Towards a new universalism


Towards a new universalism

The EU is the antithesis of internationalism.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Long-reads Politics

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Brexit, we’re told, is a crime against cosmopolitanism. It’s a revenge of ‘exclusionary tribalism’ against the ‘universal ethics, cosmopolitanism [and] solidarity’ embodied in the European Union. Where the EU and its cheerleaders are universally minded, thinking in broad, human terms, the EU’s critics, the Brexiteers, apparently represent ‘crabbed, cowed racism and xenophobia’; they represent the ‘populism and nativism that’s uniting the have-nots of Europe and America against the political establishment’. Brexit is a ‘primal scream’, says a writer for Newsweek; it is a victory of ‘nationalism over internationalism’, of ‘the less educated over the educated’. It is now the centrepiece, says the New Yorker, in a ‘worldwide revolt against cosmopolitan modernity’.

This has become the defining narrative of Brexit: that it represents, not simply a retreat into the nation state, which would apparently be bad enough, but a blow to the very Enlightenment ideals of universalism and global brotherhood. Even sympathetic accounts, which seek to understand rather than simply condemn this ‘primal scream’, accept the narrative of put-upon ‘provincial’ people striking against global institutions and cultures they do not understand. As one critic of the Remain campaign’s caricatures puts it, we’re expected to believe Brexiteers are ‘lumpen, ageing… socially excluded provincials’ — the ‘left behind’, as many call them — and that Remainers are ‘young, optimistic, educated supporters of progressive politics’.

This narrative must be challenged. Not simply for what it gets wrong about Brexiteers — many writers have done a good job of taking down the fact-lite, hate-heavy snobbery of leading Remainers — but also for its warping of the idea of cosmopolitanism; for its denigration of what it means to be universal. For far from representing the Enlightenment value of cosmopolitanism, the EU and those who support it embody a counter-Enlightenment outlook that has no understanding of the true nature or import of the universal. Indeed, their worldview runs explicitly counter to Kant’s conception of cosmopolitanism. To Kant, cosmopolitanism was about recognising that all humans share a common capacity to reason, both to understand and to order the world, to govern history itself. To the new ‘cosmopolitans’, by stark contrast, globalised institutions and structures such as the EU are necessary precisely because the world is incomprehensible, and precisely because the citizen of the nation state lacks both the expertise and resources to withstand its pressures. That is, because the forces of history, separate from man apparently, sentient and strange, overpower us. The so-called cosmopolitanism of the new Euro-elites turns the ideal of universalism on its head through emptying it of its key component: common human subjectivity, and its capacity for knowing and ordering its surroundings.

Kant would not have recognised the cosmopolitanism of the Remain lobby and the Brussels elite. In his 1784 essay ‘Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View’, in which he proposed the idea of a ‘league of nations’, he emphasised the individual’s capacity for reason, and the power that might grow from the combined reason of mankind.

As ‘the only rational creatures on Earth’, men behave ‘not just instinctively’, he said; they also possess the capacity to be ‘rational citizens of the world’. His ideal of cosmopolitanism was one which both attested to and sought to expand the capacity of mankind to use his reason. He believed man’s ‘use of his reason’ could be ‘fully developed only in the race, not in the individual’. Where an individual human, unlike any other creature on Earth, has the capacity to go ‘beyond the mechanical ordering of his animal existence, and… partake of no other happiness or perfection than that which he himself, independently of instinct, has created by his own reason’, Kant believed that individuals acting on their reason together, across both generations and nations, could potentially create a ‘universal civic society’ that would allow for an even greater use of reason. Reason ‘requires trial, practice, and instruction in order gradually to progress from one level of insight to another’, he said, and ‘therefore a single man would have to live excessively long in order to learn to make full use of all his natural capacities’. However, through the exercise of reason at the level of the race, both in terms of generations, ‘each of which passes its own enlightenment to its successor’, and of universal engagement, we might get closer to a form of social organisation in which ‘the capacities of mankind can be fully developed’, Kant wrote.

So at the very heart of Kant’s Enlightened view of cosmopolitanism, at the heart of his internationalism, was reason. What mankind ultimately shares, across borders, across classes, across generations, is a capacity for reason, he said, and the role of any kind of cosmopolitan society worth its name should be to create the conditions in which the use of this reason might be encouraged and further developed. That society would have to be a free one, said Kant, since it is only in choosing, trying and erring that men’s capacity for reason is revealed and improved upon. Kant’s view of a ‘universal civic society’ was a liberal one, since ‘the development of all the capacities which can be achieved by mankind is attainable only in society, and more specifically in the society with the greatest freedom’.

