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= Cosmopolitanism as a political perspective

Project: From the Crisis of Capitalism to the Emergence of Peer to Peer Political Ecologies

Summary by Jose Ramos:

Cosmopolitanism has become a powerful current in the development of alternative globalisation discourses. Cosmopolitanism springs from strong moral intuitions. In the simplest terms it describes ‘the view that all human beings have equal moral standing within a single world community’ (Hayden, 2004, p. 70). It is a moral-normative conception which gives direction to a number of variants (For example see Binde (2004)). Hayden writes that ‘legal cosmopolitanism contends that a global political order ought to be constructed grounded on the equal legal rights and duties of all individuals’ (Hayden, 2004, p. 70). There are also descriptive accounts which, by contrast, focus on the way planetary governance is being constructed as ‘cosmocracy’ (Keane, 2005) ‘civil society going global’ (Kaldor, 2003) or as ‘sub-political’ agency (Beck, 1999).

Cosmopolitanism as a discourse reaches as far back as ancient Greece. As McGrew explains, the philosopher Diogenes saw himself as a citizen of the world, with the Greek stoic philosophers later developing the idea that every person is both a citizen of a locality by birth, as well as a citizen of a world community (McGrew, 2000, p. 413). The philosopher Immanuel Kant later developed European cosmopolitan thinking in the context of his 1795 essay ‘Project for a Perpetual Peace’. This came to inform a number of neo-Kantian articulations of cosmopolitanism.

As Held argues, at its core cosmopolitanism is based on the idea that, ‘human beings are in a fundamental sense equal, and that they deserve impartial political treatment… [cosmopolitanism] is a moral frame of reference for specifying principles that can be universally shared’ (Held, 2000a, p. 401). This view does not put the individual at the centre of global politics (in an exclusively self-interested way) but rather re-articulates the individual as part of a global polity with new rights and obligations. The notion of ‘autonomy’ within cosmopolitan discourse implies a participation in a greater whole: ‘‘the ‘self’ is part of a collectivity or majority enabled and constrained by the rules and procedures of democratic life… and entitlement to autonomy within the constraints of community’ (Held, 1995 p. 156, Quoted in McGrew 2000, p413).

The free association of people, and its political expression, provides the basis for individual autonomy, and reciprocally democracy forms the framework from which individuals freely associate: ‘members of a political community – citizens – should be able to choose freely the conditions of their own association…their choices should constitute the ultimate legitimation of the form and direction of their polity. A ‘fair framework’ for the regulation of a community is one that is freely chosen’ (Held, 1995, p. 145). Cosmopolitanism thus implies a new (global) autonomy in a new polity, in particular autonomy for the socially excluded in a planetary polity capable of re-distributing rights and power.

Cosmopolitan discourse sees history primarily as the shift from pre-national (Imperial) political organisation to a national(ist) (Westphalian) state. Most recently (through globalisation) entry into a post-Westphalian world is implied (i.e. a planetary stage of political governance). The crystallisation of a Westphalian model of statehood, and subsequent challenges to this model, can be seen as historical landmarks.

The Westphalian model refers to the treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which ended the 30 years war, which is considered to be the historical origin of the state system in the West. This state system developed in Europe over the past three centuries, and later spread across the world. For Held, such a system has a number of features. For example ‘sovereign states recognize no superior authority’, with ‘differences settled by force’, and with each state having absolute jurisdiction over ‘law making, settlement of disputes, and law enforcement’ and in which ‘minimal rules of co-existence exist’ between states (Held, 1995, p. 74). The Hobbesian inspired concept of the Westphalian system of states is conceived as an anarchical system: ‘A war of ‘all against all’ is taken as a constant threat, since each state is at liberty to act to secure its own interests unimpeded by any higher religious or moral strictures’ (Held, 1995, p. 74).

With the aftermath of WWII and the creation of the UN system, despite the cracks that began to show in this absolutistic concept of statism, the re-entrenchment of the sovereign rights of great states through the UN system continued, with only mild modifications. Yet, as certain cosmopolitan writers argue, the challenge to the absolute concept of sovereignty has accelerated within a new era of globalisation. There are a number of problems associated with globalisation which the nation state is failing to effectively address. Held cites as examples: ‘global financial flows, the debt burden of developing countries, environmental crisis, elements of security and defence [and] new forms of communication’ (Held, 1995, p. 268). He argues that ‘the hierarchical structure of the states system itself has been disrupted by the emergence of the global economy, the rapid expansion of trans-national relations and communications, the enormous growth of international organisations and regimes, and the development of trans-national movements and actors - all of which challenge its efficacy’ (Held, 1995, p. 268). Held and McGrew refer to this as a ‘political deficit’, whereby ‘democracy, regulation and justice’ escape states’ abilities to enforce an accountability of its actors: ‘As regional and global forces escape the reach of territorially based polities, they erode the capacity of nation states to pursue programmes of regulation, accountability and social justice in many spheres’ (Held, 2000a, p. 401).

