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A new cosmopolitanism is in the air

Sociologist Ulrich Beck presents seven theses to combat the global power of capital

The nationalist perspective - which equates society with the society of the nation state - blinds us to the world in which we live. In order to perceive the interrelatedness of people and of populations around the globe in the first place, we need a cosmopolitan perspective. The common terminological denominator of our densely populated world is "cosmopolitanisation", which means the erosion of distinct boundaries dividing markets, states, civilizations, cultures, and not least of all the lifeworlds of different peoples. The world has not certainly not become borderless, but the boundaries are becoming blurred and indistinct, becoming permeable to flows of information and capital. Less so, on the other hand, to flows of people: tourists yes, migrants no. Taking place in national and local lifeworlds and institutions is a process of internal globalisation. This alters the conditions for the construction of social identity, which need no longer be impressed by the negative juxtaposition of "us" and "them".

For me, it is important that cosmopolitanisation does not occur somewhere in abstraction or on a global scale, somewhere above people's heads, but that it takes place in the everyday lives of individuals ("mundane cosmopolitanisation"). The same is true for the internal operations of politics, which have become global on all levels, even that of domestic politics, because they must take account of the global dimension of mutual interdependencies, flows, networks, threats, and so on ("global domestic politics"). We must ask, for example: How does our understanding of power and control become altered from a cosmopolitan perspective? By way of an answer, I offer seven theses.

Globalisation is anonymous control
First thesis

In the relationship between the global economy and the state a meta power play is under way, a struggle for power in the context of which the rules concerning power in the national and international system of states are being rewritten. The economy in particular has developed a kind of meta power, breaking out of the power relations organized in terms of territories and the nation state to conquer new power strategies in digital space. The term "meta power play" means that one fights, struggles for power, and simultaneously alters the rules of world politics, with their orientation to the nation state.

The pursuit of the question as to the source of the meta power of capital strategies brings one up against a remarkable cirucumstance. The basic idea was expressed in the title of an eastern European newspaper which appeared during a 1999 visit by the German Federal Chancellor, and which read: "We forgive the Crusaders and await the investors." It is the precise reversal of the calculations of classical theories of power and control which facilitates the maximization of the power of transnational enterprises: the means of coercion is not the threat of invasion, but instead the threat of the non-invasion of the investors, or of their departure. That is to say, there is only one thing more terrible than being overrun by the multinationals, and that is not to be overrun by them.

This form of control is no longer associated with the carrying out of commands, but instead with the possibility of being able to invest more advantageously in other countries, and with the threat potential opened up by such opportunities, namely the threat of doing nothing, of declining to invest in a given country. The new power of the concerns is not based on the use of violence as the ultima ratio to compel others to conform to one's will. It is far more flexible because able to operate independently of location, and hence globally.

Not imperialism, but non-imperialism; not invasion, but the withdrawal of investments constitutes the core of global economic power. This de-territorialised economic power requires neither political implementation nor political legitimacy. In establishing itself, it even bypasses the institutions of the developed democracies, including parliaments and courts. This meta power is neither legal nor legitimate; it is "translegal". But it does alter the rules of the national and international system of power.

The analogy between the military logistics of state power and the logic of economic power is striking and astonishing. The volume of investment capital corresponds to the fire-power of military weaponry, with the decisive distinction, however, that in this case, power is augmented by threatening not to shoot. Product development is the equivalent of the updating of weaponry systems. The establishment of branches by large corporations in many different countries replaces military bases and the diplomatic corps. The old military rule that offence is the best defence, now translated, reads: States must invest in research and development in order to fully maximize the global offensive power of capital. Growing together with research and educational budgets (or so it is hoped) is the volume of a given state's voice in the arena of world politics.

The power of the threat of non-investment is already ubiquitous today. Globalisation is not an option; it is an anonymous power. No one started it, no one can stop it, no one is responsible for it. The word "globalisation" stands for the organized absence of responsibility. You cast about for someone to address, with whom you can lodge a complaint, against whom you can demonstrate. But there is no institution to turn towards, no telephone number to call, no e-mail address to write to. Everyone sees himself as a victim, no one as a perpetrator. Even corporate heads (those Machiavellian "modern princes"), who want to be courted, must by definition sacrifice their thinking and behaviour on the altar of shareholder value if they want to avoid being fired themselves.

A new perspective for a different approach to action
Second thesis

The joke of this meta power argument lies in the following: the opportunities for action among the co-players are constituted within the meta power game itself. They are essentially dependent upon how actors themselves define and redefine the political, and these definitions are preconditions for success. Only a decisive critique of nation state orthodoxy, as well as new categories directed towards a cosmopolitan perspective, can open up new opportunities for acquiring power. Anyone who adheres to the old, national dogmatism (to the fetish of sovereignty, for instance, and to the unilateral policies derived from it) will be skipped over, rolled over, and won't even be in position to complain about it. It is precisely the costs accruing to states as a consequence of their adherence to the old, nation state rules of power relations which necessitates the switch to a cosmopolitan point of view. In other words: nationalism - a rigid adherence to the position that world political meta power games are and must remain national ones - is revealed to be extremely expensive. A fact learned by the USA, a world power, recently in Iraq.

