From The Law and Politics Book Review

Vol. 8 No. 11 (November 1998) pp. 394-395.

"PROPERTY" AND THE MAKING OF THE INTERNATIONAL SYSTEM by Kurt Burch. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1998. Cloth: $49.95. xii + 194pp. ISBN 1-55587-622-6.

Reviewed by Steven Forde, Department of Political Science, University of North Texas. Email:


This book, part of the "Critical Perspectives on World Politics" series from Lynne Rienner publishers, takes a "post-modern" approach to the development of the modern states system in seventeenth-century Europe. It strives to show, through a mostly historical analysis, that the dichotomies national/international and political/economic, which are said to be constitutive of the modern system, are social constructs. Mr. Burch's investigation centers on the development of the notion of property during the seventeenth century. This notion, he argues, is also a construct (hence the quotation marks in the book's title), one that underlay the development of the other categories.

I should probably say first that those who are opposed to the post-modern approach will not necessarily be put off by this work. The evidence marshalled by Mr. Burch from seventeenth-century history shows compellingly enough that basic categories like property, or the economic versus the political sphere, came into being, or evolved into (something like) their present form, during this period. That they are constructs in this simple sense is a point few will be likely to reject. Nor will they likely resist the general argument that social relations like these, on the one hand, and social actors on the other, actually "co-constitute" one another in a dynamic process. Similarly unobjectionable is the book's interdisciplinary approach, and its goal of mixing empirical study with criticism and interpretation (p. 3). Beyond this, the author generally stays away from the more grandiose kinds of claims that make some post-modern interpretation so controversial.

The story of how key concepts of our intellectual and political world evolved in the ferment of seventeenth-century Europe is certainly one worth reviewing. It is certain that this story could shed important light on the nature of the modern international system, which is conventionally dated to the Peace of Westphalia, at mid-century. The property right, in particular, evolved in very interesting ways out of feudalism into the modern era. Property rights in the absolute sense we understand them today came into being only slowly. Feudalism was a many-layered system, where real property, sovereignty, and much else was subject to simultaneous, overlapping claims. Mr. Burch chronicles the evolution of "rights," of modern sovereignty, and of distinctively modern forms of proprietorship out of the feudal background, claiming with some plausibility that these were all conceived initially as forms of property, and still bear that stamp. To the extent that this is true, obviously, understanding the distinctively modern notion of property is indeed central to understanding these other phenomena.

Particularly for those who are not familiar with the extensive literature on the historical development of all these things, Mr. Burch's account will be most thought-provoking. The story of how mobile forms of property became increasingly important, though remaining for a long time all but invisible to those who thought of property only in real terms; the development of limited-liability joint stock companies, often at the behest of sovereigns; the way these enterprises (especially in banking and colonial trade) became key props to the newly-developing nation-states; how this miscarried in France even as it succeeded spectacularly in the Netherlands, and especially in England; these and related stories will be of great interest to scholars who want to understand the roots of contemporary domestic and international politics, and especially international political economy.

These scholars may also be pleased by the book's brevity (comprising only about 175 pages of text and notes). Brevity comes at a cost, however. The account is so compressed that it is difficult to follow at times. Many volumes have been written about the conceptual developments of the seventeenth century, and Mr Burch does perhaps as good a job as can be expected in compressing this matter, but readers not already familiar with this literature, who are the book's intended audience, may find the tale hard to follow. Others may wonder at his tendency to rely more on secondary than primary sources to tell his tale. This may also be a consequence of the book's brevity, but it is methodologically suspect. The book

also reflects the secondary literature in dwelling overwhelmingly on the English case. This is problematic in a work purportedly devoted to the development of the interstate system, especially since we learn that the English case was in some ways atypical.

Indeed, it is necessary to note that the international content overall in this volume is rather slender. Given the book's title (and its place in a world politics series), the reader would have expected a much greater emphasis on the specifically international element in seventeenth century developments. International concerns appear for example as an adjunct to the story of joint stock companies, when these were devoted to developing colonial territories, but rarely become the central theme of the narration, before the final chapter. The contemporary study of International Political Economy comes in for criticism, as resting unreflectively on merely factitious distinctions such as politics versus economics. Similarly, contemporary realism is criticized (not for the first time) as presuming the unity and solidity of the nation-state. Criticisms like these may be well-taken, and can stimulate healthy debate, but it would be more helpful if they were made in the context of a treatment of seventeenth-century history that kept its international implications more clearly in view.

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