This article offers an introduction to a class approach to international law. It challenges the ‘death of class’ thesis and argues for the continued relevance of the category of ‘class’. Among other things, the contention is that the category of ‘class’ subsumes without erasing the gender and race divides. Noting the emergence of a global social formation the article claims that a transnational capitalist class is shaping international laws and institutions in the era of globalization. It calls for the linking of the class critique of contemporary laws and institutions with the idea and practices of resistance, and considers in this setting the meaning of internationalism and class struggle today for an emerging transnational oppressed class. The article concludes by schematically outlining the advantages of a class approach to international law.
This article offers an introduction to a class approach to international law. While mainstream international law scholarship (MILS) has much to contribute to the understanding of contemporary international law (CIL), its near exclusive focus on states occludes a serious examination of social groups and classes which influence state policies and are often principal movers and beneficiaries of international law regimes.
In contrast, a class approach to international law focuses besides states on social groups and classes which are shaping and have historically shaped international law, enabling us to fill crucial gaps in the understanding of the international law making and implementation process, including the location of international lawyers in the international system. A class focus, to put it differently, enables international lawyers to practise the discipline of international law as if people mattered.2
A class approach to international law does not necessarily mean, it is also worth stressing at the outset, a Marxist approach to international law. Weber, Durkheim, and Bourdieu, among others, also deployed the social category class to understand modern society.3 Their understanding of ‘class’ can therefore equally be used to sketch a class approach to international law. While this article relies on Marx and his interpreters (including Bourdieu), the underlying assumption is that any class approach has, albeit in different ways, much to contribute to an understanding of CIL. A class approach also does not mean the rejection of non-class approaches (conservative, liberal, feminist, or post-modern) to CIL. These can complement each other better to understand the structure and process of international law. But a class approach certainly rejects the view that universal human values are a more suitable basis for understanding and evaluating the functioning of international law.4 For such an approach neglects established fractures in society, both national and global. While universal human values certainly have a place in international law discourse, they are, like human rights discourse, subject to selective appropriation, parochial interpretations, and manipulation by dominant groups, classes, and states.
In articulating a class approach to international law the article proceeds as follows. Section 2 dilates on the category of ‘class’ through challenging the ‘death of class thesis’. In the process of critiquing the ‘end of class’ thesis, it refers to the views of key writers such as Bourdieu, Poulantzas, Resnick and Wolf, and Wright. It inter alia suggests that the category of ‘class’ has continued relevance even in advanced capitalist societies and is not to be viewed in opposition to the categories of gender and race, pointing to the complementarities between them. Section 3 considers whether it is appropriate to speak of a global social formation and global classes. In this regard it clarifies the meaning of a ‘social formation’ and refers to the global character of capitalism and the emergence of a transnational public sphere to evidence the existence of a global social formation. The section then goes on to look at the emergence of a transnational capitalist class (TCC) which drives globalization in both the developed and third world countries and examines the impact of TCC on CIL. Section 4 considers, against the backdrop of a congealing Transnational Oppressed Class (TOC), the meaning of ‘internationalism’ and ‘class struggle’ today and its relationship to CIL. Section 5 schematically lists the advantages of adopting a class approach to international law.
2. On Class
In order to advance a class approach to international law it is necessary at first to clarify the concept of ‘class’. Social classes have been defined in classical Marxist literature as follows:
Classes are large groups of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated in law) to the means of production, by their role in the social organisation of labour, and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and the mode of acquiring it. Classes are groups of people one of which can appropriate the labour of another owing to the different places they occupy in a definite system of social economy.5
The task of clarifying the concept of ‘class’ may be accomplished through a critical review of the principal arguments advanced to support the ‘death of class’ thesis. It is today contended that the category of ‘class’ is no longer useful for at least five reasons:
First, despite its centrality to Marxist sociology, the category of ‘class’ has not been adequately developed. Marxist scholars themselves admit that the ‘traditional Marxist notions of class are generally vague and inadequate’.6 The general tendency is to work with a two-class model of capitalist societies: the capitalist and the working class, offering an impoverished view of complex multi-class social structures.
Secondly, the determination of classes is based on economic relations occluding the identification of classes in the ideological and political spheres. Conversely, the ideological and political role of classes is simply derived from their economic locations without taking into account the multifaceted mediations and interactions which determine these roles.
Thirdly, it is increasingly recognized that the gender and race divides in society are as salient as the ‘class’ divide. The non-recognition of these other social divides renders the category of ‘class’ less than useful. On the other hand, attempting to accommodate and incorporate these other categories dilutes the category of ‘class’ to a point where it loses its distinctiveness and analytical usefulness.