National Chi Nan University, Taiwan
This paper examines the hope inherent in the ambition of cosmopolitan theory in tandem with the positive yet pragmatic political theory of Seyla Benhabib. Cosmopolitan theory maintains hope for the development of cosmopolitan norms outside of the nation-state, while Benhabib’s precision-like analysis leads to an understanding of the growing tensions within the nation-state as it responds to globalization and the push for transnational democracy and global justice.
Keywords: Cosmopolitan norms; democratic iteration; disaggregation of citizenship; discourse theory; jurisgenerative politics; transnational democracy; sovereignty; Westphalian-sovereignty
“I do not pretend to have a new map to replace the old one, but I do hope to contribute to a better understanding of the salient fault lines of the unknown territory which we are traversing.”
Seyla Benhabib, The Rights of Others, 2004
Cosmopolitan theory hasn’t wrought transnational distributive justice on a global scale; however, the robust dialogue that it generates concerning the scope of contemporary democratic strategy for global justice has produced cogent insight. Cosmopolitanism has inspired discourse on citizenship that is charting a trajectory of hope for progress beyond the contentions of identity politics and for the achievement of the promise of democracy that Alexis de Tocquieville prophesied would become an “irresistible revolution” advancing from century to century (de Tocqueville, A., 1833, p. xvi). The assumptions that cosmopolitans make – whether moral or political -- do have their problematic features, but these do not quash the ideology’s tenacity as it stays the course to deliver res publica a workable treatise. Here one can garner a cogent and pragmatic view of international law and human relations that squarely faces its limitations. Seyla Benhabib, a distinguished feminist philosopher and political theorist, proffers analysis on the complexities of this issue but manages to avoid simplistic reductionism (Allen, 2007). In her scrutiny of the ongoing contentions that arise whenever one labors for the promise that lay between the tension and the hope of cosmopolitanism, she admits that there exists much for political theorists to debate. Many acknowledge the tension, but few still affirm the hope. Seyla Benhabib is an exception. She allows that we haven’t yet reached the zenith of transnational citizenship rights, but her salient critique indicates that we are advancing towards the desideratum. Benhabib’s writing inspires hope, but it is hope that is grounded by pragmatic analysis. In this paper I examine contemporary cosmopolitanism and its stand against nationalism in tandem with an overview of this scholar’s work to illustrate that cosmopolitanism can be regarded as a workable philosophy that is mapping out what Benhabib defines as the “fault lines” of a new territory (Benhabib, 2004, p. 6).
The Cosmopolitan Requirement
Gillian Brock and Harry Brighouse write in their introduction to The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism (2005), a cogent anthology of contemporary cosmopolitans and their analytic, that global principles of distributive justice have their dominant framework in the ideas formulated by John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice (1971/1999), but that the rise of nationalism since the 1980s has sparked a large pool of literature that has become “increasingly independent of Rawls’s terms of engagement”. They state:
The default position in the debate is, naturally enough, that national boundaries have significance and legitimacy. Cosmopolitans dispute this generally by making specific arguments against particular kinds of defenses of nationality. Because the debate has had this character it has been less clear what the precise content of positive cosmopolitanism is. It is somewhat clear what cosmopolitans are against. But what are they for? And why? (Brock and Brighouse, 2005, p. 2)
Brock and Brighouse suggest that the particular focus of cosmopolitan thinking should be on the content and weight of obligations beyond national boundaries, relative to the content and weight of those obligations to which national and state boundaries give rise. They distinguish between “weak and strong cosmopolitanism” and suggest that strong cosmopolitanism is the variety that avers “there are no society-wide principles of distributive justice that are not also global principles of distribute justice; and that our fellow nationals not only have no claim on us, but we have no right to use nationality (in contrast with friendship or familial love) as a trigger for discretionary behavior (Brock and Brighouse, 2005, p. 3).
In an essay for the Brock and Brighouse anthology entitled, Cosmopolitan Hope, Catriona McKinnon trumpets the call for strong cosmopolitanism by outlining the quality of hope that she defends. Her brand of hope, she explains, is for the realization of the cosmopolitan ideal or “a world in which some fundamental principles of justice relations between individuals and groups at the domestic level also govern such relations at the global level” (McKinnon, 2005, p.236). McKinnon labels these principles of justice relations a “cosmopolitan requirement” (McKinnon, 2005, p. 236).
