Civilisation, Materialism and Indeterminacy in International Law: A Review of Capitalism as Civilisation: A History of International Law

In: The Australian Year Book of International Law Online
Ntina Tzouvala Cambridge University Press 2020

Search for other papers by Ntina Tzouvala in
Current site
Google Scholar
Richard Joyce Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Monash University Australia

Search for other papers by Richard Joyce in
Current site
Google Scholar
Full Access

Of the many spectres let loose by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one has been a renewed distinction between the civilised and uncivilised worlds. CBS correspondent Charlie D’Agata, in comments for which he subsequently apologised, said from Kyiv: ‘[t]his isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. … You know, this is a relatively civilised, relatively European—I have to choose these words carefully, too—city where you wouldn’t expect or hope that it’s going to happen.’1 In The Telegraph, Daniel Hannan, in an article titled ‘Vladimir Putin’s monstrous invasion is an attack on civilisation itself’, wrote: ‘They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking … War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone.’2

Given its explicit invocation in commentaries on the war in Ukraine, it might be that Dr Tzouvala need not have worked so hard to show that the ‘standard of civilisation’ ought not be considered a ‘relic of a bygone era’.3 But it is true that this vulgar usage has also attracted immediate and widespread criticism, and remains less welcome explicitly—though in Tzouvala’s account—no less influential implicitly—in the reified and reifying texts and practices of international legal argument.

In any event, both its use and attendant criticism speak to the urgency and power of Tzouvala’s focus on the concept of civilisation in her excellent monograph. The book is a deserved winner of the prestigious American Society of International Law certificate of merit for Pre-Eminent Contribution to Creative Scholarship. But for all its originality, one of the most impressive aspects of this book is the way Tzouvala puts her work in conversation with its predecessors4 and its contemporaries,5 rethreading their insights through her own work. Its care and attention to questions of inheritance and method exemplify a scholarly ethos in which an attempt to push the conversation forward involves returning to, refining and developing themes that have, without resolution, illuminated the field of critical international law for some time. It is a generous and generative book.

Tzouvala convincingly demonstrates that the tropes and patterns of the ‘standard of civilisation’ have permeated international legal argument from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. After a very clear and helpful account of the book’s methodology in chapter 1, Tzouvala takes the reader through the formation of the standard as the foundation of nineteenth century colonialism and the professional discipline of international law (chapter 2), to its refinement and deployment by the Permanent Mandates Commission system under the League of Nations, when active international management of colonial territories reached its peak (chapter 3), through its attempted but inevitably compromised re-purposing by anti-colonial international lawyers in the South West Africa International Court of Justice cases (chapter 4) and finally its re-invention as neoliberal governance in the invasion and occupation of Iraq and the war on terror (chapter 5). Each chapter is thoroughly researched, brilliantly written, and full of sharp insights.

Within international law’s explicit and implicit ‘standard of civilisation’, argues Tzouvala, lies a productive contradiction between what she terms the ‘logic of biology’ (in which certain societies are understood to be irredeemably incapable of self-governance) and the ‘logic of improvement’ (in which self-governance for such societies may become possible only through supervised transformation to meet a set of requirements demanded by the imperatives of capitalist modernity). It is this apparent contradiction that renders the ‘standard of civilisation’ indeterminate. (Tzouvala adopts Koskenniemi’s notion of indeterminacy within international law as not being concerned with ‘semantic ambivalence’, but rather internal contradiction within its terms and the fact that these terms attempt to ‘regulate a future in which even single actors’ preferences remain unsettled.’6)

