New Book — Commercium: Critical Theory from a Cosmopolitan Point of View

by Brian Milstein

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a wealth of discussion and controversy about the idea of a “postnational” or “cosmopolitan” politics. Yet while we have seen many normative theories of cosmopolitanism (David Held, Thomas Pogge) and some cosmopolitan-oriented theories of globalization (Ulrich Beck, Gerard Delanty), there has been little attempt to grapple systematically with fundamental questions of structure and action from a cosmopolitan perspective.

This book departs from previous theoretical treatments of contemporary world politics in that, instead of adopting the conventional image of essentially bounded nation-states that are just recently becoming interdependent with one another, it takes societies to be already essentially interconnected and analyzes their differentiation into a system of sovereign nation-states. Drawing from the cosmopolitan writings of Immanuel Kant and the critical theory of Jürgen Habermas, 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 with one another. It marshals a broad range of literature from philosophy, sociology, and international relations to show how the modern system of sovereign states destructively impedes, constrains, and distorts these relations of global interaction, producing contradictions and legitimation problems in present-day world society.

Additionally, the book makes a number of specific contributions to existing scholarship, beginning with 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 earlier 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.

ISBN: 978-1783482849

Published October 2015 by Rowman & Littlefield International (30% off with the code RLI072); available in paperback from Amazon (USA, Canada, UK, Germany)

Table of Contents

Preface by Nancy Fraser

Introduction: Idea for a Critical Theory Conceived with a Cosmopolitan Intention

Part I: Habermas’s Critical Theory of Society
1. The Theory of Communicative Action
2. The Postnational Constellation

Part II: Lifeworld and Commercium
3. Kant, Commercium and the Cosmopolitan Problematic
4. The ‘Boundaries’ of the Lifeworld
5. Commercium Beyond Kant

Part III: The Demospathic State and the International System
6. Systematic Approaches to International Relations
7. Between Functionalism and Path-Dependence
8. The Reifying Effects of Reciprocal Force

Part IV: The Tasks of a Critical Theory Conceived with a Cosmopolitan Intention
9. Critique and Crisis in World Society


“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

“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

“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

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About Brian Milstein

Brian Milstein is a postdoctoral research fellow at Goethe University Frankfurt. He works in contemporary critical social theory, democratic theory, world politics, the European nation-state, and, most recently, theories of crisis and crisis-consciousness. He completed his Ph.D. in 2011 at the New School for Social Research, where he received the Hannah Arendt Award in Politics for his dissertation work. He previously held fellowships at the Freie Universität Berlin and the Collège d’études mondiales (FMSH) in Paris and has published articles in the European Journal of Philosophy and the European Journal of Political Theory.
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