The confusion between national and global politics distorts one's perspective, and at the same time blocks all recognition and understanding of new features of power relations and power resources. This means failing to exploit the opportunity to transform the win-lose and lose-lose rules of the meta power game into win-win rules from which the state, global civil society, and capital can simultaneously profit. It is a question of inverting Marx's basic idea: it is not that being determines consciousness, but instead that consciousness maximizes new possibilities for action (cosmopolitan perspective) by players who are engaged in global political power relations. There exists a royal road to the transformation of one's own power situation. But first you must change your world-view. A sceptical, realistic view of the world - but the same time a cosmopolitan one!

Only capital is permitted to break the rules
Third thesis

It is an irony of history that the world-view discredited by the collapse of communism in Europe has now been adopted by the victors of the Cold War. The neoliberals have elevated the weaknesses in Marx's thought to their own creed, namely his stubborn underestimation of nationalistic and religious movements, and his one-dimensional, linear model of history. On the other hand, they have closed their eyes to the Marxist insight according to which capitalism liberates anarchic and self-destructive forces. It remains a mystery why the neoliberals believe things might evolve differently in the 21st century. In any event, the looming ecological catastrophes and revolutions speak a very different language.

The neoliberal agenda represents an attempt to generalise from the short-lived historic victories of mobile capital. The perspective of capital positions itself as absolute and autonomous, thereby unfolding the strategic power and the space of possibility of classical economics as a sub-political, world political lust for power. Afterwards, that which is good for capital becomes the best option for everyone. Stated ironically, the promise is that the maximization of the power of capital is, in the final analysis, the preferred path to socialism.

The neoliberal agenda, in any event, insists on the following: in the new meta power relations, capital has two pieces and gets two moves. Everyone else has access, as before, to only one piece and a single move. The power of new liberalism rests, then, upon a radical inequality: not just anyone is permitted to flaunt the rules. The breaking or changing of rules remains the revolutionary prerogative of capital. The nationalist perspective of politics cements the superior power of capital. This superiority, however, is essentially dependent on the state not following suit, on politics confining itself to the eternal carapace framed by the rules of national power relations. Who, then, is the counter-power and the counter-player to globalised capital?

We, the consumers, constitute the counter-power
Fourth thesis

In the public consciousness of the West, the role of the counter-power to capital which shatters the rules falls not to the state, but instead to global civil society and its multiplicity of protagonists. Stated pointedly, we might say that the counter-power of global civil society rests on the figure of the political consumer. Not unlike the power of capital, this counterpower is a consequence of the power to say - always and everywhere - "no", to refuse to make a purchase. This weapon of non-purchasing cannot be delimited, whether spatially, temporally, or in terms of an object. It is, however, contingent upon the consumer's access to money, and upon the existence of an superfluity of available commodities and services among which consumers may choose.

Fatal for the interests of capital is the fact that there exists no strategy for counteracting the growing counter-power of the consumer. Even all-powerful global concerns lack the authority to fire consumers. For unlike workers, consumers do not belong to the firm. Even the extortionist threat of producing in a different country where consumers are still compliant is an utterly ineffectual instrument. Effectively networked and purposefully mobilized, the unaffiliated, free consumer can be organized transnationally and shaped into a lethal weapon.

Sacrifice autonomy, gain sovereignty
Fifth thesis

There is no way forward that can avoid redefining state politics. No doubt, the representatives and protagonists of global civil society are indispensable in global meta power relations, especially for the implementation of cosmopolitan values. To derive an abstract space of possibilities on the basis of state-based politics and to project this onto the cosmopolitan constellation, however, leads to a vast illusion. Namely that the contradictions, crises, and side-effects of the second "great transformation" now underway could be civilized by new bearers of hope, by engagement in the context of civil society, and moreover on a large scale. This figure of thought really belongs in the ancestral portrait gallery of the unpolitical.

Essential if we are to break out of the framework of nationalism in the context of political theory and action, then, is the distinction between sovereignty and autonomy. Nationalism rests on the equation of sovereignty with autonomy. From this point of view, economic dependency, cultural diversification, and military, legal, and technological cooperation between states lead automatically to a loss of autonomy and hence of sovereignty. If, on the other hand, sovereignty is measured by the degree to which a state is capable of solving its own particular national problems, then today's growing interdependency and collaboration - which is to say, a loss of autonomy - actually results in a gain of sovereignty.

