Mapping Democracy

    Cosmopolitanism and Democracy
    From Kant to Habermas

    Cosmopolitanism acknowledges that humans are moral persons who have a right to be protected under the law because of the rights they enjoy by virtue of the fact of their humanity.

    Jürgen Habermas's 80th birthday in 2009 was an anniversary for me personally as well. It was exactly 30 years ago that I had arrived in Germany, in the autumn of 1979, as a fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation to study with Habermas at the Max Planck Institute in Starnberg.

    From the beginning, I considered Jürgen Habermas to be therelevant contemporary figure in the tradition of cosmopolitanism. For me, 'cosmopolitanism' means acknowledging that humans are moral persons who have a right to be protected under the law because of the rights they enjoy, not justas citizens of a state or members of a nation, but by virtue of the fact that they are humans. Cosmopolitanism also suggests that national borders in the twenty-first century are becoming increasingly porous and that justice within borders and justice beyond borders are interconnected, even if conflicts can and do arise between the two. From the outset, this human rights-related cosmopolitan position gave rise in Jürgen Habermas’s work to concerns with the the 'inclusion of the other', regardless of national origins.

    When seen in this light, however, cosmopolitanism seems hardly compatible with democracy. Democracy means constituting oneself as a demos, as a political community with clear rules that regulate relationships between the interior and the exterior. In a democracy, the constitution gains its legitimacy from the united and collective will of the people. As Article 20 of the German Constitution, the Basic Law, states: 'All state authority is derived from the people'. A democratic people accepts the rule of  law because it considers itself both author and addressee of the law. This means that the citizen of a democracy is not a citizen of the world, but a citizen of a clearly defined political community, regardless of whether that community is a unitary state or a federal state, the 'European Union' or a 'confederation of states'.

    How is this compatible with the cosmopolitan vision of a justice that does not stop at national borders? Or with the vision of porous borders over which the representatives of a people have little control? Is not the 'right to have rights', as Hannah Arendt put it, always the right of humans to be a member of an organised political community? Would it not be more correct to speak of 'cosmopolitanism or democracy' rather than 'cosmopolitanism and democracy'? And what is the link between cosmopolitan standards and hopes on the one hand and democratic constitutionalism on the other?

    I would like to start with a brief historical overview of cosmopolitanism in the history of political thought before returning to the problem of the borders of the demos around which the conflicts between cosmopolitanism and democracy are most keenly felt.

    Cosmopolitanism: a brief historical overview

    The word 'cosmopolitanism' is composed of the Greek words kosmos (the universe) and polites (the citizen). There are clear conflicts between these two terms. Montaigne writes: “Socrates was asked where he was from. He replied not ‘Athens’ but ‘the world’. He, whose imagination was fuller and more extensive than that of others, embraced the universe as his city, and distributed his knowledge, his company and his affections to all mankind, unlike us, who look only at what is underfoot.” Whether or not Socrates did utter these words is disputed. Nevertheless, the story is also repeated by Cicero in his Tusculan Disputations, by Epictetus in his Discourses, and by Plutarch in On Exile, in which he praises Socrates for the fact that “he was no Athenian or Greek, but a ‘Cosmian’”.

    What does it mean to be a 'Cosmian'? And how can a 'Cosmian' be a democrat, when democracy for the Greeks could only be achieved in the city-state? Aristotle says that in order to survive outside the boundaries of the city-state, one has to be either a beast or a god. Since human beings, however, are neither the one nor the other, and because the kosmos is not the polis, the cosmopolite is not really a citizen, but a different kind of being. Cynics like Diogenes Laertius agreed with this conclusion and claimed that they were not at home in any city, but were equally indifferent to all of them. The cosmopolite is a nomad without a home; he lives in harmony with nature and the universe, but not with the city-state, from whose foolishness he distances himself. Some of the negative connotations of the term, with which we are familiar from later history – such as the criticism of 'rootless cosmopolitanism' – crop up already at this early stage.

    This negative version of cosmopolitanism as nomadism without belonging to a city-state contrasts with the more exalted Stoic theory according to which humans not only share nomoi – i.e. the laws of their respective cities – but also logos, that is the capacity to reason. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote: “If we have intelligence in common, so we have reason (logos)…. If so, then the law is also common to us and, if so, we are citizens. If so we share a common government. And if so, the universe is, as it were, a city.” In the centuries that followed, the Stoic theory of an order that transcends the differences among the laws of various city-states and is instead rooted in the rationally comprehensible order of nature, merges with the Christian doctrine of the universal equality of all in the eyes of God. The Stoic doctrine of natural law inspires the Christian ideal of the City of God, as opposed to the earthly City of Man, and eventually finds its way into the natural law theories of modern political thought as put forward by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant.

