The Occupy protests, #GlobalDemocracy and … Cosmopolitanism?

by | 17 Oct 2011

October 15th saw more than 950 protests in more than 80 countries take place against the injustices of the global financial system. This may be just the beginning. Drawing inspiration from Tahrir Square, Puerta del Sol and Occupy Wall Street, people around the world are united on a scale rarely, if ever, seen before. The remarks of one protestor sum this up: “Borders don’t matter at all. We’re all human beings, we’re all in this together. This is a global movement.” The #GlobalDemocracy manifesto, released just before the protest and apparently supported by Naomi Klein, Vandana Shiva, Michael Hardt, Noam Chomsky, and Eduardo Galeano, adds further substance to the sentiment. It calls for a replacement of “the G8 with the whole of humanity – the G7,000,000,000” and for the “citizens of the world” to realize a “global democracy” in which “the people command and global institutions obey”.

These are quite radical demands that intuitively make a lot of sense, especially for those who subscribe to the logic of the Ancient Greek and Roman Stoics, for they were the first to develop the idea of a natural unity and fellowship of mankind known as “cosmopolitanism”.

Today, cosmopolitanism comes in many guises. In addition to the notion of human unity, it is variously understood as a philosophy of moral concern, the political necessity for world citizenship (kosmos: world or universe / polites: citizen), the inspiration for global democracy, the future of post-national law, an extant sociological fact, and so on. Clearly, then, many of the terms of the #GlobalDemocracy manifesto, and indeed its very name, reflect a set of ideals that are familiar to theoretical projects previously developed under the banner of cosmopolitanism.

For many, both on the left and right, this will be seen as problematic for many reasons, the most important being the conceptual link between cosmopolitanism and imperialism. This is most clearly seen in liberal, some say Western, paradigms of global democracy that would entail the election of a global executive to impose norms (cosmopolitan law, including human rights) and institutions upon its global citizens. Be that as it may, it is difficult to imagine the activists and public intellectuals above deliberately lending their support to a project they thought might harbour imperialist tendencies.

Michael Hardt, for example, has, together with Antonio Negri, expressly criticised liberal cosmopolitan arguments that view globalization as fostering democracy. They see standard notions of cosmopolitan democracy as pandering to capitalist globalisation in their exclusive focus on reforming the institutional and political regulation of the economy (Hardt and Negri 2004, 234). To be fair, just like the #GlobalDemocracy manifesto, they do not directly use the word “cosmopolitanism” to describe their political position, probably because of the jet-setting, elitist and bourgeois baggage with which the concept is so often associated. Instead they speak of “global citizenship” as effectively the key to “bringing together the subject (the multitude) and the object (cosmopolitical liberation) within postmodernity” (Hardt and Negri 2001, 64; emphasis added).

While Hardt and Negri resist the term cosmopolitanism, Chantal Mouffe has no problem associating them with it. Even worse, she attacks their radical left credentials by identifying their intellectual framework as correlative with liberal cosmopolitanism since both, according to her, lead to a uni-polar world devoid of sovereign pluralities and hence the end of political antagonism. In fact, Mouffe pretty much dismisses their whole project at first base, seeing it as seductive to the left only because it provides (false) hope in its fiery and messianic rhetoric (Mouffe 90–119).

This is not the place to go into a full discussion of their relative positions. Suffice it to say, Mouffe has a point despite being, in my opinion, a little too wholesale in her dismissal. Her position is so resolutely anti-cosmopolitan that it forecloses any thinking of the concept’s radical potential. A more charitable description of Hardt and Negri’s cosmopolitanism might be a networked, deterritorialized and nomadic resistance of the multitude against Empire. The global citizen is associated with a counter-Empire — a subaltern cosmopolitanism, an “other” cosmopolitanism or cosmopolitanism from below — in which he or she has the potential to create a world with others.

All this, of course, is putting words into their mouths. My point is that there are relatively few on the left who would dare to (re)appropriate this most ancient concept outright. Yet I think it is worth exploring its radical potential. At the very least it would mean not having to tiptoe around it for fear of being caught flirting with the enemy.

“We are the 99%” (Occupy Wall Street);

Ahora todos somos ilegales”—Now we are all illegal—(Puerta del Sol);

“Today we call the citizens of the world: let us globalise Tahrir Square! Let us globalise Puerta del Sol!” (#GlobalDemocracy).

Just don’t mention cosmopolitanism?


Mouffe, Chantal. 2005. On the Political. London: Routledge.
Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. 2001. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. 2004. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin Group.

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  1. This is a great post–and it is something I have written on before. Anarcho-communist collective Tiqqun has a similar critique of Hardt and Negri in their Introduction to Civil War and, more thoroughly, in their This is Not a Program.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Matt. I’ll certainly look up your Tiqqun reference.


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