A World of Struggle: How Power, Law and Expertise Shape Global Political Economy. By David Kennedy. Woodstock, Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press, 2016. Pp. ix, 298. Index. $29.95, [pound sterling]24.95.
In his latest book, David Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School, continues his iconoclastic project of blowing up global governance. (1) Writing from a position of critical detachment, Kennedy provides a profound and arresting account of how globalization is constructed by experts who obfuscate their own role, with a particular focus on international lawyers. He is coy about his own normative views, except to suggest that the current state of affairs is badly malfunctioning. In this review, I explore what he has produced and unpack his positive and normative claims. The strengths and weaknesses of the book largely mirror those of the critical legal studies project more broadly--there are many important insights, but at the end of the day, the project has no normative implications of its own.
Kennedy begins the volume by introducing his central concern: experts who construct a world in which they deploy their knowledge to solve problems. These experts either do not recognize, or willfully obfuscate, the political and distributive consequences of their expertise. When we focus on the decisions made by political leaders, we pay insufficient attention to "the way expert ideas and professional practices of assertion and argument construct and reproduce a world of inequality and injustice" (p. 14). While we colloquially think of expertise as simply providing data and advice for those exercising political decision, this "background work" (as he calls it) also rationalizes and naturalizes discretion. In this way, power is constituted by expertise itself.
But, Kennedy suggests, this need not be the case. As he describes in the book's introduction and conclusion, he often asks his students if the current situation is more like the year 1648, shorthand for a moment in which everything was up for grabs, or more like 1989, when remaking the international order was just in need of a few reforms. Kennedy believes that it is the former--suggesting that if we can just take off the blinders of expertise, we can imagine--and thus create--a new world. Kennedy suggests that we need to stop speaking of global governance as if it were a technocratic project, and instead diagnose its pathologies and expose its utterly political nature. He advises that we must refuse to "take our eyes off the dynamics of struggle through which injustice is mysteriously reproduced by so many who intend just the opposite" (p. 20).
In a series of chapters on various aspects of globalization, Kennedy describes how our world is constructed by experts competing with each other. "Struggle" is his central concept, in which experts seek to establish the taken-for-granted underpinnings through which power is exercised. Kennedy attempts to "reframe the international situation less as order or system than as a continual struggle... [because] struggle and conflict are more prevalent and constitutive of our everyday world than we realize." (2) After two introductory chapters in which he introduces his vocabulary, a middle section explains how certain problems come to be imagined as properly subjected to global expertise. The consequences of being identified as a proper subject of global governance are, in Kennedy's telling, primarily distributive. Only some people can speak, making certain types of discursive moves, proposing solutions with limited gains that are the target of yet more struggle.
Chapter Three elegantly distinguishes "insider" from "outsider" modes of discourse, the former focusing on global governance as aspiration and ambition, and the latter viewing it as threat and power play. Importantly (and reflexively), he identifies both discourses as available to individual actors, who shift back and forth as the situation may demand (pp. 103-07). Chapter Four is a primer on the sociology of knowledge, though it eschews the rigor and style of that field. Knowledge work constitutes our world through imagination, performance, and technical discourse, and the distinction between foregrounded decisions and the invisible background work is itself a product of expertise. This chapter also includes a manual for going forward: Kennedy's students will learn how to identify an expert community and to map its expert knowledge.
Chapter Five describes how expertise works in practice, helpfully laying out the argument in a series of schematic diagrams. What Kennedy calls "disenchantment" is a theme of this section of the book. He uses the term in two senses: disappointment in the inevitable gap between our expert aspirations and what can actually be...