    These negative and positive valences that are associated with the word 'kosmopolites' and which we initially encounter in Greek and Roman thought, stay with us through the centuries: a cosmopolitan is a person who distances himself/herself either in thought or in practice from the customs or laws of her city and who judges them from the standpoint of a higher order that is considered to be identical to reason. Immanuel Kant is the thinker who ultimately resurrects this Stoic interpretation of cosmopolitanism and gives the term a new slant in order to make it compatible with the requirements of a modern state based upon the rule of law. Kant shows us that cosmopolitanism and democracy, embedded in a republican constitution, are not incompatible and may in fact require each other.

    From cosmopolitanism to world citizenship: Immanuel Kant

    Kant's Perpetual Peace, which was written in 1795 on the occasion of the signing of the Treaty of Basel between Prussia and revolutionary France, has attracted increasing interest in recent years. What makes this essay particularly interesting, in view of conditions of political globalization is the visionary depth of Kant’s project for ‘perpetual peace’ among peoples that Kant formulated in three 'definitive articles'. These definitive articles are as follows. Firstly, “the civil constitution of each state shall be republican.” Secondly, “the law of nations shall be founded on a federation of free states.” Thirdly, “the Law of Nations shall be limited to the conditions of Universal Hospitality.” Kant explicitly uses the term 'cosmopolitan right' in his 'third definitive article on perpetual peace.' Being aware of the oddity of the term 'hospitality' in this context, Kant takes care to point out that he is speaking “it is not a question of philanthropy, but of right.” In other words, hospitality is not be understood as a social virtue, as the kindness and generosity one may show toward  strangers who come to one’s landor who become dependent upon one’ act of kindness  through circumstances of nature and history. Hospitality is a 'right' that belongs to all humans insofar as they are considered potential citizens of a world-republic. Nevertheless, the 'right' to hospitality is an odd thing because it does not regulate relations among those subject to the same jurisdiction, but rather it regulates the interaction between humans who belong to different state structures and meet each other at the boundaries of these states.

    According to Kant, “Hospitality (Wirtbarkeit) 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 (Gastrecht) that one may demand. A special beneficent agreement (ein… wohltaetiger Vertrag) would be needed in order to give an outsider a right to become a fellow inhabitant (Hausgenossen) for a certain length of time. It is only a right of temporary sojourn (ein Besuchsrecht), a right to associate, which all men have. They have it by virtue of their common possession (das Recht des gemeinschaftlichen Besitzes) of the surface of the earth, where, as a globe, they cannot infinitely disperse and hence must finally tolerate the presence of each other.”

    Kant differentiates between a permanent right of residence, which he calls Gastrecht and a temporary right of residence, the “right of visitation,” Besuchsrecht. The right to be treated a permanent resident can be granted by means of a voluntary agreement, by a “benificient agreement” (ein wohltatiger Vertrag) that would have to be specially concluded, because it goes beyond that which one owes to the other morally and what he is entitled to legally.

    Kant's claim that people in need cannot be denied entry if this would cause their 'destruction' was included in the Geneva Convention in 1951 in the form of the principle of non-return (non-refoulement). This principle obliges signatory states not to force refugees and asylum-seekers to return to their countries of origin if, by doing so, they are putting the lives and freedom of these refugees and asylum-seekers at risk. Naturally, sovereign states can water down this principle by defining the terms 'life and freedom' as they see fit or get around it altogether by handing over refugees and asylum seekers to so-called safe third countries. Kant foresaw these attempts to balance moral obligations between duties  towards those seeking help and one's own interests. The normative order of rank of these two claims – the moral obligation to third parties and one's own legitimate interest – is, except in the obvious threats to the life and limb of refugees who would be turned away, quite vague; in all other cases, the obligation to ensure the freedom and well-being of the guest allows for a narow interpretation on the part of the sovereign, who need not consider it an unconditional duty.

    From public law to international law to cosmopolitan law

    Kant left us an ambivalent legacy. He wanted to justify the commercial and maritime spread of capitalism in his time insofar as it brought together the members of the human race into closer contact, without legitimising European imperialism at the same time. In his comments on Europe's attempts to invade Japan and China, Kant made it clear that the cosmopolitan right of visitation allows for peaceful, temporary residence, but not for the plundering, exploiting, conquest, and violent suppression of those in whose country one takes up residence. In the eighteenth century, the differentiation between the 'right to be treated as a guest' and the 'right of visitation' in the context of the developments in European maritime imperialism was progressive; it is not so today. The foreigners' claim to civil rights must be guaranteed by the constitution itself and can no longer be seen as a 'contract of beneficience'. Naturally, the right to citizenship itself depends on the fulfilment of certain conditions that are defined in more or less detail by each democratic sovereign state. The 'right to naturalisation' is regarded as a human right  guaranteed in Article 15 Paragraphs 1-2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In accordance with this article, 'Everyone has the right to a nationality' and 'No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.'

