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A mural in Frankfurt of drowned refugee Alan Kurdi, a photo of whose body lying on the beach went viral in 2015. Photo: Plenz, CC-BY-SA2.0

Why we all belong to a shared community


Cosmopolitanism – the belief that all human beings belong to a shared community – is most commonly associated with Enlightenment thinkers such as Immanuel Kant. The German philosopher believed that human beings shared an innate capacity for reason that would naturally lead us towards a ‘universal civil society’.

Kant believed that just as conflict between individuals leads to the formation of nation-states, governed by a constitution, clashes between nation-states will, in time, lead to the formation of a perfect supranational state. The resulting world-citizenship would make us more human than we currently are; it would be the realization of humanity’s purpose or telos.

Kant’s 1784 essay ‘Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View’ does, to a certain extent, read like a gospel for an anaemic, globalizing liberalism

But there were drawbacks to his vision. The 1784 essay ‘Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View’ does, to a certain extent, read like a gospel for an anaemic, globalizing liberalism, where the ultimate aim of the human species is to form nothing more exciting than the European Union (or the UN).

Early anti-Enlightenment nationalist thinkers such as Johann Hamann and Johann von Herder took Kant to task on this, making a passionate case for the familiar and the local, over the impersonally global.

Later, the Frankfurt School of critical theory would offer a deeper reimagining. Marxist-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin launched a powerful attack on the ‘universal history’ associated with Kant, in his final essay ‘On the Concept of History’, written shortly before his suicide while trying to flee the Nazis.

For Benjamin, Kant’s rational ‘progress’ is experienced by a substantial proportion of humanity as a ‘catastrophe’, a ‘storm’, piling up ‘wreckage upon wreckage’. Consider the ‘discovery’ of Australia from the perspective of its indigenous inhabitants, say, or the advent of industrial capitalism from the perspective of the newly minted working classes.

In words that can just as easily be directed against distressed liberals responding to Trump’s latest outrage, Benjamin wrote that it should come as no surprise that 20th century horrors were ‘still’ possible. Rather, the experience of the oppressed throughout history teaches us that the ‘state of emergency in which we live’ today is ‘not the exception but the rule’.

But Benjamin’s take-down of Enlightenment rationalism need not cause us to abandon wholesale any idea of universal humanity – quite the opposite. For his closest Frankfurt School collaborator, Theodor Adorno, the rise of fascism – and, in particular, the Holocaust – ought to lead us to form a new sort of universalism, based on our shared capacity for suffering.

Citizenship of the oppressed

Could Theodor Adorno’s variant of universal history be something worth raising as our banner today?
Could Theodor Adorno’s variant of universal history
be something worth raising as our banner today?

Adorno puts this point most starkly in Negative Dialectics, where he declares that Hitler has imposed a ‘categorical imperative’ upon human beings ‘to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen’.

For Adorno, the horrors of the Holocaust were amplified by a profound sense that they were the result of a pathology rooted deep within Enlightenment rationality. By way of a tonic, Adorno sought to articulate a ‘critical’ rationality, checked at the most basic level by our ‘practical abhorrence of the unbearable physical agony’ to which individuals – both ourselves and others – can be exposed. What we feel when witnessing, for instance, an image of the mass graves at Auschwitz, or more recently, the tiny body of refugee Alan Kurdi, lying on the beach so horribly and irreversibly dead.

Time, then, to forge a new sort of cosmopolitanism: the universal citizenship of the oppressed. Before we can possess any sort of local or national identity, we possess a physical body, a fragile thing that can be caused by events to suffer and die. We are thus, all of us, fellow-sufferers.

When we consider the wider horrors of the world today – from the wars in Syria and Yemen or the devastating effects of right-wing domestic policies in the US or Britain – we would do well to remember this brute material fact, which irreducibly unites us, even if all else divides.

Tom Whyman is a freelance writer and teaches philosophy at the University of Warwick.

New Internationalist issue 511 magazine cover This article is from the April 2018 issue of New Internationalist.
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