Fearing Kantian Globalization, Democracy, and Migration

Globalization, Democracy, and Migration are themes which continually ignite both scholarly and non-scholarly debate.  Not so surprisingly, none of this is new. In his own inimitable way, the German Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, touched upon all these current hot topics and more.

Kant’s political writings have only relatively recently been appreciated by the likes of political philosophers in the Anglo speaking world, a fact that was given a significant boost by the works of no one less than John Rawls especially in his A Theory of Justice and The Law of  Peoples.

Putting the recent reception of Kant’s work aside, we now focus our attention as to how Kant’s writings can be construed to have said something relevant about modern trends in Globalization.

Kant famously described man as “crooked timber” (“Aus so krummen Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden.”) and readily admitted that the prospects of his “perfectibility” were made that much more difficult by his inherent “crookedness”.  Similar in some respects to Rousseau, Kant believes that man’s imperfect nature can nevertheless be improved through institutions such as republican (democratic) government, international laws, and treaties.

The psychological-ethical engine of man’s possible social and political improvement lies in what Kant calls his “unsocial-sociability” (ungesellige Geseligkeit). Here, mankind is seen as living out a fundamental tension between his desire of living in community with others and at the same time his strong desire to be left alone. This tension leads to, among other things, a strong competitive rivalry for prestige and material goods between individuals. However, this cardinal and at times necessarily violent struggle leads to the dialectical (in terms of “unsocial-sociability”) unfolding of man’s telos (End Goal).

Mankind’s telos, according to Kant, cannot be realized in one single individual but in the species as a whole. So it is that man’s “species-being” (Gattungswesen) develops over time through this core conflict in man’s being. This concept is clearly echoed in Marx within his own teleology.

What is the substance of Mankind’s telos for Kant? Arguably, it is the achievement of reason and reasonableness both within the individual himself alongside other individuals in a rationally organized community/state, and, finally, between different foreign communities/states.

Mankind is to have liberated itself through a long historical period of trial and error and much sorrow and achieved an equilibrium of wisdom as an endstate for both the microcosm and macrocosm of human affairs.

Man is not to have his reason dictated by authorities outside of himself whether ultimately based on religious doctrine, customs and traditions, and/or political authority.  Human reason is to be unfettered to its utmost and be put to use to serve man as man which in the end means an increase in the general welfare and common good of all humanity.  Ultimately, world peace and “gentle commerce” is to reign.

Crucial to this final outcome is humanity’s construction of republican states that are able to broadly organize themselves on a global basis, preferably led by a large and powerful republican “leading power”.  States that are rationally constructed to serve the rational goals of the majority (which presumably include life, liberty, and the pursuit of property) see no intrinsic, rational benefit to destroy these common goods which are equally pursued by the other rationally organized states.  The logic here is simple: man does not knowingly will his own destruction and, thus, if possible will resort to arbitration, treaty making, and other peaceful methods of conflict resolution if he is able to erect a national/international structure or structures that will permit him to do so.

As has been frequently noted, most recently by Steven Pinker, Kant was herewith the first to hit upon the notion that “democracies do not fight each other” even if he was not the first to mine Thomas Friedman’s corollary of the “Golden Arches” doctrine (that no two countries with McDonalds franchises have gone to war).  Yet, the hypothesis that “gentle commerce” brings with it a softening of international mores and a binding of political interests was a common theme of the seventeenth century (See Jacques Savary’s The Perfect Merchant). However, the correctness of this opinion has been often challenged by those who have pointed out the high level of trade and commerce in the late nineteenth century which, of course, did precious little to stave off the calamity of the First World War.

Clearly, then, Kant has situated a kind of “Kantian Globalism” within the psychological tensions of man himself. Man struggles to satisfy his inner self which is disinclined to combine with others but nevertheless is rationally cognizant of the fact that without the “others” his ultimate ground for being, telos, cannot be fully satisfied.  His task is to find the right, rational combination or organization between himself and others both on a local as well as a global level. The key is the global spread of republicanism (democracy in our modern conception) which allows for the effective and stable construction of global guarantees for security and prosperity.

