Cosmopolitanism: the dominant normative orientation of elites and educated urban middle classes within advanced societies of the West. Credit: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty

October 13, 2020   7 mins

Over the past 20 or 30 years, the political ideology of cosmopolitanism, which prioritises the global over the local, and denigrates the nation-state as a backward relic of an oppressive past, vanquished all competitors. No longer a mere niche interest of academic social scientists and political philosophers, it has outcompeted its rivals to become the dominant value system of the Western professional classes.

Yet even as cosmopolitanism has mutated from an obscure topic of research in academic journals to the fervently-held, unexamined belief system of almost all millennials — the Instagram story of political ideologies — its most devoted adherents still shrink with horror from the term itself. 

When, in July last year, the American Republican senator Josh Hawley gave a speech to the inaugural National Conservatism Conference in Washington DC, denouncing the “cosmopolitan consensus”, which “favours globalisation — closer and closer economic union, more immigration, more movement of capital, more trade on whatever terms” and in which “globalisation is a moral imperative”, he was immediately condemned by the adherents of the very ideology he was describing.  

The term was fascist, American commentators claimed; Hawley was echoing Stalin’s anti-Semitic trope of “rootless cosmopolitans” conspiring to undermine the nation-state; this was dangerous, nativist rhetoric, deserving of an apology. Yet the Twitter furore ignored the fact that the term cosmopolitanism has been widely, and entirely uncontroversially, used within the social sciences for a generation, to describe a particular set of values associated with a positive view of globalisation — a set of values which have become predominant in the taste-making class of the entire Western world. 

Indeed, the majority of academic users of the term support the worldview it describes — it is only journalists and other non-academic evangelists for cosmopolitanism who reject the term, even as they promote its worldview with ever-more ferocious zeal. How could this strange lack of self-awareness have come about?

An important recent book, The Struggle Over Borders, by a group of Dutch and German social scientists, does much to explain the roots of this strange paradox. A charitable explanation for the bizarre behaviour of the cosmopolitans can be found in the fact that “Cosmopolitanism is a notion that few people knew or used outside academic contexts just two decades ago,” even as it has become “the dominant normative orientation of elites and educated urban middle classes within advanced societies of the West.” 

Since the beginning of this century, they observe, “in political philosophy, cosmopolitanism as a normative theory has been revived as a necessary implication of liberal and universal thinking in a globalised world”, and the belief system of “those who advocate open borders, universal norms, and supranational authority,” has become not just a descriptive analysis of the social effects of globalised capitalism, but a normative, moral vision of how the world should and must be arranged. 

The great interest of the book’s analysis is that — unusually — it observes cosmopolitanism from the outside, rejecting the unthinking adherence to its values which characterises much of the debate, a worldview in which issues “like migration, free trade and European integration are historically inevitable, rational and enlightened choices, thus relegating alternatives to the domain of backwards irrationalism and seeing them as atavistic in relation to the requirements of modernisation”. 

As the authors observe, “those on the cosmopolitan side like to depict their opponents not as representatives of a legitimate political alternative, but as ‘narrow-minded chauvinists under the spell of populist demagogues’”. Cosmopolitanism, to cosmopolitans, is not a mere political ideology like any other, but the moral destiny of the world. Its opponents, here labelled communitarians, are viewed therefore not merely as rational supporters of an alternative political or economic system, but instead as dangerous relics of an oppressive past to be crushed, just as liberalism crushed the remnants of the feudal order. 

But how has the cosmopolitan ideology spread so rapidly, becoming the dominant belief system of middle-class Westerners within a mere generation? The answer lies in its association with high social status. Globalised capitalism favours the emergent transnational class, and “empowers state and supranational executives, non-majoritarian institutions within national political systems, global business leaders, experts and transnational NGO professionals, while nation-bound elected parliaments and nationally organised interest groups and protest politics see their political leverage dwindling.”

As globalisation creates a new dominant class, tastes and political opinions emerge to prop up and justify their position, which is not so much a considered moral worldview as a class consciousness, whether or not its adherents recognise it as such.

Echoing, in many ways, the Marxist critique of political opinions and aesthetic judgments as signifiers of class status and competition pioneered in the 1970s by the French sociologist and anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu, the authors observe that: “preferences for exotic food and music, and for diversity in general, are acquired tastes that can function as boundary markers of class distinctions and are apt to transform, to put it in Karl Marx’s terminology, a straightforwardly social-structural class ‘an sich’ into a self-consciously cosmopolitan class ‘fur sich’. When a taste for the exotic and the diverse comes to be defined as the refined and enlightened choice, and a taste for the local and traditional as the parochial and backward-looking one, cultural preferences become an instrument of power.”

Much of the political tumult of recent years is explained by this sociological analysis. As a political ideology associated with the values of celebrities, international business travellers, NGO professionals and journalists, the cosmopolitan worldview has, like its eponymous women’s magazine and cocktail, acquired the glossy sheen of high social status. As globalised capitalism rewards its chosen few materially, the worldview that enables it acquires both a moral justification — as not just lucrative, but fundamentally right — and the social cachet that comes with worldly success.

