Since the 20th century, globalized capitalism has come to dominate, on the micro level, the lives of individuals throughout the world and, on the macro level, international politics and law. In The Claims of Culture, Seyla Benhabib takes seriously the impact of global capitalism on cultural groups and their struggles for redistribution and recognition within and among the interplay of these micro and macro levels of human interactions. Utilizing theories of discourse ethics and deliberative democracy, Benhabib rejects the tendency within politics to essentialize group identities into immutable, uncontested, traits. Benhabib argues that group essentialism stems from a faulty epistemology. Such an epistemology, firstly, fails to recognize that cultures are not “clearly delineable wholes.” Secondly, it fails to recognize that cultures are not congruent with human groups and that there is controversy within cultures of how to describe the culture of the human group. Thirdly, it falsely assumes that even if more than one culture identifies with the same human group, it is nonetheless politically and legally unproblematic. In regard to these last two points, consider the diversity of group claims at the intersection between race, gender, national origin, and sexual orientation within one individual.
Political and legal group essentializing into clear and distinct delineable wholes, asserts Benhabib, “is a view from the outside that generates coherence for the purposes of understanding and control.” Such essentializing contributes to something of a liberal paradox which manifests itself in multiculturalist dilemmas where in order to be accommodating to a specific culture’s traditions, certain members of the culture are denied the full scope of liberal protections. Benhabib offers examples of such dilemmas in chapter four where the liberal right to bodily integrity is legally disregarded in order to accommodate a culture’s traditions of violence against women and children.
Benhabib’s counter-theory instead begins in “social constructivism,” which is a “narrative view of actions and culture” where individuals within cultures provide the narrative of the culture through their own experiential “contested and contestable accounts.” Benhabib argues “that the task of democratic equality is to create impartial institutions in the public sphere and civil society where this struggle for the recognition of cultural differences and the contestation for cultural narratives can take place without domination.” Discourse ethics, undergirded with the principles of universal respect and egalitarian reciprocity, would serve to legitimize and validate the deliberative process. Such an ethics asserts that “only those norms and normative institutional arrangements can be deemed valid only if all who would be affected by their consequences can be participants in a practical discourse through which the norms are adopted.”
Deliberation occurs through a discursive, “interactive universalism,” in which all “beings capable of sentience, speech, and action” engage in moral discussion and narrative elucidation. Such deliberation allows individuals to identify themselves through intersubjective identity formation, others to come to learn of the “otherness of others,” and the group to collectively evaluate and negotiate cultural norms. One develops their political identity through their own individual narratives told from within the culture in which one has been thrown. Individuals shape the culture’s political identity instead of group identity shaping each individual’s political identity.
Benhabib further supports her theory of democratic deliberation with three foundational principles: egalitarian reciprocity, voluntary self-ascription, and freedom of exit and association. Politically and legally, all individuals are entitled to equal rights, must be allowed voluntary self-ascription and self-identification with group membership, and must be able to freely exit group membership. Moreover, Benhabib advocates for a dual-track approach of political engagement. Within liberalism, the public and private spheres of human life are dichotomized and political discussion is restricted to formal and official public, as in political and legal, institutions. Benhabib’s deliberative democracy opens up the sphere of political discourse to include unofficial, private, social spaces for communication such as social movements, as well as “civil, cultural, religious, artistic, and political associations.”
In chapter five, Benhabib fully outlines how her theory of deliberative democracy based on discourse ethics can better address multiculturalist dilemmas by cultivating an “enlarged mentality” among citizenry of all groups and a civic process of norm justification based on public reasoning. Bias in the deliberative sphere can be mitigated through cultivating an enlarged mentality that urges citizenry to understand redistribution and recognition claims through the perspective of the claimants. Moreover, consensus through deliberation must proceed through a syntactical reasoning process of public justification that takes the standpoint of impartiality and equality. Reasons, to count, must be in the best interest of all who would be affected.
In chapter six, Benhabib examines how, in the wake of migrations and immigrations spurred by global capitalism, where nation-state borders become more fluid, deliberation based on the framework of discourse ethics provides a forum for the ongoing debate between universal human rights and national sovereignty. For sure deliberation does not eliminate dispute, but it does offer a social, political and legal method that more democratically and ethically incorporates the diversity of voices within the micro and macro level struggles.
Overall, Benhabib offers a compelling and insightful defense of a Habermasian influenced form of deliberative democracy. There are a few questions that I am left with after reading this text. Central to Benhabib’s theory is the notion of speech. All those who are capable of sentience, speech, and action are discursive partners in deliberation. What exactly constitutes a speech act may be questioned here. Arguably, one may be able to communicate a need through body language. It may be interesting to consider if and/or how Benhabib’s theory is able to incorporate individuals who do not use verbal or signed language to speak.
Other central components of Benhabib’s theory are the concepts of voluntary self-ascription and freedom of exit and association. In several places throughout the text, Benhabib puts the words race and racial in scare quotes. While it is not clear what to make of this, even if one ascribes to race as being socially constructed, the way race works socially does not make it possible for one to simply opt in or out of that group affiliation. One may choose to self-ascribe to a race that socially they are not or no longer self-ascribe as being the race that socially they are, but within the social and political spheres as constituted today the individual’s choice will not mean anything. Given the historical complexity, subsumed identity constructions and trauma of racial relations, it may not be possible, at least for a very long time, for a society to no longer recognize race in such a way that would be required for the individual’s choice to be meaningful in the way Benhabib envisions.
In short, Benhabib’s text is still relevant and a worthwhile read nearly fourteen years after its original publication. It offers a compelling argument and offers a space for deliberation on any questions which it inspires.
 p. 4
 p. 5
 p. 8
 p. 11
 p. 14
 p. 14 – 16; p. 50
 p. 61
 p. 19
 p. 131-32
 p. 21
 p. 115
 See p. 69 and p. 134 for example.