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Historical Materialism #6

Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law

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“China Mieville’s brilliantly original book is an indispensable guide for anyone concerned with international law. It is the most comprehensive scholarly account available of the central theoretical debates about the foundations of international law. It offers a guide for the lay reader into the central texts in the field.”—Peter Gowan, Professor, International Relations, London Metropolitan University.

Mieville critically examines existing theories of international law and offers a compelling alternative Marxist view.

China Mieville, PhD, International Relations, London School of Economics, is an independent researcher and an award-winning novelist. His novel Perdido Street Station won the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

380 pages, Paperback

First published May 1, 2006

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About the author

China Miéville

146 books14k followers
A British "fantastic fiction" writer. He is fond of describing his work as "weird fiction" (after early 20th century pulp and horror writers such as H. P. Lovecraft), and belongs to a loose group of writers sometimes called New Weird who consciously attempt to move fantasy away from commercial, genre clichés of Tolkien epigons. He is also active in left-wing politics as a member of the Socialist Workers Party. He has stood for the House of Commons for the Socialist Alliance, and published a book on Marxism and international law.

Excerpted from Wikipedia.

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Displaying 1 - 12 of 12 reviews
Profile Image for Brad.
Author 2 books1,715 followers
September 7, 2009
China Miéville's theory of international law is easy to sum up. In fact, it's key to the title of his work. Taken from Karl Marx's Das Kapital vol. 1, the entire quote reads: "Between equal rights, force decides."

Miéville's argument is convincing. He traces the history of international law from ancient flirtings with pseudo-international law to the birth of sovereignty to mercantilism to the capitalist monopolies and colonialism to imperialism, globalization and human rights. He shows at every turn how international law has always been and remains a bastion of theoretical equal rights between polities while entrenching, in reality, violence and coercion in a system of ultimate inequality where "force" is the deciding factor that makes powerful polities "more equal" than weak polities.

Moreover, Miéville shows how the supposed "rule of law" exists -- like so much else in our capitalist world -- to convince the oppressed that they have "rights" that make oppression impossible, to convince the oppressed that they are not oppressed and cannot be oppressed. Meanwhile, the oppressors continue to do what they want, when they want, and use the process of international law, a process in which every action can be argued as simultaneously legal and illegal, to justify and/or rationalize their wars, reprisals, and thefts of natural resources.

In the end, Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law is a damning attack on the rule of law in the international sphere, suggesting that we would all be much better off if we rejected the "rule of law," or at the very least started holding nations responsible for the "justice" of their actions rather than letting them claim legality for actions that are quite clearly unjust -- and this means all nations, not just those who are weak enough to be bullied. Miéville points out that law and justice are not the same, and so long as we tie them together we doom ourselves to serving under the yoke of a system in which violence inheres and property and economic expansion are more important than all other concerns.

If you're interested in international law, Marxism, capitalism, or just the writing of China Miéville (this text certainly informs his fiction writing) then this book is for you. It is an intelligent meditation on law, a well argued thesis, fair minded, and it is, more than anything else, thought provoking.
Profile Image for 6655321.
209 reviews160 followers
February 3, 2013
I think the absolute strength to this book (other than being a solid introduction to: perspectives on international law, law, Marxist perspectives on law, a Marxist critique of international law, etc.) is the absolute lack of dogmatism underpinning Mieville's work. That is, while some may complain that he simply closes by stating that the war torn and bloody world around us IS the world of international law envisioned by capitalism; he is, rather, providing a trenchant analysis without condescending his reader with an assumed conclusion that is 'universally valid' because of a party line (unlike, for example, sub-par Marxist apologetics like Zizek). Worth reading although some sections are slightly slim compared to others (minor quibble).
Profile Image for sologdin.
1,719 reviews642 followers
October 14, 2014
hegel's theory of tragedy (equated to the confrontation of Right with Right) applied to law: between equal rights, force decides, &c.

very thoughtful overall. works through some soviet legal theorists; much discussion on the 'form' of law, which is one of the standard marxist rhetorics.
Profile Image for Roberto Yoed.
689 reviews
October 10, 2022
Law and juridical jargon: better read Althusser's ISA to understand more about how legal and juridical instances are at service of Capital.
Profile Image for Holly (The GrimDragon).
1,059 reviews233 followers
February 16, 2016
"The title to this book comes from Marx's observation that 'between equal rights, force decides.' At first sight this might look like a cynical claim that power-politics are the only ultimately determining reality, that equal rights collapse before force. In fact, as I try to show, though it is quite true that 'force decides', the 'equal rights' it mediates are really, and remain, truly equal. This is precisely the paradox of international law: force is determining, but determining between relations which cannot be understood except as equal in fundamentally constitutive and constituting ways. The equality and the force determine each other: the equality gives determining force its shape; the force -- violence -- is equality's shadow."

