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A plea for Rootless Cosmopolitanism

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
28th May 2013

Peter Waterman urges us to reconnect with the labour internationalism of the 19th century, and to consider our cyber-communities as part of our roots.

(version without notes)

By Peter Waterman:

“Rootless Cosmopolitans – whether with this name or related ones – had a bad press during the 20th century. Not only from Stalin, who was responsible for the concept bezrodniy Kosmopolit 1 (Stalin remained clearly rooted in Georgia even when seated in the Kremlin and directly ruling a state covering one-sixth of the world). One could, perhaps, expect a bad press from all worshippers of Blood, Soil and State. After all, the attachment or appeal to these has been a powerful way of bringing or holding people(s) together, and controlling them, during an epoch in which ‘all things solid turn into air’ (Marx and Engels 1848).

Whilst the most radical of the 19th century Left were often exiled or otherwise uprooted cosmopolitans, and had The International as their ‘imagined community’ (Anderson 1983), this was before the nation-state – actually the state-defined nation – had really appealed to and sunk roots amongst the masses. I do not believe that even the Marxists ever theorised internationalism. They might have preached it and even practiced it – if in ever more specific, temporary, pragmatic or ambiguous ways. But what they endlessly wrote about and energetically theorised was nationalism.

That was then. But one would have thought that by the 21st century at least Marxists would have recognised that this is now.

So how is it possible that even in our globalised era, with all its increasingly global threats and promises – with all the talk of ‘global civil society’, and of the necessity for ‘democratic cosmopolitanism’, no one raises a cheer or two for the rootless cosmopolitan? Even Sydney Tarrow – a sociologist of social movements, a social historian, an imaginative writer, a humanist and no doubt a determined reformer – seems unable to raise a cheer for the Rootless Cosmopolitan. Whilst evidently dismissing Stalin, and critiquing a wide range of contemporary literature attempting to name and tame this significant new historical actor, he places all his bets on the ‘rooted cosmopolitans’ (Tarrow 2005: Ch. 3).

Now, let’s see. I began drafting this in Lima, Peru, which is where my partner/colleague/compañera of some two decades lives. But where I reside (have a family, an apartment, a bicycle, do my shopping, receive a pension, pay taxes) is in the Netherlands. I am, however, actually English, though I have not lived there on a continuing basis since around 1965. I do not master Dutch or Spanish. And whilst I may feel most at home in England I am hardly ever at this home. I have travelled much and widely. Today, I suppose, I inhabit The Hague, as I have done since 1972. But, beyond my family and a handful of friends and compañer@s, I have limited contact with Dutch social, political and cultural life (or maybe it is the other way round). Where I seem to have most relationships is in that new found land, Cyberia.

I spent quite some time exploring Cyberia in the 1980s-90s. Indeed, I might yet produce a compilation of my papers recording these pioneering, if primitive, efforts.5 I have, or have had, a couple of websites, set up for me by a friend and former student, Daniel Chavez (a much-travelled Uruguayan, himself long resident in the Netherlands). I have so far found these personal websites, however, rather demanding. Today I visit the most familiar parts of Cyberia, travelling in some of its most familiar vehicles, Firefox, Thunderbird or Gmail for email, Google for Web searches, Skype for free or cheap phone calls. Before retirement in 1998 I made two or three Power-Point productions. I have various bits of hard and software on my netbook, and on a PC assembled at a shop round the corner. I am subscribed to maybe a dozen electronic lists. I am active on maybe four or five of such. I consult Wikipedia frequently whilst writing, thus saving hours of work with paper dictionaries, biographies, libraries and bibliographies. I deposit my longer or shorter papers here and there (check on Google for the largest collection).6 I look for old books and even recent ones on Amazon and Abebooks.7 I order ‘stuff’ with my credit card or Paypal. I also have certain computer accessories or extensions: a secondhand cellphone-cum-organiser (which my grandchildren would find primitive), a separate hard-drive for backup, one or two memory sticks.

I do spend an hour or two every day checking and responding to my email. And Skypeing. Indeed, I cannot imagine having kept my ‘living apart together’ relationship with my partner, Gina Vargas, going since 1990 without these. Gina herself does not claim any particular computer skills, but she is frequently involved in collective online chats (conversations) with her own various international networks. I have been so far little infected by chats or, for that matter, ‘social networking’.8 I am sure these are going to be of value in international networking, even bearing in mind the manner in which they can be used by capital, state and nefarious social movements.

I have co-edited a couple of books, with my compañero in India, Jai Sen. Indeed, these we were producing must be 90 percent dependent on ICT (information and communication technology). The 10 percent that hasn’t benefitted from the web has proven to be the Achilles heel of the operation. Thus, we have been able to edit and print cheaply in India, but are then confronted with the logistics of moving these factory-age products, weighing up to 700 grams, to anywhere else in the world. There are similar problems with the production of the attractive and professional series in Lima, which has published compilations of both myself and Gina (Here Google democraciaglobal).

