Robert Fine's "Cosmopolitanism"

Submitted by martin on 28 March, 2020 - 8:10 Author: Eduardo Tovar

The sociologist Robert Fine, who was a long-time sympathiser and sometime activist with Workers’ Liberty, passed away on 9 June 2018 at the age of 72.

As our series of book reviews to commemorate his life illustrates, Fine dedicated his scholarship to many far-reaching topics in social and political theory. These topics include the rule of law, the anti-apartheid movement and independent trade unions in South Africa, racism and antisemitism, and the political thought of GWF Hegel, Karl Marx, and Hannah Arendt.

Since Dale Street’s review in Solidarity #432 and Dan Davison’s tribute article in Solidarity #512 both thoroughly discuss the last book Fine published in his lifetime, namely Antisemitism and the Left: On the Return of the Jewish Question (2017) with Philip Spencer, this discussion of his 2007 book Cosmopolitanism (London and New York: Routledge 2007) will complete our survey of Fine’s works.

The notion of cosmopolitanism has been formulated and disputed in many ways over thousands of years. Its basic idea is that all humans are or could be members of a single community. Accordingly, we have obligations to others that go beyond those of kinship or citizenship and we should value the differences in people’s ways of living, though these two aspects of cosmopolitanism often exist in tension. [1]

When asked where he was from, the Ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic (c. 412-323 BCE) famously answered “I am a citizen of the world”, thereby coining the term “cosmopolitan”. The British-Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah suggests that, if there is a slogan that summarises cosmopolitanism, it might be “universality plus difference”. [2]

In the mid-20th century, the Stalinists infamously used the anti-Semitic allegation of “rootless cosmopolitanism” (often alongside the apparently contradictory allegation of “Zionism”) to liquidate opponents within the official Communist Parties. This disapproving use of “cosmopolitanism” connotes foreignness and disloyalty.

Whilst cosmopolitanism is perhaps most readily contrasted with nationalism and is often painted as a new threat to “the nation”, cosmopolitanism predates both nationalism and the nation-state by millennia.

In Cosmopolitanism, Fine explores the idea of cosmopolitanism, its use in critical thought, and its application to political issues in what he calls “an exercise in cosmopolitan social theorising” (p. xvii). In his words:

“Cosmopolitan social theory understands social relations through a universalistic conception of humanity and by means of universalistic analytical tools and methodological procedures. Its simple but by no means trivial claim is that, despite all our differences, humankind is effectively one and must be understood as such.” (p. xvii)

To Fine, cosmopolitanism has two faces: in its “interpretive moment” as the cosmopolitan outlook, which is “a form of consciousness”, and in its “external moment” as the cosmopolitan condition, which is “an existing social reality” (p. 134)

One can understand Fine’s turn to cosmopolitanism as part of his overarching search for newer, positive contents for the anti-Stalinist left, such that we are not simply defined in the negative by our opposition to both Stalinism and capitalism. [3] As Fine puts it:

“[Cosmopolitan social theory] has the virtue today of facing up to the decline of the ‘old left’, with its fixation on the politics of anti-imperialism regardless of substantive content, and the decline of the ‘new left’ with its own fixation on particular visible identities regardless of our common human condition.” (p. 135)

Significant sections of the modern left reject cosmopolitan thought. Sometimes this takes the form of repackaging nationalism as progressive or socialist, as has been the case in several “left-populist” movements such as Aufstehen in Germany and La France Insoumise in France.

Other times the rejection of cosmopolitan thought takes the form of dismissing universalism and other Enlightenment values as nothing more than white Eurocentrism. This is especially true in identity politics derived from poststructuralist and postcolonial theory. Such identity politics foreground one’s identity (e.g. race, gender, nationality) as decisive for political organising and for the truth or moral authority of one’s claims and actions, often in the form of “narratives” to which only members of the relevant oppressed group can attest.

It is therefore a fitting time to consider Fine’s writings on cosmopolitanism.

Since 1989, a “new cosmopolitan” current of thought has become popular in the human sciences in light of globalisation and its accompanying social transformations. As Fine puts it, “[t]he new cosmopolitanism is an endeavour to denature and decentre the nation-state – to loosen the ties that bind the nation-state to theories of democracy in political theory, theories of society in sociology, theories of internationalism in international relations, theories of sovereignty in international law and theories of justice in political philosophy” (p. 5-6).

