Why Cosmopolitanism Fails Everywhere
As of late, discussion of cosmopolitanism has been… quite cosmopolitan. Hardly a day has passed in the media without a mention. This is understandable, given that Covid-induced border closures have left many of us with a less vibrant (the euphemism most commonly employed to describe cosmopolitanism) and more parochial public square than we’ve been accustomed. Comparing the cosmopolitanism that has come to describe much of what is now the status quo with the homogeneity that defined our more distant past is now desirable, perhaps even inevitable. Yet it’s far from clear how cosmopolitanism will (nor it ever could) emerge victoriously.
As Aris Roussinos and Rob Henderson allude in their respective essays, liberal cosmopolitanism — an outlook that venerates the exotic and the different over the local and the common (a view in line with its Greek etymology) — has come to be the regnant ideology of most of the West. It’s the viewpoint favored and promoted by the upper tiers of society — often narrowly and exclusively for their own benefit — hence becoming the currently fashionable effect that has percolated down through society, emulated by large parts of the middle reaches as a means for their own social advancement.
Such is the situation Henderson illustrates; the dilemmas that confront many (Asian) immigrants as they navigate and ape many of the pieties of upper-class Western progressives in their push for social advancement and material progress. Whilst for Roussinos, Western cosmopolitanism may now be the reigning viewpoint, but its duration appears limited. It is a modish and shallow doctrine, prevailing mainly as a consequence of the US hegemony that enforces it, not due to any innate beneficence of its own. As he states, an alternative hegemon, e.g. China, would undoubtedly create their own — presumably non-cosmopolitan — doctrine, hierarchy and patronage.
Cosmopolitanism, after all, has not only become descriptive (we are, in demography and culture more diverse than ever) but prescriptive: ‘this is how things ought to be’, and anyone questioning the dogma deserving of the vituperation and ostracism that we see meted out to our current-day heretics on an almost daily basis.
The parlous state we found ourselves in is very much the same American historian and social critic Christopher Lasch predicted in the early 1990s, whereby the common and the local is denigrated, and the high and the foreign elevated. For Lasch, the citizenry of ‘Middle America’ is unfairly derided by the elites as “politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy” — whilst the cosmopolitanism partaken in by the upper classes is obviously lauded, “conjuring up the agreeable image of a global bazaar in which exotic cuisines, exotic styles of dress, exotic dress, [and] exotic tribal customs” can, and should, be experienced. This “tourist’s view of the world” has become boringly mainstream.
But that such a putatively benign doctrine is unable to exist without (the threat of) abuse and ostracism, is itself a rather large concern, drawing attention to its ultimate viability. What must be drawn enough attention to is the failure of cosmopolitanism as an ideology per se.
As another tragic event in France has confirmed, our deluded emphasis on liberal cosmopolitanism is the direct cause of most of the maladies that currently confront us. (And, has there been a more tragic case than France? — the nation that most strongly believed that secular ideology and citizenship could trump natural rights and norms?) No cosmopolitanism-no problem is far too simplistic. But it’s hard to argue that without it we’d still have most of the issues roiling us today.
For one, the nations that are currently busying themselves in toppling their own statues and icons, tearing at their own social compact and themselves apart, tend also to be the ones that are most broadly liberal cosmopolitan. Whilst there has always been tension and conflict in countries – be it largely religious (e.g. Ireland’s Catholics and Protestants), colonial (e.g. the US revolution) or class-based (e.g. the French revolution) — it’s clear that this year’s ‘events’ have been either directly caused, or at minimum intensified by, its societies’ increasingly cosmopolitan nature.
If we compare the liberal and diverse nations of the West and the more traditional and homogenous nations of the East we arrive at the same conclusion. On a deeper level, this exposes the often-proffered lie that we all live in universally turbulent and fractured times. This isn’t true. Yes, the liberal cosmopolitan West lives in fractured times, but most of Asia, and many parts of the rest of the world, carry on as per normal — mostly maintaining its (relative) degree of harmony.
