| Capitalism as Civilisation A History of International Law Cambridge Cambridge University Press 2020 | MR Online

Capitalism and the Telos of the Neoliberal Civilizing Mission

Originally published: Legal Form on January 14, 2021 by Jessica Whyte (more by Legal Form) (Posted Jan 20, 2021)
[This post reviews Ntina Tzouvala’s recently published Capitalism as Civilisation: A History of International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020).]

| Capitalism as Civilisation A History of International Law Cambridge Cambridge University Press 2020 | MR OnlineIn 1931 the British Colonial Office submitted a special report to the Council of the League of Nations on the “Progress of Iraq” in the previous decade. Since the First World War had ended with the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and the confiscation of its territories, Iraq had been governed as a British mandate, under the supervision of the League. Central to the mandate system was an evolutionary conception of human development, with territories ranging along a scale from “A” to “C”. Former Ottoman territories such as Mesopotamia (Iraq), Palestine, Syria, and Transjordan (Jordan) were classed as “A mandates”, and deemed sufficiently “advanced” to expect independence in the near future. Such a prospect was assumed to be almost unimaginable for “C mandates” (largely South-West Africa, or modern Namibia, and Germany’s former territories in the Pacific). By 1931 Great Britain wished to convince the League Council that its own civilizing work had been done, and its report therefore looked forward to the near future when Iraq “will be adjudged to be able to stand alone as a fully independent self-governing state”.(1)

Far from reflecting a commitment to self-determination, the report was a product of Britain’s desire to lighten its own obligations in Iraq, and escape League supervision, while continuing to benefit from the control it exercised over the country’s economic and political system. It therefore sought to dampen expectations about the kind of independent state the mandate would produce. Iraq, it turned out, would not quite be capable of standing on its own, even after its formal independence; as the former British colonial administrator and member of the League’s Permanent Mandate Commission Lord Lugard put it, Britain’s role would remain crucial as Iraq would need to stand “with the aid of a prop, or buttress to lean on, before it attempts to walk or run” (122). For all the improvements Britain had overseen in the previous decade, the report stressed that Iraqis remained unruly, backwards, lacking in commercial abilities, and incapable of truly governing themselves.

More than seventy years later, in May 2003, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1483 on the Rebuilding of Iraq, which spelled out what was necessary to create “the conditions in which the Iraqi people can freely determine their own political future” (178). Drafted by the United States, and co-sponsored by Britain and Spain, the resolution established the framework for the occupation of Iraq and for the country’s profound and coercive transformation. Once again, “Iraq’s rehabilitation as an equal sovereign became conditional upon its externally guided transformation”—this time, its transformation into “a model neoliberal state” (175). Quite explicitly, then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan stressed the need for Iraq’s “transition from a centrally-planned economy to a market economy” (179). The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) facilitated this transition not only by carrying out the de-Baathification of the Iraqi state, but also by hosting a weekly free-market seminar to inculcate young state administrators, private sector representatives, and a new generation of political leaders into neoliberal orthodoxies. The transformation of Iraq’s economy was not simply a matter of pedagogy, however; other significant measures included the establishment of an independent central bank, free of political control, the abolition of all restrictions on foreign investment, and the introduction of a flat fifteen percent tax rate for both private individuals and corporations.

Juxtaposing these moments reveals what Jeanne Morefield has described as the “intriguing similarity in the rhetorical responses” to circumstances that emerged in the late British Empire and in the period of (late) American geopolitical dominance.(2) More specifically, in both cases, the belief that Iraq’s economy and society were capable of radical transformation went along with the view that Iraqis themselves may pose insuperable barriers to the reinvention of their country. Back in 1931, the report of the Colonial Office had noted that Iraqis lacked “any clear idea of the duties and privileges of democratic citizenship”, and stressed that “British ideas of progressive and enlightened government are the product of centuries of steady development in conditions which by the nature of things be expected to obtain in Iraq for many years to come” (123). In his 2006 memoir, Paul Bremer, former administrator of the CPA, wrote that “[m]ost Iraqis have no experience of free thought. They vaguely understand the concept of freedom but still want us to tell them what to do” (183). For Bremer and the authority he headed, the task of transforming Iraq’s political and economic system would have been easier, to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, if it were possible to dissolve the Iraqi people and elect another.

