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There Is No International Legal Order Beyond Capitalism

Ntina Tzouvala, Capitalism as Civilisation (2020).

In recent decades, a new wave of critical literature highlighted how the concept of “civilization” emerged in the 19thcentury as a rubric to judge countries as worthy (or not) of admission to the European order of international law. Today this scholarship is commonly referred to as the “historical turn” in international legal scholarship. Much of this literature explored the problematic racialized origins of the term “civilized,” as well as its persistent impact on international law today. In this context, Ntina Tzouvala’s Capitalism as Civilisation presents a next-generation interpretation of the legacy of “civilization” of international law today.

Tzouvala’s book is ambitious on a number of fronts. She approaches “civilization” not as a singular term but as an argumentative pattern driven by an oscillation between what she calls the “logic of improvement” and the “logic of biology.” “Improvement” here refers to international law’s embrace of progressive universalism, and “biology” refers to assertions of immutable cultural difference. While these ideas are seemingly at odds, Tzouvala emphasizes how these dual logics exist in productive tension. Together, they kept those once deemed “uncivilized” as perpetual objects of needed reform and irresolvable incompatibility.

But Capitalism as Civilisation is even more ambitious than simply providing this new framing of the now well-established “historical turn.” The book can be read as a generational statement about what critical scholarship on international law should and can be. Within a single volume it attempts to provide a convincing synthesis of core tensions in the field, if not in critical scholarship more generally. With care and confidence, Tzouvala’s aims to integrate material analysis into the predominately discursive and deconstructive focus of her critical predecessors on the indeterminacy of international law.

Like many today working under the frame of “law and political economy,” Tzouvala wants to avoid Marxist scholars’ dismissal of discursive approaches while still arguing for the necessity of a “materialist framework for understanding legal indeterminacy.” (P. 38.) In what could be called nothing less than the holy grail of critical scholarship, the book seeks to fuse both “epistemological relativism and ontological realism.” (P. 13.) To do so she takes up how the creation of the modern international legal system was inseparable from the creation of the modern international economic system—for Tzouvala, understood as the spread of global capitalism.

Her first chapter delves directly into melding an understanding of the expansionist nature of global capitalism and its interplay between her two logics in 19th century international legal thinking. In her second chapter, she gives specific focus to the now-classic example of extraterritorial regimes as premised on the empirical “improvement” of domestic legal systems (as generally judged through comparison with idealized forms of capital-friendly economic regulation) but ever-susceptible to arguments of “biological” cultural incommensurability to shift the proverbial goal-pasts. Similarly, she explores how the international abolition of slavery was turned against colonized countries as a lever to induce reforms amenable to modern wage labor markets.

Her next three chapters link together the early 20th and 21st centuries to show the way in which the language of international law repackaged the logics of improvement and biology even after the formal demise of “civilization” as a central frame. Chapter 3 looks to the post-World War I Mandate System where, in particular, struggles over the British presence in Iraq after the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty set into collision new alchemies of informal power, “good governance,” and essentializing cultural reasoning. Chapter 4 primarily centers on the “South West Africa saga” from the late 1940s to the early 1970s which saw the International Court of Justice confronting challenges by Liberia and Ethiopia to South Africa’s presence in modern Namibia. For Tzouvala, the outcome of this judicial contest required displacing concerns with exploitative economic development as a basis of critique to normalize a more circumscribed language of judicialized rights. Chapter 5 brings the analysis into the contemporary era by showing how the invasion and post-invasion administration of Iraq after the second Gulf War, as well as the larger war on terrorism, relied again on both logics to demand particular market reforms while opportunistically falling back on arguments regarding cultural difference for justification or explaining away failure.

In threading her discursive and material needle, Tzouvala argues that activists or scholars who strategically embrace either logic as tools of resistance ultimately contribute to crippling more radical critique. With little fear of the polarizing terrain it has recently induced, she clearly outlines examples where the language of human rights was used to displace systemic critiques of capitalism, and the domestic and transnational social movements that embraced them. Similarly, she provocatively unpacks how this argumentative strategy is redeployed in modern international humanitarian legal vocabulary—exemplified in the recurrently stable set of countries “unable or unwilling” to properly self-govern and thus legitimating external intervention. Here remedying the elision of the material context of economic development—at least as a contested arena of publics rather than technocratic “best practices”—renders the stakes and drivers of doctrinal debates visible.

With such theoretical ambition, Capitalism as Civilization will be off-putting to some who would be uncomfortable with its clear invocations of Marxist legal theory—even as it spends much energy addressing the limitations of its recent critical standard-bearers in her field. Yet, it can be read productively alongside many recent works with quite divergent theoretical positions. For example, her Australian National University colleague Anthea Robert’s recent Is International Law International? provides detailed exemplification of both the specific material and discursive practices by which modern international lawyers continue to assert their unsullied transcendence of cultural chauvinism (while replicating patterns of social and economic inequality in and between nations). Similarly, Gao and Shaffer’s study of the “improvement” of China’s performance at the WTO, and the United States’ concomitant withdrawal, exposes the material consequences when the submerged cultural presumptions of international law are challenged.

Critically, Tzouvala’s broadening of the analysis to include the context of capitalism’s near complete global spread and indigenization is necessary for understanding a changing global order in which the traditional discursive anchors of previous critiques have lost trenchancy. It is clear that terms such as “the West,” or even the more recent “Global South,” struggle to capture the assertive global role of China or the regional rise of ethnonationalist authoritarian politics in India or Brazil—all of which exist in a deeply economically integrated capitalist world order.

Tzouvala’s ultimate audience is still quite specific. Her motivating concern is that recognizing legal, or epistemological, indeterminacy is a wholly insufficient ground for generating an effective radical counter-politics. If advancing a critique of capitalism is not already within one’s normative frame, then there are many places where the book can provide reason to disengage. Still, even for those least-disposed to consider this their own concern, the synthetic breadth of Tzouvala’s work should be read as an effort of intellectual reconciliation that will continue to be at the heart of critical legal scholarship in coming decades in and outside of international law.

Cite as: Jedidiah Kroncke, There Is No International Legal Order Beyond Capitalism, JOTWELL (May 31, 2021) (reviewing Ntina Tzouvala, Capitalism as Civilisation (2020)),

Rights, Facts, and Roe

Mary Ziegler, Abortion and the Law in America (2020).

For almost half a century, Roe v. Wade has been a dominant presence in debates about the Constitution and the Supreme Court in the United States. Other contentious rulings come and go. (In 1973, the year in which the Supreme Court decided Roe, commentators typically identified obscenity regulation as the most explosive issue the justices faced. No one mentioned Miller v. California at the most recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings.) But Roe remains, year after year, a uniquely urgent and divisive focal point in the nation’s constitutional discourse. In her important and insightful new book, Abortion and the Law in America: Roe v. Wade to the Present, Mary Ziegler explains how the debate over Roe has evolved and why it endures.

This is Ziegler’s third book on Roe’s impact on American society and law. In her first, After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate, published in 2015, she explored struggles over abortion in the immediate aftermath of Roe. The debate she found in this period was more fluid and multivalent than the pro-choice/pro-life, liberal/conservative, Democratic/Republican dualism that solidified in the 1980s and remains today. In 2018, Ziegler published Beyond Abortion: Roe v. Wade and the Battle for Privacy, an examination of how Roe reshaped legal debates in contexts outside abortion.

For readers of Ziegler’s prior work, her newest book has a familiar feel. She relies on the same research methods she used to such impressive effect in her first two books: archival research, interviews with key players, and analysis of traditional legal sources, such as written opinions, briefs, and oral arguments. She also returns to key themes from her earlier work, locating underappreciated complexities and nuances in debates over Roe, emphasizing the radiating effects of Roe beyond abortion, and placing political social movement activism alongside litigation as mechanisms of constitutional change.

The fresh insights in Abortion and the Law in America come from Ziegler’s decision to follow the post-Roe abortion debate up to the present day. The book begins with a description of our current abortion debate and then asks how we got here. The chronological narrative of the book is basically an extended answer to this question. Ziegler guides the reader through a thoroughly researched, richly detailed, comprehensive historical account of how, across the last half century, pro-choice and pro-life activists and lawyers pursued their agendas. She is particularly insightful in exploring divisions within the abortion-rights and anti-abortion movements as she navigates back and forth between social movement activism, policy developments, and constitutional litigation. Although it’s not hard to discern that her sympathies lie with those who advocate for abortion rights, Ziegler never reduces or caricatures her subjects. She recognizes the principled commitments that drove activists on both sides while also charting their strategic opportunism, inconsistencies, and factionalism.