    We have Kant to thank for the differentiation between public law, which regulates legal relationships between persons within a state, international law (ius gentium), which deals with the legal relationships between states, and cosmopolitan law (ius cosmopoliticum), which codifies the legal relationships between people that are not citizens of certain human communities, but members of a global civil society. By declaring that it is not just states and heads of states who are relevant players at the international level, but also citizens and their different varieties of community, Kant gives new meaning to the term 'cosmopolitan', namely the meaning of ‘the citizen of the world.’ The notion of world citizenship contains a utopian expectation of world peace, which should be achieved by increasing communication between people, communication that also includes 'le doux commerce'. The intensification of contact between people means that “a transgression of rights in one place in the world is felt everywhere.” First and foremost, world citizenship means a new global legal order within which humans enjoy certain rights simply by virtue of their humanity. (However, despite fundamental agreement with this principle, we should not forget that Kant's liberalism was much less robust than would be acceptable to us. In Kant's republic, women, servants, and apprentices without property, are described as 'auxiliaries to the commonwealth' and their legal status depends on that of the male head of the household).

    From world citizenship to cosmopolitan right: Jürgen Habermas

    It is now widely accepted that since the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, we have entered a phase in the evolution of global civil society that is characterised by the transition from international to cosmopolitan standards of justice. While norms of international law arise either out of what is considered customary international law or through treaty obligations that are entered into by states and their representatives, cosmopolitan norms relate to individuals who are considered moral and legal persons in a global civil society. Even if cosmopolitan norms also originate through treaty-like obligations – such as the Charter of the United Nations and the various human rights conventions – what makes them noteworthy is that they bind states and their representatives, sometimes even against the will of the signatories who at later points may want to violate the terms of a treaty. This is a characteristic of many of the human rights agreements that have been concluded since the Second World War.

    International public law has transformed international law in a decisive manner. It is perhaps too utopian to consider these changes as a first step towards a 'world constitution', but it is certainly more than just contracts between states that have been concluded. According to these human rights covenants, individuals have rights, not only as a result of their identity as citizens of states, but above all because they are human beings. Although states remain powerful players, the scope of their legitimate and legal decisions is increasingly restricted. We must rethink international law in the light of this global civil society, which is in the throes of growing but is still fragile, and threatened by war, violence, and military intervention. These transformations of law affect how we understand the relationship between cosmopolitanism and democracy in our times. Our question no longer relates to cosmopolitanism and democracy or to cosmopolitanism or democracy, but instead to democracy in the age of legal cosmopolitanism.

    This is where Jürgen Habermas's cosmopolitan arguments come in. In his essay 'The Constitutionalization of International Law and the Legitimacy Problems of a Constitution for a World Society', he argues that today, “any conceptualisation of a legal regulation of world politics must use individuals and states as the two categories of founding subjects of a world constitution as its starting point.” Habermas insists in particular that a judicial order as complex as today’s international order “must not be allowed to lead to a mediatisation of the world of states by the authority of a world republic, which would ignore the fund of accumulated trust in an intra-state sphere and the associated loyalty of citizens towards their respective nations.” Instead we need mediating institutions as well as regional economic, security policy and other transnational organisations that on the one hand promote the cosmopolitan rights of the individual and on the other, strengthen democracy within states themselves.

    Economic cosmopolitanism

    This concept of a democratic cosmopolitanism in the tradition from Kant to Habermas naturally has had numerous critics. Defenders of economic globalisation, such as Thomas L. Friedman (at least with his earlier book The World is Flat) reduce cosmopolitan standards to a minimal version of human rights, i.e. to freedom, equality, and property and declare that these things go hand in hand with the spread of the free market and world trade.

    In this respect, there is a notable closing of ranks among theorists of neo-liberal globalisation and neo-Marxist theorists of the Empire, such as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. As is well-known, Hardt and Negri differentiate between imperialism and Empire in order to capture the new logic of the international system. While the word 'imperialism' relates to a violent, plundering, and exploitative system in which an imperial power imposes its will on another, Empire refers to an anonymous network of rules, regulations, and structures that are in the service of global capitalism. For global capitalism, it is essential that the individual right to exchange goods and services freely on the market is protected and, above all, that treaties are reliably observed (pacta sunt servanda). The Empire is the steadily growing power of capital, attempting to bring a growing number of areas on earth under its control.