I open with these moments, both discussed in detail in Ntina Tzouvala’s Capitalism as Civilisation, to provide an introduction to this tour de force of historical and theoretical engagement with international law and its imbrication with capitalism. Tzouvala’s central argument throughout the book is that such eerie resemblances between the reasoning of the Permanent Mandate Commission and the Security Council, or between the personnel of the British Colonial Office and the US-sponsored CPA, are evidence of a persistent argumentative pattern that has been drawn on and refined by international lawyers since the nineteenth century. Civilization, Tzouvala argues, is an unstable amalgam of two logics: the “logic of improvement” and the “logic of biology”. While the former generates the belief (optimistic or coercively interventionist depending on one’s perspective) that non-Western societies are capable of transformation along the lines of modern Western states, the latter undercuts this belief in the mutability of such societies, treating the biology and culture of racialized “others” as ineradicable obstacles to their true integration into modern capitalist societies.

The concern with how universalist aspirations co-exist with deep commitments to hierarchical forms of order has been a central concern of much work in the recent history of international law, notably that of Martti Koskenniemi and Antony Anghie, and in related intellectual histories of liberalism and empire, such as those by Jennifer Pitts, Uday Mehta, David Armitage, and Sankar Muthu. Yet, as Onur Ulas Ince has recently argued in relation to the latter body of work, “the fine-grained textual analysis of liberal ideas in imperial contexts has not been matched by a clear socioeconomic analysis of imperial relations themselves”, meaning that an “overly culturalist orientation” has undermined the analytical power of such scholarship.(3)

On the one hand, Tzouvala’s account of civilization as an argumentative structure that oscillates between two logics clearly draws on this scholarship, particularly on Koskenniemi’s “dialectical historiography of international law”, which posits a similar oscillation between positivist interests and idealizing teleologies (or “apology” and “utopia”).(4) Yet Tzouvala goes further by grounding her discussion of the contradictory logics of the standard of civilization in a materialist account of capitalist expansion. The oscillation between seemingly contradictory logics is not due to a theoretical difficulty in reconciling universal pronouncements with the factual existence of cultural difference, Tzouvala suggests, but a result of the contradictions of capitalist expansion, which produces both homogenization and differentiation.

Tzouvala’s book is relatively unique in contemporary scholarship on the history of international law in focusing its attention not on liberalism but explicitly on capitalism. Following Marx, the book foregrounds the question of economic exploitation, and, with it, the role of international law in the “creation of dispossession, displacement and poverty” (20). Capitalism, according to this understanding, is neither natural nor necessary. But nor is the imperialist violence and exploitation that accompanies it merely a contingent outcome of particular acts or decisions made by historical agents. Rather, capitalism entails a structuring logic and a form of compulsion, not least the compulsion to reproduce capitalist social relations on a global scale. This lens allows Tzouvala to go beyond moralistic criticism of the inequalities and violence of civilizing processes, and to challenge the forms of exploitation, expropriation, and coercive transformation that underpin them. The specific features of a “civilized state”, Tzouvala shows, are, not coincidentally, the features required for capital accumulation.

There were, nonetheless, points at which I wanted more analysis of the specifically liberal discourses that rationalized imperialist expansion at specific historical moments. As I read the book, I was unable to overcome a sense of discomfort about the adequacy of the language of “biology” in capturing the deep-seated practices of differentiation, hierarchization, and racialization that have been—and remain—central to the global expansion of capitalism, particularly in our neoliberal age. To flesh out this discomfort, I want to return to the two moments with which I started and examine how neoliberal thought and practice intersected with both the League of Nations mandate system and the later occupation of Iraq.

