The Visible C of the Invisible College: Classism and the International Legal Profession – Symposium Introduction

The Visible C of the Invisible College: Classism and the International Legal Profession – Symposium Introduction

[Chris Carpenter is a lawyer practicing international arbitration and cross-border litigation. Dimitrios A. Kourtis has a PhD from Aristotle University and is an Adjunct Lecturer at the Hellenic Police Academy].

In his famous Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, Karl Marx described the basic premises of historical materialism by reference to the social production of human existence. Throughout their lives, human beings ‘inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production’. According to Marx, the total sum of these relations constituted the economic structure of a given society. As he wrote, these relations were ‘the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness’.

This fundamental distinction between basis and superstructure has been essential for any Marxist analysis, including most Marxian theories of international law. However, little (if any) attention has been paid to the ways in which the interplay between these two foundational notions unfolds within the terrain of the international legal profession. Of course, international legal literature has been prolific in producing or re-discovering actor-based historical approaches following, for example, Martti Koskenniemi’s methodology. Still, most of these honest accounts of international law’s bourgeoisie (past or present) have stopped shy of addressing the class question. Unlike gender or race, which gradually but steadily have found their way into the modern creed of critical scholarship, a perusal of international legal literature reveals that the PILers’ world continues to masquerade, in some circles, as ‘classless’—or, at least, class-blind.

In a recent exchange that implicated many members of the vibrant Twitter community of international law regarding the positionality, contingence, and limited nature of the Global North/South distinction, several colleagues raised the class question, e.g. protesting the use of the Global South label to encompass various sets of individual and collective conditions without paying attention to the differences, say, between a Global South scholar with affluent socio-economic background and a working-class Global North scholar. While the significance of the Global South/North distinction lies beyond the scope of the present symposium, the class question is the backbone of it. There are many ways in which class and classism still resonate within the international doctrine and praxis. For example, only a few developments in international (soft) lawmaking have addressed questions touching upon the classist gap in the ownership and enjoyment of the means of production. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas represents a striking exception whose full potential has not yet been explored. 

On the other hand, little has been said about how institutions like the ICC, ICJ, or the ILC, or the systematic lack of adequate funding to secure equal access to conferences, workshops, internships, etc. proliferate the classist gap between the bourgeois and the proletarian, the owner of the means of production and the subaltern. Additionally, there is little discussion about the transformation of legal scholars into petty bourgeois motivated either by an intention to fit into the existing power and resource structures in legal academia or out of a sincere wish to recalibrate their positionality. After all, the liberal dream of equal opportunities, although brutally discredited time and again, still holds a great deal of allure, especially as a promise of a brighter future. 

Indeed, the debate on who is an international legal scholar today is, among other things, a debate about gender, race, and ethnicity, as much as class. The discussion is, evidently, of immense dimensions encompassing the misery and the grandeur of international lawyers everywhere. It starts from the ostensibly innocent question about who and under what conditions can attend a conference or workshop and moves to such problems as the inequality of access to information, including literature, or to structural deficiencies faced by international lawyers who strive to produce high-quality scholarship with meagre means. 

Furthermore, it usually gets obscured either by folktales of international legal careerism, e.g., absolute meritocracy, or the survival of the academically fittest, or by a candid mental scotoma produced and propagated by the individualist nature of the modern capitalist way of life. To give but one example, meeting a colleague at an international conference would usually make us assume they possess the means and the resources to be there. What sacrifices this might entail—personal, familial, or otherwise—would generally not cross our minds. If we can pay for a ticket and a hotel room without starving our families or ourselves, so can they, right?

Finally, there is an even more silenced aspect of classism in international law: the question of who decides the trend. For international lawyers, the trend-setters, i.e. those who define what will be the new terrain of international scholarship, what intersectionality or interdisciplinarity will be supported through conferences, publications, and academic discussions are neither classless nor class-blind. For instance, despite the ‘turn to history’, we are still to experience an analysis of the class dynamics that led these (primarily) white male bourgeois to shape the modern discipline of international law. We have no history of their possible underpaid and exploited assistants or ghostwriters, ties with economic and political elites, ideological presuppositions, or the Mehrwert they exploited to advance their careers. To give but one example, James Lorimer is today known as a racist (that he was), but it is little known that he was also a landowner of the Kellie castle estate. Of course, this might be due to a lack of sources rather than interest, but still, no such discussion has been instigated save for a few notorious cases (e.g., Francis Lieber).     

