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Psychoanalytic Psychology

2013, Vol. 30, No. 2, 264 280

2013 American Psychological Association


0736-9735/13/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0032513

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THE NEW COSMOPOLITANS:


Challenges and Discontents
Carlo Strenger, PhD
Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel

This paper investigates some psychodynamic aspects of a new global class: New
Cosmopolitans work in highly creative professions that are organized in global
networks run in English. Their identities are more influenced by these networks
than by ethnic, national, and religious upbringing, and their frame of reference
is global. Clinical, sociological, and economic data suggest that it is more
difficult for New Cosmopolitans to maintain stable self-esteem, because their
frame of reference is global. They suffer more from the existential fear of
insignificance associated with mortality, and their existential safety is lowered
because they are less rooted in ethnic and national structures. Nevertheless, New
Cosmopolitans are a very influential group because of their influence in media,
academia, and high-tech, and it is therefore a valuable project to understand
their psychodynamic and to investigate implications of their lifestyle and the
necessity of using Skype to maintain therapeutic continuity with them.
Keywords: globalization, identity, achievement pressure, new cosmopolitans
Psychology and psychoanalysis are today faced with a twofold task. The first is to live up
to Freuds original program. As Eric Kandel (2012) has shown convincingly, Freud is, in
many ways, the founder of todays vast undertaking of the evolutionary cognitive
neurosciences; the attempt to decipher the biological architecture that underlies our
psyche. If the metaphor be allowed: this is the research into biological hardware and the
basic operating system with which we are born.
The second task is to decipher the applications that contemporary culture uploads into
our psyche. Every culture and historical period programs the psyche in its own ways that
can differ profoundly from each other; even within the span of one century Western
societies have evolved in profound ways, and psychoanalysis had to adapt to these
changes (Zaretsky, 2004). Once we widen our perspective, it becomes clear that traditional
Muslim or Jewish culture upload very different contents and modes of functioning onto
the human mind than late modern urban, secular cultures do.
The task of this study is to describe the interplay between an aspect of the human
psyche that seems to be part of its hard-wired operating system and a very particular

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Carlo Strenger, School of Psychological Sciences, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv 69878, Israel. E-mail: strenger@post.tau.ac.il

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THE NEW COSMOPOLITANS: CHALLENGES AND DISCONTENTS

265

cultural configuration that has evolved in the last two or three decades. The hard-wired
aspect is the human fear of insignificance; the deep-seated fear of humans of dying in
general, and dying without leaving a mark on earth in particular. The cultural
configuration is the emergence of a new global network of people I will call New
Cosmopolitans.
The interpretive hypothesis is as follows: the human fear of insignificance, as far as we
can tell from anthropological data (Becker, 1971, 1973; Atran, 2002) and current experimental research in existential psychology (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2004)
seems indeed to be an anthropological constant. There is also very strong evidence that the
way humans have found to deal with the terror of death at all times and in all places is to
be part of a larger whole, a culture, civilization, nation, or religion that is likely to survive
the individual (Becker, 1971). When individuals feel that they contribute significantly to
this larger whole, they experience themselves as attaining what Becker called symbolic
immortality; that is, they believe that they will not disappear without a trace. That much
seems to have remained true, never mind whether we speak of African Tribes, the Ancient
Greeks, or contemporary soccer fans.
New Cosmopolitans are a very influential elite today. They belong to what sociologists
and economists have called the supercreative core of the knowledge economies that have
evolved in the last decades (Florida, 2002). They include researchers in the natural,
biological, and social sciences; the content producers of the media and the art; the upper
echelons of Research and Development in high-tech, bio-tech, and engineering; and the
nontechnical domain of the financial industry (Florida, 2002; Sassen, 2001). The essence
of their work is to apply their intelligence to problem solving and new developments. They
are cosmopolitan because the networks that define and sustain their professional disciplines are completely independent of geography, and have found places in all developed
economies.
The interpretive thesis of this paper is that for New Cosmopolitans it is particularly
difficult to experience the safety of symbolic immortality. As opposed to more traditional
forms of life, their frame of reference is global; this means that the context to which they
need to contribute significantly to feel symbolic immortality is wider than ever. As a
result, many of the more gifted New Cosmopolitans evolve an ego-ideal that demands no
less than to transform the world (Rothkopf, 2008; Strenger, 2011).
Although this may sound like a grandiose fantasy of almost delusional proportion,
recent history provides examples of New Cosmopolitans who have indeed done exactly
that. Steve Jobs, the Founder, Chair, and CEO of Apple, first introduced the personal
computer as we know it, and in his second phase at Apple he revolutionized the music
industry and developed the model for todays smartphones. Larry Page and Sergei Brin,
the founders of Google, transformed the way humanity uses the Internet and have made
the majority of human knowledge accessible to all. And Mark Zuckerberg, the founder
and CEO of Facebook, within a few years has changed the ways in which many of us
manage our social relations and has already had major historical impact in facilitating the
Arab Spring.
I will exemplify the New Cosmopolitan ego-ideal through a few case examples and
then try to sketch the technological and economic transformations that have created the
background of this new ego-ideal. But this ego-ideal can only be understood on the
background of the huge transformations the recent wave of globalization has initiated
(Friedman, 1999; Sloterdijk, 2005). I will therefore try to integrate data from economics,
sociology, cultural criticism, and a variety of other disciplines in describing these changes.

