Academic journal article Humanitas

Seyla Benhabib, Wendell Berry, and the Question of Migrant and Refugee Rights

Academic journal article Humanitas

Seyla Benhabib, Wendell Berry, and the Question of Migrant and Refugee Rights

Article excerpt

Seyla Benahabib's The Rights of Others seeks to chart a new "cosmopolitan theory of justice" for migrants, immigrants, and refugees by building on the ideas of Kantian cosmopolitan federalism and Habermasian discourse ethics. Her theory of cosmopolitan rights leads, however, to a number of analytically and normatively problematic claims. These include her suggestion that the political values of liberal democracies have a universal validity that transcends Western culture, and her embrace of "free markets" as a corollary to the idea of cosmopolitan rights. In the article that follows I will critically examine these parts of Benahbib's theory. My close reading of The Rights of Others will then lead to a discussion of the ideas of Wendell Berry, who is perhaps the most important contemporary spokesperson for a position best described as ecological or environmental agrarianism. Although Berry has not written directly about questions of international migration and refugee rights, his analysis of the forces at work in the destruction of rural farm communities in the United States offers valuable insights into the forces driving global mass migrations. Berry also offers a compelling alternative normative vision to Benhabib's of the rights of others based on principles of stewardship, ecological sustainability, local self-sufficiency, and neighborliness. It is upon these essentially small-scale agrarian values and practices--not the abstractions of cosmopolitanism or "global thinking"--he argues, that the literal survival of the world depends.

I. Benhabib's Theory of Cosmopolitan Rights

Seyla Benahabib's The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents and Citizens, based on her 2002 Seeley Lectures at the University of Cambridge, seeks to chart a new "cosmopolitan theory of justice" for migrants and refugees by building on principles of Kantian cosmopolitan federalism and Habermasian discourse ethics. According to Benhabib, traditional concepts of political membership grounded in notions of state sovereignty and territorial integrity have come unraveled as a result of processes of globalization. We are confronted by a new situation in which the interests and values of an ever-increasing number of people are interlocked across borders through advances in communication technology and trade liberalization, so that their social and political identities can no longer be conceived (if they ever could be) simply in terms of citizenship within geographically bounded nation-states. Further, Benhabib suggests, states can no longer act with impunity toward their own populations but must increasingly recognize international and cosmopolitan norms (enshrined in documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) against genocide, forced labor, and other crimes against humanity. (1)

These facts lead, however, to an unresolved "constitutive dilemma" for liberal democracies; for while state sovereignty might no longer adequately describe/inscribe political identities, freely chosen attachment to bounded communities nevertheless remains a basic human right as well as political necessity. (2) As Iris Marion Young points out, the ideal of universal inclusion and participation in decision-making requires mechanisms for group representation, yet not everyone agrees as to what these mechanisms should be and this leads to different polities in different geographical and cultural spaces. (3) In an age of mass transnational migrations, we are thus confronted by the question: How can we balance claims to sovereign and democratic self-determination by groups of people on the one hand and claims to universal human rights--including the right to free movement and access to work opportunities--by individuals on the other? Denying aliens, migrants, and refugees the right to political membership and keeping them in a state of permanent alienage is a violation of fundamental human rights and contrary to liberal values, Benhabib asserts. …

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