Boris Buden

And Tomorrow the World? Some comments on the cosmopolitanism debate

And Tomorrow the World? Some comments on the cosmopolitanism debate
title: And Tomorrow the World? Some comments on the cosmopolitanism debate
year: 2003
place: Vienna; Sofia
publisher: Springerin, Vienna; ICA-Sofia, Sofia
language: english
author(s): Boris Buden
source: Double Bind, 2003, Vienna, Sofia: Springerin, ICA-Sofia
colaborators: in cooperation with the "Days of Vienna" in Sofia 2002

It is amazing how stubbornly the protagonists in the present debate on cosmopolitanism ignore the “practical” historical radicality of their theoretical speculations. At best, they manage to critically articulate the problem, excavate its historical roots from the depths of the past, and to deduce the whole extent of its meaning down from the heights of theoretical abstraction. As soon as they come to the real consequences of its solution, however, their faculty of thought all of a sudden fails them, and their imaginative powers go on the wane.

Let us take a concrete example: the famous controversy about the concepts of patriotism and cosmopolitanism provoked by the American philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum in the mid-nineties.1 She set cosmopolitan ideals – the feeling of solidarity with all of humanity and the belief in the equality of all people – against the patriotic feelings that she saw as morally dangerous and as having a ruinous effect on the goals they purportedly serve.

According to her, cosmopolitan values, and not patriotic ones, should henceforth be the regulative principles of our practical thought and action. She claimed, moreover, that these values answered much better to the present world situation than feelings of national pride and the desire for a common national identity, things patriots vehemently support.2

As I have mentioned, Nussbaum's intervention3 provoked a public debate, which mainly involved prominent American academics. Their call for cosmopolitanism was greeted with much scepticism. Apart from the different arguments used, which depended on the particular theoretical position of the author concerned,4 the most common response to the question “patriotism or cosmopolitanism” was sobering, if not disappointing. Namely: both/and or neither/nor.

The whole debate can be summarised as follows: without a nation-state there can be no cosmopolitan development. This is because the real, existing democratic nation-states are the only institutions that have the legitimacy and power to implement the aspects of cosmopolitanism we see as useful for our future.5 It is not possible to become a “citizen of the world,” because the world has no polity. The only imaginable form such a polity could take would be a tyranny.6 Therefore, there is no citizenship and, consequently, no democratic constitution beyond the nation-state.

With this, the dilemma between patriotism and cosmopolitanism that started off the whole debate has merged into another one that should not be a dilemma at all: that is, either democracy or cosmopolitanism. That is to say, what clearly emerges from the discussion is that a cosmopolitan option is not a real alternative in today's historical context and under the prevailing conceptual and ideological conditions. So why bother with the whole discussion if there is no real choice between patriotism and cosmopolitanism? Precisely for this reason – to create the illusion that there is a free choice. The illusion of there being free, rational individuals who, by exchanging ideas and arguments in a tolerant manner, can and may unconstrainedly decide between various historical options is the ulterior effect and true purpose of this American debate on cosmopolitanism.

The best confirmation of this is the motivation that led to Nussbaum's broaching the problem of cosmopolitanism. She was not envisaging an alternative to the existing democratic order, nor did she intend a fundamental criticism of this order. What brought her to the subject of cosmopolitanism was in fact a completely practical interest, namely, a possible reform of the US educational system or, to be more precise, the question of what American children, pupils and students should be learning. Nussbaum's answer was that they should learn that they are first and foremost “citizens of the world,” and only then citizens of the United States.

Far from being a political statement, her cosmopolitanism is merely the (ideological) basis of an educational project, a normative change of emphasis in the education program of a school system organized within a nation-state. A positive change in the existing circumstances, or, to use Kant's words, progress towards a better state for the whole of humanity, is thus only to be expected through a cumulative effect of this new, cosmopolitanly oriented education.7

Here, one cannot help thinking of Marx's third thesis on Feuerbach. In it, as we know, Marx criticises the materialist doctrine for not taking into account the fact that a change in people cannot solely be effected by changed circumstances or changed education, as these very circumstances must be changed by people and the educator has first to be educated himself. This objection also applies fully to Nussbaum's concept of “cosmopolitan education.”

