rachael Dickson Hillyard and I share her frustration on “the ‘ready-made’ frameworks for researching, and thus understanding, the EU”. In the wake of the economic and financial crisis, I have felt the same frustration, and therefore embraced Manners and Whitman’s call for more dissenting voices in European Studies, just as Rachael did.

As many of us know, most of European Studies are still stocked in the debate between supranationalism or intergovernmentalism when looking at institutional questions. Or, they are in search of a European identity when looking at the socio-political questions. PhD students in European Studies are asked to frame their proposal isolating dependent and independent variables, pushing towards projects that are outlined as advice for the European institutions, rather than being critical.

Most critical studies are found outside the discipline of European Studies, for example in International Political Economy, International Relations, or Political Theory. However, to tackle the economic and financial crisis, the refugee crisis, and the democratic crisis that the continent faces, European scholars should critically analyse the causes and consequences of the crisis. People are dying at the borders of the European Union, citizens living in the EU are confronted by poverty, racist and fascist attitudes are on the rise. Whoever studies the EU should address the structural causes to these contemporary problems.

My PhD deals with the European institutional answer to the economic crisis, specifically the New Economic Governance and the Fiscal Compact. I approached this topic, firstly, looking at Foucault, and the entire galaxy of the International Governmentality Studies – studies applying Foucault to global governance and International Relations, as defined by Walters. Researchers deploying a governmentality approach have been very effective in exposing the ‘taken for granted’ of governance studies, of the institutional use of governance and, in general, of globalization.

Regarding the European Union, Shore’s analysis on the White Paper on European Governance was able to deconstruct the idea of participation presented by the European Commission, exposing its intrinsic neoliberal rationality. Nevertheless, simply focusing on the how question, to analyse the European institutional answer to the economic crisis, seems insufficient. It was necessary to bring in the broader question of the economic process and the role of finance.

For this reason, I turned towards neo-Gramscian authors, who have written some of the best analyses to reveal the power relations implicated in the construction of the European Union. For example, Van Apeldoorn’s analysis on the formation of the European Table of Industrialists is a very useful tool to understand the struggles conducted between different fractions of capital during the ‘80s and the ‘90s. In fact, the neo-Gramscian approach has exposed struggles taking place around the construction of the Single Market first, and later of the European Monetary Union (EMU). This approach discloses the direct connection between the new emerging European Union and a specific form of capital accumulation based on a particular fraction of capital: transnational finance.

Nevertheless, the neo-Gramscian approach takes for granted the formation and the existence of a European transnational capitalist class, thought as the direct consequence of a new transnational mode of production. On the contrary, the financial crisis, especially in the European space, has showed how regional and national lines of division are still highly relevant. In fact, as Gramsci argued, the unity of any class is a continuous process of construction and reconstruction.

In my work, I have tried to overcome the limits of both International Governmentality Studies and Neo-Gramscian International Relations combining them, as many others before me have tried to do. A certain use of Foucault can uncover rationalities and techniques inscribed in treaties, laws or reforms. And the use of Gramsci is very effective in exploring the economic dimension of integration and its social implications. This combination is able to address how and why new mechanisms of surveillance and control are deployed in the European space, and how it is possible to conceive forms of resistance and alternative projects of Europe. Through Foucault, we can relate knowledge and power, whereas Gramsci can bring this relation from the micro to the macro level, to imagine possible alternatives.

To conclude, more critical and dissenting voices in European Studies are necessary, because we need to start to think, to study, and to teach a different Europe, and to imagine a different European project. Different from the one in which we are living.

Please note that this article represents the views of the author(s) and not those of the UACES Graduate Forum or UACES.

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Vanessa Bilancetti | @vanebix
University of Rome La Sapienza

Vanessa Bilancetti is a doctoral candidate at the University of Rome La Sapienza. She has just submitted her PhD thesis ‘A Critical Reading of the New Economic Governance: The Case of the Fiscal Compact’.


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