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After Paris: Cosmopolitix

“To the extent that risk is experienced as omnipresent, there are only three possible reactions: denial, apathy or transformation.  (…) The third is the cosmopolitan moment of world risk society”.

Ulrich Beck, Living in the World Risk Society, 2006


(Version française de l’article disponible ici – Après Paris: le temps de la Cosmopolitique)

So, it has been a week. As the shock ebbs, questions surface. The anxiety is diffuse, the danger multi-facetted, the remedy feels more elusive than ever.

Perhaps because this is the second deadly attack in Paris less than a year; Perhaps because the ‘softness’ of the targets – the innocence of the pursuits they embodied, their ordinariness (dinner, entertainment, sport); Perhaps, also, because of the logistical sophistication of the carnage. Most likely though, because taken in combination, these coordinated attacks suggest that avoiding the next one seems unlikely, while our attempts to do so will be hugely costly. The current cost of French security, already massively escalated after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, seems to have been ineffective. And none of us believes that, whatever the investment, the cost will buy us the certainty of security, or the security of certainty.

This is the beginning of the transformation to which Beck alludes above. Risk doesn’t ‘work’ anymore. And we all suspect that the cost of preventing it is beginning to outweigh the long-term gains. That, what Beck calls the ‘mathematized morality’ of risk calculation, no longer delivers. This emerging realisation could allow us to move on from apathy and denial—it places us on the edge of transformation.

But what kind of transformation? And how do we achieve it?

The answer is threefold and urgent: the first step, of course, is to acknowledge that we live in a world of uncertainty rather than risk; the second, is to interpret properly (as in constitutionally, politically, legally) what interdependence means as states; the third, and final, step is to re-think what interdependence means on a societal level. Taken together these are the basis on which we need to develop the Cosmopolitix we must embrace.

From risk to uncertainty

The first demand is the most challenging because, despite the growing sense that our risk calculations are inadequate (and often counter-productive)[1], accepting that uncertainty must replace risk as the dominant ‘framework’ within which we need to organise both our collective and individual lives, requires a psychological transformation which, in the absence of a new, clear promise, we are naturally reluctant to embrace: Better the diminishing returns of the risk analysis we know, than the devil of the new framework we don’t quite know.

  • Locked in risk’s sweet embrace

The proof that our world is already transformed and that we must catch-up, is not in the atrocities that befall us with increasingly choreographed regularity, but rather in our reactions to them–that can be encapsulated into two mirror moments of nostalgic bad faith; The first moment is the collective and inevitable pointing to the ‘single’ issue which would have led to the avoidance of the tragedy (if only we hadn’t invaded Iraq/bombed Libya/gone into Mali/Etc. Or, if only we had acted sooner in Syria/allowed Turkey into Europe/Etc.).

While no one but the dumbest amongst us truly believes these magic-bullet explanations, we nevertheless seem to need to voice them. A kind of ritualised, public display of regret, swig of bravado, wish for simplicity and demand for certainty. Trapped in the same ersatz reality, and in a mirror act of denial, our leaders do the same: they amend constitutions, declare ‘war’ on non-state powers, put more police on the street, and increase security in airports. Some of which, may well deliver a slight measure of momentary relief. None of which constitute a strategy.

Because any strategy will need to be based on a deep awareness of uncertainty rather than based purely on the calculation of risk.

This is not to say that those who do their best to protect us, often at great danger to their own lives, are fighting for nothing—but rather that true appreciation demands that we use their bravery and/or astuteness in the context of an actual strategy, not the hit or miss of short-term risk calculations.

Once risk becomes incalculable and turns into ‘uncertainty’, it is first and foremost spatially transformed: climate change, nuclear peril, financial crises or cyber-terrorism know no borders.   This means that their effects over time are difficult to predict, and that their social consequences and un-intended effects are effectively unknowable.

Avoiding the hysteria of risk (and the risk of hysteria) means embracing that ‘unknowability’ as a parameter; uncertainty as the ‘new “new normal”’: acknowledging, for instance, that there is no single explanation for the tragedy that has just struck Paris (or the tragedies that have struck Lebanon, and other places as recently as earlier this week). This is not just about inaction in Syria, nor is it about French strikes on Syria. It isn’t just about Paris’ banlieues or about Paris’ melting pot society; it’s not about America’s involvement in the Middle East or America’s disengagement on the world stage. Or about the wealth of our countries, or the poverty (in every sense) of some of our communities. The role of Saudi Arabia, Turkey’s mistakes, the battles with Iran, Putin’s alliances, London’s retreat, Europe’s weakness, and the millions of refugees and displaced persons who are seeking peace, assistance, or a better life in Europe and elsewhere. It is about all of the above. And more to the point in terms of uncertainty, the manner in which they all play out in an interconnected ebbing and flowing, infinitely reverberated, accentuated, interpreted, and re-interpreted, echoed or ignored.

