Why I’m Not Afraid or Ashamed of Cosmopolitanism, Steve Fuller

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-388

Editor’s Note: The piece originally appeared in the UK-based Sociological Imagination website.

Author’s Note: This piece is another one of my several articles inspired by Brexit. Here I bring together two issues that Brexit has placed in harsh juxtaposition: Cosmopolitanism as a distinct ideology—whose ‘elitism’ Peter Mandler and Ross Douthat have recently cast in an unfairly negative light—and the future of socialism as a coherent ideology.

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Image credit: John Perivolaris, via flickr

My own view is that socialism needs to be cosmopolitan. However, this is not as easy as it sounds. To be sure, forty years ago I was taught that ‘national socialism’ (i.e. Nazism) was a contradiction in terms, perhaps even a piece of cynical political rhetoric. But that was at the height of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union—and to a lesser extent China—was seen as ‘exporting’ socialism across the world to match the free market capitalism being somewhat more covertly spread by the US intelligence services. Strange as it may sound, this framing of international politics as a global ideological struggle may have been the best PR that cosmopolitanism has ever received. (Take a bow, James Bond.) 

Post-Cold War, geopolitics looks rather different. Successful ‘socialist’ regimes are now generally seen as having had a clear sense of boundaries. Thus, the Scandinavian welfare states from which Hitler took some inspiration are regarded as the best version of ‘national socialism’: i.e. a protectionist domestic policy (including a strong dose of eugenics) coupled with a generous overseas development policy. This would enable other parts of the world to develop their own welfare states, which would in turn discourage endless streams of migration and the de-stabilizing effects they bring to all concerned. Indeed, such an orientation helps to explain the strong Scandinavian presence in the formative years of the United Nations.

Given what I’ve said so far, the European Union clearly operates more like the Cold War adversaries—for better or worse, and for worse if Brexit is any indication. There is no hiding that the European Union aspires to be a ‘federalist superstate’, a ‘United States of Europe’ joined in a common economic and political culture. To be sure, Jürgen Habermas—to his credit—realized early that this ‘culture’ was inherently ‘cosmopolitan’ in the original Kantian sense of the term, more about which below. The signature feature of this cosmopolitanism is the insistence on the free movement of both labour and capital. Brexit happened because British voters decided they wanted the latter without the former.

Cosmopolitanism is premised on the itinerant character of humanity. The modern idea is due to Immanuel Kant, who famously never strayed far from his home town, the Baltic port of Königsberg (today’s Kaliningrad, Russia). But equally famously, he welcomed various luminaries to his home, turning it into a provincial East Prussian version of an Enlightenment salon. For Kant, cosmopolitanism was all about hospitality: i.e. the welcoming of strangers to your home in the spirit of allowing and expecting them to leave at some point—preferably in a better state for having made the visit. It is the ethic that post-Kant has been commodified in the hotel and the airport lounge.

The cosmopolitan sees people as dynamic: People never really belong where they are, but if you allow them a certain freedom—‘give them space’, as we nowadays say—they will benefit from their estrangement. ‘Tolerance’ is an unduly negative attitude to invoke in this context, as it suggests that the host is burdened by the presence of the guest. On the contrary, whatever inconveniences the cosmopolitan host bears is compensated by whatever (unexpected) benefits s/he receives from the visitor.

The intuition informing the cosmopolitan relation is that it is mutually enriching for people to encounter each other as strangers with an open mind, even granting a certain inevitable failure on both sides to recognize—or even respect—the other’s point of origin or frame of reference. Tellingly, aristocrats and those travelling in their circles have been touted as the original cosmopolitans. The operative phrase here is the double-edged idea of noblesse oblige, which implies both a generosity to others and a relative indifference to how those others respond to that generosity, presumably because one is sufficiently secure in one’s being, regardless of what others make of it.

The interesting philosophical and political question is whether cosmopolitanism can be scaled up to become a universal social ethic. This is quite a tall order because it would mean removing the privilege that people normally accord to familiarity. However, Christianity has form in this matter, most strikingly in the parable of the Good Samaritan, which invites the audience to see God in even the most abject of the strangers they encounter.

The Christian version of love, agape, involves a two-step move which results in a cosmopolitan mentality. On the one hand, Jesus decries the tendency of people to simply take care of their immediate family and friends while neglecting the larger sense of misery in the world. On the other hand, he re-inscribes a deeper notion of ‘family and friends’ in the idea that we are all descended from the same God, in whose image and likeness we are created—regardless of how different we may appear to each other in the initial encounter.

There are two secular residues of this theological horizon in modern cosmopolitanism: a sense of species closure under the ‘human’ and a sense that under the right conditions any individual’s full humanity might be realized. Taken together they constitute the Enlightenment’s conception of ‘human nature’ as a kind of ‘universal brotherhood’ (which was sometimes extended to sisterhood). This conception of human nature, though still in popular usage, lost its scientific basis with the Darwinian revolution in biology, which denies both the natural reality of species and the natural plasticity of organisms. But let’s set aside Darwin’s challenge to this entire way of thinking for the rest of this discussion.