Benhabib affirms the cosmopolitan requirement but broadens it to include what Robert Post, in his introduction to her most recent text, Another Cosmopolitanism (2006), has called the “circumscribed polis of the state” (Post, Benhabib, 2006, p. 2). Post is suggesting that a fundamental challenge of our times is the “construction of a jurisprudential theory able to reconcile the universality of human rights with the partiality of positive law” (Post, Benhabib, 2006 p. 3). He says that Benhabib’s “ profound insight is to conceptualize the emergence of cosmopolitan law as a dynamic process through which the principles of human rights are progressively incorporated into the positive law of democratic states” (Post, Benhabib, 2006, p.4). Benhabib calls this process “democratic iteration” which she conceives as “jurisgenerative politics” that mediates between “universal norms and the will of democratic majorities” (Post, Benhabib, 2006, p. 4).
Strong or positive cosmopolitanism is universalism’s belief that all have dignity and that this dignity transcends the laws of any state. In Another Cosmopolitanism (2006), Benhabib outlines her thesis in her essay The Philosophical Foundations of Cosmopolitan Norms. She writes: “since the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 we have entered a phase in the evolution of global civil society, which is characterized by a transition from international to cosmopolitan norms of justice” (Benhabib, 2006, p. 15-16). Cosmopolitan norms of justice, she explains, regardless of the conditions of their legal origination, accrue to individuals as moral and legal persons in a worldwide civil society. The uniqueness, she adds, of the many human rights agreements signed since World War II is in their ‘peculiarity’ of endowing individuals rather than states and their agents with certain rights and claims. Her thesis is both articulate and pragmatic and carries the conviction of careful analysis of the evolution of cosmopolitan norms, which are challenged in the present by the question of how to make legal norms and standards that “originate outside the will of democratic legislatures” binding. She writes:
Although the evolution of cosmopolitan norms of justice is a tremendous development, the relationship between the spread of cosmopolitan norms and democratic self-determination is fraught, both theoretically and politically. How can the will of democratic majorities be reconciled with norms of cosmopolitan justice? How can legal norms and standards, which originate outside the will of democratic legislatures, become binding on them? (Benhabib, 2006, p. 17)
The Discourse Theory of Ethics
Benhabib parts company with noted cosmopolitans whose lineage is drawn form Critical Theory to focus debate on ‘discursive scope’ which is the thought that the discourse theory of ethics cannot limit the scope of the moral conversation only to those who reside within nationally recognized boundaries. She states that the discursive theory of ethics “views the moral conversation as potentially including all of humanity” (Benhabib, 2006, p. 18). She writes:
Put sharply, every person, and every moral agent, who has interests and whom my actions and the consequences of my actions can impact and affect in some manner or another is potentially a moral conversation partner with me: I have a moral obligation to justify my actions with reasons to this individual or to the representative of this being. I respect the moral worth of the other by recognizing that I must provide him or her with a justification for my action. We are all potential participants in such conversations of justification (Benhabib, 2006, p. 18)
She believes that a discursive approach ought to place significant limitations on what can count as morally permissible practices of inclusion and exclusion within sovereign politics but she explains that membership norms will impact those who are not members “precisely by distinguishing insiders from outsiders, citizens from noncitizens” (Behhabib, 2006, p. 19). Here she is not reticent to admit that discourse theorists are confronted by a dilemma – either the theory is irrelevant to membership practices in bounded communities because it does not “articulate any justifiable criteria of exclusion”, or it accepts existing practices of exclusion as “morally neutral historical contingencies that require no further validation” (Benhabib, 2006, p. 19). This would suggest, she admits, “a discourse theory of democracy is itself chimerical insofar as democracy requires a morally justifiable closure that discourse ethics can not deliver” (Benhabib, 2006, p. 19).
