Justice as Domination: Global Justice and the European Union — Adam Taylor

As per its own description, “GLOBUS” is a European Union-funded research project seeking to introduce clarity to the contested concept of global justice by reframing debates about it around three conceptualisations: “justice as non-domination, justice as impartiality and finally that of justice as mutual recognition”. [1] Alongside other “Horizon 2020” programs to ensure that the EU remains competitive in the future, the GLOBUS project represents the most ambitious attempt of any international institution today to shift the contemporary debate about global justice towards a “novel conceptual and evaluative scheme”. [2] This scheme is predicated upon the view that international law’s role in an international society of states is that of realising justice in a range of different areas, including international trade, climate change, and issues of gender and diversity. As illustrated by its analysis of the World Trade Organisation, GLOBUS emphasises the flawed but essential role of contractual relations and institutional arrangements between states in furthering global justice. [3] Illustrative of this role is the fact that states continue to participate in an increasingly “multi-level” world order. [4] Since GLOBUS concluded in June 2020, it is worth considering whether its central promise of a just state system is within the realm of concrete possibility.

This post cannot hope to provide a detailed critique of GLOBUS. I will nonetheless focus on what the project has to say about whether “justice as non-domination” is attainable, especially within the EU, given the political economy of the European region. I will ask whether the domination associated with domestic legal orders, and also the international legal order, can be eliminated or at least minimised with the application of “more just” forms of regulation, as GLOBUS would have it, or if domination is instead something inherent in political and economic relations, most concretely the legal form of ownership (which binds together peoples, states, and corporations through relations of domination). At bottom, my aim is to invert GLOBUS’ dictum that “justice is non-domination” by showing that bourgeois justice, rather than being antithetical to domination, owes its very meaning and structural function to the maintenance and reproduction of the domination inherent in capitalist relations of production.

Domination in the External Politics of the European Union

In an influential paper entitled “Three Conceptions of Global Political Justice”, Erik O. Eriksen, a political scientist and GLOBUS’ head, proposes a conception of non-domination which rests upon two fundamentals pillars. The first pillar is the practice of vertical non-domination, which is to say the binding of peoples to “publicly-sanctioned legal regimes”, in the form of a state possessed of coercive power and bound to a system of law that constrains such power domestically. [5] The second pillar is that of horizontal non-domination, a set of relations between states that reproduce their domestic practices of non-domination on the international plane. [6] In regard to the second point, Eriksen concedes that the current system of states is not going away anytime soon. As a result, a tightly bound and vertically enforced international legal regime remains firmly out of reach. [7] But it is precisely in their desire for such a system that Eriksen comes forward to suggest a role for normative theory in guiding the external politics of non-dominating states. This is a proposal that is supposed to find expression in the foreign policies of the EU, harmonious with Robert Cox’s acccount of a form of problem-solving practice that takes for granted the present state system. [8] In the case of the GLOBUS project, we see this perspective borne out in superficial suggestions for states to actively practice “avoiding harm” and establish “a fair system of governance” in a way that “does not challenge the international system of states”. [9] These prescriptions are vague, by design, for Eriksen wishes to avoid falling into the weeds of what he calls “distributive” questions over the more fundamental “political” issue of realising a “just political structure”. [10] There is, of course, some irony here, as Eriksen arguably disregards distributive questions while simply privileging “political” solutions–and while taking that distinction for granted and reifying the place of justice in the logic of the international state system. What is clear is that the practice of non-domination must remain loyal to the de jure terrain of international politics.

Having considered Eriksen’s second pillar of horizontal non-domination, I turn to explore their account of non-domination. Eriksen grounds this account in the work of Philip Pettit, a noted advocate of civic republicanism. Eriksen follows Pettit in understanding non-domination (or autonomy) as a condition in which “the free individual” is “protected against the domination of others by the undominating and undominated state”. From this perspective, the free individual is to be protected against “arbitrary interference by others”, and all such individuals are to be equal in “security and standing”. [11] By contrast, domination posed in antipodal terms to non-domination is characterised by the “arbitrary wielding of power”, as directed against the otherwise free individual and their “legitimate interests”. Any principle of non-domination for both states and persons, therefore, is about minimising what Pettit calls the “capacity” of others to interfere with “impunity”, as judged against the choices that an agent would otherwise want to make were they themselves able to do so. [12] To dominate, then, is to intervene in another, with neither restraint nor serious consideration for their interests.

