Ulrich Beck on the New Cosmopolitanism

Courtesy of 3Quarks Daily, political theorist Ulrich Beck (at signandsight.com) presents seven theses about the “new cosmopolitanism,” its relation to globalization and nationalism, and its differences from earlier versions of cosmopolitanism, including Enlightenment.

As far as I can tell, the key move in Beck’s analysis of globalization is his discussion of how the military power associated with the sovereignty of the nation/state has been supplemented by an economic power vested in no particular location or entity:

Not imperialism, but non-imperialism; not invasion, but the withdrawal of investments constitutes the core of global economic power. This de-territorialised economic power requires neither political implementation nor political legitimacy. In establishing itself, it even bypasses the institutions of the developed democracies, including parliaments and courts. This meta power is neither legal nor legitimate; it is “translegal“. But it does alter the rules of the national and international system of power.

The analogy between the military logistics of state power and the logic of economic power is striking and astonishing. The volume of investment capital corresponds to the fire-power of military weaponry, with the decisive distinction, however, that in this case, power is augmented by threatening not to shoot. Product development is the equivalent of the updating of weaponry systems. The establishment of branches by large corporations in many different countries replaces military bases and the diplomatic corps. The old military rule that offence is the best defence, now translated, reads: States must invest in research and development in order to fully maximize the global offensive power of capital. Growing together with research and educational budgets (or so it is hoped) is the volume of a given state’s voice in the arena of world politics.

The power of the threat of non-investment is already ubiquitous today. Globalisation is not an option; it is an anonymous power. No one started it, no one can stop it, no one is responsible for it. The word “globalisation” stands for the organized absence of responsibility. You cast about for someone to address, with whom you can lodge a complaint, against whom you can demonstrate. But there is no institution to turn towards, no telephone number to call, no e-mail address to write to. Everyone sees himself as a victim, no one as a perpetrator. Even corporate heads (those Machiavellian “modern princes”), who want to be courted, must by definition sacrifice their thinking and behaviour on the altar of shareholder value if they want to avoid being fired themselves.

The most obvious counter-example to this narrative, the US invasion of Iraq, is treated as an expensive lesson for the rest of the world, something to consider when weighing an outdated and ineffective nationalism against the possibilities of a new cosmopolitanism.

Only a decisive critique of nation state orthodoxy, as well as new categories directed towards a cosmopolitan perspective, can open up new opportunities for acquiring power. Anyone who adheres to the old, national dogmatism (to the fetish of sovereignty, for instance, and to the unilateral policies derived from it) will be skipped over, rolled over, and won’t even be in position to complain about it. It is precisely the costs accruing to states as a consequence of their adherence to the old, nation state rules of power relations which necessitates the switch to a cosmopolitan point of view. In other words: nationalism – a rigid adherence to the position that world political meta power games are and must remain national ones – is revealed to be extremely expensive. A fact learned by the USA, a world power, recently in Iraq.

Here I think Beck is overoptimistic about what his critique of “nation state orthodoxy” can really accomplish, because it seems to me that political elites rarely pay a price for either their mistakes or their nationalism, however costly these are to others.  The “stabbed in the back” meme now traveling in American right-wing discussions about ending the Iraq war is only the most recent example of a political phenomenon first identified in the German reaction to its defeat in WWI.  So I would want any critique of the nation-state written in 2007 to be able to identify and at least theorize a way to counter these kinds of popular backlash-effects.

Nonetheless, I think Beck is onto something when he describes a new urgency in our reflections upon “power and control” under these circumstances:

For me, it is important that cosmopolitanisation does not occur somewhere in abstraction or on a global scale, somewhere above people’s heads, but that it takes place in the everyday lives of individuals (“mundane cosmopolitanisation”). The same is true for the internal operations of politics, which have become global on all levels, even that of domestic politics, because they must take account of the global dimension of mutual interdependencies, flows, networks, threats, and so on (“global domestic politics”).

Well said.  But I also wonder why this interdependence, which I suspect has been long in developing, has only become urgent in the past few years.  And I wonder how effective the traditional Enlightenment counter-strategies (reflection) or New Cosmopolitan counter-strategies (Beck’s transnationally organized consumers) would be against these new forms of power?


UPDATE: I suppose that this 2003 essay by Richard Harvey Brown still seems more pertinent than Beck’s. 

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2 responses to “Ulrich Beck on the New Cosmopolitanism

  1. This seems in many ways like a retread of David Harvey’s Condition of Postmodernity, with the praxis borrowed from Hardt and Negri.

    Thoroughly banal and unconvincing, in my opinion. As in the case of Hardt and Negri, Beck’s practical suggestion suffers from a distinct inability to move from an ought to an is. The proletariat as a revolutionary class possessed some plausibility in the late 19th century: after all, proletarians share similar interests, experience similar problems, are willing to organize. But the global consumer-tariat (multitude, whatever) is none of these things. First-world consumers are able to afford a boycott of certain companies; third-world consumers don’t have that luxury. The collapse of any given corporation threatens the livelihood of millions of people, and while it’s easy for us to condemn global investment capitalism, that kind of posturing is rightly seen by many people outside the West/North as just another form of arrogance.

    Gordon Wood has made the very credible argument that eighteenth-century riots (specifically, the tenant riots in colonial America, but this applies to things like the Gordon Riots as well) in fact tended to reinforce the paternalist/dependence-based social structure by operating within its framework and grounding their claims in the landlord’s legitimacy. Beck’s suggestion of boycott has a similar problem. Some kind of consumption is today unavoidable, and boycott merely keeps the structure in place while shuffling actors around. Has there ever been an example of a boycott having the kinds of effects Beck wants to suggest it might have? Marx at least had the example of a couple partially successful revolutions.

    Plus, the analogy “investment-war” is very strained, and I’m surprised to find a German, of all people, unable to spell Immanuel Kant’s name correctly.

  2. I don’t disagree with you about the weakness of Beck’s models of collective action. The revolt of the consumer-tariat sounds awfully like wishful thinking to me. Is this where Neo-Liberalism leaves us?

    As for the rest, I’m interested in anyone who can come up with an account of deterritorialized power and politics that doesn’t fall into these kinds of abstract oppositions, for all Beck’s cautions against abstraction. There’s a strange idealism in the notion that a “decisive critique” of the nation state or the concept of sovereignty would somehow neutralize it, or make it go away.

    But it would be an interesting exercise, to contrast US treatment of Chavez w/Saddam Hussein, and see how far we ‘ve gotten using the power of economics and words instead of bombs and troops.