A Materialist Critique of Cosmopolitanism: Part Five

Pogge believes that ‘democratically constituted governments…are truly the agents of their people’,37 not truly the agents of the dominant capitalist class among the people.

He referred to Clinton as ‘the elected guardian of the US national interest’38 rather than of the interests of American capitalism, which have been made their national interest through ideology, and writes that ‘There are firm constraints on what persons and groups within a larger social system may do by way of tailoring its rules, or corrupting the application of these rules, in their own favour.’39

Pogge makes this seem so clear cut but not only are rules biased nationally and internationally to begin with, or access to the application of them priced or weighted on the basis of influence out of range, they can be sabotaged,40 changed (as Pogge gives examples of in his writing),41 opted out of (as Australia did with regard to East Timor), ignored (again, e.g. the Australian involvement in Iraq – the troops of which were active in that country before any democratic decision was made to put them there) or simply rejected.42

Pogge’s focus is on the human rights of the individual – particularly the global poor.43 He repeatedly writes of ‘the global economic or institutional order’, and not what it is by name – capitalism.

Institutional reform (i.e. the reform through the use of conceptual reason of the products of conceptual reason) is at the heart of his writing as it is of cosmopolitan debate.44 Abstract theorising about and calls for institutional reform amount to improving an economic system which has as its unavoidable, unintended core – exploitation. And that exploitation, as Marx has argued, has its own dynamic.

Pogge rejects class divisions, pitting ‘the affluent’ against ‘the impoverished’: ‘This catastrophe was and is happening, foreseeably, under a global institutional order designed for the benefit of the affluent countries’ governments, corporations, and citizens and of the poor countries’ political and military elites.’45

‘The affluent’ comprise ‘we’, the firms are ‘ours’. He asks with outrage ‘What entitles a small global elite – the citizens of the rich countries and the holders of political and economic power in the resource-rich developing countries – to enforce a global property scheme under which we may claim the world’s natural resources for ourselves and can distribute these among ourselves on mutually agreeable terms?’46 …and nowhere answers the question.

Pogge compares ‘us’ in our complicity against the global poor in ‘the gravest, crime against humanity ever committed’47 with the ‘vastly more evil than our political leaders’ Hitler and Stalin, thereby displaying a complete absence of economic analysis – the same analysis he despises.

He would benefit from researching the behaviour of, for example, Ford, General Motors and its subsidiary in Germany – Opel – before, during and after World War II. I refer him to an article on the Washington Post website for starters: Ford and GM Scrutinised for Alleged Nazi Collaboration.

To argue as I do is not to deny the importance of personal ethical decisions and actions but it is, repeatedly, to emphasise that those must be determined and take place on the base and in the environment of a capitalist mode of production which functions through class domination and its means.48

Part five/to be continued…


37. Pogge, ‘The Bounds of Nationalism’, op. cit., 132

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid.

40. With regard to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘Despite the cross-border character of these rights, the Declaration upholds the sovereignty of individual states. Thus, a series of internal contradictions between universal human rights and territorial sovereignty are built into the logic of the most comprehensive international law document in our world.’, Benhabib, Another Cosmopolitanism, op. cit., 30

41. E.g. ‘The Bounds of Nationalism’ op. cit., pp. 131-134

42. ‘Resistance to the erosion of sovereignty has resulted in the U.S. refusal to join the Kyoto Treaty on atmospheric emissions and the International Criminal Court, decisions that have been widely criticised. Similar question arise over who is to determine the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and over the authority of the United Nations in matters of international peace and security. But by far the most important institutions from this point of view are those of the international economy itself.’ Nagel, ‘The Problem of Global Justice’, op. cit., pp. 136-137; ‘The Geneva Convention of 1951 relating to the Status of Refugees and its Protocol added in 1967 is the second most important international legal document after the Universal Declaration. Nevertheless, neither the existence of this document nor the creation of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees has altered the fact that this Convention and its Protocol are binding on signatory states alone and can be brazenly disregarded by non-signatories and, at times, even by signatory states themselves.’ Benhabib, Another Cosmopolitanism, op. cit., 30

43. ‘individual human persons…are the ultimate units of moral concern.’, Pogge, ‘An Egalitarian Law of Peoples’, op. cit., 210

44. O’Neill writes ‘any approach to transnational economic justice must in the end put demands for institutional reform centre stage’ and that she is arguing for a form of moral cosmopolitanism which entails an appropriate degree of ‘institutional cosmopolitanism…Moral cosmopolitanism, even approximate moral cosmopolitanism, does not point to a stateless world, but to forms of institutional cosmopolitanism’, Onora O’Neill, Bounds of Justice, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000, pp. 141, 201-202; Nagel states that he is addressing a concern for socio-economic justice (‘the gruesome facts’) on justice, inequality and class relations. For him the answer depends on global institutions – there is a need ‘for more effective global institutions to deal with our collective problems, from global warming to free trade.’ Nagel, ‘The Problem of Global Justice’, op. cit., 143

