Globalisation and cosmopolitanism

In the late 1990s, the globalisation of the world was often optimistically seen as facilitating cosmopolitanism. At first, the two concepts – globalisation and cosmopolitanism – were intertwined. As societies became more economically interdependent, new transnational agencies exerted more significant legal and political influence. As the mobility of people and ideas intensified, it was assumed that the frameworks for prosperity, security and understanding would widen.

Ulrich Beck summed up this transformation by noting the increasing cosmopolitanization of society. Yet, for Beck, there was an assumption that the cosmopolitan encounter with differences would spur creative innovation rather than be subsumed by the grip of fixed global standards. While it was noted that globalisation would spread thin layers of uniformity and narrow measures for exchange, cosmopolitanism was expected to stimulate vibrancy and open the horizons for equality. It was hoped that the dynamism of difference in cosmopolitanism would triumph over the neutralising logistics of globalisation.

This optimism was short-lived. The alignment between globalising forces and cosmopolitan values did not occur. The tracks have not only failed to converge but have increasingly moved in contrasting directions. Globalisation has yet to produce greater social harmonics nor underpinned the construction of a new integrated society.

Global trade has increased, yet inequality has spiked. Transnational agencies have proliferated, but the withdrawal into neo-nationalist populism and religious fundamentalism has gained greater ascendency. The rhetoric to decolonise culture has been prominent in the art world, but the complaint by artists that engagement floats on thin layers of understanding still resounds. The promise of a common standard, modular units, and fixed measures sought to loosen exchange barriers, promote shared terms for defining value, and, in general, facilitate trust. However, the pursuit of standardisation, consistency and transparency has come at a cost. It has had a lubricative function in commerce, which has inspired a profound backlash in politics, and everyday resentment has risen against the sense of ‘suffocating’ homogenisation.

The shape of the world after a few decades of globalisation is neither a flat world with greater equality nor a more integrated world that can address issues that defy borders. However, it must be stressed that one of the great paradoxes of our times is that globalisation, which has both bypassed and fractured the authority of the nation-state, has also become increasingly dependent on national security apparatus and the nation’s material infrastructure.

At the same time, we can see that the nation state secures its viability by insisting that it is the only force capable of restraining unfettered globalisation. The progression of globalisation is, in turn, still dependent on ideological support and parasitic upon the material infrastructure of the nation-state. The rhetoric of national sovereignty and global transcendence both cloak a reality of interdependence.

Thus, the current disequilibria between the nation-state and globalisation demand a rethink of the interplay or the double bind between the part and the general. It has been played out in five ways:

First, in terms of historical narratives. It has undermined the prior philosophical view that the nation-state was a transitional phase between feudalism and cosmopolitanism. The progression to a post-nation state seems less likely now than it did a few decades ago.

Second, governance has exposed the deficit in the liberal value of pluralism. The reputed neutrality of the platform for dialogue is embedded in an etiquette limited to a specific cultural world. Opening to difference is thus limited to a particular context, which becomes an unsaid universalism.

Third, the political backlash is gaining momentum. Increasingly, neo-nationalists dismiss cosmopolitanism as a misguided philosophy filled with hollow ideals. At the same time, the liberals insist that some cosmopolitan values are attainable if managed and minimised to fit within national institutions.

Fourth, the moral order developed by normative philosophy has been underpinned by an assumption that “asocial sociality” is primary and fundamental to human nature. Normative cosmopolitanism relies on the unproven idea that people naturally tend to engage in conflict and domination.

Fifth, moral philosophers take this one-sided view of the human condition one step further. They argue that the ability to turn human rights from a mere concept into a meaningful reality depends on a national authority having the ability to control the movement of people across its borders.

How do we critique this conundrum? The most common approach is to either expose the inequities and deficits of globalisation or stress test the resilience of the nation-state. The great German philosopher of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, and the radical contemporary French philosopher Jacques Derrida both insisted that philosophy is not exempted from realism and that good intentions were insufficient.

Kant explicitly rejected the abstract proclamation of solidarity, or what he called “philanthropic cosmopolitanism”. Following on in this vein, Derrida also derided philosophers who glorified the virtue of equality and were content with “pious” claims about cosmopolitanism. He preferred to inject himself into the gritty field of geopolitics, world finance, and transnational media platforms. However, to avoid hollow platitudes, there was a risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Neither Kant nor Derrida ever addressed the role of artists and aesthesis in their account of cosmopolitanism. They were so determined to ground cosmopolitanism in an expanded notion of the polis that they not only put aside the question of developing a new cosmology for a globalising world, but they even overlooked the way artists both engaged with the polis and insisted on soaring to the cosmos.