The Kantian presupposition or even “prophecy” of an eventual “perpetual peace” ties in nicely with another idea of his that of the “universal right of hospitality”.  Here Kant’s cosmopolitan conception of right is based on the idea that human beings all have at least a weak right to inhabiting every part of the globe and, as such, should be offered the opportunity of help or “non-harm” while temporarily sojourning in other lands.

This Kantian germ of universal cosmopolitanism in a universal right of hospitality can be worked in with his vision of the spread of republicanism, and the setting up of a “league of nations” for us to glimpse the emergence of a kind of global feedback loop.

The more republicanism and with it cosmopolitan ideas and rights spread throughout the globe, the more potentially are the doors opened for the greater migration of individuals and peoples.  This, of course, is a hotly contested phenomenon that is by no means modern or new.  The right of individuals and peoples to move to any place they choose is, in principle, a rational right to a better life.  In principle, it can only be restricted by the equally rational claims of maintaining the economic, political, and cultural stability of the desired target country. And thus, not surprisingly, in between these two rational claims unfold the oftentimes heated political debates in modern industrialized countries (which may or may not be always fully democratic, think Singapore or Malaysia here).

Thus, perhaps unknowingly, Kant had opened the door to the idea that democratization may lead (although not necessarily) to greater levels of global integration based on ever widening definitions of cosmopolitanism and its concomitant rights of hospitality.  If every place on earth becomes rationally organized into republican spaces, what is to prevent a rational individual who aims equally with these communities at peace to situating him or herself within a particular chosen space?  Or is the future of the global movement of peoples something else?

For instance, it is conceivable that if the world becomes politically and economically homogenized, as Fukuyama once famously suggested, it would then, perhaps, lessen the incentive for greater flows of peoples between borders. As Steven Pinker might put it, the world through a process of greater democratization will have fostered a stage of globalization that would necessarily decrease the need for economic/political migration (“Peak Migration”) and would eventually leave a less urgent reason for departing one’s land of origin, perhaps even just an aesthetic one (the preference for a particular landscape or culture, for example).

Thus, one could say that the speed and spread of democratization fuels globalization and therefore it is not surprising that the fear of globalization expresses itself, as often as not, in anti-democratic, illiberal political movements. But now to dabble here in the dangerous arts of prophecy: this will be a temporary political reaction as long as the democratization process will continue to spread to those lands (such as sub-Saharan Africa) where it is needed most. And according to Steven Pinker’s rather Kantian bestseller Enlightenment Now historical odds/data trends are that it will.

In this way, we can say that the modern Western democracies are, at the moment, showing themselves true to Kantian anthropology. They wish to remain alone, in a world that wants to join them.  Here we can see that Globalization, in a sense, is also the greater release of the principle of individual desire and the broadening of the possibilities of the individual imagination. A closer world means that I can come closer to you, not just as a foreigner, but as a potential co-national, a friend, a lover.  Globalization means that the bounds of potential intimacy with the other increase dramatically.  And it is this fact that makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

The forces of reaction in the West cannot ultimately win unless they are willing to reject the process of democratization. True Globalization is predicated on it.  Without it, Globalization will cease to exist or will become dangerously unstable as it was in the nineteenth century where exuberant commerce was mistakenly considered sufficient for world peace. As Norman Angell once wrote, this was indeed a “great illusion” but ironically not as Angell meant it.

In conclusion, we might offer the not altogether original insight that it is democratization and not the spread of “gentle commerce” that offers the more secure form of peaceful globalization and along with it the general resolution of the movement of peoples with either greater cosmopolitan rights or the gradual, necessary dissolution of their reasons for their moving in the first place. 

Dan Corjescu teaches Political Philosophy and Globalization at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, Germany. Read other articles by Dan.