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Home Opinion Progressive cosmopolitanism: A progressive critique

Progressive cosmopolitanism: A progressive critique

Michael Lind - 17 November 2011

The case for progressive cosmopolitanism remains utopian and unpersuasive. Social democrats should continue to look to the nation state to ensure the protection of democracy, liberty and equality in the terrible storms ahead

The debate about the relationship between progressives and the nation-state has taken on a new urgency because of the global economic crisis.  On both sides of the Atlantic the national social contracts established after World War II by social democrats, left-liberals and enlightened conservatives are under attack from politicians and intellectuals of the right, who preach austerity and the curtailing or dismantling of social insurance programmes.  The centre-left is divided among those who wish to defend and strengthen national welfare states and national labour regulations, and those who argue that in the age of globalisation social democratic victories can only be won at the level of regional or global governance.

The argument that social democracy at the national level is outmoded and needs to be supplemented or replaced by transnational social democracy has become widely accepted on the centre-left.  But the case for cosmopolitan social democracy is unpersuasive.  To be precise, the case for cosmopolitan social democracy rests on two questionable assumptions—a misunderstanding of the way the world economy actually works and a very selective interpretation of the progressive tradition that exaggerates its historic connection with cosmopolitanism.

The first questionable premise of progressive cosmopolitanism is the idea that states are losing the power to control cross-border movements of goods and investment and people.  In an essay for Policy Network entitled “The cosmopolitanism of the left—An answer to globalisation” Daniele Archibugi writes that “(f)irst of all, national governments can no longer effectively control the flows of capital, commodities and labour. Going along this path would absorb too many resources and its effectiveness is likely to be very limited, while the social and economic impact will be to lower the living standards of everybody, not just of the capitalist class.” Is it really too difficult or prohibitively expensive to “effectively control the flows of capital, commodities and labour”?  If it is, then somebody should tell the People’s Republic of China, which may become the world’s largest economy in the next few years, according to some estimates. China has capital controls, which permit it to rig its currency to subsidise Chinese exports while penalising the exports of other countries. Clearly capital flows can be controlled, without crippling expense. Chinese financial authorities do so every day. 

What about commodities?  Those who talk about globalisation as a force beyond the control of governments make trade sound like smuggling.  But smuggled goods like drugs are a small fraction of the goods that cross borders.  If a government decided to restrict imports of refrigerators or automobile parts, it would have little difficulty in doing so. Nor is it difficult for states to stop illegal immigration, if they are determined. Authoritarian states like Singapore do so quite successfully. In countries like the US, illegal immigration is economic and driven chiefly by employer demand.  Thanks to their political power, American employers have resisted laws that would prevent them from hiring illegal immigrants.  But a serious attempt at workplace enforcement would dry up the stream of illegal immigrants to the US quickly, notwithstanding America’s two-thousand mile border with Mexico. We know this to be the case because the collapse of employer demand caused by the Great Recession has caused a dramatic collapse in illegal immigration to the US.
Obviously all policies have costs as well as benefits.  My point is that, in contradiction to the narrative of the nation-state losing power to the allegedly irresistible force of globalisation, all developed states continue to possess the power to control the flow of capital, goods and labour, and many successful states strictly regulate one or more of the three. The fact that we are not living in a world of all-powerful markets and weak states is underlined, when we look at patterns of global trade in manufactured goods. Here we see two patterns that cannot be reconciled with the vision of the borderless global free market that progressive cosmopolitans share with neoliberals.
One pattern is the high degree of regionalism rather than globalism in international trade. For example, most cars purchased in Europe, North America or Asia are built in those regions, sometimes by companies based in other regions of what has been called “the Triad”. Many multinational corporations have subsidiaries in one or more regions of the Triad manufacturing the same products. As Alan Rugman has pointed out, companies would not pursue such a strategy in a truly global economy. The regionalisation of the world economy demonstrates the continuing importance of barriers to trade and investment as well as national and regional policies supporting particular industries.
Another pattern that undercuts the narrative of a borderless world economy is the domination of one global industry after another by multinational corporations based in the three largest industrial capitalist nation-states, if China is excluded from the list: the United States, Japan and Germany. Companies in large countries that exploit economies of scale in their home markets are more likely to conquer foreign markets.  In a truly global economy, companies based in big nations or blocs like the European Union, would have no advantage over companies based in small countries. The inclusion of China merely reinforces the point about the role of strong nation-states in the world economy.  Much Chinese production consists of assembly of components produced in those three leading capitalist countries or elsewhere.  For example, according to the Asian Development Bank, most of the value added to Apple’s iPhone 3G came from Germany, Japan and South Korea, even though final assembly was in China. 

Germany, Japan and South Korea are strong states, not weak states; needless to say, so is China. All of this weakens the case for cosmopolitan social democracy, insofar as it depends on exaggerating the power of global markets and underestimating the power of modern nation-states to shape flows of capital, goods and labour. But in addition to their practical arguments, progressive cosmopolitans also make a moral case for cosmopolitanism, based on the claim that cosmopolitanism is one of the fundamental values of the centre-left.