Benhabib settles the core of this issue by insisting that if dialogic universalism is to be reclaimed, cosmopolitanism must become a project of mediations since it is not equivalent to a global ethic and can’t be characterized through cultural attitudes and choices alone. She follows the Kantian tradition in thinking of cosmopolitanism as the “emergence of norms that ought to govern relations among individuals in a global civil society” (Benhabib, 2006, p. 20).
She says that Kant laid the foundations for a post-Westphalian legal order and that his essay Perpetual Peace signalled the divide between two conceptions of sovereignty – Westphalian sovereignty and liberal international sovereignty (Kant, 1795, 2007). Kant, she explains, recognized three interrelated and distinct levels of ‘right’. First is the domestic law, second is the sphere of rightful relations among nations, and third is the cosmopolitan right, which she says Kant defines as concerning relations “among civil persons to each other, as well as to organized political entities in a global civil society” (Benhabib, 2006, p. 21).
Outlining the importance of this divide she argues: “in the classical Westphalian regime sovereign states are free and equal; they enjoy ultimate authority over all objects and subjects within a circumscribed territory” (Benhabib, 2006, p. 23); she elaborates with the following:
By contrast, according to conceptions of liberal international sovereignty the formal equality of states increasingly is dependent on their subscribing to common values and principles, such as the observance of human rights, the rule of law, and respect for democratic self-determination. Sovereignty no longer means ultimate arbitrary authority over a circumscribed territory; states which treat their citizens in violation of certain norms, close their borders, prevent freedoms of market, speech, and association and the like are thought not to belong within a specific society of states or alliances; the anchoring of domestic principles in institutions shared with others is crucial (Benhabib, 2006, p.23- 24).
Benhabib’s view is supported by the work of David Held, a leading global justice theorist. Writing on the relations among communities, Held says that we no longer live in a world of discrete national boundaries. Instead, we experience “overlapping communities of fate where the trajectories of countries are deeply enmeshed with each other” (Held, 2004, p. x). Held describes this phenomenon as networks of power and interaction (Held, 2003, p. 466) and “states that in our world, “it is not only the violent exception that links people together across borders; the very nature of everyday problems and processes joins people in multiple ways” (Held, 2004, p. x).
So if our fates and fortunes are so ‘thoroughly intertwined’ as Held puts it, why is there such ‘tension’ between the demands of cosmopolitan justice and the values of republican self-governance (Benhabib, 2006, p. 26)? Benhabib attempts to fill the lacuna in this debate with a careful evaluation of normative claims. Reading at Berkeley from her essay entitled Reclaiming Universalism: Negotiating Republican Self-Determination and Cosmopolitan Norms (Benhabib, 2004) she characterized the contemporary situation as a “delegitimization” of the state and its claim to hold ultimate authority over all subjects within a circumscribed territory. This, she says, is the cornerstone of Westphalian sovereignty now being transformed by international law. A year later and presenting at the W.E.B Du Bois Distinguished Lectures in Berlin,she made the point even clearer by addressing the phenomenon of “diminishing capacity of nation-states to navigate an increasingly complex, fluid, and obscure security as well a economic environment” (Benhabib, 2005, p. 46).
Benhabib concurs with Held in his view of cosmopolitan justice and writes: “cosmopolitan sovereignty is the law of peoples because it places at its center the primacy of individual human beings as political agents, and the accountability of power” (Benhabib, 2004, p. 131). She often addresses ‘tensions’ in equations on cosmopolitan justice but in The Rights of Others, her most recent examination of the boundaries of political community, she attempts to show what this tension might yield; she points out that “tension between universal human rights claims, and particularistic cultural and national identities, is constitutive of democratic legitimacy” (Benhabib, 2004, p.44)
The democratic sovereign draws its legitimacy not merely from its act of constitution, but equally significantly, from the conformity of this act to universal principles of human rights that are in some sense said to precede and antedate the will of the sovereign and in accordance with which the sovereign undertakes to bind itself. “We the people,” refers to a particular human community, circumscribed in space and time, sharing a particular culture, history, and legacy; yet this people establishes itself as a democratic body by acting in the name of the “universal” (Benhabib, 2004, p. 44).
