Empire Sun
Empire Sun Charles Mudede

The race between Kshama Sawant and Egan Orion has captured national attention. And how could it not? Seattle has become the battleground between two distinct forms of cosmopolitanism. The idea, however, has been to frame this and other city council elections as being between socialists and middle-of-the-road Democrats. (No one on the right, as represented by the xenophobia of Trump, is participating in this election.) Seattle is, ultimately, a cosmopolitan city. It is opposed to the Muslim ban, it is a sanctuary city, and it is hard to find support for ICE here.

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But if a Sawant is cosmopolitan (a woman of color born in Pune, India) and an Orion is also cosmopolitan (a gay man who, according to a new Facebook post, is in a relationship with a Mexican man—a relationship he is using to explain his preference for an egg donor with white Mediterranean blood), then what exactly is the problem? A vote for the one pretty much amounts to a vote for the other. However, if things appear that way to you, it is because the difference between the cosmopolitanism that Orion represents has been badly mistaken for that which Sawant represents. On one side, there is market cosmopolitanism, and on the other, there is democratic cosmopolitanism.

How do we know which one we are voting for?

The British-Ghanaian cultural theorist and philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has devoted a great amount of intellectual energy and time to the subject of cosmopolitanism. He even wrote an important book about it: Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.

In this interview, he provides a succinct definition of this cultural form:

[C]osmopolitanism is the conjunction of two ideas. One, which it shares with a lot of people, which is some form of commitment to the universality of concern for all human beings. That's one part of it. But what is distinctive about cosmopolitan universalism is that it combines that sense that everybody matters, every human being is important, with the idea that people are entitled to live lives according to different ideals, different conceptions of what they're up to, what they think is worthwhile.

So unlike many universalists, cosmopolitans aren't in the business of trying to persuade everybody to be like themselves. We like the fact that the world is full of different kinds of people. And it's that mixture of global concern with respect for difference that I think characterizes at the least the kind of cosmopolitanism that I'm trying to defend.

In the urban context, which is nothing but a world of strangers, cosmopolitanism is a key ethical concept. To live with others whose ideas and bodies and desires are different demands a universalism that can be boiled down to a "respect for difference." Market cosmopolitanism is at one with this urban ethic. It has no problem with a man born in India running a major American corporation—for example, Microsoft. It is opposed to closed borders, religious-based bans, and checks on immigration. It says: No matter who you are—who you want to fuck, who you want to pray to—you have the right to participate in the market.

In Seattle's present council races, we do not find a single challenge to this kind of universality, which Trump uses to fire-up his rural and xenophobic base. The matter of whether or not you can participate in the market is the point of departure. If you can, and you are black, welcome to Amazon or Starbucks and much more. And if you are brown and denied a rental agreement for a luxury apartment you can afford, Durkan will fight for you. You have a right to be part of the market. The problem with Durkan and those candidates that Seattle Times has endorsed in the council races is with those who cannot participate in the market; those living on the streets, those living on low wages. It is not about race or sex or sexual preference; what concerns this kind of cosmopolitanism is being in or out. If out, get out of the city.

Now, there is a deeper problem with Orionian/Durkan cosmopolitanism. It has no content. Or, put another way, it is a-historical, or, put yet another way, it's synchronic. And as such, it can't prevent the spatial production and reproduction of economic-based forms of racism that have a deep cultural history. As a consequence, market cosmopolitanism often ends up erasing actual and experienced cosmopolitanism. This happened in the Central District, this is happening now in Tukwila. Cosmopolitanism without content, and this content can only be democracy, is empty.

Sawant's cosmopolitanism is, of course, not formal but diachronic. It recognizes history, it recognizes that there is more to urban participation than just total access to markets. And it's important to recognize that democratic cosmopolitanism (or, put another way, the city as urban) is not anti-business. Seattle Times will have you believe this illusion: they, and only they, are pro-business. (As cosmopolitanism has more than one meaning, so, too, does pro-business—which kind of business are you for?) Yes, one might find it hard to explain Sawant's support of the small business Saba—an important cultural institution that was closed by developers this summer—as a socialist. But it makes perfect sense if one sees her as what she actually is, a democratic cosmopolitan (the same goes for Shaun Scott). What we recognize is that the market can't be trusted to generate real differences, real communities, real urban richness. The city's government must intervene to make the democratic city (the city with content) possible.

I will end this post with two passages: One captures the essence of contentless cosmopolitanism (Orion), and the other, a cosmopolitanism that's filled with the life of the city (Sawant). The first is by Voltaire, and the second is by, of all people, T.S. Eliot.

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