Like Victorian factory owners lauding themselves as the engines of social and moral progress, today’s cosmopolitans see their rewards as the justly deserved outcome of their tolerance and worldliness. Those who object to their newfound wealth and status are not just political opponents, acting according to their own interests: they are on the wrong side of history, backward, even evil.

Even at the turn of the millennium, at the height of the breathless discourse on globalisation within academia, more perceptive social scientists could already discern the direction of travel. In 2000, the anthropologist Richard A. Schweder observed that “the emergent ’New World Order’” would end up resembling “a postmodern Ottoman ‘millet system’ on a global scale,” divided between “two castes,” where “there will be the cosmopolitan liberals, who are trained to appreciate value neutrality and cultural diversity and who run the global institutions of the world system.

And there will be the local non-liberals, who are dedicated to one form or another of thick ethnicity and are inclined to separate themselves from ‘others’, thereby guaranteeing that there is enough diversity remaining in the world for the cosmopolitan liberals to appreciate.”  

Indeed, the Ottoman analogy is often made, with some ambivalence by social scientists and in a more romanticised fashion by cosmopolitans themselves, retrospectively recasting the polyglot trading cities of the Levant as havens of multicultural tolerance (a view Ottoman minorities themselves would view with markedly less enthusiasm). The inherent conflict between imperial cosmopolitanism and nationally-bounded self-governance has existed throughout modernity, the sociologist Craig Calhoun, an early critic of cosmopolitan discourse, warned in 2002, as “the tolerance of diversity in great imperial and trading cities has always reflected, among other things, precisely the absence of need or opportunity to organise political self-rule”. 

The close association between cosmopolitanism and empires past and present, made by both critics and adherents, is nevertheless correct. The authors of The Struggle Over Borders address this dynamic, noting that “the emerging cosmopolitan world culture not only has a liberal upper- and middle-class bias; it is also decidedly Western. Moreover, it is ‘Western’ especially in the more limited sense of being Anglo-Saxon or, even more narrowly, US American.” It is no wonder then, that “outside the West, many communitarian intellectuals see ‘Westernisation’ or ‘Americanisation’ as incompatible with local traditions and as a perpetuation of post-colonial relationships, even though the masses are often greatly attracted by the consumption-oriented vision of Westernisation”.

If today’s faltering episode of globalisation is the product of US global hegemony, then the fate of the dependent bourgeoisie it has created as a service class — clustered around the nodes of trade and exchange, its politics and fashions derived from the metropole — is clearly deeply intertwined with that of its imperial sponsor.

Consider, for example, a world where China has surpassed the United States as the dominant global power: Chinese hegemony would be highly unlikely to sustain the intellectual and ethical fashions of the modern-day cosmopolitans; instead, a rival class would likely emerge, whose material interests and subsequent political and moral choices were more closely aligned with those of the new hegemon.

But the greatest threat to cosmopolitanism’s ideological dominance perhaps lies in its very success. Viewed from without, an association can convincingly be made between its success in becoming the default worldview of the professional middle classes and the simultaneous erosion of the financial security and social status of the very same caste.

After all, “in the global age”, as the book’s authors observe, “the distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture as markers of class boundaries have been partly replaced and partly overlaid by the distinction between cosmopolitanism and local or ‘provincial’ culture. Mastering the intricacies of the latest requirements of appropriate gender and race relations discourse and behaviour has become a marker for belonging to the cosmopolitan class, in a similar way that tastes for classical music and art were markers of bourgeois culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” 

The frantic assertion of ever-more cosmopolitan positions by downwardly-mobile millennials therefore looks increasingly like a form of competition over status. Like Leonard Bast in Forster’s Howard’s End, today’s aspiring cosmopolitans cling desperately to the outward signifiers of bourgeois success even as the traditional markers of class belonging — financial security, home ownership, family formation — recede ever further from view.

Yet with each Instagram story and performatively absurd Twitter declaration of cosmopolitan belonging made by ever more tenuously-bourgeois aspirants, the value of the brand diminishes. When what was the status signifier of a transnational elite becomes firmly associated with an unenviable precariat unwillingly entering middle age, the arrival of some new, more attractive status marker seems almost certain. 

So much for the cosmopolitans, the status-hungry children of American empire and globalisation, as the world enters a more fractured and unsettled age. The idea that globalised free-trade capitalism would ever fulfil the stated aims of cosmopolitanism’s more zealous adherents was always absurd. As Marx himself declared in 1848, “all the destructive phenomena which unlimited competition gives rise to within one country are reproduced in more gigantic proportions on the world market,” to such a degree that “to call cosmopolitan exploitation universal brotherhood is an idea that could only be engendered in the brain of the bourgeoisie.”

But if we understand politicised cosmopolitanism precisely as a middle-class fantasy, and as a marker of social status rather than a serious attempt to describe reality, the frantic inflation this curious ideology has undergone in recent years reveals its hidden logic. The millennial generation might never become the jet-setting global citizens the prophets of globalisation promised, but they can at least decorate themselves with the glittering symbols of belonging as they compete for status and security in the wreckage of the world economy.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.