A citizen of whose world?

Issue: 135

Jamie Pitman

David Held, Cosmopolitanism: Ideals and Realities (Polity, 2010), £15.99

History will tell whether David Held is best remembered for his role in developing the London School of Economics’ intimate relationship with the Gaddafi regime in Libya or for his voluminous body of work advocating a global turn towards “cosmopolitanism”. Modern cosmopolitanism has come to be defined as a supplement to globalisation that seeks to emphasise the moral obligations human beings owe to one another, over and above allegiances to nation, race, gender, religion or political affiliation (class is often the elephant in the room in cosmopolitan thinking). This stress on liberal ethics, individualism and universalism is designed to smash the forcefield of nationalism, aided by a raft of more familiar measures including human rights, a universalised legal framework and the improvement of our existing democratic structures.

The supreme twist of irony at the centre of Held’s connection to the Gaddafi regime was that so-called “humanitarian interventions”—where “no-fly zones” become a euphemism for Western fighter jets to kill with impunity—are a central plank of the new cosmopolitan agenda (a register of whose thinkers include Martha Nussbaum, Jürgen Habermas, Mary Kaldor and Ulrich Beck). But there is (theoretically at least) a sizeable gap between Held’s own conception and the hawkish realities of the Washington security agenda. Held’s more nuanced position is succinctly summarised by his occasional co-author, Daniele Archibugi, who (condemning the Afghan war) states, “a criminal act is not enough to justify the unleashing of brute force… What we need is democratic management of global events, not high-tech reprisals.”

Held takes another step in this direction by refusing to abstract Al Qaeda from Western foreign policy, instead emphasising the symbiotic relationship between military adventurism and global terrorism. Yet Held’s road map for his own cosmopolitanism remains largely normative. It relies on: (a) institutional reform; and, (b) globalisation forcing the transnational ruling class into making the collective decisions necessary to combat climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, global poverty, etc.

But this optimism is both unsatisfactory and ahistorical. First, Held treats globalisation as “a thing in itself”, a runaway, irreversible process divorced from capitalism rather than the effect of neoliberal policy-making and an internal logic that strives “to batter down all Chinese walls”, as Marx put it. Secondly, there is little historical evidence that merely staring into the abyss will provide a sufficient fulcrum to divert global leaders from the dangerous trajectories that they have locked us into. The failure of successive climate change conferences and the creeping return of the mutually assured destruction narrative as Iran and other nations pursue nuclear programmes testify to this as surely as the failure of the Millennium Development Goals—to name but a few examples of Held’s own choosing.

Held’s argument that our “overlapping communities of fate” provide a springboard to overcome shared global risks naively hangs upon the idea that global elites will suddenly discover a hidden store of good will down the back of some collective sofa. In a world of combined and uneven development, where historic advantage is built into the system and underwritten by military power, betting the farm on “cooperation” when all the other players are so bent on “competition” seems a bet too far, especially with stakes this high.

Despite that, many Marxists will find it difficult to simply dismiss this work with well-rehearsed “reform or revolution” arguments. Held’s critique of the concentration and entrenchment of economic, political and military power on the world stage is as commendable as his stated desire for social justice. Held does not shy away from connecting climate change to neoliberal dogma or the same dogma to the current economic crisis, even if he incorrectly attributes the crisis to “light touch” regulation rather than a structural crisis of overaccumulation and profitability.

This naturally leads to the question of what is the bulwark that prevents largely decent analysis from shaping a deeply flawed end product? The answer to this paradox lies in the underlying theory and assumptions that inform Held’s work.

It was Immanuel Kant, the 18th century critical philosopher, who first outlined a fully formed cosmopolitan theory. The material motivation was provided by the aim of constituting harmony between sovereign states so that the massive expansion in global trade under way at the time could continue unabated. The idea was that travellers (read: traders) would be extended every courtesy when they crossed national boundaries. Kant’s mistaken belief that a fledgling capitalism could act as an instrument of “perpetual peace” has been hollowed out both in theory (notably in the analyses of Lenin, Nikolai Bukharin and Karl Kautsky) and in practice, underlined by the experience of the two bloodiest wars in history.