Benhabib concedes that there is both tension and contradiction between human rights declarations and states’ sovereign claims to control their borders. She believes there are no easy solutions to the dilemmas posed by these “dual commitments” and she argues that a cosmopolitan theory of justice “cannot be restricted to schemes of just distribution on a global scale, but must also incorporate a vision of just membership” (Benhabib, 2004, p. 2-3). She declares emphatically that she is not calling for the end of the state system nor is she calling for world citizenship. She continues:
Rather, following the Kantian tradition of cosmopolitan federalism, I will underscore the significance of membership within bounded communities and defend the need for “democratic attachments” that may not be directed toward existing nation state structures alone (Benhabib, 2004, p. 2-3).
Her concept of just membership deserves recognition for its prescient vision not to restrict bounded communities to existing state structures. She writes that a nation’s people always includes the other and that we are at a point in time that marks an historical juncture when the question of political boundaries has once more become highly visible. She states:
Citizenship and practices of political membership are the rituals through which the nation is reproduced spatially. The control of territorial boundaries, which is coeval with the sovereignty of the modern nation state, seeks to ensure the purity of the nation in time through the policing of its contacts and interactions in space. The history of citizenship reveals that these nationalist aspirations are ideologies, they attempt to mold a complex, unruly and unwieldy, reality according to some simple governing principle of reduction, such as national membership. Every nation has its others, both within and without (Benhabib, 2004, p. 18).
It is my view that Benhabbib’s concept of “democratic iterations” is deserving of wider attention and careful evaluation because of its positive reliance on the development of a discourse theoretic approach to the question of political membership. She argues that democratic iterations are processes that can empower people to transition away from being the subject of laws towards becoming the author of laws (Benhabib, 2004, p. 19-20). By developing a discourse-theoretic approach to the question of political membership, she is calling for newer visions of citizenship that will take us beyond ascriptive criteria, such as gender or skin color. Benhabib admits that she stands in contrast to communitarians and civic republicans in that, unlike them, she does not believe that the nation-state system alone is adequate to the task of democratic representation (Benhabib, 2007, p. 448). She admits that there are limits to democratic iterative processes such as “cultural, economic and maybe even legal ones” but suggests that what is less clear is what kind of an answer one can give as a political philosopher to this question: She writes: “The normative constraints I defend are twofold: respect for universal human rights principles and a just, fair and open process of democratic iteration which mediates between the interests of all those affected and the democratic citizens” (Benhabib, 2007, p. 449).
It is upon the platform of new cosmopolitan norms that Benhabib diverges from that of her colleagues. Her notion of citizenship constitutes an optimistic analysis that rationally outlines the processes of norm creation ongoing in various regions of the world. It is her unique argument that we create new norms by our constant engagement with the very human rights barriers that we might find otherwise quite limiting. This is a bold observation. She suggests that by our repeated contacts with these issues we create new norms and boundaries within established democracies. For example, she explains how state sovereignty has been frayed and that the institution of national citizenship has been “disaggregated or unbounded” into diverse elements (Benhabib, 2004, p. 1). She sees new modalities of membership emerging, with the result that “the boundaries of the political community, as defined by the nation-state system, are no longer adequate to regulate membership.
Benhabib is calling for a theoretical scrutiny and analysis of political membership, suggesting that the normative theory of global justice must begin to question existing polities and the “invisibility” of state borders. By invisibility she means the practices and institutions regulating access to and exit from political membership. She sees promise within the subnational and supranational spaces for democratic attachments and agency that are emerging and she strongly suggests that these “ought to be advanced with, rather than in lieu of, existing polities’ (Benhabib, 2004, p. 3).
In The Rights of Others she outlines her position and suggests that a cosmopolitan theory of justice cannot be restricted to schemes of just distribution on a global scale because they must also incorporate a vision of just membership. She argues:
Such just membership entails: recognizing the moral claim of refugees and asylees to first admittance, a regime of porous borders for immigrants; an injunction against denationalization and the loss of citizenship rights; and the vindication of the right of every human being “to have rights,” that is, to be a legal person, entitled to certain inalienable rights, regardless of the status of their political membership. The status of alienage ought not to denude one of fundamental rights. Furthermore, just membership also entails the right to citizenship on the part of the alien who has fulfilled certain conditions. Permanent alienage is not only incompatible with a liberal-democratic understanding of human community; it is also a violation of fundamental human rights” (Benhabib, 2004, p. 3-4).
