Cosmopolitanism essay

Direct Cosmopolitanism and the Agents of Political Philosophy


We consider this methodological question: are groups that remain separate from states in attempting to achieve their objectives interesting agents for political philosophers interested in global justice to study? After proposing some criteria for what makes agents interesting from the perspective of political philosophy, we find that groups which maintain separateness from the state are indeed interesting agents for political philosophers. This is because they are responsive to moral concerns, and there is evidence that they hold significant power to drive change towards (or away from) justice. We argue that this is true even on the level of creating institutions for systematically safeguarding global justice. Finally we consider some future directions for the study of political agents divorced from the state including questions such as do we have a right to be involved in direct action? Do we have a responsibility to be involved in direct action? And what should we make of direct action against a background of other non-state political agents.


Almost as this essay is being written, a convoy, eventually to become a flotilla, is setting off from Australia with the aim of assisting West-Papuans in their struggle for independence. In 2010 a similar flotilla attempted to break the Israeli blockade around Gaza. While it was suppressed, resulting in several deaths, it bought international opprobrium against Israel. In 2007 the No-Borders network carried out a blockade against dawn raids by immigration officers in the United Kingdom. The same association now runs the Kronsdadt Hangar shelter in France for homeless (usually unauthorised) immigrants. During the Vietnam War, the Maritime Union of Australia attempted to prevent the shipping of materials to Vietnam. These are just a few arbitrarily selected examples of the kind of political action that will concern us in this essay.

What all these actions have in common is that they are attempts to achieve some end without the aid of states (or in most of these cases, with active opposition from states). It would not be unduly romantic to suggest that the groups that carry out these actions are primarily motivated by the thought that they are doing the right thing, and not for any material benefit. These actions are highly politically charged but nonetheless do not take as their starting point the state, or attempts to influence the state through accepted mechanisms. Actions like these are not the only way you might try to achieve political objectives without the state, but for reasons of space we will focus exclusively on actions of this form, rather than considering the broader category of politically relevant actions outside state frameworks. For example, we will not discuss charities and social enterprises.

Why might you care about these actions? You might think that the state is being made less relevant from a number of directions. Vast global movements like Occupy and the Arab Spring revolutions pay less attention to state borders than is traditional, and sometimes give little attention to state structures such as parliaments ([Sic]Writers for the 99%, 2012 provide some detail on how direct action functioned in occupy). Simultaneously, transnational capital can increasingly exert power over states by setting the terms of investment (Teeple, 1995 is a relatively early and fairly comprehensive discussion). Depending on whom you ask supranational bodies such as the World Bank, IMF and European Union may also be gaining influence over and above their roots in national states, (for example see Moravcsik 2008 for discussion on the EU and “democratic deficit”).It would be wise of philosophers, if they are not to be caught on the back foot, to attend to the possibilities of action beside, above or below the state.

Cosmopolitanism is a term which might be generously described as “rich with meanings” and ungenerously described as “vague”. Thus we will stipulate a meaning of cosmopolitanism. In this essay Cosmopolitanism is defined negatively, it is the view that there are no moral differences between persons on the basis of which community they belong to. Moral differences here should be here understood broadly as a category containing questions of our obligations to persons, of their obligations to us, of distributive justice and so on and so forth. There are a few deficiencies with this definition. It may fall afoul of Miller’s (2002) complaint that definitions of cosmopolitanism are typically overly broad in what they catch. The definition provided here might imply, for example, that one cannot have special duties to a next door neighbour, which seems like an extravagantly wide claim. The fine details of what cosmopolitanism is best construed as meaning are not relevant to this essay, so we will put them to the side.

Belief in cosmopolitanism tells you that there are certain problems with the world. For example, a cosmopolitan might oppose national borders, especially when they trap individuals in desperate situations simply because they happen to be a citizen of one country, but not another. They will also presumably oppose differences in resource distribution between countries, or at the very least gross inequalities. We will term the aim of correcting these injustices and achieving cosmopolitan objectives as the goal of global justice. As with the definition of cosmopolitanism I intend this to be a stipulation, ignoring the rich array of meanings that grew of out Kant’s (1795) original paper on perpetual peace.

