Daniele Archibugi opens his eloquent case for a ‘cosmopolitical democracy’ with an important concession. The world’s major depositories of power, he observes, remain national states that have ‘only increased in the scale and scope of their dominion’, within an inter-state system. He is right.footnote1 But nation-states are a key to understanding our present world not simply because they intractably persist, but also because in significant ways their political valences have altered. Such states continue to represent, as they have always done, jurisdictional acts of enclosure designed to perpetuate class privileges over specified regions. Today, however, they are also the terrains on which new constituencies can work along varied axes of power. They are, in fact, the only effective structures for doing so. National states impose labour discipline on the working poor and adjudicate disputes among local elites. These have always been among their primary functions. But in the current phase of worldwide neo-liberal hegemony, they also offer a manageable (albeit top-heavy) site within which the working poor can make limited claims on power, and have at least some opportunity to affect the way they are ruled.

Since the modern nation-state itself emerged as a domestic response to an imperial redrawing of the map of the planet that brought a chaotic influx of wealth and ideas into the core countries from abroad, and since the discourse of cosmopolitanism necessarily involves a re-theorization of the nation-state, it cannot plausibly treat imperialism as extraneous to its argument, in the way Archibugi does, but ought to see it as intrinsic. Good dialectical sense would suggest that a political form born in the epoch of colonial conquest might play some role in resisting the next stage of imperial hegemony.

Archibugi wishes to ‘deprive [states] of the oligarchic power they now enjoy’ by a direct appeal to the peoples within states to create a global community with enforceable legal powers. He explains that he prefers the term ‘cosmopolitical’ to describe his prospect, to avoid the colloquial or vaguely humanist connotations of ‘cosmopolitan’. By contrast, I will retain the latter term because I think it indicates the cultural dominant to which his political theory is still unwittingly subject. Archibugi writes from the discipline of international relations, but many of his premisses and referents—invocations of ‘heterogeneity’, ‘spontaneity’ or ‘custom’—are borrowed from the realms of the new urban ethno­graphy and cultural criticism. In considering his construction, I will therefore approach it from the viewpoint of a cultural theory more sensitive to the interdisciplinary flows that have characterized this semantic zone. We need to historicize cosmopolitan discourse. If we do, my argument will be, we can see that cosmopolitanism today is not a new and more supple kind of internationalism, but rather that the two are theoretically incompatible.

Historically, cosmopolitanism has combined two distinct significations. On the one hand, it designates an enthusiasm for customary differences, but as ethical or aesthetic material for a unified polychromatic culture—a new singularity born of a blending and merging of multiple local constituents. Typically, in this conception, a subjunctive ‘ought’ contains a normative ‘is’: the suggestion that the period in question is—for the first time in history—already substantially cosmopolitan. On the other hand, cosmopolitanism projects a theory of world government and corresponding citizenship. Here the structure of underlying unity conveyed by the cultural meaning of the term is carried over to the political.footnote2 The cosmopolitan ideal envisages less a federation or coalition of states than an all-encompassing representative structure in which delegates can deliberate on a global scale. By contrast, internationalism seeks to establish global relations of respect and cooperation, based on acceptance of differences in polity as well as culture. It does not aim to erase such differences juridically, before material conditions exist for doing so equitably. Internationalism does not quarrel with the principle of national sovereignty, for there is no other way under modern conditions to secure respect for weaker societies or peoples. If cosmopolitanism springs from a comfortable culture of middle-class travellers, intellec­tuals and businessmen, internationalism—although based no less on the realities of global interpenetration and homogenization, mass migration and mass culture, under the dominance of capital—is an ideology of the domestically restricted, the recently relocated, the provisionally exiled and temporarily weak. It is addressed to those who have an interest in transnational forms of solidarity, but whose capacities for doing so have not yet arrived.

Archibugi does not call for the abolition of existing states, or the creation of a single world government. He opts instead for a global civil society to monitor the system of states. Yet few of the ironies of historical development season his well-intentioned proposals. States today, he writes, are faced with new kinds of identity politics, separatist movements and immigrant enclaves, which have compelled them to recognize a degree of internal heterogeneity that goes against the grain of their natural drive towards uniformity. But this is a European perspective. What it misses is the extent to which the United States portrays itself as a cynosure of hetero­geneity, its characteristic patriotic myths transforming cosmopolitan values into a national ideal. In not dissimilar fashion, Archibugi argues that political parties are still confined to the national level, and—since no international parties exist—calls for new forms of extra-statist political community to fill the gap. But would it not be more realistic to think of contemporary neo-liberal orthodoxy as a form of unofficial party organization across national frontiers? It certainly commands a vast network of fellow-thinkers in virtually every country in the world, who speak and act in remarkably similar ways, and can be confident of direct or indirect help from their counterparts abroad. It possesses a firm set of principles and a stable programme that has been put into practice with common results by governments across the globe, whose list lengthens every day. As such, it surely constitutes the core of any future community that could plausibly be called cosmopolitical.

If we turn to the intellectual world, we see a growth of cosmopolitan discourses developing out of approaches to globalization that first appeared in social science/humanities crossover journals of the early 1990s, like Theory, Culture & Society and Public Culture. Somewhat later the term was picked up in a middlebrow forum sponsored by The Boston Review, which offered cosmopolitanism as a progressive alternative to patriotism.footnote3 But though the notion is now widely bandied about, little or no attempt has been made to reconstruct the historical conjunctures in which it acquired salience in the thought of leading modern social theorists. Among these was Georg Simmel, who argued that cosmopolitanism gave expression to the quasi-colonial expansion of urban centres or metropolitan regions, as a legitimation of their encroachment on geopolitically dispersed and vulnerable outlying territories.footnote4

Antonio Gramsci, of course, explored the phenomenon of ‘imperial cosmopolitanism’ among Italian intellectuals in his Prison Notebooks in some detail, looking with a critical eye at the impact of the Catholic universalism of the mediaeval Church, and later of Renaissance humanism, on their outlook. Gramsci understood the familiar barriers to ‘national-popular’ unity, as he termed it, that could be posed by racial or ethnic divisions, but he also had much to say about the way in which a position of one-time cultural ‘centrality’, such as that which Italy enjoyed up to the 16th century, could generate a subsequent history of aimless intellectual stasis.footnote5 Like most of the Marxist intellectuals of his generation, as Michael Löwy has shown, he thought cosmopolitanism an idealist detour away from internationalism, cultivated by certain middle classes under highly specific national conditions.footnote6