What’s Left of Cosmopolitanism? A Review of “Cosmopolitanism and Its Discontents”
Cosmopolitanism and Its Discontents: Rethinking Politics in the Age of Brexit and Trump. Edited by Lee Ward. Lexington Books, 2020.   Cosmopolitanism and its Discontents examines the distress and frustrations of in politics in our current age of postmodern populism from the standpoint of the rich tradition of political philosophy. It addresses the question of… The post What’s Left of Cosmopolitanism? A Review of “Cosmopolitanism and Its Discontents” appeared first on VoegelinView.




Cosmopolitanism and Its Discontents: Rethinking Politics in the Age of Brexit and Trump. Edited by Lee Ward. Lexington Books, 2020.


Cosmopolitanism and its Discontents examines the distress and frustrations of in politics in our current age of postmodern populism from the standpoint of the rich tradition of political philosophy. It addresses the question of whether the cosmopolitan individual, who sees its moral obligations as “owed to all human beings on the basis of our common humanity alone,” may be reconciled to their particular political community.[1] This perennial question is complicated by what editor Lee Ward calls “postmodern nationalism,” a set of diffuse movements that have in common populist anti-cosmopolitanism, in which populism is defined as opposition to deracinated elites. Published in 2020, this volume, and the importance of thinking about these questions from the vantage point of the history of political philosophy, has become only more important with the tumultuous events of the past two years.  While an edited volume with multiple authors cannot be said to have a coherent argument, by reading the essays together the reader is led to consider the essays with and against each other, which leads to a series of hermeneutic insights emerge that might not be apparent if the essays were read alone, or these questions considered outside the tradition of political philosophy.
First, if we interpret contemporary politics in terms of cosmopolitanism and its discontents, as an opposition between universal cosmopolitanism, on the one hand, and particularized localism, on the other, either we have misunderstood cosmopolitanism as the tradition has understood it, or the contemporary situation is not governed by cosmopolitanism. None of the cosmopolitan authors studied in this volume, not even Kant, considered the universal and the local as intrinsically opposed, but rather cosmopolitan moral obligations emerge out of local concerns, while the practice of civic virtue and identity is informed by cosmopolitan ideals.
This is most evident in the three historical essays of Cary Nederman, Nicholas Aroney and Simon Kennedy, and Vasileios Syros, that open the volume. What emerges out of the historical treatment of cosmopolitanism is that prior to the modern era, cosmopolitan thinkers did not seek to ground the citizen of the world in an unmediated World State, and not simply for practical reasons, because it was not technically possible, or because they could not conceive of such a thing, but because some level of association and corresponding governance lower than the world or the cosmos was necessary to realize the fullness of human life. This local conception of the fullness of human life emerges not in spite of, or in contradiction to, the cosmopolitan element of their thought, but because of it. The cosmopolitan conception of the human requires local association and community.  This is seen most clearly in Nederman’s reading of Cicero, where he argues that Cicero was both republican and cosmopolitan, what Nederman terms a “bounded cosmopolitan.”[2] This notion of bounded cosmopolitanism is not an abstract ideal but emerges in response to the practical failures of prior forms of political organization, and the attempt to redefine the practical circumstances with which they are confronted. For these thinkers this redefinition required, as Syros suggests, the use of nature as the fundamental category of justice. [3] This reminds us that the modern abandonment of nature is not something we necessarily have to accept, which allows us to consider to what extent some conception of bounded cosmopolitanism remains viable.
These attempts of bounded cosmopolitanism, characteristic of classical cosmopolitanism, come apart somewhat in the modern era with Rousseau, and the replacement of nature with Rousseau’s conception of the malleable and historical nature of human beings.[4] John Scott shows how in Rousseau’s account, if our natures are historical and malleable, then there is no just way to reconcile our attachment to ourselves with our attachment to others, whether that attachment is conceived locally, globally, or cosmically. Political community requires the general will, and the general will requires the lawgiver, but where does the lawgiver, who exists outside of both nature and convention, come from?  This is a question Rousseau is unable to answer.
