habermas_the-postnational-constellation.jpgGranted that there is a global economy, global culture, global law, global civil society, even global festivals, why are global institutions both so promising and so weak? I want to turn to Jürgen Habermas, Europe’s leading social philosopher, for help, looking particularly at his remarkable essay of 1998, “The Postnational Constellation and the Future of Democracy.” Habermas organizes his discussion around the tension between two central facts in our present situation: 1) The nation state is the largest form of society that has been able to create a sense of common membership powerful enough to convince a majority of its citizens that they have a responsibility for all, including the least advantaged, thus giving rise to significant redistribution in what we have come to call the welfare state; and 2) the rise of the global neoliberal market ideology and practice has everywhere threatened the capacity of nation states to carry out the responsibilities inherent in the notion of common membership.

What Habermas is describing is a double disparity between economics and politics: economics is seen as the realm of the natural, not the social, whereas politics is the sphere of intentional social choice. But when nations are the sole locations of effective politics and the economy has become global, then the disparity in power between the global economy and even the strongest state means that it is the economy that will in the end determine outcomes. In this situation Habermas asks whether “we can have a politics that can catch up with global markets” in order to avert the “natural” disaster that an uninhibited market economy seems to entail. That idea is opposed by those who view the economy not as a human creation but as a force of nature, as something that can only be accommodated, never controlled, ideas that make global market culture into a god that can only be worshiped. Habermas sees this as an enormous challenge to citizens of all countries to form a global civil society: “Only the transformed consciousness of citizens, as it imposes itself in areas of domestic policy, can pressure global actors to change their own self-understanding sufficiently to begin to see themselves as members of an international community who are compelled to cooperate with one another, and hence to take one another’s interests into account.” What we need, he argues, is “an obligatory cosmopolitan solidarity.” He stresses the need for a “world domestic policy,” because we are now living in a world, not in nation states alone, and the world market requires such a policy.

The most fundamental question that Habermas is raising is whether a global civil society and some forms of global governance are possible, a civil society and governance that would not replace nation states but would place some limits on their autonomy, as the global economy already does. And here there is a question of what kind of people we are. Could we as Americans accept the notion of common global membership such that we would be willing to give up something of ours for the sake of Somalians or Vietnamese? It is at this point that I think we have to ask what are the cultural resources for thinking of global citizenship that would go along with global economics and moderate its excesses? Is abstract constitutional patriotism enough? It is here that we have to consider philosophical and religious resources for thinking about membership in global civil society, membership that would entail at least short-term sacrifice, though as we look at global warming and the growing numbers of failed states, the Tocquevillian idea of self-interest rightly understood is not to be ignored.

Since we actually have since the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its subsequent elaborations something that can be called a global ethic, sometimes referred to as a human rights regime, we can ask how much help we can derive from this consensus, one that is not simply an ideal but that has significant legal weight, though by far not enforceable everywhere, not even in the original home of legal human rights, the USA. And we can ask whether the questions raised by non-Western and non-Christian thinkers about the adequacy of an exclusive emphasis on human rights can be answered, as well as the question whether an exclusive focus on human rights may not be part of our problem, however much in the end it must surely be part of a solution.

To the extent that human rights as we understand them have significant Christian historical roots (something many supporters of human rights may not be aware of or care to be aware of), it is also worth remembering that Christianity is now a global phenomenon. Webb Keane in his powerful book Christian Moderns has pointed out that at the beginning of the twenty-first century one-third of the world is now Christian and that one-third of those Christians live in former colonies. He further points out that many of the leaders of non-Western countries (often formerly leaders of independence movements) were educated in missionary schools even though they were not converts. One could add that reform movements in Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam have been to more than a small degree a response to Christian, especially Protestant, examples. So if there is a relation between Christianity, modernity, and human rights, it has for some time been global and can no longer be dismissed as Western.

But we must remember that the market, the individual as autonomous agent who is free to choose, the consumer, are also global, and that there is a relation between the global market culture that Harvey Cox warned us was taking on religious functions and the very tradition that named Mammon as the great alternative to God. We cannot get out of the conundrum by denouncing “European Universalism” as simply an ideological cover for the exercise of power over non-European peoples, as Immanuel Wallerstein comes close to doing. European universalism has so often provided the ideological tools for resistance to European oppression that, again, we can no longer think of it in simple geographical terms. Even so, those who suggest that non-Western traditions have resources that would help ameliorate the radical individualism of the current human rights regime are not to be dismissed out of hand, except, I would argue, where they want to use such non-Western traditions, for example Confucianism, as a cover for undemocratic practices and violations of human rights.

Let me turn back to the way that Habermas has posed the problem. How can we create a global civil society that will have the same capacity of citizens to identify with the plight of fellow citizens as already exists in nation states, and to his example of the immediate task of creating such a civil society that would include the whole European Union. While accepting Habermas’s framework, let me offer a couple of caveats: 1) Under the regime of the neoliberal market it is not always easy to get even the citizens of the same nation to identify with all other citizens (in the United States it has never been easy). 2) The situation in which such identification has been most effective has usually been war: we are all in this together because we have a mortal enemy that we must defeat. If we can’t assume the ability to identify with all fellow members of civil society even in advanced democracies and the conditions that have made that possible have usually involved war, we can see that the task of generalizing such identification beyond the nation state will never be easy.

It is for these reasons that I wonder if Habermas’s abstract constitutional patriotism will ever be enough. It is one thing to believe in abstract principles. It is another to mobilize the motivation to put those principles into institutional practice. Hans Joas has recently pointed out, following the pioneering work of Georg Jellinek, that, though ideas about human rights go way back in Western history, and include Classical, Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist thinking, it was only when the American sectarian Protestants in the eighteenth century, mainly the Baptists and Quakers, were willing to insist on them that they got included in the American constitution. Religious fervor is always problematic because it has so often been used for evil as well as good purposes, but it may be that only such powerful motivation could make human rights genuinely practical. And though Christianity has a big contribution to make, it surely is not alone. Confucians hold on the basis of the Analects of Confucius that “all within the four seas are brothers.” Buddhists identify not only with all human beings but with all beings in the universe, natural as well as human—all have the Buddha nature. For millennia these deep commitments have been held but never effectively institutionalized. Can the world’s religions now mobilize their commitments so that they can at last have genuine institutional force?

[This is the third of three posts drawing on material from a paper presented at From Silver to Gold: The Next Twenty-Five Years of Law and Religion, a conference at Emory University. A version of the full paper will be published in a forthcoming conference volume.—ed.]