Book review: The Humble Cosmopolitan

Commom people protest againt the citizenship amendment bill holding a photo of B. R. Ambedkar, 19 Ddecember 2019, New Delhi, India. Copyright: Sandeep Jeengar/Shutterstock
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For someone who is promoting a world parliament some humbleness might be appropriate. That was my initial thought as I saw the title of Luis Cabrera’s recent book about cosmopolitanism. Cabrera is Associate Professor at Griffith University in Australia and focuses his research on global citizenship, migration ethics, and the development of more accountable regional and global political institutions.

Review of Luis Cabrera, The Humble Cosmopolitan: Rights, Diversity, and Trans-State Democracy, Oxford University Press, 2020

The book explores the arrogance critique that tends to be expressed as nationalist ideologies are challenged by a cosmopolitan position with universalist human rights claims. According to Cabrera, the cosmopolitan position is typically criticized for being for being arrogant of two reasons: 1) it gives too little attention to non-universalist moral understandings and local attachments and 2) it disdains non-Western moral views and instead seeks to impose parochial Western- or Euro-centric moral views disguised as neutral universal ones.

In order to respond, the book focuses on the Dalits, the so-called untouchables in India. Their struggle against discrimination and the hostility with which they have been met, unfolds into the main argument that appropriate democratic institutions at the regional and global levels are needed to protect basic human rights based on a notion of world citizenship.

The purpose of the book is illustrated on the cover image where activists are holding a placard as a protection against water cannons. The placard shows a portrait of B. R. Ambedkar, an Indian politician and champion of the struggle for Dalit civil rights. Himself a Dalit, Ambedkar was a major architect of the constitution of independent India and is a key figure in the book.

Although Cabrera doesn’t explicitly state so, the book title suggests that Ambedkar is The Humble Cosmopolitan. His work, however, was focused on the Indian situation and he can hardly be labeled a cosmopolitan. But through his struggle for equal citizenship he becomes for Cabrera an agent for political humility whose thinking has major significance for the development of democracy at the global level.

In addition to the Indian situation, the book includes field studies from the UK, the EU and Turkey. Research in the field of cosmopolitanism is also discussed extensively. The book has two main parts. The first part describes how trans-national institutions for world citizenship can be developed from Abdekar’s thinking and the second part responds to the arrogance critique against such a proposition.

Political Humility

The book discusses primarily the liberal cosmopolitanism that has been developed in political science during the last 50 years and that is focusing on equality and rights of the individual. It is the book’s main strength that the cosmopolitan position often associated with Europe and the West in this case is represented by an Indian Dalit. It is Ambedkar who becomes the target of the arrogance critique of the Indian nationalists as he promotes equality for all human beings, including the Dalits. Inspired by Ambedkar’s work, Cabrera sketches the contours of a democratic world order that is based on political humility.

Cabrera defines political humility as seeing the other as an equal, being open for input and challenges, and being somewhat modest about the finality of one’s own judgement. Political arrogance, by contrast, means the opposite to these qualities. These qualities, Cabrera clarifies, is not about single politicians or leaders but rather a question of how political institutions and systems can be structurally oriented towards humility or arrogance.

With a cue from Ambedkar, Cabrera shows how the current system of sovereign nation states is structurally oriented to political arrogance since it permits the summary dismissal of rights-based challenges. Instead, he promotes a transformed global order that is oriented to political humility and that is based on global citizenship. Trans-state and global democratic institutions are called for. Some already exist, others need to be developed. The campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly is mentioned as a promising way towards longer-term transformation (p 157f).

Would such a transformed world order become a cover up for neo-colonialism with a frightening world state and world sovereign? Cabrera responds by acknowledging the risk that the “cure” could well be worse than the disease and explains that a global citizen approach implies a distribution of political authority through a balanced scheme of national, regional and global levels of governance, and that makes possible challenges from different perspectives and cultures, including criticism of colonialism. Parochialism and ethnocentric prejudice can thus be made visible and challenged.

The book includes an interesting chapter on the EU, Brexit and Turkey. Cabrera discusses the argument from the UK Independence Party that supranational democracy is impossible due to the lack of a unified demos. As Cabrera shows, however, contemporary nation-states are highly pluralistic. In India, as an example of a democracy with a heterogenous demos, there are as many languages as in the EU.

The role of the nation

The book includes an illuminating comparison between Mohandas K. Gandhi and Ambedkar. Gandhi played a key role in the Indian independence struggle and is a widely famous national icon. Seeing himself as a champion of the untouchables, Gandhi still thought the caste system could contribute to social harmony. It should therefore remain but be reformed so as to remove the hierarchy between the castes.

Ambedkar, who thought the castes ought to be abolished and promoted a rights-based national system, was often accused of being unloyal to the nation. Cabrera here refers to Ambedkar’s rather famous statement to Gandhi, that “I have no homeland” (p 226). For Ambedkar the loyalty to the nation is conditional. A nation that systematically discriminates against a part of its population does not deserve any loyalty, he argues.

This leads us to an important question, only partly dealt with in the book, that concerns the polarized situation that typically evolves as local practices are challenged by universalist claims. This is seen when Ambedkar responds to the arrogance critique against his proposed constitution:

”It is said that the new Constitution should have been drafted on the ancient Hindu model of a State, and that instead of incorporating Western theories of the new Constitution should have been raised and built upon [local councils] . . . What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism? I am glad that the draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as the unit.” (p 223)

Here, the village and the local level is described in derogatory terms. Considering the polarized situation in which Ambedkar was located, such an attitude is easy to understand. But nevertheless it is a pity that Cabrera refrains from discussing how such rhetoric works to counter the arrogance critique, and whether it can contribute to a system of political humbleness.

With a polarized rhetoric there is a risk that national or local community is seen as negligible and that Cabrera thus signals that humans are primarily autonomous individuals rather than social and cultural creatures. I lack examples that show how a cosmopolitan emphasis on individual rights regardless of local identities can be combined with particular loyalties.

Cabrera is right to question the unique status that tends to be associated with the nation today. Indeed, there are other contexts that create valuable affinity. The critique against national sovereignty as a form of political arrogance is similarly telling. But nevertheless, the nation seems to be an important frame of reference for many people. The question then is whether it can be included on the basis of a critical loyalty, together with other critical loyalties, in a cosmopolitan vision.

A final word about the book’s relevancy for the promotion of a UN Parliamentary Assembly and a world parliament. As Cabrera notes, due to design and necessity, the book does not address issues of feasibility nor does it discuss any detailed pathways for institutional development (p. 280). Even so, some discussion of the significance of a world parliament for an institutional global citizen approach would have been extremely helpful. Nevertheless, by showing how institutional cosmopolitanism could be oriented towards political humility rather than arrogance, the book seems helpful in terms of strengthening the argument for democratic institutions at the global level, including a UN Parliamentary Assembly and a world parliament.

Hans Leander
Hans is a board member of Democracy Without Borders-Sweden
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