The knowledge foundations of cosmopolitanism are based on the Kantian moral principle of a human community and polity of mutual concern and care. Other cosmopolitan thinkers like Santos build upon this principle by addressing issues of social exclusion as it is manifested through re-presentation, justice and globalisation. Santos specifically argues that for global justice to be possible, we must create the possibility of global cognitive justice (Santos, 2006, pp. 44-45), and shows how the WSF(P) offers the possibility of recognising the diverse experiences and epistemologies of the Global South.

Cosmopolitanism is both analytic and normative. Cosmopolitanism is a deeper reflection on historical geo-political change that links analytical work with normative advocacy. McGrew writes ‘It is both a reflection on the contemporary historical condition and also constitutive of it’ (McGrew, 2000, p. 415). Held argues it promotes ‘theorist as advocate, seeking to advance an interpretation of politics against countervailing positions… [creating]… the possibility of a new political understanding’ (Held, 1995, p. 286).

The key ontological assumptions that recur in cosmopolitan discourse concern a division of social structures and the roles they play. In specific terms a tripartite division or distinction between three spheres is often used: the political, the civil and the economic (Held, 1995, pp. 271, 279, 286). The political sphere is seen in formal terms, as the expression of concrete representation and governance. Civil society is seen as the aggregate of the complex associative interweaving of people from within a polity. Thus for some a healthy polity / democracy is underpinned by a healthy civil society which is not undermined by non-associative influences – e.g. corporate media, corporate political influence (Edwards, 2004). In some accounts, the economy is seen as an aspect of civil society, as it is also based on freedom of association. Most accounts, however, define the economic sphere as separate.

Transposing such notions onto the global stage, we can translate these divisions as global governance (or lack thereof), global civil society, and the global economy. These spheres together comprise systems of influence and power. Cosmopolitan thinking is concerned with the fair distribution of this influence and power (Held, 1995, p. 267):

The global order consists of multiple and overlapping networks of power involving the body, welfare, culture, civil associations, the economy, coercive relations and organised violence, and regulatory and legal relations. The case for cosmopolitan democracy arises from these diverse networks – the different power systems which constitute the interconnections of different peoples and nations. (Held, 1995, p. 271)

The futures outlook of the cosmopolitan discourse has both descriptive / analytical and normative dimensions. Some argue that cosmopolitan writers confusingly blur the distinction between normative and descriptive accounts (Roudometof, 2005). Keane argues that ‘Cosmocracy’ is an emerging empirical phenomenon, describing the development of planetary governance (which is at once ad hoc and full of ‘clumsy institutions’ (Keane, 2005, pp. 34-51).

Falk considers a post-Westphalian scenario inevitable, and distinguishes between dystopian post-Westphalian scenarios, unrealistic scenarios and desirable ones that are possible (Falk, 2004, pp. 26-28). Generally the normative thrust of the cosmopolitan vision aims to articulate the creation of a ‘transnational, common structure of political action’, ‘a global and divided authority system – a system of diverse and overlapping power centres shaped and delimited by democratic law’ (Held, 1995, p. 234).

In sharp (but not incommensurable) contrast to localisation discourse, the territorial ordering of power flows ‘downward’ from the global to the local implying: ‘the subordination of regional, national and local ‘sovereignties’ to an overarching legal framework…but within this framework associations may be self governing at diverse levels’ (Held, 1995, pp. 233-234). Or as McGrew writes, ‘it proposes the end of sovereign statehood and national citizenship as conventionally understood and their re-articulation within a framework of cosmopolitan democratic law’ (McGrew, 2000, p. 414).

Both Falk and Held maintain that a post-Westphalian order does not eliminate the State in a stage like transformation, but increasingly marginalises it from above (through global governance). Especially for Falk, the normative direction of cosmpolitanism and the marginalisation of the state system draw energy from ‘globalization from below’, grassroots movements to address the pathologies of state and corporate power (Falk, 2005, p. 29).

A cosmopolitan outlook sees agency as unjustly distributed, in some cases with oppressive statism, and in other cases with the neo-liberal displacement of the state by finance capital and trans-national corporations. A goal then is the just re-distribution of political agency (read as influence). For Falk the engine and energies for this transformation are to be found among some anti-globalisation forces pushing for ‘another globalisation’ from ‘below’, as well as high powered international civil society actors, (an example being the grassroots to institutional development the Rome Treaty for the ICC), and social democratic elites (Falk, 2005, pp. 19-20). Alternatively, in Beck’s notion of sub politics, social movements are fundamental in exposing the contradictions in late industrial society. In particular Beck shows how industrial societies’ manufacture risk by institutionalising a diffusion of innovations which have un-intended and un-imaginable consequences (Beck, 1999, p. 67). Beck sees transformed and enhanced public participation in what have otherwise been seen as state and ‘expert’ level issues. The public sphere is empowered to act as an ‘open upper chamber’ (Beck, 1999, p. 70).

