speri.comment: the political economy blog

Global capitalism and the rule of law

Christopher May bridges the disciplinary divide between law and political economy to deliver a clear and compelling account of the idea of the rule of law in global politics

Robbie Pye, Doctoral Researcher, Department of Politics, University of Sheffield

Robbie PyeThe ‘rule of law’ has become increasingly frequent and unquestioned in the lexicon of global politics.  Yet, as Christopher May points out in The Rule of Law: The Common Sense of Global Politics, it is not always entirely clear what the content of this new norm is.

This increasing prominence of the concept of the rule of law is demonstrated from the outset in May’s book as numerous examples of its use in public discourse are provided, along with some more in-depth accounts of its use in the news magazine The Economist and at the World Bank.  Throughout the book, May provides an extensive account of different aspects of the rule of law.  This spans various conceptions of what the rule of law entails (chapters 2 and 7), the driving force behind the development of the basic notion of the rule of law (chapter 3), examples of the application of the rule of law to post-conflict political developments (chapter 4) and in economic development (chapter 5), and the relationship between the rule of law and global constitutionalism (chapter 6).

May’s argument is not only that the rule of law has become ‘common sense’ in global politics, but that it is also a multi-faceted concept.  A basic notion of the rule of law has become globally accepted – what May refers to as a ‘thin’ conception of the rule of law in chapter 2 – though this is primarily a procedural form of law.  More substantive, ‘thicker’ conceptions of the rule of law also exist, but are more contested and not globally accepted.  This suggests that global politics is moving beyond older notions of international anarchy and towards more regulated, norm-driven relations, albeit to the extent that actors can agree to a thin rule of law.

Given its focus on how the rule of law is conceptualised and how it has become established as the common sense of global politics, it will come as little surprise that May’s research is based on a social constructivist perspective.  Drawing on the work of Charles Taylor, this conceptualises the rule of law as a social imaginary, a shared understanding interactively developed by actors as they make sense of the world they inhabit.  May’s theoretical position is developed more thoroughly in a ‘methodological interlude’ within which he outlines, among others, the work of Susan Strange, Margaret Archer and Robert Cox.  This section situates the research in a critical perspective that recognises the power dynamics and role of those social forces that underpin the production of knowledge; in this case, the forces that underpin the development and reproduction of the idea of the rule of law.

There are, however, some limitations in May’s account.  At times, it is difficult to link the theory to May’s primary argument about the rule of law.  His account of the development of this global rule of law norm in chapter 3 highlights the agency of epistemic communities of legal actors, though it is not clear what the role of these actors is when it comes to the post-conflict and economic development cases examined in chapters 4 and 5.  It may be that epistemic communities of lawyers have established the rule of law as common sense in global politics, but thicker conceptions have been driven forward and underpinned by other social forces.

Similarly, it is unclear if this global thin idea of the rule of law relates to the ideas of neoliberalism, which are outlined quite critically at various points in this book.  The neoliberal idea of the rule of law is described as a ‘thin procedural mechanism to deliver the order required for the expansion of capitalist markets’ (p. 186), whilst the global rule of law norm is also described as constituting ‘the thinnest end of the continuum’ (p. 185).  Yet a clear link between these two ideas of the rule of law is not made explicit.

This relates to another issue present in this book, something which is at times a strength and at times a weakness.  Beyond the introduction, the book relies extensively on a wide array of academic literatures, spanning economics, politics and law, to make its argument.  Whilst a strong understanding and clear account of such broad bodies of literature are provided, and the author undoubtedly does a good job in bringing together such a variety of scholarly work, it is occasionally not clear what constitutes part of his argument and what he is simply reflecting upon.

Overall, however, Christopher May provides a compelling account of the rule of law as the common sense of global politics.  This supplies a strong foundation for further research bridging political economy and law, particularly into the relationship between the idea of the rule of law and the global expansion of neoliberal capitalism.  More research in this direction would be a welcome addition to further conceptualisation on how the rule of law interacts with economics.

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