GLOBUS purports to be in the business of providing prescriptions that are “applicable” to the “real world” of European decision-making. Eriksen develops this concept of independent autonomy into a standard for measuring how dominated any given actors may be. Domination can be tentatively counteracted in domestic society through the imposition of “control mechanisms” that force actors in positions of coercive power to act considerately. [13] Eriksen argues that if coercive agents are forced to take seriously the interests of those whom they influence, or over whom they exert power, “they do not possess dominating power”. [14]

One can liken such non-domination to the relationship between doctor and patient. Most societies today recognise the power of a doctor to undertake medical intervention, even potentially backed by force when confronted with non-consent, in order to alleviate the urgent medical need of a suffering patient. The doctor in this instance acts within the context of medical ethics and a system of medical accountability which form the appropriate “control mechanisms”. On this analogy, non-dominating states, like good doctors, are restrained in their domestic practice. This restraint is reproduced vertically in GLOBUS through “democratic governance”, which extends to the horizontal realm of states. And it is within this realm that certain kindly and good-natured states might be authorised, as GLOBUS’ own Richard Maher suggests, to deprive “undemocratic states” of representation in the United Nations, to override the directives of the Security Council with a democratic coalition, or even to acknowledge “regime change and justice” as one of the “just causes” for military intervention. [15] This is the condition of “justice as impartiality”, where non-dominating states, like good doctors, may be authorised to subvert any condition of sovereign equality.

It is appropriate here to consider whether the EU’s “liberal democratic” character allows it to overcome incentives for exercising domination in the supposedly “horizontal” society of sovereign states. This is a question that I shall briefly discuss here with respect to the EU’s external relations in Africa.

European foreign policy in Africa is situated within what Arrigo Palloti describes as a contradiction between the programmatic vision of European development—its professed dedication to poverty reduction, democracy promotion, and regional security—and its commitment to enhanced trade liberalization. [16] This is a contradiction that was written into the terms of the 2000 Cotonou Agreement, and which demands an “aggressive strategy of trade liberalisation”. [17] As Arrigo argues, this misalignment of developmental vision and trade liberalisation within the law and political economy of the EU accelerated its exports to Africa, which in turn promoted deindustrialisation and further weakened the ability of African countries to impose tariffs in order to recoup revenues. GLOBUS’ analysis clearly suggests that the reason for this state of affairs is ideological confusion and a general lack of sensitivity to the contradiction between the EU’s political goals and economic interests.

This narrative is an exculpating one. Indeed, it depicts the European project as an accidental exploiter of Africa (and other continents). Scholars of EU-Africa relations like Mark Langan dispute this narrative by stressing the politico-economic usefulness of the contradiction between the rhetoric of the EU as a kind hegemon and the concrete consequences of its economic diplomacy. European producers derive substantial benefits from unequal treaties, typically dressed up as free trade agreements, which prescribe the removal of African tariffs on European manufactured goods into international commercial law under the promise of “low tariff access to consumers in the EU member states”. [18] This is a classic Faustian bargain that has already impoverished many countries in return for the fool’s gold of “tariff-free access” to a European market characterised by one-sided [19] and costly [20] non-tariff barriers to trade that protect European sectors likely to face competition from African imports. [21] Notable examples of such non-tariff barriers are domestic technical and sanitary standards, which can be unilaterally applied to restrict the movement of goods even within the context of a free trade agreement. The EU is able to exploit one of the most protectionist agricultural markets in the world, at least when factors such as phytosanitary standards are accounted, while disguising its dominating force with the language of global justice and trade liberalisation. [22] A pattern of “ladder-kicking” behaviour, as identified by Mark Langan, characterises the EU’s relations with Africa, “depriving African countries of the policy space to protect their nascent industries, while the European Commission itself utilises these same policies to safeguard member state producers”. [23] Were these relations to be imposed by naked force—as was generally the case under formal colonialism—they would be recognised under Eriksen’s own conceptualisation as primarily dominating. Relations that are uneven, discriminatory, and disrespectful of the substantial developmental gulf between Europe and Africa, and yet persistent on account of the one-sided benefit European producers derive through the exploitation of technological asymmetry, clearly fit this bill. The seemingly horizontal nature of the EU’s interactions with Africa is mystified by formal sovereign equality and undermined by economic coercion, not to mention GLOBUS’ praise of the European project as humanitarian and compassionate.

