Jun 192008

In today’s world, it is increasingly difficult to avoid cosmopolitanism. Globalisation is proceeding at breakneck speed, and goods and finance already flow freely across national borders. It is quite possible that one day not too far in the future, labour will flow just as freely

Robert Shiller, a professor of economics at Yale and a columnist, wrote a couple of years ago about what he called the “new cosmopolitans”. Shiller realises uneasily as he mingles at a reception that he has more in common with the Yale World Fellows, a “carefully selected group of professionals, representing every major country in the world” than with working class Americans. The gist of the article is that there is a new, global class that is more loyal to other members of the same class than to any locality.

Dr Shiller’s piece is meant to be impressionistic, not analytic. Still, it is striking how he zeroes in on one trait of the charming and colourful troupe of Yale alumni: their wealth. It is wrong, though, to limit the connotations of cosmopolitanism to the domain of the rich. There are dozens of nuances in the definition of cosmopolitan, and not reducing the word to its associations of wealth has a distinct advantage. It allows us to avoid class associations of prestige, sophistication and privilege without sacrificing the essence of the word: diverse geo-cultural influence.

Stripping off the popular conceptions of cosmopolitanism brings into greater relief a place of immense human geographic importance to Pakistan: Dubai. Dubai, inanely yet routinely described as where East meets West, occupies a special place in the hearts of Pakistani fans of the fast life. But bankers and real estate dealers are not the only Pakistani cosmopolitans in Dubai, or arguably even the most important. Millions of working-class Pakistanis have formed a fluid, cheap, and self-replenishing pool of labour for Gulf states since the late seventies, and the UAE is a major dipper.

But Pakistan is only one of the countries represented in this pool. India, Bangladesh and the Philippines are other major contributors. The experience of these working people is more cosmopolitan because the cultural mixing is on a much larger magnitude, and because the circumstances are less insulated.

For example, a migrant worker will be conversant in Arabic a couple of months after arriving in the Gulf; a professional can go decades without learning a word, simply because it is not necessary. Note also the massive labour unrest in Sharjah several months back, when hundreds of workers from different poor countries rioted together on the streets to protest labour conditions.

Our working-class cosmopolitans also brought far reaching economic and cultural consequences to Pakistan. Much of the “development” that the Zia regime is remembered for coincidentally occurred during the heyday of remittances. Their role was not mean by any standards, especially on the poverty reduction front. Culturally, commodities of entertainment like TVs and radios first made their way into working class homes in a large way on the back of the Gulf cosmopolitans.

“Cosmopolitan” can describe a place as well as a person. Karachi is the throbbing heart of cosmopolitanism in Pakistan, by any definition of the word. This has had both admirable and horrific consequences.

One of the brightest rays of cosmopolitan light in the city brings us back to the consideration of language. Karachi is one of the only places where Urdu is the lingua franca for the majority of the people. I’ll hasten to add that I am not in favour of doing away with the rich tapestry of other languages that make up Pakistan. But it is telling that Karachi is the only place where the speakers of all those other languages have to talk to each other in order to socially function.

To delve on the horrors of Karachi’s cosmopolitanism is not necessary; the history of ethnic, linguistic, and religious violence is painfully familiar. It is interesting to note that many people from Gulf countries flowed through Karachi and into Pakistan on their way to Afghanistan, also during the Zia years, in a macabre reciprocation of cosmopolitans. The Pakistani cosmopolitans, however, brought their strong backs and a willingness to sweat to the Gulf, and we received in exchange only a heady shot of ideology and arms that still has us reeling.

Although expanding the understanding of cosmopolitanism has advantages, Shiller does raise a relevant point for the Pakistani context. Elites of poor countries are always economically, and more importantly, culturally, connected to the rich countries; that is what makes them elite.

But does that necessarily mean that they will betray the interests of the local population for the “new cosmopolitan” class?

Shiller, with growing nervousness, notes of a Namibian World Fellow, “I felt as if I could perhaps fall into a relationship with him that might work against the interests of the locals in Namibia.” Of course, this is not the first time the loyalty of cosmopolitans to their locale has been questioned.

To justify Stalin’s purge of Jewish intellectuals in the early fifties, the cosmopolitan character of the Jewish community was invoked. An article in Pravda from 1949 attacks Jewish theatre critics as “unbridled, evil-minded cosmopolitans, profiteers with no roots and no conscience…Grown on rotten yeast of bourgeois cosmopolitanism, decadence and formalism…non-indigenous nationals without a motherland, who poison with stench…our proletarian culture.”

A great achievement of social psychology has been to show that similar biases against people of cosmopolitan background exist all over the world, not just against Jews. South Asians in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, are often described in the same xenophobic language and attributed with the same stereotypical attributes (miserly, disloyal, clannish, etc) that are the hallmarks of anti-Semitism.

In today’s world, it is increasingly difficult to avoid cosmopolitanism. Globalisation is proceeding at breakneck speed, and goods and finance already flow freely across national borders. It is quite possible that one day not too far in the future, labour will flow just as freely. As we have seen, it is not only professionals but also working-class people who are becoming increasingly cosmopolitan.

The challenge is to identify what exactly it is that instils loyalty to a place, and if that loyalty is necessary to foster development. The answer is most likely complex, and begs dedicated research. I wrote about “remittance identities” in this space earlier this year, and argued that the Pakistani diaspora is touchingly patriotic and idealistic about Pakistan, and if properly channelled, could provide much needed vision to the country.

But diaspora politics, or transnational non-state politics, is new and untested ground. What would it look like? Who would it work for? Precursors can perhaps be seen in the global green movement, or the human rights movements. How these movements evolve, the political dynamic of “cosmopolitan communities”, both of the Shiller and working-class variety, the global commodification of labour, how built fixed capital is invested, and the role of the state are just a few of the determinants of how cosmopolitans will affect regional development in the years to come.

Majed Akhter is an economist in Karachi. majed.akhter@gmail.com

Source: Daily Times, 19/6/2008

 Posted by at 5:51 pm

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