The Role of Law in Global Value Chains: A Window into Law and Global Political Economy

The Role of Law in Global Value Chains: A Window into Law and Global Political Economy

NB: This is the introduction to a symposium on law and global value chains co-convened with the Institute for Global Law and Policy’s Law and Global Production Working Group.

Dan Danielsen and Jennifer Bair–

The ideas that form the basis for this Symposium have emerged through an ongoing discussion among critical legal scholars, sociologists, geographers and political economists that began in 2014 under the auspices of the Institute for Global Law and Policy (IGLP) at Harvard Law School. From diverse disciplinary locations and substantive research interests, we were all engaging with the concept of global value chains (GVCs)—that is, functionally integrated but geographically dispersed networks through which many goods and services are produced. While we agreed that studying GVCs was integral for understanding the nature of the global political economy, our collaboration, which we named the IGLP Law and Global Production Working Group, was inspired by our shared sense that the role of law in the organization, operation and effects of Global Value Chains (GVCs) was little understood and significantly undertheorized in the burgeoning social science and policy literatures on GVCs. Moreover, legal scholars had barely begun to consider the rich body of scholarship tracking GVCs in numerous industries and geographic contexts, nor had they appreciated the degree to which the study of GVCs was shedding empirical and theoretical light on the governance structures and distributional dynamics of the dominant form of doing business in the global economy. (According to UNCTAD’s 2013 World Investment Report, GVCs account for 80% of world trade, while a more recent OECD estimate puts the number at 70%.) Finally, we shared a deep skepticism of what seemed an emerging consensus among mainstream GVC scholars and policymakers that the most promising (and perhaps only) path to development today is via participating in, and ideally moving up the value chain by capturing additional rents through innovation-based upgrading. Our intuition was that diverse legal arrangements were enabling and sustaining the current asymmetrical distributions of resources, rents, and power in GVCs and that developing richer maps of these key legal drivers would make more legible the geographies of value and vulnerability in particular chain configurations, and perhaps suggest new strategies for resistance, solidarity and distributive intervention.

These shared ideas and intuitions led us to the core research question that remains at the heart of our work, even as we explore different aspects of it in diverse sectors and contexts: how does law shape the structure and organization of production and distribution globally, and how do structures of production and distribution in turn reconfigure what law is and how it works in this dynamic process? Our preliminary thoughts and methods for exploring this question were first articulated in a piece entitled “The Role of Law in Global Value Chains: A Research Manifesto” (the “Manifesto”), which was published in the London Review of International Law. In our introductory essay to this Symposium, we share some of the insights from the Manifesto and our ongoing work in order to frame the interventions to follow.

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