Immigration, borders, and the thorny issue of cosmopolitanism

Do as Socrates did, never replying to the question of where he was from with, 'I am Athenian,' or 'I am from Corinth,' but always, 'I am a citizen of the world.' (Epictetus, Discourses I, 9.1)

The Stoics were among the first advocates of cosmopolitanism, the notion that all human beings are members of one large family, the cosmopolis, and that we should act accordingly. Which means that we should treat every human being, regardless of kinship, friendship, or shared citizenship, with fairness and justice. Ultimately, according to Zeno of Citium's Republic, his utopia about the ideal Stoic society, we would live in an anarchy of sages, where there will be no need for laws, borders, and so forth, because we would all reason our way out of our disagreements, if indeed we actually had any.

I don't think we will seen Zeno's anarchic utopia realized any time soon, if ever. But I do think that cosmopolitanism is an ethical standard attainable right here, right now, as difficult as it may seem given the recent tide of populism and nationalism that has swept western countries, and the utter lack of anything like that ideal in many other places in the world.

I'm going to discuss this issue here on the basis of two contrasting pieces that have appeared recently. One, by Umut Özkırımlı, was published in The Guardian, and was entitled "I was a natural cosmopolitan. Sweden, and the far right changed all that." The second one, published in New Statesman by Roger Crisp, is "Taking back control for real: the case for open borders."

Before we proceed, let me emphasize that cosmopolitanism, contra apparently widespread misunderstanding, does not imply open borders, though it is certainly compatible with that idea. One can be a cosmopolitan in the sense of adopting the attitude of human brotherhood and sisterhood that I described above without necessarily abolishing national borders. At least, not immediately.

Let me start with Özkırımlı's piece, which was the hardest for me to deal with, given my own liberal-progressive position (no, not a bias, just a reasonable position). He begins the article in this fashion:

I was born in Turkey and am now based in Lund, on the southern tip of Sweden. Most of my life I’ve probably been the quintessential cosmopolitan, and proudly so. But I’ve also spent too many hours in the consulates and airports of various EU countries coveting a multiple-entry Schengen visa, or enduring the suspicious looks of customs officers, to believe that I could be a 'citizen of nowhere' with a Turkish passport.

He actually says that his cosmopolitanism derived from his understanding of Stoicism, and particularly from the famous metaphor of concentric circles of concern, put forth by the 2nd century Stoic philosopher Hierocles. He goes on to admit his appreciation for the Swedish welfare state, which was of immense support to his family during the protracted illness, and eventual death, of his son. But he also notes the downside of Swedish society: what he calls a "token" egalitarianism, which ends up trumping any notion of meritocracy; an extreme version of political correctness; and an unholy alliance between corporations and trade unions.

Özkırımlı says that he has a far better understanding now of the sort of pressure that is put on governments like the one headed by Theresa May in the UK, a pressure that originates from the ongoing refugee crisis and that led to populist anti-immigration movements. He blames in part what he calls "academic snipers," who targeted anyone on their own side who dared to advance universalist notions, which said snipers took to be yet another incarnation of Enlightenment-type colonialism. I have, unfortunately, witnessed such attitude myself. Multiple times.

Witnessing the crisis in Sweden, Özkırımlı arrived at a bifurcation: he would either have to recant his cosmopolitan stance under the pressure of real social upheaval, or he would have to rethink cosmopolitanism in the light of what he terms "the centrality of shared values of solidarity and trust." In a nutshell, he asked himself whether it is possible to resolve the tension between universal moral rules founded in the notion of human rights on the one hand, and the idea of nation-states and national boundaries on the other hand. He answers in the affirmative:

My answer is yes, and the formula is simple: emphasise the connection between rights and duties; speed up the process of integration of newcomers (refugees or migrants) without demanding that they fully assimilate into the dominant culture, but asking them to respect the existing social contract; foster a sense of common destiny that does not necessarily require myths of common ancestry; and engage with the demand for recognition in a fair and equal way, without privileging either minorities or majorities.

The basic idea is that civic duty doesn't mean that we all have to turn into cosmopolitans, and that a concern for refugees and migrants does not mean that we should care less about our own children.

This is a thoughtful piece by someone who has experienced hardship, and who is trying to look at both the external situation and his own ideals in as reasonable and objective a way as he can muster. And I tend to agree, or at least sympathize, with Özkırımlı's take. However, there are a few issues to be discussed.

