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Imperium, Dominium, Terra


Quinn Slobodian (@zeithistoriker) is an Associate Professor of History at Wellesley College. 

This post is part of our symposium on Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of NeoliberalismRead the rest of the symposium here. 

9780674979529About a year before Globalists was published, I presented in Mattias Kumm’s colloquium on Global Constitutionalism at the WZB Social Science Center. It seemed like an ordinary talk until the end when the first question came from someone who introduced himself as an international lawyer from Spain. “What are the normative implications of your talk?” he asked. I was stunned. It took me a moment to figure out why.

I’d never been asked that question before.

Historians ask about sources, they ask you to push your story forward or back—or forward and back—or wonder about unheard voices and unseen actors, or dynamics of power, or subtleties of translation and evolving meaning, about temporality and meta-narratives and space and agency and disciplinary placement and categories of analysis, but very rarely—if ever—do they ask about normative implications.

A couple of years and miles from Berlin, I’ve come to expect and even demand the question.  There are, after all, always normative implications to our work. Why not talk about them openly?

The LPE blog has been generous enough to gather pieces from seven legal scholars about my book. Few shy from the question of their Spanish colleague.

All are critics of the settlement I call alternately neoliberal globalism or ordoglobalism that coalesced in its present form in the 1990s around institutions like international investment law, European competition law, and international treaty organizations like the WTO and NAFTA.

The blog authors’ interventions cluster around questions of description and prescription. I will argue that the former supply the grounds for the latter.

What we see tells us what to do. I will conclude by suggesting what we are still missing.

The book begins in the dissolving Habsburg Empire and the attempt to restore economic health to a “mutilated” Austria in the empire’s ashes after the First World War. The starting point has the advantages of addressing the choc en retour question raised by Kojo Koram, who channels Aimé Césaire to ask if the boomerang might catch Western neoliberals unawares when the very disciplinary pressure and cession of sovereignty they advocate for the periphery strikes back in the core. His own work has shown brilliantly how the language of hardcore Brexiteers has curious echoes of anticolonial nationalists.

Yet by attending to the interwar period, including the League of Nations oversight of Austrian finances explored in far greater detail in recent work by Nathan Marcus, Patricia Clavin and Jamie Martin, we see that the boomerang struck home early (being modeled first on the treatment of the 19th century Ottoman empire, as Martin shows us).

Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek saw their own Austria as a prototype not as an exception to the discipline of the world economy in the 20th century.  Mises said in 1944 that “the new covenant of the League of nations will…have to include a rigid limitation of sovereign rights of every country.  Measures which affect debts, the money systems, taxations, and other important matters have to be administered by international tribunals, and without an international police force such a plan could not be carried out. Force must be used to make debtors pay.” His demand for what I call the “iron glove for the invisible hand of the market” was tested out first at home.

While the book begins local, most of it is spent at full global aperture watching this dynamic play out in the encounter of the richer and poorer nations in empire’s long twilight from the 1940s to the 1970s.

Ntina Tzouvala and Christine Schwöbel-Patel are especially interested in the relationship between what Tzouvala calls “the global color line” and “competing conceptualizations of the global economic order.” Both salute my treatment of the overt racism of ordoliberal figurehead and apartheid apologist Wilhelm Röpke but question my attempt to firewall his defense of white supremacy from the worldviews of his fellow Geneva School neoliberals.

Racism does not always clear its throat and announce itself. Tzouvala points out correctly that white supremacy works “through, beyond, [and] against legal texts and institutions.” She uses the example of bilateral investment treaties (BITs) used to limit actions of redistribution and redress in post-apartheid South Africa thus perpetuating a racialized international division of wealth and labor. Such laws are boilerplate templates, officially color-blind. Yet here the failure is not what is seen (human group differences as in the case of Röpke) but what is ignored—a willful blindness to history and the path-dependent legacies of colonialism and apartheid requiring repair. This latter blindness, often quite self-conscious, nearly all of my neoliberals share.

Both Schwöbel-Patel and Tzouvala are correct that it does set the bar overly high if one needs to literally document people on record using categories like cannibals to describe Africans to qualify as underwriting racialized models of global economic order. They highlight how the very attempt at typologizing—that Kate Redburn sees as the distinct contribution of the book—can also go too far. Drawing neat lines of separation can render invisible the submerged but shared qualities that might be more consequential in the end.