Accordingly, we have no reason to believe that the cosmopolites of the future, who are to improve or even save our world, can be educated by today's patriots (however democratic). Or that the children of the nation can be educated into cosmopolites in the same way that good patriots are educated, that is, in the same school system, organised by the nation-state – a system whose chief purpose is, as we know, to reproduce the national identity. As if the envisaged world community were a nation as well, or, to put it differently, a sort of nation of nations. What is more, there is no sense in arguing about what is learnt in the educational system without also asking under what political and historical conditions that which has been learnt can be rendered into concrete historical reality, and where the practical political or social interest lies that can appropriate the cosmopolitan ideals and turn them into a concrete political will. This cosmopolitanism finds no way to becoming political reality, and, in fact, does not even look for one.8

These days the limits of the political imagination coincide with the limits of the prevailing concept of democracy. There is no theoretical speculation and no normative or even utopian thought that ventures beyond them. That is also true of the present renewed debate on cosmopolitanism. The rising interest in the old cosmopolitan ideas is a symptom of a global crisis in the world today, and should not be mistaken for a self-confident search for a way out of this crisis. Above all, it points to a decisive historical process that is taking place in front of our eyes – and in many respects independently of our political will: the decline of the form of political sovereignty that until now held universal sway. This is one of the most serious political effects of globalisation. It is the sovereignty of modern nation-states that is in a process of progressive decay, and with it people's belief that they are still masters in their own democratic houses and have their destiny and the destiny of the world under rational control. The crisis we are talking about here is also a crisis affecting the concept of political democracy, which is umbilically connected to the nation-state. Our democratic parties and politicians, however honest and clever they are, are less and less able to keep their (politically, morally and socially binding) promises, our parliaments are less and less able to make decisions about the most vital issues in their electorates, while the rewards for our work and achievements are growing more and more uncertain.

The questions raised by cosmopolitanism, or the answers it can offer, thus altogether seem to be a footnote to the bigger story involving the present transformation of political sovereignty. That is the reason why Hardt and Negri were so easily able to ignore the subject of cosmopolitanism in Empire. The global field of political, economic and cultural forces upon which the political drama between patriotism and cosmopolitanism is being played out, and where the present transformations of identity (above all the processes of cultural hybridisation) are taking place, is changing constantly. The existing political institutions have to take up the new global challenges. The field that during the debate on cosmopolitanism has been called the cosmopolitical9 is thus completely congruent with the concept of new global sovereignty that Hardt and Negri have named Empire. What they also implicitly share with the proponents of democratic cosmopolitics is a belief in progress and the conviction that globalisation automatically brings new democratic chances.10

The most radical and ambitious vision of a cosmopolitan democracy does indeed take into account the decline of the nationstate and the crisis of representative democracy associated with it.11 It resolutely takes up the challenges posed by globalisation. However, its strategy is extremely simple and in keeping with the present humanitarian discourse on tolerance. It is called – re-conciliation. The aim of this form of cosmopolitics is to reconcile the whole phenomenon of globalisation with the triumph of democracy in world history. It sees the epochal changes caused by globalisation not as a threat to democracy, but as a chance
to radically reconstruct it, as with the transition from direct government to representative government that took place in the 18th century. The supporters of a new, cosmopolitan democracy say it should extend beyond the borders of existing nation-states to fill the international democratic vacuum that has existed up to now. A decisive step from national to planetary democracy is to be made. New, transnational parties are to be founded, a direct political representation at global level for the majority of individuals in our world is to be created, the category of sovereignty is to be replaced by global constitutionalism, etc.

