This is a delicate moment. Last Septembers attacks threw the political forms of globalisation into stark relief, at a time when, thus far, only its cultural and economic consequences were readily apparent.
As the death of multiculture is announced loudly from all sides, a geo-political climate has developed in which the desire to dwell convivially with difference appears naive, trifling or misplaced, in the face of deep conflict and sustained antagonism on one side, and routine, market-driven forms of cultural hybridisation on the other. Hope for a more equitable, tolerant and democratic future has been confounded by the problems involved in producing a worldly vision that is not simply one more imperialistic particularism dressed up in universal garb.
Understanding this dilemma dictates that our reference back to cosmopolitanism should proceed in a spirit which is adequate to the broadest dimensions of last Septembers tragedy. We must be bold enough to see it in its geo-political and historical, rather than its mythological and apocalyptic, dimensions.
With that difficult end in mind, we will have to draw out more than the obvious themes which have saturated the official media: the sacrifice and selflessness that characterised so many responses to the emergency; the heroism of the rescue services and police; the failure of institutional protection for which government might have been expected to assume responsibility; the motives and para-political aspirations of the murderers; the tensions between revenge and justice and so on.
We will have to try and direct attention towards neglected areas that have acquired a different significance with the unfolding of some key contemporary narratives, including the info-war against terrorism, and the consolidation of an explanation of the September attacks that retreats into the armoured certainties of nineteenth-century racial theory, locating all the sources of this conflict in the clash of incommensurable civilisations.
The ordinary dead
One alternative perspective, that is valuable as an antidote to media manipulation and the shallow wisdom of Islamophobic common sense, derives from a primary concern with the unspectacular, and therefore easily overlooked, losses entailed in the experience of ordinary people.
These were mostly workers who were brought into or around the twin towers that day by their undervalued contributions as janitors, cleaners, sandwich makers and other metropolitan functionaries of the service economy, rather than as puppeteers of the corporate world.
Away from the moving popular shrines and memory boards of downtown Manhattan, their unglamorous lives, like those of the poorly-led fire fighters and police, are hard to keep in focus and in proportion. The moving way that they have been remembered, closest to home, fades with increased distance. But it is important evidence of the stubborn localisation of the world.
The effort involved in maintaining a connection to that level of feeling and to the world of the grieving families is worthwhile for several reasons. Their ordinary suffering can help to modify the meaning of the event itself. By speaking to us across lines of culture, class, language, religion and ethnicity, it helps restore human dimensions that get lost in spasms of anger, bitterness and patriotic sentiment, both spontaneous and orchestrated. Those ordinary lives not only promote a complex and diverse sense of American nationality that is still being enriched against all European expectations by immigration. They refer us also to the everyday vibrancy of polyglot New York, a world city, to the presence of the world in that city and, by extension, to the responsibility that a world with a cosmopolitan conscience might want to take for what happened there.
It bears repetition that the ordinary dead came from every corner and culture, north and south. Their troubling manifestation of the south inside the north is useful to us. It destabilises the Manichean assumptions that have governed most explanations of and responses to the attacks and are cheerfully content to divide the world tidily into us and them. Under the profane and cosmopolitan constellation their trans-local lives and ethnic affiliations construct for us, remembrance of them might even be made to yield up a symbol of how exposure to difference, to alterity, can amount to rather more than the experience of loss with which it has been so easily and habitually associated. Their untidy, representative diversity might then be valued as more than the simple sum of its discrepant components as something like a civic asset that corrupts the sham unity of supposedly integral civilisations.
In the context of Europes current phobias about immigration, this North American multiculture can be a welcome corrective to the image of the incoming alien as criminal, deviant and work-shy, if not actively terroristic. Enforced rootedness and extra language lessons are not, it would seem, an adequate cultural cement for plural nations. The metropolitan pattern, which produces the ordinary dead as objects of love and reverence, underlines the fact that cultures are mutable and provisional, constantly worked upon and more inclined to inclusivity than nationalists can admit.
A significant proportion of the ordinary dead were close to the experience and process of migration. A minority of their families, alien or migrant, were becoming-American, without the protections of citizenship and legal residency. As a result they have been marginal to the official relief effort, and have suffered additional hardships...just as their lost loved ones were more easily exploited in the segmented labour market that conditioned their uneven transitions towards the comfortable American lives they sought.