Within her narrative, Ziegler threads an argument for revising the way we think about the history of abortion rights. She argues that as the leading edge of the abortion debate shifted in the 1980s from demands to ban abortion to battles over “incremental restrictions designed to undermine Roe,” the terms of the debate “changed in ways we have rarely appreciated.” (P. 2.) When pro-life advocates realized that amending the Constitution to end legal abortion across the nation wasn’t going to happen, they turned their focus to pushing more aggressive abortion regulations and overturning Roe in the courts. As a result, contestation over the social effects of reproductive rights joined and often displaced the foundational question of whether the Constitution protects a right to abortion. Arguments about abortion that centered on rights—the right of the mother to reproductive autonomy on one side, the right to life for the unborn on the other—shifted to less absolutist debates about regulatory policy. “The struggle,” Ziegler writes, “has increasingly turned not only on rights-based trumps but also on claims about the policy costs and benefits of abortion for women, families, and the larger society.” (P. 2.)

“Fights about abortion have mirrored much more than core arguments about choice and life,” Ziegler writes, and much of Abortion and the Law in America is dedicated to documenting the proliferation of the grounds of debate. “Battles about incremental restrictions consistently reflected a complex set of beliefs about issues only tangentially related to abortion,” she explains. “The abortion struggle offered a window into disagreements about poverty, personal responsibility, welfare reform, maturity, parenthood, marriage, the health care system, and the trustworthiness of the media and the government.” (P. 211.)

Ziegler argues that, contrary to commonplace assumptions, when the debate centered on the costs and benefits of abortion rather than on the fundamental rights at stake, the issue became more polarized, and the divide between the sides deeper and more enduring. It’s a provocative claim, although it’s not fully clear how one would prove it. If the abortion debate has in fact become more polarized over time, why, of all the possible contributing factors, would we identify this as the cause? Why would a shift in focus from a fight over the medical necessity of particular abortion procedure or about the health benefits of medical regulations be more polarizing than a debate about when life begins or about the relationship between reproductive rights and equal citizenship for women?

There are alternative frameworks to understand how the abortion debate changed as it diffused into related issues. One possibility would be to highlight the ways in which an already deeply polarized abortion debate fueled polarization elsewhere, while polarization elsewhere, in turn, reinforced the polarization on abortion. People’s views on social welfare, gender roles, and scientific expertise certainly inform their views on abortion. But their views on abortion also inform their views on these closely related issues. This is the polarized world in which we inhabit, filled with mechanisms that reinforce and amplify the cultural divisions.

Rights-based claims and arguments about the costs and benefits of abortion are best understood as symbiotic, as overlapping categories between which activists moved frequently and easily. The idea of absolute rights may be useful rhetorically, but in practice they’re non-starters. In American law rights claims unavoidably raised questions about policy costs and benefits. Rights and policy offer strands of abortion framing that are at once antagonistic and complementary, with the salience and content of the categories shifting across time. Rather than a single persistent abortion debate, Abortion and the Law in America reveals a dynamic constellation of overlapping abortion debates.

Ziegler concludes her book by reflecting on how the history of the abortion debate provides insights into possible future developments. One point she emphasizes is that debates about abortion have always been about much more than any single Supreme Court decision. This fact, which Ziegler has demonstrated across her three books, means if the Supreme Court overturns Roe—a development she believes likely with recent appointments to the Court—the basic lines of division over reproductive rights will remain. They will remain because the American people remain divided over not only over abortion but also over welfare policies, gender roles, scientific expertise, and all the other issues that have become inextricably intertwined with abortion. Abortion and the Law in America offers an essential resource to help us understand not only what Roe has accomplished but also what a post-Roe world might look like.

Cite as: Christopher W. Schmidt, Rights, Facts, and Roe, JOTWELL (May 4, 2021) (reviewing Mary Ziegler, Abortion and the Law in America (2020)),

A New and Challenging History of Nat Turner and His Rebellion

Christopher Tomlins’s new book, In the Matter of Nat Turner: A Speculative History, is a tour de force. It retells the history of Nat Turner’s famous rebellion with a focus on Turner’s religious motivations. The book begins by explaining the shortcomings of previous accounts of Turner, attempting to reconstruct what might have motivated Turner to decide in August 1831 to lead a group of fellow slaves on a campaign in Southampton, Virginia, “to rise up and kill all the white people.” Tomlins’s book shows how historical speculation and conjecture can be done in a way that is nonetheless solidly grounded in biblical, philosophical, anthropological, and historical context. The book is about Turner, yes, but insofar as it demonstrates the approach—call it “grounded speculation”—it is also a reflection on history itself and what to do as a historian when the historical event you are interested in is simultaneously under-documented and over-interpreted.

Tomlins begins by outlining the problems with two widely-relied upon accounts of the Turner Rebellion, both titled The Confessions of Nat Turner, which co-opted Turner in the service of other agendas. First, there was the contemporary account given by white county lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray to whom Turner confessed while in prison awaiting trial. Gray produced a very complicated text about which Tomlins writes, “[it] is undoubtedly evidentiary, but evidence of what?” (P. 31.) What follows is a very nuanced reading of the work and what can and cannot be inferred from it.

Secondly, Tomlins critiques the 1967 best-selling book written by white novelist William Styron. Styron purported to be providing a historical “meditation” on the event. However, he was not a historian. Tomlins persuasively argues that Styron was, in reality, using Turner to make sense of the race riots of the 1960’s and to fulfil Styron’s own self-involved fantasy of what he thought of as every Southerner’s duty to come to know “the negro.” Both men treated Turner’s “enthusiasm as insanity.” (P. 11.) And both were profiting by turning Turner’s story into their property. (P. x.)

Tomlins, by contrast, embarks on a “work of recovery and recognition” (P. x) to understand Turner “on his terms.” (P. 22, emphasis in the original.) Specifically, Tomlins analyzes how Turner saw himself as commanded by God to take up, as reluctantly as Abraham did the command to kill his own son, God’s “work of death.” What follows is simultaneously chilling and immensely instructive. Tomlins weaves, often through long and learned footnotes, his own reflections on philosophical topics such as Walter Benjamin’s concept of “divine violence,” central to Tomlins’s conjectures about Turner. (See Pp. 279-80, note 3.)

Tomlins wants most to emphasize the profound religious faith likely underlying Turner’s actions. He argues that faith has been washed out by those who have made but a feeble attempt to understand Turner, Grey who was “irreligious” (P. 86) and Styron who was not interested in religion. The Prologue starts with a of the cover of Styron’s novel (P.1), Chapter 1 with a reproduction of the title page of Gray’s work, and Chapter 2 with a photograph of Turner’s bible. (P. 50.) Tomlins starts the religious reconstruction with the Gospel of Luke because Turner lived all his life in St. Luke’s parish in Southampton County (P. 52), and because of the appropriateness of some of the teachings in this Gospel relating to “reversal” (P. 55) and how “the first [the white slave-owning Virginian] should be last and the last [the slave] should be first.” (P. 61.) As Tomlins describes, Turner “has been widely identified as a lay preacher […] was highly intelligent (that is generally accepted), and he was highly literate […] like Christ he too was thirty years old when [as he put it] the time came to ‘arise and prepare myself.’” (P. 77.)

In addition to a range of other biblical texts, Tomlins also connects Turner’s revolutionary eschatology and his Virginian Methodism to Jonathan Edwards, arguing that Turner likely saw himself as comparable to David in David and Goliath. (P. 79.) Chapter 3 takes up the notion of “divine violence” that Turner saw as demanding his action as a kind of Kierkegaardian “Knight of Faith” with no choice but to obey God’s command whatever ethics and the law said, and however horrifying the consequences. Chapter 4 describes the killings, what Turner called his “work of death,” deliberate and methodical. What was its logic? Tomlins writes that, according to Locke, “killing those who would maintain one in relations of dependence is a means to obtain a property in oneself.” (P. 96.) Perhaps that was the kind of politics that inspired others to follow Turner; yet for Turner, Tomlins emphasizes, it was first and foremost a matter of faith.