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P2P Commentary

  • How does peer-to-peer engage with the space/spatiality of that particular discourse/perspective? E.g. what is real in the discourse (such as structures, variables, factors, agents, actors)?
  • How does peer-to-peer engage with temporality? E.g. the historical narrative and futures trajectory offered by that discourse/perspective?
  • How does each perspective engaged with the contemporary crisis of capitalist?
  • How does each perspective consider the transition from the old regime to the new?
  • What are regressive elements of this perspective?
  • What are progressive elements of this perspective?
  • How can peer to peer engages with the perspective, assists it or offer opportunities and possibilities for it?
  • How can peer to peer help to transcend and include the perspective - by keeping the good and neurtralizing the bad?

Michel Bauwens 1

I essentially agree with the cosmopolitan perspective both on the level of objective necessity, and as an ethical stance towards what is desirable. Objectively, it seems to me that we need post-national structures to solve the global problems facing us, such as global warming; and in terms of citizens' rights, for example regarding the rights of settlement and travel, urgent post- or transnational improvements are needed. I have no specific issues with the general historical narrative, which, separate from a discussion of historical necessity of the nation-state being Western-imposed or Western-inspired model, has become a generalized model. Of course, there must now be an openness to models that diverge from this narrative, or leverage peer to peer potentials to achieve new reconfigurations.

However, I do think that the peer to peer perspective offers a number of interesting cavets:

- regarding the global market, we certainly hold the current form of globalization both negative in environmental terms, socially unjust, and politically regressive because it disempowers local and national participation

- regarding global governance, there would be a serious distrust towards global governmental structures, especially in the context of democratic deficits. A current example is the capture of the EU by financial predatory interests and the looting of countries such as Greece, imposed by the 'trans-national' EU structures

- regarding global civil society, the peer to peer perspective would insist that civil society does not only consist of formal NGO's and CSO structures, but of the very important emergence of global collaboration communities, such as those involved in global 'informal' activism, peer production, and shared innovation commons.

Potentially regressive are therefore, and this is of course not a progressive cosmpolitan wish: 1) the continued domination of anti-democratic, biospherically-destructive global capitalist market structures; 2) the domination of global governance structures that arise without participation; 3) the domination of formal, 'integrated' civil society organisations that claim to speak for the whole field. Potentially progressive is the incorporation into a new cosmpolitanism of the dynamics of the emergent networked peer producing communities and their participatory forms, although 'elite forms' of such participation must also be guarded against (dominance of activist participators usuring more general democratic participation).

Important in this debate seems to me the 'right role' of relocalization, which is a very strong feature of peer to peer developments, both objectively (technical possibilities for local rewiring and empowerment), and subjectively (as a strong social desire to compensate for global market domination). In my view, there is both a right and wrong localization, and a right and wrong cosmopolitanisation. Localisation without a global element can be socially regressive, by creating 'dwarfish forms' that cannot withstand global pressures; while non-partipatory globalization is equally negative. Smart localization combined with selective globalization is therefore an interesting and transcending approach that can avoid both dangers.

Peer production, which combines global and shared innovation commons, with strong relocalization of production, seems to me an interesting model that combines the advantages of both, and can serve as a model for a renewed glocally inspired cosmopolitanism.

José Ramos

Michel, you make some great points. I think we might have a difficult time disagreeing here ;), so I will limit this to posing difficult questions and dilemmas.

One of the core ethical stances within Cosmopolitanism is the dignity of the individual no matter what their "legal" standing is. The legal in a sense follows the absolute ethical ground, that every human deserves the dignity of enfranchisement into a polity. Thus there are two parts to this that I'd ask you to respond to:

The first implication is that of an individual (in a polity), and what rights and responsibilities this individual carries. If we are re-inventing citizenship in a planetary vision, how is this new global citizen empowered and enfranchised (and I do NOT mean white middle class men doing internet activism!), and what does peer to peer have to say about this?

The second implication is that of the polity itself, which by necessity must be formed and constructed to deliver rights as a vehicle for the cosmopolitan ethos. My sense is that p2p is quite "horizontal" in its conception of governance, and the idea of a "state" is a bit foreign. If I am right, then by what process and by what mechanism does p2p construct a polity that delivers the promise of the cosmopolitan vision? If I am being too abstract I would welcome concrete examples. I myself see the potential for the distributed and networked construction of global governance platforms. Wouldn't it be great if we could wiki-build the conceptual foundations for new global governance institutions (think David Held's vision for a World Environment Organization). So how does p2p express itself in this way without falling into, as you say, democratic deficits. This is a question of process not intent, as you have made intent relatively clear.