Contrast this to the ‘cosmopolitanism’ of those who support the EU, who juxtapose themselves to the ‘left behind’, who denounce Brexit as the ‘revenge of the nation’ and a declaration of war against the ideal of universalism. Their cosmopolitanism is built on the idea that man, at least ordinary man, lacks the capacity for reason, and that the world is beyond reasoned order anyway. And thus we require expert and global structures to shield us from the worst excesses of history and international circumstance. It is directly counter to Enlightened cosmopolitanism.

From Brussels itself down to the pro-EU political and media elites in nation states, the key justification made for the EU is that it acts as an institutional shield or mediator in disordered times. As one theorist says, global structures like the EU are necessary as a means of ‘preventing and reducing the negative and destabilising effects that globalisation and liberalisation inevitably entail’ (1). The authors of Global Democracy: Normative and Empirical Perspectives justify new global bodies as key contributors to ‘damage limitation’. Since ‘domestic issues are directly impacted upon by global forces or conditions’, it is necessary to have ‘institutional frameworks’ through which to mediate these forces and conditions. And, tellingly, they see the role of ‘local actors’ — that is, domestic national citizens — as one where they ‘participate in [this] regulation’: that is, they may administratively contribute to the mediation of global menace (2).

The European Commissioner for International Cooperation captures well what is meant by ‘internationalism’ today. ‘We live in a fragile world’, she says. ‘Through force of conflict, nature or economic meltdown, emergencies are becoming more frequent… Contagion can tear through the markets… Natural disasters are striking with greater frequency and severity… Population growth and urbanisation are compounding existing fragilities.’ (3) And the only way to deal with such powerful forces is through ‘new institutional architecture, new legal bases and new instruments’, pooled in global bodies like the EU. This allows us to ‘mobilise our collective assets’, she says. This is a favoured term of the Brussels elite: mobilising assets. Where once cosmopolitans called on man to use his reason to order, or reorder, the world, the new cosmopolitans demand the mobilisation of administration and expertise to offset the world’s existing and inevitable disorder. This depressing worldview is further emphasised in the 2008 European Security Strategy. This document captures well how the new elites view globalisation both as an opportunity — primarily in the economic realm — and a threat. Globalisation has ‘made threats more complicated and interconnected’, it says. It tellingly uses a biological metaphor to describe the threats facing man: the ‘arteries of our society’ are ‘vulnerable’ to various threats, including terrorism, it says (4). From this standpoint, individuals, far from being Kantian creatures capable of moving beyond ‘the mechanical ordering of [their] animal existence’, are effectively cells in a social body, requiring the doctor that is the Brussels oligarchy to protect them from harm, from ‘contagions’.

Contagion, vulnerability, the force of nature: the new cosmopolitans continually present the world as a thing beyond reason, whose excesses we can at best hope to minimise. It’s a word of ‘global threats, global markets, and global media’, and therefore we need an ‘effective multilateral system’ to protect individuals and communities, as the 2003 European Security Strategy said (5). This outlook was reflected in the handwringing that greeted the Brexit vote. Furious pro-EU observers said the referendum result would weaken Britons’ ability to contribute to the tackling of forces that are beyond the control and understanding of mere nations and mere citizens, such as climate change, terrorism, the markets, and so on. If this is internationalism, then it’s an internationalism of fear, of human incapacity; it is internationalism denuded of internationalism’s most important, positive, alive, Kantian ideal: that individuals are reasoned, and that through pooling their reason, and deepening it across both generations and territories, they might become yet more reasoned, and more free.

A belief in individuals’ capacity for reason is utterly absent from the new cosmopolitanism. This is clear in the general outlook of the new international bodies, which continually promote the idea that global forces and conditions render both individual and national decision-making superfluous, or at least insufficient. And it is also clear from the media and political elites’ response to the EU referendum. One of their key arguments has been that global issues are simply beyond the comprehension, never mind the control, of the average citizen or community, and therefore expert and technocratic institutions are required to deal with such matters. ‘Ignoramuses’ — that’s the general public — don’t have ‘the experience to do… due diligence on the highly complex economic and social issues [of Europe]’, said Richard Dawkins. To call a referendum on something as ‘fraught with complicated and intricate detail as EU membership’ was an act of ‘monstrous irresponsibility’, he said. Others explicitly referred to individuals as less than fully human. The victory of Brexit spoke to ‘one of our oldest psychological tendencies’, which is our ‘instinct to be distrustful [of the Other]’, said one observer. Apparently a combination of the triggering of some of our ‘evolutionarily wired computer programmes’ — that is, our instinctual fears — and a swelling of ‘in-group pride’ led us to vote Leave. A writer for the New Statesman described Brexit as a victory for ‘the frightened, parochial lizard-brain of Britain’.

