Saturday, June 11, 2016

Moyn: Knowledge and Politics in International Law

Samuel Moyn (Harvard Univ. - Law and History) has published Knowledge and Politics in International Law (Harvard Law Review, Vol. 129, no. 8, pp. 2164-2189, June 2016). Here's an excerpt:

In his new book on how the world is ruled today through expert knowledge, [A World of Struggle: How Power, Law, and Expertise Shape Global Political Economy,] Professor David Kennedy enters this continuing discussion [of knowledge and politics] in brilliant, pathbreaking, and trademark fashion. Slyly presenting himself as a disinterested observer of global governance, Kennedy eclectically draws on twentieth-century perspectives about knowledge, achieving a synthesis all his own. Presented without theoretical encumbrance or jargon, A World of Struggle is a straightforward but sophisticated account that capitalizes on prior insight to achieve a unique and powerful vantage point. The superlative book wins its distinction not only because it constructs a novel theory but also because it applies that theory to how the globe as a whole is ruled — something no one in the canon of social theory has really done.

According to Kennedy, accounts of global governance are themselves typically products of an expertise that does much of the work of immunizing a contestable world from serious critique or change. “Terribly unjust, subject to crisis, environmentally unwise, everywhere politically and economically captured by the few, and yet somehow impossible for anyone to alter or escape” is Kennedy’s description of the contemporary situation. His “hypothesis” in response is that “this stability arises from the relative invisibility and imperviousness of the world of technical management to contestation.” To understand expertise is to grasp how the terms of debate and decision about solutions end up reinstating problems.

Much in the book is vintage Kennedy. There is a sinuous prose cast with enviable lucidity in spite of its high level of complexity. There is, as I will examine later, the structuralist vocation that, from Kennedy’s beginnings, has delighted in providing inventories of options of discourse (and charts graphically illustrating the argumentative choices). Indeed, one of the hallmarks of A World of Struggle is how heavily it focuses on the language that constitutes, in Kennedy’s account, the familiar realities of global governance, from the interstate system to the global economy. There is also, as I will take up later, the extravagant political hope that Kennedy never imposes on his readers but allows to lurk on the margin as an attractive but vague possibility.

Altogether, Kennedy’s new book reminds his old readers and instructs his new ones why he is, without doubt, the single most important innovator in international legal thought of the past several decades, a fact proved not only by his own arguments but also by his extraordinary influence. Inaugurating a “new stream” of scholarship on international law, Kennedy has brought the field out of its doctrinalism and parochialism into conversation with social thought and humanistic inquiry. With few possible contenders, like his close associate Professor Martti Koskenniemi, Kennedy may have done the most to make the “invisible college” of international lawyers visible, or at least interesting, to those outside it in diverse fields of academic pursuit. And this book takes that remarkable achievement to a new level. As a result, this is the rare text occupied with international law that is likely to be legible by — indeed, exhilarating to — outsiders to the field, elsewhere in the legal academy and beyond.

This Review focuses on what is newest in the book: Kennedy’s development of a theory of expertise to map the terrain of contemporary global governance. The Review proceeds in six parts. Part I begins my reconstruction of Kennedy’s theory of expertise by emphasizing the centrality of struggle to his account. Part II then provides an overview of the core of A World of Struggle, rehearsing Kennedy’s argument that endemic struggle explains the role of expertise in global governance. Part III completes my survey of the work by showing how Kennedy applies his general theory of expertise to international law.

From reconstruction, the Review then turns to contextualization and critique. Part IV puts pressure on Kennedy’s theory by placing it in the setting of argument from Bacon to Foucault concerning the relation of knowledge and power. A theory of global power that is discursive in general and structuralist in particular will have the vices of its virtues. Experts do no more than talk, and it is tempting to believe an analysis of their discourse goes further in explaining their role than it does. In particular, it may scant causation outside the frame of language and focus on the processes of rule at the expense of outcomes. Part V takes up Kennedy’s case study on the law of war as an instantiation of how his theory of expert knowledge works. Part VI concludes by examining whether Kennedy is subject to his own analysis and how he hints at the promise of a form of responsible power beyond expertise. Most worrisome about the book is that Kennedy is driven to a skepticism of expertise so withering that the sole alternative he can recommend — a potentially empty one — is what he calls “unknowing.”