It is not the case (as GLOBUS is inclined to contend) that the EU is merely a temporarily embarrassed moral juggernaut that just so happens to require some moral guidance at this juncture. Instead, the exploitative character of its external relations flows necessarily from the domination inherent in capitalist relations of production.

Justice in the Concrete Style

Given that GLOBUS privileges an “as above, so below” appeal to understanding how the dominating power of states may be curbed, it follows that the pivotal question for a non-dominating external policy is whether it is consistent with a non-dominating domestic form of political economy. Here I suggest that we must first reorient our thinking about justice, critiquing liberal conceptions of justice both domestically and internationally. The rhetoric of the moral superpower–the “imaginary flowers” which constitute the “other-world of truth” that so often defines normative approaches to justice–abstract away from the substance of the relations of domination it seeks to critique. [24]

To begin, let me first ask a relatively straightforward question: “Is there domination between people?” The straightforward answer to this question is naturally in the affirmative, as it is not hard to locate domination squarely within uneven capitalist social relations today. After all, what better place is there to begin than with the class of persons obligated to work for a wage so as to sustain themselves, on account of what Marx termed the “dull compulsion” of economic relations? [25] Separate from this class of workers stands a class of persons empowered through capital accumulation to be the purchasers of others’ labour-power. Accordingly, if one borrows from GLOBUS’ own view of “domination” (characterised chiefly by arbitrary interference and inequality in standing), one sees domination alive and well in this system of compelled and appropriated labour. [26] This is the “core” of domination today, as it is expressed in capitalist social relations. However, this understanding of domination is incomplete without an explanation of how these relations are justified and maintained at the institutional level.

All this concerns the economic basis of domination. But one would be remiss simply to leave it there. One must then ask, “how is the distinction between worker and capitalist expressed?” This is another way of asking where the “right to appropriate” comes from in the first place. To this end, property may be identified as what Yifeng Wu calls the “legal representation of ownership relations”. [27] Domination, essential to GLOBUS’ injustice, exists not in spite of law, but rather in and through it. Ownership over production entails domination, and any legal expression of ownership must of necessity be an expression of domination. At no point in the history of the European continent has this link between ownership and domination been more visible than in the long and transformative process of expropriating communal land through enclosures. As Marx observes, beginning in the fifteenth century, the law became a naked “instrument of the theft of the people’s land”, a “parliamentary form of the robbery” enacted by persons who derived benefits from the expansion of the legal form of property through acts of expropriation. [28]

At root, if GLOBUS is a project for acting and thinking strategically about global justice, one needs to start on solid ground, considering its active role in the maintenance of capitalist social relations and examining the relation between domination and legality. This relation is expressed most revealingly in the vast and labyrinthian apparatus of modern “justice systems”, as celebrated today for justifying capitalist property relations–and therefore ownership–as they were during the original waves of global capitalist expansion. As David Hume once wrote, “[o]ur property is nothing but those goods, whose constant possession is establish’d by the laws of society; that is, by the laws of justice”. “Those, therefore, who make use of the words property, or right, or obligation, before they have explain’d the origin of justice … can never reason upon any solid foundation”. [29] Justice is nothing but the expression of–which is to say, it can hold nothing more sacred than–control and ownership of private property, the chief expression of capitalist domination. Justice is therefore to ownership as roots are to a plant, a necessary element which facilitates the transmission of nutrients to the organism while ensuring that the entire structure does not merely blow away in the wind. Laws, courts, and parliaments are complicit in the transmission of the necessary and fundamental implements of life, from the commons to private ownership. This transmission would remain a legal fiction were it not writ large through those juridical organs of domination which comprise the courts, the police, and the prisons. Echoing William Clare Roberts, one could say that these organs are interconnected parts of a much wider network whose layers–like the concentric circles of hell–reverberate from the workplace to the courthouse, constituting a vast apparatus sustaining the conditions necessary for the kind of domination associated with capitalist social relations to flourish in earnest. [30]

