Cosmopolitan Tensions: Contradictions in the Theory of Cosmopolitanism

Eminent philosopher Immanuel Kant has long served as a source of confusion and inspiration. Freshman undergrads grapple with his philosophical treatises in humanities classes across the nation. While Kant’s contributions to college coeds’ early philosophical foundations provide one example of his influence, recent work on the issue of cosmopolitanism has excavated his 1795 essay entitled “Perpetual Peace.” In “Perpetual Peace,” Kant suggests that trade, travel, and commerce point toward a future in which war becomes a diminishing factor. Interdependence demands peace. Under this rubric democratic states would avoid war because the need for the public’s consent amplifies the political and economic costs to the state. In non-democratic states, the desire to wage war for personal or national prestige would be reduced. Trade disruptions would affect all, meaning the need to maintain steady economic growth emerges as a primary motive of government. With these aspects acknowledged, hospitality occupies a position of central importance. Kant summarizes the importance of “hospitality”:

Hospitality means the right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy when he arrives in the land of another. One may refuse to receive him when this can be done without causing his destruction; but so long as he peacefully occupies his place, one may not treat him with hostility. It is not the right to be a permanent visitor that one may demand. A special contract of beneficence would be needed in order to give an outsider a right to became a fellow inhabitant for a certain length of time. It is only the right of temporary sojourn, a right to associate, which all men have. They have it by virtue of their common possession of the surface of the earth, where, as a globe, they cannot infinitely disperse and hence must finally tolerate the presence of each other.

Everyone’s favorite deconstructionist, Jacques Derrida, adopted many of Kant’s viewpoints in a series of lectures published in his On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (2003). Though to be clear, Kant is not the only philosophical influence on cosmopolitanism. Numerous scholars from David Harvey to Seyla Benhabib to Derrida draw from the works of Hannah Arendt. Recalling two general modern “upheavals” that contributed mightily to the discourse of cosmopolitanism Derrida identifies the first as being the creation of hundreds of thousands stateless individuals in the post war period and the denial by states to the right of asylum. Derrida points out that Arendt acknowledged the theoretical difficulties experienced by burgeoning mid century nation states, “’although the right to asylum had continued to exist in a world organized into nation states, and though it had even, in some individual cases, survived two world wars, it is still felt to be an anachronism and a principle incompatible with the international laws of the State.’ At the same time when Arendt was writing this, circa 1950, she identified the absence in international charters of the right to asylum…” (Derrida on Arendt in On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, 6-7) For Europeans, writes Derrida the “’second ‘ upheaval in Europe was to follow a massive influx of refugees, which necessitated abandoning the classic recourse to repatriation or naturalization.” (Derrida, 7) Thus, the French deconstructionist argued, cities not states pointed the way to the future. First, because of the circumstances found in European metropolises in the late 1990s and early 2000s but also because Derrida and others had given up on the state providing any true leadership, “If we look to the city, rather than to the state, it is because we have given up hope that the state might crate a new image for the city” (Derrida, 6)

Derrida expands on Kant’s observations regarding the role and substance of hospitality. For Derrida, hospitality represents a culture itself rather than one arm of several ethical considerations; as the French thinker argues, “Insofar as it has to do with the ethos, that is, the residence, one’s home, the familiar place of dwelling, inasmuch as it is a manner of being there, the manner in which we relate to ourselves and to others, to others as our own or as foreigners, ethics is hospitality; ethics is so thoroughly coextensive with the experience of hospitality.” (Derrida, 17) Tracing its history back through the middle ages, Derrida suggests cities themselves have long set standards and laws regarding hospitality.