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The ensuing psychoanalytic interpretation will make extensive use of one of todays most
successful psychodynamic paradigm, which has its historical roots in the work of one of
Freuds earliest students: Otto Rank.

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The Denial of Death and Symbolic Immortality


Otto Ranks later work has suffered a form of excommunication from the psychoanalytic
literature after his break with Freud in the early 1920s. Paradoxically, his work has
become increasingly influential in academic psychology through a circuitous route.
Ranks Psychology and the Soul (1930), Art and Artist (1932), and Beyond Psychology
(1958) develop one central idea: the human psyche, Rank claimed, is incapable of truly
accepting a fact that our evolving neo-cortex has exposed us to our mortality. Ranks
work analyzed the various defense mechanisms by which we try to deny what we know
in the domains of religion, culture, and art.
The ideas of anthropologist Ernest Becker, particularly his last two booksThe
Denial of Death (Becker, 1971) and the posthumously published Escape from Evil
(Becker, 1975)reformulated some of Ranks core ideas of existentialism in a way closer
to evolutionary biology. He argues that evolution has created an impossible situation for
the human species. Like all other animals, we are terrified of anything that could lead to
our death. But unlike other animal species, humans know of our death.
Yet we simply cannot bear this knowledge. Beckers momentous hypothesis is that the
denial of death is one of the strongest motivators of the human species. But how can we
deny something that we know? The primary answer is that, not to feel exposed to the
naked terror of death, humans buy into worldviews that have two functions: first, they
provide us with meaning. They tell us what we are here for, how to structure our lives.
Second, this worldview protects us by giving us the experience of being part of a larger
whole. Belonging to a uniquely valuable group (religion, nation, or race), as defined by the
worldview, makes us eo ipso valuable and thus bolsters our self-esteem.
In the late 1980s a new research paradigm of social psychology and the theory of
motivation and personality based on Beckers ideas emerged: Experimental Existential
Psychology (EEP). EEP is quite extraordinary in that it has turned Beckers intriguing
theory into a testable empirical theory with quite spectacular success (Greenberg, Koole,
& Pyszczynski, 2004).
The central tenet of existential psychology is that only an animal that knows that time
is limited can ask the question do I live a life worth living? (Jaques, 1965). Only such
an animal is preoccupied with the question whether life as a whole is good, valiant, and
successful (Becker, 1971, 1973). This question camouflages unbearable terror: awareness
of the passage of time and of death. Terror Management Theory (Psyczinsky, Solomon,
& Greenberg, 2003), one of the most successful paradigms of experimental existential
psychology, has established beyond any doubt that we humans invest enormous energies
to deny death, and that the denial of death is one of the most powerful motivators of the
human psyche: we cannot really accept that we will die.
Worldviews provide us with what Ernest Becker has called symbolic immortality.
Each worldview is based on the premise that the group and its mission on earth are there
to stay beyond our individual death. By contributing to the larger group, its task on earth
and its continuity, we feel that something of us will survive our physical death. This
mitigates the looming threat of the feeling an insignificant speck in a universe indifferent
to us.

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THE NEW COSMOPOLITANS: CHALLENGES AND DISCONTENTS

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As Otto Rank argued in his major later works (Rank, 1930, 1932, 1958), this theme
is one of the deepest themes in all of mythology. The heroes of all myths face doubts.
They feel that they have a calling, but they do not know whether they can live up to their
destinies. The drama of the psychological birth of the hero is facing fear, doubt, and
hesitation, knowing that reaching for the stars entails the risk of failure, ridicule, even
injury or death, and knowing that by not trying you forfeit the possibility of greatness.
Greek mythology has the great advantage of putting themes that have been relegated
into the unconscious by modern culture into bright light. The heroes of Greek mythology
are all motivated by gaining immortal fame. They are even willing to die physically for
the possibility that all generations to come will tell the tale of their bravery.
The findings of Experimental Existential Psychology confirm the centrality of this
most basic theme of Greek mythology. Our fear of death, of insignificance, of vanishing
into nothingness is so tremendous, that there are many who are willing to die for the
symbolic immortality that heroism bestows on us (Rank, 1932).
This is also one of the most basic functions of self-esteem: the fear of insignificance
is crucially lowered if we are recognized as significant by the culture we belong to. A type
of experiment conducted in Existential Experimental Psychology has corroborated this
repeatedly (Greenberg, Koole, & Pyszczynski, 2004). The experimental group was given
a boost to their self-esteem by some positive feedback on their performance on a task,
whereas the control group was not. Subjects were then shown stimuli involving some
mortality salience. The two groups were then tested for worldview defense. The results
were as predicted: the group whose self-esteem had been bolstered made less use of
worldview defense than the control group.
These experiments show that when we feel valued within our cultural framework, we are
less afraid of dying. Like the Greek heroes we feel that our contribution to the larger whole to
which we belong, our culture, is leaving a mark, a mark that could possibly outlast our physical
lives. Yet this is mostly not an explicit thought. We do not think consciously every time we
feel good about ourselves that we might be remembered beyond our deaths. We just feel good
about ourselves and strengthened. We unconsciously equate what we do as a contribution to
a whole larger than ourselves, and we want to feel that we are appreciated for that. This reflects
our need for symbolic immortality that Becker studied so extensively. This is the deepest
motivation of the quest for fame and extraordinary achievement.