45. Pogge, ‘Recognised and Violated by International Law: The Human Rights of the Global Poor’, op. cit., 740

46. Pogge, ‘The Bounds of Nationalism’ op. cit., 148

47. Pogge, ‘Real World Justice’, op. cit., 33

48. On the subject of ‘complicity’ I note that Pogge does find understanding when the focus is on the citizens of impoverished nations: ‘And having done all this, we lavish condescending pity on impoverished populations for their notorious “failure to govern themselves democratically”!’, Pogge, ‘The Bounds of Nationalism’, op. cit., 148. Pogge’s proposal for remedying the dire situation is that we can ‘try to initiate appropriate changes in national policies or global institutions’, we can ‘develop feasible paths of reform’ and do volunteer work or contribute to relief organisations, Pogge, ‘The Bounds of Nationalism’ op. cit., 149. He also thinks that the establishment of sex-tourist resorts and sweatshops in many of the poorer countries might be part of their best development strategy (Ibid.) – having previously written that ‘Third-world politicians are bribed or pressured by firms from the rich societies to cater to their sex tourism business’, ‘An Egalitarian Law of Peoples’, op. cit., 213

A Materialist Critique of Cosmopolitanism: Part Four

To undo the concentration of power in the state, to foster democratisation and to benefit human rights Pogge theorises a curious ‘vertical dispersal’ of power. Not only does such a vertical dispersal already exist in government (federal, state and local), there are a range of government and non-government organisations.

Pogge’s understanding of the state is flawed. He compares the state with a game and ‘the ideal’ of a ‘level playing field.’33 The analysis of Marx and Engels exposed the state as the tool of the capitalist class, the purpose of which is, contrary to Pogge’s view, to ‘bend – or bias – the rules’ and to make the ‘field’ consistently ‘uneven’. The state is not a neutral structure.34

In defence of the state with regard to his global resource tax, Pogge gave the example of the suppression of the slave trade, writing ‘States do sometimes act for moral reasons.’35 Not only does his example echo the position of the United States capitalist class regarding its attack on Iraq – ‘We got nothing out of it’ – the reasons why states act are economic and geo-political, in the interests of their dominant class, never moral. Claims of morality are their first justification.

The position of the British capitalist class regarding the suppression of slavery was essentially the same as that of the rising capitalist class in the United States on the ‘liberation’ of slaves as a result of their Civil War – slavery had become an impediment to the development of capitalism. It had become more economical, more profitable for workers to be ‘free’ than in chains.

Benhabib’s writing on the state is much more grounded than Pogge’s. She points to the ‘epochal’ devolution of the state’s considerable powers, as a consequence of globalised capital, and the dangers this poses to its citizens.

Exemplifying my position that the state is the tool of the capitalist class, she writes that ‘in some cases, the state disburses its own jurisdiction to private agencies in order to escape the territorial control of popular legislators. …The fraying of the social contract and the dismantling of sovereignty suggest that the transcendence of the nation-state is occurring hardly in the direction of cosmopolitanism but more in the direction of the privatisation and corporatisation of sovereignty.’36 A very negative but very thoughtful note for a cosmopolitan to end their book on.

Part four/to be continued…


33. Thomas W. Pogge, ‘The Bounds of Nationalism’, in: Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms, Polity Press, 2008, pp. 124-151, 127ff.

34. ‘By the mere fact that it is a class and no longer an estate, the bourgeoisie is forced to organise itself no longer locally, but nationally, and to give a general form to its mean average interest. Through the emancipation of private property from the community, the State has become a separate entity, beside and outside civil society; but it is nothing more than the form of organisation which the bourgeoisie necessarily adopt both for internal and external purposes, for the mutual guarantee of their property and interests. …Since the State is the form in which the individuals of a ruling class assert their common interests, and in which the whole civil society of an epoch is epitomised, it follows that the State mediates in the formation of all common institutions and that the institutions receive a political form. Hence the illusion that law is based on the will, and indeed on the will divorced from its real basis – on free will. Similarly, justice is in its turn reduced to the actual laws.’ K. Marx and F. Engels, The German Ideology, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 1, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, pp. 77-78. Pogge wrote ‘While my portrait of the noble team player may not, then, be typical of much that goes on in sport today, it nevertheless has, I believe, the kind of reality that matters here. It really is our widely held ideal by reference to which we still judge our athletes. And drawing on it is therefore appropriate to elucidate the political use of the “level playing field” metaphor.’, Pogge, ‘The Bounds of Nationalism’, op. cit., 128.

35. ‘there would still be the further question whether our governments could be moved to introduce and comply with such institutions. I think that an affirmative answer to this question can be supported by some historical evidence. Perhaps the most dramatic such evidence is provided by the suppression of the slave trade in the nineteenth century. Great Britain was in the forefront of these efforts, actively enforcing a ban on the entire maritime slave trade irrespective of a vessel’s ownership, registration, port of origin, or destination. Britain bore the entire cost of its enforcement efforts and could not hope to gain significant benefits from it – in fact, Britain bore additional opportunity costs in the form of lost trade, especially with Latin America. States do sometimes act for moral reasons.’, Pogge, ‘An Egalitarian Law of Peoples’, op. cit., 222.

36. ‘Hospitality, Sovereignty, and Democratic Iterations – Reply to Commentators’ in Another Cosmopolitanism, op. cit., pp. 176-177.