Dr. Seyla Benhabib: Towards a Critical Social Theory of Cosmopolitanism

Dr. Seyla Benhabib: Towards a Critical Social Theory of Cosmopolitanism
Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University

Click here for the video of the lecture.

At the EURECO and CEMES (Centre for Modern European Studies) symposium, Dr. Seyla Benhabib presented a brief philosophical paper on the revival of cosmopolitan ideals and legal cosmopolitanism. She argued that while the project of cosmopolitanism involves contradictory processes and may indeed generates itself its own contradictions, it can still nonetheless be used as a “critical normative ideal” to illuminate and give insight into the transformations our world has been undergoing since the Second World War, in particular the normative proliferation of cosmopolitan ideals into legal frameworks.

The revival of cosmopolitan ideals have been traced contemporarily in a “wide variety of fields”, from “law to cultural studies, philosophy, international politics, and even to city planning and urban studies”. For some the shift came in the “confluence” of the “epoch transformations” referred as “globalization” (i.e., “the end of the Westphalian/Keynesian paradigm”), while for others in the “spread of neo-liberal capitalism globally”, and for others still in the rise of “multiculturalism” and the “displacement of the West”. For Professor Benhabib, the “trans-cultural encounters, mass migration and population transfer between east and west, first and third worlds, north and south, derives from global financial and business networks, the formation of transnational advocacy networks and the proliferation of transnational human rights instruments” have all been deeply contradictory and not without ethnocentricism; the one world without borders has been “a deeply seductive” and “problematic” idea. Here, Professor Benhabib argue that while the project of cosmopolitanism has been perhaps “misleading in some of its forms”, referring to Wendy Brown’s work and the way cosmopolitanism itself rises its own contradictions, “much of contemporary critiques misses what is new in the development of a cosmopolitanism and human rights discourse”. Indeed, the idea of cosmopolitanism can still be a “critical normative ideal” that “illuminates something important” about the empirical present.

In speaking specifically about legal cosmopolitanism, Professor Benhabib argues that since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “the evolution of  civil society forms of human justice has been moving from international to cosmopolitan forms of social justice”. Modern constitutions as well as constitutional hermeneutic tasks of their interpretations have incorporated cosmopolitan ideals as people’s changing self-understanding. She argues that “it is a fundamental mistake that our principles can be concretized without continuous interpretation and articulation by some governing bodies”. Modern states also operate in a “transformed international and legal environment surrounded by many inter-governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, new post-national configurations of sovereignty such as the European Union”. “Cosmopolitan norms” have structured this “international environment through international treaties” in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights“.

For Professor Benhabib, part of the conundrum of cosmopolitanism is that while it does not “posit a human being as a legal subject who does not belong to a polity”, they “cannot be realized without the articulation and contextualization of self-governing entities”. This brings its own contradictions: “what does it mean to defend a cosmopolitan position when it means for the rights bearing person first and foremost to belong to a sovereign polity that can protect one’s right to have rights”. While legal cosmopolitanism is continuing apace, powerful nations continue to be the better equipped than world organizations to concretize cosmopolitan norms.

Professor Benhabib repurposes two concepts to think about these contradictions. The first is juris generativity which for Professor Benhabib refers to the “law’s capacity to create a universe of normative meaning that can escape the providence of formal law making”. She argues that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international covenants and treaties have “enabled” “actors such as women, linguistic, ethnic, political, sexual and religious minorities to enter the public sphere”, “to develop new vocabularies of public claim making”, and “anticipate new forms of justice in cascade and democratic iterations”. Cosmopolitan ideals have had a generative effect on creating the conditions for these other norms in a model of social justice that is not top-down.

The second is democratic iterations which refers to the “processes of argument, deliberation and exchanges in which universalist rights claims are contextualized, invoked and revoked, posited and revised in the legal, political, public sphere and civil society”. She argues that democratic iterations are a “normative concept with empirical import”. As a normative concept, it explains and “enables us to judge macro-processes of contentious discourses according to normative criteria which ultimately derive their justification from the program of communicative ethics”.

For Professor Benhabib, because “juris generativity and democratic iteration can become historically effective categories only when and if they are embodied of political culture and institution of existing societies” they also generate their own contradictions. Indeed, a ride range of issues in the European context challenge cosmopolitan ideals when we consider the increasing economic insecurity and the process of political alienation to the scandalization of minorities in the media that divert discourse and define otherness not from political transformation but scandal. “Cosmopolitanism of juris generativity and democratic iterations is the cosmopolitanism of identity and difference because the cosmopolitanism that acknowledges the other within us not as a treat but as a source of enrichment”.


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