Yet even more interesting than the descriptive question is the prescriptive one.  Schwöbel-Patel suggests that the book offers “possible routes for reclaiming internationalism.” What normative visions of order might emerge from taking on board the unspoken as well as explicit realities of a racialized world order?

Tzouvala cites political theorist Adom Getachew’s important recent work, World-Making After Empire, in which Getachew argues that countries of the Global South gained entry to the international community only under conditions of “unequal integration,” meaning often a unique susceptibility to external tutelage, whether by means of fiscal advisors or at the barrel of a gun. Tzouvala and Schwöbel-Patel ask implicitly if it is possible to think of unequal integration tilted in a different direction—toward redress, a revival after a fashion of the very principle of “special and differential treatment” freeing developing countries of trade disciplines under GATT that the framers of the WTO so disliked.

The move here would be to refute isonomy itself as a false principle—as a spurious claim of equality that still does not stand up to the oft-repeated statement of the Indian delegate to the GATT that “equal treatment is only possible among equals.”

Such a salutary form of unequal integration would have both a negative and a positive dimension. On the one hand, it would mean the suspension of the battery of extraterritorial privileges held by foreign investors that I call “xenos rights.” Tzouvala points out that the once-ubiquitous BITs are now being rejected by a string of countries.

In Isra Syed’s response, which proposes the useful notion of “neoliberal encasement infrastructure,” she also celebrates the fact that the diplomatic immunity to local prosecution long enjoyed by the World Bank has been stripped by a ruling by the US Supreme Court just last month. One could add the failure of support for both the TTIP and TTP and that the revised NAFTA removes the ISDS provision (for US-Canada relations anyway) that allowed corporations to sue governments, long a target of globalization’s critics. (That this was pushed by Trump’s own trade team should already introduce some clouds over the sunny picture).

The positive dimension of a redefined North-South settlement would mean, presumably, special access for products of the developing world alongside, perhaps, commodity stabilization funds, increased aid flows, and even reparations for colonial legacies or the modified “right of return” securing freedom of movement for formerly colonized populations of the kind proposed in a recent piece by Tendayi Achiume.

For the ever larger number of people familiar with the history of the New International Economic Order, drafted by the G-77 bloc of Global South nations and passed by majority vote in the UN General Assembly in 1974, this vision of preferential integration will be very familiar. It has become such a touchstone that David Grewal includes the twenty principles of the declaration in full in his response.

Grewal presents the NIEO as a commendable vision of 20th century world order in the sense that sovereign states (the national) come to agreements (the international) about the depth, volume, and nature of private economic flows (the transnational). He holds this up against the model of neoliberal globalism I track in my book of governance at the level of the supranational.

In contrast to international agreements, supranational governance binds the hands of sovereign nations and, in a classic case of a collective action problem, allows more powerful parties (agents of the transnational) to lock in their own prerogatives over and against anything that might benefit the marginalized, the poor, and those otherwise distant from power. The outcome is supranational law as handmaiden to ever more economic inequality and concentrations of power ever more insulated from democratic accountability.

The examples in my book, from investment law to the WTO, support Grewal’s contention. In his contribution, Alexander Somek elucidates even more clearly the European story here, whereby the “transnational movement of goods, services, businesses and, most importantly, of capital” (tellingly, he does not mention people) in the European space erodes national self-determination and thus, arguably impedes the unfolding of alternative modes of social order and collective life. This constitutionalization of market freedoms, he says, is “neoliberal ordo in practice.”

Following from these descriptions, we can infer the normative demand for Grewal, Somek, and Syed is a variation on the well-known slogan from the Leave campaign: Take Back Control. Restore sovereignty to the national level and undo the aberration of the supranational.

But then what?

Is the restoration of national sovereignty assumed to be a prelude to a new international settlement or an end-state in itself?  If it is the former, what form should it take?

Schwöbel-Patel observes that my book shows that “neoliberalism was, and continues to be, in competition with other utopian projects. Indeed, neoliberalism has taken on the form it has today because of this competition.” “If we are to think of resistance and alternatives,” she concludes, “we might look at moments in which neoliberalism was deemed to be under threat or weakened.”