Theories of global justice that elide the role of law and international organizations like the EU in sustaining and reproducing capitalist social relations, particularly by constituting its vast legal common sense, may appear on their surface to be innocent or simply naïve. And so like the “mirrors for princes” of old, one may be inclined to place GLOBUS in the category of projects that present an altogether flattering picture of their moral place in the world, rich in powers they exercise in good judgment against sin and impropriety. GLOBUS’ champions may understand it to be affecting meaningful change upon the external politics of the EU. But its efforts will be in vain so long as the fundamental determinants of its political economy remain unchanged. Machiavelli rightly teaches us that even the most beneficent prince cannot escape the ugly business of political rule.

Adam Taylor is a postgraduate student of psychology at the University of Glasgow.


[1] Erik Oddvar Eriksen, “Realising Global Political Justice“, GLOBUS Research Paper (2020).

[2] See GLOBUS: Reconsidering European Contributions to Global Justice.

[3] Johanne Døhlie Saltnes and Kjartan Koch Mikalsen, “Is the World Trade Organization Unjust?“, GLOBUS Research Paper (2017).

[4] Eriksen, “Realizing Global Justice”, 11.

[5] Erik Oddvar Eriksen, “Three Conceptions of Global Political Justice“, GLOBUS Research Paper (2016), 9.

[6] Eriksen, “Three Conceptions”, 10.

[7] Eriksen, “Three Conceptions”, 11.

[8] Robert W. Cox, “Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory“, 10 (1981) Millennium: Journal Of International Studies 126.

[9] Eriksen, “Three Conceptions”.

[10] Eriksen, “Three Conceptions”, 3.

[11] Eriksen, “Three Conceptions”, 8.

[12] Philip Pettit, “Freedom as Antipower“, 106 (1996) Ethics 576.

[13] Eriksen, “Three Conceptions”, 22.

[14] Eriksen, “Three Conceptions”, 9.

[15] Richard Maher, “EU Foreign Policy and Humanitarian Intervention: Justice in a Disordered World“, GLOBUS Research Paper (2020).

[16] Arrigo Pallotti, “The European Union and Africa: Depoliticised Development and the Elusive Quest for Democracy and Security“, GLOBUS Research Paper (2018).

[17] Pallotti, “The European Union and Africa”, 12.

[18] Mark Langan, Neo-Colonialism and the Poverty of ‘Development’ in Africa (Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 124.

[19] Franziska Schuenemann and William A. Kerr, “European Union Non-tariff Barriers to Imports of African Biofuels“, 58 (2019) Agrekon 407.

[20] Gumisai Mutume, “New Barriers Hinder African Trade“, Africa Renewal (January 2006).

[21] Fatima Olanike Kareem, Inmaculada Martínez-Zarzosob, and Bernhard Brümmer, “Protecting Health or Protecting Imports? Evidence from EU Non-Tariff Barriers“, 53 (2018) International Review of Economics & Finance 185.

[22] John C. Beghin, “The Protectionism of Food Safety Standards in International Agricultural Trade“, 2014 (2014) Agricultural Policy Review 7.

[23] Langan, Neo-Colonialism, 129.

[24] Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law. Introduction” [1843], in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol 3 (International Publishers 1975) 175.

[25] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991 [1867]), ch. 28.

[26] Eriksen, “Three Conceptions”, 3.

[27] Yifeng Wu, “Theory of Property Rights: Comparing Marx with Coase“, 29 (2008) Social Sciences in China 5, at 7.

[28] Marx, Capital, vol. 1, ch. 27.

[29] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (London: Penguin, 1969 [1739]), bk. 3, pt. 2, s. 2.

[30] William Clare Roberts, Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).