For cosmopolitanism, this insight is central: a loss of formal autonomy and a gain of contentual sovereignty can be mutually reinforcing. Globalisation means both of these things: an increase of sovereignty by actors, for instance by virtue of the fact that via cooperation, networking, and interdependencies, they are able to acquire the capacity for action across great distances, thereby gaining access to new options—while the flipside of these developments is that entire countries lose their autonomy. The contentual sovereignty of (collective and individual) actors is enhanced to the degree that formal autonomy is reduced. In other words: proceeding now in the wake of political globalisation is the transformation of autonomy on the basis of national exclusion to sovereignty on the basis of transnational inclusion.

A state towards which the nation is indifferent
Sixth thesis

A political response to globalisation is the "cosmopolitan state" which opened itself up to the world. This state does not arise through the dissolution or supersession of the national state, but instead through its inner transformation, through "internal globalisation". The legal, political, and economic potentialities found at the national and local levels are reconfigured and opened up. This hermaphroditic creature - simultaneously a cosmopolitan and a national state - does not delimit itself nationalistically against other nations. Instead, it develops a network on the basis of mutual recognition of otherness and of equality among difference in order to solve transnational problems. Meanwhile, sovereignty is expanded in order to solve national problems. The concept of the cosmopolitan state is based on the principle of national indifference towards the state. It makes possible the side-by-side existence of various national identities by means of the principle of constitutional tolerance within and of cosmopolitan rights without.

In the wake of the Treaty of Wesphalia in 1648, the civil war of the 16th century - which had been shaped by religion - was concluded via the separation of the state from religion. Quite similarly (and this is my thesis), the national world (civil) wars of the 20th century could be concluded by the separation of state from nation. Just as it was a non-religious state which made the simultaneous practice of various religions possible for the first time, the network of cosmopolitan states must guarantee the side-by-side existence of national and ethnic identities through the principle of constitutional tolerance. Just as Christian theology had to be repressed at the start of the Modern Period in Europe, the political sphere of action must be opened up today anew by taming nationalist theology. Just as this possibility was totally excluded in the mid-16th century from a theological perspective, and was even equated with the end of the world, change is absolutely unthinkable today for the "theologians of nationalism", for it constitutes a break with the ostensibly constitutive fundamental concept of the political as such: the friend-foe schema.

A historical example of this is the European Union. Through the political art of creating interdependencies, enemies have been successfully converted into neighbours. Chained to one another with the "golden handcuffs" of national advantage, the member states must continually re-establish mutual recognition and equality via contestation. To characterize the European Union in this sense as a cosmopolitan federation of states which cooperates in order to tame economic globalization while ensuring recognition of the otherness of the Other (meaning the European co-nations, but also Europe's neighbours worldwide): this might well be a thoroughly realistic description, albeit to some extent a utopian one.

The theory and concept of the cosmopolitan state must be distinguished from three positions: from the illusion of the autonomous national state; from the neoliberal notion of a minimal, deregulated economic state; and finally, from the irreal seductions of a unified global government, one whose concentrated power render it invincible.

Convert walls into bridges!
Seventh thesis

The following objection is in the air of late. For a long time now, we have been hearing a lot about cultural relativism, multiculturalism, tolerance, internationalism - and ad nauseum - globalisation and globality. Doesn't the concept of cosmopolitanism simply mean filling new bottles with old wine? And might it not even be a question of new bottles too, since the term has been in use ever since the Stoics of Ancient Greece, not to mention Emmanuel Kant, Hannah Arendt, and Carl Jaspers?

To this, I would reply: my theory of the "cosmopolitan perspective" describes different realities, and it is constructed differently. All of the above ideas are based on the premise of difference, of alienation, of the strangeness of the Other. Multiculturalism, for example, means that various ethnic groups live side by side within a single state. While tolerance means acceptance, even when it goes against the grain, putting up with difference as an unavoidable burden. Cosmopolitan tolerance, on the other hand, is more than that. It is neither defensive nor passive, but instead active: it means opening oneself up to the world of the Other, perceiving difference as an enrichment, regarding and treating the Other as fundamentally equal. Expressed theoretically: either-or logic is replaced by both-and logic.

Cosmopolitanism, then, absolutely does not mean uniformity or homogenization. Individuals, groups, communities, political organizations, cultures, and civilizations wish to and should remain diverse, perhaps even unique. But to put it metaphorically: the walls between them must be replaced by bridges. Most importantly of all, such bridges must be erected in human minds, mentalities, and imaginations (the "cosmopolitan vision"), but also within nations and localities ("interior globalisation"), in systems of norms (human rights), in institutions (the European Union, for instance), as well as within "global domestic politics" which search for answers to transnational problems (for example energy policies, sustainable development, the struggle against global warming, the battle against terrorism).


This article orgininally appeared in German in the November 2007 edition of Literaturen.

Ulrich Beck teaches sociology at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, and at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has authored a trilogy of volumes on the New Cosmopolitanism: Power in the Global Age: A New Political Economy (2002/2006); Cosmopolitan Vision (2004/2006); World Risk Society: On the Search for Lost Security (2007).

Translation: Ian Pepper

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