The book worked contrapuntally by design and set out to show the victory of neoliberal institutions as anything but inevitable. It also, despite how it has been read by some, did not imply that certain norms were hardwired into the European project that cannot be reformed. In fact, it showed the opposite: that all such projects are internally contested and open to challenge. The fact of human mobility, for example, within the European Union, omitted from Somek’s list, complicates any simply depiction of it as a machine lubricated only by capital flows.

That said, path dependency cannot be denied and my own logic makes the EU in its present form an unlikely candidate for alternative utopia. So if neoliberal globalism is currently weak, the non-trivial question is: what are its relevant counterpoints?

Enter the collective fascination with the NIEO. Some of the narrative drive of Globalists comes through a moral (even moralistic) story of the forces of darkness against the forces of light, with the NIEO playing the role of the latter for long stretches. Can it be that the horizon of political imagination—in my own book and the responses to it—remains the NIEO, what Sam Moyn riffs on Gunnar Myrdal to call the “welfare world”?

If so, I would argue now, against my own book, that the NIEO does not qualify as the alternative utopia we need today.

Better historians of the NIEO than I (including Getachew and Moyn) have been more forthright about its shortcomings. First, there is no contradiction between the NIEO and the principle of plutocracy. As many have pointed out, equality between nations as aggregates says little about equality within nations. If it only meant the former, then we could say that at least some of its objectives have been achieved. Branko Milanovic’s elephant graph is a vision of New International Economic Distribution of Wealth (if not an Order).

More to the point is whether the vision of global social democracy and the NIEO’s own demand for the endless “expansion of the world economy” is still thinkable.

I mention in the book that the NIEO emerged roughly contemporaneously with the Club of Rome’s first Limits to Growth report. The first effectively suppressed the latter, in part because of its uneven attribution of blame. The poor world was being blamed collectively alongside the true rich consumers of the world’s resources. A second Club of Rome report sought to account for uneven culpability and thus strengthen the argument for redistributive equality.

But here the question of whether the national or even the international is an adequate horizon remains critical. Not included in the principles Grewal excerpts is the reference in the NIEO Declaration’s preamble to “the reality of interdependence of all the members of the world community.”

Every ring on the gong of sovereignty must save one too for the challenge of reconciling it with the reality of interdependence—a very 1970s conundrum we have advanced little in escaping. The fraught principle that ran through that era of the “common heritage of mankind” used to describe ambiguous and vast spaces from the seabed to outer space—and deployed as often against postcolonial demands as in support of them—also commands an ongoing reckoning.

Like many today and very few in the 1970s, I have come to believe that any blueprint for future political order must place the accelerating reality of climate change front and center. Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright have recently suggested a range of models that might emerge in response to this unprecedented challenge. One is Climate Behemoth, premised on the full restoration of national sovereignty and an escalation of competition with little or no international cooperation. We see this at present—and it is why, as Grewal points out, the present reaction to neoliberalism is being pushed by “political entrepreneurs on the right.” This is explainable not just by the fact that the center left is “paralyzed” as Grewal suggests, though that is undoubtedly true, but also because the Right simply sloughs off the second challenge of interdependence. It exerts no drag on their counter-strategy.

Macron was a fool and a cad for trying to address climate change through a gasoline tax that unleashed the righteous anger of the gilets jaunes—but the Right would have never bothered in the first place. We might save a muffled cheer for USTR Robert Lighthizer’s attacks on ISDS and support of higher wages of Mexican auto workers but climate denial is a more central pillar of today’s alternative globalization of the Right—and one that the Left cannot afford to emulate.

The other option laid out by Mann and Wainwright is Climate Leviathan, a genuine world government—the apotheosis of what Grewal calls the supranational. It is unattractive and untenable too but it begs the question: should the reality of climate change put our normative questions into a new register? Is taking back control, rejecting xenos rights and BITs, enough when the ultimate challenge is one that permanent sovereignty over natural resources will do little to solve? Can we imagine a predicament in which the supranational is existentially necessary or can we rest our faith in the evolutions of the international?

It may be that I (and my respondents) made it too easy on ourselves to stick to balancing the categories of imperium (states) and dominium (property), as the protagonists of my book do themselves. Until we know where to place terra (earth) in the constitutional settlement, I’ll keep asking myself for new norms—and new descriptions.