The Empowered Self: Law and Society in the Age of Individualism.

AuthorCole, Alyson

THE EMPOWERED SELF: LAW AND SOCIETY IN THE AGE OF INDIVIDUALISM. By Thomas M. Franck. New York: Oxford University Press. 1999. Pp. xiii, 312. Cloth, $ 45.

In the brief conclusion to The Empowered Self: Law and Society in the Age of Individualism, Thomas M. Franck asserts that he cannot satisfactorily summarize his book's argument. Even if it were achievable, he clarifies, he would not engage in such an endeavor, since it would "preempt the reader's autonomy and subvert his or her individual rights" (p. 278). That the author himself rejects the desirability of doing what reviewers generally do (i.e., condense and inevitably simplify complex tomes) is perhaps a somewhat awkward way to commence a discussion of his book. Nevertheless, this comment illustrates the extent to which Franck champions individual liberties and rights. It is also indicative of the declaratory tone of his prose: Franck reports observing "signs of tectonic change" (p. 278), indicating that we have reached "truly an historic watershed" (p. 195) of a "glorious self-invented future" (p. 45), or, as he puts it elsewhere, the "new dawning of a spirit of individual assertiveness" (p. 60). Ironically, while he seems to encourage diverse readings, his text, for the most part, relies on a rhetoric of inevitability, leaving the reader little room for alternative views.

Professor of Law and Director of the Center for International Studies at New York University, Franck has earned a distinguished reputation in the field of international law. In this new study, he adopts quite an ambitious framework that, beyond legal matters, covers a vast terrain, from the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the "new economy," to the history of the state over the last 300 years and fundamental disagreements in political theory. His argument about the global ascendance of individualism progresses through an exploration of the changing balance of power among a trinity of "rights claimants" -- the state, the individual, and the group -- as measured by their respective capacity to determine personal identities. This, in turn, is gauged largely, but not exclusively, through the construction and application of international and national laws. The increasing power of individuals to be masters of their own identities comes at the expense of the other two vertexes of the triad -- states and groups. Global developments in economics, communications, and urbanization have also facilitated a new elasticity of personal identity. But most conducive to "the age of individualism" has been the eroding of the eighteenth century Vattelian structure, (1) which conceived of the world as comprised of well-defined, solitary states, and of universal well-being as resting upon states' uninfringeable sovereignty. Franck sincerely hopes that his work will advance this process.

The Empowered Self is not solely for the specialist; its audience will likely include many beyond the field of law. Overall, it is a lucid, comprehensive, and timely analysis. It successfully draws from a remarkably wide array of materials to build a coherent synthesis. Franck's juridical focus endows discussions of identity-formation -- which frequently slip towards the speculative and the ephemeral -- with a concreteness that is refreshing, if not always entirely convincing. Moreover, the global reach of the comparativist approach brings new perspectives to persistent debates over identity politics in North America. The portrayal of the new international jurisprudence is perhaps the book's greatest contribution. Unlike the former global system that hinged on (and enhanced) the autonomy of states, the new arrangements are linked with the rights and freedoms of individuals. Franck reveals an aspect of internationalism that has been overshadowed by other, much hyped, elements in the new world order, such as the burgeoning market economy and the distance-shrinking effects of the Internet. These, as well as the accelerated process of democratization worldwide, are related to, and yet distinct from, the phenomenon described in The Empowered Self. Franck's assessment is especially important today when the prospects of internationalism raise fears and anxieties across the American political spectrum. Unfortunately, he takes a fine point too far by interjecting into the work a celebratory, millennial discourse and indulging in an excessively optimistic futurology.

The old order imposed rigid identities on individuals, mainly because states demanded exclusive loyalty from their citizens. Hostility toward the Other was also constitutive of certain identity configurations within national communities as well as among them, perhaps most notably through the capitalist/communist divide (p. 78-79). Particularly restrictive in this regard was the hybrid of the nation-state, a fictive union that largely depended upon the myth of a cohesive citizenry sharing ties of blood and memory. In the aftermath of the Cold War, and with the waning of the nation-state, other factions beckon individuals for their allegiance, emphasizing linguistic, religious, ethnic and racial affinities. Still, Franck confidently maintains that recent eruptions of ethnocultural strife -- in places such as the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, or even some of the more divisive quarrels of the "culture wars" in the United States -- are aberrant "growing pains" in a larger trend toward greater international cooperation, on the one hand, and strong individualism on the other. "[I]ndividuals are now, for the first time, making free, genuine choices in determining their own identities" (p. 40). Rigid factionalism is in retreat, and will likely disappear once we stop fearing our new heterogeneous global existence. In this version of a Kantian Weltburgertum, individuals will divide their diverse interests among transnational groups...

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