Where the earlier chapters deal with the religious reconstruction of what might have been Turner’s mindset and the event itself, the last two chapters of the book, Chapters 5 and 6, deal with the fall out or ripple effects of the rebellion in a fragile and fractious Virginia. The state was split between slave owners in the East and a West with more development-oriented interests. Here we are told about how Turner, “the self-possessed rebel” (P. 141), haunted the state’s Constitutional Convention in 1829-30, controversies over using (discounted) slave labor on public work projects, and debates about emancipation in 1831-32. The rebellion helped support pro-emancipation on the grounds of safety and security, the danger that “proximity” between blacks and whites raised, and the idea, however briefly entertained, from the Western part of the State that “the right of private property must yield to the right of society to be secure.” (P. 181.) The pro-property East, concerned about the loss of their capital in future slaves that would be born and manumitted once they reached the age of majority, pushed back against the idea that this “increase” was not naturally (and legally) theirs. To white Virginians, Turner had to be presented to the public as an irrational and insane aberration, the perpetrator of a wild and random massacre that made no sense and was unlikely to repeat itself. “‘[W]ild and intemperate’ proposals for abolition and emancipation … ‘subversive of the rights of property’” were neither necessary nor welcome. (P. 188.)

This work is very unlike Tomlins’s earlier books given the way that it focuses on a specific event. It is challenging reading for a number of reasons. First, there are the descriptions of the killings in Chapter 4. They put me in the mindset of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, another best-selling “true crime” novel from the 1960’s, gripping yet awful in their details. Tomlins presents the killings in a very matter-of-fact and non-sensationalist way that gets the point across but nonetheless left me at least feeling disturbed.

Second, trying to climb inside spiritual and supernatural faith when you do not share it is not an easy thing to do and many readers will likely find themselves in this position. It is challenging for us (just as it was for Gray and Styron) not to secularize such an event. Yet in Turner’s case, Tomlins is asking us to refrain from turning Turner into “a conscript of modernity,” making him into something sensible to us and inappropriately substituting a flat figure for a three dimensional person who was motivated by spiritual and supernatural faith. (P. 280, note 3.)

Thirdly, looking for the logic in “divine violence” or “righteous violence” runs up against abhorrence of violence and the urge to condemn it in any form. Yet it is not our job as historians to try and stand in the same shoes as the Southampton County Court to condemn Turner’s acts (or to try to explain and try to excuse them). The job of the historian is to try to read and understand (especially difficult) events on their own terms and, as Tomlins elegantly puts it at the end of the book, “be ready to read what was never written.” (P. 218.) That imaginative leap is required when it comes to the thinly documented, e.g. the person at the center of the Turner Rebellion. It is just those topics that most deserve our attention, as they will often involve incidents, events, or people that are easy to misunderstand and manipulate into something quite different from who and what they were.

Cite as: Angela Fernandez, A New and Challenging History of Nat Turner and His Rebellion, JOTWELL (April 2, 2021) (reviewing Christopher Tomlins, In the Matter of Nat Turner: A Speculative History (2020)),

Negotiating the Boundaries of Slavery and Freedom in the Americas

Becoming Free, Becoming Black examines the fissures in the law that enslaved people throughout the Americas used to traverse a path from enslavement to freedom. Comparative approaches to the study of law and freedom in the past had stressed a divergence between Latin America and the British Atlantic, using Louisiana as a case for contrast or continuity. As the authors of Becoming Free, Becoming Black demonstrate, the situation on the ground revealed a striking degree of similarity in Virginia, Havana, and in New Orleans, and across time. Given the absence of a robust body of slave laws, enslaved people in 17th c. Virginia advanced claims that resonated with Iberian or Cuban claims. The authors posit that legal borrowing was a plausible strategy for enslaved people bringing freedom claims, as there was a fair degree of movement of petitioners between the British and Spanish Atlantic during this time.

The book tells a clear story about what the law of slavery was and how it came about, how it functioned and why it changed over time in three different sites. A secondary title of the book could have been: “A Survey of Free People of Color,” since the presence of sizable communities of free people of color made a significant difference in the ability to sustain freedom claims or to navigate one’s way from bondage to freedom. In all three sites, slaveholders and lawmakers—in a sense one and the same—repeatedly demonstrated serious attempts to crack down on the possibilities by which black people could remain free within a slave society.

Free people of color weakened the stability of the hyphen between black and slave, and black and citizen. In societies deeply committed to and profoundly shaped by slavery, free people of color could be accommodated in exceptional circumstances: as jurists, orators, preachers, soldiers, saints and intercessors. They could be exemplary citizens and proffer evidence of accommodation without threatening a socioracial order. But outside of the exceptions, the legal paths to freedom were consistently limited.

One of the ways that the authors trace these attempts at curtailing freedom is to examine local ordinances and decrees. Ordinances in the societies under review delimited all facets of black social life: where black people could sell wine, or hunt, or sell their wares, where they could gather and congregate to worship, whether they could ride a horse or a mule, and under what conditions they could bear arms. One wonders whether this comparative view of local ordinances is chicken and egg—was it the behavior that prompted the decrees? Or were legislative anxieties so high that they sought to pre-empt the behavior by outlawing it beforehand? The behavior prompting the decrees plainly demonstrates that black people did not comply with these ordinances. Indeed, the repeated nature of the promulgations suggests that very few people took these mandates seriously across the board.

Turning from the law on the books to the life on the ground, the authors weave together the official and judicial records with careful attention to notarial and sacramental records where possible. They show the consolidation of custom and equity into law that respected certain rights even when the tides turned over time. Manumission, and the concomitant right to seek a new owner, never disappeared, although these rights became more fragile and conditional. Though retrenchment occurred in the French codes, they were outpaced by the legislative ban on manumissions in the continental US that tied individual manumission to the larger question of emancipation. Fueled by fears of revolution, and the threat of dispossession, white slaveowners conditioned manumission or movement out of the territory (or out of the country all together in the case of Liberian “repatriation.”) This “tipping point” created real setbacks in Louisiana and Virginia for family integrity and for black prosperity. This was less true in Havana, where the numbers of free people of color were too large for repatriation, and where manumission continued to be registered as a slaveowner’s right. In all three sites, however, we see that black citizenship was undesirable, regarded as problematic, and incompatible with white liberal notions of political belonging.

Slaveowners were intent on retaining the “issue” of their female slaves because of womb enslavement. Yet, women far outpaced the numbers of manumitted slaves vis-à-vis their male counterparts in all three jurisdictions. Children also were freed in greater numbers, sometimes by grace, but more often by the efforts of family members to purchase children at a lower price. Sacramental records thus show that gender, domesticity and generational ties could create conditions for freedom in the womb. The archives reveal complex and often messy tales and shed light on the conditional precarity of children born to mothers in the process of self-purchase. The fact that legislative decrees mandated that self-purchase and/or coartación was an individual right not conferrable to children of the womb is undermined by the evidence across many colonial sites. As the authors note, conditional manumission and womb emancipation were most prominent in societies with large communities of free people of color.

Becoming Free, Becoming Black is a comparative study of slavery that spans different jurisdictions, plantation logics, and most importantly languages. It serves as a model for future comparative work and collaboration. The book encourages us to think through the politics of the archive. Historians of the Iberian world are privileged if not overly endowed with archival sources. Our colleagues in the British Atlantic resort to “critical fabulations”1 to reconstruct the lives of enslaved people, using documents that often portray the darkest hours of the slave trade. This has led many scholars to critique the archive of slavery, or reject it outright as a place of death, lies, and violence for black lives that presages the present condition.

Yet as de la Fuente and Gross show, these archives are not tombs– they are full of cacophonous voices recounting stories of flight, revolution, jurisdictional plurality, wrongful enslavement, and the lackluster performance of the law. Indeed, the full archival offering on display in this book could offer a counterweight to the insistence on the archive of slavery as a place of death.

  1. Saidiya Hartman, Venus in Two Acts, 12:2 Small Axe: A Caribbean J. of Criticism 1, 1-14, (2008).
Cite as: Michelle McKinley, Negotiating the Boundaries of Slavery and Freedom in the Americas, JOTWELL (March 8, 2021) (reviewing Alejandro de la Fuente & Ariela Gross, Becoming Free, Becoming Black: Race, Freedom and Law in Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana (2020)),

The Pleasures of Method

Henry M. Cowles has written an absolutely brilliant book that traces the history of the idea of “the scientific method” from Darwin to Dewey. Although Cowles’ intended audience is historians of science, the book has important and tantalizing implications for those interested more generally in the twentieth-century modernist turn to method, process, procedure, and technique. This is a turn that American legal historians will recognize in the massive emphasis on procedure and process that marked twentieth-century American legal thought, beginning with the rise of the administrative state in the early twentieth century and reaching its apogee with the Legal Process School in the 1950s and 1960s.