There are, then, two conceptions of cosmopolitanism here, a “classic” variant based on nature as the fundamental concept of justice, and a “modern” variant, most typically represented by Kant, in which history replaces nature. Is there, then, a “post-modern” cosmopolitanism?  This emerges with José Daniel Parra’s essay on Heidegger. Parra takes a circular root to the fundamental question of the volume, but the effort is worth it.  In taking the longer road, this essay, above all the others, manages to present contemporary cosmopolitanism in a new light.  Parra’s Heidegger doesn’t describe cosmopolitanism, or the rule of deracinated elites, but rather the “transition to a technicized animal under the logic of the global will-to-will lacking an authentic historical goal.”[5] This allows us to consider if what confronts both cosmopolitanism and its discontents is not the tension between Kantian rational freedom and local particularism, as Paul Kirkland describes it in his essay on Nietzsche, but rather “globalism,” the rule of global technocracy in which both rational freedom and local particularism are effaced. Seen in this light the historical arguments in favour of cosmopolitanism might be seen as arguments against globalism.[6]
The essays in the middle of the volume on contemporary politics and economics largely leave the Heideggerian question aside, and shift the discussion from justice to legitimacy, from the principles of justice (whether based on nature or history) to the practice (or action) of politics. Legitimacy, for Rousseau, is a question of the general will, but for contemporary democratic theorists, it is a question of practice, to use Ward’s discussion of Tully’s glocalism as an exemplar, what is required is an emphasis “on glocalism as a form of praxis reflected in local and customary nomoi as well as experiments with alternative economic models such as cooperatives.”[7] This seems to miss both the importance of Rousseau and the importance of Heidegger. In the age of technology is there such a thing as a local and customary nomoi?  Where is the lawgiver that would form such a people? What if technology is the lawgiver and what it forms is not a people?
Along the way some interesting observations are made, but they are left hanging by an analytical tradition lacking the conceptual vocabulary required to understand them.  For instance, in Zoltan Miklosi and Zsotlt Kapelner’s essay “Rethinking the Democratic Boundary Problem” the authors make a passing note to an important observation.  In reviewing the stakeholder principle, which argues the “reason why citizens should have a say in government is because their most fundamental interests are intertwined within these institutions,” they note, quoting Thomas Christiano, that “the fundamental ground of democracy is the fact that members of a society inhabit a common world.”[8] The authors don’t do much with this observation, and return to the analytical tradition, but having just read Parra’s essay on Heidegger I wonder if reflection on what constitutes a “world,” is relevant to this conversation. If by “world,” we mean Welt (world) and not Umwelt (environment), so that human beings live in an “life-world” (Lebenswelt), I wonder what happens when our life-world is no longer tied to place?  This would lead us to a consideration of politics in terms of the Kampf der Weltanschauungen.
This struggle of worldviews is the unstated backdrop of the remaining essays of the volume.   Ann Ward begins her piece on the hijab controversy in France by invoking Rousseau’s notion of the general will in the context of the French doctrine of laicité. Her essay makes clear how the question of the kind of person capable of having a general will is linked to education, and Ward’s analysis of competing views on republicanism shows how the State cannot be, and is not, neutral on these questions, for even the position of secular neutrality has the goal of a kind of civic identity. The distinction here between American and French conceptions of religious freedom is particularly interesting, and while I had previously considered restrictions on religious garment as clear violations of religious freedom, the essay leads me to reconsider the position of the State on the issue.
Claudia Wiesner takes up these questions in terms of the formation of a demos in the EU, asking the question “if there is no demos that democracy can legitimately be grounded on, on which basis should the representative institutions work?”[9] This is a critical question, indeed, it is the question I’ve been asking myself throughout this volume. In her analysis of EU citizenship, she finds that the absence of EU social rights combined with its passive requirements and lack of formal EU duties, means that the relationship between the citizen and the supranational State is not direct, so that there is no affective relationship. In short, there is no demos. This is in sharp contrast to the way national citizenship developed in Germany and France. In those cases, it was shaped from both above (through military and education) and demanded from below (through suffragist movements). In the EU, by contrast, these functions are delegated to the States, the EU has no army or education system, and citizens do not demand membership, States do. That said, this does not mean the EU cannot form a demos, for she argues that a demos is not a precondition of State formation but emerges with democratic practice. What is required is a renewal of democratic practice, which is instrumental in the formation of a demos, the kind of people capable of having a general will.
The critical importance of the necessary conditions for democratic practice is the fulcrum of the final essay of the volume, Carl Eric Scott’s consideration of Pierre Manent and James Allan, and the crisis of democratic legitimacy in the European Union and Anglo democracies (especially Canada, the United States, and Australia).  For Manent, democracy is tied to its development of the nation-state.  In opposing the cosmopolitanism of the EU, he defends the democratic practices of the nation-State.  For Allan, the key issue is the rule of the judiciary, and the way judicial sovereignty undermines democratic practice.