To his credit, Derrida was careful to not present hospitality as without pitfalls. Derrida argued that hospitality and its antithesis, hostility were as Seyla Benhabib articulates, “interlaced.” Even after accepted into a nation or region, there exists spaces of ambivalence, “there is still a gap, a hiatus, between the acceptance of the other through hospitality and the rejection of him/her as one who does not ‘belong’ to us, who is not ‘one’ of us.” When one party has few or no rights, the “liminal condition” of hostility/hospitality is amplified. Furthermore, Derrida argues that in its conditional order, hospitality casts a regressive shadow over the “juridico-political” where “limits are set, boundaries are established and protected with violence; asylees are turned away; refugees are denied entry and aid; citizens are denaturalized.” (Derrida in Benhabib, 157) This raises the question of just how Kant envisioned adjudicating this right. What is the source of its legitimacy? First, Derrida argues Kant’s hospitality remains a right of residence, from which one may, and in fact, should extend the universalism – “the right of visitation” – to others, but the right itself emanates outward from an individual’s claim to local community. This tension between the local and the universal, meaning the fact that the right of universal hospitality emerges from local place based memberships, serves as a recurring problem among even cosmopolitanism’s leading theorists. Additionally, no matter how one defines it, hospitality remains under the purview of the state and the police, providing yet more complexities for cosmopolitanism’s reality.

Though Derrida remains a central figure in the cosmopolitanism debate, others have emerged as more prominent voices. In 2004, cosmopolitan expert Seyla Benhabib delivered a series of lectures that outlined her own vision. Published two years later, Another Cosmopolitanism includes not only Benhabib’s remarks but also critiques by Jeremy Waldron, Bonnie Honig and Will Kymlicka. Benhabib’s talks provide the intellectual grist for Waldron, Honig, and Kymlicka’s responses, thus, her two lectures “The Philosophical Foundations of Cosmopolitan Norms” and “Democratic Iterations: The Local, the National, and the Global” serve as starting points A and B.

From the outset, Benhabib argues that the UN Declaration of Human Rights set into motion a “global evolution of civil society which is characterized by transition from international to cosmopolitan norms of justice.” (16) These cosmopolitan norms of justice are transferred to the individual rather than states or their various agents. Yet, this transfer rests on international and bilateral human rights agreements, thus the very recognition of each individual as a human and moral agent arises out of treaty like obligations. Benhabib points out that this structure both “sublimate[s]and reinforce[s] [the state’s] authority.” (31) However, in terms of establishing practices of inclusion and exclusion Benhabib points to a second key tension in the debate regarding cosmopolitan norms. The conflict between a discourse of ethics that establishes methods considered morally permissible conflicts with the demands of democratic states which require more closure than such discursive forms of membership offer. Turning to Jurgen Habemas, the author connects the German sociologist’s “janus faced” modern nation to illustrate “the tension between universal human rights claims and particularistic cultural and national identities.” (Benhabib, Another Cosmopolitanism, 32) The very universal principles that dictate the actions of democratic states are then “circumscribed “within a particular civic community.” (Benhabib, 32) It is a tension that Benhabib recognizes may not be resolvable, but its impact must be blunted through “renegotiation and reiteration of the dual commitments to human rights and sovereign self determination,” she writes. (35)

Acknowledging this tension within “bounded societies,” Benhabib suggests that Kant’s vision focused on norms that “ought to govern relations among individuals in a global civil society.” (Benhabib, 20) Not limited to moral or legal codes, these norms “[frame] the law” in a global context. Benhabib continues, arguing that “[t]hey signal the eventual legalization and juridification of the rights claims of human beings everywhere, regardless of their membership in bounded communities.” (Benhabib, 20) In this way, hospitality becomes a right of all those claiming membership in a world republic, which Arendt argues makes “crimes against humanity” more than a moral violation. Therefore, such crimes violate “the rights of humanity in our person.” (Benhabib, 22) Hospitality serves as a super glue like substance filling the cracks separating various conceptual rights or as Benhabib notes “[i]t occupies that space between human rights and civil and political rights, between the rights of humanity in our person and the rights that accrue to us insofar as we are citizens of specific republics.” (Benhabib, 22) Kant’s idea of hospitality had no mechanism of enforcement rather its implementation depended on the rulers themselves. After all, states bestowed citizenship on residents, “cosmopolitan citizens still needed their individual republics to be citizens at all.” (24) Still, the right to universal hospitality, in theory, places burdens on the political sovereign since they shoulder the obligation to provide “refuge or asylum.” Benhabib underscores this point, writing that Arendt’s “right to have rights” prevents states from “denaturalizing individuals by denying them citizenship rights and state protection.” (Benhabib, 25) Moreover, the post WWII development of international monitors and institutions regarding the human rights record of sovereign nations means that “state sovereignty” no longer functions as the “ultimate arbiter of the fate of its citizens or residents,” writes Benhabib. Popular sovereignty and territorial sovereignty are no longer identical.

