The cosmopolite’s notion of justice does not cease to exist at the national border. She dreams of the world city, filled with opportunity and potential for change; the labyrinthine commotion of the marketplace and the pluralism of human existence. But fundamentalist Muslims, Christians, and others despise the “world city”. Political cosmopolitanism was born out of an analysis of globalization – it is critical both of the neoliberal globalization of the market and the fundamentalist or nationalistic backlash. Questions concerning world citizenship, dual citizenship, and multiple loyalties make their presence felt as it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate between inner and outer, foreign and domestic politics, citizen and foreigner, friend and foe.

At the heart of cosmopolitanism lies a mistrust of the particular – city-state, nation, race, class, and so on. From its early manifestations right through to the present day, its driving force has always been criticism of introversion, of limited horizons, of restrictions on knowledge and movement, of prescribed definitions of “the enemy” and of “home”.

Cosmopolitanism attacks the taken-for-granted nature of borders and the assumed naturalness claimed by restrictive entities; cosmopolitanism mistrusts absolutes and insularity and has a fear of purity. The cosmopolite is constantly curious; to discover what lies over the border, to encounter those and that which is still unknown. He or she is on a journey of discovery in his or her own world and in the worlds of others, gathering impressions on the way and attempting to make the diversity of the world a part of his or her own world-view and understanding. At the root of the cosmopolite’s longing and unease is his or her refusal to allow himself or herself to be limited by circumstance. The “incidental” place, where one was born or in which one lives, must not dictate an entire existence. One is always much more than that.

The term “cosmopolis” suggests “world city” or “world as city” and paints a fairly accurate picture of the image both the advocate and the opponent has of cosmopolis. The world city inspires hope for an exciting world and arouses revulsion towards it as the birthplace of sin and excess. The cosmopolite dreams of the world city, filled with opportunity and the potential for change; the labyrinthine commotion of the marketplace and the pluralism of human existence. Here everyone is free to express his or her individuality; everything is in constant flux; everything is accessible. The world city is the opposite of borders and restrictions.

The anti-cosmopolite, however, despises the world city for being the home of the impersonal, the one-dimensional, and the mundane; here everything and everyone is for sale, life is cheap and rotten. It is the home of the market and of prostitution. This opposition towards the world city forms part of a larger critique of modernity or a counter-enlightenment which influences modernity’s levelling and popularization processes, its encounters with diversity and hierarchy. According to Pierre-André Taquieff, modernity instils an “inner in-betweenedness” and a “neither one nor the otherness”, the neutral and the mixed, to be everywhere and nowhere at home, the nomad and the cosmopolite as normative forms.”1 It is in opposing this lack of diversity between gender, race, nation, state, class, and so on, that the anti-cosmopolite finds his motivation.

Verena A. Conley has created a wonderful expression for the world city: “chaosmopolis”.2 Here, every manifestation is temporary, everything is transient and has the potential to be different – everything will be different. It is a world of constant renegotiations, of continuous reinventions of self and of eternally fluctuating points of orientation. It is suggestive also of one of the problems of cosmopolitanism: its need for mental and economic surplus. The world city is inestimable, disordered, and demanding, and not everyone will feel at home or safe in it. The English conservative political thinker Roger Scruton said that the cosmopolite “is often seen as a kind of parasite, who depends upon the quotidian lives of others to create the various local flavours and identities in which he dabbles.”3 One cannot simply and summarily dismiss this critique of cosmopolitanism which characterizes it as elitist and parasitic.

An updated version of the critique sees a global political and economic elite weakening the local and the restrictive, the familiar and the mundane in favour of the global and the stimulating, the economic and personally profitable life in the global workshop. There is a well-known and widespread concern for the future of democracy, national culture, and welfare in a globalized age, a concern not reserved for regressive nationalists. A common concern is that the gap between the elite and the population will widen because the elite has had the opportunity to globalize. This concern can draw on a range of classic negative preconceptions about the cosmopolite.

Cosmopolitanism’s negative side is a philosophy of suspicion, accompanied always by the danger of moral superiority a tendency that at times cosmopolitanism is unable to deny. The cosmopolite is “not someone who feels at home everywhere, but someone who feels superior everywhere”.4 What is new about today’s cosmopolitanism is its attempt to acknowledge and work on personal preconceptions and limitations. Where previous enlightenment cosmopolitanism was sometimes rightfully accused of blinkered vision and self-aggrandizement, new cosmopolitanism attempts to take seriously the imperialism and nationalism of the intervening period; its threats, challenges, and opportunities for reflection.

