Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series: Zsuzsa Gille "Politics and Materiality: European Capitalism with a Human Face?" Response by Emanuel Rota

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

posted under by Roman Friedman
[On February 22, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the latest installment in its 2015-2016 Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series, "Politics and Materiality: European Capitalism with a Human Face?" The speaker was Zsuzsa Gille, Associate Professor of Sociology. Below Professor Emanuel Rota's (French & Italian/History) response to the lecture.]

Tiny Apocalypses
Written by Emanuel Rota (French & Italian/History)

Hungary joined the European Union in 2004, after a popular referendum held the year before. Since Hungary became a member of the EU, Hungarians have had many quarrels with the European institutions, and the populist right wing party that has been in power since 2010 has been voicing a strong popular resentment against Europe. The powerful Western European nations are accused of having a colonial attitude toward Eastern Europe, preaching equality, integration, and development, while exploiting their less powerful Eastern neighbors. In her recently published book, Paprika, Foie Gras, and Red Mud (Indiana University Press, 2016), and in her Unit for Criticism Distinguished Faculty Lecture, Zsuzsa Gille analyzes three crucial moments where the relation between Hungary and the EU took a turn for the worse. Her goals are both political and theoretical. As a political activist, she wants to understand the modality of power relations between the EU and Eastern Europe without falling back on the conspiracy theories of the populist right or the self-denigratory mantra of Hungarian liberal intellectuals. As a sociologist, she wants to use the ethnographic research that she has conducted to create a theory of power that can account for the way power operates at the level of the European Union. At the center of her approach to these two problems is the concept of materiality, a post humanist and nonhumanist approach to power and society.

The three ethnographic studies are in themselves extremely fascinating because of their undeniable symbolic power. A large-scale contamination of paprika, an essential ingredient in Hungarian cuisine; a boycott of foie gras, a specialty food produced in great quantities in Hungary; and the “red mud” spill of 2010 are all connected to and shed light on the role of the EU in Hungary.  By opening the Hungarian markets to red peppers produced in warmer climates (Spain and Brazil), the EU created the conditions for the use of “foreign” and untested peppers, which contained a contaminant dangerous for human health. The boycott of foie gras promoted by an Austrian animal rights organization caused economic damage to Hungary, while France, thanks to its political influence within the EU, remained untouched. The need to conform to EU rules in the production of aluminum forced Hungarian firms to absorb the costs of converting their technologies and to cut corners to save money and remain in business. In all these cases, Gille shows how, rather than improving the quality of products or the health of citizens, EU policies favored the most powerful Western countries and damaged Hungary.

What makes these cases theoretically interesting is that governance structures within the EU were neither the result of colonial projects, as claimed by right wing populists, nor the effect of Hungarians’ inability to become fully European, as suggested by Hungarian liberals. Rather, Gille states, it is the result of frictions and adjustments between the materiality of things and the EU policy regulating things, including small things. She enters into a productive dialogue with Bruno Latour and actor-network theory (ANT) to understand how objects can become equal participants with humans in networks, and can substitute human agency with nonhuman agency. Thus, in the clever title she chose for her talk, “Capitalism with a Human Face,” she refers not only to the famous idea of “socialism with a human face” that inspired the dream of reforming Communism in Eastern Europe, and to the self-representation of European capitalism as “humane,” but also to the nonhuman agency that shapes, through the regulation of material things, power relations in the EU.

By taking advantage of her large theoretical toolbox, she explains, rather convincingly, how the lofty, quasi-ethereal ideals of European integration co-exist with the feeling, shared by many Hungarians, of being disenfranchised and even colonized. By focusing on regulations and small things, she claims, what is subtracted from public opinion is a democratic discussion. From “doing the right thing” to “doing things right” political discussions are neutralized and left to the slow abrasive power of things to integrate Eastern Europe into the logic of Western Europe. The demise of democratic debates encourage rather than discourage the emergence of the very right wing populism that the EU aspired to overcome.

Personally, I found Gille’s approach extremely productive and I believe she is fundamentally right in her description of the phenomenology of power and materiality in the EU. However, I actually believe that the intellectual history of the European Union shows that the approach that she describes is not so much an unintended consequence of unplanned evolution, as the desired course given to European integration by Jean Monnet’s functionalism. As in the case of the inclusion of Eastern European countries in recent years, the European communities were designed to bring together nations that had been at war with each other in the recent past. Those who had observed the rise of fascism in Europe knew all too well that various forms of radical and authoritarian nationalism had been very successful among Europeans. Confronting the problem of bypassing both the resistance of national governments to giving up power and the attachments of populations that had been successfully nationalized, the European communities turned to things that could create automatic, impersonal spillover effects. In this perspective, Jean Monnet should be regarded as one of the early proponents of ANT. Unfortunately, the intellectual history of the process of European integration is also a victim of this impersonal movement and only a few scholars are willing to research this history which is so tied to the nonhuman.

A more substantial objection to Gille’s book should be her lack of comparative analysis between the events in Hungary and other areas in the EU. Since Italy and France, to mention two places that I have studied, have a large number of stories that would compare well with her three ethnographic studies, it would have been interesting to test her theory through comparative analysis. In particular, I believe that she would have discovered that the opposition between East and West would not hold up in a comparative frame. Italian and French farmers and small producers could easily add their testimonies to show that EU regulations have often disrupted or even destroyed local industries without producing tangible benefits for consumers and citizens. If there is a unifying feeling among Europeans today it is precisely that the EU governs small things without benefiting citizens or the democratic process. Hungarians are less isolated than they feel.


Finally, I also suspect that the Hungarian position in the EU should be explained not only in terms of the European policies, but also in relation to the dynamics of European capitalism, humane or otherwise. As we know very well, the division of labor does not stop within countries, but extends to the realm of international relations. As a matter of fact, the place of birth is still by far the largest factor in determining the income of anybody born on our planet today. The income of the poorest five percent of the US population is still significantly larger than any five percent of the Ethiopian population. Semi-peripheral countries like Hungary feel exploited by the core economies, while aggressively guarding their privileged position compared to peripheral economies. Thus, the Hungarian government could loudly protest the British proposal to exclude EU citizens living in Britain from their welfare state, a change which would impact numerous Hungarian migrants in the UK, while simultaneously building a fence to keep Syrian refuges and other migrants out of their country. I believe that Hungary’s position in the world economic system provides an alternative explanation of the role of right wing populism in Hungary. The European Union certainly creates tiny apocalypses, but the effect of the economic system of which Hungary and the rest of Europe are a part cannot be ascribed to EU bureaucrats. 

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