The conventional account of the modernist turn to method runs as follows. Around 1900, thinkers in diverse realms of Euro-American intellectual life—ranging from law to literature, mathematics to music, physics to painting—became newly aware of the rickety scaffolding propping up their disciplines and endeavors. What were once deemed established truths, unassailable rationalities, given moralities, and transcendental aesthetic norms suddenly seemed spurious, the product of nothing but history, the tottering fabrications of fallible men. In the American legal context, this moment is exemplified in the scholarly writings, addresses, and judicial opinions of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. The modernist moment was famously disorienting, simultaneously frightening and challenging, at once fraught with promise and uncertainty. Old moorings had come undone. How was one to make sense of the world? How was one to proceed?

Although responses varied widely depending upon discipline and national tradition, one broad important trend reverberated across diverse fields and formations. Thinkers increasingly turned away from a conception of knowledge as ends, truths, substances, and foundations and towards knowledge as tools, means, methods, procedures, processes, protocols, and techniques. This was true of the sciences, the principal focus of Cowles’ book. As he puts it, science went from being “something like knowledge” to becoming “a tool for thinking.” (P. 6.) But the trend extended far beyond the scope of Cowles’ study. A creature of the early twentieth century, scientific management theory, applied alike in government bureaucracies and corporations, placed ends firmly in the background as a knowledge of means, methods, and processes took center stage. Artists and writers foregrounded in their work their means of production—painterly technique or language itself—instead of the object those means had once served to represent. In the 1940s, articulating a development that was already decades-old when he was writing, the Legal Realist scholar Karl Llewellyn would argue that law was not so much ”what courts have decided” as it was “how they go about deciding cases, and how they use the authorities with which they work, and how and why those authorities themselves came into existence,” in short, that law was primarily a method or way of doing things.1

Philosophy was hardly immune to this sweeping re-orientation. Indeed, it played a central role in bringing it about. American philosophical pragmatism, the United States’ most celebrated homegrown philosophical tradition, insisted that ideas mattered principally insofar as they became means or tools and were put to work in the world. Early in his book, Cowles invokes John Dewey’s How We Think (1910), in which Dewey announced the five sequential steps of what came to be seen as the blueprint for “the scientific method,” beginning with a “felt difficulty,” moving on to the identification of a hypothesis, and ending with “observation and experiment leading to its acceptance or rejection,” in short, the testing of the tool/hypothesis in the world of facts. (P. 2.) If Dewey was a key figure in the articulation of “the scientific method”—and thus in the reorientation of modern science from substance to method—it is important to emphasize that Dewey’s shadow (and hence the shadow of “the scientific method” as he imagined it) fell over fields extending well beyond the sciences to law, politics, education, and even the arts.

In a series of chapters that offer brilliant, penetrating, and highly self-assured readings of the writings of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophers, philosophers of science, and scientists, Cowles gives us a history of how we got to Dewey’s How We Think. It is Cowles’ origin story—if a concept as simple as that of an “origin story” can be applied to so sophisticated a book—that is of interest.

As it emerged from the eighteenth century, Cowles argues, British science was still tethered to—and continued uncritically to venerate—Baconian empiricism. As revealed in the writings of Herschell, Whewell, and others, however, British philosophers of science were beginning to insist on the importance of hypothesis as a way for the scientist to proceed. Scientists could not begin from a brute collection of facts; they needed the conceptual leap into the void that the hypothesis represented. Of course, once formulated, the hypothesis would have to make its way in the world and be tested against the facts. It would succeed or fail based on how it would fare.

What Cowles shows dazzlingly is how, through a set of complex back-and-forth journeys (hence: no simple origin story), the injection of hypothesis into the empiricist terrain of British science came to be mirrored in the Darwinian account of nature itself and vice versa. Even as British scientists were coming to accept the idea that the scientific method should consist of hypotheses tested against facts, the Darwinian organism came to be seen as itself a kind of hypothesis as it confronted its environment, either to flourish or perish therein. And if evolution was neither more nor less than “the method of nature,” as the Darwinian account came to be understood to be, would that not also necessarily be the way in which the human mind proceeded, as a continual hypothesizing of ideas and a trying out of those very ideas in the world? As Cowles proceeds, exploring contexts ranging from the study of animals to the ethnography of “savages” to psychologists’ study of children, the link between Darwin and Dewey—a link of method—comes gradually into view. As exemplified in Dewey’s 1910 articulation of “the scientific method,” pragmatism’s “trial-and-error” approach to the world was, if one follows Cowles’ argument, nothing other than the Darwinian “method of nature” itself.

The star of the show in Cowles’ book is reflexivity. As philosophers and scientists thought harder and harder about the problem of knowledge, training their gaze relentlessly outward and inward, the lines between subject and object, mind and world, investigator and investigated, blurred and eventually vanished. Objects of inquiry became versions of the subjects performing the inquiry, even as those subjects rendered themselves objects. Cowles writes of his subjects’ “ratcheting up the reflexivity of the mind sciences” (P. 142), one of many comparable characterizations in the book, but one gets the impression that “ratcheting up … reflexivity” is as much Cowles’ own intellectual commitment as it is that of his nineteenth-century subjects. The reader senses Cowles’ enjoyment of his own bravura performance in talking about the bravura performances of his subjects. Here, too, then, investigator and investigated mirror one another, historian becoming archive and vice versa, reflexivity always leading to more of itself, although one is left wondering whether Cowles’ nineteenth- and early-twentieth century subjects were as invested in the pleasures of reflexivity—and the pleasures of method—as he so evidently is.

Cowles is not the first scholar to have explored the connections between evolution and pragmatism. Many have recognized that Darwinian evolution, together with pragmatism, played a crucial role in destabilizing the foundations of the Euro-American disciplines around 1900. But what Cowles does that is arresting, in my view, is to show to spectacular effect how the Darwinian “method of nature” underlies (even as it mirrors) the pragmatist method. Just as nature tested its hypotheses in the world, the Deweyan pragmatist (himself a part of nature) would try out his ideas in the real contexts in which he or she lived and worked. Cowles thus reveals that the pragmatist method—with its (to me) maddening Teflon-like resistance to critique and its bland and ubiquitous “but what else could there possibly be?” correctness—itself has a concrete historical grounding in the Darwinian understanding of nature and the related methodological crises of nineteenth-century Anglo-American science. Far from being a response to the modernist vanishing of foundations, Cowles shows, the pragmatist method remained anchored in an understanding of nature as foundation, where the foundation was, of course, method. In The Promise of Pragmatism (1994), the intellectual historian John Patrick Diggins articulated the modernist/pragmatist focus on method as follows: “Without access to the objectively real, the philosopher settles for the processes of knowing instead of the thing known.”2 But Cowles seems to suggest that, far from “settl[ing] for the processes of knowing instead of the thing known,” a tragic maneuver for a newly disenchanted world, the pragmatist philosopher might instead have been instantiating in his thinking something like “the objectively real,” namely, nature’s method. In other words, Cowles’ leaves us with the conundrum of puzzling through the joining of the anti-foundational modernist turn to method, on the one hand, with pragmatism’s embrace of nature’s method as foundation, on the other, forcing together yet again that which we take to be opposites, anti-foundationalism and foundationalism.

Cowles does not pursue, except perhaps obliquely, the conventional story of the modernist turn to method in law and elsewhere with which I began this review. But his story about the connections between the Darwinist “method of nature” and the pragmatist/modernist method must compel some rethinking of the conventional story, including the current narrativization of the development of twentieth-century American legal thought. Precisely what kind of rethinking is another matter. Towards the end of the book, Cowles recognizes that the larger turn to method in the twentieth-century would repeatedly exceed or overshoot its imagined referent in the Darwinian “method of nature.” After all, brute nature did not ordinarily become “aware” of its history with a view to changing it; its methods of proceeding were always realized in and by its results. By contrast, the early-twentieth century modernist/pragmatist, aware that history had left his world devoid of foundations, turned to method without any assurance that the method would be confirmed by its results. The goal was frequently to transform the existing world in one way or another, with results that ranged from the benign to the disastrous. At the same time, the link between the Darwinian “method of nature” and the diverse methods that were adopted in different disciplines and endeavors (for example, the turn to procedure in law) is far from obvious. None of this is Cowles’ problem. He has written a wonderfully smart book that complicates our understanding of modernism by giving us a unique account of its past.3