So the obvious question arises: how are liberal democracies supposed to negotiate these paradoxes? The decline of “the unitary model of citizenship” (Benhabib claims “the end” of such conceptualizations of citizenship but one might respectfully argue that this goes too far) does not signal an end to its normative power institutionally and popularly. New means of membership require new “forms of political agency and subjectivity” (Benhabib, 47) Here Benhabib turns to the aforementioned Derrida drawing on his conception of “iterations.” Derrida’s iterations serve to “repaint” ideas, concepts, or terms. Each new iteration creates a new variation, transforming and enriching its meaning in numerous ways. Similarly, Benhabib coins the term “democratic iterations” which are “linguistic, legal, cultural, and political repetitions in transformation, invocations that also are revocations. They not only change established understandings but also transform what passes as the valid or established view of an authoritative precedent.” (Benhabib, 48) Through “jurisgenerative politics” democratic peoples may engage in “iterative acts by reappropriating and reinterpreting these, thereby showing [themselves] to be not only the subject but also the author of the laws (Michelman),” notes Benhabib (49). Jurisgenerative politics enables populations to augment meanings attached to rights claims which provides a sense of authorship. Through the deployment of these norms, ordinary people then validate and claim them. (Benhabib, 49) In its most perfect form, jurisgenerative politics “are cases of legal and political contestation in which the meaning of rights and other fundamental principles,” argues Benhabib, “are reposited, resignified, and reappropriated by new and excluded groups, or by the citizenry in the face of new and unprecedented hermeneutic challenges and meaning constellations.” (Benhabib, 70)

If we cannot all agree on the extent of the power of the nation state, we can agree that the intervention of new technologies, labor flows, capital investment, and several other factors have altered how citizenship is understood. Long stuck in the binary structure that placed national in opposition to foreigner or citizens to migrants, new spaces of membership need to be created. Complicating this binary is the fact that many migrants have become citizens, and many citizens are foreign born. Utilizing examples from Islamic scarf controversies in France and citizenship law rulings in Germany, Benhabib argues that German Court decisions forcing the legislature to reconsider citizenship laws suggest “there may often be an incongruity between those who have the formal privilege of democratic citizenship (the demos) and others who are members of the population but who do not formally belong to the demos.” (Benhabib, 68) The Court’s decision, forced a reformation of German citizenship which illustrates the very iterative processes Benhabib heralds: “The democratic people can reconstitute itself through such acts of democratic iteration so as to enable the extension of democratic voice. Aliens can become residents, and residents can become citizens. Democracies require porous borders.” (Benhabib, 68) Benhabib’s argument parts ways with “decline of citizenship theorists” like Michael Walzer who argue that self determined national communities dictate the rules in relation to “cultural self understanding and in accordance with desires to preserve cultural majorities.” Accordingly, human rights issues occupy a place of secondary importance while the accumulation of internal populations who lack the shared culture’s history or values “poses a challenge to the democratic to rearticulate the meaning of democratic universalism.” (Benhabib, 69) For Benhabib, the influence of cosmopolitanism should not be seen as a threat or a detriment to democratic sovereignty; rather, it promises “the emergence of new political configurations and new forms of agency, inspired by the interdependence.” (Benhabib, 74)

