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Towards a Cosmopolitanism of Repair

By Ranjit Hoskote

April 10, 2024

I am writing these words in the ruins of the world in which I grew up. In that world—even if I idealize it somewhat—we were encouraged to look beyond our horizons; to engage with individuals, groups, and societies in a spirit of lively curiosity that was not anthropological but empathetic. In that world, it was understood that our planet was not meant to be viewed through a monochromatic lens, but to be embraced as a kaleidoscope that would challenge us with surprises and epiphanies.

Perhaps this was always only true of a particular milieu and generation. Perhaps, indeed almost certainly, there were always a large number of people who were sceptical of this approach. People who shied away from communicative, potentially risky encounters with the Other and instead sought reassurances of identity within zealously defended guarantees of belonging. Perhaps I speak only for those who were shaped by the values of the Non-Aligned Movement, by the belief that seminal figures of the post-World War II period like Nehru, Nkrumah, Nasser, Sukarno, and Tito had in an internationalism phrased from what we would today call the Global South.

Politically, Non-Alignment staked a non-binary claim to chart a third way, rejecting allegiance to either of the Cold War superpowers while negotiating complex postcolonial realities. In cultural terms, this translated as a claim to global belonging that was not assumed as an entitlement, but which we had to craft for ourselves through a continuous dialogue with difference. Against the prevailing wisdom that the Non-Aligned Movement belongs in the Museum of Superseded Ideas, I would like to retrieve, from it, a philosophy of self-fashioning. I am not impelled by nostalgia here. Such a philosophy invites us to consider the distributed locations and plural topographies of the self, and we must urgently restore it to our everyday and bodied practice of global being, our everyday ethics of global coexistence.


Across continents, it is evident that the most populist and autocratic political forces are in the ascendant today. They have encouraged or terrorized their societies to retreat into a pathology of cultural uniqueness and superiority. We recognise that such claims are largely imagined, that they are based on ahistorical myth-making, and that they express a deep-seated insecurity. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman described our epoch memorably as the age of “liquid modernity,” when global economic circulations and cultural flows have blurred long-held convictions about identity and long-protected definitions of ethnicity, territory, nation, and market. Alongside the world-wide lattices of mobility, collaboration, and diversity that this condition has created, it has also produced large constituencies who experience cultural ressentiment and economic exclusion from these global processes.

The rage of these constituencies has been weaponized by ideologues of vengeance and revanchism who, in Bauman’s phrase, develop idioms of “neo-tribalism” that offer new identities of self-assertion to the disenchanted and disenfranchised. Invariably garbed in the rhetoric of tradition, such identities are articulated through toxic discrimination and outright violence against individuals and groups stigmatized as Others. Through such demonstrations, an unquestioned tyranny of “either/or” comes to be normalized.

To those of us who locate ourselves on the liberal, pluralist, inclusivist side of the political spectrum, neo-tribalism embodies the worst impulses of our present. Yet we seem powerless to counter it with a robust, viable counter-proposition that questions the essentialisms of mono-ethnic states and sovereign territories, blocs, and borders.

How can we repair our world?


The voice of neo-tribalism is stentorian and drowns out all contending voices. Its preferred language is wedded to the vocabulary of domination and the imagery of annihilation. It proclaims the radical intolerance of a binary “either/or” paradigm. Its performance of strength masks its awareness of the fragility and insubstantiality of the identity it champions. What if we approached the world quite deliberately from the opposite position with a declaration of our own vulnerability, an acknowledgement of the plurality of sources from which we ourselves are constructed? What if we brought these gifts to the table we share with Others, in a gesture of recognizing their corresponding vulnerability and plurality? Following the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, could we not learn that our relationship to Others must be informed by a sense of wonder at their alterity, by a caring attentiveness to their distinctive being?

This Levinasian sense of wonder is not to be mistaken for a transcendental awe, a pretext for distanciation. On the contrary, it must be embodied through a seeking of affinities and an exploration of transformative thresholds with those who do not share common ground with us. This caring attentiveness, likewise, is not intended as an excuse to hold Others at a respectful but ultimately indifferent distance. On the contrary, it should act as a prompt to imagine ways of living and learning with Others that lead us to the condition that the philosopher Michael Marder beautifully describes as “flowering-with.” In his 2014 study, The Philosopher’s Plant, Marder writes that it involves “finding one’s conditions for flourishing in the Other and dedicating oneself to the Other’s flourishing.”

Could such a flowering-with sustain a cosmopolitanism, or, more accurately, a cosmopolitics that is premised on the replenishment of mutuality and which rejects the corrosion of antagonism and the attrition of agonism? In order to test out this proposition in more concrete terms, I would place it alongside the concept of “insurgent cosmopolitanism” proposed by the sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos, who uses it to indicate the formation of transnational coalitions among a wide array of actors including activists, students, trade unionists, academics, and artists. Such coalitions have the potential, in Santos’ account, to counterpoint the transnational hegemonies forged among the elites of global capital.

As if picking up the thread of Non-Alignment, Santos insists on the expansion of the cosmopolitan imagination to include the diverse experiences, theories, narratives, and indeed the alternative modernities of the societies of the Global South. Rather than rendering these multiple elements into a lingua franca, we are called upon to release ourselves to them on their own terms, translating ourselves to accommodate them rather than the other way around. This Santosian insurgent cosmopolitanism extends an empathetic understanding towards varied locales of struggle and resistance. Importantly, while democratizing transnational political and cultural initiatives, it retains the capacity to question its own differentials of class, gender, ethnicity, race, and location self-transformatively, in the presence of the Other. It summons up the possibility of a solidarity of the vulnerable—which, however modest or episodic its manifestations may seem, might provide us with some hope that we can still repair the world.


Ranjit Hoskote is a poet and critic who addresses cultural pluralism from the local to the global.