Martha Nussbaum preaches well, and her message is an important corrective to forms of communitarianism that risk relegitimating the worst aspects of an American nationalism that liberals and progressives rightly assailed in the 1960s. Moreover, as someone deeply committed to renewing the liberatory aspects of Judaism, I see in Nussbaum’s project deep resonances with the insistence of Torah that all human beings are created in the image of God, and the insistence of the Prophets that God is the God of all nations. That this universalism can emanate from a particularist tradition, and that Jews have been among its most consistent exponents in the past 200 years (despite other post-Holocaust Jewish voices that despaired of universalism and reverted to a narrow particularism) carries an important message: it should remind us that building strong particularist identities, and shoring up ethnic, religious, and national identities as foils to the extremes of contemporary American individualism-run-wild, need not be counterposed to extending our circle of caring to the larger world, or to fostering the cosmopolitan identity that Nussbaum rightly advocates.
Yet in her excitement to extend our circle of caring and identity to include all other humans on the planet — a goal which I share — Nussbaum ignores the historical experience of the human race with those who used ideals of a universal culture and caring as a rallying cry to justify new forms of domination.
In the ancient world, it was precisely the Hellenistic culture that Nussbaum so valorizes that used a hegemonizing discourse and sought to impose a cosmopolitan truth, forcing itself on Jews and on so many other cultures unable to defend themselves from Greek and later Roman imperialism. The various succesor regimes to Alexander the Great established a close connection between cultural imperialism and economic and political imperialism. By the time the Stoics had begun to call for “universal citizens,” the Jews rightly understood that this new demand would, in effect, be yet another assault on their own right to exist as a people with distinctive cultural and religious practices and a special historical legacy.
The same imperializing logic was inherited by some trends within Christianity. In Christ there would be neither Jew nor Greek, but only a new cosmopolitan identity open to all, one which supposedly recognized the inherent value of each individual. Though the original Christian universalism did not insist on the obliteration of cultural differences, it wasn’t long before Christianity became a force for cultural totalitarianism and the consequent repression not only of Jewish particularism, but of indigenous cultures that valued an earth bound spirituality, and women’s knowledge and power, and that felt uncomfortable with the patriarchal or world-denying aspects of Christianity. Crusades, inquisitions, and the burnings of witches and Jews followed apace. Similar distortions in the universalism of post-Lenin communist parties led to an assault on Zionism and other “rootless cosmopolitans” and the suppression of national cultures.
Today, capitalist culture plays the analogous role to Hellenism. Multinational corporations will likely adopt some version of Nussbaum’s cosmopolitanism to undermine the moral authority of national regimes that seek to put constraints on the flow of capital. As third world countries empower previously colonized peoples, and as democratic movements in the industrialized world give voice to the world’s workers, the multinationals have sought to escape and denigrate the narrow particularism of national regimes that might place restrictions on the rational movements of the free marketplace. Before we undermine the authority of any particularist reality, we ought to check what other resources are available for putting constraints on the hegemonizing and homogenizing media that are the vanguard of this latest version of totalitarianism.
A cosmopolitan education to recognize humanity wherever we encounter it is a necessary precondition for the creation of an international movement capable of resisting the totalitarian tendencies inherent in contemporary media and market. But another precondition for such resistance will be the growing recognition that market-driven cosmopolitan totalitarianism frustrates our needs to be parts of communities of meaning and purpose that transcend the individualism and selfishness of the competitive market. Such communities of meaning, fostering loving commitments to family and community, are far more likely than an abstract commitment to “reason and the love of humanity” to provide the psychological basis for necessary movements of resistance and transformation. The Jewish renewal movement is one of many movements of renewal now struggling to ensure that the historical distortions associated with those communities — their patriarchy and chauvinism — can now be transcended without abandoning the nourishing particularist spiritual and emotional riches that might counter the totalitarian potential of cosmopolitanism — a potential that Nussbaum does not support but may unintentionally serve.