Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The nihilism of Starbucks

Last day of a great conference. High spirits as I head back to Plaza Catalunya together with a group of Germans. Almost enough to make me forget that I woke up this morning with the compulsory conference cold and, if I was a responsible person, should spend the rest of the day recovering in my hotel room. Teaching starts on Monday.

The morning was not that good, even apart from the cold. I think there is a correlation here, every time I do not feel so well, I find myself engaged in these sliding discussions on cosmopolitanism and the perceived “emptiness” of any future global culture. As already discussed here on Rawls & Me, I have made it into my personal crusade to challenge this view, with the obvious risk that people think I want to turn the whole world into a Starbucks or maybe an airport...

Some day I would like to write a proper response to this criticism, admitting that also cosmopolitans are driven by darker psychological motives than just dispassionate Kantian reasoning. For one thing, to be democratic, political cosmopolitanism presupposes a perfectionist ideal, a vision of a future in which people everywhere are made both “reasonable” and literate. Abhorrent as such a vision may seem to many academic people, it is not any different from what was once necessary to make democracy work in a single country. Just think of the education levels in pre-20th century Europe. Enlightened elites had to pursue a perfectionist vision of compulsory schooling and, ultimately, economic redistribution in order to make democratic participation meaningful. The case of Weimar also illustrates what happens when that idealistic vision of the elites fails and the bond with the wider population breaks.

At the same time, there is an element of fascism here, despite how benign our purposes may be. The best would be to simply fast-forward time and, once democracy is universal, re-engage in this debate. However, that will not be possible. And history tells us that the means we use are just as, if not more, important than the actual ends we seek. And it is here that it gets difficult.



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