Most political philosophy is typically but not always a normative endeavour. In so far as it is a normative endeavour it makes statements about what entities should do. This raises the methodological question “what entities are the most interesting entities for political philosophy to be talking about?” In this essay we call the entities political philosophers are concerned with agents or the agents of political philosophy. At absolute minimum agents must be decision makers. States are obvious agents for political philosophy; other possible agents include sub-state entities, like political parties and courts, and supra-state entities, like the United Nations and the World Bank.

In a world where enormous political power is invested in states, political action can be divided into two forms: political action which aims to encourage a state to do something through recognised channels and political action where you aim to accomplish the relevant objective yourself. We will call the second sort of action direct action after the early 20th century anarchist writer Voltairine de Cleyre (2004); examples of direct action are enumerated in the introductory paragraphs.

By direct politics I mean the use of direct action as a primary strategy to achieve change. I also mean the constellation of ideas and schools of thought which suggest direct action should be the primary strategy for achieving political goals. For example, but far from exhaustively, autonomism, situationism, other forms of libertarian Marxism, revolutionary syndicalism and of course anarchism are all forms of direct politics. Some notable groups which use direct politics include the No-Borders Network, the Industrial Workers of the World (more commonly known as the Wobblies), the numerous informal autonomist groups of Western Europe, and the Earth Liberation Front. All of these groups have at least some interest in global justice.

An important point is the distinction between oppositional direct action and orthogonal direct action. Oppositional direct action interferes with the state in order to deter it from, or force it into, a certain course of action. Orthogonal direct action on the other hand acts simply as if the state did not exist and aims to provision people with things they need. The border between orthogonal direct action and charity is very thin. Sometimes it is a matter of sub-culture as much as anything else. For this and other reasons we focus on oppositional direct action in this essay, though much of what we have to say is relevant to both forms.

You might object that oppositional direct action is ultimately bound to the state, and aims to influence the state into serving your interests, or at least to stop it from opposing them. In some senses it is, but not in the senses that will concern us here. The important criterion for whether or not an action is a direct action is not “does the use of the tactic interact with the state”, but whether or not separateness from the state is maintained. Separateness is maintained if the channels and options offered by the state are not used, that is to say if the group does not enter into the mechanisms created by the state itself. Making a submission to a government inquiry is most certainly not separate from the state, and is thus not a form of direct action. Cutting down border fences is most definitely separate from the state’s own mechanisms. The concept is vague to some degree, for example organising a street protest may be in an intermediate position, and much will depend on its quality or context.


We are interested in the following methodological question:

Are groups that remain separate from states in attempting to achieve their objectives interesting agents for cosmopolitan political philosophers to study?

I will argue that yes, they are interesting agents for study by political philosophers. Largely the argument will be made by contrasting them with states. In particular, I argue that direct political groups are far more responsive to normative concerns than states are. This is not to say that states are not interesting agents for study by political philosophers, though I am sceptical of the relevance of moral theorising to the state. Rather, I aim purely to vindicate direct political groups as interesting agents, and not to condemn states as uninteresting.

The reader might object that in answering this methodological question we are left without much specific in the way of knowledge about direct action groups. We may have answered the meta-question “should we study them”, but have ignored first order questions such as “what are they like”. This is true, but in a world rich with different political agents, and different grounds of political struggle, the importance of the question “what things are the most interesting to study” should not be dismissed.

In assessing whether or not an agent is interesting from the standpoint of political philosophy, some criteria are needed. No doubt there are innumerable ways one could carve things up and great variation from context to context. For our purposes though I will propose two criteria. Firstly, to be interesting an agent should be responsive to moral concerns. Despite the enormous power held by a lion, one would never make normative claims about what a lion should do; lions are not responsive to moral concerns. Secondly, more so in political philosophy than other normative disciplines, an agent must have sufficient power in order to be interesting. What counts as sufficient power will depend on context. In considering how one might achieve a systematic order of global fairness, it would be odd to think about Nauru as a key agent. In thinking about what might be the fairest tax regime for a country to have, all entities with a tax regime including Nauru are up for discussion.


Direct action networks are deeply responsive to normative questions. Usually they are formed and constituted on the basis of agents who have shared moral concerns. Interestingly these moral concerns are often deeply influenced by cosmopolitanism, even if it is not identified explicitly. Members of these groups often risk arrest and imprisonment, with no prospect of material reward, in order to advance their moral and political principles. There seems to be little, if any, basis for worrying that direct action groups do not meet the criterion of responsiveness to moral concerns.