New Cosmopolitans: Sociological and Economic Characteristics


The last three decades have seen an explosion in communication technology and computing power. The result has been an economic and cultural transformation as deep as the
industrial revolution, but advancing much faster. The industrial revolution took the better
part of a century to transform the developed world; the communication technology
revolution has done the same within a few decades (Castells, 1996 2000).
The change is generally associated with the term globalization. It began with the
integration of all financial markets into a seamless system pulsating around the planet 24
hours a day, made possible through deregulation and the technical possibility of performing myriads of financial transactions involving billions of dollars in milliseconds. The
creation of a single, interdependent global economy accelerated because multinational
companies could now spread their operations around the globe. It was no longer necessary
to keep headquarters, research and development, and production in the same country or
even the same continent. It was now possible to spread development of a single product

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that could then be marketed globally across dozens of countries around the globe
(Friedman, 1999).
But globalization also spread deeply into the cultural sphere. This process began with
the emergence of global media like CNN and MTV in the 1980s and came into its own
when the Internet exploded within the span of a few years from a tool for high-tech
specialists into a global network involving the absolute majority of the developed world.
Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells monumental three volume essay The Information
Age: Economy, Society, and Culture (1996 2000) traced the structural transformation of
the information age. The result was the creation of the Network Society: the ability to plug
into the global network and play in it became more important than national or ethnic
identity for those who wanted to make careers for themselves in the new economy.
But globalization did not truly decentralize the conglomerates that came to span
the globe and came to control ever larger chunks of the worldwide economy.
Sociologist Saskia Sassen (2001) early recognized that global headquarters of multinational companies tended to cluster in a few centers that she called Global Cities; in
1990 these included only New York, Tokyo, and London, but today there are dozens
of them ranging from Paris and Zurich through Hong Kong and Shanghai to Seattle
and Toronto. These cities housed not only the upper executive levels of these
companies; it turned out that face to face contact remained important on the higher
echelons. Global cities also concentrated the firms that provided multinationals with
financial, legal and media services.
This radically changed the economic structure of Global Cities. The income of the
upper echelons of multinationals, the finance, legal, and media sectors, climbed to new
heights and created a new social and economic class that economist and former
Secretary of Labor Robert Reich (2005) has called international symbolic analysts.
They changed the economic landscape of Global Cities, whose service industries came
to focus on the needs of this high-earning group; they drove up property prices,
making it increasingly difficult for the traditional middle class and upper-middle class
to afford living in these cities.
Within this class there is a subgroup that is primarily concerned with innovation. The
simplest way of characterizing this class is by its typical occupations characterized by
economist Richard Florida (2002) as the supercreative core of information economies:
they rank highly in a number of globally connected networks: computer and mathematical
occupations; architecture and engineering occupations; Life, physical and social science
occupations; Education, training and library occupations; Arts, design, entertainment,
sports, and media occupations; and the higher executive levels of R&D cores of technology and life-science companies.
The common denominator of these professions is that they are all organized in global
networks run in English, and that its members are expected to do high-level creative work
within their domain of expertise. Academia is a prime example: it is a network defined by
a growing number of disciplines focusing on research. Its prime communication tools are
scientific journals that function according to principles shaped around an ever-more
standardized mode of evaluation centered on research methodologies and quantitative
measures for journal impact.
For most academics, professional identity and their place in the global academic
network are central to their identities; many of the most highly regarded are willing
to move around the globe to positions at more prestigious universities. In this they are
quite similar to engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists, and financial
analysts willing to relocate across oceans to join the leading companies in their field.