That same marginality, like the embarrassing petty conflicts and racialised division of labour that erupted between black and white volunteers and security personnel cleaning up at the World Trade Center site, was a sign that America is nowhere nearly as unified as it would like to be. Even when illuminated in red, white and blue, that family quarrel directs our thoughts unerringly to the problem of how stubbornly racial divisions intervene, and how they contribute to making this event meaningful in the present, and useful in the future.
A unifying tragedy
What are usually understood to be racial differences do seem suddenly trifling and irrelevant in the face of the larger, plural but unified tragedy. I want to be very clear. I am proposing that we do not allow our commemorative reflections to be sucked back towards the obsessive fascination with identity that is at the centre of US culture, or that trademark narcissism of minor differences that has been evident everywhere where anxious people seek resources with which to protect themselves against the turbulence of globalisation.
Those pathologies are made to recede by the force of major trauma and substantive suffering. As in so many other instances of conflict, nationalist and particularistic responses to immediate suffering are in opposition to the humanistic sentiments that promote reciprocal recognition. Such sentiments discover in a primal, transcendent vulnerability the urgent ethical and political obligation to find alternatives to militarism.
At that moment, the myopic imperial dynamics of American society can be persuaded to embrace the common contingencies of life elsewhere. A year after this tragic sequence began, its message still is that there can be no absolute security, and the US is not invulnerable.
The desire to remember the ordinary dead of New York can help us cultivate a humane and cosmopolitan orientation. Their loss is only cheapened by easy, automatic solidarity and is something that should not, on today of all days, become entangled with facile geo-political assessments. At the risk of instrumentalising it, the intervening year has raised a number of issues that might profitably be explored. This period has sharpened ambivalence towards patriotism and the distinctive patterns of mutuality and belonging associated with the political tempo of national states, into a more active discomfort.
The prospect of a global conflict that is as nebulous as it is interminable has undermined the patriotic authority of the US liberal just-war advocates. The principled hesitation in the face of propaganda, cultivated ignorance and ethnic absolutism, that answers their mealy-mouthed exhortations to blood and sword, should not be reduced to some simple contrast between cheap and serious, or safe and dangerous varieties of nationalism. It is the considered outcome of an opportunity to reflect on the political ethics of national solidarity. This is both a value and a response to pressing circumstances, and it demands from us something more than an exclusively national orientation. The substantive political problems raised by the effects of trans-national mobility are compounded by the character of post-colonial migrancy. Unlike its colonial predecessor, it lacks the possibility of a convincing appeal to cultural continuity.
The old, new racism remains influential, even as it gives way to todays emergent genomic and bio-social explanations. It was the characteristic product of a phase of mass migration. And the resulting culturalist tones are still audible in the anthropological subtleties, disavowals and evasions of the raciological discourse to which it gives voice.
Genteel, common sense racism finds it difficult to be overt. The cruder and more belligerent expressions of racial antipathy associated with imperial and colonial domination are regarded as unsavoury, disreputable and offensive. Nationalism and patriotism, on the other hand, are seldom judged so harshly. At least when viewed from above, those forms of solidarity are welcomed as desirable features of social and political life. They endow national communities with a necessary strength and confidence.
Under their respectable banners, the standard of what counts as acceptable political commentary can become quite different. Arranged reverently around the national flagpole, the mean spirited people who sounded like nativists, racists, ultra-nationalists and neo-fascists turn out instead to be plain old patriots. In Europe, their misplaced fears are implicated in the tide of brutality and violence directed towards refugees and asylum seekers. But they touch a number of other urgent problems of emergent global governance: growing inequality, environmental catastrophe and supra-national institution-building.
Once those problems are defined, the cosmopolitan dimensions of the New York tragedy can be seen to offer an important opportunity. Inside the US and far away from it, the ability to identify with distant suffering and loss might be employed as a means to expand the limitations of nationality and to resist the logic of absolute racial and ethnic division that bolsters it.
Can we say that those divisions belong to the colonial past? Ultimately they dictate that one variety of murder can be felt, valued and mourned more highly and intensely than equally unjust and arbitrary deaths elsewhere. We can refuse the imperial topography, which dictates that deaths are prized according to where they occur and the characteristics of the bodies involved.
Our cosmopolitan impulses suggest a different resolution. They say instead that revulsion at murder and brutality cannot be selective, that our democratic commitments necessitate an open confrontation with racial and ethnic absolutes.
I am disputing the idea that reified races and ossified civilisations either active or inert, have a primordial power that is waiting to be stirred into life. Instead of lapsing into that outmoded, easy view, we need to acknowledge rather than deny the forces of racism and nationalism always a couple that produce races as political entities and can be seen to have been at stake in this event and its bloody aftermath.