Despite these glaring shortfalls in the Kantian heritage, the mistakes of the past continue to be writ large on much of the new cosmopolitanism, mostly activated by the uneasy combination of capitalism and idealism. We can see the echoes of Kant’s radical liberalism in Held’s (albeit reserved) advocacy of military interventionism; a clunking moral economy and a belief in a universalism that will reconcile people’s conflicting interests—despite the fact that any real universalism has continually evaded the liberal tradition (slavery and colonialism historically end any arguments in that arena). Human rights are another Kantian import that, uncoupled from any socio-economic context, can all too easily become an instrument of oppression and a philosophical justification of the market. Taking a panoramic view, the potential for ambiguity within cosmopolitan programmes means that it is impossible to identify any consistency within it. This explains Held’s adoption of what he terms a “layered cosmopolitan approach”. Such an approach (termed “hermeneutic”) means Held fully expects any framework he develops to be “interpreted” rather than strictly followed, dependent on a whole nexus of variables such as class, race, sex, culture, location and so on (and it is in no way clear how any of this would impact on already persecuted national minorities).

Effectively this leaves us with two potential outcomes: either the whole project becomes meaningless—a moral code with a built-in “get-out” clause (thereby dissolving any chance of the “democratic management” Archibugi argues for above) or else it invokes a strange sense of déjà vu in which “certain” nations will be free to interpret cosmopolitanism for other, “less enlightened” nations, in the way dominant states have forced neoliberalism upon less powerful nations with socially disastrous consequences.

These ambiguities and inconsistencies continue as we arrive at the final component in Held’s grand scheme, in which “the rules of [capitalism] will have to be changed systematically” (p60). Held’s desire for social justice initially drags him onto more social democratic terrain—but this is not simply a shift from Ayn Rand to Rhineland; the writer’s tussle with capitalist reality leads him to draft a regulatory and institutional framework that effectively removes the conditions necessary for capital accumulation.

If rigorously applied, Held’s recommendations for a universal basic income, alongside other social safety nets, would endanger the process of “reproduction” outlined by Marx in volume two of Capital by removing the immediate imperative to find employment. The withdrawal of workers from the labour market would necessarily force wages (and presumably the basic income) into an upward spiral—which would be totally unacceptable to the capitalist class. The more likely outcome, however, would be that the capitalists drove down the basic income to below subsistence levels and continued with “business as usual”.

Held continues by arguing for a radical policy reorientation at institutions like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and United Nations—effectively undermining much of the terrain
neoliberalism operates on. Held believes this can be achieved by ensuring nations from the global South are given an equal voice at round table discussions. Once again the writer seems to be disconnected from the circuits of capital and political power that the rest of us are sadly plugged into. It is difficult to imagine the hegemonic powers that be (national or corporate) simply relinquishing their position without a struggle.

The same problem resurfaces when Held recommends reversing the outflow of capital from the poorest to the richest states or refunnelling military expenditure into alleviating hardship. More specifically, Held’s admirable attempt to rebalance the scales between the richer and poorer nations would require massive transfer payments from Western states and their financial institutions. Events in the seemingly intractable eurozone crisis suggest how unlikely it is that capitalist states would accept this. Indeed, the current crisis has exposed the weakness in many of Held’s foundational beliefs. Held is careful to thematise many of the world’s most urgent problems, yet he is unable to connect them together because capitalism is the missing jigsaw piece he needs and he is determined to use it in his solution. This forces Held’s retreat into using a static model of the world that presumes a stable capitalism and ignores the contingencies of social existence. It is only thanks to such a model, reminiscent of the distortions found in neoclassical economics, that Held is able to assert the feasibility of his cosmopolitanism. But real life has a habit of disproving models and so it is here.