In bringing together complex conversations on imperialism, indeterminacy and materialism, Tzouvala’s book stands at the vanguard of critical materialist accounts of international law and politics.7 Two intertwined aspects of Tzouvala’s use of Marxist theory are particularly significant. First, Tzouvala shows how the logics which underlie the ‘standard of civilisation’ are not only usefully deployed in the service of the agents of capitalist modernity, but actually map onto contradictory tensions within capitalist modernity itself, from primitive accumulation to neoliberal financialisation. Second, Tzouvala shows how pro-capitalist biases do not operate on a blank slate of indeterminate openness offered up by the standard of civilisation, but rather are deeply implicated in the argumentative structure of the standard itself.8 This Tzouvala uses to answer (in relation to the standard of civilisation), Parfitt’s question of why ‘if international law is really indeterminate—then how is it that certain communities always draw the short straw when it comes to the allocation of power and resources?’.9 For Tzouvala, it is ‘a Marxian lens [that] enables us to move beyond “false contingencies” and to analyse the role of international law both in the construction of power and in the creation of dispossession, displacement and poverty.’10 It is this deep bias within the argumentative pattern itself which makes its attempted creative re-deployment towards progressive ends so fraught and ultimately ineffective (see especially chapter 4). Throughout, the power of Tzouvala’s argument lies in its close weaving of the conceptual and material.

Undoubtedly, the ‘standard of civilisation’ is a powerful site of analysis for understanding the relationship between concepts and argumentative patterns within international law and the material conditions of global capitalism. The book is uncompromising in its examination of the dark sides of even well-meaning appeals to the ‘standard of civilisation’ and helps explain why its emancipatory potential is limited. However, the book’s own argumentative structure, which depends on holding the logics of biology and improvement in place as firmly contradictory, keeps that potential in the air longer than is warranted. One insight this reader got from reading the book, perhaps against the grain, is that the ‘logic of improvement’ ought not be understood as carrying (or even promising) an emancipatory potential that is undermined by the ever-present ‘logic of biology’.11 Throughout, the logic of improvement appears just as restrictive and conducive to the maintenance of hierarchy as the logic of biology. Tzouvala perhaps in part agrees, suggesting late in the book that these logics have a tendency not only to ‘co-exist’, but even to ‘collapse into each other’.12

If these two logics do indeed have a tendency to collapse into each other, then there are implications for what we can draw from this book about the limits of indeterminacy-based critiques in international law. To this reader, the conceptual problem that the ‘standard of civilisation’ addresses is not difference itself (be it cultural or economic), but difference within a system (international law) that promises universality. Both the logic of biology and the logic of improvement are (within the ‘standard of civilisation’) essential to this end. They are both ways of managing the irresolvable contradiction between what, in Derridean terms, we might call the conditional and unconditional dimensions of universality.13 Put differently, ‘the standard of civilisation’ is power’s (and perhaps capital’s) answer to the question of how a people or society can simultaneously be included and excluded from the category of the universal.14 Both logics work together, rather than in a contradictory fashion, towards this end. The logic of biology does this by articulating purportedly unbridgeable racial, cultural and economic differences. The logic of improvement does this not just by ‘offer[ing] a prospect of inclusion … conditional upon capitalist development’15 but by endlessly deferring achievement of the standard and shifting its content through ‘ever-changing sets of ideas, practices and disciplines’.16

If the ‘standard of civilisation’ operates not in light of its own contradictions, but rather as an important mode by which the promise of universality within international law is tamed, then it ought not surprise us that its openness is limited and perhaps non-existent. That doesn’t in any way detract from the force of Tzouvala’s materialist critique of the standard of civilisation in international law—a concept central to the history and contemporary practice of the discipline. The book essentially shows that there is nothing in the concept of civilisation that can be redeemed or radicalised, and Tzouvala is right to argue that the history of international law over the past 150 years or so demonstrates that inclusion on its (shifting) terms cannot offer a solution to the human and environmental catastrophes that global capitalism has created and which are intensifying daily.17 Both its vulgar invocations and its subtle re-workings ought to be resisted.18 But it remains for work addressing other concepts within international law to test the limits of indeterminacy-based critiques through materialist analysis.19 As Tzouvala suggests, international law offers a variety of concepts and argumentative patterns that help justify, explain and sustain the contradictions of global capitalism.20 Many concepts that feature in the post-structural pantheon are at work in international law (for example universality, sovereignty, responsibility, hospitality and justice). Unlike the ‘standard of civilisation’, these do indeed carry with them a promise of radical, not conditional, openness. They are where ‘the possible and the impossible cross each other.’21 But we still have to account for the structural biases that attend their operationalisation. If, as Derrida writes, deconstruction’s exposure of the irreducible chaos and instability that grounds all ‘laws, rules, conventions [and] politics’ involves both ‘a risk and a chance,’22 then materialist analyses of these concepts and their associated argumentative patterns, inspired by the one undertaken with such verve, rigour and urgency by Tzouvala, perhaps offer the best way of understanding precisely what those risks are, and where our chances lie.


