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The Globalists: Law, Race, and Empire In and Beyond Intellectual History


Ntina Tzouvala (@ntinatzouvala) is an Associate Professor at the ANU College of Law.

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

9780674979529‘We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not’, proclaimed Tony Blair in 1999, possibly the high-point of (neo)liberal internationalism. In his masterful Globalists, Quinn Slobodian reconstructs the intellectual history of a particular group of thinkers who were instrumental to the ideological and institutional ascendance of a particular idea of neoliberal internationalism that emphasized the role of law and institutions for the maintenance of global capitalism. Self-described as the ‘Geneva School,’ this group included members such as the German ordoliberal Wilhelm Roepke, the noted international lawyer Ernst-Urlich Petersmann and, according to Slobodian, Friedrich von Hayek himself. Notably, Globalists situates the formulation and diffusion of the ideas of the Geneva School in the intersection of two imperial collapses: the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the rapid collapse of European empires in the decades following the Second World War. The question of how to create and maintain economic order in the face of political collapse and re-organization led the Geneva School to undertake an effort to decouple the juridical protections of competitive markers from political authority, an effort accompanied by the Geneva School’s fundamental distrust in the proliferation of mass democracy and workers’ power at home and abroad.

Situating the Geneva School within this post-imperial context is important not least because this aspect of neoliberal thought was previously neglected or misconstrued through a selective reading of some neoliberals’ earlier critiques of empire as ways of building trade monopolies and rent-seeking. Perhaps more importantly, this particular way of contextualizing neoliberal thought enables Slobodian to clarify the neoliberal understanding of the state, not as a monster to be slayed but rather as a necessary guarantor of competitive economic order, but only when it is effectively disciplined and remade by international laws and institutions. The role of law is, thus, central in Slobodian’s account, given its very centrality in the thought of the protagonists of this book.

Slobodian is, however, quick to clarify that his is a work of intellectual history and not a comprehensive reconstruction of the emergence of modern international trade or investment law. Nevertheless, those engaging critically with international law, especially from a law and political economy perspective, will find important threads to pick up in Globalists. However, doing so might require us to move beyond – and acknowledge the limitations of – intellectual history as a mode of engagement with law, if we understand law to be both a bounded way of argumentation and a major site of enactment of power relations in capitalist modernity. My argument here is that in order to fully comprehend the actually existing entanglements between international law, empire, and race, a close analysis of the thought of those who co-shaped the contemporary international legal order will only reveal part of the story, not least during a period when explicitly racist arguments had started falling out of fashion.

For many neoliberals, this need for disciplining the state varied across racial lines. Decolonization struggles abroad and anti-racist mobilizations at home meant that the question of the global color line became inseparable from different, competing conceptualizations of the global economic order. Globalists highlights that concerns about race were familiar to the Geneva School, and indeed caused considerable tensions amongst its members. Notably, Slobodian carefully and painstakingly documents the explicitly racialized outlook of Wilhelm Roepke and his campaign in support of apartheid South Africa at a time when the National Party government in Pretoria was eager for Western allies. Importantly, Slobodian also cautions against the excessive exceptionalisation of Roepke’s stance, even though there is no doubt that his explicit commitment to racial hierarchy was uncommon amongst his intellectual companions. That said, through a careful reading of his material, Slobodian documents the intersection between the neoliberal caution against (if not open disdain for) mass democracy and neoliberal thinkers’ qualified criticisms of apartheid, which predominantly focused on racial segregation and exclusion from the marketplace, while they were eager to accept weighted voting rights in an effort to prevent the emergence of a black-majority republic, which was seen as a menacing prospect by extremist and ‘moderate’ defenders of apartheid alike.

However, the question of how we can understand the relationship between international law and race remains, especially if we agree on the limitations of focusing exclusively on the personal opinions of individual lawyers. As in Globalists, the example of South Africa is instructive. In the aftermath of the fall of apartheid, South Africa unsuccessfully attempted to be re-designated as a developing country under the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), since the white supremacist regime had designated the country as ‘developed’ based less on the economic realities of the country and more on the association between whiteness and development. Their request was promptly rejected, since for the GATT development was a one-way path. In the progressivist, linear trajectory of ‘development,’ the scenario of a ‘developed’ country being re-classified as ‘developing’ was simply unimaginable, regardless of the circumstances of the original classification. At the same time, post-1994, governments signed up to a large number of bilateral investment treaties (BITs) that, following the standard template of the 1990s, provided extensive, and often unforeseen, protections to foreign investors.

Here, I do not intend to rehearse the critiques of this legal regime, which are many and have started entering the mainstream of both the discipline of international law and politics. Rather, I am interested in the fact that regardless of the animus of the actors involved, it is the objective function of these treaties and of subsequent arbitral awards to sustain a regime of capitalist exploitation structured around racial lines. They do so by interpellating the South African state as the enforcer of this reality, often in violation of its own Constitution. For example, in the Swiss Investor v. Republic of South Africa arbitral award that was brought under a BIT between Switzerland and South Africa when local residents looted a game farm in the midst of heightened social tensions, the Republic was found to be in violation of its obligation to provide ‘full protection and security’ to foreign investors because of its failure to protect the investors’ abandoned property from theft and to prosecute those apprehended. In this context, a state with limited financial resources is interpellated as a primarily repressive agent that responds to questions of poverty and destitution through (racialised) policing and protection of investors. Similarly, in the Forseti case, the existence of BITs served as a bargaining chip for the extrajudicial settlement of foreign investors’ pushback against South African efforts to moderate the lasting effects of white supremacy in the mining sector. Even though the technical, specialised language of investment treaties and arbitrators differs markedly from Roepke’s habit of characterizing African nationalists  as ‘cannibals,’ it is the objective function of these juridical regimes to reproduce the modalities of racialised global capitalism and to ensure that even though universal suffrage became a reality in South Africa, its potential to modify the economic structure of apartheid remained curtailed. It is no coincidence, then, that South Africa is at the forefront (together with the states of Latin America – at least before the current turn of political tides in the sub-continent) of the efforts of the Global South to push for a rethinking of international investment law, which was rightly seen as hostile to even the most timid efforts for economic reform. The proposed and much-needed land reform in the country is, indeed, expected to be the testing ground for the effectiveness of the legal framework the Geneva School helped put in place, especially if the parliamentary pronouncements of expropriation without compensation occur.

Thinking about white supremacy as a global system of domination and exploitation that operates through, beyond, or against legal texts and institutions also enables us to bring together the themes of empire and race that in Slobodian’s book are analyzed in a degree of separation. Adom Getachew has recently invited us to think about imperialism not in terms of direct political domination, but to reconsider the thought of radical post-colonial leaders who drew in varying degrees from various strands of Marxist-Leninist thought, and understood imperialism as a condition of unequal incorporation in the global economic and political system. In this context, race and racialization emerge as contingent, ever-changing processes that are materialized in sites that are traditionally thought of as unrelated to such matters, including international economic law. Globalists offers an indispensable guide to rethinking the international economic order and its legal underpinnings, especially at a time when the most vocal challenges to the existing status quo seek to deepen, rather than to undo, these stratifications.