Republican liberalism versus progressive cosmopolitanism

In a speech to Policy Network in 2010, Pascal Lamy, the director-general of the World Trade Organisation, had this to say:  “Let's remember the origins of the labour and of the socialist movements. Internationalism was higher on their agenda at that time. It has, unfortunately disappeared from our agenda.” Daniele Archibugi makes a similar argument: “The first thing that the left should do is to go back to its internationalist roots. Even if the left and the labour movement managed to achieve most of its political, social and economic rights at the national level, they also had a strong propensity towards international solidarity. The left pioneered the first transnational political associations.” 

This is a somewhat selective reading of the history of the left. It seems to equate that history with the history of the Marxist Internationals. It is easy to understand that individuals in the tradition of revisionist Marxism, which was both cosmopolitan and socialist, should wish to salvage cosmopolitanism after they have jettisoned socialism. But on both sides of the Atlantic and around the world the politics of the left in the last two centuries has included many other strains, progressive, populist, communitarian, syndicalist, anarchist and religious, for which the goals of reform did not include a borderless world or powerful supra-national institutions. To give only one example, until after World War II the mainstream union movements in the US, Canada, Australia and other lands of European settlement favoured not only restrictions on immigration to raise wages but also white supremacy.  And the heritage of the left includes progressive and populist isolationists in the US and left-wing Eurosceptics in Europe.

Outside of the academic intelligentsia, the most powerful strain of progressivism among ordinary people, in the West and the developing world alike, is probably the tradition of republican liberalism—the tradition shared by the French and American Revolutions, as well as by some strains in the English Revolution of the seventeenth century. Republican liberalism is universalist in that it is based on the idea that all human beings share the same human or natural rights. But universalism is not cosmopolitanism.  The universality of rights and values does not require the absence of borders, political or economic.  Brazilians and Americans may share the same rights, but that does not mean that the Brazilians must allow any number of Americans who wish to live in Brazil to do so. Malaysians and Germans have the same natural rights, but that does not mean that Malaysians cannot impose capital controls on the flow of money from German investors that might destabilise the Malaysian economy. 
One would never know from advocates of progressive cosmopolitanism that one of the great successes of the left in the past two centuries has been the erection of new borders where there were no borders before.  Today there are more than 190 sovereign states in the United Nations, and the number is likely to grow further in the future. The replacement of giant, multi-ethnic empires by numerous smaller democratic nation-states with greater linguistic and cultural homogeneity has been supported by most on the left under the name of “national liberation” since the American and French Revolution. With J.S. Mill, generations of liberal nationalists have assumed that it is easier to achieve democracy in a country with a common national language and a widely shared majority culture than in a country permanently divided among two or more ethnolinguistic communities. Critics of progressive cosmopolitanism are entitled to ask:  What was the point of generations of anti-colonial national liberation movements, if nations, having gained their independence from a ruling family or a remote nation of overlords, are now expected to delegate their hard-won sovereign powers to a transnational authority of some kind?  The answer cannot be that the new regional or global federation or agencies will be democratic in some ways.  With the exception of the Austro-Marxists, a minor leftist faction of the World War I era, the goal of most liberals and socialists in the twentieth century was to break up the Hapsburg and Romanov and European colonial empires, so that their constituent nations could form their own democratic governments within smaller territories, not to keep the European or overseas empires together as multinational democratic federations. 

Creating the political space for democracy
Enthusiasm for the cosmopolitan project is weakest among countries with recent memories of struggle against formal political rule, like India, or informal economic imperialism, like China and Brazil. And it is quite weak in the United States, whose political culture is still defined by memories of rebellion against a metropolitan empire. The attachment of most people in most countries to national sovereignty is compatible with limited amounts of international agreement and concerted action, but it dooms any ambitious project for global governance.

Pascal Lamy writes: “The priorities of progressives must be shifted from the state level to the world level, and global regulation of market capitalism needs to be given the same importance as the introduction of the welfare state in the 19th century.” On the contrary, the last thing that embattled progressives need to do, at this dangerous and uncertain moment in history, is to sign on to a crusade that has no more chance of success than earlier campaigns by idealists on the left for global disarmament or world federalism.  As the repeated failure of international accords to limit global warming should have made clear, there is little chance that the three most populous nation-states of the twenty-first century, China, India and the United States, all three jealous of their sovereignty, will go along with a project of shifting major regulations “from the state level to the world level”.  And without the cooperation of the biggest nations, no ambitious system of global governance can be established.
If progressives need a vision of global order, it should be what the economist Dani Rodrik calls “thin globalisation”. Instead of pursuing the utopian fantasy of powerful transnational institutions that can govern a global market in a borderless world, social democrats and other progressive factions should campaign for flexible international rules that maximise the freedom of democratic countries to structure their internal economies and to adopt internal social contracts as their citizens see fit. Democracy and liberty and equality are not gifts to be bestowed on a grateful humanity by a benevolent global elite of technocrats and activists.  If they are to last through the terrible storms ahead, democracy and liberty and equality must be built from the ground up, one city and one province and one nation at a time.

Michael Lind is a co-founder of the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. and author of Up From Conservatism: Why the Right is Wrong for America 

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Globalisation and Governance.

Tags: Michael Lind , progressive cosmopolitanism , Daniele Archibugi , Alan Rugman , Republican liberalism , Pascal Lamy

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