  1. Karl Llewellyn, The Crafts of Law Re-Valued (1942) in Karl Llewellyn, Jurisprudence 318 (1962) (emphasis in original).
  2. John Patrick Diggins, The Promise of Pragmatism: Modernism and the Crisis of Knowledge and Authority 48 (1994).
  3. I wish to thank Anne Kornhauser for comments on this review.
Cite as: Kunal Parker, The Pleasures of Method, JOTWELL (February 5, 2021) (reviewing Henry M. Cowles, The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey (2020)),

Why We Die: The Metaphysics of Death in French West Africa

As the parent of a very curious four-year-old, I am accustomed to being asked the question “why?” about every statement I make. Specifically, I have recently been asked to explain why people die, and what happens to them once they do. In her article When Dead Bodies Talk: Colonial and Ritual Autopsies in French-Ruled Africa (1918–1945) Ruth Ginio explores the cultural underpinnings of how we approach such questions and the kinds of answers we find satisfying. Ginio begins the article with a revealing exchange in Nii Ayikwei Parkes’s 2009 novel, Tail of the Blue Bird. Parkes, a Ghanaian author, tells the story of Kayo, a young Westernized Ghanaian forensic pathologist, who is sent to a secluded village to examine an unidentified body to determine whether a murder had taken place. A local hunter by the name of Opanyin interrogates the visitor about his peculiar profession:

‘You explain deaths?’
‘Yes.’ Kayo’s tone was defiant.
‘Then, tell me, why do people die?’
‘Because they are old, or sick, or someone attacked them. I don’t know.’
‘Then you can’t explain deaths.’
‘Opanyin, that is my job. It is part of what I do.’
‘I am a hunter. I kill beasts so I can eat, but I know they don’t die because I shoot them or trap them; that is how they die but is not why they die.’

According to Ginio, this story epitomizes the difference between French and African death inquests in the early twentieth century. In both societies, examination of the dead body lent clarity and closure. But in each society the autopsy sought to answer a different question: whereas French medicine in both the metropole and the colonies remained occupied only with the who and how, West African autopsies were preoccupied with the metaphysical why. Each society employed different procedures to answer such questions, yet upon closer scrutiny each seemed equally ill-suited for the task at hand. Ginio identifies three objectives of French death investigation in West Africa: to establish whether the victim was raped before being slayed; to prove intent to kill in cases of domestic violence; and the autopsy as a scientific means to prove the truth, since local accounts were mostly distrusted. Yet French autopsies were ill-suited for the tasks for which they were designed. The bodies were often examined several days or even weeks after the death, which rendered an autopsy utterly useless beyond its performative aspects.

More importantly, the French autopsy failed to answer the why question, which from a local vantage point was far more crucial. The why could only be addressed through a ritualistic autopsy, conducted in the presence of elders and family representatives. Dissecting various parts of the dead body, these local autopsies were designed to answer the question of whether witchcraft—on the victim’s part or on that of their rivals—was involved in the death. Ginio’s account helps explain some tensions over what Ian Burney has termed the “jurisdiction” over the dead body.1 Local outrage over French autopsies did not merely stem from the desecration of the corpse; it was perceived as spoliation of evidence and obstruction of justice. With the destruction of the body by the seemingly scientific French autopsy, the corpse was no longer accessible to the family, and no closure concerning the reason for death could be achieved.

Ginio’s findings are especially illuminating in light of other accounts regarding the utility and necessity for forensic science in the colonies.2 Native mendacity was a common trope in both the British and French empires, which made scientific evidence far more appealing to colonizers than eye-witness accounts. But the necessity for forensic evidence in the colonies went beyond that: Sir Sydney Smith, Principal Medico-Legal Expert to the Egyptian Government, explained that forensic sciences were particularly crucial in Egypt, because Europeans found it so difficult to discern the motives of local criminals. “Motive, which plays so prominent a part in connection with Western crime, is often difficult to understand in the East, for murders of an extremely revolting nature may have what appears to be a most insignificant motive.”3 This inability to discern motives was a central driver of forensic science. To some extent, in the process, forensic scientists stopped exploring the why question both on its more superficial level (why this individual murdered this particular victim) but also on the more profound level (why did this person die?). As many of us, not only four-year-olds, are preoccupied with death and its underlying causes, Ginio’s article provides us with a useful prism for examining where and how we seek our reasons.

  1. Ian Burney, Bodies of Evidence: Medicine and the Politics of the English Inquest, 1830-1926 at 106 (2000).
  2. See generally Christopher Hamlin, Forensic cultures in historical perspective: Technologies of witness, testimony, judgment (and justice)?, 44 Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 4 (2013).
  3. Sydney Smith, Forensic Medicine 471 (1925).
Cite as: Binyamin Blum, Why We Die: The Metaphysics of Death in French West Africa, JOTWELL (January 7, 2021) (reviewing Ruth Ginio, When Dead Bodies Talk: Colonial and Ritual Autopsies in French-Ruled Africa (1918–1945) __ Social History of Medicine __ (2020)),

What Do We Do with All of This Paper?

Anyone who has done archival research has grappled with someone else’s file organization—are the papers you seek filed chronologically? By correspondent? By topic? By some other method inscrutable to the outsider? Does the filing system reflect the thinking of your research subject, of a secretary or clerk, or of a later archivist seeking to impose order on chaos? Finally, will the files actually contain the documents you’re hoping to find? Two recent articles take seriously the prosaic technologies of file storage, on the one hand, and file destruction, on the other, explicating the history of the tabbed file folder, the filing cabinet, and the paper shredder. These technologies are crucial to the contemporaneous operation of the bureaucratic process, and, of course, silently shape how we write history from those files.

Craig Robertson’s article, Granular Certainty, The Vertical Filing Cabinet, and the Transformation of Files, examines the role that the tabbed file folder and the file cabinet played in organizing and enabling modern corporate capitalism. As Robertson notes, scholars thinking about bureaucracy and influenced by Max Weber have long considered the development of the circulating case file to be a key moment in bureaucratization. Here, Robertson focuses on how the specific mechanics of the file storage process—office workers collecting loose documents in a file folder, securely storing the folder in a vertical cabinet, and later quickly finding that folder among dozens or hundreds of other ones—contributed not just to business efficiency but also to a conception of “information” as many discrete units rather than as a body of knowledge.

Robertson uses the term “granular certainty” to describe the larger significance of this organization to efficiency goals: “granular signifies the belief that breaking things down into small parts to produce a high degree of detail or specificity would produce efficiency. Certainty indicates the conviction that this increased specificity would reduce individual discretion and increase the certainty that a task would be completed efficiently.” (P. 73.) The ability to find, use, and circulate specific documents allowed workers to specialize in distinct tasks—a hallmark of modern bureaucratic efficiency.

However, as Robertson describes, until the early twentieth century, office workers lacked the actual equipment to organize papers in this way. Sturdy tabbed file folders and vertical filing cabinets made this change possible. Earlier workplaces had relied on bound volumes, or on “piles of paper that were bound by string or leather and stored in bags, chests, cabinets, drawers, or on shelves and occasionally hung from hooks.” (P. 71.) While this made searching difficult, it worked fine as long as a document’s significance came from the documents around it.

This filing system worked less well, though, when the cumulative context became less important than the specific document itself. Uniformly sized file folders allowed loose papers of different sizes to be collected together but still remain separate. As Robertson argues, this “gave a material existence to information as a thing that could be detached and repositioned, reordered, and recombined.” (P. 72.) A label affixed to the folder’s tab meant that a file assigned a permanent home in a vertical filing cabinet could later be easily found. Office workers could remove a folder, circulate it to others in the office, and return it to the cabinet for yet others to find again. And this broader filing system organized all information, even as files moved freely among workers. As Robertson describes: “Circulating through the office, papers were expected to manifest the valuable attributes of information as a discrete unit but not to become disconnected from the oversight of the filing system.” (P. 81.)

The adoption of the vertical file and vertical file cabinet was thus an important moment in the history of information, Robertson argues, as “storage is not a neutral practice; the folder and filing cabinet, like other storage technologies, produce specific possibilities for action.” (P. 73). One broader result of ordering paper at the document level and storing it in readily accessible way was that people came to envision information itself as “a discrete thing…. Information, grasped as individual pieces of paper, became malleable, both in its physical shape and its contents.” (P. 76.) The power of this model endures today, shaping the logic of information storage in the digital realm even as the need for actual file folders and file cabinets fades away (for non-historians, at least).

Marianne Constable suggests that “If written records and files make the modern office or bureau go around, then so too does their destruction and disposal.” (P. 288.) Constable’s article, The Paper Shredder: Trails of Law, addresses the latter—the technology of shredding machines, and the laws that govern disposal via this particular method of destruction. Historians are accustomed to thinking about silences in the archives, and to looking for information that was not preserved. Here, however, Constable examines the history of the actual mechanics by which documents are intentionally destroyed, and the history of the laws surrounding this destruction.