This is internationalism? Cosmopolitanism? Enlightenment? It is no such thing. See how directly it runs counter to Kant’s cosmopolitan view of individuals as moving beyond the ‘mechanical ordering of their animal existence’ and behaving ‘not just instinctively’. The crime against cosmopolitanism is committed, not by Brexiteers, but by the new elites, whose depiction of individuals as lacking the capacity to understand this highly complex world and as acting more from animalistic instinct than reasoned consideration robs the internationalist ideal of its central truth — that what binds individuals is their existence as something beyond the animal kingdom, best revealed and developed in society, ideally a free society: that is, reasoned creatures, who can know the world, and impact on it.

Far from embodying the Enlightenment ideal of cosmopolitanism, this new globalised elite, this union not of ordinary peoples but of experts, NGOs and professionalised politicians, are more akin to the elite ‘guardians’ Kant railed against. In ‘What is Enlightenment?’ (1784), Kant wrote of those ‘guardians’ who take it upon themselves to ensure that ‘the overwhelming majority of mankind — among them the entire fair sex — should consider the step to maturity, not only as hard, but as extremely dangerous’. He wrote: ‘[They] make their domestic cattle stupid and carefully prevent the docile creatures from taking a single step without the leading-strings to which they have fastened them. Then they show them the danger that would threaten them if they should try to walk by themselves.’ Such a paternalistic politics of fear, such a promotion of the idea that individuals lack the capacity to govern their own minds and lives, never mind society, now comes precisely from those who make up the new, supposedly cosmopolitan elites. These self-styled experts, echoing Kant’s complaint of having ‘a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet’, actually echo the pre-Enlightenment guardian class that Enlightenment thinkers argued against. What has changed is that this guardian class has become globalised. This is not a cosmopolitanism of shared reason and optimism, of humanity, but a cosmopolitanism of contempt; it’s the globalisation of an elitism which says the world is beyond man’s intellectual comprehension and reasoned control and thus we need institutions to act as a buffer between us and it.

Looking back at Kant’s view of cosmopolitanism, his conception of a ‘universal cosmopolitan condition’ as a kind of ‘womb wherein all the original capacities of the human race can develop’, we can clearly see the difference between the Enlightenment view of reason and today’s focus on expertise. Pro-EU observers present themselves as the embodiment of rationalism in contrast to a Brexit camp that is ‘riven with lies and misrepresentation’. The pro-EU elites talk themselves up as guardians of an enlightened, evidence-based politics, sadly finding themselves in a world in which ‘the currency of fact [has] been badly debased’. That they can flit between talking about the mental incapacity of the public, our lizard-like thoughtlessness, and celebrating their own reliance on evidence confirms that they are not talking about reason; they are not talking about the Enlightenment idea that, in Kant’s words, man is ‘more than a machine’ and can ‘use his own understanding’. On the contrary, they are talking about the narrow expertise, the shallow academic concerns, of a certain strata of society, which they view as being superior to the ideas or opinions of the public. Here, too, their outlook, their supposedly enlightened valuation of expertise, has more in common with the pre-Enlightenment priestly classes, with those guardians who thought for us and decided for us, than it does with the belief in a universal human capacity for moral reasoning.

The fundamental difference between the humanist ideal of internationalism as articulated by Kant and the misanthropic cosmopolitanism of contempt embodied in the EU and its support base lies in the attitude to human subjectivity. In the new cosmopolitan outlook, humans are objects of history, battered and threatened by various threats and harms, various contagions in the social ‘arteries’. The world impacts on us, harshly, and rarely, if ever, do we impact on the world. This is why we need the EU: because humans are the objects of global conditions they cannot touch or influence. In the truly enlightened take on cosmopolitanism, in contrast, we are the subjects of history, capable of understanding and impacting on both the world we live in and the future, too.