Suppose though you thought states were more interesting agents than direct politics groups. You would have an easy reply. Direct political groups may be superb agents with respect to their responsiveness to moral concerns, but they have far less power than states. Thus in studying the pursuit of global justice, even in localised situations, they will tend to be uninteresting in comparison to states. You would make something like the following argument:

1.       States are massively more powerful than direct action groups

2.       If something is massively more powerful than something else, all other things being equal, it is massively more interesting.

3.       Therefore states, all other things being equal, states are massively more interesting than direct action groups.

4.       Therefore we should devote our limited time to the study of states rather than direct action groups.

Something like this seems to me be the best argument against studying direct political groups. We will use this line of reasoning as a foil, against which to build our case for the importance of direct politics. Our response will be twofold- firstly that on an international scale, states are so defective in their ability to respond to moral concerns that this may outweigh their considerable advantage in power. Secondly that while direct action organisations are nowhere near as powerful as states, it is important not to underestimate their power.

States are extraordinarily selfish when it comes to caring for those who are not their own citizens, to the point where some have questioned whether states are capable of altruism at all (Morgenthau 1948 does not use the word, but his picture of the state is a portrait of a sociopath) . Like the lion we discussed earlier you might think that this gives you reason to doubt the value of presenting moral reasons to states. Consider the following parable from Aesop, a scorpion wishes to cross a river and happens upon a frog. It asks the frog for passage across the river. The frog refuses, saying the scorpion will sting him. The scorpion insists this is not so, after all, both will drown if it does. The frog, swayed by the scorpion’s logic, agrees. Whereupon they cross the river and the scorpion stings the frog. As the venom spreads through it, the frog mutters “why did you do that, now we will both drown.” To which the scorpion replies sadly “I must sting, for it is in my nature.” What the scorpion is claiming here is that it is so inclined towards stinging as to have no choice. To moralise to the scorpion about the evils of stinging, or even to present it with pragmatic arguments against stinging, is to miss the point. In some sense, stinging is not something that the scorpion has any agency over.

For many political philosophers and international relations theorists, states are so selfish as to be unmoveable. This is thought to be especially true when it comes to the citizens of other states. But this is exactly that field of questions the cosmopolitan is most interested in. The view that states are overwhelming selfish and power hungry is part of the theoretical viewpoint known as international relations realism (e.g. Morgenthau 1948). Some have argued on the basis of realism that states are not moral agents, or are at least not moral agents anything like us (e.g. Kennan 1951). Thus trying to give ethical advice to states is something like telling a tank to stop being violent, advising a thunderstorm to calm down, or telling the economy to distribute wealth more fairly. True, every once in a while a state office may do something with genuinely (and not merely apparently) kindly motives for the people of another state. However such acts are in no way reflective of the underlying tendencies of states. They should be treated as miraculous exceptions. Opinions differ in the literature on these questions (e.g. Krieg 2013 who argues that humanitarian intervention is not separate from genuine altruism) and you may not be persuaded that states lack moral agency.

But let us grant in arguendo that states are susceptible to moral reasons. There are still questions of degree. Even if you think states are responsive to moral reasons it seems pretty plausible that they are not very responsive to moral reasons. In order to prove our point that direct action groups are far more interesting agents from the perspective of their moral responsiveness, all we need granted is that states are fairly amoral, even if they may be altruistic at the margins.

At this point the defender of state-centric political philosophy might fall back to the claim that we should only care about power, not responsiveness to moral reasons, thus challenging one of our initial criteria. The purpose of normative philosophy is to state what should be done, they would argue, it does not matter whether or not this or any other moral reasoning has traction on the choices of agents.

Whether or not you think this argument is persuasive will depend on what you are trying to get out of political philosophy. You might not be bothered in the slightest whether or not your work as a cosmopolitan is going to have any effect on the world. I would guess though that at least a majority of cosmopolitans would like their work to have some influence. We are at least not aiming to speak about right and wrong into a void, even if it may turn out that way. The problem is that states simply do not care what philosophers or any other moralists have to say, especially about international affairs or else care only very marginally. You are more likely to have luck presenting your arguments to direct political groups, or for that matter charities and NGOs, than you are to have luck making your arguments to states.


So far we have given some arguments for the claim that direct political groups have an advantage over states as cosmopolitan agents in that they are far more morally responsive, especially with reference to cosmopolitan concerns. But we have largely conceded the point that states are more powerful than these groups. Even medium sized states typically have enormous fighting capacity and many billions of dollars in wealth, so this seems plausible. The result is a somewhat maddening view of the world. States hold power, while direct political groups (and for that matter NGOs and charities) are responsive to moral concerns. What we would need in order to achieve global justice is the conjunction of power and willingness, but thus far no such agent has been identified.