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THE NEW COSMOPOLITANS: CHALLENGES AND DISCONTENTS

269

New Cosmopolitans have developed a new form of identity. Their place in the global
networks that define and enable their professions is more definitive of their identities than
their ethnic, national, or religious provenance (Sen, 2006). Nobody is born into the New
Cosmopolitan tribe; it is a meritocracy that requires a modicum of success and a certain
minimum of financial means. New Cosmopolitans tend to have high demands on themselves: because their identity is intimately tied to their belonging to a meritocratic
network, they keep feeling that they have to justify their membership in their tribe.
New Cosmopolitans are skilled participants in rituals ranging from conferences to
running marathons. They have their own festivals, the most archetypal of which is
probably TED, the string of conferences held around the globe communicating Ideas
worth spreading in riveting talks, by remarkable people, free to the world. Doctors,
designers, engineers, human rights activists, psychologists, futurists, and entrepreneurs
give talks of up to 18 minutes compressing ideas meant to change the world, and the most
successful videos are seen by millions. In other words, the New Cosmopolitans are as
exclusionary as any other tribe, even though, in principle, birth does not determine
whether you can be part of this new tribe.
This meritocracy extends into the personal domain (Brooks, 2000). As opposed to those
traditionally called nerds, New Cosmopolitans are no longer devoid of a sense of fashion and
style. They have high demands on their lifestyle; they expect to balance their often-harrowing
schedules with enough sports to be trim and fit. New Cosmopolitans have now become
stylish even though in a much more relaxed fashion than traditional elites: you have to be
cool, fit, and trim to be eligible for the New Cosmopolitan crowd (Brooks, 2000).
Their demands from relationships are high as well. They do not accept traditional
conceptions of marriage: while many of them marry and have children, and while they
take their parental responsibilities very seriously, they do not believe in staying in couples
that are no longer gratifying. Their relationships must be self-justifying: they must
contribute to both partners self-actualization; otherwise they are likely to break up
(Giddens, 1992).
New Cosmopolitans are therefore more insecure in their relationships (Bauman, 2002).
They can never take them for grantedand they do not want to in order to preserve their
liberty. And yet many of them yearn for more stability and comfort than their liquid lifestyles
provide (Bauman, 2007). The dilemma between freedom and safety is more pronounced with
them than with other groups. Hence their potential for loneliness: used to living in their own
minds, they easily lose track of intimate relationships (Bauman, 2002).
The question have I done enough, do I live a life of significance? is never far away
from their consciousness (Conley, 2009). Existential psychology has shown how deep is
the human need not to disappear from the face of the earth without having left a trace. This
makes the New Cosmopolitans plight difficult: no longer limited to any specific community, they feel that their achievement is measured on a global scaleand this increases
their fear of insignificance, which is one of humanitys defining traits.
But this also drives them to raise the level of their expectations very high. New Cosmopolitans tend to be impatient with the limitations of traditional ways of doing things (Castells,
2001). They generally have no tolerance for the tortuous ways of established politics. They
want to get things done, and they do not want to have to convince or cajole people whom they
do not respect into political compromises. It drives them crazy to see that things could be done
better. They therefore prefer to exert influence through networks and institutions less bogged
down by traditions they do not endorse and conflict they see as irrational.
The categorical imperative of New Cosmopolitans is no less than transform the world
(Rothkopf, 2008). The phenomenal acceleration of technological development turns this

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imperative into a real possibility. If Google could transform the Internet and the organization of human knowledge, if Facebook facilitated uprisings against dictatorial regimes,
if illnesses that used to be death sentences can now be cured, the sky now seems to be the
limit. Let us see how this categorical imperative expressed itself in the initial therapeutic
sessions of two typical New Cosmopolitans.1

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Jeff
The first impression I got of Jeff was of a bundle of energy hardly contained. He was of
medium height and his physique seemed strong, but he carried some extra weight. I
couldnt quite make up my mind whether the way he dressed was studiously casual, or
whether he didnt care about slight mismatches; his jeans and his jackets colors grated
slightly; he carried his shirt over his jeans, which is not unusual in academic circles. His
curly, thick hair was unruly; his features were strong, slightly fleshy, and dominated by
amazingly expressive dark eyes.
I . . . I dont know how to put this. I . . . I really need help.
My guess is that youve looked me up on Google. So you probably know that Im considered
to be a very successful academic. Ill get straight to the point: I feel that my life has been one
big hoax; Im a con-man; Im 42, and I feel that Ive never had a day of decent work of value.
I feel like shit. I feel that I cant continue like this.
I dont know whether Ill ever have children. But at this point, I cant even consider having
any. How can I raise a son when I dont have anything of true value to give to him? How can
I raise children who will have a father that loathes himself?

Huge sobs broke out of Jeffs big chest; he was shaking violently, crying his heart out.
He calmed down a bit and said, Hmm; that was a dramatic opening. I didnt plan
thisand dont worry: Im not a nutcase. Im just in pain . . . .
Jeff was a world-famous political scientist. He had made a name for himself by
merging a theory in social psychology into a model of political processes, both within
polities and between countries. He had claimed in his doctoral research that all models of
political decision-making were hopelessly flawed because they were overly rationalist;
that if you didnt take into account deep existential needs that drove both voters and
politicians, you could never understand political processes.
In a series of papers and books he had floored the academic community by bolstering
his hypothesis with a highly sophisticated statistical analysis of a huge amount of data.
Some people thought that he might revolutionize political science. He held a professorship
at one of the most prestigious universities in the United States, which paid him a
substantial salary to ward off the constant attempts to lure him elsewhere. They also kept
his teaching duties very low to allow him to run research projects around the world. And,
quite untypically for academics, he was generally paid business class tickets to fly from
one high-powered conference to the next, and governments around the world flew him in
to advise them on the most burning conflicts on the globe.
Jeff was a classic case of impostor syndrome that, even though not unique to them, is
quite prevalent in New Cosmopolitans. Most of them rarely see a concrete, physical result
1
The case examples are composites based on actual patients. All identifying characteristics,
including occupation, gender, and provenance, have been changed to preserve privacy.