Undoubtedly, Benhabib’s contribution to understandings of cosmopolitanism remains central to the overall debate regarding these issues. Moreover, her theoretical concern over how universals interact with the local provides the intellectual foundation for tangible real world application even if no guide for pragmatic implementation is pursued. However, as with any discussion of cosmopolitanism, its abstractedness often results in varying definitions and theoretical stances. If universal cosmopolitan served as the dominant discourse, David Harvey points out the development of counter cosmopolitanisms consisting of “all manner of hyphenated versions of cosmopolitanism, variously described as ‘rooted’, ‘situated’, ‘actually existing,’ ‘discrepant,’ ‘vernacular,’ ‘Christian,’ ‘bourgeois,’ ‘liberal,’ ‘postcolonial,’ ‘feminist,’ ‘proletarian,’ ‘subaltern,’ ‘ecological,’ ‘socialist,’ and so forth.” (Harvey, 79) This very fragmentation confuses many observers who must now define cosmopolitanism along several different modes or lines of thought. In his response to Benhabib, Jeremy Waldron praises her development of “democratic iterations” but also wonders what a concrete notion of cosmopolitanism consists of, “what is the content of this order? What are these existing or emerging cosmopolitan norms? What issues do they address? What do they require? What obligations or values they impose upon us? …. Second, as to provenance: where does the ordering come from? Is it imposed (like legislation) and if so, by whose authority? How is it sustained, upheld, and enforced?” (84) Waldron is right to ask about cosmopolitanism’s more tangible aspects. Benhabib’s theoretical argument sounds appealing but how are democratic iterations understood by the public? How are they understood by municipal governments? How does one reconcile the progressive notions of cosmopolitanism with the violent reactions of local populations who clearly view membership as decidedly place based and see the extension of hospitality as dangerous?

Accordingly, Waldron expresses reservations regarding Benhabib’s apparent faith in governments to adjudicate/respect cosmopolitan norms. As Waldron acknowledges, “we” think “we” know how law works in our respective nations, but the reality proves more complicated. “In recent years, jurists have shown an increasing awareness of the way in which municipal legal orders sustain themselves with reference to legal heritage and to connections among jurists that go well beyond national boundaries,” Waldron says (84-85). Instead, Waldron directs readers to more “mundane” encounters, ones that occur outside the purview of the state, yet establish patterns for cosmopolitan norms. Through the daily interactions of commerce, the repetition of contact gradually coalesces into a set of norms that do not “presuppose a formal juridical apparatus.” (Benhabib, 94) Here Waldron encourages thinking of cosmopolitan law as less state centered, thus avoiding issues of political equality which electoral forms of politics regulates: “I don’t think hospitality is about states or political communities at all, whether at the level of a world republic or an individual republic.” Waldron continues remarking that “It is about relations between people and peoples, and it needs to be read in that determinedly non-state centered way in order to capture the distinctive contribution it is supposed to make to Kant’s practical philosophy.” (Benhabib, 89-90) Cosmopolitan norms through trade remain truly democratic, argues Waldron, because they are born of the dynamics of ordinary life in relation to which there “have no problematic or invidious exclusions.” (97)

Waldron’s point has merit, but can we say that trade/commerce lacks an exclusionary nature? Cleary US immigration illustrates this to be false. Numerous waves of immigrants (this is not to even mention barriers that affected native born blacks and other minorities) found numerous economic avenues denied them. The Japanese of Southern California established footholds in agricultural production around Los Angeles, eventually crafting their own vertical networks, but not necessarily out of a planned desire. Rather Japanese immigrants exploited what few economic holes that social/political discrimination allowed. So it remains questionable how much more equal a cosmopolitanism emerging from this background would be. If one is unsatisfied with this admittedly confined domestic example, then one might consider Amy Chua’s work World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. Chua, who ostensibly supports globalization, explores the trail of violence and repression that global free market economic expansion has created. Chua’s work illustrates the reality that free market expansion’s Achilles heel remains inequality and uneven development as smaller minority groups gained disproportionate economic gains in Malaysia, India, and elsewhere. Often this disparity fed local ethnic tensions that resulted in violence that led to death and government instability.

Into the fray steps the scourge of neoliberalism and its advocates, renowned anthropologist David Harvey. Harvey’s view may sometimes be too often predetermined by his Marxist leanings, yet he brings a clear eyed, if sometimes overly critical edge to the discussion. Addressing Waldron’s promotion of commerce and trade, Harvey notes the observations of respected academics from Saskia Sassen to Craig Calhoun, who acknowledge in various forms, the appropriation of cosmopolitan forms by transnational elites, governments, and others, in this way, serving neoliberal interests at its core. Like others, Harvey remains curious about what cosmopolitanism means pointing to R. Wilson’s conclusion that the term packs a wallop, the discourse equivalent of an eight ball drug cocktail. Wilson’s concerns are derived from the fact that cosmopolitanism’s meaning combines drastically different experiences and identities. Harvey summarizes Wilson’s conclusions pointing out that the word’s definition remains dangerously unclear since it includes “not only the voluntary adventures of liberal self invention and global travel, but also those less benignly configured mixtures of migration, nomadism, diaspora, tourism, and refugee flight,’ as well as the ‘traumas of the ‘immigrant as global cosmopolitan,’ carrier of some liberal and liberated hybridity, which of course, the United States represents to the world as capitalist vanguard.” (Harvey, 79-80)