None of this should ring as new—it’s not: this new reality has been unfolding for years, if not decades. Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan, Ian Bremmer’s Fat Tail, even Keynes’ ‘unknown unknowns’ all pointed in this direction.

But in practice, policy-makers and politicians (both international and domestic) have done next to nothing to adapt either the structures of governance, their modes decision-making or their goals. In fact if anything we, they, have been involved in a mass act of collective denial and even retreat.

So what now?

From uncertainty to the art and practice of Cosmopolitix 

“A shock of danger is a call for a new beginning. Where there is a new beginning action is possible. Human beings enter into relations across borders. This common activity by strangers across borders means freedom. All freedom is contained in this ability to begin”.

(Beck, 2006).

Our “ability to begin” must start with the practicalities of managing an uncertain world rather than a risk society. This means managing deep and irreversible interdependence that binds us inextricably to one another and moving in practical ways toward Cosmopolitix. Our alliances need to reflect this, our systems of government (local and national) need to reflect this, and our international institutions need to reflect this.

What does a Cosmopolitix mean in this context?

Beck refers to ‘golden handcuffs’: the active creation of a new compact and complex network of transnational interdependencies. What can this look like in practice? Rather than a slavish, reluctant enduring of interdependence, which creates nothing but fear and retreat, it is the vigorous and pragmatic design and transformation of our current national and international structures into cosmopolitan political and social structures. Cosmopolitix is the only way in which the uncertainty of interdependence can be, not controlled, but managed and turned into a dynamic, evolving, human political and social process. It is, paradoxically, a rescue of both a form of nationhood and this form’s capacity to engage globally and effectively.

Reminiscent of Rousseau’s reference to the arts as ‘garlands of flowers on the chains

that weigh men down’, in this case, the art of Cosmopolitix is the garland of flowers on the chains of globalisation. The next adjustment to the process precipitated by the printing press, accelerated by the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, and now fashioned by digital.

So Cosmopolitix, the active espousing of an already existing state of deep interdependence is not about ‘friendship between peoples’, but rather a much more realistic adaptation to the new shape of the world. Our creaking advances toward open government, our evolving relationship to data and privacy, our slow move toward new forms of education that unfold across a life-time, our search for rooted, meaningful local politics that are neither parochial nor selfish, and the realisation that risk is socialised across generations in terms of housing, climate, health, our work and employment all of these are nothing but our stuttering, pre-institutional false starts, the signal that change is more than afoot.

Discussions on this topic inevitably focus on digital—and its impact is indeed colossal, of revolutionary proportions. But the actual practical impact of this revolution (not just digital, but technological in a broader sense) is seldom factored into how we think we might make decisions in the future: who will be involved and why. And how. Even trade which is possibly one of the few areas in which the existence of deep interdependencies is recognised, lags behind; stuck in a 20th century set of rules and slogans. Not to mention the functioning of most of our key institutions (from local government to the UN, via the EU and NATO)–indeed their very design reveals a failure to think through the impact of our condition of deep interdependence. From our failure to plan (or integrate the cost of planning) for new migrants in our schools and boroughs, to who gets to vote where and how often; to the glorious irrelevance of the UN’s Security Council—at best a glaze of legitimacy; Thinking about all this needs to move from the Google Zeitgeist meetings and think-tank world, to the heart of government and policy-making.

Reviewing the logic and scope of current institutions, strengthening them for the practice of Cosmopolitix is not the cosmopolitan dream of the business-class traveller; this is the real-politik of the 21st century. There is no choice, the process of globalisation has made the choice for us; interdependence is an enforced state. Recognising it productively would be the choice that gives us most purchase on our world.

Europe: unconditionally

Most immediately and in practice for us Europeans, it all has to begin with Europe. Unconditionally. Negotiations, improvements, amendments need to come second.