First off, I think we should resist right-wing catastrophizing of the refugee crisis. There is, for instance, no such crisis at the southern border of the United States, despite loud claims to the contrary by Donald Trump. The situation is more complex in Europe, where many people from northern Africa and the middle east are trying to escape truly horrific situations in their own countries (nobody becomes a refugee because they like the idea). But even there the numbers are, so far, relatively contained, and the major stumbling block to effectively deal with the crisis is precisely the fact that several conservative governments -- including Theresa May's -- have refused to do their part to help, and have cynically exploited the "crisis" for their own political gain.

Second, the movement of people from South America to the United States, and from Africa and the Middle East into  Europe, are the result of complex historical and economic dynamics for which both the United States and European countries are at least in part responsible -- and hence morally culpable. The much vaunted western life style is made possible by the fact that we (especially the US) are among the top polluters in the world, which means that we have disproportionately contributed to the climate change that is, in part, driving the migrations (and which will do so at far higher levels in the near future). And let us not forget that the horrible political situations so frequent in both South America and Africa are (again, in part) the result of direct, selfish meddling by the United States and the late European colonial powers. No, this doesn't mean that I should feel personally responsible for what my ancestors did. But it does mean that I should acknowledge where my privileged position originates from and be more willing to help the people whose misfortune has indirectly made my life better.

Third, again, cosmopolitanism does not (necessarily) imply open borders, so it is a bit of a fallacy for Özkırımlı to talk as if it did, and to take a recognition of national borders as in principle difficult to reconcile with the cosmopolitan attitude.

But since we are talking about open borders, let me turn to the second article, by Roger Crisp. His approach is completely different, but not for that any less informative. He begins with a historical-philosophical analysis of the very concept of national borders:

Rights over borders are, or are closely analogous to, standard property rights, and the justification of such rights in our philosophical tradition is found in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government (1689). According to Locke: '[E]very man has a property in his own person: [to] this no-body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.' Locke's 'state of the nature' is the world before it is owned by anyone, and, as the late Jerry Cohen put it, Locke is suggesting that justified 'self-ownership' can lead to justified 'world-ownership.'

And this, as Crisp immediately goes on to argue, is a very shaky basis for both standard property rights and, especially, for national borders. Setting aside that the notion of "mixing" one's labor with the world is a metaphor, not a solid philosophical principle, Lock's account is fundamentally unfair. It would work -- as Crisp notes -- only if we lived in a world in which everyone has equal capabilities and equal opportunities. Very clearly, that's not the world we live in.

Perhaps, Crisp concedes, property can be justly acquired, somehow. But the actual history of acquisition of land by nation states is largely, if not exclusively, a history of theft, which makes Locke's theory morally indefensible:

In the world at large, it's impossible to unravel what's happened [historically], especially when we take into account that every single one of the people who now exists would not have existed without the unjust transfers of the past (imagine the Vikings had stayed at home). So, there's little hope of providing a Lockean justification for current national borders.

Crisp then examines other popular arguments for the "right" of in-people to keep outher-people outside their (arbitrary, historically the result of theft) borders. One such argument, popular among conservatives, is the "social cohesion" defense, according to which people living in a country have a right to maintain the cohesion (purity?) of their own culture. But there are obvious objections here. For one, if the immigrants are respectful of the host culture, then the nation actually gains in terms of overall cultural capital. Moreover, the argument looks like special pleading: why is the in-culture more important than the outher-culture? Finally, I would add, there is no such thing as a "pure" or "cohesive" culture anywhere, at any time. Culture is always a mix of complex influences that are hard to trace and impossible to disentangle. Take a trivial example: my own (Italian) "culture" is well known and appreciated, among other things, for its pasta and tomato dishes. Except that pasta was invented in China, and tomatoes came from South America during the Spanish colonial period. And of course pasta with tomato sauce is now universally enjoyed across the globe. That is what culture is: constant appropriation and creative remixing of human artifacts and ideas.

Crisp is careful to state that he does not advocate instant abolition of national borders. That, as conservatives never tire to point out, would be entirely unfeasible on practical grounds, even if they would agree that it is in theory preferable (which they don't, of course). But Crisp is wisely on board that what one should do politically always depends on what is actually feasible. Nevertheless:

British [and other western] citizens ought to recognize that the case for excluding potential immigrants, especially those in dire need, is questionable [I would say hopelessly flawed and immoral]. We should begin to move in the direction of allowing significantly more refugees into our country. And, of course, all citizens of all countries should do the same. That would be the right way to 'take back control' of their borders from those who unjustly seek to enforce them [Trump, May, and so on]. Doing this might result in a world, as imagined by John Lennon, without closed borders, without war, and without the suffering and injustice to which borders continue to lead.

As I said, I'm not holding my breadth until the world imagined by John Lennon (or Zeno of Citium) actually materializes. But I think we can, and should, work tirelessly toward that ideal. And a more humane immigration policy throughout the western world is a necessary first step.

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