Previous scholarship has noted the significance of the mandate system for later practices of neoliberal governance. The disassociation of governance from sovereignty in the mandates, Anghie has suggested, made them experimental laboratories for governance techniques that were drawn on by later neoliberal thinkers.(5) My own research on the intellectual history of neoliberalism has suggested that the mandates were not simply a precursor to later forms of neoliberal governance. Rather, early neoliberal thinkers were deeply concerned with decolonization, involved with the mandate system, and preoccupied with the question of how to ensure that formal independence did not disrupt the existing colonial division of labour. In my book The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism, I pursued this convergence by examining the career of William Rappard, who was not only inaugural director of the League’s Mandates Section but also a founding member of the neoliberal Mont Pèlerin Society, and a central figure in the cultivation of a “globalist” neoliberal intellectual milieu that sought to enmesh former colonies in a global market order.(6)

In an address to the inaugural meeting of the Mont Pèlerin Society in 1947, Rappard framed himself and his neoliberal colleagues as inheritors of Adam Smith’s economics and politics. Drawing on his work as a professional “civilizer”, Rappard noted that, in discussing “economic man” Smith had implicitly presupposed that this man was a Scotsman, for whom work was a virtue and saving a characteristic trait. Recalling a previous trip he had taken to Algiers, Rappard asked speculatively: had Smith been “reared among the sun-baked race of Arabs who prefer leisure to work”, and equality to liberty, “would his semi-tropical economic man not have led him quite consistently to preach a very different doctrine?”(7) If commercial capitalism required a “Scots” homo economicus, Rappard implied that this homo economicus would need to be created.

In this sense, both Rappard and his early neoliberal colleagues were very much within what Tzouvala calls the “logic of improvement”. What mattered to all of them was breaking with nineteenth-century faith in laissez-faire and creating the moral, legal, and institutional conditions in which competitive markets would thrive. While they consistently drew on racialized narratives and colonial tropes to stress the superiority of “Western civilization”, it is not clear that they saw the inferiority of non-Western peoples as a product of biology. Ludwig von Mises, for instance, explicitly rejected the biological racism of the French eugenicist Arthur de Gobineau, while embracing “modern variations of the race theory” for which racial hierarchies were produced by an evolutionary process which endowed certain races with distinctive qualities that gave them “so long a lead that members of other races could not overtake them within a limited time”.(8)

In addition to inheriting Smith’s economics and his politics, the early neoliberals inherited an evolutionary social theory as well as a stadial history, which saw the development of civilization, from savagery to barbarism to settled agriculture and finally to commercial society, as a fragile development that was potentially open to all—but always threatened with regression. In his speech to the inaugural meeting of the Mont Pèlerin Society, Rappard warned that even the “European economic man” was in danger of such regression, as this man was today clamouring for “social security and equality much more than for economic progress and freedom”.(9) For Rappard’s good friend Friedrich Hayek, who presided over the Mont Pèlerin Society, the rise of socialism, social democracy, and egalitarianism was evidence of such regression to a “tribal” spirit of collectivism and mutual aid. Egalitarianism, including the form institutionalized in the British welfare state, was best understood, Hayek contended, as the return of “suppressed primordial instincts” that threatened the civilizing work of millennia.(10)

Avoiding such a danger was central to the forms of discipline that twentieth-century neoliberals sought to entrench. Tzouvala provides a brilliant account of the imposition of neoliberal discipline, including in contemporary Iraq. But here I wonder if the problem facing us is not more drastic than the one she diagnoses: drawing on Susan Marks, Tzouvala attributes the CPA’s belief that Iraq was ready only for “low-intensity democracy” to the logic of biology. Iraqis, Tzouvala writes, were “fundamentally different” from their occupiers, and so “a formal, limited and weak model of democracy was deemed the only functional model”, given their “supposedly unfree, immature and deceitful character” (183). This would seem to make the Iraqi situation continuous with, for instance, John Stuart Mill’s skepticism about the universalist belief that political institutions suitable for England or France are “the only fit form of government for Bedouins and Malays”.(11)

Comparing the colonized to children, Mill had argued that different civilizations required different institutions, just as children of different ages required different lessons.(12) There is no doubt that similar racialized tropes of Iraqi immaturity and unruliness influenced the various anti-democratic manoeuvres of the CPA. And yet, in my view, contemporary neoliberal forms of governance have decisively dispensed with the commitment to representative government as the telos of the civilizing mission. What distinguished the occupation of Iraq from neoliberal democracy in Europe or North America was less that it had to grapple with the perceived “immaturity” of those it ruled, but that it offered the (rare) opportunity to restructure a state along the lines of the new telos of neoliberal civilization.

