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“Brian Milstein’s book upends all received understandings of cosmopolitanism and all familiar arguments to its merits…. A tour de force of original synthetic reflection and rigorous analytic argumentation, Milstein’s book elaborates a strikingly original view of cosmopolitanism. At the same time, it marks the arrival of a major new voice in political philosophy and in the theory of international relations.” (excerpted from the Preface)

Nancy Fraser, Henry A. and Louise Loeb Professor of Political and Social Science, New School for Social Research

“In his original and important contribution to the debate about cosmopolitanism, Brian Milstein uses Kant’s concept of ‘commercium’ to reconstruct the many ways in which we already live in a globalized world. But one, as Milstein shows with great clarity, in which we have not yet found the legal and political forms for organizing this life in a justifiable way. This book shows the power of a critical theory that combines normative and sociological reflection. A great achievement.”

Rainer Forst, Professor of Political Theory and Philosophy, Goethe University Frankfurt

“Frankfurt critical theorists have had much to say in the last two decades about globalization. Yet Brian Milstein’s creative new book takes many of the debates at hand to new and higher intellectual levels. Offering creative rereadings of Kant and many other important cosmopolitan theorists, Milstein treads where many contemporary critical theorists have feared to tread: the harsh realities of our violence-prone international or interstate political system. This is an important contribution to international political and social theory.”

William E. Scheuerman, Professor of Political Science and West European Studies, Indiana University

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Commercium: Critical Theory from a Cosmopolitan Point of View

Accounts of globalization often tell a story of a world moving closer together—a world of once separate nations and states that are only now becoming more interconnected and interdependent. This is the story that informs many contemporary accounts of cosmopolitanism, but on closer inspection, it conceals a number of crucial assumptions about human agency, interaction, and community. It takes it for granted that living in bounded, self-contained societies is the normal condition of human beings, while events that subvert or alter this condition are extraordinary. It assumes that stasis is the normal condition of society, while change is exceptional.

The aim of this book is to turn these assumptions on their head. Instead of looking at how bounded nation-states are brought together by the forces of globalization, it takes societies to be already essentially interconnected and examines how they become differentiated from each other into a system of bounded nation-states. It takes change, not stasis, to be the natural state of political communities. Flipping the narrative in this way affords us a deeper look into the multiple forms of power, domination, and constraint that function to keep us separated from one another. It shows how our system of sovereign nation-states is a paradoxical and contradictory system, which can only sustain itself over time by repressing the very powers of human interaction and agency that make society possible in the first place.

Over the last few decades, we have seen many normative theories of cosmopolitanism (such as by David Held or Simon Caney), as well as theories of globalization with cosmopolitan overtones (such as by Ulrich Beck or Gerard Delanty), but there has been little attempt to grapple systematically with basic questions of structure and action from a cosmopolitan point of view. Developing novel interpretations of Immanuel Kant’s cosmopolitanism and Jürgen Habermas’s critical theory, this book argues that, before we are members of nations, states, or other bounded communities, we are originally participants in what Kant called a commercium of global interaction who are able to negotiate for ourselves the terms on which we share the earth in common. It marshals a broad range of literature from philosophy, sociology, and international relations to show how the modern system of sovereign states functions to constrain, distort, and “colonize” these relations of commercium, producing an international political order that is inherently crisis-ridden and starved of legitimation.

The book makes a number of specific contributions to existing scholarship. First among these is an alternate reading of Kantian cosmopolitanism. While most engagements with Kant center on his essay “On Perpetual Peace,” it shows that there is another, more critical current in his thought, which allows us to problematize existing relations of community while identifying capacities for would-be world citizens to gain reflexive control over the way they share the earth in common. Moreover, the book defends and demonstrates the continuing relevance of Habermas’s magnum opus, The Theory of Communicative Action, which traces social pathologies and crisis tendencies to deep-seated tensions between “social integration” and “system integration.” Finally, it presents a new narrative about how relations between nations and states have evolved to their current point, the crises we face, and the potentials that lay within human agency to move beyond them. It shows how cosmopolitanism emerges, not as an abstract ideal or intellectual vision, but as a concrete, situated, and motivated form of crisis consciousness that arises in response to contradictions within the state system itself.