In his latest work, Cosmopolitanism and the Geographies of Freedom, Harvey engages in a Marxist deconstruction of cosmopolitanism’s implications. The respected CUNY anthropologist connects what he sees as cosmopolitanism’s troubling relationship with neoliberal tropes about freedom and democracy. For Harvey, “[a] new school of philanthropists (trained in the way of Wall Street)” promotes the idea that “low wage factories and access to loans through established lending institutions” serve as the future of aid and international commerce. For his part, Harvey despairs that wages remain cripplingly low and the newly created lending institutions “charge rates that many Americans would deem usurious.” (Harvey, 54)

Though Harvey’s nearly obsessive dedication to Marxist orientation sometimes clouds his arguments, his most important contributions to the developing cosmopolitan debate arise from his interpretation of Kant’s “Perpetual Peace.” First, Harvey draws attention to Kant’s use of geography and anthropology, disciplines Harvey views as too inadequately utilized. According to Harvey, “the distinction between geography and anthropology rested, in Kant’s view, on a difference between ‘the outer knowledge’ given by observation of ‘man’s’ place in nature and the ‘inner knowledge’ of subjectivities (which sometimes come close to psychology in practices).” Harvey continues, noting that “[t]his dualism bears a heavy burden, for it underpins the supposedly clear distinctions between object and subject, fact and value and, ultimately, science and poetry that have bedeviled Western thought ever since.” (21) Unsurprisingly, (from the title alone) among Harvey’s numerous concerns, the lack of attention to Kant’s views of anthropology and geography in constructing theories of cosmopolitanism emerges clearly.

Certainly, from a modern perspective, Kant avoided some of the more pernicious biases of his time. No appeals to Godliness or tropes about “noble savages” arise. Instead, Kant explains the Enlightenment as humanity’s emergence from immaturity. This new cultural arising from maturity surely sets man apart, “it] liberates the human will from the despotism of natural desires and redirects human skill toward rational purposes by forming the will in accordance with a rational image.” (Kant in Harvey, 24) Unfortunately, Kant’s maturity measure means that not all can be citizens. Harvey points out that such measures rest “on a normative concept of rational behavior,” that the author notes Foucault refuted strongly in his essay “What is Enlightenment?” Complications regarding views of race and gender, placed many individuals under the category of immature notably women and non-whites. Like contemporaries, Kant’s views of non whites remained filled with prejudices as Harvey illustrates with an excerpt of Kant’s writings:

In hot countries men mature more quickly in every respect but they do not attain the perfection of the temperate zones. Humanity achieves its greatest perfection with the White race. The yellow Indians have somewhat less talent. The Negroes are much inferior and some of the peoples of the America are well below them.

All inhabitants of hot lands are exceptionally lazy; they are also timid and the same two traits characterize also folk living in the far north. Timidity engenders superstition and in lands rule by Kings leads to slavery. Ostoaks, Samoyeds, Lapps, Greenlanders, etc. resemble people of hot lands in their timidity, laziness, superstition and desire for strong drink, but lack of jealousy characteristic of the latter since their climate does not stimulate their passion too greatly. (Kant quoted in Harvey, 27)

That Kant held essentialized views of non-whites proves unsurprising. However, the inability of few cosmopolitan theorists to discuss these implications remains problematic.

