Globalization promises to bring people around the world together, to unite them as members of the human community. To such sanguine expectations, Pheng Cheah responds deftly with a sobering account of how the "inhuman" imperatives of capitalism and technology are transforming our understanding of humanity and its prerogatives. Through an examination of debates about cosmopolitanism and human rights, Inhuman Conditions questions key ideas about what it means to be human that underwrite our understanding of globalization. Cheah asks whether the contemporary international division of labor so irreparably compromises and mars global solidarities and our sense of human belonging that we must radically rethink cherished ideas about humankind as the bearer of dignity and freedom or culture as a power of transcendence. Cheah links influential arguments about the new cosmopolitanism drawn from the humanities, the social sciences, and cultural studies to a perceptive examination of the older cosmopolitanism of Kant and Marx, and juxtaposes them with proliferating formations of collective culture to reveal the flaws in claims about the imminent decline of the nation-state and the obsolescence of popular nationalism. Cheah also proposes a radical rethinking of the normative force of human rights in light of how Asian values challenge human rights universalism.
Normative engagements with globalization have for the most part been dominated by debates surrounding cosmopolitanism and human rights. Ironically, few on any side of these debates have directly addressed the capitalist aspects of globalization; even those dedicated to global distributive justice often approach the topic as a moral issue, not a structural one. Pheng Cheah’s Inhuman Conditions: On Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights is a refreshing corrective to this central shortcoming of many normative approaches to globalization… Inhuman Conditions, written in lucid and accessible prose, is a welcome effort to bring together several schools of thought often considered to be at odds. A poststructuralist account of globalization that takes the structures of capitalism seriously, Inhuman Conditions represents an important contribution to normative political thought on cosmopolitanism and human rights.
[An] ambitious book… Throughout the book Cheah seeks to prove why and how the inhuman consequences of capitalist globalization upset the idea of freedom.
Cheah presents a humanities-based perspective on globalization, rather than the more typical social sciences approach. This study argues that the current globalization process cannot ‘humanize’ global politics through either of its two most heralded features, cosmopolitanism or human rights. Neither of these can transform the ‘uneven globalization’ that leaves the capitalistic North in domination and the impoverished South to pursue ‘development’ within the competitive free-market framework. The author rejects as misguided and Eurocentric the Habermasian view that globalization can evoke a genuinely cosmopolitan culture that sustains a public consciousness of solidarity by opening and entwining global and national public spheres. The humanitarian NGOs that epitomize contemporary civil society are no less co-opted by global capitalism and serve primarily to dress up its milieu. Human rights discourse likewise fails to uphold true human dignity as it is similarly ‘contaminated’ and left dependent upon nation-states for implementation. The plight of foreign domestic workers in Singapore illustrates the problem. The author devotes a chapter to Chinese cosmopolitanism. The text will be of great interest to students and scholars of postcolonial studies.
Cheah analyses brilliantly the relevance of national thought and human rights for projects of liberation in today’s globalized world.
Cheah argues that the two major theoretical approaches to globalization—cosmopolitanism and human rights—fail to apprehend globalization critically because they presuppose that expanding markets are a means through which the ‘human’ might finally be universally achieved and the instrumentalism of nationalism and economy transcended. Contrary to these views, Inhuman Conditions demonstrates, on the one hand, that the human is not the limit of processes of global capitalism, but rather that capitalism depends on the division between the inhuman and human to distribute harms and make sense—and cents—of this distribution internationally. It is a rare treat to find a text which functions at such a high conceptual level even as this conceptual rigor and brilliance is brought to bear on social problems of pressing and vital contemporary importance.
Cheah argues for the continuing utopian potential of anti- and post-colonial nationalism. His assessment of the potential of cosmopolitanism is tempered with appreciation for the nation, in all its contaminated ideals. He offers a distinctive blend of attention to philosophy and political economy. This is an important book. It will have a place of pride in thinking about ‘the global.’
- 336 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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