The Poverty of Cosmopolitan Historicism

The Poverty of Cosmopolitan Historicism

Carl Ritter
Carl Ritter
7 min read

When the Soviet Union fell, Marxist utopianism came to an end. In the decades since, a new breed of utopianism has gripped the collective imagination. Cosmopolitanism dreams of a borderless world united in peace and understanding, and it is underpinned by a powerful narrative of historical progress that has much in common with its Marxist cousin. Its name is cosmopolitan historicism.

In The Open Society and its Enemies, Karl Popper wrote that “we may become the makers of our fate when we have ceased to pose as its prophets”. In Popper’s view, historicism was defined by its simplistic understanding of history, viewed as an unfolding of inexorable iron laws. Based on what they saw as their unique insight into these presumed laws, historicists issued wild prophecies about the future of human society. For this they were mercilessly critiqued by Popper. In his eyes, dogmatic attachment to a utopian blueprint provided by what was understood as history’s ultimate destination caused historicist zealots to doggedly push ahead toward the end of history while ignoring signs that their policies caused large-scale disasters.

Today, fascism and communism, the historicist ideologies of Popper’s day, are defeated. But historicism is not: since the end of the Cold War another breed of historicism has gained traction among Western intellectuals and politicians. Cosmopolitan historicism’s key assumption is that world history follows a cosmopolitan trajectory, toward ever-greater cultural and political uniformity. It dreams of a cosmopolitan end of history, a utopian borderless world where goods, ideas, and people move effortlessly past what used to be national borders, and where we’re all supposed to be primarily citizens of the world rather than of particular countries. While it has enjoyed a recent spike in popularity, cosmopolitan historicism is far from a novelty, but has formed an important part of both the liberal and the socialist branches of the Western Enlightenment tradition.

Immanuel Kant, exemplifying liberal cosmopolitanism, more than 200 years ago asserted that the realization of a “universal cosmopolitan condition” was Nature’s “ultimate purpose”. Some 50 years later, Kant’s cosmopolitan prophecy was seconded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who when they surveyed the international landscape of the mid-nineteenth century concluded that “‘national differences and antagonism between peoples are daily more and more vanishing”. While they agreed upon history’s cosmopolitan direction, the main point of disagreement between Kant and the Marxists was political: Kant envisioned the universal cosmopolitan condition as liberal-capitalist, whereas for Marx and Engels it was communist.

The reason why cosmopolitan historicism over the past quarter century has experienced a new golden age is simple. In 1945, the defeat of fascism laid the groundwork for the liberal international order, an order that had much in common with Kant’s cosmopolitan vision. From the 1970s a process of increased cross-border interconnectedness known as globalization added a further spark to the cosmopolitan-historicist imagination. Then, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, many thought this implied the final triumph of liberalism and democracy across the globe, leading commentators to engage in another wild round of cosmopolitan prophesizing. Francis Fukuyama famously concluded that the end of the cold war also meant the End of History, by which he meant the realization of the sort of universal cosmopolitan condition envisioned by Kant. The late Ulrich Beck, a hugely influential German sociologist, asserted that the existence of global “risks”—climate change, terrorism, financial crises—had cosmopolitan implications, arguing that “world risk society sets free a ‘cosmopolitan moment’.”

Cosmopolitanism hasn’t been confined to the academic ivory tower, however, but has exercised considerable influence in key policymaking circles as well. A year after the Berlin Wall fell, George H.W. Bush declared to the United Nations that he envisioned “a world of open borders, open trade and, most importantly, open minds”. His successor Bill Clinton was in thrall to similar ideas, arguing that globalization “is the economic equivalent of a force of nature”. George W. Bush went on to celebrate this force of nature as a “triumph of human liberty stretching across national borders”, and Barack Obama later solemnly declared that “given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.” Then came Donald Trump, who proclaimed himself elected to “represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris”, and whose election dealt a mortal blow to the idea that our epoch is a cosmopolitan end of history.

Trump’s electoral success also reversed the policies of cosmopolitanization pursued by his predecessors. Belief that our epoch is uniquely cosmopolitan led policymaking elites to cast themselves as “history’s midwives”: instead of seeking to halt the process of cosmopolitanization (which, according to historicist dogma, would be impossible), they sought to speed up the coming of the post-historical age—the universal cosmopolitan condition envisioned by Kant. Cosmopolitan historicism’s political agenda has consisted of three pillars, three policies of cosmopolitanization. Although the causal link between cosmopolitan historicism and these policies is difficult to prove empirically, there are strong logical grounds to believe that they are connected. The first policy is political and economic integration through international clubs such as the European Union and the World Trade Organization. The second is mass immigration, beginning to replace the nations of old with a global hybrid culture. The third is Westernization of non-Western countries. Whereas mass immigration made the West more like the Rest, liberal-democratic nation-building aimed to make the Rest more like the West.

