International Investment Arbitration in Critical Focus

David Schneiderman – 

How might we come to better understand the complex, multilevel, and interdependent world in which we live? This is a particular challenge for international and global legal scholars whose methods of analysis typically are confined to empirically observable legal phenomena in the form of international conventions, treaties, custom, and the like. In this post, I propose bringing international legal studies into conversation with a particular branch of international political economy (IPE), one that brings both an interdisciplinary and a critical edge to the global study of law.

The field of IPE in the English-speaking world has been described as being divided between two competing schools. A U.S. version emphasizes the testing of scientific models via empirical methods, focusing on state behavior as its unit of analysis. Modeled on ‘hard science,’ the U.S. version adopts a state-centric view. A more ambitious British version aims to be more qualitative and normative, emphasizing society, power, and history. It is this latter version that merits attention from legal scholars. It is a mode of analysis that is more interpretive than narrowly empirical, asking what values are promoted and who benefits from particular institutional arrangements. Susan Strange, one of the founders of the British school, has defined the study of IPE as concerning: ‘the social, political and economic arrangements affecting the global systems of production, exchange and distribution and the mix of values reflected therein. Those arrangements are not divinely ordained, nor are they the fortuitous outcome of blind chance. Rather they are the result of human decisions taken in the context of man-made institutions and sets of self-set rules and customs.’

This is a mode of analysis that will be familiar to critical scholars working in many disciplines, but an IPE approach has the advantage of thinking about contemporary global problems on multiple scales. Critical IPE is ontologically inclined, in other words, to theorize law as interacting with actors operating at various levels. It looks to the ‘complex whole,’ Robert Cox writes, rather than to the separate parts.’ Cox, in his own work, helpfully distinguishes between ‘problem solving’ theory and critical theory. The first has as its object the smooth operational working of international institutions. Such approaches serve ‘particular national, sectional or class interests.’ Problem solving is about managing the world, not changing it. Critical theory within IPE, by contrast, does not take institutions or relations of power for granted. It attends instead to how they arise and change. This is a style of understanding the world that is both multidisciplinary and normative.  It is, as Benjamin Cohen puts it, about ‘making the world a better place.’

Continue reading

From Territorial to Functional Sovereignty: The Case of Amazon

Frank Pasquale

Economists tend to characterize the scope of regulation as a simple matter of expanding or contracting state power. But a political economy perspective emphasizes that social relations abhor a power vacuum. When state authority contracts, private parties fill the gap. That power can feel just as oppressive, and have effects just as pervasive, as garden variety administrative agency enforcement of civil law. As Robert Lee Hale stated, “There is government whenever one person or group can tell others what they must do and when those others have to obey or suffer a penalty.”

We are familiar with that power in employer-employee relationships, or when a massive firm extracts concessions from suppliers. But what about when a firm presumes to exercise juridical power, not as a party to a conflict, but the authority deciding it? I worry that such scenarios will become all the more common as massive digital platforms exercise more power over our commercial lives.

A few weeks ago, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (a think tank affiliated with the Social Democratic Party in Germany) invited me to speak at their Conference on Digital Capitalism. As European authorities develop long-term plans to address the rise of powerful platforms, they want to know: What is new, or particularly challenging, in digital capitalism?

My answer focused on the identity and aspirations of major digital firms. They are no longer market participants. Rather, in their fields, they are market makers, able to exert regulatory control over the terms on which others can sell goods and services. Moreover, they aspire to displace more government roles over time, replacing the logic of territorial sovereignty with functional sovereignty. In functional arenas from room-letting to transportation to commerce, persons will be increasingly subject to corporate, rather than democratic, control. Continue reading