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Reviewed by:
  • Plunder: When the Rule of Law is Illegal
  • Mark Goodale
Ugo Mattei and Laura Nader, Plunder: When the Rule of Law is Illegal. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008, 283 pp.

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to....

—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

I begin this review of Plunder: When the Rule of Law is Illegal, by the Italian comparative legal scholar Ugo Mattei and the American anthropologist Laura Nader, with this pungently ironic excerpt from Conrad, for two reasons. First, this is the way in which the late-great Edward Said chose to end the last section of his masterwork Orientalism and Plunder is dedicated [End Page 951] revealingly to the memory of Said. But more importantly, both the style and importance of Plunder are derived from the same form of intellectual and ethical engagement, in which clear-eyed history, polemic, and radically purposive reframing are brought together in order to very much look into it, to shine a piercing light onto the idea at the back of it, to ask the question whether the unselfish belief in an idea of transcendent importance does not, in fact, serve other, far less, sympathetic interests.

The idea here is the idea that something called the " rule of law" is universal, essential to the development of progressive legal, political, and economic institutions, and the natural bedrock of the contemporary transnational humanitarian impulse. The belief is the belief that the " rule of law" will—even if forcibly introduced at the point of a gun—provide a structural cure for all ills as a kind of normatively neutral animating principle that symbolizes the presence of values that are both irreducible and unassailable. Mattei and Nader subject both this idea and belief to a withering and interdisciplinary critique that will be of considerable interest to anthropologists and others who find themselves knee-deep at the ground level of contemporary normative practice, where the rule of law continues to exist as one of the few remaining shibboleths to have resisted the complete Saidian treatment (others include "dignity" and "justice").

After Plunder, the rule of law should no longer be understood in quite the same way again. Even if the overly doctrinaire political economic framework within which Mattei and Nader explain the relationship between rule of law ideologies and crude economic imperialism does not, in my opinion, completely capture the ways in which the belief in the rule of law—and legality more generally—masks different forms of will to power, the authors' archaeology of the contemporary moment leaves no doubt that the internationalization of law has been, and will continue to be, imperial in ways that demand close and unsentimental scrutiny.

Plunder is both a sustained and coherent argument and an intensely factual book. Nearly every assertion about the relationship between legal ideology and practice, and economic exploitation and enforced dependency is illustrated with reference to a case study drawn from both earlier and much more recent history, from the machinations of the East India Company at the beginning of the 18th century to the multilayered economic crisis in Argentina in the early 2000s. Despite its wide range and inherent importance, only so much of Plunder will be of academic interest to anthropologists, even if anyone concerned with contemporary glob [End Page 952] al assemblages should take the time necessary to understand the ramifications of the authors' thesis in light of the case studies drawn from political science, current affairs, economics, international relations, and, above all, international law.

Plunder arrives at a historical moment in which the ideological pretensions of the great powers—or, perhaps, great power—are no longer treated with deference, respect, or even the kind of forced and artificial credulity that weaker nations were inclined to adopt as part of a...


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