The present-day idea of cosmopolitics thus represents a belief in the inexhaustible extensive potential of a democracy that is without any ideological or political competition and no longer needs to fight, having already won and established its planetary dominance for ever. The majority of people and nations in the world is said to have already recognised this. The rest – all the nationalists, communists, fundamentalists, egoists, idiots, the retarded and undeveloped, etc. – are sure to follow suit tomorrow. They will have to learn that the development towards a cosmopolitan democracy is inevitable, and that there is no point in getting in the way of this essential process.

But what if precisely this vision of a cosmopolitan democracy is rather an indication of the fatal decadence of the whole concept of democracy; if it takes it to its paroxysm, so to speak: to the point where it no longer has any political meaning, where it becomes banalised into the megalomania of the privileged and a ritual of orthodoxy for the powerless? The cosmopolitics of which we are speaking would then not be the ultimate fulfilment of existing democracy, but its dying euphoria: the last fling of its power fantasies before it finally perishes within our historical perspective.

But one thing is clear: present-day democracy is not in a position to answer the questions that cosmopolitanism confronts it with. The risk of seeking answers beyond the concept of democracy thus seems inevitable. Hannah Arendt, who saw the concept of a supranational authority as being the most tyrannical formation imaginable also thought that political progress could only be found in a soviet system that is completely alien to the principle of sovereignty.12 However, soviets derive from an order that is different from the democratic one. They are institutions arising from a revolution, not institutions of democracy. Still less are they schools in which people are educated to be good democratic – perhaps cosmopolitan – citizens. In the above-mentioned third thesis on Feuerbach, Marx described the contradiction between the education of people and the change of the circumstances in which they are educated. But this contradiction, he said, could only be resolved by means of a revolutionary practice. The same thing goes for the idea of cosmopolitics. Its subject cannot be educated democratically, but only be produced from a practice that pursues revolutionary interests. This is not an answer to the problem of cosmopolitics, but it is a good question for its proponents.



1 Joshua Cohen (Ed.), For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism/Martha C. Nussbaum with Respondents, Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

2 Ibid, p. 4.

3 Which was itself a polemic reaction, in this case to an article by Richard Rorty published in the New York Times (in February 1994) in which he calls on the American Left not to neglect patriotic emotions in their politics.

4 Some argued in the context of the debate liberalism vs. communitarianism (Michael Walzer), others supported a politics of recognition of existing identities (Charles Taylor), and still others stuck to the issue of (cultural) universalism (Judith Butler), etc.

5 See the article by Nathan Glazer, For Love of Country, p. 65.

6 Amy Gutman, ibid, p. 68.

7 An example: it is barely imaginable, Nussbaum contends, that the high standard of living enjoyed by Americans today could become the universal norm without an ecological disaster occurring. In saying this, however, she does not address any of the socio-political consequences of this hypothesis, although it points up one of the most profound contradictions in the world today. Instead, she immediately puts forward her reformist, educatory solution: “ ...we need to educate our children to be troubled by this fact.” Ibid, p. 13.

8 This would seem to bring the question about a possible form of cosmopolitics down to an almost infantile level within the entire discourse on education. Barely does Nussbaum encounter the problem posed by a universalistic form of politics when she dodges it by making a comparison with child care: “Politics, like child care, will be poorly done if each thinks herself equally responsible for all, rather than giving the immediate surroundings special attention and care.” Ibid, p. 13.

9 Phengh Cheach, “The Cosmopolitical – Today” in: Phengh Cheach and Bruce Robbins (Ed.) Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling beyond the Nation, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 31.

10 Globalisation is what makes a “cosmopolitan democracy” possible in the first place, said Richard Falk, contributing to the debate on cosmopolitanism provoked by Nussbaum. He claims that it arises in the form of the conferences, mostly organised by the United Nations, on topics such as women, development, the environment, etc. and which promote an innovative democratic ethos and new, dynamic forms of interactions between people and structures of authority. See For Love of Country, p. 59.

11 See the whole article by Daniele Archibugi, “Demos and Cosmopolis”, in New Left Review 13, January-February 2002, p. 24-38.

12 Hannah Arendt, Macht und Gewalt (Power and Force), Munich: Piper, p. 131-133.

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