Is the Cosmopolis a bust these day?

Cosmopolis or Bust?

Three decades ago, author Steve Toulmin published a book in which he argued that the cosmopolis constitutes the true “agenda of modernity.” Driven by increased trade and movement of peoples, it would create a universal order that “binds all things together” on the basis of Enlightenment ideals.

But perhaps no longer. Across the planet, the cosmopolitan ideal is under attack from both the nationalist Right and the intersectional Left. It is rejected not only by Western academics but also by authoritarian regimes in Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran. After decades of growth, cosmopolitanism’s driving force of global trade is in decline, and support for the free migration of people and ideas across borders is being challenged almost everywhere.

This pushback reflects more than just irrational nativism. Although most migrants are motivated by economic aspirations, they also include more dangerous groups, including criminal gangs and terrorist sympathizers, while the cost of housing and caring for poor refugees is squeezing cities. New York, like the UK, is now desperately looking for ways to send them elsewhere.

The Importance of Cosmopolitan Ideas

But despite the crosswinds, cosmopolitan attitudes about open trade and societies have not lost their relevance. Throughout history, societies that balance their national self-interest with a spirit of openness and cultural self-confidence have won out over those hostile to products, cultures, ideas, and people from beyond their national borders. In the future, it’s hard to imagine that Western societies like the US and those in Europe, with their plunging birthrates and flagging educational advantages, can maintain their prosperity without millions of newcomers. After all, emigrants from developing countries not only provide labor in service industries, they also constitute roughly three-quarters of Silicon Valley’s tech workforce.

The roots of the cosmopolitan ideal lie in the classical world. “Consider the world as your country, with laws common to all and where the best will govern irrespective of tribe,” wrote Alexander the Great. “I do not distinguish among men, as the narrow-minded do, both among Greeks and Barbarians. I am not interested in the descendance of the citizens or their racial origins. I classify them using one criterion: their virtue.”

Largely discarded after Alexander’s death, this notion was later embraced by his imperial successor, Rome. Far more than Greek states like Athens, Rome in its evolution became ever more “polyglot and cosmopolitan,” observed British historian J.P.V.D. Balsdon in his 1980 book Romans and Aliens. One could come from north of the Danube, or even Britain, but ambitious citizens learned Greek or Latin, participated in Roman culture, and gave obeisance to the emperor. Over the centuries, Rome gradually expanded its citizenship, and in 212 CE, it was extended to all free-born residents of the Empire. “The grandsons of Gauls,” wrote Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, even those who had battled Julius Caesar, “commanded legions, governed provinces and were admitted to the Senate.”

Read the rest of this piece at Quillette.

Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and and directs the Center for Demographics and Policy there. Learn more at and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Homepage photo: New York, NY by Miika A., via Unsplash.