As David Hollinger highlights, the new form of cosmopolitanism is neither universal nor pluralistic. New cosmopolitanism can be said to lie somewhere between the universal and the pluralistic. Hollinger writes: “For cosmopolites, humanity’s diversity is a fact. For universalists this is a problem. Cosmopolites share universalism’s mistrust of restricted spaces but understand their necessity as contingent and temporarily segregated domains where people can have intimate and lasting relationships and where they can create diversity.”5

Nationalism often ends in “foreign” bloodshed

New cosmopolitanism, however, is born of the universalist insight that nationalist or particularistic solidarities threaten large communities; that they render politics impossible, that the point of departure is humanity, or what Ulrich Beck calls the “World Risk Society”; also that nationalism often ends in “foreign” bloodshed both within the state and as part of inter-state conflicts. But at the same time, new cosmopolitanism rejects “classical cosmopolitanism” or universalism, which dictates the whole of humanity as the only valid political and emotional unit. New cosmopolitanism recognizes that people have a need for primary or local identities that are less significant than humanity but significant enough to enable political action. The problem with nationalistic pluralism lies in its collectivism. In this, cosmopolitanism is far more liberal and individualistic, in that the individual person, in both his or her individuality and equality as a human being, forms the primary unit in political society.

Between these two insights, new cosmopolitanism prescribes the ability to manoeuvre between a multitude of identities, which are open and in constant flux and which cannot be boiled down into one fixed identity. Pluralist and nationalist alike acknowledge only one identity amongst an abundance of other, similarly closed identities, and universalism does not recognize any unit smaller than humanity. New cosmopolitanism is therefore critical of what we can call the universalist Left and the nationalist Right.

Cultural cosmopolites can be divided into three types: the voluntary, the forced, and the banal cosmopolite. Voluntary cosmopolites are more often than not Western or Westernized intellectuals, while forced cosmopolites are usually immigrants from developing countries. It is the cosmopolitanism of the academic versus that of the exile. The voluntary cosmopolite is most often someone who, from an economically and physically secure starting point – often the academic world, but sometimes also from an NGO or international organization – has a concept of justice that does not cease to exist at the national border. One of the foremost proponents of this position is Martha Nussbaum, who advocates a global obligation to alleviate suffering as well as a cosmopolitan educational programme in her native US.

The forced cosmopolite is the immigrant, the refugee, the exile, who out of harsh necessity must learn to balance a multitude of different loyalties, affiliations, and identities. In some discourses, the forced cosmopolite is given the same role previously played by the proletariat in Marxist discourse: as an omen or messenger from the future. Their hybrid character renders them adaptable to a world that rewards transience and volatility, while national or other rigid allegiances are punished. The diasporic societies – as well as the developing countries which form a part of their “national destinies”, and which have not experienced the nation-state’s doctrine of indivisible sovereignty – are therefore models for the future.

Diasporic societies are models for the future

Placed between these two groups are non-Western, but Western-resident writers such as Edward Said, Salman Rushdie, and V.S. Naipul, who criticize the rigidity of non-Western communities to a Western audience in favour of a broader and more flexible understanding of identity and loyalty. Rushdie is perhaps the best example of this. He subscribes to the bastardising, creolising and changeable world, in which he takes part. His principal antagonist is the puritan’s demand for borders and purity. In a comment about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Rushdie strongly defends New York in a description of the world city populated by contented mixed-race citizens:

“New York is the beating heart of the visible world, tough-talking, spirit-dazzling, Walt Whitman’s ‘city of orgies, walks and joys,’ his ‘proud and passionate city – mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!’ […] The fundamentalist seeks to bring down a great deal more than buildings. Such people are against, to offer just a brief list, freedom of speech, a multi-party political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women’s rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex […] We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love.”6

It is not insignificant that certain fundamentalist Christian groups in the US celebrated the attack on New York, which they call “Jew York,” in a classic anti-Semitic, metaphor-rich commentary on the Fatherland-less, money and power-fixated, exploitative, and depraved Jewish cosmopolite. Fundamentalist Muslims and Christians are united in their hatred of the world city; the city whose archetypal characteristics are so precisely described in the above quotation.

The third type of cosmopolitanism is the form that is neither voluntary nor forced, but lived. Variously called “banal cosmopolitanism” or “banal globalism,” it relates to the increasingly significant initiation of culture and cultural expression into transnational fora. Not least via the global media network, symbols, ideas, expressions and so on migrate across borders and merge with “original” or “native” cultures. Banal cosmopolitanism is absorbed through food, music, fashion, sporting events, film, and so on, but also through dissemination of ideas, ideologies, and symbols. The fear of this type of globalization is sometimes expressed by expressions such as “the McDonaldization of culture”, that is, the global cultural homogenization of an unwholesome plastic-society. But this does not appear to be the way of the future. Rather it is a globalization of cultures; a “disturbance” in the autonomous processes of cultural reproduction which opens them up to each other while still maintaining them.

