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  • Colonization and the New Imperialism: On the Meaning of Urbicide Today
  • Stefan Kipfer (bio) and Kanishka Goonewardena (bio)

The prevalence of liberal cosmopolitan assumptions in current intellectual formations has been subjected to intense scrutiny. Timothy Brennan,1 for example, has analyzed cosmopolitanism as an “intellectual flow” connecting academic debates and media discourses with transnational corporate and public policy circles as well as middle-class cultures of respectability which favour ‘complexity’ over radical forms of critique. In this broader social context of “cosmo-theory,” academic contributions with significant range of perspectives (from neo-liberal supply-side economists to postmodern versions of post-colonial theory) can be said to be complicit with the contemporary world order. This, Brennan and a range of others submit, is true for a number of reasons. Celebrating uncritically the seemingly anti-parochial effects of what Marx famously called ‘universal intercourse’ in the Communist Manifesto, exponents of liberal cosmopolitanism often avoid investigating the relationship between ‘cosmo-theory’ and the state of commodification in the world market.2 If informed by anti-fascist sensibilities, the focus on cultural aspects of ‘globalization’ (‘migrancy’, ‘hybridity’) may provide welcome relief from the neo-Manichean imperial logics of civilizational clash.3 Yet this emphasis on cultural impurity underestimates the degree to which ‘globalization’ has, since the 1970s, been predicated on strategies of restoring imperial rule. Liberal cosmopolitans thus tend to “disavow” internationalist or radical cosmopolitan struggles of decolonization whose very defeat formed the socio-political conditions of globalization.4

There is a strong urban dimension to “cosmo-theory” today, expressed in a widespread idealization of the metropolis in advanced capitalism as the very locus of cosmopolitan values. A good example is Richard Florida, a once critical economic geographer turned policy wonk who has made a small fortune by convincing gullible municipalities that cultural, ethnic, sexual, and architectural “diversity” offers the key to compete successfully against other similar municipalities in the race to attract investment. For Florida, the best way to foster business competitiveness is to nurture a bohemian “creative class” of innovative capitalists and entrepreneurial middle class fractions (artists, professionals, university graduates). This “creative class” is well placed to tie together physical diversity, economic development and cultural tolerance because it “shares a common creative ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference and merit” and exhibits bohemian-bourgeois sensibilities nourished by vibrant, physically diverse central city districts.5 Florida’s urban cosmopolitan pleas appear positively refreshing in political contexts (the United States, Canada, Australia) currently dominated by unilateralist, xeno- and homophobic, even theocratic national-militarist governing blocs.6 But his avowedly anti-Bush orientation has not deterred him from wedding his views to the current neo-imperial order, suggesting that “fostering social cohesion in creative class milieus is the best way to build unity against the threat of terrorism.7

Urban cosmpolitanism’s complicity with neo-imperial arrangements is rarely a function of an allegiance to hawkish, neo-conservative foreign policy. They rest on deeper assumptions. Traditionally, cosmopolitan and liberal-imperial views have relied on the idea that cultural cosmopolitanism and urban entrepreneurialism define European or “Western” civilization. These views have historically been articulated most sharply by Adam Smith’s implicitly urban incantation of man’s penchant to “truck, barter and trade,” Max Weber’s views on the rationalizing culture of Europe’s early urban merchant bourgeoisie (Burgerstand), and Henri Pirenne’s magisterial history of city-states and feudalism in Europe.8 Florida articulates three contemporary rearticulations of such cosmopolitan views. His political economy builds upon neo-Marshallian economic geography and its institutionalist view of the world economy not as an imperial order but a tapestry of metropolitan agglomeration economies with endogenous growth dynamics.9 His cultural orientation dovetails with liberal-pluralist and postmodern voices who (selectively influenced by Jacques Derrida and Homi Bhabha) see the city as a promise of “hybridity”10 and “mongrel” identities.11 In Florida, these economic and cultural arguments merge with Jane Jacobs’ influential view that central city districts with physical and economic diversity are most likely to succeed as economic incubators.12 Emerging from a critique of postwar planning, Jacobs’ contributions to urban economic history made explicit what in Adam Smith was still a largely implicit statement of the...

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