This is what allows leaders of the non-cosmopolitan parts of the West to fire back at their Western confreres in our, possibly undeclared, internecine tensions. The most prominent of these critics is probably Hungary’s leader Victor Orban — himself a relative model of permanence in our ostensibly unstable times. His piercing and damning critiques of Western liberal cosmopolitanism render further criticism as largely futile. For Orban, Western cosmopolitanism is a destructive and failed ideology, imported across the world and imposed on peoples against their will and interests. As he states:
“Liberal imperialism reigns in Western Europe, and they [the liberal political and commercial establishment] are trying to force their worldview on countries that think differently. A position that nations wishing to retain their sovereignty should well resist. If not, then a situation akin to the one currently confronting the nations of liberal and cosmopolitan Western Europe awaits — that is, one where [a] wave of violence is sweeping through these countries, [with] statues… being toppled, and gang wars being fought in the streets of the beautiful small towns.”
Orban’s reaction to such events, whereby our putative superiors lecture us as they throw more and more stones from within their own glasshouses, is one now echoed by us all:
“I take a look at the countries which keep sending us messages about how to live our lives correctly, and how to govern and to operate a democracy well,” he says, “and I don’t know whether I should laugh or cry.”
Moving further East, cosmopolitanism is neither more prevalent nor venerated. In fact, the opposite is largely the case. The lengths that Henderson mentions some Asian immigrants are willing to go to in order to ingratiate themselves with Western cosmopolitan norms are amusing, given how anathema and non-reciprocal such a stance is in Asia itself. For one, the idea that East Asian universities would open their tertiary programs (especially high-tech programs of potential national import) to large numbers of foreign students — à la the West — is absurd. Western cosmopolitanism is undoubtedly flawed, but at least a veneer of its possible success remains evident (see Rishi Sunak in the UK, for example). Yet the doctrine of cosmopolitanism is so rare in Asia as to be essentially a chimera. Even to raise such a prospect would be met with howls of laughter, if not outright contempt.
Consider this: the safe and prosperous nations of Japan and South Korea — home to some of the best-educated and longest-living peoples in the world — are still some of the most ethnically homogenous and exclusive nations on the planet. But contra the cosmopolitans is largely the reason for their stability and success; not an achievement that occurred in spite of it. In China, at the same time — a much larger country — any attempt to amplify the natural cosmopolitanism and difference that must occur across a land of such a size is either discouraged (to put it mildly) or violently quashed, as we are now seeing with the treatment of the Muslim Uighurs in Xin Jiang province in the West of China, and (to a lesser extent) with their Tibetan and Mongolian minorities.
In Asia, the veneration of diversity as a value holds little weight. Such a thing is more readily seen as the destabilizing phenomenon that it often is. It’s an incoherent pose inconsistent with the far more important values of social cohesion, and assimilation into the broader cultural norms. This is itself a reflection of the differences between the Eastern approach to life — which values harmony and group solidarity — over the Western one, which deifies liberty and elevates individualism. Such often leads to a state of unbridled licentiousness that is frequently indistinguishable from disorder and chaos. Orban isn’t the only leader to look at the fractured state of the West and don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
In Asia, the only real liberal cosmopolitan success story, Singapore, is such precisely because it’s not that ‘liberal’ — nor entirely cosmopolitan. The tempering of both was seen as a necessity for social harmony and success by its founder, Lee Kwan Yew. Lee was well aware of the natural tendency for fracture in cosmopolitan communities and thus set about using the power of the state to overcome this. Largely-benevolent diktats were introduced as a means to ensure the cohesion necessary for the country’s further economic and educational success: housing quotas were used as a means to override natural ethnocentrism (the presence of slums or enclaves was deemed too great); whilst a rigorous education system and strict laws were enacted — like the famous chewing gum prohibition, or the exorbitant anti-littering fines, or the treatment meted out for drug offenses. Lee was also far from sanguine about any presumed natural equality between people and peoples, nor for lauding such differences per se: difference isn’t to be celebrated, excellence is. And, in spite of the easy praise of Singapore as a ‘cosmopolitan paradise’, the island is still largely dominated by the Chinese majority, and the current long-serving prime minister is none other than Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong.