But maybe we have been underestimating the power of direct politics. While it is difficult to study the question “how powerful are direct action groups”, social scientists who write on them often say that they are far more potent than either they or their enemies give them credit for. David Graeber is an anthropologist interested in ethnographic study of the direct action movement, he writes in “Revolutions in reverse” (Graeber 2010 pp:20): “By 2008, the IMF was rapidly approaching bankruptcy, and it is a direct result of the worldwide mobilization against them… we destroyed it- or at least, the IMF in anything like its current form.” You could easily doubt the claim that the worldwide delegitimisation of the International Monetary Fund was the result of direct action against IMF summits. But there is evidence to think that such interventions as the so called Battle of Seattle in 1999 were not immaterial in causing severe crises of reputation and legitimacy for the IMF.[1]

So perhaps direct action groups do have the power to effect change for global justice. Surely though it is beyond their power to setup a just international order. An order in which there are not only accidental barriers against injustice, but systematic barriers. You might think that what the cosmopolitan philosopher is really interested in is the achievement of a situation in which stable structures exist to protect global justice. For all their flaws, it may seem that states are far more likely to achieve this than direct action groups. One does not want bands of activists, guided by their own beliefs, faced with prospects of deeply uncertain success, to be the only agents protecting global justice. As Brecht said, “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero”. Thus if one believes that systematic global justice is achievable, one had best hope that states can be bought round to the project.

A quick way to respond to this worry is to suggest that direct action groups (or more accurately, the people and movements they fight for) may one day achieve what most have always wished for- the overthrow of all states and implementation of a new stateless order. Opinions will differ wildly though on the probability and possibility of this happening, and whatever our person opinions we would not want to rest this argument on something as controversial as the plausibility of global revolution.

Presumably if you are optimistic about the possibility of achieving systematic global justice, but do not believe that achieving global justice is likely to be brought about by a revolution (or for that matter an illegitimate sovereign body eventually forced to legitimacy in the style of Nagel, 2005) you will think that it is be achieved by a process of institutional evolution towards a cosmopolitan friendly order. It might seem that direct politics has no contribution to make to such a hoped for process. After all, the creation of a new, just, global order without revolution would probably require agreements between states. How could direct politics slot into such a process?

Direct politics might slot in by influencing the behaviour of states, pushing them, pressuring them, and acting as ‘a force from below’ on their behaviour- ultimately driving them towards cosmopolitanism and global justice. If you grant that states are not especially responsive to moral concerns, you might think the only thing that could steer them in the direction of what is right is groups of people concerned with justice and willing to use a variety of tactics to achieve it. Since moral behaviour is costly, strong pressure over long periods of time would have to be applied in order to achieve global justice through on any systematic scale, and almost by definition moral pressure and lobbying would be unlikely successful. Of all extant currents, it seems to me that direct political groups have the greatest potential to provide such pressure since they are not implicated in the state, care deeply about cosmopolitan concerns, and do not rely on moral pressure or political argumentation.

While it is difficult to assess the plausibility of such a hypothetical, one can imagine fairly easily how in the formation of an order to protect global justice, pressure from direct action groups might provide at least some of the impetus required by amoral states. Thus we have some reason to think that even in the achievement of a systematic order of global justice, and in the absence of revolutions, direct action groups might be interesting as agents of political philosophy. Perhaps even more relevant as agents for global justice than states since we have many reasons to think states are stony towards reasons that do not relate to their interests.


We have given reasons to think that cosmopolitan political philosophers should be interested in direct action and in the groups that pursue it. In and of itself though, this tells us little about what we should think of such groups. What questions should we ask of them, what should and should not they do? In what follows I sketch out what I take to be some problems and topics for further research by philosophers interested in these groups.

You might think that some of the arguments we have considered here give you reason to think that, at least with respect to questions of global justice, direct political groups are not only agents of interest, but are more interesting than states. Indeed you might think that, at least with respect to these questions, states do not qualify as agents at all. You might even think that when it comes to global justice, its best to leave the states to the political scientists, because they are so fundamentally amoral as to be worthless for the purposes of normative enquiry. While I am sympathetic to these thoughts, considering them in any depth is a much larger project. Thus we have restricted ourselves to the modest claim that direct political groups are deserving of greater discussion by philosophers interested in global justice. Examining the comparative importance of these entities as drivers towards global justice would necessarily delve far deeper into the empirical literature on topics like international relations and protest movements, and could be an interesting avenue for further study.