In Kant’s words, a cosmopolitanism based on a celebration of man’s capacity to reason could serve to clarify ‘the confused play of things’, could ‘prophesy later political changes’, and could give mankind ‘a consoling view of the future… in which there will be exhibited in the distance how the human race finally achieves the condition in which all the seeds planted it in by Nature can fully develop and in which the destiny of the race can be fulfilled here on Earth’. That is, humanist cosmopolitanism can clarify our understanding of the world, help us predict and shape political developments, and allow us to reshape the future itself, to ensure it is one in which the true destiny of mankind to gain greater governance over his own life and his surroundings is realised. This is an internationalism that is a million miles from the misanthropic, fearful cosmopolitanism of the new elites, for whom the world and history itself are forces that harm us, us human objects, and against which we must be protected.

Kant’s cosmopolitanism is directly concerned with greater reasoned determination, both of the self and the world. In his cosmopolitanism essay, he writes: ‘For what is the good of esteeming the majesty and wisdom of Creation in the realm of brute nature and of recommending that we contemplate it, if that part of the great stage of supreme wisdom which contains the purpose of all the others — the history of mankind — must remain an unceasing reproach to it? If we are forced to turn our eyes from it in disgust, doubting that we can ever find a perfectly rational purpose in it and hoping for that only in another world?’ In short, merely to contemplate the world as it is, or to guard oneself against it, to reproach it, is a failure of our humanness. We do not have to wait for the ‘next world’ for greater freedom and reason and possible perfection; we can achieve that now, through the exercise of reason. The new cosmopolitans, who do not deserve that name, do the opposite: they view and fear the world, and its inhabitants, doubting that a bigger, better, freer civic union of man is possible at all, here on Earth or anywhere else.

The new cosmopolitans’ contrasting of themselves with the apparently nationalistic, territory-obsessed sections of the public promotes the idea that there is a contradiction between wanting to preserve national sovereignty, and democracy, and being an internationalist. But there isn’t. In fact, the former is essential to the latter.

For good or ill, right now national sovereignty is the only means through which human subjectivity can gain true meaning beyond the individual. And thus, the new cosmopolitans’ attacks on national sovereignty are explicitly a denial of human subjectivity. This is why they continually emphasise both the incapacity of individuals to make wise political decisions and the folly of mere citizens of nations to seek to understand our globalised world — because their anti-sovereignty worldview, their post-nationalism, is informed not by internationalism, but by a deep feeling of agitation with the exercise of human, moral agency. Indeed, it is their disdain for the idea and the practice of human reason, for ordinary people’s subjectivity, that draws them to global institutions that seek to water down the sovereignty in which such subjectivity is embodied. But it is only through having citizens whose capacity to reason is both recognised and encouraged — and that is right now best cultivated within democratic and free nations — that we can hope to move towards a ‘universal civic society’. For the more genuinely responsible and active citizens are, the more likely they are to want to reach out and work with citizens of other nations. The new cosmopolitans’ negation of citizenship and human subjectivity through their pseudo-progressive dilution of national sovereignty directly grates against the possibility of a true universalism.

We need to rescue the ideal of internationalism from those who have so sullied it. The starting point must be to demand greater freedom and more democracy, so that that central component of cosmopolitanism — man’s ability and right to exercise his reason — is developed. In this sense, Brexiteers, in voting for more control and sovereignty and self-determination, have done far more to resuscitate internationalism than their sneering critics in the new cosmopolitan set. Internationalism must be imbued with true meaning, separated from the narrow, administrative, technical, EU / UNESCO / NGO understanding of cosmopolitanism and given back its humanist heart. Fighting for greater democracy and liberty and choice within nation states is not the opposite of a real, renewed internationalism — it is the precondition for it.

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of spiked

(1) Values and Principles in European Union Foreign Policy, Edited by Sonia Lucarelli and Ian Manners, Routledge, 2006

(2) Global Democracy: Normative and Empirical Perspectives, Edited by Daniele Archibugi, Mathias Koenig-Archibugi and Raffaele Marchetti, Cambridge University Press, 2012

(3) EU Management of Global Emergencies: Legal Framework for Combating Threats, Brill Nijhoff, 2014

(4) European Security Strategy, Council of the European Union, 2008

(5) European Security Strategy, Council of the European Union, 2003

Picture by: Zoi Koraki, published under a creative commons license.

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Topics Long-reads Politics


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