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of their work: they see numbers, graphs, words, websites; many of them wonder whether
what they do is real, or whether they are not fooling the world. So I told Jeff in any case
you assume that youre a genius: if not in your academic field, so at least in fooling
everybody all the time.
Jeff was bubbly, energetic, and expressive; he spoke at phenomenal speed underscoring his point with expansive gestures. Even after he had stopped crying, he was still quite
emotional. His pain was a tangible, almost physical presence in the room. And now he
looked at me with a combination of disappointment and humor.
I would have expected more from you, Carlo. I know all about the impostor syndrome, and
I dont just think that Im an impostor. I think the whole game were part ofand that includes
your disciplineis a huge hoax. We feed the world the illusion that we actually understand
the phenomena we purportedly analyze. We write papers based on complex statistical analyses
giving the impression that this is science. But you know how minimal the effects are; you
know that there is no way we can truly ground our conclusions on our data. There are zillions
of alternative explanations.
Somehow we manage to convince taxpayers to fly us around the globe for conferences that
are basically rituals in self-congratulation. We celebrate how smart we are, and what were
doing for the world, and we convince everybody that they cant live without us. But you know
as well as I do that not much would change if most major social scientists were blown up in
one of these conferences!
There are people who do actual science: physicists, chemists, biologists. They dont work on
totally minimal effects: they do stuff. You can see the end result clearly. A friend of mine in
physical chemistry developed a new form of ceramics, and its now being applied in the
production of luxury car brakes. In 20 years all breaks will be made of these materials: lighter,
more durable, and with much better heat conductivity than steel. Neither you nor I have ever
or will ever produce something that is as tangible as that. Our castles are made of air, so we
never see them crumble.

His expression became crestfallen again. Im in pain; Im in bloody pain. If your field
was any good, youd sever some neural connection, and then feed something else into my
brain, and Id be out of here in an hour. Given that you guys still basically are in the stage
of alchemy, I dont have much of a choice, do I? Just tell me that there is hope; tell me
that one day maybe Ill love a woman; that Ill have a boy I can raise, and that Ill be in
less pain!
So here I am. I made it. Im here in Israel for a few weeks continuing my research on your
bloody IsraelPalestine conflict, knowing that my results wont make any difference. But what
the hell: I have a quarter of a million dollar grant that funds this, because my theory is hot
stuff. I have partners here; they run the whole operation. I just fly in and out, speak on CNN,
and meet senior intelligence officials, diplomats, and politicians, the so-called Super Class
(Rothkopf, 2008). And here I am hating myself every minute of my life.

Intelligence and Fate


Jeffs story, like every individuals, is unique, and one needs to be very careful in
generalizing from it. And yet the very category of the New Cosmopolitan assumes that
there is a Gestalt, a certain type of people who have certain similarities.
Jeff shows one frequent dynamic that pushes individuals to move beyond the confines
of the culture in which they have grown up: Jeffs supreme intelligence, his natural

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curiosity, and his instinctive dislike of stifling social norms made it almost impossible for
him to live the type of suburban existence into which he had been born.
This delineates a recurrent theme in many New Cosmopolitans life stories (Strenger,
2004). They feel different from their environment because of their innate intelligence.
This creates complex character traits: on the one hand they learn that they are more gifted,
at least intellectually, than their peers, and often their parents and educators. But it is easy
to overlook that this also often condemns them to deep isolation: they often have few if
any peers with whom they can share their interests and passion. They are often seen as
brainy nerds, and this by no means makes them popular as children and adolescents.
Because they do not feel that they safely belong to their groups, they will tend to feel
exposed and vulnerable for the rest of their lives. They are never sure that dominant
groups will not turn against them.
This leads most New Cosmopolitans to develop a visceral antagonism to mob
situations; they see natural groups as a source of danger; they are always wary of the
tendency of groups to attack those who are different. This leads to one of New Cosmopolitans most typical traits: the combination of superiority, and sometimes arrogance
combined with a deep sense of insecurity.
Many New Cosmopolitans only come into their own when they finally find a network
of likeminded. In Jeffs case academia provided this safe haven. This also explains why
New Cosmopolitans tend to be meritocratic: they want to belong to tribes that demand
effort and achievement and reward it rather than to tribes based on territory, ethnicity, or
simple local belonging.