To admit this explicit concern with the effects of racism into our remembrance is neither partial nor trivial. It is to have used a confrontation with the principle of race hierarchy and its recent geo-political expressions in order to re-configure our moral imaginings along cosmopolitan and humane lines.
To proceed like this is to change the terms in which the tragedy of the September attack has been conceptualised. It is no longer a spectacular event that can belong exclusively to the deeply divided national community it perversely brought back to life. By challenging the nationalist appropriation of the events, we can try to remember the dead on a different scale. This shift of emphasis demands thoughtful and difficult responses in which that injustice is required to be seen, felt and understood in the context of other similar and connected horrors that are more frequent, and less eventful, in other parts of the world.
A modest, anti-nationalist proposal
This anti-nationalist gesture will not be comfortable with any equation in which deaths directly attributable to US foreign policies are to be weighed against the deaths the US has suffered, somehow leaving the recipients of its imperial and post-colonial aggression in moral credit.
The cosmopolitan response to this tragedy argues that human lives should not be amenable to that sort of calculus. It sees the body count of innocents as cumulative, and understands how each loss can become an indictment of our own failure to take possession of our history and agency.
The direction of this argument about the political and ethical forms of globalisation carries us against the grain of most twentieth-century wisdom on the subjects of social solidarity, political morality and affect. The continuing influence of the wisdom Freud derived from his observations of Hitlerism means that most voices in this difficult conversation accept that desire to mourn and love across the social and cultural boundaries of intimacy, locality and nationality is profoundly suspect. It is thought to involve a deception that devalues the idea of love and pretends an impossible tolerance.
From that bleak perspective, we cannot love our neighbours, never mind embracing the intrusive strangers whose alien habits disturb the forms of mutuality on which our concern for one another has come to rest.
Freuds recommendation was initially shaped by his approach to the conflict between the social obligation to love ones fellow citizens and the unhappiness involved in impossible attempts to do so. The implications of this pattern extend further. They might certainly be made to include the production of national, racial and ethnic groups as historical and political actors, as well as a consideration of the openings that racism affords for the discharge of what he called a non-erotic aggressivity and destructiveness.
I draw inspiration from Freuds attempt to link the impossible injunction to love the unfamiliar with a speculative and critical account of the development of pathological intercommunal relations. But I want to dispute his rejection of the demand to practise an undifferentiated attitude towards friends and enemies, intimates and strangers alike. After all, politics can be invented and practised outside the militaristic distinctions that declare if you are not with us, you are against us. Rather than deferring to that tainted imperial logic, I want to suggest patterns that Freud and the others could not be expected to have foreseen ways in which a more cosmopolitan loyalty might be sustained as an abstract but nonetheless invaluable commitment in the agonistic development of a multicultural democracy. What they could not comprehend is the ways in which colonial power connects to metropolitan governance.
Our opportunity to act with the planet in mind is associated with the post-modern innovations that have compressed and networked the divided world. Political ideologies routinely have a longer reach, while social relations and technological changes have fostered new varieties of conflict as well as an enhanced sense of interdependence, simultaneity and mutuality. The strategic and economic choices made by one group or in one place are thus readily seen to be connected in a complex manner with the lives, hopes and choices of others who may be far away, but cannot be forgotten or hidden from view.
Act locally, think globally
This cosmopolitan approach has deep roots in the earlier varieties of solidarity proposed at the dawn of the twentieth century by activists of the W. E. B. Du Bois generation. Their dissenting loyalty to humanity and universality was subsequently re-enacted in the national liberation and decolonisation struggles that their writings had anticipated. Its resurgent appeal was captured some years ago by the suggestive but easily assimilated slogan act locally, think globally.
Since then, the same restless spirit has lent emotional and ethical energies to trans-local movements against racism and inequality around health, disease and the environment. This trans-modern dissidence is now increasingly connected to the emergence of an explicitly anti-capitalist culture that aims to make resistance to neo-liberalism as global as capital itself has become.
A number of different elements can be identified here. All of them are associated with a fundamental change in the way that our planet is itself apprehended and understood, beyond the cosmography of Newtonian mechanisms and outside the geo-political sensibilities of the imperial age. Our world has become a different kind of object, which can be approached through a geo-piety that operates on an earthly scale and is not oriented by fundamental concern for the sovereign territory of particular national states.
