Thomas Paine, Conflicted Cosmopolitanism, and Global Insecurity

Friday, 20 July 2018
Distributed Paper
Josh KLEIN, Iona College, USA
One way to critically examine the operations of cosmopolitanism in today’s cultural and political practices is to clarify past influences on our thinking about national and global aspects of security. This paper critically examines an influential cosmopolitan political actor, American revolutionary Thomas Paine. Two centuries after his death Paine continues to influence politics, to be misunderstood, to spark academic debate, and to generate conflicting interpretations.

This U.S. “founding father” reflected and fostered both pro- and anti-cosmopolitan thinking at the heart of U.S. political culture. Despite Paine’s genuine radical and liberating contribution to a more cosmopolitan world, Paine’s legacy is part of U.S. ideological ambivalence about whether to “play well with others,” that is, how cosmopolitan and sharing the U.S. should be regarding “national” security. Paine evidenced both cosmopolitan and imperialist ideas. He was an exceptional critic of the British empire, but was restrained in criticizing slavery and genocidal treatment of American Indians, and offered little support for the 1791 Haitian Revolution.

Examining Paine can help us theorize cosmopolitanism’s challenges. The historical example of Paine helps illuminate how some peoples’ precariousness becomes more important than others’. Paine’s ambivalence about U.S. nationalism and future empire fits with Butler’s (2009:43) insight that although cohabitation presupposes interdependency, this interdependency can be disavowed, enabling destructiveness. As she has argued, we need a rethinking of global politics in which we acknowledge that nationalism works in part by producing a version of the subject, via media and culture, which renders the subject’s destructiveness righteous (Butler 2009:47). Similarly, looking at Paine can help us follow Beck’s (2006:25) call for a New Critical Theory of our cosmopolitan era to expose how the asymmetry of perceptions of inequality is bound up with the national outlook, banishing global inequalities from the field of vision.