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International Law and the Turn to Political Economy


An increasing number of international law scholars over the last few years have started to turn their attention to the study of political economy. To what extent can this trend be considered an indication of an underlying ‘disciplinary turn’? How should one understand the phenomenon of disciplinary turns? The answer we propose to this question in this article proceeds from the assumption that not all disciplinary shifts follow the same logic. Unlike the linguistic or the historical turn, the turn to political economy in contemporary international law does not represent an exercise in inter-disciplinary exploration. The concept of political economy used in international law has very little to do with the actual discipline of political economy. It is much more diffuse and unfocused in theoretical terms. What gives it its essential sense of identity is not any form of distinct methodological orientation, but rather its basic usefulness as a potential marker of critical self-distancing vis-à-vis the mainstream international law tradition and its ideological function as a mediating device for the expression of a deep-seated concern about the structural injustices of modern capitalism.

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1 See, e.g., Baars, G., ‘Reform or Revolution? Polyanyian v. Marxian Perspectives on the Regulation of “the Economic”’, (2011) 62 Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly 415; M. Fakhri, Sugar and the Making of International Trade Law (2014); A. Lang, World Trade Law after Neoliberalism (2011); Ranganathan, S., ‘Global Commons’, (2016) 3 EJIL 693; Salacuse, J., ‘Of Handcuffs and Signals: Investment Treaties and Capital Flows to Developing Countries’, (2017) 58 HILJ 127; Sarfaty, G., ‘Shining Light on Global Supply Chains’, (2015) 56 HILJ 419; D. Trubek and A. Santos (eds.), The New Law and Economic Development: A Critical Appraisal (2006).

2 See AHR Forum: ‘Historiographic “Turns” in Critical Perspective’, (2012) 117 American Historical Review 698.

3 E. Meiksins Wood, Liberty and Property, (2012), 167.

4 Ibid., at 168.

5 M. Koskenniemi, The Gentle Civilizer of Nations 2 (2002).

6 For further discussion see D. Kennedy, Legal Reasoning: Collected Essays (2008), 201–3.

7 See P. Mirowski, ‘The Political Movement that Dared not Speak its own Name: The Neoliberal Thought Collective Under Erasure’, (2014) Institute For New Economic Thinking Working Paper No. 23.

8 L. Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism (2014).

9 G. Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness (1971).

10 B. Hettne (ed.), International Political Economy (1995).

11 See C. Desan, Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capitalism (2015); Kreitner, R., ‘Toward a political economy of money’, in Mattei, U. and Haskell, J. (eds.), Research Handbook on Political Economy and Law (2014), 2.

12 See D. Harvey, The New Imperialism (2003); G. Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing (2007).

13 See N. Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism (1978); C. Barrow, Towards a Critical Theory of States (2016).

14 Schmitt, C., ‘Appropriation/Distribution/Production: Toward a Proper Formulation of Basic Questions of any Social and Economic Order’, (1993) 95 Telos 52, at 60–1.

15 C. Schmitt, Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europium (2003), 347.

16 S. Veitch, Law and Irresponsibility (2007).

17 On modern money theory see R. Wray, Modern Money Theory: A Primer on Macroeconomics for Sovereign Monetary Systems (2012).

* Senior Lecturer, University of Manchester School of Law [].

** Senior Lecturer, University of Glasgow School of Law [].

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Leiden Journal of International Law
  • ISSN: 0922-1565
  • EISSN: 1478-9698
  • URL: /core/journals/leiden-journal-of-international-law
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