In this respect, Iraq resembled an earlier neoliberal experiment undertaken in the Chile of General Pinochet. In 1977 Hayek visited Pinochet and discussed with him the dangers of what the former called “unlimited democracy”.(13) In this form of democracy (which he believed then existed in most of western Europe), Hayek saw a threat to a competitive market order. The virtues of “limited democracy” were not confined to those who were still “not yet” civilized. Rather, only radically subordinating democracy to the imperatives of capital accumulation would prevent it from overwhelming even the competitive market order in “the West”/global North/First World.

Like Chile, Iraq seemed to offer the hubristic inheritors of the sciences of colonial administration an opportunity to restructure not only states but also subjectivities along capitalist lines—and to create the Scottish homo economicus Rappard had noted was too often lacking in the non-Western world. Those who ruled Iraq did not simply share the view of previous colonial administrators that those they governed were inadequately civilized to embrace full democracy. Rather, they conceived Iraq as the model and telos for us all. Racial hierarchies and the uneven history of imperialism made Iraqis more vulnerable to their coercive interventions than citizens of “the West”. And yet it is Iraq under the CPA that offers the paradigmatic instance of the state form towards which the neoliberal civilizing mission leads.

In foregrounding the violent imposition of capitalist social relations around the globe, and the role of international law in rationalizing that imposition, Tzouvala has made a critical contribution to the history of international law. This book should be read by anyone concerned about the global inequalities and racial hierarchies of our neoliberal capitalist present. In a context in which those nostalgic for older liberal certainties hope for their revival in the wake of Trump’s presidency, Capitalism as Civilisation suggests that only a break with capitalism, not any amount of liberal hand-wringing, will free us of the authoritarianism and brutal violence of “civilization”.

Jessica Whyte is a Scientia Fellow (philosophy and law) and associate professor of philosophy at the University of New South Wales. She is the author of Catastrophe and Redemption: The Political Thought of Giorgio Agamben and The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism. She is also an editor of Humanity.


  1. Quoted in Ntina Tzouvala, Capitalism as Civilisation: A History of International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 122. (Further references to Tzouvala’s book are in parentheses in the text.)
  2. Jeanne Morefield, Empires Without Imperialism: Anglo-American Decline and the Politics of Deflection (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 6.
  3. Onur Ulas Ince, Colonial Capitalism and the Dilemmas of Liberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 13.
  4. The phrase belongs to Ian Hunter, “About the Dialectical Historiography of International Law“, 1 (2016) Global Intellectual History 1; Martti Koskenniemi, The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law 1870–1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Martti Koskenniemi, From Apology to Utopia: The Structure of International Legal Argument, reissue with new epilogue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
  5. Antony Anghie, Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
  6. Slobodian provides an excellent account of Rappard’s contribution to neoliberal “globalism” in Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018).
  7. William Rappard, “Opening Address to the Mont Pèlerin Society” (Mont Pèlerin Founding Meeting, Mont Pèlerin: Hoover Institution Archives, 1947), box 5, folder 12.
  8. Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, trans. J. Kahane (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962 [1951]), 325.
  9. Rappard, “Opening Address”.
  10. F. A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty: A New Statement of the Liberal Principles of Justice and Political Economy, vol. 3 (London: Routledge, 1993 [1979]), 165.
  11. John Stuart Mill, “Considerations on Representative Government” [1861], in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. John M. Robson, vol. 19 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977) 371, at 394.
  12. Mill, “Considerations”, 394.
  13. Hayek visited Chile twice during the rule of the military junta, once in 1977 and again in 1981. Cited in Bruce Caldwell and Leonidas Montes, “Friedrich Hayek and His Visits to Chile“, 28 (2015) The Review of Austrian Economics 261, at 279.