Constable offers a brief history of the paper shredder, “a machine that proliferates waste and serves as the repository of carefully guarded secrets and confidential records, even as it is designed to eliminate the dregs of bureaucratic culture.” (P. 276.) The machine was patented in 1909 but, as Constable notes, its “legal existence precedes its actual existence.” (P. 277.) It was first manufactured in Germany in the 1930s, when a German man who wanted to destroy some anti-Nazi papers saw fit to construct “the paper shredder equivalent of a Spätzle or pasta maker in his garage.” (P. 278.) The paper shredder had its moments of fame when the Watergate scandal, the Iran hostage crisis, and the Iran-Contra controversy shone a spotlight on the intentional destruction of important documents (and, probably unintentionally, promoted the sale of shredders). It is also closely associated with law and lawyers in popular culture, as Constable demonstrates through a brief analysis of cartoons.

Constable describes one problem of bureaucratization—what to do with all the papers neatly stored in file folders? Should institutions buy file cabinets ad infinitum and keep everything forever? Clearly not, but destruction of federal records, at least, was extremely complicated until Congress in the twentieth century passed laws to manage the exponential growth of paper. Such laws dictated what had to be kept and what could be destroyed—and in some cases regarding sensitive records, how they were to be destroyed. As people discovered the hard way, some shredders are better than others, and so additional laws, regulations, and standards were developed to ensure that documents were so thoroughly shredded that they could not be reconstructed. Yet more state and federal laws were passed to dictate how both governmental and non-governmental entities had to protect private parties’ information as these entities stored and disposed of their records.

All of this shredding created another problem, as shredded paper takes up more space than paper in its original form. Here bureaucracy generated more bureaucracy as new organizations sprung up to manage this waste, and private organizations developed their own set of standards for destruction. The National Association of Information Destruction (NAID®), a division of the International Secure Information Governance and Management Association™, accredits document destruction companies, which then make their own certifications that the documents they’ve handled have been securely destroyed. As Constable argues, “Explicitly and implicitly, written laws and public and private policies at all administrative and organizational levels, support and reinforce development of the international economic system of professional information management and destruction services.” (P. 288.) Destruction, then, is the end of one kind of official activity and the beginning of another.

The role of the paper shredder in destroying knowledge is much more obvious than the role of the file folder and file cabinet in organizing it, but all of these practical technologies of storage and destruction influenced the development of history. They also affect what’s in the archive for historians to look at, and how historians look at individual documents to try to reconstruct a broader context. And they have their own technological and legal histories as well. After reading both articles, one wonders what the legacy of digital records storage will be, and what a legal history of cloud storage will look like.

Cite as: Joanna Lynn Grisinger, What Should We Do with All of This Paper?, JOTWELL (November 23, 2020) (reviewing Craig Robertson, Granular Certainty, The Vertical Filing Cabinet, and the Transformation of Files, 4 Administory 76 (2019); Marianne Constable, Marianne Constable, The Paper Shredder: Trails of Law, 23 Law Text Culture 276 (2019)),

St. Louis Matters! Walter Johnson Revisits the 27th City

Finally! After being relegated to the lower tiers of American cities, St. Louis emerges as the nexus of the American experience. This is the startling argument advanced by Walter Johnson in his new book The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States. Known for his work on slavery, Johnson broadens his gaze to include westward expansion, industrialization, de-industrialization, and even the present moment. St. Louis emerges at the fore mainly due to its location, a gateway to the West that was also a shipping point to the South, a “northern” state where slavery was allowed and where the Union Army launched its Indian campaigns. This latter fact is central, for it is the confluence of imperialism and racial subordination that fascinates Johnson, leading him to conclude that racism—whether embodied in the genocide of native peoples or the exploitation of black labor—lies at the heart of American history.

Legal historians will be interested in two facets of Johnson’s book. First, by moving the geographic focus from the East Coast to the Midwest, Johnson reduces the significance of Boston, New York, and Washington DC to American history. In so doing, of course, he also reduces the importance of the Supreme Court. Only two 19th Century opinions interest him, the Court’s ruling in Johnson v. M’Intosh that delegitimized Indian sovereignty claims and Dred Scott v. Sanford, that delegitimized black citizenship. Both rulings fit into Johnson’s larger analytic frame, which reads the history of capitalism through the lens of race, and specifically Cedric Robinson’s “racial capitalism,” which holds that racism is inextricable from free enterprise, and that without racial subordination capitalism would cease to exist.

For legal historians, this is mainly important because it de-centers the commercial jurisprudence of the Marshall Court during the antebellum period, substituting in its place the legal institution of slavery. Gone, for example, are the canonical cases of early American capitalism like Gibbons v. Ogden, Dartmouth College, and Charles River Bridge. Substituted in their place is Dred Scott, of course, along with stories of racial violence, like the 1836 lynching of Francis McIntosh, which for Johnson remains a “landmark” in America’s larger campaign of forging a “white man’s country” by “linking together the imperial practices of Indian removal and war to the jurisprudential annihilation of the 1857 Dred Scott decision.” (P. 74.)

“Jurisprudential annihilation” is the second reason legal historians should read Johnson’s book. It presents a very narrow view of the law as an instrument of racial domination, nothing more. Gone is the nuanced story of how law facilitated commerce by removing trade barriers. Gone is the story of how law encouraged competition by granting and then suspending monopoly rights in the interest of the common good, and gone is the evolution of the legal conception of the corporate form.

Instead, we get the story of plunder. Law, to the extent it is involved in this story, simply legitimizes the exploitation, genocide and theft that makes plunder work. St. Louis, ironically, helps Johnson make this case. Because it endorsed bondage, St. Louis allows Johnson to link his earlier work on slavery as capitalism to a new, more expansive national narrative. Specifically, St. Louis emerges a site where the racial capitalism of slavery bleeds uncomfortably into the industrial capitalism of the Northeast. A study of Boston would not have yielded such a connection, nor would New York or DC, but St. Louis does, and—as if to sharpen his point for a general audience—Johnson places little emphasis on the complex story of freedom suits that Kelly Kennington captures in her book In the Shadow of Dred Scott: St. Louis Freedom Suits and the Legal Culture of Slavery in Antebellum America.

Instead of legal history, we get violence.

St. Louis helps Johnson link the violence of slavery to another form of violence central to the American experience, the treatment of Native Americans. Specifically, St. Louis became the single most important outpost of the Union Army during the settlement of the West. It is from St. Louis, Johnson explains, that the Union Army launched its most violent incursions against Indians, an ironic counterpoint to the city’s longstanding reputation as a “gateway” to the West. This gateway, now commemorated with a gleaming arch, is not a monument worth revering so much as a tombstone worth lamenting. And Johnson tells this aspect of his story well, weaving together anecdotes of violence that make for powerful reading, even as they occlude the complicated legal history of Federal/Indian relations that Stuart Banner captures in How The Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier.

The end result is rather stark. “The imperium of St. Louis (and thus of the United States),” writes Johnson, “is centrally framed by the history of genocide, removal, and expropriation and control of land—all justified in the name of white supremacy.” (P. 6.) And white supremacy does not end in the 20th Century, even though it is dismantled by courts. Johnson dismisses this history, along with the received canon of civil rights cases beginning with Buchanan v. Warleyand moving on to Ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, Shelley v. Kraemer, and Brown v. Board of Education, all inconsequential in the larger story of race and violence that characterize the “violent history of the United States.” For example, Gaines and Brown are only alluded to in passing, eclipsed by the story of a riot at an integrated pool in St. Louis that unleashed a “psychic disgust externalized into the collective fury of race hatred,” further confirming Johnson’s point that “racism and capitalism” are, in the end, “inextricable.” (P. 263.)

While legal historians may balk at Johnson’s dismissive attitude towards law and legal reform, Johnson is actually quite serious, and Broken Heart of America may be a portent of something much larger, a move away from the idea that law is a transformative part of the American experience and toward a more doctrinaire Marxist position that law is regressive and reactionary. This coincides with an uncomfortable truth, namely that the civil rights litigation of the 20th Century failed, in the end, to achieve racial equality. It dismantled de jure segregation, to be sure, but it did little to address the black poverty rate (which remains twice that of whites), the black incarceration rate (which remains six times that of whites), and the racial wealth gap (which translates into the average white family possessing ten times the wealth of the average black family).