There are historical precedents for this great transformation in the understanding of space and place, location and inter-connection. If the first spatial revolution coincided with and facilitated the establishment of colonial powers, our own has coincided with their demise.
In the earlier case, the institution of a belligerent trans-modernity ended medieval conceptions of locally-bounded life, and was connected to displacement of the Earth from the centre of the cosmos. It was succeeded in the eighteenth century by another upheaval that produced anthropology and introduced man as an object of knowledge and power. This second decisive change of scale tentatively christened by Foucault the analytic of finitude is identified with the high period of racial slavery in the Atlantic.
The post-modern planetary consciousness I am appealing to relies on a re-imagining of the world that is as extensive and profound as any of the revolutionary changes in the perception and representation of space and matter that preceded it. The world becomes not a limitless globe, but a small and finite place, one planetary body among others with strictly limited resources that are allocated unequally.
Another world is possible
This is not the globalised mindset of the fortunate, unrestricted traveller or some unexpected fruit of insulated post-scarcity and indifferent overdevelopment. It is a critical orientation and an oppositional mood triggered by comprehension of the simple fact that juridical, environmental and medical crises do not stop at national boundaries; and by a feeling that the sustainability of our species is itself in question. This break in modern political consciousness increasingly includes a well-developed antipathy to the destructive global workings of turbo-capitalism.
The change of scale tied into this Apollonian view of the whole world promotes a novel cosmographic sense of our relationship with the bio-sphere. It supports an appreciation of nature as a common condition of our imperilled existence, resistant to commodification and incompatible with the institution of private property. The most obvious illustrations of what this mentality looks like when it is translated into cosmopolitan action are the worldwide battles to secure free access to the water of which our own bodies are largely composed, and the campaigns to resist corporate control of the substance of life itself, especially in the form of seeds, as well as the global resistance to the privatisation and copyrighting of natural materials with commercial possibilities which has linked the colonisation of territory and human beings with the colonisation of all of life.
Another world is possible is the latest slogan that has been chosen to foster this outlook. It suggests neither a humanism in the classical sense of that term, nor an unsteady affiliate of the liberal, mid-century cold-war mutations of that ideology. It is a planetary consciousness of the fragility and ephemerality of indivisible human existence that is all the more valuable as a result of its openness to the damage done by racisms.
The challenge we now face is to develop new planetary standards for this emergent morality. They cant be derived from the pieties of US just-war theory. An active disinterest in the history of how race-thinking has damaged and compromised liberal assumptions confirms the redundancy of that complacent moral system and reveals that it was devised in blissful ignorance of the horrors of colonial administration and imperial power.
The distinction between combatants and non-combatants was never recognised in those conflicts where judicial specifications as to who might be killed with impunity were qualified in practice by elaborate pragmatic and informal habits. The rule of law was always a compromised and flexible force with an essentially permissive relation to the operation of ruthless and unsentimental governmental power.
Even as the death of multiculturalism is being proclaimed, this is a good moment to ask which critical perspectives might nurture the ability and the desire to live with difference in an increasingly divided but also convergent world? What varieties of insight and reflection might help societies and individuals to cope successfully with the challenges involved in dwelling comfortably in proximity to the unfamiliar without becoming fearful, anxious and hostile? Can the scale upon which sameness and difference are calculated be altered productively so that alterity goes out of focus and an essential human sameness can be acknowledged? How might an engagement with the twentieth centurys histories of suffering be made to furnish resources for the peaceful accommodation of otherness in relation to a fundamental commonality?
And, in particular, how might increased familiarity with the blood-stained workings of racism, and the distinctive achievements of the colonial governments it inspired and legitimated, be made to yield lessons that could be applied more generally in the testing contemporary settings of multicultural social relations?
New friends, new enemies
A commitment to truth and open communication answers the machinations of info-war. It is anchored in and addressed to an emergent consciousness of humankind that can be defined on one side by a sense of the mutability of life and, on the other, by a grasp of its singularity and continuity.
The force of this gesture in the post-colonial present derives not from misplaced romances with the murderous cyborg offspring of the military, but by an instructive and humble confrontation with the bloody human consequences of an awesome and destructive imperial power.
Where the lives of natives, prisoners and enemies are abject and vulnerable, they must be shielded by others endowed with the more valuable, obviously rights-bearing bodies that can inhibit the brutal exercise of colonial governance. Something like this cosmopolitan solidarity from below has, for example, been a striking feature of the planetary response to the Al-Aqsa intifada.
