Published date10 December 2003
Date10 December 2003
AuthorRobert Fine,,Daniel Chernilo,Robert Fine
Robert Fine and Daniel Chernilo
Our point of departure is a reservation concerning the validity of cosmopoli-
tan ideas in response to 9/11. Cosmopolitanism in the social and political
sciences plays an important role in the reconstructionof conceptual tools, the
diagnosis of the current epoch and the creation of new normative standards.
Its key motif, however, that of epochal change from a nationally-based to a
cosmopolitan world order, is prematurely dismissive of traditional categories
and assimilative of a normative vision. The separation of the present from
the past is as overstated as is its conflation with the future.
A common trope of contemporary social theory is to construe the present as an era
of radical epochal change. There are various ways in which this sense of change
is formulated – not least as a transition from the modern to the postmodern or
from one form of modernity to another – but in all such formulations what makes
change radical and epochal is the fact that a specific event or social process can
be singled out as the definitive marker of historical transition. At these critical
Studies in Law, Politics, and Society
Studies in Law, Politics, and Society,Volume 31, 25–44
Copyright © 2004 by Elsevier Ltd.
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 1059-4337/doi:10.1016/S1059-4337(03)31002-6
moments the very categories of understanding and standards of judgement of one
epoch are questioned as inappropriate in relation to the other. There is perhaps
nothing new in this proclivity to see the new. J¨
urgen Habermas (1969), for one,
has long argued that a sense of crisis is part and parcel of any epochal diagnosis of
modernity and that the “classic” texts of social and political thought all expressed
this sense of crisis and identified the problems associated with making sense of
the newly transformed world. The mark of classical social theory was always to
locate the idea of “crisis” within a framework of continuity and to comprehend it
through universal categories of class, nation, rationality, relations of production,
the division of labour and so forth. Today, by contrast, the distinguishing mark of
social theory is the historicisation of concepts and the claim that our own epoch
can only be understood through the development of new categories beyond the
classical frameworks of the social and political sciences. The idea that something
radically new is happening in the world now goes hand in glove with the idea
that something radically new is required in social and political thought. The very
eventfulness of such events seemed to lie in their originality and resistance to all
parallels with earlier social forms.
Today the event known to the world as 9/11 is commonly presented by social
scientists as a marker of a significant rupture between past and future, an indicator
of major social transformation and a call for major conceptual transformation. The
sociologist, Ulrich Beck, provides us with a compelling example of this way of
thinking. He argues that 9/11 “stands for the complete collapse of language,” that
we do not have the right concepts to understand it, and that we need to construct
new ones. He sees 9/11 as a sign of a new global terrorism and associates it with
other global threats – including ecological disasters and financial crises – as the
expression of the central condition of our times, that of a “global community of
fate” to which we all necessarily belong. Beck argues that this global community of
fate reveals the inappropriateness or even bankruptcy of old national perspectives
and he himself is on this basis cautiously optimistic about the direction of change:
“Since September 11,”he writes, “governments have rediscovered the possibilities
and power of international cooperation” (Beck, 2002, p. 48). He presents the
current age as confronted by two existential choices: first, between nationalism
and multilateralism and then between a regressive multilateralism based on
surveillance states and a progressive multilateralism based on cosmopolitan
states. If a multilateralism based on surveillance sacrifices rights, law, democracy
and hospitality to the security of a Western citadel, a multilateralism based on
cosmopolitan principles also seeks security but by re-affirming human rights,
international law, democracyand hospitality at the transnational level. In a “world
risk society,” Beck argues, we need a “new big idea” to survive and civilise the
twenty-first century. For Beck, this new big idea is that of the cosmopolitan state.

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