WorldPost: Like you, Isaiah Berlin disdained cosmopolitanism and foresaw the forces behind today’s mutiny against it. He thought every culture should sustain its unique identity, or volksgeist, which is incommensurate with others. “I regard cosmopolitanism as empty,” Berlin once told me in an interview:
People can’t develop unless they belong to a culture. Even if they rebel against it and transform it entirely, they still belong to a stream of tradition. New streams can be created ― in the West, by Christianity, or Luther, or the Renaissance, or the Romantic movement ― but in the end they derive from a single river, an underlying central tradition, which, sometimes, in radically altered forms, survives.
But if the streams dry up, as for instance, where men and women are not products of a culture, where they don’t have kith and kin and feel closer to some people than to others, where there is no native language—that would lead to a tremendous desiccation of everything that is human.
The French philosopher Régis Debray also anticipated the backlash because he saw the same thing as Berlin. For Debray, if borders don’t secure cultural affinity, walls will be erected in their place as a defense against contamination. “Borders are a vaccine against the epidemic of walls,” he has written. So the question is, how do you balance belonging and self-determination with the interdependence of plural identities that globalization has created, including through mass immigration?
PM: This is a complex issue. Of course, a figure like Johann Gottfried von Herder, who Berlin wrote about at length, and who I discuss in my book, also insisted on defining the need for a cultural community and solidarity against a homogenizing cosmopolitan universalism. Some of this can be denounced as nativism, and put down to the ressentiment of a superior elite — in Herder’s case, the Parisian philosophers.
But there is more to it than our liberal sensibilities are prepared to admit. You will remember the controversial speech [French anthropologist Claude] Lévi-Strauss gave on racism at a UNESCO conference in 1971 where he insisted on — let me give the correct quote — “the right of every culture to remain deaf to the values of the Other.” He said bluntly that the project of anti-racism was not going to be advanced by the project of universal integration — quite the contrary. We’ll end up with more rather than less racism. The great value of human and cultural pluralism could only be maintained by an “optimal distance” and separation between cultures. If we accept this, then we have to acknowledge that the kind of cosmopolitanism advanced by a global market contains a devastating contradiction ― by homogenizing societies it works against its own stated goals of universal progress and greater tolerance and democracy. In other words, the cherished ideals of the liberal cosmopolitan elite ― capitalism and democracy and multicultural diversity ― are in opposition to each other.
When you go to countries like Myanmar, which are routinely praised for “opening up” to foreign investors and tourists, you can see this up front: the country’s nascent project of democracy is immediately threatened by not just older ethnic-religious insurgencies but also hyper-individualistic and competitive modes of global capitalism, which undermine old solidarities, communities and networks and unleash new forms of political toxicity.
In a speeded-up version of modern history, ethnic cleansing and refugee camps in Myanmar accompany the earliest stages of democratic representation and capitalistic economic growth rather than following in their wake, or becoming manifest, as they have elsewhere, during a crisis of nation-building. And Buddhist monks cheerlead the ethnic cleansers (making fresh nonsense of the claim that Muslims are predisposed to militant intolerance of the “other”). We will never know, to take a Lévi-Straussian perspective, what other political possibilities—more tolerant of difference ― the country’s Buddhistic ethic might have contained without its contact with the ideologies and values of a homogenizing modernity.