• Matheus Gobbato Leichtweis


Matheus Gobatto Leichtweis

Different theories and methodological approaches have consolidated their ways as valid sources for the contestation of the international legal order. Critical legal scholars have remarkably interrogated the once presumed stability of international legal arguments; postcolonial, TWAIL approaches have focused on the discipline’s relationship with colonialism, imperialism, racism and gender oppression, while Marxists have been trying to comprehend the intertwining between international law and global capitalism. Within this myriad, Ntina Tzouvala’s recent book ‘Capitalism as Civilisation: A history of international Law’ stands out as a sophisticated materialist engagement with the history of the discipline that manages to reconcile different strains of critical scholarship.

In ‘Capitalism as Civilisation, Tzouvala addresses civilisation, not as a concept, but as a pattern or mode of legal argumentation, articulated by international lawyers to create hierarchies, manage the (neo)colonial enterprise and ensure the development of new forms of dependency and exploitation of Third World peoples. This unstable and adaptable pattern, reveals her, oscillates between two polar logics: the ‘logic of biology’ – meaning inferiority and exclusion from the ‘Family of Nations’; and the ‘logic of improvement’, meaning inclusion, or a promise of equal participation conditional on the adoption of legal, institutional and political reforms deemed “essential for the emergence and reproduction of the capitalist mode of production”. [1]

The structure of the book illustrates well how this logic has survived through today, showing a great capacity of adaptation. Importantly, it demonstrates that in spite of the demise of the term, the international legal argument of civilisation continued to operate, albeit drawing from other (new) disciplines, ideologies and practices to justify (not so new) forms of dominance, exploration and exclusion. But Tzouvala goes beyond the mere identification of this contradictory argumentative pattern and its persistence: she manages to situate this oscillation – source of instability and indeterminacy – within the context of capitalist mode of production and its expansion. She calls attention to the fact that this argumentative structure “exists within history, not outside or above it”. [2] Thus, she finds out, the content, meaning or, more precisely, function of ‘civilisation’ is ultimately structured by the contradictions of capitalism – the internal logics of its development, its encounter with different social formations and struggles like decolonisation, national and socialist revolutions and counterrevolutions. With this approach, Tzouvala highlights the historical-material relations that underlie the practice of international law and manages to save legal indeterminacy from the relativism, or “interpretive nihilism”, or anything-goes textualism which characterise hermeneutics, poststructuralism and postmodernism. [3]

Tzouvala advances a comprehensive understanding of the expansive dynamics of capitalism, imperialism and their relationship with international law. Interestingly, she distances herself from commodity-form approaches to international law – which she considers ‘static’, reductionist, to ‘thingify’ both international law and capitalism, and to focus on circulation rather than production. She does so by stressing the role of “primitive accumulation of capital”, not as part of the pre-history of capital but as a central and recurrent feature of capitalism. With this, not only she brings to the centre the role of law – “legal, semi-legal and para-legal violence of the state, settler or otherwise” [4] – and colonialism in the expansion of capitalism, but also exposes the role of racism and gender oppression in the constitution of the hierarchical relations that make up the system.

Nonetheless, when Tzouvala chooses to treat civilization not as a monolithic concept but as a ‘crystalisation of a particular argumentative pattern”, implying that ‘[d]esignations such as ‘civilised’, ‘uncivilised’ or ‘semi-civilised’ did not have a concrete meaning as such’, but only as “a bundle of juridical relationships imposed on some by others” [5], she actually is, to some extent, under the scope of Pashukanis’s thought, for whom ‘(…) law as a form does not exist in the heads and the theories of learned jurists. It has a parallel, real history which unfolds not as a set of ideas, but as a specific set of relations’. [6] Also, when discussing the limits of the civilisation argument as an instrument for third world real emancipation (The South West Africa saga), Tzouvala acknowledges the impossibility of ‘challenging imperialism and capitalism at their core’ ‘through the language (…) of ‘civilisation’’, [7] to some extent, thus, embracing the ‘legal nihilism’ [8] present, for example, in Miéville, for whom ‘[a] world structured around international law cannot but be one of imperialist violence’. [9]

‘Capitalism as Civilisation’ approaches the parallel processes of universalisation of international law, statehood, legal subjectivities and commodity-form. However, rather than focusing on these abstract forms and their relationship, she focuses, instead, on the discursive and argumentative patterns that constitute them and thereby enable the emergence of capitalism as such, along with its racial, gendered and cultural hierarchies. By doing so, Tzouvala transcends the rigidity of commodity-forms theories of international, providing them with colour and movement. This is done by exposing the contradictory legal aspects surrounding the global processes of capitalist expansion (primary accumulation, formal and real subsumption of labour) and by unveiling – via the demystification of statehood – the conditions imposed on the acquisition of sovereignty and legal subjectivity by not yet civilised peoples.

There is reason to believe that ‘Capitalism as Civilisation’ will become a milestone in its field. Its importance comes first of all from the audacity and the need to put the critique of capitalism at the centre of critical international legal scholarship. In this sense, the last chapter stands out for its denunciation of the endemic nature of the crisis in international law – law as part of the problem and not the solution! – the neoliberalisation of the university, the elitisation of the discipline, and the call on jusinternationalists to recognize the class character of international law. The book opens up a set of new research agendas, especially for critical international legal scholars interested in addressing global capitalism as the object of their intellectual endeavours.This is Tzouvala’s greatest contribution with this essential work. Specially in Brazil, a country that seems to have internalised the logics of ‘civilisation’, and where Marxist approaches to international law are still incipient and marginalised, the book can have a very interesting impact.


PhD candidate

Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS)





[1] Tzouvala, 2020 p. 57

[2] Idem, p. 5.

[3] Resch, Robert Paul. Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992, p. 174. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft3n39n8x3/

[4] Tzouvala, 2020, p. 28.

[5] Idem, p. 14

[6] Pashukanis, Evgeny. Law and Marxism: A General Theory. London: Transaction Publishers, 2003, p. 68.

[7] Tzouvala, 2020, p. 41.

[8] Chimni, B.S., International Law and World Order: A Critique of Contemporary Approaches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2017, p. 441.

[9] China Miéville, Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law. London: Pluto Press 2006, p. 319.

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