Ben
Ben had emailed me from New York, giving me the dates when he would be in Tel Aviv,
and asked for an appointment. He was in his early mid-fifties, and he split his time
between Tel Aviv, Paris, and New York. You would never have guessed that this wiry
man, tanned, with his skin almost translucent because of his lack of body-fat had been
quite chubby some four years earlier. His skull was clean-shaven, and he dressed in jeans,
a T-shirt, and sneakers.
I need to figure out what really matters to me. Ive fulfilled the Israeli dream. I founded a
startup company, and I took it all the way to the NASDAQ. I basically no longer need to work;
my children and the grandchildren I do not yet have are financially safe for the rest of their
lives. I never thought that it also creates a problem when you no longer have to do something
for a living and when you can ask what you really want. Its quite frightening, when you dont
find a clear answer to this . . . .
Since I retired as active chair of my company four years ago, Ive tried a number of things.
It all began when my doctor told me that my cholesterol was sky-high and that he didnt like
the general feel of my physical health, and that I should start working out. This soon turned
into an obsession: I lost 25 kilos, I took a running coach, and 18 months after my doctors
injunction I ran my first marathon. Now I run five of them a year. Im registered three years
ahead for all the major ones.
But running marathons isnt exactly a way to spend ones life. So Ive dabbled in philanthropy; Ive joined the board of an international human rights NGO; Ive even considered
entering politics; I invest some money in technology startups; I try to mentor young
entrepreneurs. I do all these things that are supposed to be good for humanity, and to be
meaningful. My problem is, it doesnt feel meaningful. I feel as if Im just busy trying to keep
my calendar full.

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Along the way Im also in a marital crisis. I got married when I was 25, and we celebrated
our silver wedding anniversary three years ago. Already then I felt very unsure whether I
could carry this on. I deeply respect my wife; shes been incredibly with me and shes raised
our three kids wonderfully with a husband who, most of the time, worked 16 hours a day. But
I wonder whether we havent reached a dead end. At this point I use every pretext to be in a
different city than she is. And Ive had a number of affairs.

He suddenly looked embarrassed: My god; I must sound like the classical midlife
crisis; so clich . . . .
I replied: Ben; even if this question happens to be prevalent in midlife, this is still
your life, and we need to find your way to create new meaning in your life.
Bens expression changed, and he suddenly looked very serious, almost angry. Do
you really believe in this meaning-business? he asked me. To me this all seems one big
hoax. There is no meaning; either you do something that you find interesting, or you
dont.
I was a bit surprised at the intensity of his tone. Up to that point he had sounded
relaxed, almost amused. I havent said anything about meaning being objective; but you
surely agree that we either experience something as meaningful, or we dont; its not just
about fun, is it?
Now Ben exuded pain. Sorry that I snapped at you. You actually stepped on a sore
point. Im actually very preoccupied with the question whether I do anything of value. To
be precise: I often wonder whether I have ever done anything of value. True: Ive made
a lot of money; directly I have created hundreds and indirectly probably thousands of jobs.
The product I have developed is used in millions of servers. And yet I wonder: there are
competing products that are not bad; humanity would live exactly the same if I hadnt
been on the planet. I dont know whether I ever made a difference; and Im even more
worried that Ill never make one.
How long have you felt this way? I asked.
Ben returned to his humorous tone. You certainly want to hear that its been like
this for the last few years, and then Ill fit perfectly into the scheme: midlife,
awareness of death, and then the question of meaning sets in! And it would fit
excellently into my having turned into a marathon runner, trying to prove that age
cannot vanquish me.
I dont know what I want to hear, Ben, except what exactly has been going on with you, and
how you have developed. There certainly are some ubiquitous patterns like the one you have
described, but it wont solve the problem if we just put you into a diagnostic category; well
still have to understand your very specific life. It certainly seems that youre not making it
easy for yourself if you feel that in order to have lived a significant life, you must have left
a mark on humanity . . . .
He looked at me intently. Well, this might sound grandiose, but I seriously feel that without
having left a real mark, life is kind of pointless. But doesnt everybody feel that wayat least
to a certain extent?
For most people its enough if they feel that they have mattered to those close to them;
or those they worked with. I replied. I think you demand more of yourself than most
people do.

He shook his head. But isnt this logicalactually: isnt it something like a duty?
I have more money than Ill ever need; I have access to anybody I could possibly want
to meet; and I have a lot of experience. Doesnt this create some kind of
duty?