There are many questions you might ask about the democratic and legal legitimacy of groups which break and bend the law in the pursuit of what they consider to be justice. There is a literature in political philosophy on civil disobedience addressing these very questions. But against the backdrop of cosmopolitanism, the questions take on not merely larger but qualitatively different dimensions. If you are trying to help those in other nations who have every claim to your help, and who have no part in the decision making apparatuses of your state (no vote, nor voice), it seems plausible that whatever claim your state may normally have to require you to follow its laws is greatly weakened. After all, the state has excluded the very voices which are morally relevant to the formation of laws on these questions of transnational justice. The refugee has every claim to enter your country, but was never asked about the detention centre. To suggest that destroying the fences around it breaks laws that should not be broken because they were democratically created seems at least odd. Considering the literature on civil disobedience in light of these dimensions may be an interesting project.

These questions about legitimacy, democracy and state authority pose the question is direct action permissible. We could come at it from the other direction and ask is there a duty to become involved in, or otherwise support in some way, direct action. Consider for example Pogge (2002), if he is right that we are morally responsible for global injustice, and if there is reason to think that conventional mechanisms like the state, and supranational bodies will not be effective in achieving global justice, could this create a duty to support direct action? How are we to understand Pogge’s concept of institutional reform if institutions may be impervious to reform. Is there point at which our responsibilities to correct the injustices we create and help to impose are nullified by our right to avoid the dangers posed by direct action?

Another project might be to compare and contrast the power of direct action groups with other forms of non-state power. While many would care to differ (Weiss 1997) more and thinkers have begun to consider the possibility that the power of the national state is on the verge of being overwhelmed by transnational corporations; entities probably even less responsive to moral concerns than states. If this is so, an urgent project is to theorise what the struggle for justice could and should look like in a terrain where states are greatly weakened in power.

What I would have said somewhere in the essay, but didn’t since this is a coursework essay for philosophy, and one must back everything up so carefully, is this. We’ve arrived via a seemingly sensible series of inferences at a provocative, even paradoxical conclusion. We’ve found evidence that,  in the international sphere, states, the paradigm object of political philosophy, are scarcely worth considering except as opposition to the real actors, and as terrain over which they move. For all the vast shadow they cast over the material world, in the plain of moral actors, of right and wrong, they’re merely rocky ground to be traversed, or perhaps more accurately the wild beasts of that world. In a sense hold no real capacities of their own, caught in an unthinking loop of realist necessities.


De Cleyre, Voltairine (2004), A. J. Brigati, ed., The Voltairine De Cleyre Reader, Oakland, California: AK Press,

Graeber, D. (2010). Revolutions in reverse. (1st ed.). London/New York/Port Watson: Minor compositions.

Kant, I. (1795). Perpetual peace. Retrieved from

Kennan, G. (1951). American diplomacy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Krieg, A. (2013). Motivations for humanitarian intervention. SpringerBriefs in Ethics.

Miller, D. (2002). Cosmopolitanism: a critique. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy , 3(5), 80-85.

Moravcsik, A. (2008). The myth of europe’s “democratic deficit”. Intereconomics, 1(November/December), 331-340.

Morgenthau, H. (1948). politics among nations: The struggle for power and peace. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.:

Nagel, T. (2005). The problem of global justice. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 2(33), 113-147.

Pogge, T., & , (2002). World poverty and human rights. Cambridge: Polity.

Teeple, G. (1995). Globalization and the decline of social reform. Toronto: Garamond press.

Walt, L., & Schmidt, M. (2009). Black flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism. AK Press.

Weiss, L. (1997). Globalization and the myth of the powerless sate. New Left Review, 1(225), Retrieved from

Writers for the 99%. (2012). Occupying wall street. US: Haymarket books.

[1] For more evidence on the efficacy of direct action, you could do far worse than consult Walt & Schmidt’s (2009) definitive history of revolutionary Syndicalism which contains a wealth of cases of direct action tactics, some effective, others less so.


About timothyscriven

I study philosophy at Sydney University. In the grand scheme, I'm not very important.
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