In this country, in the UK, we need to leave Eurosceptic political hobbits back in middle-earth or wherever they live: the channel is not a moat; Islands are no longer islands.  This is about the reality of our closest allies, trade partners and those with whom we share the memories of a past that is both grandiose and shameful and a future in which we are inextricably bound. We need to stand with Europe, at its heart and contribute to it fully and wholeheartedly, including to improve it. Not like some passive-aggressive dinner guest who, when the bill arrives, points out that this restaurant wasn’t their first choice. When we talk about cooperation, about doing ‘all we can’, when we say ‘we stand together’ unconditionality of our commitment to the EU has to be central. For the sake of our European partners and for ourselves.

And for France, and the rest of Europe it means going beyond the using Europe as a mantra, a stick, a carrot or a scarecrow. In light of recent events – not just the attacks in Paris, but also the movement of refugees and migrants that has exposed the limits of the EU’s current instruments and even more so, those of purely national frameworks – it is clear we need MORE Europe. Whether to be able to invoke the so-called ‘solidarity clause’ with some semblance of relevance, or to manage inevitable movements of people across Europe and the globe efficiently, humanely and safely.

Interdependence within: The new deal of resilient citizenship

But the point of Cosmopolitix is just as importantly, and perhaps even more so (though that may seem counter-intuitive), to re-examine the internal configurations of our societies, the institutions we use to govern, regulate and manage them (both formally and informally); As well as the convemtional frameworks we use to interpret what makes us a nation, a society, a community. This means much more actively exploring the various ‘tribes’, groups, subsets that make us, ‘us’–and then examining how they overlap, as well as how state, local, cultural, powers can much more productively interact with them.  Many state and non-state actors are already doing this – and not necessarily positively.  Those who have an interest in cohesion, coherence, prosperity (social, aspirational, and financial) and stability need to be as pro-active in their creation of alliances, networks and communities of interest as the preachers and recruiters.  This can only happen if we take on board their existence and their importance.

This means making diversity simply ‘the weather’; It’s there.  It has stopped being new, it has stopped being exotic.  A long time ago.  And it has always been unevenly distributed, it has always been interpreted as an imposition by some, and opportunity by others, a choice for some a necessity for others. What has changed is our capacity to ‘Ellis Island’ our way into integration—in part because many individuals and groups are more transient than they once were, in part because it is harder to fulfil promises of progress and success in times of deep uncertainty. This means that the ‘conditionalities’ we impose – the bargains we strike in the realm of citizenship and belonging need to be adapted. What we expect in return for what we can deliver needs to change. We may be able to give some assurances, but these are no longer those we could give in the 1920s, 1970s or even 1990s.  New promises need to take root, new expectations too. The new Cosmopolitix has to be about the redesign of our capacity to think this through individually and collectively.

  •  Denial and missed opportunities

In the case of France, there is a long road ahead in terms of moving past the denial Beck alludes to. And I write this also as a French citizen. The immediate post-Charlie Hebdo period stands as a huge missed opportunity to begin to change the terms of the conversation, to ask the right questions, to include new voices and start to craft a new vocabulary fit for a society where diversity on such a scale and in a world where newly arrived individuals have different cultural and social options available to them, much as they may have fewer options for progression.

Instead, we plumped for comfortable (for some) denial and republican incantation. I’m quite sure that we left the rest of the world stunned. Indeed many of us in France were stunned too. Stunned by the narrowness of the response, by the refusal to engage in new conversations, by the defiance that was often merely bullying in disguise.

This is neither about ‘appeasement’ (as so many will inevitably choose or pretend to think), nor as a mea culpa on the French way of life, or its republican ideals. It is about being effective with respect to how values – that are rightly cherished – need to be explained, how tradition needs to be interpreted and re-interpreted, how a certain, priceless national acquis can be deployed again in ways that are seductive and inclusive, rather than turned into ‘minimum requirements’ that manage to simultaneously exclude a large minority while only truly inspiring another, different large minority. It is also absolutely true that much of both the undermining of the national creed as well as – simultaneously – the republican incantation has been led by right-wing populists such as Marine Le Pen, and before that, her father. But, it is also absolutely true that cowardice has been a defining feature of the mainstream parties in the wake of these populist assaults. Parties that have preferred to bury their hands in the populist sand rather than offer a new political adventure. Exactly what is lacking and fuels so much of the attraction for other more radical and violent forms of politics.

What of everyone who might be keen to espouse these ideals, work with them, make them work for them, but only once they’ve been explained in the hot and magnificent light of the new ‘us’—be it national, international or global? Why leave them out?