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Fear of Insignificance
I was well acquainted with Bens conundrum. I had worked with a number of people who
had proven great ability early in life, and who had both the financial and the personal
means to make a difference, and I knew that they suffered from a deep sense of existential
guilt if they felt that they didnt make use of their possibilities (Strenger, 2011).
The plight of the most gifted among New Cosmopolitans has become very difficult
indeed. Never in the history of humankind have there been so many people that had,
within a short timespan, created such wealth (Reich, 2005). And never in the history of
humankind have there been relatively young people who, like Steve Jobs, Sergei Brin, and
Larry Page, have literally changed the world in profound ways.
This creates a conundrum for gifted New Cosmopolitans: how can they be sure that
they tried hard enough (Conley, 2009)? After all, talent and effort alone never determine
what somebody in the end achieves. There is always the unfathomable factor of luck,
timing, coincidence, or whatever name we give the circumstantial, elusive element that,
invariably, makes the difference between success and failure.
It is my distinct impression that seeking fame, recognition, and wealth does not
primarily motivate New Cosmopolitans skyrocketing expectations for their lives and
achievements. Some New Cosmopolitans with whom I have worked, like Ben, are rather
self-effacing; they do not seek media attention, and many of them live modestly compared
with their financial possibilities. They genuinely feel that it is their duty to do something
special and to contribute something to humankind that will truly make a difference
(Sloterdijk, 2009).
Self-esteem is by its very nature comparative, and depends on the range of comparison; maintaining self-esteem has therefore become much more difficult for the New
Cosmopolitans. In the distant evolutionary past, our ancestors self-esteem was based on
their standing in a small horde of a few dozen at most. Even in the relatively recent past,
most people felt that the relevant scale of comparison that defined whether they did well
or not, whether they were valuable as human beings was local. We all need to feel that we
make a difference to feel valuable, the global scale of comparison is making it progressively more difficult for the New Cosmopolitans live with the nagging question whether
their lives are of significance.
Ben is wealthy by most standards, and his life is a documented success story. But he
tortures himself, because he feels that he hasnt left a mark. He is haunted by age and
wonders whether his best days are behind him. He does not want to live on the laurels of
his past, he wants to leave an impact in coming decades, and is not sure whether he will
succeed in doing so. The New Cosmopolitans care about contributing something to the
world (Appiah, 2006). The problem is that their experiential framework embraces the
globe, and it is much more difficult to make a difference on this scale.
Jeff feels that his achievement is a sham. His colleagues may rave at his mathematical
models on conflict resolution, but he is often afraid that they are worthless. He is possibly
the strongest exemplification of the impostor syndrome quite prevalent of New Cosmopolitans: he is haunted by dreams in which his high-school teachers show that his proofs
are invalid.
New Cosmopolitans expectations from life are high, and the demands they put on
themselves are often exorbitant. As opposed to the company men described in the 1950s
and 1960s (Riesman, 1950), they do not feel at the mercy of their bosses. As Brooks
(2000) shows, they have integrated the liberation ethos of the 60s revolution into their way
of life. They insist on preserving their freedom and thus renounce a number of existential

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THE NEW COSMOPOLITANS: CHALLENGES AND DISCONTENTS

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moorings of more traditional forms of life: they cannot rely on family, community,
religion, and national identities as a matter of course. Their careers mostly evolve through
lateral moves, not only because they want to progress quickly, but also because they want
to experience a variety of places and contexts.
This is the New Cosmopolitans strength: the better they are at what they do, the more
bargaining power they have, because their employers know that they will be in demand
almost anywhere. Most of them need to make career decisions every few years, often
involving relocation. The price of their freedom is that they need to run their CVs on a
tight schedule to count as success-stories, and this means that they can rely less on
long-standing support networks that have remained stable over many years. Careers
always had timelines and measures of excellence. But todays New Cosmopolitans
compete on a global scale, and this is also their weakness: in a globally competitive market
career timelines become an integral part of their market value. How soon have they made
it into the higher executive ranks? Have the companies that employ them earmarked them
for the fast track, or have they fallen into the category of those who will trundle along
(Strenger, 2011, pp. 27 ff)?
When New Cosmopolitans cross their mid-thirties, they are already worried about not
having left a mark. Jeffs anxiety exemplifies this well: he is doing well by most standards;
he is a respected academic, and he in demand at elite institutions. Nevertheless he labors
under the fear of insignificance. He went into academia because he wanted do make a
difference. But now he feels that the academic network is limited; that his work has
resonance in his discipline, but not in the wider world. Ben went into high-tech to leave
a mark, and he has been successful according to the standards of the worlds absolute
majority. Nevertheless he feels that he has not left a lasting mark. Hence, like Jeff he does
not believe that he has lived up to the New Cosmopolitans categorical imperative of
transforming the world.

Heirs of the Enlightenment


It has been fashionable for culturally conservative intellectuals to stigmatize the new elites
as self-absorbed, narcissistic and uncommitted to anything but their own lives and careers,
and that they do not have any values at all (Lasch, 1991, 1995). New Cosmopolitans
indeed invest strongly in their lifestyles and are often preoccupied by their careers and
personal desirability (Brooks, 2000). Nevertheless it is myopic to see them as caring for
nothing but their own well-being. Most of my New Cosmopolitan patients have strong
values and a rather clearly defined worldview that they try to put into action: they do care
about the world at large. It would be seductive to characterize them as liberals, but this
might be misleading, particularly in an American context. Let me therefore characterize
their worldviews more precisely.
New Cosmopolitans are organized in a number of networks: international journalism
and punditry; foreign policy think tanks and international NGOs focusing on human rights
and fostering democracy; academia; and a very strong network of technology developers.
A common language that creates almost immediate closeness between people who have
never met before, and live in very different circumstances, cultures, and climates.
Dialogue tends to evolve quickly on the basis of a set of shared assumptions: human
rights, social justice, the right to happiness, and self-fulfillment are seen as sacred (Moyn,
2010; Nussbaum, 1995). There is a common ethos of responsible fact-finding, and an