    In the first half of the twenty-first century, which is marked by the most comprehensive economic crisis since the 1930s, neo-Marxist criticisms of global capitalism are sure to find new followers. Ironically, however, the sole super-power of the world, the Empire (i.e. the United States), has now lost its grip and has been overtaken by the global market. Under these conditions, we need to completely rethink the rules and regulations governing the global market and also push for adopting cosmopolitan legal standards in the field of economics. Today, cosmopolitanism has to advance many new and overlapping 'global governance' projects. The global economy has quickly become destabilised, for which the deregulation ideologies of the Bush administration and the selfishness and greed of the financial sector are partially responsible, as too are the collapse of social trust and the public supply systems in the United States – well-illustrated  in the United States by the catastrophic failure of  adequate government and public sector reaction to Hurricane Katrina.

    This era of greed and selfishness within capitalist states is part of a global development. The development aid given by large industrial nations to poorer countries is in decline, and in Afghanistan, Central America, Burma/Myanmar, and many parts of Africa, governments are protecting their citizens less and less. 'Failed states' are leaving the field open either to warring ethnic religious clans, maquiladoras, or free trade areas in which citizens’ rights as well as the social and economic rights of workers and farmers are abandoned. Against the backdrop of the desperate plight that the current economic crisis has caused in many developing countries, these rights will probably be further restricted in a devil’s pact concluded in order to attract foreign investment and stimulate economic growth.

    This means not only that stricter regulation of the financial markets and stricter controls are necessary to ensure that growth zones and free trade areas abide by international labour law, human rights and environmental standards, but also that a fundamental rethinking is necessary about what global distributive justice means. In order to do so, we must rearrange the map of the world in our heads in such a way that interdependence among states with respect to the economy and environmental protection are no longer seen as temporary episodes in the history of nations, but as a decisive component of the Modern Age and the history of humanity. In other words, we have to become aware of the phenomenon of global interdependence that Kant, with his restricted knowledge in the eighteenth-century, was already able to recognise as the double-edged sword of Western imperialism.

    The limits of the demos

    The legacy of cosmopolitanism also requires us to rethink the widely discussed problem of “boundaries” in democratic theory, sometimes also referred to as the “problem of the constitution of the demos”. While in the eighteenth century, the West colonised the rest of the world, today 'the rest' of the world once again takes centre stage: migrations follow patterns of predictable displacement between the centre and the periphery. This means that the boundaries of the demos, as they have been defined since ancient times, are no longer a given. Global patterns of migration, which are subject to permanent changes, clearly show that peoples are constituted and reconstituted again and again over the course of history.

    Robert Dahl points out that as strange as it may seem, the decision as to which people can legitimately come together to form 'the people', and are therefore entitled to govern themselves in their own association, is a problem that has been almost entirely ignored by all of the great philosophers who have written about democracy. He concludes that the reason for this is that they assume that a people had already constituted itself. The polis, he points out, is what it is; the nation state is that which history has made out of it. “Athenians are Athenians, Corinthians Corinthians, and Greeks Greeks.”

    There is no democratic procedure to democratically decide who should be part of the demos and who should not, because such a decision already implies a differentiation between those who are entitled to decide and others, who do not belong to the demos, and thus who are not entitled to do so. We face an unavoidable circularity. Although this logical problem of the circular argument concerning the constitution of the demos cannot be avoided, there are solutions that are more just and more intelligent than others. This is why, in our age, treating the guest not as a guest, but as a potential citizen and as member of society is an essential part of the legacy of cosmopolitanism. Or, in the words of Jürgen Habermas, in an age of globalisation the 'inclusion of the other' has become a cosmopolitan obligation that does not stop at national borders.

    This article was first published in Blätter für deutsche und Internationale Politik 6/2009, pp. 65–74, and is reproduced here by kind permission of Seyla Benhabib and the Blätter für deutsche und Internationale Politik.
    Seyla Benhabib
    was born the daughter of a Sephardic family in Istanbul. She studied Philosophy at Brandeis University and Yale, where she wrote her doctoral thesis on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right in 1977. She is the Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University and was a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin in 2009.

    Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2012

    Your opinion concerning this topic? Write to

      Fikrun wa Fann as an e-paper

      Fikrun wa Fann as an E-Paper

      Read Fikrun issue 97 “Mapping Democracy” on your smart phone, BlackBerry or e-reader!
      Go to download...

      Order now

      Application form

      Institutions or people in Islamic countries who are employed in the journalism or culture sectors have the option to obtain a free subscription.
      To the application form ... – Dialogue with the Islamic World

      Politics, culture, social affairs: Information and discussions in German, Arabic and English

      Zenith Online

      Covering the Muslim world with a critical, resourceful, and balanced view