Commercium: Critical Theory from a Cosmopolitan Point of View. London: Rowman & Littlefield International, to page

Published Papers

This essay explores the problem of legitimation crises in deliberative systems. For some time now, theorists of deliberative democracy have started to embrace a “systemic approach.” But if deliberative democracy is to be understood in the context of a system of multiple moving parts, then we must confront the possibility that that system’s dynamics may admit of breakdowns, contradictions, and tendencies toward crisis. Yet such crisis potentials remain largely unexplored in deliberative theory. The present article works toward rectifying this lacuna, using the 2016 Brexit and Trump votes as examples of a particular kind of “legitimation crisis” that results in a sequence of failures in the deliberative system. Drawing on recent work of Rainer Forst, I identify this particular kind of legitimation crisis as a “justification crisis.”

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After a recent spate of terrorist attacks in European and American cities, liberal democracies are reintroducing emergency securitarian measures (ESMs) that curtail rights and/or expand police powers. Political theorists who study ESMs are familiar with how such measures become instruments of discrimination and abuse, but the fundamental conflict ESMs pose for not just civil liberty but also democratic equality still remains insufficiently explored. Such phenomena are usually explained as a function of public panic or fearmongering in times of crisis, but I show that the tension between security and equality is in fact much deeper and more general. It follows a different logic than the more familiar tension between security and liberty, and it concerns not just the rule of law in protecting liberty but also the role of law in integrating new or previously subjected groups into a democratic community. As liberal democratic societies become increasingly diverse and multicultural in the present era of mass immigration and global interconnectedness, this tension between security and equality is likely to become more pronounced.

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The concept of a “legitimation crisis” is most closely associated with Jürgen Habermas, and recently his 1970s book on crisis tendencies in postwar capitalism has provided a common reference point for discussion of various forms of political turmoil that have ensued in Europe and the U.S. since the 2008 financial crisis. This chapter explores the meaning of crisis and crisis consciousness under the financialized capitalism of the 21st century, showing how it might differ from the account given by Habermas. I argue a that what sets the current legitimation crisis apart—and what paves the way for a possible descent into illiberalism—stems from the way financialized capitalism is bound to secure legitimacy by hollowing out the political realm. In the process, it deprives citizens of the capacity to discursively come to terms with the consequences of major crisis, leaving them disempowered, alienated, and vulnerable to exploitation by charismatic leaders with illiberal agendas.

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This article explores the bases of Kant’s cosmopolitanism in his more systematic writings on freedom, judgment, and community. My argument is that, if we peer beneath his more explicitly normative prescriptions for achieving “perpetual peace,” we find the tools not just of a cosmopolitan vision but what we might call a “cosmopolitical method.” While many assume Kant’s political thought descends directly from his moral philosophy, a look back at relevant passages in the first Critique reveals an alternative reading that points toward his theory of reflective judgment, which combines practical freedom with judgments based on theoretical concepts. Of particular importance is Kant’s conception of community as commercium, through which Kant discerns all matters of right to concern the way free actors are constrained to share the earth in common. These considerations allow for a broader way of thinking about Kantian cosmopolitanism, one that is responsive to the reflective judgment of world citizens as they encounter new challenges.

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Recent years have witnessed an explosion of debate about what democratic theory has to say about the boundaries of democratic peoples. Yet the debate over the “democratic boundary problem” has been hindered by the way contributors work with different understandings of democracy, of democratic legitimacy, and what it means to participate in a demos. My argument is that these conceptual issues can be clarified if we recognize that the “demos” constitutive of democracy is essentially dual in character: it must be defined from a third-person, observer’s perspective from which it can be represented as a whole entity; but it must also be seen as arising out of an association of numerous and ongoing second-person relationships that participants negotiate among each other. Both perspectives are essential to conceptualizing the demos, but their relation to each other has been obscured by democratic theory’s historical reliance on the imaginary of the sovereign state. Drawing on literature from deliberative democratic theory, this article reconstructs the concept of the demos in a way that better distinguishes the logic of democracy from the logic of the state, allowing us to think more clearly about how demotic boundaries may be subjected to standards of democratic legitimation.

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“Crisis” is a key concept in our political lexicon. Since the beginning of the modern age, it has arguably been, as much as anything, the experience of crisis that has calibrated the aims of both politics and political theory. But as central as crisis experiences have been for the shaping of our political imaginary, the concept itself has proven difficult to incorporate into the political theory enterprise. In this article, I argue that we can think politically about crisis by taking up a “pragmatist” perspective that focuses on how we deploy crisis as a conceptual tool for guiding judgments and coordinating actions. I argue that crisis is a fundamentally reflexiveconcept that bridges our traditional distinctions between objective phenomena and normative experience, and whose very usage implies the active participation of those involved in it. Only by examining these crucial aspects of the crisis concept can we begin to grasp its normative political content, as well as how it may be deployed in the service of political action and social change.

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Most contemporary attempts to draw inspiration from Kant’s cosmopolitan project focus exclusively on the prescriptive recommendations he makes in his article, “On Perpetual Peace.” In this essay, I argue that there is more to his cosmopolitan point of view than his normative agenda. Kant has a unique and interesting way of problematizing the way individuals and peoples relate to one another on the stage of world history, based on a notion that human beings who share the earth in common “originally” constitute a “commercium” of thoroughgoing interaction. By unpacking this concept of “commercium,” we can uncover in Kant a more critical perspective on world history that sets up the cosmopolitan as a specific kind of historical-political challenge. I will show that we can distinguish this level of problematization from the prescriptive level at which Kant formulates his familiar recommendations in “Perpetual Peace.” I will further show how his particular way of framing the cosmopolitan problematic can be expanded and expatiated upon to develop a more critical, reflexive, and open-ended conception of cosmopolitan thinking.

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Edited Book

Nancy Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi, Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2018.external link

Additional Writings

The Brexit Vote and Trump’s Election Were Decided Democratically. So Why Don’t They Feel that Way?,” The LSE’s Brexit Blog, 6 November (2018).external link

“The Diversity and Unity of Critical Theory in Prague,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 43, no. 3 (2017).external link

“Emergency Politics Are the Wrong Path for Today’s Europe,”openDemocracy, 8 February (2016).external link