Benton and “Pluri-political Formations”

Last Friday, Professor Lauren Benton came to speak at the Mellon Sawyer Seminar about her upcoming paper, “The Legal Logic of Conquest: Political Pluralism, Truces, and Early Modern Colonial Violence.” In her opening remarks, Benton discussed the method she used in writing “The Legal Logic of Conquest,” and Rage for Order: The British Empire and the Origins of International Law, 1800–1850. Benton started by asking, “What are people actually doing, and what are they saying about what they are doing?” After researching imperial actions on the ground to answer these questions, Benton then looked back to the contemporaneous writings of jurists to observe what she called an “echo effect” between the two. In seminar, Benton acknowledged that the “echo effect” remained a missing link in her work. Seminar participants proposed some possibilities for how to tie the echoes of the jurists back into the practices and declarations of imperial agents on the ground. One approach could be to look for the places where the works of jurists were used by imperial agents in justifying their actions, thus incorporating the jurists’ thoughts into the “vernacular jurisprudence” that Benton described [1]. Another could be to look for places where jurists’ works were written specifically for use by imperial agents, thereby recasting those jurists as part of the “middle power” of empire [2]. 

From her starting point of observing practice on the ground at the periphery of empires, Benton gives an account of political pluralism as an organizing principle of empire-building. In seminar, Benton further explained what she means by political pluralism and why she thinks the concept is crucial for understanding the formation of what we now call “international law.” For Benton, the term “political pluralism” simply describes situations where there multiple political formations exist. For example, in “The Legal Logic of Empire,” Benton recounts the practices of Spanish Conquistadors like Hernan Cortes, who both founded townships and made truces with the indigenous people [3]. At least three different political formations overlapped: the conquistador’s municipal government, the Spanish crown, and indigenous people’s government as a vassal of the Spanish crown.

In seminar, Benton explained that she chose to focus on political pluralism, or “pluri-political formations” because our conception of “international law” or the “law of nations” does not accurately capture the imperial interactions in the 19th century, or indeed in any previous period. Benton instead prefers the term “inter-polity law,” which invites us to widen the scope of our inquiry to non-state political formations that participated in imperial expansion. Here, the corporation enters Benton’s story of political pluralism. While corporations do not take center-stage in her work, Benton stated in seminar that corporations feature prominently in her account. Corporations, such as the East India Company or conquistador townships, acted as imperial agents in imperial expansion. Often they administered their own political formations, as in the case of the town of Vera Cruz exercising jurisdiction over Spanish and indigenous subjects alike with Cortes as its chief justice [4].

Benton’s works and her guest appearance at the Mellon Sawyer Seminar have provided an excellent starting point for conceiving of the corporation in international law. I look forward to seeing what implications Benton’s conception of corporations as actors in a pluri-political formation has for modern corporations. If Benton is correct in describing corporate actors as playing an important role in the formation of “international law before international law,” what role do corporations play in shaping the rules of international law today? To what extent is “inter-polity law” still a useful term for describing the the interface between nations, corporations, and other non-state actors? In answering such questions, we should consider applying Benton’s method to later periods of history. Benton encourages us to look carefully at which actors are involved in contemporary international and transnational interactions around the globe. She challenges us to ask, “What are people actually doing?” rather than taking for granted what the dominant theories of international law suggest people are doing. 


[1] See Benton, “The Legal Logic of Conquest: Political Pluralism, Truces, and Early Modern Colonial Violence,” 3.

[2] See Benton and Ford, Rage for Order: The British Empire and the Origins of International Law, 1800–1850, 2.

[3] See Benton, “The Legal Logic of Pluralism,” 20-21.

[4] See id.

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