Michelle Elias, ‘Reporter apologises after saying Ukraine is “civilised” compared to Afghanistan, Iraq’, SBS News (online, 22 February 2022) <>.


Daniel Hannan, ‘Vladimir Putin’s monstrous invasion is an attack on civilisation itself’, The Telegraph (online, 26 February 2022) <>.


Ntina Tzouvala, Capitalism as Civilisation: A History of International Law (Cambridge University Press, 2020) 168.


See, eg, Antony Anghie, Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law (Cambridge University Press, 2005); Sundhya Pahuja, Decolonising International Law (Cambridge University Press, 2011); Martii Koskenniemi, From Apology to Utopia: The Structure of International Legal Argument (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and Anne Orford, Reading Humanitarian Intervention: Human Rights and the Use of Force in International Law (Cambridge University Press, 2003).


See especially Rose Parfitt, The Process of International Legal Reproduction: Inequality, Historiography, Resistance (Cambridge University Press, 2019).


See Koskenniemi (n 4) 590.


See, eg, Parfitt (n 5); Onur Ulas Ince, Colonial Capitalism and the Dilemmas of Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2018); Robert Knox, ‘Haiti and the League of Nations: Racialisation, Accumulation and Representation’ (2021) 21 Melbourne Journal of International Law 1; Robert Knox, ‘Marxist Approaches to International Law’, in Florian Hoffmann and Anne Orford (eds) The Oxford Handbook of the Theory of International Law (Oxford University Press, 2016), 306–326; the various contributions to Corinne Blalock (Issue Editor) ‘Law and the Critique of Capitalism’, 121(2) South Atlantic Quarterly 223–442, and less recently, BS Chimni, International Law and World Order: A Critique of Contemporary Approaches (2nd ed, Cambridge University Press, 2017) and Susan Marks (ed) International Law on the Left: Re-examining Marxist Legacies (Cambridge University Press, 2008). It is also very usefully read alongside Adom Getachew’s history of anti-colonialism and self-determination: Adom Getachew, Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton University Press, 2019) and recent works on the history and political theory of neoliberalism, especially Jessica Whyte, The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism (Verso, 2019) and Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Harvard University Press, 2018).


Tzouvala (n 3) 215.


Parfitt (n 5) 21; Tzouvala (n 3) 38.


Tzouvala (n 3) 20 quoting Susan Marks, ‘False Contingency’ (2009) Current Legal Problems, 10.


Tzouvala (n 3) 210.


Ibid 211.


Jacques Derrida, Without Alibi, (Peggy Kamuf, ed) (Stanford University Press, 2002), 208.


On the aporias of exclusion from the category of the universal, see Peter Fitzpatrick, Modernism and the Grounds of Law (Cambridge University Press, 2001), 63.


Tzouvala (n 3) 2.


Ibid 5.


Ibid 220.


But it is important not to conflate the limits of the European international legal conception of civilisation with terms from other languages and cultures which, though often translated into English as ‘civilisation’, carry different valences and offer a rebuke to the racial and material hierarchy at work in the term in English. See, on this, Parfitt’s analysis of the Amharic concept of ‘silit’ane’, deployed by Ethiopian leaders in their engagement with the League of Nations: Parfitt (n 5) 296–7.


See, eg, the closing section of Parfitt (n 5) which, with the aid of historical materialism, examines the continued resistance of indigenous peoples to the international legal attempts to ‘draw them into the interpellative cycle’ of recognition through transformation into the kinds of subjectivities offered by that system through concepts such as through the use of concepts of sovereignty, statehood and governance (among others) and instead to assert, and live out, ‘Indigenous self-determination on Indigenous terms’: at 418–46.




Jacques Derrida, ‘Remarks on Deconstruction and Pragmatism’, in Simon Critchley et al, (Chantal Mouffe ed), Deconstruction and Pragmatism (Routledge, 1996), 84.


Ibid, 83–4.

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 183 183 0
Full Text Views 88 88 14
PDF Views & Downloads 121 121 6