Kant has become a key frame of reference

Political cosmopolitanism is one of our era’s most innovative and ambitious attempts at comprehending and reforming the global system. It has quickly become a collective expression; partly a philosophical universalization of the notion of justice; partly a theoretical explanation of the relationship between nationalism, patriotism, and cosmopolitanism; and lastly, partly a range of concrete suggestions for political reform. This rediscovery of the cosmopolitan is founded in a critical re-reading of Kant’s short essay Perpetual Peace. Kant has become a key frame of reference – his writings on peace are poised between cosmopolitanism and sovereignty, internationalism and patriotism in such a way that they allows for an actualization of what Jürgen Habermas has called “the post-national constellation”.

This tendency originated in frustration over the shortcomings of liberal international regimes; it has most definitely made significant progress in the post-war era – for example the UN, the human rights movement, and many other instances of international cooperation. But it became stuck fast in the geopolitical accord after the end of the WWII, at a statecentric point of origin and within a restrictive liberal economic interpretation – which combined, blocked the path towards reclaiming market powers, democratising global processes and humanising world relations. The cosmopolitan strategy is to radicalize certain elements within the liberal international regime – not least to reinforce the individual in relation to the state.

Ole Wæver expresses it accurately when he writes that: “The realization of the cosmopolitan order demands a relativising of state sovereignty and in practice also that one acts with direct reference to human rights and in contravention of the laws that states have formulated between them, specified in international law.”7 Political cosmopolitanism therefore presents a challenge to the nation-state, to the Bodinian doctrine of sovereignty and to all conceptions and practices where an element of the “modern nation-state” is present. It is here therefore that we find the scientific cosmopolitanism represented by Ulrich Beck, who maintains that discrete categories have already been transcended.

Political cosmopolitanism was born out of an analysis of globalization which emphasized an increasingly significant connection with the global nature of hardship. Political cosmopolites are critical both of the neo-liberal globalization of the market and the fundamentalist or nationalistic backlash. They want a political globalization that embeds accountability within those processes that affect populations the world over. Globalization has placed all actors and processes “inside”; the ignorable notion of “out there” becomes increasingly less applicable to reality and less appropriate in practice. This also means that our obligations become global and that each individual human being first and foremost should be recognized as equal and not exclusively in terms of citizen or non-citizen.

Questions concerning world citizenship, dual citizenship, multiple loyalties and so on make their presence felt as it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate between inner and outer, foreign and domestic politics, citizen and foreigner, and friend and foe. Cosmopolitanism in general and political cosmopolitanism in particular do not say that these conceptions are becoming completely meaningless, rather that they are becoming ever more ambiguous, uncertain, volatile, the subject of constant negotiation. Our political institutions, practices and imaginations have their work cut out for them. Cultural cosmopolitanism attempts to create the relational infrastructure, and political cosmopolitanism the institutional infrastructure which should make it possible to enter the age of cosmopolitanism.

A longer version of this article can be found in Slagmark – tidsskrift for idéhistorie, no. 41.

Pierre-André Taguiff, "The Traditionalist Paradigm – Horror of Modernity and Anti-liberalism" in Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut (eds.), Why we are not Nietzscheans, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press 1997, 162.

Verena Andermatt Conley, "Chaosmopolis", in Theory, Culture and Society, vol. 19, 2002, no. 1-2, 127-138.

Cited by Jeremy Waldron, "What is Cosmopolitan?", Journal of Political Philosophy, vol. 8, 2000, no. 2, 227-243, here from 227.

Michael W. McConnell, "Don't neglect the little platoons" in Joshua Cohen (ed.), For Love of Country. Debating the Limits of Patriotism, Boston: Beacon Press, 82.

David A. Hollinger, "Not Universalists, Not Pluralists: The New Cosmopolitans Find Their Own Way", Constellations, vol. 8, 2001, no. 2, 236-248, here from 239.

Salman Rushdie, "Fighting the forces of invisibility", Washington Post, October 2001.

Ole Waever, "Europafilosofi", Kritikk, 2003, no. 166, 65-69, here from 67. 

Published 10 April 2006
Original in Danish
Translated by Nicole Fishlock
First published by Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) 4/2006 (Danish version)

Contributed by Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) © Mikkel Thorup / Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) / Eurozine


Read in: EN / DA

Published in

Share article


Subscribe to know what’s worth thinking about.