Of course, one obvious solution to this dilemma is social democracy, and specifically an expanded welfare state funded by higher taxes. Ironically, however, social democracies in Europe and Canada have all come to conclude that capitalism plays a vital role in the construction of such a system. Without it, there simply would not be enough wealth to tax in order to fund an expansive safety net, something that most social democracies have achieved. Dealing with those questions, however, would require a different book. The virtue (and vice) of Johnson’s account is that it provides us with a startling new take on American history, achieved by a bold re-positioning of the narrative center. That St. Louis might actually be more important than Boston, New York, or DC is worth contemplating. Perhaps our traditional coastal focus has led us to Whiggish conclusions about our past that do not hold up when we venture into the broken heartland of America.

Cite as: Anders Walker, St. Louis Matters! Walter Johnson Revisits the 27th City, JOTWELL (October 22, 2020) (reviewing Walter Johnson, The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States (2020)),

Integrating Spaces: The Fight for Sex Equality in Public Accommodations

Elizabeth Sepper & Deborah Dinner, Sex in Public, 129 Yale L. J. 78 (2019).

Advocates of equality breathed a sigh of relief when the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Bostock v. Clayton County, interpreting the word “sex” in Title VII to include employment discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Title VII is just one part of the sweeping and historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA), drafted primarily to help remedy the scourge of racial discrimination across various areas of public life. Representative Howard Smith inserted the word “sex” in Title VII towards the end of the drafting process, not as a means to sink the act (as the apocryphal story goes) but at the urging of feminist activists.1 Probably even more controversial than Title VII at the time of the CRA’s passage was Title II, prohibiting discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin in public accommodations. No lawmaker added “sex” to this provision, and it remains absent today in this provision of the statute.

Perhaps this absence helps to explain why legal historians have paid scant attention to the achievement of sex equality in public accommodation laws. Elizabeth Sepper and Deborah Dinner make a major corrective in their excellent article, Sex in Public. They present a broad-ranging and timely discussion of the wide variety of forms of sex-based discrimination in public life in the 1960s and 1970s. They recount the tireless efforts of feminist activists to dismantle these forms of sex segregation. Activists were motivated in part by a radical vision of sex integration that was never quite realized in the law. As the authors show, this recaptured vision has the potential to help to inform today’s fight for full inclusion of members of LGBTQ communities.

The first part of the article recounts the many forms of sex segregation that were commonplace in the 1950s and 1960s. One important service that the authors provide here is simply to remind us of the ubiquity of these forms of subordination in our not-so-distant past. Women’s participation in public life was severely hampered by exclusionary practices across a range of businesses and organizations. These everyday humiliations were not just a matter of a lack of market access but also about exclusion from public life writ large. As the authors show, restaurants across the country barred women during male-only lunch hours (or, in the case of “men’s grills,” barred women all the time); bars refused to serve women unless accompanied by a male companion; clubs of all stripes denied women memberships; banks discriminated against women in their lending policies; and leisure and athletic activities for women and girls were either subpar or nonexistent. Custom and law endeavored to protect these male-only spaces across wide spans of leisure and professional life.

The civil rights movement provided a blueprint for attacking these forms of gendered exclusion. Black Americans had fought relentlessly, at great personal cost, for full inclusion in spaces of public life, which came to be referenced broadly in the law as places of public accommodation. When Congress finally passed Title II, it mandated nondiscrimination not just for inn keepers and common carriers but also for “places of amusement.” State governments passed their own public accommodations laws, and these were sometimes even more expansive in their lists of covered businesses.

Part II of the article describes the broad contours of the mobilization for sex equality, showing how feminist activists built on this foundation of nondiscrimination based on race. The National Organization for Women – led in part by Black activists Pauli Murray and Anna Arnold Hedgeman – made achieving nondiscrimination in public spaces based on sex a key early initiative. Other feminist groups and individual women lawyers would take up the fight as well. Their efforts included a range of responses, from picketing, protesting and letter-writing campaigns to lawsuits and lobbying. As the authors show, activists were quite successful at the state and local levels.

By the end of the 1970s, a vast majority of state public accommodations laws included sex among the protected categories, and states and cities established human rights commissions to hear complaints of discrimination. (Federal law was a different story. Because feminists were focused on passage of the Equal Rights Amendment during this time, they did not expend a lot of effort on amending Title II, and sex discrimination still is not included.)

Parts III, IV and V each take up different dimensions of this fight for public inclusion and against discrimination. Each section uses case studies to explore the layered meanings of sex integration and to explain where the movement succeeded and where it failed. Practically speaking, the fight for access to public accommodations was about ensuring that women could participate in the public sphere without regard to their gender. This entailed opening up previously all-male spaces to women and guaranteeing that women could participate in the market without the need for a male companion or guardian.

These ideas themselves were perceived as somewhat radical at the time but became mainstream fairly quickly, as most businesses dropped their exclusionary policies under pressure of these changing norms and new state and local laws. Among many victories, United Airlines stopped running an “executive flight” that was for men only, press clubs finally admitted women on equal footing as men, financial institutions began to offer credit to single women without a gender penalty, and women could order a drink at the bar without being told they had to wait for their male escort.

One of the most important contributions of the article is to show how this vision of sex integration went beyond just opening spaces to rethinking sex difference altogether. In their fight for full inclusion, feminist activists were pursuing “transformative integration” (P. 128) by challenging deep-seated markers of difference. The authors focus on two particularly revealing areas of mobilization: sports and restrooms. Activists pushed sports leagues to mix girls and boys in sex-integrated play, rather than dividing them into “separate but equal” sex-specific teams. Likewise, activists pushed for unisex restrooms. As the authors note, “Feminists saw sex-segregated bathrooms – rooted in norms about sexual privacy and feminine vulnerability – as connected to the subordination of women in economic, political, and civic spheres.” (Pp. 136-37.) They were driven by a vision of gender freed from unwanted sexualization.

Sepper and Dinner argue convincingly that those pushing for public accommodations laws, as well as those opposing them, knew that what was at stake was not just greater freedom for women but also societal notions of gender identity and heteronormativity. Sex discrimination was understood at the time not only to include the exclusion of women from male spaces but also the problems of compulsory heterosexuality, gendered dress and hegemonic masculinity. Activists challenged the entire premise of ascribed gender difference and its deleterious effects on public life.

Ultimately, this challenge to sex norms had only partial purchase. As with many promises of the foment of the early 1970s, a more radical vision was gradually eclipsed by a more conservative one. The shift was due in large part to a right-wing backlash, led by conservative activists like Phyllis Schlafly. But the authors note that the change in emphasis also resulted from strategic choices by some women activists to seek equal access rather than full equality. Fearful of losing ground, some accepted the path of less resistance, and this was reflected in the public accommodations laws over time. Title IX, for example, revolutionized sports for women and girls, but the regulations ultimately adopted a parity model as an acceptable substitute for full gender integration in sports. As “separate-but-equal” emerged in these areas of public life, the more expansive visions of sex integration faded.

Sex in Public teaches us that many possibilities were on the table in the 1970s. This is a point that hopefully will not be lost on activists today, who continue the fight for radical inclusion of all people in public life.

  1. Rachel Osterman, Origins of a Myth: Why Courts, Scholars and the Public Think Title VII’s Ban on Sexual Discrimination Was an Accident, 20 Yale J.L. & Feminism 409 (2009).
Cite as: Allison Brownell Tirres, Integrating Spaces: The Fight for Sex Equality in Public Accommodations, JOTWELL (September 23, 2020) (reviewing Elizabeth Sepper & Deborah Dinner, Sex in Public, 129 Yale L. J. 78 (2019)),

A Critical History of the Complicity of International Law

Despite ideological use of terms like “free market,” people are not free to leave capitalism: capitalism is socially compulsory. Ideologists of capitalism sometimes mask this reality by trying to render capitalism the entirety of our conceptual horizon, so that it becomes impossible to think outside of capitalism. When that happens, capitalism comes to be taken for granted rather than treated as a historically contingent and socially-imposed set of constraints. One of the things that history can do is to examine when capitalism arose and how it became compulsory. Rose Parfitt’s new book is precisely this kind of critical history.