So for the last few years I have been surfing the web, looking at possibilities for ‘cutting out the middleman’ in the circulation of ideas – the print publisher, the journal or magazine editor. Almost all my articles go first online, commonly marked as ‘Draft’ or ‘Work in Progress’. I more or less gave up submission of my stuff to the then printed Working Papers series of the Institute of Social Studies when I was suddenly informed that these were now being evaluated as ‘final-form’ publications! Some final ‘final-form’ print-publishers or editors – including those on the Left – object, or reject, when I say that my draft material is online. The overwhelming majority do not. I have also produced online a couple of compilations.10 In the continuing absence of a personal website or blog, these have been vital spaces in my efforts at becoming a ‘nomad of the present’ (Melucci 1989).

Most academics are either happy or unhappy slaves to a competitive and hierarchical system intended to grade and discipline. Left academics are often resigned to conditions they reject both in theory and in the world beyond their profession. Many Left journals that sprang up on the periphery of the system in the 1970s-80s have modified their radical names and/or gone commercial. This does not necessarily mean they lose all intellectual or political value. But there is a price attached (often a subscription price, unpayable outside the world’s wealthier universities). How many Left, Critical, Revolutionary or Emancipatory journal articles have I been unable to access because I have been retired for a decade and no longer have unlimited free access to such?

Fortunately, some new academic journals are not only circumventing the print publishing juggernauts but escaping to Cyberia. Others are involved in the expanding cyberspace commons by adopting one or other Creative Commons formula.11 I was delighted to be invited to join the Editorial Board of a new global labour journal,12 edited by some of my old international labour studies interlocutors from the 1980s-90s, Eddie Webster and Robert O’Brien. My pleasure lay partly in the title but particularly in this being an open access electronic journal. These features are, of course, no guarantee of the journal becoming either global in authorship (the first issue was heavily Canadian) or radical in content (the first issue being rather heavily social-reformist in orientation).

So I was rather more enthusiastic about joining another online journal, of which the main title was the vaguely churchy Interface, but sub-titled, more promisingly, A Journal for and about Social Movements.

This one is not so much a traditional academic journal, tele-transported to cyberspace, as one thought out in terms of 1) the new global social movements and 2) the possibilities of cyberspace. The first implies that it be seriously international in authorship and readership. It has ‘spokespersons’ in a wide spread of world areas, including commonly forgotten ones like the Arab world and the ex-Soviet bloc. It also intends, like my old Newsletter of International Labour Studies from the 1980s, to be authored and read by both academics and activists, and activist-academics. It is developing editorial groups for a large number of different world areas, including commonly forgotten ones like the Arab world and the ex-Soviet bloc. The cyberspace aspect implies not only open access but also the possibility for rapid feedback and dialogue, both in the publication and on a spokesperson’s (English: ‘editor’s’) email list. The first three issues of the journal were on suitably 21st century issues: ‘Movement Knowledge’; ‘Civil Society versus Social Movements’; ‘Crisis, Social Movements and Revolutionary Transformations’.

I will follow (and contribute to) such new projects. But, although my expertise lies primarily in the area of global labour studies, I feel definitely more at home in that of the new global social movements. Cyberia, like Siberia, is far from Paradise. It is an ever-expanding universe in which the forces for commerce and control on the one hand, the commons and emancipation on the other, are involved in a complex and often violent conflict. Cyberia is surely the privileged space for emancipation that free-thinkers and revolutionaries 1) projected onto the press, or at least the ‘free press’, then 2) with Marx and Engels onto the railways or telegraph, 3) Lenin on the cinema, 4) Brecht on radio, and, eventually, 5) Enzensberger on the modern media…of 1968!. Which is why I do tend to repeat the phrase of Castells about ‘real virtuality’ and those of Mariátegui to the effect that communication is the nervous system of internationalism and solidarity (Waterman 2006, 2008).

I note that in his essay about contemporary internationalism Perry Anderson (2002) says nothing about Cyberia. But, then, he also has nothing to say about communication in connection with internationalism. And, for that matter, not too much about internationalism! Sydney Tarrow (2005:136-8) does allow the internet two or three pages, but then qualifies its value, referring to the internet’s possible subversion of the organisations/institutions seen by him as necessary for effective longterm international campaigning. Both of them, it seems to me, are still enclosed within a world of nation-states, of organisations and institutions. Both use a language – for the ideology (Anderson) or activists (Tarrow) – that makes the nation, nationality, nationalism the point of departure. And, possibly, in both cases, of arrival. Neither, in any case seems to imagine a meaningful community beyond or without the state-defined-nation.

I clearly do. Or, rather, I see multiple possible meaningful and radically-democratic communities, some more local than the nation-state, others indeed inter-national (the European Community, possible Latin American ones, the Maghreb and/or Mashraq),14 and yet others of interest, of identity, of ideology for which the nation-state and state-nationalism are either problematic, obstacles to be surpassed or irrelevant.