Harvey’s attempt to reposition anthropology and geography into the cosmopolitanism debate leads him to survey the field’s numerous theorists. Martha Nussbaum, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Benhabib and others all receive Harvey’s attentions. Acknowledging the proliferation of ‘adjectival cosmopolitanisms,’ Harvey hints at the diversity therein, however, he also summarizes their general similarities succinctly, “All these ‘adjectival cosmopolitanisms,’ as we might call them, have in common the idea of somehow combining respect for local differences with compelling universal principles. From such a standpoint, local patriotism rooted in the geographies of actual places and cosmopolitanism are not necessarily at odds.” (Harvey, 114)

So it would seem cosmopolitan returns once more to the tension that bears upon a locally dependent universalism. Certainly, few writers have thought about issues of place and space more than Harvey. In his widely cited, The Condition of Postmodernity, Harvey seemed to suggest that the postmodern focus on space undermined working class oppositions that had historically illustrated greater control over place than space. For Harvey, “there can be no universal politics without an adequate place based politics,” (Harvey, 196) meaning any kind of “qualified universalism” rests on local politics. Yet, as other writers have noticed, localism can be just as limiting as oppression from above. If such politics become permanently lodged in the local alone, “reactionary and exclusionary dangers arise.” (Harvey, 196) To see how localism can be perverted, one need only think about domestic problems arising from various forms of localized identity politics from the white suburban homeowner/taxpayer identity of the 1970s, race based movements of the late 1960s/early 1970s, or the modern day NIMBYism which harnesses the language of civil rights, free markets, and environmentalism to justify exclusion. As Harvey has noted, this is the very worry that underscores his thoughts on cosmopolitanism itself. The failure to take account of these issues can result in curdling of a progressive movement into a reactionary bitterness such that, as Harvey alludes, “we lose sight of the grander political possibilities that always attach to mobilizing the power of place as a moment in the search for geography of freedom.” (Harvey, 196)

When Harvey turns to Benhabib’s contributions, he credits her along with James Scott, Nicolas De Genova, Phillip Abrams, and Timothy Mitchell for undermining Cartesian/Kantian “hegemony” while bringing to the forefront relative and relational conceptualizations. For Benhabib’s part, Harvey references her previous work The Rights of Others, pointing to the author’s insight that though the world of nation states has been changed irrevocably our “normative map has not.” (Harvey, 270) With that said, Harvey also seems skeptical regarding other aspects of Benhabib’s arguments. For example, when Benhabib allows for local manifestations of “universal ethical principles”, Harvey follows rather doubtfully, “but apparently this in no way interferes with how the universal principles are to be articulated.” (Harvey, 106)

It probably goes without saying that there are many who exhibit hostility toward the work of Jacques Derrida and many of those he influenced. The Economist summarized Derrida’s most famous contribution to the world with little aplomb: “The inventor of “deconstruction”—an ill-defined habit of dismantling texts by revealing their assumptions and contradictions—was indeed, and unfortunately, one of the most cited modern scholars in the humanities.” (Economist, “Obituary – Jacques Derrida,” Oct 21, 2004) Derrida’s defense of Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man from charges of Nazism, the Economist argues, “fed straight into the hands of his critics, who had always argued that the playful evasiveness of deconstruction masked its moral and intellectual bankruptcy. The New York Review of Books quipped that deconstruction means never having to say you’re sorry.” Of the academics who adopted Derrida’s approach, the English newspaper dismissed them in a single sentence, “”Armed with an impenetrable new vocabulary, and without having to master any rigorous thought, they could masquerade as social, political and philosophical critics.”

Why does this matter? If cosmopolitanism is to have a real world impact it must move from these theoretical moorings and be implemented in some way. Having seen the negative reactions of Americans to immigration policy and immigrants, Benhabib and Derrida’s concerns over local conflict seem particularly apt. The question is how to get around this, how to persuade the kind of rubber meets the road mentality that dominates not only the American, but increasingly the international public sphere of cosmopolitanism’s efficacy. A commerce led cosmopolitanism, one that venues like the Economist might find attractive, might benefit from the theoretical influence of Benhabib and others. As it stands, cosmopolitanism today seems situated on an unsteady theoretical precipice. Clearly, within its intellectual foundations rests two sets of tensions that must be worked through. Perhaps, the thoughts of an outside observer might clarify this once and for all. Fellow contributor Alex Cummings summarized this internal conflict well: “It seems like there is a real conflict between the cosmopolitan ideal of hospitality and human rights: A. demands for cultural difference and national sovereignty on one hand, and B. the ugly reality of a commercially-oriented, neoliberal cosmopolitanism of free trade and global inequality.“ (email to author, Dec. 2, 2010) This troubling set of issues must be reconciled before cosmopolitanism may find a real, tangible place in this world.

Ryan Reft