The agent of change (or the hero in Joseph Campbell terms) is also important here. Many cosmopolitans like to use global civil society (GCS) as an example, but I am also skeptical of this. First what is it really? Then, is it intelligent and reflexive? Is it self conscious? Personally I do not think it exists, and if it did it is neither intelligent nor conscious! So from whence does a direction and leadership come from? Who is the vanguard? What might peer to peer have to say about the cosmopolitan hero?

Michel Bauwens 2

Thanks Jose. I'm not a legal expert, so my answer on your first challenge will be speculative. My sense is that we would need some kind of global treaty to establish rights that sovereign states will agree to. However, I have few illusions that such a treaty would be adopted soon. So this becomes a matter of social struggle by immigrant groups, those that defend them, human rights organisations, and the like. The could establish socially-sovereign social charters that would have a moral force against the failed responsibility taking of the nation-states and weak international institutions. A more pragmatic solution, though also long-term is the creation of Phyles, i.e. networked organisations that can take care of their members on a global basis. Given the lack of rights on a national scale, and the insufficience of global governance mechanisms that can be instituted by the national and international institutions, it seems to me that peer-based initiatives are paramount. Examples of phyles were the Venetian and Florentine guilds in the European middle ages, which had international halfway houses throughout the Meditarenean; contemporary ethnic phyles such as those of the Ecuadorian Indians and the black Senegalese sufi orders that you see trading in the streets of Europe. An example of a small contemporary, but trend-setting peer phyle is The P2P Foundation cooperative also intends to be organized as a phyle, showing global solidarity for its members.

Regarding the second question, I think that platforms are indeed important for the informal preparation of global civil society initiatives, based on the idea of the social charters which I mentioned above. However, I also think they then should coalesce into recognized and funded institutions. Whether such recognition and funding comes from nation-states and existing international institutions, or are directly distributedly funded by civil society itself, is an open question but I think the latter's potential is still some time away.

Your third question regarding the agents of change is of course crucial. I believe that peer producers, creating globally oriented commons that they love and want to defend, are this agent. Peer production is nothing else than the concrete condition of the freely cooperating cognitive workers, but also an important aspect of every productive citizen. Once such citizens are networked and creating common value, a process that is most often inherently global, then you have the slow creation of an agent that wants to create global rules and protections. To the degree that such peer producers create stronger and stronger institutions and funded market entities (community-driven, for-benefit 'phyles'), they will be able to exert pressure and create a new global order. The new conditions of production are no longer tied to the nation-state. This was already the case for global market forces, who are now endangering the sovereignity of the weaker European states and the very EU itself, but it is now being joined by global civil society networks. Since markets are selfish, and state forms have been largely captured by such market forces, it is the global peer-producing citizenry itself that is the only possible agent of such change.

Henry Jenkins on Kwame Appiah’s thinking about cosmopolitanism

"Appiah, a Ghanaian-American philosopher, suggests that cosmopolitans recognize that there is more than one acceptable way to live in the world, and that we may have obligations to people who live in very different ways than we do. This, he argues, is one of the possible responses to a world where we find ourselves interacting with people from very different backgrounds. Cosmopolitanism doesn’t demand that we accept all ways of living in the world as equally admirable – he works hard to draw a line between cosmopolitanism and moral relativism – but does demand that we steer away from a fundamentalist or nationalist response that sees our way as the only way and those who believe something different as inferior or unworthy of our consideration or aid.

I’m struck by how personal a response Appiah’s cosmopolitanism is. He navigates two very different cultures in his life – his academic life in Princeton and his family in Ghana – and aspects of that life, notably his homosexuality, can be very controversial in one environment and uncontroversial in another. The solution he proposes, it struck me, is one of the more thoughtful approaches to life in a world where we continually encounter other ways of thinking and living. A cosmopolitan approach offers us the encouragement to discover other ways of solving a problem while accepting the idea that we may choose to continue living in ways we have in the past. What we are not free to do is to dismiss other ways of living out of hand, or to fall back on a narrow, tribal definition of obligation. It strikes me as a responsible reaction to a world that is connected in ways large and small, in ways we rarely see or understand." (


Ramos, J. (2010) Alternative Futures of Globalisation: A Socio-Ecological Study of the World Social Forum Process, P.h.D. Thesis Dissertation, Queensland University of Technology

More Information


  • Archibugi, Daniele. The Global Commonwealth of Citizens: Toward Cosmopolitan Democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

See also:

Coleman, Stephen, and Jay G. Blumler. The Internet and Democratic Citizenship: Theory, Practice and Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Fahrmeir, Andreas. Citizenship: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Concept. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Hindman, Matthew. The Myth of Digital Democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Isin, Engin F. Citizenship between Past and Future. New York: Routledge, 2008.