Tarrow starts his book with the story of his father, Moishke/Morris, an East-European Jewish immigrant to the US of the 1920s, who – like so many small-town emigrants and international immigrants, before and since, transferred remittances for good works to his homeplace. Later, he was involved in unionism, with rescuing Jews from war-torn Europe, and then in creating a homeland for them in Israel. His father is, for Tarrow, the very model of a ‘rooted cosmopolitan’. My own father, Alek Nashibirski/Alec Waterman, who had a similar background, came, around the same time, to Britain, and became a Communist internationalist. I mention both because these are recognisable and significant historical types. But whatever their roots and rootedness, we have to note the limits of their cosmopolitanism/internationalism. In the Moishke/Morris case, the transplanted Jewish settlement was created, with the help of foreign powers, in someone else’s homeland, and has become an increasingly nationalist, militarist, quasi-theological and racist state. In the Alek/Alec case his Soviet Jewish Communist friend and comrade, Solomon Mikhoels, was killed and Soviet Jewish cultural life ended by diktat. This was the fate of rooted cosmopolitanism and international communism in the world of nation states.

Without going further into the writing of either Anderson or Tarrow, I do not think that either ‘cosmopolitanism’ or ‘rootedness’ are of themselves adequate terms for the understanding – and advance – of a radical-democratic global movement of solidarity that I fancy both of them would actually like to see. Despite its apparent Greek roots, ‘cosmopolitanism’ is a construction of the European bourgeois and liberal enlightenment. And – to caricature lightly – what it meant was that we would have a world of peace and justice if everyone spoke French; later English/American, but certainly not Mandarin or Quechua. Is ‘cosmopolitanism’ an adequate term for what I have been doing, or believe I have been engaged in, for most of my life.

I hope not:

- Cosmopolitanism is the western engagement with the rest of the world and that engagement is a colonial one, which simultaneously transcends the national boundaries and is tied to it. Instead of perceiving cosmopolitanism and nationalism as alternatives, one should perhaps recognise them as the poles in a dialectical relationship. (van der Veer 2002:11).

As for ‘rootedness’, it would seem to me that this is something of a ‘floating signifier’, value-empty and ready for capture by marginalised claimants, religious or ethnic fundamentalists, ideological localists, and therefore for application in the most varied and problematic of manners. So I think that rather than qualifying, or joining together, ‘cosmopolitanism’ and ‘rootedness’, I would still rather see us work out the possible meanings of a post-nationalist internationalism – ‘a new global solidarity’. This would be one which surpasses inter-nationalism and is free of debts to cosmopolitanism. What we need is to re-imagine solidarity (for this in relation to labour, see Hyman 1999).

With respect to the World Social Forum and the wider global justice and solidarity movement, I have actually argued the necessity for a shift of focus – a de-centering – from place-based events, and in two directions, the cyberspatial and the local (‘local’ here signifying both a locale and the subject-specific). This is because of the danger of either the Forum or the general GJ&SM remaining events or processes in the hands of the university-educated middle classes, requiring long-distance air-travel and hotel accommodation. I have obviously been one of these middle-class nomads/tourists over the past decade or more – and am not about to become a Self-Hating Middle-Class Jetset Leftist. So I may well continue to attend or even intervene in other Forums. But I am also in favour of the closest possible articulation of, and feedback between, the cyberspatial on the one hand and the local/specific on the other. Indeed, I wonder whether supporters of the intercontinental WSF events should not be required to argue for each of these in terms of their functionality to the local/specific in grounded places, and to the universal/cyberspatial that surrounds us.

If Cyberia is an increasingly real virtuality, then I wonder why it should not be possible to have roots (also) here. I am attached to this space and to such a degree that the idea of losing access to it fills me with the kind of frustration, anxiety and grief that others might feel at having to migrate, or being exiled. I like it here….there?…wherever cyberspace might conceivably be. Yet, I dedicated my global isa tion and solidarity book (Waterman 1998) to four local martyrs of social movements that are today major parts of the GJ&SM. They were: Maria Elena Moyano of Villa El Salvador, Lima, Peru; Chico Mendes of the rural labour and ecological movement in Amazonia, Brazil; Shankar Guha Niyogi, leader of a mineworkers and tribals in Dalli-Rajhara, India; and Ken Saro-Wiwa, leader of the minority rights and ecological movement in the Niger Delta (Waterman 1998/2002). I dedicated the book to them because I thought that with more effective solidarity globally, they might not have been killed. I am not, therefore, proposing the rootless cosmopolitan as the very model of the 21st century internationalist. I am just asking whether s/he is not one possible type of such. And suggesting there is no necessary contradiction, in a cyberspatial world, between being a somewhat rootless global solidarity activist and the protection, promotion and projection of more local ones.”


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