Though not stated explicitly, the undercurrent of Scott’s essay seems to be a Tocquevillian defense of democratic practice informed by self-interest rightly understood. While Scott chides cosmopolitan and liberal theorists for their narrow (and elitist) views on populism, I find it difficult to reconcile this view of local democracy with contemporary populist movements that appear to share the characteristics of post-modern globalism. Tocqueville’s argument is that the practice of local self-government is formative of self-interest rightly understood, so that those who are experienced with self-government come to see their self-interest as intertwined with the self-interest of others. Contemporary populist movements, by contrast, are post-modern, formed not out of shared local interests but by global abstractions. The rhetoric of populism, whether it comes from the anti-imperialist left or the MAGA right, with its glib understanding of freedom and indifference to the public good, the infatuation with crypto currency, the willingness to believe ludicrous conspiracies, and the mad support of insurrection in the name of “the people,” is reminiscent of Arendt’s description of masses who do not believe in the reality of their experiences. While the relationship between the anti-imperialist left and the incoherence of post-modern Marxism is generally well understood, what is missing is an analysis of the relationship between libertarianism and the populist right.  Is liberty more than a slogan? Can the love liberty without limits be distinguished from the love of power? What is the common project that would unite us with those with whom we disagree? What does libertarian conservatism think it is conserving?
Here Scott’s analysis of Manent and his criticism of the EU is particularly interesting.  The problem, for Manent, is that the idea of democracy cannot exist without a form, a body, and this body cannot exist without limit. Manent is concerned that the “idea” of Europe has no limit, an imperialism of ideals without a practical referent to ground democratic deliberation. This draws our attention to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Ukraine’s attempt to defend its sovereignty through admission to the EU. It occurs to me that we are seeing Manent’s proposition being put to the test. Either Europe will form itself into a European Empire, capable of establishing concrete form by defending itself militarily, by defending Ukraine as part of itself, and Europe will achieve its limit, or it will not. In any case, what the invasion demonstrates is that having a state capable of defending itself is a condition of having democratic self-governance in the first place. Manent may be correct that democracy is tied historically to the development of the nation-state, but today there is no future that involves a fully independent and democratic nation-state of Ukraine.  Either Ukraine is part of an EU that is capable of defending itself, in which Ukraine retains its identity within the democratic difference of the EU, a Ukraine that exists and is independent only through the EU, or Ukraine, and the Ukrainian people, cease to exist altogether, and become Russians. If the legitimacy of democracy requires a common project, it is the EU, not nation-states, that have been given one, while at the same time the grossness of Russia has the potential to shock us out of our post-modern niaiserie and remind us that perhaps even epigones can recognize the nature of justice once in a while.


[1] “Contextualizing the Age of Brexit and Trump,” Lee Ward, in Cosmopolitanism and Its Discontents, ix.
[2] “Cicero between Cosmopolis and Republic,” Cary J. Nederman, 3.
[3] “Cosmopolitanism in Early Modern Jewish Political Thought,” Vasileios Syros, 39.
[4] “Rousseau’s Paradoxical Cosmopolitan Anti-Cosmopolitanism,” John T. Scott, 54-60.
[5] “Global Enframing, Authentic History, Dasein: Thoughts on the Preview of Heidegger’s Beitrage zur Philosophie,” José Daniel Parra, 138.
[6] “Nietzsche’s Good Europeans,” Paul E. Kirkland, 109. Kirkland’s essay presents Nietszsche’s view as an alternative to this dichotomy, neither universalist nor nationalist, but rather “interested in those conditions of difference in which people might flourish apart from life-destroying generalities.” 120. On Kant, see “A Cosmopolitanism that Populists Could Love,” Jeffrey Church, 69-85.  In this context reading these two essays together is interesting.  Could Kant be one of Nietzsche’s “good Europeans?”
[7] “Glocalism and Democracy in James Tully’s Critique of Cosmopolitanism and Imperialism,” Lee Ward, 174.
[8] “Rethinking the Democratic Boundary Problem” Zoltan Miklosi and Zsolt Kapelner, 185.
[9] “Demos or No Demos?  Citizenship and Democracy in the EU,” Claudia Wiesner, 219.

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