While cosmopolitan historicism by no means has been the only factor driving these developments—international migration, for instance, cannot be explained without reference to war and poverty—it is arguable that historicist beliefs have pushed policy in a cosmopolitan direction. Taken together, the policies of cosmopolitanization can be understood as an instance of what Popper termed utopian social engineering, now according to a cosmopolitan blueprint. In the effort to remake the world according to this blueprint, global integration became viewed as an end in itself, rather than as a pragmatic way to deal with global issues such as climate change and terrorism. Mass immigration was promoted by parties across the political spectrum, and evidence of its unpopularity was ignored. And, when Westerners mistook their own culture particular culture for a universal culture, Westernization became a twenty-first century equivalent of the eleventh-century Crusades, as political elites went about exporting Western institutions to places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ideas have consequences. Bad ideas have negative consequences, and utopian ideas are bad ideas. As Popper would have predicted, utopian cosmopolitan engineering has led to consequences that are negative if judged by cosmopolitanism’s own standards, just as Marxist historicism failed to create an egalitarian stateless utopia. Fervent belief that their epoch was a cosmopolitan end of history led policymakers to ignore evidence that contradicted their simplistic faith. Instead they continued pushing ahead toward the utopia of which they dreamt, convinced that all setbacks were temporary snags.

Today, wherever one’s eyes are turned, the results are visible: the West is engulfed by a populist revolt, and the Rest, instead of emulating the Western experience, are increasingly pursuing indigenous paths to modernity. While this would certainly have happened even in the absence of cosmopolitan historicism, the latter for a generation blinded Westerners to the strength and resilience of non-Western cultures. As for the populist revolt in the West, there are good reasons to view it, at least in part, as a predictable outcome of the historicist approach to political change. A utopian form of liberal cosmopolitanism has fed an illiberal and anti-cosmopolitan reaction, and discontent with cosmopolitanism now threatens to metastasize into an assault on the liberal order as such.

Ideas should be judged by their observable consequences, not by how good or radical they sound. Popper contrasted utopian engineering to what he termed piecemeal social engineering. Utopian ideas by definition sound much better than those of the piecemeal approach but they tend to produce results that are much worse. Piecemeal engineering rejects the ideology-driven, root-and-branch transformations that are characteristic of the utopian approach, instead aiming for small-scale, evidence-based change.

Today a piecemeal approach to globalization would recognize that cosmopolitan historicism’s current anti-cosmopolitan consequences reflect the persistence of organic, slow-changing cultural realities that are unlikely to disappear any time soon. Mass immigration is unpopular around the world, and if elites continue ignoring this it is likely to lead to further populist-nationalist backlashes, not cosmopolitan harmony. Westernization is likely to be resisted by non-Western leaders and populations proud of their heritage, and if Western policymakers ignore this, the outcome will not be Kantian Perpetual Peace but a conflict-ridden international environment. Overall, forced cosmopolitanization has created not a Fukuyaman utopia but rather what is beginning to look like the clash-of-civilizations scenario for which Samuel Huntington is known. This is extremely worrying, and it calls for a critical reconsideration of the cosmopolitan ideas that drove the hyperglobalization of recent decades.

Crucially, it is not cosmopolitanism as such that should be discarded, merely its extreme historicist manifestation. The main tenets of cosmopolitan thought are sound, and immigration and globalization have in many cases been success stories. Globalization has lifted millions out of poverty and significantly reduced global inequality. International collaboration through organizations like the United Nations is necessary to manage global threats such as climate change and nuclear-weapons proliferation. Elementary human decency dictates that rich countries have a moral obligation to help refugees and other people in need. However, the point to make is that these objectives may not be best met by historicist cosmopolitanism, but instead by a more moderate cosmopolitan vision that stops short of eliminating cultural and political particularity altogether.

Extreme cosmopolitanism is incompatible with all forms of nationalism, and extreme nationalism is incompatible with all forms of cosmopolitanism. However, great minds have long understood that moderate cosmopolitanism and moderate nationalism are not mutually exclusive. Ludwig von Mises held that “nationalism does not clash with cosmopolitanism, for the unified nation does not want discord with neighboring peoples, but peace and friendship”. Martha Nussbaum, one of the key figures of the cosmopolitan renaissance of the early 1990s, in no unclear terms stated that “[t]o give one’s own sphere special care is justifiable in universalist terms”. In the eyes of Nussbaum, “[p]olitics, like child care, will be poorly done if each thinks herself equally responsible for all, rather than giving the immediate surroundings special attention and care”.

Nussbaum’s formulation makes clear that moral universalism need not imply cultural and political universalism: it is a fallacy to think that the fate of humanity as a whole necessarily is best served by the dismantlement of all cultural and political boundaries. This is a fallacy, the unfortunate consequences of which we are now witnessing, that cosmopolitan historicism has been guilty of. It has led not to cosmopolitan utopia, but instead to populist dystopia: a demagogue occupies the White House, the project of European integration has gone into reverse, the Middle East is engulfed in sectarian conflict, and we are witnessing ominous signs of renewed great-power rivalry. It is beyond the scope of this essay to offer solutions to these problems, but discarding cosmopolitan historicism, with its simplistic and utopian understanding of politics, looks like a promising start.