This book centers on Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and the ways it has been understood in international law since the end of World War Two. The invasion has been typically treated as a failure of law, as Parfitt demonstrates in a survey of scholarship by historians and international law scholars. The League of Nations let the invasion happen, the typical account goes, and the League’s failure to act must inform the creation and practice of better international legal institutions. Parfitt argues, however, that the legal facilitation of Italy’s annexation of Ethiopia did not arise from particular qualities of the League but from elements of international law more broadly. The force of the argument is that present international law is not so fundamentally different from the League of Nations after all. As Parfitt underlines, the world has witnessed many invasions since the Ethiopian crisis, under what is ostensibly a very different organization of international law and set of institutions. The typical narrative of Italy’s invasion, Parfitt argues, has defended rather than prevented military actions, especially by the US and European countries against formerly colonized countries. Parfitt thus argues that there is far more continuity between the League of Nations era and more recent international law than the typical story admits. She further argues that claims to strong differences between the League and present institutions end up inadvertently offering rhetorical support to war.

Parfitt repeatedly returns to the Italian invasion. With each return she takes a different interpretive perspective, using the metaphor of an artist’s shadow box, which is designed to facilitate looking at objects from angles. In doing so, the book travels far and moves artfully between different degrees of analytical abstraction. Parfitt critiques other scholars conceptually, provides an intellectual and doctrinal history of international law, narrates the Italian invasion, and offers extensive theorizing of the relationship between law and capitalism. It’s a though-provoking, exciting book. In this review, I focus on the book’s theoretical aspects, which are ambitious and offer a great deal to legal scholars. Parfitt foregrounds these theoretical aspects herself as part of the book’s scholarly contribution. In the next few paragraphs I attempt to summarize the contents of her argument that international law helped make capitalism compulsory.

International law in effect has required people around the world to adopt the state as a specific form of social organization, Parfitt argues, and in doing so helped impose capitalism. We find in the history of the world a wide range of ways for human collectivities – societies and communities and, perhaps, polities – to organize themselves. The state is just one of those forms of organization. We live today in a world where states are more or less omnipresent and they have to a massive degree crowded out or at least incorporated or subordinated other forms of collectivity. That’s a relatively historically recent condition and one tied closely to capitalism.

International law is the law of states’ behavior in relation to one another. It regulates what states can and can not, or should and should not do to one another. This implies, Partfitt underscores, a relationship between states and non-state entities, including both non-state collectivities and individual persons. International law sets some limits on what states can do to people, but the many victims ground under the boots of states past and present suggest that those limits are not especially effective. States seem to victimize non-state entities with relative impunity. This means among other things that the stakes of achieving statehood are relatively high, as being recognized as a state provides some limited ability to hold other states at bay. Achieving statehood, though, requires the permission of existing states. That is, Parfitt argues, statehood is always conditionally granted by other states.

Parfitt’s argument implies a question of social ontology: if a human collectivity declares itself a state and no other states agree, is that collectivity really a state? Whatever the theoretical answers may be, Parfitt shows that in practice the incontrovertible fact is that such a collectivity will remain in the world only so long as existing states decide to allow it to do so. The evidence of the historical record suggests that such a collectivity should be worried about its future, as it will likely be brutally steamrolled soon by one or another state and made into a part of that’s state’s territory.

That said, Parfitt stresses that the process of deciding if a human collectivity is or is not a state is not random, nor is it just power politics. There is something of a logic to the process. Now, that logic is in a sense twisted, tilted in favor of some actors (i.e. existing states and especially European ones tied to the history of colonialism), as Parfitt powerfully demonstrates through the examination of the Italian annexation of Ethiopia.

A key criterion of determining whether some collectivity counts as a state is if that collectivity has a government. Parfitt traces the emergence of that category within the history of international law. She argues that having a good government is defined largely as a state that protects property, and specifically capitalist forms of property. This applies domestically: does a collectivity protect the property of the people that it claims are its people, in a way that is legible to other states? This also applies internationally: does a collectivity protect the property of other states’ citizens, and does it do so in a way that other states view as valid? If not, it is less likely to be accepted as a state and more likely to be annexed by a state. To put it simply, this part of Parfitt’s argument entails that being a state requires the permission of already existing states, and not being a state leaves people vulnerable to predation by states. This account helps explain why in relatively recent history more and more of the world has come to be organized under states rather than other kinds of institutions: existing states have annexed more territory, and people seeking to avoid annexation have attempted to organize themselves as states. Often people have found their claims to statehood denied by pre-existing states, or in some cases statehood has been granted and then later revoked.

Parfitt in effect argues that international law has several traps built into it. One of these traps is that statehood is compulsory. Only a state, not any other kind of collectivity, can count as sovereign. Another depends on race. Historically, Parfitt argues, European states have questioned the sovereignty of other states through ideologies of racial superiority and inferiority. A third trap is the requirement to protect specific forms of property associated with capitalism. Making the state compulsory helped make capitalism compulsory because states have become unrecognizable as states under international law unless they guarantee capitalism’s existence within their territories. Taken together, the book suggests, this explains a great deal of the ugly history of international law: European states have set hurdles in the way of other people’s sovereignty in ways that facilitates European annexation. Non-European people have often been treated as presumptively incapable of protecting property, and so as not able to have states. Parfitt treats Ethiopia’s treatment by Italy and the League of Nations as a case study of these patterns. She argues as well that if understood in this light, the Italian invasion was not exceptional but exemplary of problems in international law. I found this very convincing.
Parfitt’s argument is complex and multi-faceted, and in making it she capably summarizes a wide array of Marxist theorists of law. Her literature review of Marxist legal theory alone makes the book worth reading for legal scholars in a wide range of fields in addition to international law. I appreciated Parfitt noting the original contingency of the state and the possibility of alternative human collectivities. I enjoyed that point and also struggled with it: I came away Parfitt’s book realizing that my imagination has a limited capacity to envision non-state forms of social being. It’s a worthy challenge and one I’m glad Parfitt’s book pressed me to think about.

The Process of International Legal Reproduction offers a great deal that scholars could build on in further research, above all the book’s theoretical framework. Since this book is so suggestive, and since I hope the book signals a renaissance of Marxist legal scholarship, I want to spend some time sketching out ways that scholars might engage further with Parfitt’s book.

Within the Ethiopian crisis, Parfitt depicts the operation of two processes. One is a very macro-level process of capitalism reinforcing itself, and the other is a more specific process of international law playing a specific role in capitalism. Other works on the history of international law could be written that borrow Parfitt’s framework to investigate how the process of international legal reproduction played out in other incidents in history, and how those events related to capitalism’s self-reproduction. Scholars could investigate as well how international and domestic law inter-relate. For example, labor and employment law scholar Ruben Garcia has written optimistically, in his book Marginal Workers, about the potential for international law to help improve the legal situation of workers in the United States. Parfitt’s book implies a critical perspective on these efforts as being another facet of the international process of legal reproduction – a more humane one than some others, but still fundamentally bound up with lasting injustice.

Future scholars could also examine domestic law directly and its role in the reproduction of capitalism and the violence thereof. I attempted to do so in my own recent book, Injury Impoverished. (Had I read The Process of International Legal Reproduction two years prior it would have shaped my book significantly.) Christopher Tomlins has written multiple books analyzing the relationships between law, capitalism, class, ideology, and violence. Afield from history, Marxist philosopher Tony Smith has written in his Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism that the state serves as a key part of the reproduction of capitalism by treating power relationships in society as apolitical and centering political contestation on a very narrow swathe of social life. The Process of International Legal Reproduction could be used to enrich or interrogate those works, by drawing out further how domestic legal processes are articulated to international law and the world market, in addition to her powerful elucidation of the role of law within capitalism’s reproduction.

Parfitt’s book raises questions about the origins of capitalism as well, an area in which there was once much scholarship and which has been relatively neglected in recent years. Parfitt depicts capitalism as a set of self-reinforcing processes, and international law is a key part of that self-reinforcement as Parfitt argues, I think correctly. This prompts the question of when these social processes began, and what came first? Did international law help create capitalism, and then become subordinated to it – law as a kind of Dr. Frankenstein creating then losing control of the monster of capitalism? Or did capitalism arise relatively independently of international law and then take over the international legal system? Both sound plausible and compatible with Parfitt’s arguments, and I am sure her book would aid researchers arguing either point. The answers would have important implications for the degree to which scholars should understand the law as relatively autonomous within capitalism or as relatively determined to act in specific ways by capitalism. All in all, this is a powerful and thought-provoking book, highly recommended to any legal scholars concerned with international law, human rights, colonialism, social justice, and capitalism.

Cite as: Nate Holdren, A Critical History of the Complicity of International Law, JOTWELL (August 6, 2020) (reviewing Rose Parfitt, The Process of International Legal Reproduction: Inequality, Historiography, Resistance (2019)),