I will propose an alternative – an extra-territorial approach. I will argue that realism can be restated by tracing the cosmos in cosmopolitanism.

Cosmopolitanism from the cosmos to the here and now

Let us zoom in on a different notion of cosmological time and practice in everyday life. The Ancient Greek concept of cosmopolitanism is a composite term that includes both cosmos and polity.

In antiquity and for many scholars until modernity, the term cosmos did not refer only to the terrestrial world. It also refers to the celestial zone of the cosmos where logos and creative fire reside, as well as the activity of making a space or using art to attract another. Hence, the term cosmetic is also derived from the cosmos. Being attuned to the cosmos was vital for creation.

The Stoics speculated that the cosmos was a celestial sphere separating Earth from the infinite universe. They imagined the sphere of the cosmos as a creative fire. This self-regenerative and thrusting fire – ekpyrosis (ἐκπύρωσις)- was the opposite of a placid lake. This otherworldly vision of cosmopolitanism has fallen out of view.

The early modern and contemporary understandings of cosmopolitanism have skewed the meaning heavily toward the polity. They placed great emphasis on the regulative role of political institutions and the educative process of self-restraint through moral pedagogy. The scope of the definition of the first term was radically truncated.

I seek to reverse the emphasis of meaning from polity back to cosmos, to switch our attention from the policing functions of cosmopolitanism – the taming of the brutal nature within the human and controlling the aggressive competition between states – to the eros in creative trans-human aesthesis and the relational wonder in the cosmos. This idealism opposes the realism of grounding cosmopolitan rights and values within binding laws and institutions. I am, therefore, going against the grain of moral and political philosophy, which presumes the primacy of “asocial sociality” and mobilises defensive codes against the innate tendency for destruction.

However, let me stress that such an idealism is aware of the capacity and legacies of violence in human nature. To deny this history would be a display of pathological naivety. My point is not to substitute the history of destructive impulses with a promise for compassionate sentiments. Such piety is pointless.

Yet, to privilege Thanatos (Θάνατος) over Eros, (Έρως) or even to assume that one has primacy over the other, is a sclerotic and distorted perspective. While the polis needs rights and rules, more is required. In some way, the cosmos must be mirrored in the polis, or at least, the citizen holds the connection that goes all the way to the cosmos.

There can be no retreat into the splendid isolation of communitarianism, just as the imposition of an integrated system based on inflexible universals is, in equal measure, an empty panacea and a brutal totalitarian nightmare. Against these two bad options, another cosmopolitanism is based on an open dialogue about the terms of representation and the horizons of possibility.

It is a cosmopolitanism that creates the commons of public space – not as an ideal abstraction that can attained when all the conditions of pedagogy and etiquette have been met – but one that exists in the infinite capacity for wonder and the already existing forms for communication in the here and now.

In antiquity, Pythagoras was asked: “Why are human beings on the earth?”

He replied: “To observe the sky.”

The contemporary artist Lee Ufan claims each painting is completed in a single brush stroke. Each stroke was timed with the breath, and each breath was in sync with the cosmos.

It is a commonplace complaint, mostly exquisitely expressed by H. G. Wells: while the ideals of cosmopolitanism are never extinguished, no city has been built to realise it.

The follow-up to this complaint is usually twofold.

On the one hand, cosmopolitanism is like a myth. A story that humans love to tell each other but are incapable of living up to. It is thus set apart from reality, suspended in the realm of the fairy tale.

On the other hand, cosmopolitanism is presented as the worthiest of all human endeavours, and while no one has reached this destination, essential steps have occurred, and the goal is within reach. Realisation is, therefore, not impossible; it is simply a matter of concerted human effort aligning itself with the providential direction of history.

Who can dispute that the world as we see it today is still far from a cosmopolitan order? However, does this mean there is no sign of cosmopolitanism? Just because the world is not cosmopolitan does not mean there is no cosmopolitanism.

Let’s take my proposition that cosmopolitanism is genuine and exists seriously. We must start from micro instances and the aesthetic expression of creation and care. Let us look for cosmopolitanism in the constellations of the cosmos and everyday life.

*Prof. Nikos Papastergiadis is the Director of the Research Unit in Public Cultures, based at The University of Melbourne. He is a Professor in the School of Culture and Communication at The University of Melbourne.