Taking stock of these silences, omissions, and presuppositions, this symposium seeks to begin the long-overdue discussion regarding the proper place of a class in the everyday life of international law scholars and practitioners. Our original intention was to pose the questions and provide a platform to scholars and practitioners who wanted to contribute to the discussion. We know that our symposium brings more questions than answers to the forefront. Moreover, there are still significant silences, which need to be addressed, and points that must be raised for which we (as convenors) assume full responsibility. For example, a more robust engagement with critical voices and movements from the Global South must be part of all subsequent projects seeking to address classism in the scholarship and praxis of international law. 

Similarly, we acknowledge that international lawyers, even when they speak some form of critical international vernacular, like many of the contributors to this symposium, may find themselves captured in the epistemic vision of the liberal or ‘rules-based’ order. As it has been pointedly noted, even within the greater circle of critical approaches to international law, scholars cannot easily escape the prevailing ideas of the discipline, including a general antipathy toward analyses premised on class-consciousness. International law was and still is a deeply ideological project. Additionally, many of the doctrinal materials used to articulate alternative visions preserve a rather monolithic image of both the oppressors and the oppressed (for a poignant critique, see here). 

We also remain cognizant of the fact that –despite the best efforts of both the convenors and the participants– our contribution is far from revolutionary. While all discussants share the symposium’s goals, the overall outcome comes closer to a bona fide discussion rather than a radical project of rupture.  That said, we hope this discussion will instigate those sharing our understanding of the current class relations within the visible and invisible colleges of international law to participate and engage with the ideas, problems, and proposals that the symposium brings forth.  

In so proceeding, its conveners are deeply cognizant of the positions of privilege that they each occupy—gender for one, class for the other, and whiteness for both. In a dialogue that can, and in some of the pieces included here, does, require a strenuous and wearisome amount of vulnerability on the part of its participants, this symposium seeks to walk the line between making meaningful contributions to the discourse surrounding classism in the international legal profession, and merely creating a platform from which its participants are made vulnerable, and expected to recount their hardships in this field to no apparent end. The aspired-to outcome of this balancing act has been achieved through an eclectic series of contributions that speak, both narratively and scholastically, about the class-based challenges cultivated throughout the international legal profession. The convenors are grateful for their contributions and feel that each offers both a moving and an operationalizable lesson in how this field may, and, indeed, must adapt so that the circumstances that rendered this dialogue necessary are addressed. 

Opening our symposium is Radhika Kapoor’s piece, which in spotlighting the issue of unpaid internships in international law provides a relatable and sharply detailed gateway into the broader obstacle classism poses for aspiring international lawyers. Next, Tonny Raymond Kirabira and Ruwadzano Patience Makumbe discuss how structural classism impacts the everyday lives and careers of international criminal lawyers.

On Tuesday, Elisabetta Baldassini’s contribution provides a window into the technical barriers classism poses as a result of the complex lexicon deployed by those within the international legal field.  Then, Anna Dolidze addresses the ways in which producing scholarship in non-native languages defines the place of scholars within the class structure of international legal academia. The second day concludes with Artur Simonyan analyzes the marginality of post-Soviet and post-proletarian international lawyers.

On Wednesday, we start with Anne-Marie Coleman’s contribution, the crescendo to which these sagely articulated obstacles lead. The author writes poignantly and from personal experience to demonstrate the weighty, and often invisible, impact classism has on erecting barriers to virtually every aspect of participation in a career within the international legal academy. Offering a template for how organizations may take accountability for, and thus attempt to remedy, the obstacles raised in Coleman’s piece, in which so many international legal institutions are complicit, Marie Badarne and Claire Tixeire’s piece demonstrates how the ECCHR has proactively sought to implement best practices at countering the impact classism has on its aspiring participants’ ability to access the organization, its network, and its many opportunities. 

Thursday’s pieces turn our focus more explicitly towards geography and nationality’s roles in perpetuating classism in international legal practice. Sanam Amin’s piece, which discusses how border control and visa policies intertwine with class, race, and gender, creating and proliferating obstacles and lines of exclusion for early-career researchers. Then, Shahab Saqib dissects the positionality of critical international lawyers vis-à-vis the classist discourse.      

On Friday, Dimitrios A. Kourtis wraps up the symposium with a deeply pragmatic piece detailing tactics that international legal institutions and their members may deploy to help mitigate the effects of classism on career opportunities in the international legal field. 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Featured, Symposia, Themes
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.