But there is another cosmopolitical response to contend with, directed downwards from on high. At its heart is a proposed revival of imperialism rendered freshly benign and liberal.
Like the culturally-appropriate meals served up to the prisoners at Guantanamos Camp X-ray, it will mediate the conflict of civilisations that becomes expressed in geo-political relationships between post-modern and pre-modern states, overdeveloped and frozen economic zones. Political conflicts arising from the latest phases of globalisation are thus resolved into theories that promote the self-conscious rebirth of imperial relations.
Principles of armoured sovereignty first established during the nineteenth century will be modified in favour of a new geometry of dependency and supposedly benevolent but firm, unyielding power that will secure the future order of the world. These perilous conditions and proposals make imperative the cultivation of cosmopolitan disloyalty and the practice of systematic estrangement from the over-integrated culture of national states.
A growing band of people who opt to bear witness to distant suffering, and even place their lives at risk in many parts of the world, thankfully represent the undoing of identity politics. Their practical riposte to racism and its unfreedoms mobilises the invaluable solidarity of the slightly different.
Its immediate, tactical value derives from the fact that they may appear to be unlike the infra-human objects of brutality and arbitrary power that they set out to protect. Theirs is a trans-local commitment to the alleviation of suffering and to the transfiguration of democracy, which will no longer be compatible with racism and ethnic absolutism. Suffering, rather than autonomy and self-possession is placed at the centre of a dissident public culture. These matters are now fundamental to the future of Europe as it faces its own political crisis. The populist forms of cultural nationalism that have ripened during the previous decade have been harvested in the period since last September by the ultra-right and anxious social democrats alike.
Chances of survival
The perils of our predicament are more pronounced, once the consumerist values of neo-liberalism are factored into this depressing picture. Searching for resources of hope, we may be misled by the prospect that Europes minorities might benefit from the love of exotica which arises at the behest of corporate multi-culturalism, as a response to the demands of living with difference, of being with the Other.
This confusion is compounded when glamorous and unfamiliar cultures can be safely and pleasurably consumed in the absence of any face-to-face recognition or real-time negotiations with their actual creators. But that hunger for what was formerly stigmatised and forbidden can also be interpreted as a symptom of the collapse of European cultural confidence that has fed insecurity and undermined the cohesion of welfare states.
Today, hatred and violence arise less than they did in the past, from supposedly reliable anthropological knowledge of the stable identity and predictable difference of the Other. Their sources lie in the problem of not being able to locate the Others difference in the common-sense lexicon of alterity. Different people are still hated and feared, but the timely antipathy against them is nothing compared to the hatreds turned towards the greater menace of the half-different and the partially familiar.
This line of argument is intended to be a contribution to the making of a new planetary humanism. The newness of that mentality resides precisely in the ways that it is systematically opened to the difficult work of understanding how race-thinking configured and distorted the exclusionary humanisms of the past. That detour through modern histories of suffering must be made mandatory. It provides an invaluable means to locate ethical and political principles that can guide the work of building more just and equitable social relations.
This is not anti-racism of the type that says we must learn to love and value human differences rather than fear and misrecognise them. It is a new project. It is new because it is prepared to break with the notion that racial differences are a self-evident, immutable fact of political life. It refuses the idea that this order of difference is somehow necessary to the very stability of our conflicted world.
Instead, it suggests that the reification of race must be challenged if effective work against racism is to be accomplished. It seeks to turn the tables on purity-seekers whoever they may be, to force them to account for their phobia about otherness and their violent hostility in the face of the clanging, self-evident sameness of suffering humankind. The version of multiculturalism, which takes shape at this point, is not then a lifestyle option. Its dissident value is confirmed everywhere in the chaotic pleasures of the post-colonial urban world.
Back to Durban
If it is currently impossible to acquire, or even imagine, any variety of post-ethnic European identity, that state of affairs is not only a result of the racism that still blocks the paths towards belonging, but of the enduring power of racial identities as such.
Historical analyses of racial hierarchy that overflow the fading boundaries of national states are essential to the credibility of this adventurous project. The abortive discussions begun at the 2001 Durban conference on racism and other forms of inequality but shut down prematurely in the aftermath of the attacks on New York may yet prove to be the beginning of a truly global opportunity to debate the damage that race and racism have done to democracy and hope alike.
We do not know where this planetary conversation will take us, or even whether the concept of racism will ultimately be an adequate vehicle for the cosmopolitan histories of hierarchy and inequality we will need.
Get our weekly email
CommentsWe encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.