Benhabib seeks to make it clear that the old models of territoriality are being challenged by the global economy and the creation of free markets in capital, finance, and labor (Benhabib, 2004, p. 4). She says that the Westphalian model of sovereignty and its ideas of political boundaries and membership are in crisis precisely because the nation-state is too small to cope with the “economic, ecological, immunological, and information problems” but that, conversely, “it is too large to accommodate the aspirations of identity-driven social and regionalist movements” (Benhabib, 2004, p. 4). As she puts it, the old models of normative relevance are now being called into question by the emergence of international and transnational cultural networks, as well as the increasing internationalization of armament, communication and information technologies. To acknowledge these trends, however, does not imply that the state system is coming to an end. The irony of current political developments, she writes, is that “while state sovereignty in economic, military and technological domains, has been greatly eroded, it is nonetheless vigorously asserted, and national borders, while more porous, are still there to keep out aliens and intruders. The old political structures may have waned but the new forms of globalization are not yet in sight” (Benhabib, 2004, p. 6).
Disaggregation of Citizenship
She holds the view that the former conceptions of international policies no longer benefit us and believes that, even if we haven’t yet realized new conceptions to take their place, we ought at least open our eyes to the changed terrain. She urges us to recognize that the “growing normative incongruities” between international human rights norms and assertions of territorial sovereignty are now the fixed features of this new landscape we are traversing (Benhabib, 2004, p 6-7). Sovereignty, she argues, is not simply self-referential – it is a relational concept (Benhabib, 2004, p. 21).
Her notion of this relational quality to sovereignty is deserving of greater evaluation and discussion. As noted earlier, Benhabib believes we can render the distinctions between citizens and aliens through democratic iterations. She points to the “disaggregation of citizenship rights” in contemporary Europe as the central case study for post-national solidarity.
We can render the distinctions between “citizens” and “aliens,” “us” and “them,” fluid and negotiable through democratic iterations. Only then do we move toward a postmetaphysical and postnational conception of cosmopolitan solidarity which increasingly brings all human beings, by virtue of their humanity alone, under the net of universal rights, while chipping away at the exclusionary privileges of membership” (Benhabib, 2004, p. 21).
She uses the term “disaggregation of citizenship” to characterize a complicated and multifaceted transformation towards the development of democratic self-governance and institutional citizenship rights which an array of issues in contemporary world politics is creating. She takes aim at those she has dubbed the “decline-of-citizenship” school of theorists who attack neo-Kantian theories of global justice but who view the liberal-democratic state as a holistic cultural and ethical entity. She maintains that it is not. She agrees that membership in cultural and political communities are “not a matter of distributive justice but, rather, a crucial aspect of a community’s self-understanding and self-determination,” but she refutes those who conflate ethical and political integration (Benhabib, 2004, p. 73).
Held concurs with Benhabib that the unitary state has given way to the ‘disaggregated state’ and the rise of government networks (Held, 2004, p. 75). He suggests that these networks take many forms and perform a variety of different subjects but lays emphasis on the fact that these changes herald “a new era of transgovernmental regulatory co-operation” and define transgovernmentalism as a distinctive mode of global governance: “horizontal rather than vertical, composed of national government officials rather than international bureaucrats, centralized and informal rather than organized and rigid” (Slaughter, 2003b, p. 190 in Held, 2004, p. 75). Held writes:
First, contemporary processes of globalization and regionalization create overlapping networks of interaction and power. These cut across territorial boundaries, putting pressure on, and straining a world order designed in accordance with the principle of exclusive sovereign rule over a delimited territory. One consequence of this is that the locus of effective political power is no longer simply that of national governments; effective power is shared, bartered and contested by diverse forces and agencies, public and private, crossing national, regional and international domains (Held, 2004, p. 89).
