A Materialist Critique of Cosmopolitanism

Marcus Aurelius, Musei Capitolini, Rome

Marcus Aurelius, Musei Capitolini, Rome

*   *   *

‘In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. …consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.’1

The question which underlies all others is ‘Which is prior to or which the product of the other – consciousness or that which exists independently of it – “matter”?’ My position, consistent with science, is that matter is prior and consciousness its product. Matter – ‘objective reality’ – is inseparable from motion and manifests in uninterrupted self-development.

Consciousness (the sum total of our brain’s processes) is the supreme form of reflection of the external world and asserts the knowability of the world. Dialectical materialism, developed from Neoplatonism (dynamism, motion, negation/contradiction, inter-relatedness, imperfection), holds theory and practice to be inseparably bound, that testing in the practice is essential to knowledge.2

Marx and Engels considered cosmopolitanism as an ideological reflection of capitalism. Although they used the word ‘cosmopolitan’, it was in relation to the world the bourgeoisie had brought into being.3 In relation to socialism, they were internationalists.

The core of Marx’s theory of ideology is that in any society, the ruling ideas are those of the ruling class and that those ideas are embodied in its institutions and general ideology. In its history, cosmopolitanism has not only focused on the individual as bearer of moral concern but – under the influence of Stoicism – on the individual as ethical, self-controlled, ‘reasoned’ and dutiful.4

Cosmopolitanism has been aligned with patria, empire, ‘just’ imperialistic wars and, of late, ‘humanitarian’ interventions. As the cosmos for the Stoics was a polis, ordered by right reason embodied in law, for the Roman Stoics their patria extended citizenship to all, on the basis of rationality.

But this ‘rationality’ entailed obligations to Rome.5 Beck,6 Kaldor7 and Benhabib8 have ‘worried’ over the use of ‘humanitarian’ actions by capitalism to justify military ‘interventions’ – from Africa to Central Europe, from Iraq to Afghanistan and to add another, specifically relevant to Australia – East Timor.9

Marx, who never described capitalism as unjust, rejected morality from his analysis. He regarded any appeal to morality as a theoretically backward step.

Part one/to be continued…


1. Karl Marx, from the Preface, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, pp. 20-21.

2. It is interesting that Kant who took the ‘free individual’ as the starting point of his inquiry into politics, wrote that reason ‘requires trial, practice and instruction to enable it to progress gradually from one stage of insight to the next’ and that he believed that close trade relations and therefore dependency between states will also ‘indirectly prepare the way for a great political body of the future’. Second and Eighth Propositions, ‘Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose’ (1784) in Hans Reiss, Ed., Kant, Political Writings, Trans., H.B. Nisbet, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991, pp. 41-53, pp. 42, 51.

3. ‘As money develops into international money, so the commodity-owner becomes a cosmopolitan. The cosmopolitan relations of men to one another originally comprise only their relations as commodity-owners. Commodities as such are indifferent to all religious, political, national and linguistic barriers. Their universal language is price and their common bond is money. But together with the development of international money as against national coins, there develops the commodity-owner’s cosmopolitanism, a cult of practical reason, in opposition to the traditional religious, national and other prejudices which impede the metabolic process of mankind. The commodity-owner realises that nationality “is but the guinea’s stamp,” since the same amount of gold that arrives in England in the shape of American eagles is turned into sovereigns, three days later circulates as napoleons in Paris and may be encountered as ducats in Venice a few weeks later. The sublime idea in which for him the whole world merges is that of a market, the world market.’ Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy op. cit., pp. 152-153.

4. ‘The Stoics held up a paradigm or ideal of the philosopher in complete, autonomous, and godlike control of himself.’ Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Trans., Martin Hammond, Penguin, London, 2006, xxxv.

5. ‘There is no doubt that the Stoicism of Cicero’s De Officiis or of Seneca’s varied corpus explicitly acknowledges obligations to Rome. …empire made the doctrine very easy for many Romans by identifying the Roman patria with the cosmopolis itself.’ Pauline Kleingeld and Eric Brown, ‘Cosmopolitanism’, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy; ‘In this book, Cicero presents an ideal of social conduct.’ Cicero, De Officiis/On Duties, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991, xxiv; ‘It would not seriously misrepresent De Officiis to describe it as a handbook for members of the governing class on their duties to their peers in private life and to their fellow-citizens in public life.’, xxv; ‘In place of his enemies’ schemes for redistributing existing wealth, (Cicero) suggests the acquisition of new wealth through imperialism. How was this to be reconciled with his demand for just wars and the equitable treatment of Rome’s subjects?’ Ibid., xxviii. Of Aurelius: ‘His Meditations…are devoted to power and submission to power’, Aurelius, Meditations, op. cit., xv; ‘The concept of duty…underlies Marcus’ whole philosophy of human behaviour…the duty is both to man and to god. … Marcus sees his duty primarily as that incumbent on ‘a rational and social being’, generalised into the ‘duty to be a good man’, Ibid., 161; ‘For Marcus, social responsibility is a direct consequence of man’s rational nature (‘rational directly implies social’)’, Ibid., 162.

6. ‘the greater the success of neoliberal politics on a global level – that is, the greater the erosion of state structures – the more likely it is that a “cosmopolitan facade” will emerge to legitimise Western military intervention. The striking feature here is that imperial power-play can coexist harmoniously with a cosmopolitan mission. …power strategies disguised as humane intervention.’, Ulrich Beck, ‘The Cosmopolitan Manifesto’ in Garrett Wallace Brown, David Held, Eds., The Cosmopolitan Reader, Polity, Cambridge, 2010, pp. 217-228, 225.

7. ‘the term humanitarian intervention has been used to justify wars, as in Kosovo, and now Iraq and Afghanistan, giving rise to scepticism about the whole concept; hence the phrase “military humanism” coined by Noam Chomsky.’ Mary Kaldor, ‘Humanitarian Intervention: Towards a Cosmopolitan Approach’, The Cosmopolitan Reader op. cit., pp. 334-350, 334.

8. ‘this doctrine can be used inconsistently—why Bosnia alone? Why not Rwanda and Darfur as well?—and hypocritically—was the Iraq war of 2003 really a case of humanitarian intervention? ‘Seyla BenHabib, Another Cosmopolitanism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006, 72.

9. ‘1943 January-February: Australia withdraws from East Timor and drops leaflets titled, ‘Your friends do not forget you’, urging the Timorese to fight on alone.’ and ‘1952: An Australian defence white paper declares that Portuguese Timor is of immense strategic interest to Australia. Australia proposes defence co-operation, but this is rejected by Portugal.’ x, ‘Under international law most, if not all, of the known resources would belong to East Timor.’ and ‘Just two months before the independence of East Timor, Australia withdrew from international arbitration for maritime disputes, thereby deliberately denying justice to this new country.’ xxvi, ‘Australia was the only Western nation to recognise the occupation of East Timor by Indonesia.’ xxviii etc. …Paul Cleary, Shakedown – Australia’s grab for Timor oil, Allen and Unwin, 2007. Scheuerman wrote ‘cosmopolitanism obscures the fundamentally pluralistic, dynamic, and conflictual nature of political life on our divided planet. Notwithstanding its pacific self-understanding, cosmopolitan democracy inadvertently opens the door to new and even more horrible forms of political violence. Cosmopolitanism’s universalistic moral discourse not only ignores the harsh and unavoidably agonistic character of political life, but it also tends to serve as a convenient ideological cloak for terrible wars waged by political blocs no less self-interested than the traditional nation state’ (Zolo 1997, 24). William Scheuerman, ‘Globalisation’, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.


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