Multinational Monitor

JAN/FEB 2009
VOL 30 No. 1


Wall Street's Best Investment: 10 Deregulatory Steps to Financial Meltdown
by Robert Weissman
and James Donahue


Cleaning Up the Mess: New Rules for Financial Regulation
an interview with
Ellen Seidman

Closing the Regulatory Gap: Derivatives and the Hedge Fund Industry
an interview with
David Ruder

Foreclosed: The Failure to Regulate Abusive Lending Practices
an interview with
Debbie Goldstein


Behind the Lines

Simple Finance

The Front
Chevron Escapes Liability - Ecuador's Debt Default

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Book Note

Greed At a Glance

Commercial Alert

Names In the News


Book Note

Plunder: Why the Rule of Law is Illegal

Plunder: When the Rule of Law is Illegal
By Ugo Mattei and Laura Nader
Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008
296 pages; $84.95
Reviewed by David H. Price

All cultures socialize their children in ways that lead them to believe their cultural beliefs and practices are natural, just and superior to all others. A key component of the American socialization process involves instilling beliefs in the necessity of the “rule of law” for the maintenance of social order and equality. American primary and secondary school history and social science textbooks are full of neatly packaged just-so stories from past tyrannical ages where powerful despots ruled powerless majorities who had no legitimate recourse to such unequal access to power. The master narrative in these textbooks teaches that the Enlightenment ushered in a new era of reason, democracy, justice and social contracts where all could be equal above the law. The age of despotic kings gave way to an age of lawful reason and human equality — an age extending to the imagined pinnacle of the American present. One message of this indoctrination is that laws exist outside of larger social forces and that contemporary society’s legal remedies cut through forces of power in ways that leave us all equal before the law.

In Plunder: When the Rule of Law is Illegal, Ugo Mattei and Laura Nader invert popular assumptions of equality under the law and present a compelling demonstration of the ways that neo-liberalism has transformed global and localized economic and political formations. Plunder is a detailed, well written autopsy of how law and our legal system further strengthens the already powerful, while decimating those already located outside the reach of power. In the world of the post-economic collapse, Plunder is a painfully frightening roadmap decrying the dangers of the exact “legal” practices (derivatives, call options, etc.) that brought on the current economic crisis.

This is a timely piece of interdisciplinary work that leaves a deep impact on all who read it. As a leading scholar on international comparative law, Mattei brings an impressive wealth of case studies demonstrating how powerful corporations’ influence has been incrementally increasing, not only through the accumulation of capital, but through the accumulation of legislation tailor-made for corporate interests and high court rulings that tilt the playing field in ways that consistently legitimize the rich and powerful and weaken citizens’ abilities to seek meaningful legal redress. Nader’s comparative anthropological analysis expands the historical and theoretical framework and clarifies how powerful elites in different cultural settings maneuver to retain power and use their control of the laws to maintain positions of power that allow them to plunder.

Mattei and Nader situate the notion of how cultural rules lead to differential access to power within a larger historical and theoretical context that identifies “the incremental use of law as a mechanism for constructing and legitimizing plunder.” They argue that notions of the “rule of law” are illusions sustained by the lack of critical examination of both the “bright and dark side” of law — the bright side being the promise of equality widely claimed in places like our school’s sappy textbooks; the dark side being best demonstrated by the rise of neo-liberal looting of public resources leveraging private gain at public expense.

As Mattei and Nader trace how European and American governments used legal means to gain and maintain control over other nations, they establish not only an ongoing pattern of structural inequality, but an overarching modus operandi by which systemic claims of justice and fairness are used to assure its opposite.

The United States interventions in the Argentinean economic and governmental systems are examined to illustrate principles of neo-liberal plunder. This narrative stresses how the application of the rule of law and structural adjustment programs were designed to create debts and obligations, and how call options, derivatives and other forms of speculation were designed to benefit the standings of foreign elites while risking the security of those living in underdeveloped nations. Plunder traces connections between the ways that Western colonialism established many of the dynamics and power relations underlying today’s globalization projects. Nader’s model of coercive harmony illustrates how hegemonic control over the vocalization dissent and resistance to plunder is accomplished though the use of Alternative Dispute Resolution and Informal Dispute Settlements as structures of placation. 

Mattei and Nader explore the ways that religious, academic, governmental and corporate ideology are organized to legitimize plunder. The appropriation of the intellectual property rights of the Kayapo of Brazil and African indigenous cosmetics, and the monopolistic control over developed AIDS drugs, among other case studies, illustrate how the powerful use law to appropriate and control knowledge. Intellectuals service the system of plunder by fulfilling two roles: the first promulgates ideologies of justification; the second is accomplished by learning to comply with intellectual self-censorship in ways that ignore systemic inequalities and injustice.

Plunder’s examination of the historical and contemporary manipulation of international law connects colonial taking of wealth and resources with contemporary means of legitimating the seizing of oil in the post-colonial world. While public discourse on the ideology of the wealth and poverty of nations has shifted during the past century, the uses of law to justify and enforce ongoing relationships of global inequality have intensified.

The rise in the importance of international law during the Cold War is interpreted not as an instrument protecting the weak against the strong, but as a way of further empowering and legitimizing the powerful. The complexities of U.S. law uniformly provide advantages to international U.S. economic political and corporate interests — advantages that those in other nations have little hope of defending themselves against. The functional parallels between colonial-era British law and contemporary American law are instructive.

Plunder compounds case upon case in which courts  facilitate the use of law to provide the powerful with advantages over the weak. The American system of non-participatory democracy is shown to help maintain the imbalance of power; with examples coming from case studies of abuses of military courts, electoral plunder, wars waged to help instill legitimacy, transforming the war on terror to a war on the Bill of Rights and culminating with the Bush administration “declaring the judicial model dead.”

Plunder concludes that while “realized communism” and “realized capitalism” equally failed to meet human needs, some hybrid formation following a Debordian path integrating capitalism and socialism could bring the best features of both of these failed systems, while contemporary developments and the disasters of neo-liberalism warn us that the worst of both systems may seem perhaps more likely.

Plunder offers a brilliant critique of the false promise of “the rule of law;” a false promise that perpetrates an illusion that plunder is somehow an economic externalization. Mattei and Nader show how notions of plunder are the guiding force behind the very policies declared to limit such lawlessness. The authors deliver a devastating critique of neo-liberalism and its colonial roots; a critique whose importance increases with the global economic crisis.

David H. Price is a Professor of Anthropology at St. Martin’s University. His most recent book is Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War. (Duke University Press, 2008).

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