Benhabib gets to the heart of her central argument when addressing a Berlin lecture series on the reconfiguration of the state. Reading from an essay entitled Crises of the Republic: Transformations of State Sovereignty and the Prospects of Democratic Citizenship, she expresses it simply enough: “An epochal change is under way in which aspects of state sovereignty are being dismantled chip by chip” (Benhabib, 2005, p. 60). She says that implicit in all the diagnosis of the current state system and the nation-state itself is the general view of the limits and weaknesses of the system but cautions that one must be careful when acceding to the general claim that the world is witnessing a move to cosmopolitan law. She says “….if one shifts the political perspective, the sovereignty-based model of international law appears to be ceding not to cosmopolitan justice but to a different bid to restructure the world order: the project of empire” (Benhabib, 2005, p. 49)
Cosmopolitan norms or empire? Are they the only alternatives? It is crucial to unravel this ambivalent potential between the alternatives of the emergence of cosmopolitan norms intended to protect the individual in a world society on the one hand and the dangers as well as benefits of the transfiguration of state sovereignty on the other. The fact that the internationalization of human rights norms and the weakening of state sovereignty are developing in tandem with each other does not mean that the one can be reduced to the other; nor should objections to the weakening of state sovereignty lead one to reject the spread of human rights norms for fear that they can be used to justify humanitarian interventions (Benhabib, 2005, 49-50).
Benhabib’s analysis takes an honest look at the alternatives and disjunctions of the modern day. She writes that the model of liberal sovereignty “more and more appears as if it were the memory of a quaint past” (Benhabib, 2005, p.60) but she admits that it is hard to say where exactly these transfigurations will take us. The major emphasis of her work in recent years has been on the this question of the challenges we face by the “uncoupling between territoriality, sovereignty and citizenship” which is now occurring, she points out, “through the intensification of world-wide migrations in the era of globalization.” She reports that migrations have increased almost six-fold over the course of the past ninety years and that more than half of this has occurred in the last three decades of the 20th century, between 1965 and 2000. She explains that in this period 75 million people undertook cross-border movements to settle in counties other than those of their origin (Benhabib, 2005, p. 53).
Migrations thus lead to a pluralization of allegiances and commitments and to the growing complexity of nationals who, more often than not, in today’s world, are also ex-, post- and neo-colonials. We are witnessing the increasing migration from periphery to center, encouraged by wide differentials in standards of living between regions of the world, and facilitated by the large presence of family and kin already at the center of what was once the Empire. Indians, Pakistanis, Kashmiris and Sri Lankans in the U.K; Algerians and Moroccans in France; Surinamese and Moroccans in The Netherlands; Latin Americans in Spain; Libyans in Italy are all population groups whose history is deeply bound up with European Empires. Migrations reveal the “permeability” of the state’s borders; the Westphalian state which extended towards the rest of the world now finds that its borders are porous in both directions and that it is not only the center which flows in the periphery but the periphery which flows towards the center (Benhabib, 2005, p. 54-55).
The Reconfiguration of Sovereignty
She argues for transparent and accountable structures of world governance and coordination and she asserts that new modes of empire in this era of globalization are actually encouraging the spread of human rights norms. She believes that this process “pushes the new technologies of networking thus destroying the walls of separation and generating a new global connectivity consonant with this new age” (Benhabib, 2005, p. 62).
Today we are caught not only in the reconfiguration of sovereignty but also in the reconstitutions of citizenship. We are moving away from citizenship as national membership increasingly towards a citizenship of residency which strengthens the multiple ties to locality, to the region, and to transnational institutions. (Benhabib, 2005, p. 66)
Seyla Benhabib’s unwavering endorsement of cosmopolitan values is clearly evident in the cogent analysis and reasoned arguments that she lends to the vigorous debate swirling around the issues of the reconfiguration of sovereignty and the reconstruction of citizenship. She understands that this is new territory that we are entering and she calmly notes that we are like travelers navigating an unknown terrain, using old maps that were drawn for journeys in earlier times (Benhabib, 2004, p. 6-7). Benhabib’s approach to this discussion, drawing upon the cosmopolitan ideal, is to provide a rational and lucid elucidation of today’s events, which is sorely needed as we struggle to maintain the hope inherent in the ambitions of cosmopolitanism for global justice and a new world society of states.
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