(Reading challenge: A nonfiction book)
Profile Image for Matt.
445 reviews
January 7, 2018
I struggled with this book. Not in a cool Marxist, class struggle kind of way. Just in the run-of-the-mill struggle with the writing and ideas kind of way.

Mieville opens by explaining that this is a revised version of his doctoral thesis. And it reads like one. Especially for the first one hundred pages or so. Not surprisingly, it feels like his intended audience is an academic panel. About 50 pages in I almost bailed when the writing culminated in pedagogical buzzwords and shorthand:
In the US the catholicism of the movement has been extreme, where the ’New Stream’ has incorporated a 'normative philosophy, critical theory, structuralism, anthropology, prepositional logic, literature, sociology, politics and psychiatry', as a subset of American CLS which has its own origins in 'Legal Realism, New Left anarchism, Sartrean existentialism, neo-progressive historiography, liberal sociology, radical social theory and empirical social science'- along, again, with the now ubiquitous postmodern social and linguistic theory, in both Foucauldian and Derridean variants. Pg. 47.

But powering through does have its rewards.

Coercive force is behind legal proscription. The first third of the book spends considerable time exploring the theoretical justification for this reality. As a legal practitioner (and I admittedly would not label myself a legal theorist), I was surprised that there was such a dispute whether law is anything other than societal norms enforced with… force. This seems fairly foundational There does not seem to be serious contention that courts accept a "natural" law uncodified or, for those in common law nations, backed by precedent. Even when grand principles such as “life, liberty and happiness” are expressed, those principles are malleably fit within an existing normative legal framework. Therefore, the idea that international law is anchorless and theoretically unmoored seems no less inconsistent than the arbitrary imposition of domestic law by an equally theoretically unsound sovereign.

However, Mieville moves into some potentially interesting ground when he focuses on the Soviet legal theorist Evgeny Pashukanis. The notion that law can still be law without a sovereign exercising authority is possible, but there still must be force. Whether law is an expression of capitalist norms or individual tyranny or well-meaning pacifists, there still needs to be a sanction to make law Law. Pashukanis envisioned a post-State that could accommodate justice but not through law. What that looks like is unexplored.

I would have preferred a further examination of what Marxist justice looks like domestically and internationally, but Mieville moves on. What follows is a fascinating historical survey of international law. Informative and well-written, but it seemed to drift from his thesis.

In the end, Mieville deduces international law is nothing other than norms set by capitalist states. International law is a pragmatic tool of realpolitk under an illegitimate veneer of legitimacy. “Law", a loaded term I suppose, provides that veneer for some. However, I guess I wasn't under the impression that law is anything other than a tool for societal cooperation, not a synonym for moral justice. When people begin to view law as unjust, people either rebel or serve under the yoke of tyranny.

Several years ago, I read an interview with Chomsky in which he admonished those who critiqued the Left not to disregard theories unable to necessarily articulate what structures replace the status quo. We can’t always see what’s on the other side. Lawlessness is not a concept people are comfortable with. Many already disregard the idea of a stateless society, let alone what Pashukanis foresaw as international relations between stateless societies. I suppose that itself is a misnomer. What inter"national" relations can exist in statelessness? Anyway, Between Equal Rights doesn’t provide that examination, but it at least attempts to open the door for interesting discussion; always a mark of a book worth recommending to read despite my own struggles with it.
Profile Image for Ken.
75 reviews13 followers
June 25, 2016
Mieville's thesis on international law is a scathing one, and deeply penetrating. He very convincingly argues that the very heart of the international legal form is fueled by imperialism, that it could not function without imperialist activity. That law inheres violence explicitly or implied in order to determine the outcome of what are otherwise nominally equal opposing positions.

An essential read for those interested in international relations or those interested in the structural composure of capitalist law.
Profile Image for Khimlal  Devkota.
1 review4 followers
November 21, 2022
Nowadays people and society are facing complexities. A number of Philosophies tried to resolve the complexities of societies. however, all failed to fix it. Accepting or rejecting it as the appropriate solution is within the Marxist analysis. Dialectical Materialism is a world outlook to look at societies and their problems. the specific purpose the book is successful in this journey. A very readworthy book with a Marxist approach is the best book of this year according to me.
Profile Image for Joey.
109 reviews1 follower
October 24, 2017
Good conceptual insights, but some pretty serious gaps here. Not sure how you can talk about both sovereignty and Carl Schmitt without talking about Schmitt's theory of sovereignty...
Profile Image for Conrad.
200 reviews313 followers
Want to read
November 30, 2007
SO much more interested in reading this than his other fiction. I only wish I knew what bookshelf to file this under: "pomo?" "law?" oh wait... it's about Marxist international law. I'll stick with "science fiction."
33 reviews
December 21, 2011
Really interesting, both as an introduction into Marxist legal philosophy as well as a great leap into International Legal philosophy.
Displaying 1 - 12 of 12 reviews

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