The political home of the cosmopolitan mentality lies in ideas of ‘upward social mobility’, ‘meritocracy’ and ‘aspiration’. All these phrases are associated with the UK-based Fabian style of socialism that at the dawn of the 20th century was in productive dialogue with emerging US Progressivism, European social democracy and what became Leninist socialism in Russia.

It is generally known that Fabian socialism was the ideology of the Liberals who split to form the Labour Party in 1900. What is generally not known—or at least not appreciated—is that the soul of the Labour Party, in keeping with its Fabian origins, has always been closer to Tony Blair than Tony Benn. Whenever the Labour Party has veered to the sort of soft Marxism espoused by Benn, it has been an electoral failure. But this is more than just a point about winning elections. It goes to the soul of socialism itself.

Consider the idea of ‘upward social mobility’. It was invented in a positive spirit: People should always be upwardly mobile. Moreover, the idea wasn’t simply about increasing income or alleviating poverty. It was also about getting ‘better’ jobs. Implied here is that ‘working class’ jobs, while tolerable under the right pay conditions, are not ideal for any self-respecting human being. Thus, a responsible working class parent would want their children to attend university so they can leave their socio-economic background and even their place of birth.

I make this line of thinking so explicit because it suggests where Fabians and Marxists potentially differ over the best way to realize socialism. What I’ve described is the Fabian story, a version of which migrated across the Atlantic—courtesy of Graham Wallas’ The Great Society—to make Progressivism the dominant US political ideology for the seventy year period prior to Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The bottom line is that over time a ‘great society’ streamlines if not outright eliminates the livelihoods of blue collar workers. Social progress is marked by successive generations not being employed in jobs which historically have been protected by labour unions.

Fabian socialism is rightly seen as ‘technocratic’. For Fabians, an important job of politics is to eliminate drudgery in the human condition, and the best way is to apply human reason to end wasted effort in tasks which can be automated or otherwise mechanized. Thus, humans are left to do those things—if anything (!)—that only humans can do. (H.G. Wells, a Fabian fellow-traveller, played with the ambivalence of this prospect for most of his career.) Absent here is any sentimental attachment to the ‘guild socialism’ mentality which lingers in those forms of Marxism wedded to a literalist version of the labour theory of value.

From this standpoint, the rise of ‘cultural studies’ in the 1960s can be understood as a quasi-Marxist pushback against the Fabian presumption that working class people need to be provided opportunities to ‘prove’ themselves, as if they weren’t already proving themselves in their normal everyday lives and jobs. In this context, the concept of ‘culture’ was re-appropriated to provide the relevant sense of ‘proof’. (Take a bow, Raymond Williams.)

The Fabians struck back by fetishizing of ‘knowledge’ as a defining feature of the socio-economic order. It was already present in the work of the US sociologist Daniel Bell in the early 1970s but it reached its peak in the UK in the Blair-Brown years. Whatever warm fuzzy feelings the soft Marxists cultivated for locally meaningful forms of labour came to be offset by the urgency with which this new generation of Fabians insisted that people had to ‘scale up’ and ‘scope out’ their epistemic horizons by getting one or more university degrees. The fixation on ‘competitiveness’—be it with the Soviets or (after the fall of the Berlin Wall) fellow capitalists—was a signature feature of their rhetoric. There is no such thing as ‘standing still’ without losing in the process.

What makes this Neo-Fabian move specifically ‘cosmopolitan’? Clearly knowledge is being treated as something akin to capital, indeed, ‘human capital’ as economists put it. Like any other form of capital, it is both mobile and protean—it can be acquired in many different ways and work in many different places. It is not the sort of ‘situated knowledge’ that continues to fascinate sociologists, but rather the ‘credentials’ which confer sufficient value on their possessors to excuse them of any situation-specific failures in their performance. In effect, credentials provide the passport for the free mobility of labour. And this may be a point on which the Brexiteers and the Eurocrats can agree.

It should be clear from the above that cosmopolitanism helps to fill in the background psychology that is needed to sustain a world-view which would have people always trying to move to ‘someplace better’—whatever that may mean in terms of space-time coordinates. It involves an openness to the strange but also to the transient, which when taken together is palatable. The mistake that critics of cosmopolitanism typically make is to suppose that it is about some meta-level elite form of authority when in fact it is about establishing the material conditions under which people can be recognized as free agents.

Of course, it does not follow that the cosmopolitan strategy works perfectly. After all, it suggests that if you get the right credentials, you’ll be treated as an equal of others with similar credentials. But this is true only to a limited extent, for reasons that sociologists have explored in lugubrious detail. What this suggests that the devil is in the details when it comes to cosmopolitanism—but it remains an attractive ideal for the human condition.

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