Rewriting Empire: Law, Territory, and Capital

Authors: Shaina Potts*, University of California-Los Angeles
Topics: Political Geography, Economic Geography, Legal Geography
Keywords: Law, territory, empire, sovereignty, capitalism
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/7/2021
Start / End Time: 4:40 PM / 5:55 PM
Room: Virtual 31
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The expansion of US legal jurisdiction over transnational economic relations between private companies and foreign governments is usually interpreted as a sign of the decreasing importance of territorial bases of law in the era of globalization. I argue, in contrast, that the transnationalization of US common law since WWII is best understood as the re-territorialization of US state space via a judicial modality of state power, and that this expansion of US “judicial territory” over economic relations with foreign governments from the Global South has been a crucial, yet hitherto unacknowledged, pillar of post-war American empire. This new form of American legal power was forged, first and foremost, in response to the twin threats to US capital of de-colonization and the Cold War. With the neoliberal turn and the failures of the New International Economic Order in the 1970s, transnational US judicial authority became especially important in disciplining debtor states and facilitating the financialization and neoliberalization of the global economy. In this talk, I focus on the growing role of US courts in governing post-colonial developmental projects in the mid-20th century, from food aid imports, to state-owned enterprises, to nationalizations. Legitimizing this legal transformation from within the constraints of US common law required both reconceptualizing territorial sovereignty and redrawing the legal boundaries between “politics” and “economics” in ways that continue to shape the transnational extension of US judicial power today.

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