Henderson further refers to data from the American writer Amy Chua in her book World on Fire, regarding the disproportionate success of a small demographic minority of Korean-Americans in their ownership of a majority of supermarkets and produce stands in New York City. Yet, its main function and other similar examples in Chua’s book are like a cautionary tale. The book’s purpose is to explain the fragile state that ‘market-dominant’ ethnic and religious minorities find themselves in as they become greatly despised, shunned, and often violently persecuted by the ethnic and religious majorities; a situation experienced by Chua herself with the murder of her wealthy ethnically-Chinese aunt by one of her native Filipino employees. World on Fire‘s key theme is the utter failure of capitalist cosmopolitanism in protecting minorities from the wrath and envy of majorities. In such situations, capitalist cosmopolitanism is largely incapable of ameliorating or overcoming natural tensions and hatreds, although it can often heighten and hasten them.
From a literary and philosophical perspective, cosmopolitanism is hardly afforded any more esteem. Two works of Shakespeare himself have as one of their major themes the problems inherent in cosmopolitanism. His plays Othello and The Merchant of Venice are, inter alia, nothing more than an explicit rejection of cosmopolitanism. They show what we’re experiencing: that despite the lure and promise of universal prosperity and brotherhood promoted in that great cosmopolitan commercial republic of the time, Venice, the financial gain is no match for two of the other great forces in men’s souls: race and religion.
The tragic lesson in Othello is that — despite the possession of a local wife, Desdemona, and of military valor and success for his adopted city — Othello’s foreignness (he is a Moorish general) remains as the unassailable obstacle that precludes him from obtaining ultimate respect and stability within the Venetian community. A lesson that we are meant to take as one not only applicable to Venice, but one that endures in all times and places. The Merchant of Venice, essentially, teaches the same lesson of ultimate rejection, yet on the religious plane. Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, can’t ultimately be harmoniously integrated into the political community because of the unbridgeable metaphysical differences between him and the people of Christian Venice. He can’t possibly bring himself to believe what the city believes, and vice-versa. Thus, Shylock’s appeal away from religion and culture to one based on our common humanity, famously manifests in his ‘hath not a Jew eyes’ speech.
Both these works show us the problems inherent in the cosmopolitan project as such — as well understood by the American philosopher Allan Bloom in his book Shakespeare’s Politics where, echoing Bard’s pessimism on this issue, he states:
“Men can only be men together when they mutually recognize their sameness; otherwise they are like beings of different species to each other… neither can regard the other as a human being in any significant sense because in all that is human they differ.”
The reason for the failure of cosmopolitanism is deeply profound, grounded in our ultimately ethnocentric and tribal natures (a point also noted by Chua in her book, Political Tribes). This is how Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, is able to say that a very great narrowness is not incompatible with the health of an individual or a people. As contrarily — as our current situation confirms — that a great openness brings about a circumstance where it’s hard to avoid decomposition.
Bloom’s view was no doubt informed by his famous teacher, Leo Strauss, who had similar anti-globalist sentiments. For Strauss, as he says: “the society by nature is the closed society.” A position advanced in direct contrast to the post-war zeitgeist, and that of another famous, 20th Century German-speaking émigré philosopher, Karl Popper. The latter’s most famous work, The Open Society and Its Enemies has both lent its name to one of the most famous and maligned proponents of cosmopolitanism now operating, George Soros, and his Open Society; and encapsulated the prevailing spirit of our own time too — i.e. cosmopolitan openness.
Cosmopolitanism fails elsewhere. As the recent Covid crisis has illuminated, the presence in certain countries and climes of large numbers of peoples more naturally suited to other — hotter, more tropical — ones is an obvious and evident failure, such as in countries like Sweden where it has taken a toll on immigrant communities. But it’s a narrative that runs counter to our current cosmopolitan obsession, and so it must be ignored, obfuscated, or rendered verboten. It’s easier to just avoid such difficult questions, and relegate the blame to other factors — such as social and economic circumstances.
Our current indulgence of cosmopolitanism can’t endure. It’s ultimately a facile and feel-good doctrine employed by the elites in direct contradistinction to the wishes of the majority. It’s a point of view and state of mind that contains too many inconsistencies, and that causes too much damage. Ultimately, it’s anti-natural. It can’t endure: what can’t go on, won’t go on. And cosmopolitanism won’t. What we must work towards is a program that peacefully moves us away from this failed doctrine. Only this can ultimately return us to a healthy cosmos of distinct polities — the only real cosmopolitanism worth applauding.