One prominent figure in this intellectual current is the sociologist Ulrich Beck, who argues against what he terms “methodological nationalism”. In Beck’s view, traditional sociology equates “society” with the delimited nation-state. Since we now live in a transnational epoch of, for example, global risks and crises that cannot be confined or comprehended at the national level, the central concepts of classical social theory are obsolete as a means of understanding social reality (p. 6-7). In place of these “zombie categories”, Beck calls for a social theory better suited to the “cosmopolitan condition” of our present. [4]
As Fine observes, this approach risks prematurely setting aside concepts in the hurry to join the “cult of the new” (p. 8). It also underestimates the extent to which classical social theory opposed methodological nationalism. In Marx’s writings, for instance, “we find not only a normative commitment to ‘internationalism’ rather than nationalism but more significantly an analysis of the erosion of national boundaries by global capitalism and a critique of the dynamics of capital accumulation in which national characteristics play a strictly subordinate part” (p. 12).

Fine goes on to explore the affinities between the new cosmopolitanism and older theories of natural law, especially via the highly influential philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). To Kant, an international legal order and universal civil society would underpin a new cosmopolitan order that could guarantee peaceful inter-state relations. Republicanism and perpetual peace are the pillars of this ideal order, which Kant viewed as “Providence and the Laws of Nature accomplishing their universal purpose” (p. 27).

Whilst GWF Hegel (1770-1831) appreciated the value of Kant’s cosmopolitan vision, Hegel saw it as resting on an overly idealised image of the modern republican state:

“[O]nce we explore the substance of the republican state – the power of its executive, its propensities to legal authoritarianism, the patriotism it fosters, the disciplinary powers it wields, the interests of its rulers in war, its view of itself as an Earthly God – the affinity between republicanism and cosmopolitanism becomes more problematic.” (p. 36).

As Fine puts it, “the nub of Hegel’s criticism of Kant” might be that “we cannot simply ratchet cosmopolitan laws and institutions onto existing forms of the modern state and think we have solved the problem of political violence” (p. 38).

Fine also considers how more recent social and political theorists like JĂźrgen Habermas have tried to rethink the relationship between cosmopolitanism and political community in the form of a multi-layered global order.

In this respect, the key ideas Habermas explores are “constitutional patriotism” and “the constitutionalisation of international law”. By constitutional patriotism, Habermas means a kind of inclusive, post-national loyalty to a state’s constitutional principles (as opposed to the state itself) that recognises the heterogeneous nature of the state’s population and fosters respect for others.

Although Habermas intended constitutional patriotism as a more progressive and cosmopolitan alternative to nationalism, as Fine observes, its internal urge towards a dualistic “us and them” vision of the world suggests “that constitutional patriotism is closer to nationalism than its advocates would like to think” (p. 48).

Perhaps for this reason, Habermas turned his theoretical attention away from the national level and towards the European and international levels. Here Fine contrasts Habermas’ approach with that of the 20th century liberal philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002).

Rawls theorised an international “Law of Peoples” that could guide liberal societies in its interactions with other societies. Amongst other things, the Law of Peoples emphasises respect for human rights and self-determination. Nevertheless, it “retains the classical notion of bounded political peoples as [its] basic unit” and holds that “only those peoples which acknowledge and uphold human rights should be recognised as equal members of a society of peoples” (p. 64-65).

Habermas tries to overcome the defects of Rawls’ perspective by using “the constitutional principles of international law” as “a rational foundation of criticism and reform of positive international laws”, effectively adapting “the theory of constitutional patriotism to the arena of world society” (p. 71).

However, this has the shortcoming of idealising international law “in a new cosmopolitan cloth” (p. 76). Rather than exaggerate law’s capabilities and attractiveness, we should “leave space for the political field of judgement” (p. 77). After all, whilst law, as both a form and mediation of power, “implies some level of inhibition of power”, “law is part of society and contains within itself the power relations that traverse society” (p. 74).

Fine then addresses the thorny topic of humanitarian intervention. Here we find a deeper ambivalence within cosmopolitanism itself because it contains competing ideals: that we should act to prevent crimes against humanity from being committed and that we should seek alternatives to warfare.

Whilst appealing to cosmopolitan values to justify humanitarian intervention in given circumstances seems “either hopelessly naive or wilfully cynical” in light of how easily this can mask an imperialist order amongst the big powers, as Fine points out, “critics of cosmopolitanism must still engage with the problem to which cosmopolitanism is a response: never again to be indifferent to the deliberate mass destruction of human lives simply because the perpetrators are ordained by a sovereign nation-state or because the victims are foreigners” (p. 81).

