Nepantla: Views from South 4.1 (2003) 5-40
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Contesting Cosmopolitan Currency
The Nepantilist Rose in the Cross(ing) of the Present
Currency—which John Locke (1989, para. 184) called a “fantastical imaginary value”—has long played a key role in modern narratives about the origin and development of the ever more productive selves, markets, and political organizations that have fostered “globalization.” Currency has been imagined as the medium of circulation that simultaneously establishes consent (and thus legitimacy) in market economies of vast inequality and engenders a structure of valuation/devaluation that has played a key role in legitimating colonialism. Recently, the trope has become central in political liberal theories for regulating cosmopolitan multicultural morality and politics, in which “public reason” delineates a common currency that peoples with different “comprehensive doctrines” can use to regulate the exchange of political arguments, and thus produce deliberative agreements that define the nature of fair societal cooperation. As conjured by this metaphor, groups oriented by different conceptions of the good resemble producers of different goods; common norms figure as agreed upon monetary currency; and the well-being of just political agreement resembles the well-being of mutually beneficial trade. To what extent does the centrality of currency in these recent efforts suggest that the term has now been inflected toward democracy and global justice? To what extent does this centrality illuminate how political liberalism maintains complicities with political economies of vast inequality and neocolonial relations with those in the interior or exterior margins of the new world order? [End Page 5]
Both concepts of currency play crucial roles in framing dominant contemporary understandings of globalization: money currency in interpretations of markets, and the currency of shared understandings in political liberal discourses of cosmopolitanism. Moreover, in contemporary globalization the deployment of currency discourses and practices in one realm often engenders their deployment in the other. First, the increasingly widespread and rapid movement of capital, populations, relations of production, technologies, communications, and so forth plays an important role in bringing differently oriented groups more frequently and unexpectedly into proximity, relationship, and struggle with one another. Thus, without hope for establishing shared metaphysical frameworks, many search for a moral-political alternative that might abstract from these differences in order to govern and limit cooperative exchanges, be they economic, moral-political, or social. Just as economic currency abstracted from qualitative use-values and established relations oriented toward monetary exchange value, moral currency promises to abstract from different ethical orientations in ways that will commonly guide, constrain, ease, and justify our cooperative activity. Second, the fact that political-moral efforts strive, in this context, toward the establishment of “common currencies” is itself significantly related to the overwhelming material and ideological power of markets today. Third, accompanying the enormous inequalities generated by contemporary markets are foundational legitimating narratives that frame microeconomic relations in terms of fair exchange and macroeconomic relations in terms of a currency-centered consent. These accounts come under significant pressure as billionaires stride the planet in productive relations with billions of fellow humans who wither on less than two dollars a day. Fixated on currency, and unable to discover shared “doctrines,” liberalism turns to the task of discovering a new moral currency to address this problem. Fourth, modern currency narratives have been, from early on, deeply entwined with practices and narratives of colonization. If liberalism now eschews colonization in the name of justice for all, it nevertheless has been unable (thus far) to renounce the colonizing posture that would govern the terms of a reformed order. The rhetoric of currency combines fairness and colonialism in ways perfectly suited to a liberalism not really ready to renounce the colonial relation. In this way, liberalism's “gift” of a common currency of shared principles participates hand in hand (and in spite of itself) with unfettered economic markets in the latest form of colonialism called “globalization.” To be sure, these hands wrestle mightily with one another, and the stakes between their differences are often [End Page 6] significant. But at the same time...