Without the weaving together of these new conversations, there can be none of the necessary solidarity that leads to resilience. Without that resilience the price of ruthlessness towards attackers will consistently be too high to bear for our societies.

Cosmopolitix would entail decision-makers taking on the critical responsibility for the fostering and nurturing of the necessary forums for such exchanges. Not organising them, but providing the support for them to occur, and certainly removing incentives to continue in the vein of denial. Creating incentives to hold these delicate conversations, and helping to weave together the new social fabric of cosmopolitix. Which will inevitably a fusion of the national and transnational. This is the opportunity to move beyond the narrow limits of ‘multicultural’ or ‘integrationist’ models.


  • Shared expertise: shared security

Cosmopolitix also demand an evolution of the forms of expertise that we value, develop and deploy. I have written about this elsewhere in the context of rebuilding legitimacy and the legitimacy to govern. In the case of terrorist attacks the evolution of the UK’s outlook on the role of communities is an interesting one. Not without its pitfalls, excesses and detractors[2] but nevertheless an experiment in incorporating new forms of expertise, new networks and new voices and in creating a shared sense of responsibility for everyone’s security.

The UK initially struggled – still struggles – in the aftermath of July 2005 with incorporating new approaches to its counter-terrorism strategy, but eventually moved toward the application of some of the key lessons outlined as far back as 1981 in the Scarman Report (despite the changes to PREVENT in 2010/11), namely that long-term security is always delivered through consent rather than through force.

The discussions regarding the possible failures of security, police and surveillance forces in Paris, remind me of the post 7/7 discussions here in the UK. Of the immediate government reactions, and their short-comings despite, often, the best of intentions. In a pamphlet[3] written with my former colleagues Rachel Briggs and Hannah Lownsbrough in 2006, we chronicled the evolving approaches to counter-terrorism in in the UK. From the initial reaction – which was a panicked scramble to bring a narrow selection of British Muslims to the table (none of whom were regarded as particularly representative of their community by most ordinary Muslim citizens) in a rushed and half-baked process which sparked criticism and frustration; and provoked the alienation of the very communities it needed to engage. To the gradual realisation that broader swathes of the communities needed to be (and, importantly, be seen to be) at the heart of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy because they are an early warning system with built-in sources of information and intelligence; Because some of these communities were and are best placed to divert their young people from extremism; And because going back to an earlier point: the police and security services cannot act without the consent of the communities they are there to protect. Such a shift – toward a more transparent and shared responsibility that involves everyone as citizens and every place as a potential source of collective security – doesn’t ‘solve’ the problem, but it is a step toward recognising the new dynamics of politics and societies.

Going about it any other way signals a willingness on behalf of the state to discount a section of its own people because a tiny, tiny minority of residents may be using them as ideological shields. Such behaviour on the part of authorities is bound to be interpreted as, at best, disdain; at worse, persecution: put up, or shut-up. The cost of this for social cohesion and for national resilience is almost too high to calculate. And it is this cost that we see mounting in France.

For the sake of a peaceful future, of a cohesive society France needs to move past the fetichisation of certain words and concept, past the comfort of the known and trodden, past denial and into a transformation that can allow it to spell out its ideals once again in ways that are convincing and adapted to a world of uncertainty in order to move beyond abstract models that get in the way of cooperation and emulation. Call places what you will—‘banlieues’, ‘quartiers’, ‘territoires’.   But recognise their existence as networks of people that are bound together in intricate ways – both positive and negative – and that can contribute far more to the life of the polity than they are currently being asked or allowed to do.

For cosmopolitix to take root – and it must – our social and institutional vocabulary needs to expand to include the new networks of interdependence that already structure our daily lives in a myriad visible and invisible ways. Politics needs to catch up with life.

Catherine Fieschi (@CFieschi), Counterpoint


[1] Again in the words of Beck: “The irony of risk here is that rationality, that is, the experience of the past, encourages the anticipation of the wrong kind of risk, the one we believe we can calculate and control”. With each catastrophe we redouble our efforts, renew the promise of even better security against risk, and increase the likelihood of new and other risks that will only reveal the short-comings of ‘current levels’ of security. In other words, risk rationality when applied to a world of uncertainty, produces hysteria. Ulrich Beck, ‘Living in the World Risk Society’, Economy and Society, August, 2006.

[2] Nick Johnson and I wrote about this here

[3] Rachel Briggs, Catherine Fieschi and Hannah Lownbrough, Bringing it Home: Community-based approaches to counter-terrorism, Demos, 2006.


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