Whilst Fine does not pretend to have straightforward answers, he notes that the responsibility to protect civilians from mass atrocities need not be attached only to states and international organisations: “[i]t might include, for instance, publicity and support for civil rights movements, free trade unions, women’s equality movements and democratic political parties in atrocity-committing regimes, and safe havens for refugees in search of asylum from these regimes” (p. 95).

Fine strikes a similar chord when discussing the prosecution of crimes against humanity. Here, as in his previous book Political Investigations: Hegel, Marx, Arendt (2001), Fine draws heavily on the political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), for whom “[t]he cosmopolitan point of view is not simply to validate international criminal justice but to reconcile a commitment to this transformative political project with recognition of the world as it actually exists” (p. 111).

To Fine, Arendt’s “worldly cosmopolitanism is not forged simply through the progression of legal and institutional forms but through our capacity as actors in the public sphere to come to terms with our cosmopolitan existence”, which “means that when we judge and act in political matters, we take our bearings ‘from the idea not the actuality, of being a world citizen’” (p. 111).

Turning to Arendt’s final, unfinished work The Life of the Mind (1977-78), Fine stresses Arendt’s appreciation of the relationship between the human faculties (or activities) of will, judgement, and understanding. To Fine, this relationship helps us comprehend cosmopolitanism’s nature as both a description of social reality and an element in the life of the modern mind.

Following his Hegel-inspired approach, Fine’s chapters are always mindful of both “the critique” and “the critique of the critique”. He makes efforts to resist falling into either idealisation or disillusionment when interpreting cosmopolitanism. Similarly, he is “wary of constructing a sharp divide between ‘actually existing cosmopolitanism’ and the ‘cosmopolitanism to come’”, preferring instead to view them as different sides of the same complex phenomenon (p. 140).

Unlike both his preceding book (Political Investigations) and his following book (Antisemitism and the Left), Fine does not give Marx a central role in Cosmopolitanism. This seems to stem in part from a certain wariness of “the modernist identification of the universal with some selected particular”, including the “the identification of the ‘universal class’...with the interests and values of humanity as a whole” (p. 135).

I am in qualified agreement insofar as not all interests we ought to respect or support are reducible to those of what we Marxists would consider the universal class, namely the working class. I would also agree that the Stalinist regime wrought its totalitarian horrors by presenting its own interests as those of the universal class.

Nevertheless, the perspective of class remains vital. First, it helps to avoid the kinds of disastrous conclusions reached by the short-lived Euston Manifesto grouping of “democrats and progressives” around the time of the book’s publication.

That grouping attempted a political realignment “beyond the socialist left towards egalitarian liberals and others of unambiguous democratic commitment”. It made only glancing references to class, made armed intervention the cornerstone of its “new internationalism”, and several of its founders went as far as supporting the Iraq War.

Second, one should not underestimate the universalising drive of capital and how, by creating wage-labour across the world, capitalism produces working-class agents who possess common interests and unique leverage by virtue of their systemic position as wealth producers. As such, independent organised labour is distinctly positioned to fight for and actualise cosmopolitan values in the face of tyranny and barbarism.

The role of black workers’ independent trade unions in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, which Fine wrote about extensively, illustrates this distinct position well. While I sadly was unable to speak with Fine himself about it before his passing, I suspect that he would agree. From what I am told by his former students, towards the end of his life, Fine became more appreciative of his earlier work on South Africa.

At the time of writing this review, the COVID-19 pandemic is gripping the entire world. Yet it is at this moment, when the interconnectedness of humanity is most starkly apparent, that both nationalist and localist forms of isolationism are rising. Border closures, dehumanising immigration rules, and xenophobic attitudes leave migrants and refugees even more “otherised” and vulnerable than they were already.

If there is any moment for the organised left to stand up for cosmopolitanism, it is now.

[1] Kwame Anthony Appiah terms these intertwining, but potentially conflicting, ideals within cosmopolitanism “universal concern” and “legitimate difference”. Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (London: Penguin Books 2007), p. xiii.

[2] Appiah, Cosmopolitanism, p. 151.

[3] Robert Fine, “The Poverty of Anti-Stalinism”, Workers’ Liberty, vol 1, no. 14, 1990, pp. 14-15.

[4] Ulrich Beck, “The Cosmopolitan Condition: Why Methodological Nationalism Fails,” Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 24 (7-8), 2007, pp. 286-290.

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