Citizens of the World, the Power of the Tribe And Why Things Are the Way They Are

When the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope was asked where he came from, his reply was, “I am a citizen of the world”. He was cosmopolites. Two and a half thousand years ago the idea of a social identity outside of one’s village or one’s state was radical. There were practical limits to the ancient world which do not these days exist.

Later cosmopolitan thinkers began to determine layers of identity from family and birthplace to wider communities of humanity and aspiration. Whether it be Immanuel Kant’s idea of an eventual cosmopolitical constitution developed in his book Perpetual Peace or Jacques Derrida’s idea of hospitality to ‘the Other’ one sentence has spawned a norm of international political thought.

At the heart of cosmopolitanism is the idea of mutual respect, even obligations, between people and groups despite their different backgrounds. There is an undeniable logic: a universal morality that goes beyond the artificial boundaries of the nation-state. The 20th century saw our references change towards greater cosmopolitanism. The idea of crimes against humanity entered into international law and the United Nations was one of many global institutions formed to internationalise problems. These institutions and their values have changed our references but how cosmopolitan are we really?

When under pressure we cling not to what is safest but to what is nearestThe failure of the Iraq War and the global downturn has made us more a inward-looking country. This is inevitable. When under pressure we cling not to what is safest but to what is nearest. While the political context might have changed over the last generation, we still cannot always see beyond our everyday spheres of existence; we are still governed by proximity rather than universalism.

Last week the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras called fresh elections after his Syriza party split. He will undoubtedly win. His failure to reverse the policies forced upon Greece was not down to sinister global institutions but other European politicians who feared their own voters. An archaeologist, Khaled Asaad, was killed by ISIL for refusing to give away the secrets of ancient Palmyra. It is trite to say so but would the indifference with which we accept their bloody violence be the same if this were happening on Salisbury Plain? When the BBC took its programme "Songs of Praise" to the Calais migrant camp it was criticised for wasting TV License payers’ money.

The seeming collapse of the Labour Party and David Cameron’s surprise majority have obscured something important. The big successes on May 7th were UKIP and the SNP, two parties who thrive on identity politics. Some might call them nationalists. They may be poles apart politically but what connects them is that they have a story.

Practicalities - even policies - are not important: both parties have created a canvas onto which their voters can project their fears and desires. To begin to understand their success is to accept that the specific does not matter, identity does.  It was not that they were anti-austerity that won the SNP votes, it was what being anti-austerity said about being Scottish. As such it is impervious to reason.

Against this, the two main parties offered manifestos which were depressingly transactional. Caricature was too easy. Perhaps the rise of Jeremy Corbyn can be explained by the fact that, like UKIP and the SNP, he appears to offer something more than this kind of politics: the language might be facile anti-austeritism, the message is anti-establishment solidarity.

The problem with cosmopolitanism taken to an extreme is that it asks us to live without mythology. It is paradoxically reasonable and fanciful at the same time. It is telling people what they ought to think rather than accepting what they do think. We like to think of ourselves as rational beings. We characterise those with whom we disagree as emotional. The truth is that we are all both. We often make rational decisions based on an emotional range of options. The most dangerous people are not those guided by mythologising but those who see themselves as purely rational. The danger of cosmopolitanism is that it become soulless.

The surge in identity politics shows how necessary it is for politicians to start feeding our souls rather than speaking merely to our economic needsPolitics is not always a linear process. There are pulls in opposing directions. The idea of homogeneity can often be overstated and is subject to change. What we may be seeing in Scotland may be a loosening of solidarity; just because there is no European demos now, it may not always be so.

The surge in identity politics shows how necessary it is for politicians to start feeding our souls rather than speaking merely to our economic needs. We speak of nationalism as a bad thing. It is undeniable that many of the worst crimes of the 20th century were down to nationalism; many of the worst regimes which exist today are nationalistic. But every nation-state rests on a degree of nationalism, even the most liberal of countries. 

Everything that is not cosmopolitan it not necessarily nationalism. There are also other bonds. There is such a thing as civil society. Familiarity and involvement with institutions or ideas engenders trust. Communitarianism and cosmopolitanism are not as divergent as they at first might appear: they both accept that there are moral and ethical obligations beyond the individual.

The challenge for politicians is to accept the logic of cosmopolitanism with the emotion of more familiar bonds.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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