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agreement on scientific method as the way to check theories and hypotheses (Castells,
1996 2000).
Jeff embarked on his career in political science because he was appalled by political
irrationality and political evil. He had hoped that understanding the evolutionary underpinnings of group processes; biases in decision-making and the workings of prejudice and
bigotry could make a difference for the world at large.
When Ben became a high-tech entrepreneur, his goal was not just to make money: he
wanted to make a difference for humankind at large, and he continues to believe that
technology is the main tool by which humanity can overcome its tribal past. He is
currently looking into ways in which international social and political activism can be
fostered by further improving the functioning of social networks, and he is fired up by
phenomena like the Arab spring and the Israeli social protests in the Summer of 2011, both
fuelled and enabled by the social networks.
The New Cosmopolitans Universalist frame of reference creates an almost inevitable
conflict with more traditional forms of life. New Cosmopolitans position in the communities in which they live is precarious. Coveted for their talent and economic contribution,
they are also envied; but most of all, they are resented for not accepting the mores of town,
country, and religion unquestioningly (Lasch, 1995).
They are therefore best understood as the heirs of the European enlightenment which,
in the 17th century, unleashed the process of modernization (Gay, 1966). The scientific
revolution destroyed traditional cosmologies; the political ideas of Hobbes, Spinoza, and
Locke led to dismantling aristocratic and monarchical orders; the industrial revolution
unraveled traditional forms of life. Montaigne, Diderot, Rousseau, and Voltaire led a
loosely connected network generally known as Les Philosophes in the 18th century. They
were often hunted by state and church and were often on the run. But their ideas were to
destroy the classical European order based on a combination between aristocracy and
unquestioned acceptance of Christianity (Israel, 2001).
Although most New Cosmopolitans may not be aware of their intellectual ancestry,
they are, most of all, heirs of Kants moral universalism (Kant 1787). Kants categorical
imperative of the individual, never to be only used, but always to be seen as a goal in itself,
guides their politics. They believe in supranational institutions rather than sanctifying
sovereignty; they believe in universal reason rather than in traditionally entrenched forms
of life.

New Cosmopolitans Precarious Position


Like the 18th century philosophes, New Cosmopolitans reject the model of authority on
which all traditional religions are based (Gay, 1966; Israel, 2001). They no longer believe
in a single source of authority that is beyond any criticism. They are committed to the
human pursuit of knowledge and the project of bettering the human condition, and they
proudly point to the phenomenal achievements of modernity as proof of the enlightenments superiority to traditional models of authority.
As opposed to the small group of 18th century philosophes, New Cosmopolitans
measure in the millions. Like the philosophes, they rely on their network as a source of
strength; but their network now spans the globe, and their messages travel at the speed of
light. They are enamored with soft rather than with hard power. If possible, they prefer
influence by power of the image and word to the power of warships and bombs.

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New Cosmopolitans are a global force because they rely on the power of networks
rather than on fortresses and guns (Castells, 2001). They are not constrained by the tools
of traditional electoral politics, because they make effective use of communication
technologies that cut through boundaries of national borders.
They refuse to accept that if they are born Jewish or Catholic, they cannot adopt
Buddhist practices and core values or any other intellectual, spiritual or cultural tradition
(Florida, 2002). They do not ask whether their original community accepts this or
not because they do not think any group has the right to forbid what for them are
legitimate life-choices.
Because they always belong to networks beyond the confines of where they live, they
generate discomfort in those whose identities are more local. Because they do not accept
any communitys demand for total loyalty, they are experienced as aloof at best, and
arrogant at worst (Lasch, 1995). Hence New Cosmopolitans have sparked a reaction just
as strong as the 19th century reaction to the industrial revolution. As political scientist
Benjamin Barber (1995) and historian of religion Karen Armstrong (2000) have argued
convincingly, the fundamentalist backlash that swept all major religions since the 1970s
is a reaction to the immense power of the global communication networks. Traditional
forms of life often react with rage and resentment to their powerlessness in immunizing
their cultures from New Cosmopolitans impact (Sloterdijk, 2006).
New Cosmopolitans tend to dislike any form of tribalism, whether religious, ethnic,
national, or racial (Sen, 2006). They often care for groups to which they have no natural
affiliation, whether Haitians, Congolese, Tibetans, or Kosovars. They are viscerally
opposed to exclusionary practices, whether on racial or religious grounds, or because of
sexual preference. They see bigotry and chauvinism as remnants of a primitive stratum of
human nature that is to be overcome rather than cherished Appiah, 2006).
They are invariably elitist. From early in their development they have discovered the
minds power for critical thought, and they value it highly. They have also experienced the
enormous power of group pressure; the ways in which irrational, even incoherent ideas
influence enormous numbers of people. They have little patience for the argument that
beliefs have to be respected because somebody holds them, and they are often merciless
in their criticism of or religion (Dennett, 2005).
As a result New Cosmopolitans are often seen as either aloof or uncaring at best. They
often enrage traditionalists, because they tend to put every local tradition, religion, or
culture into a wider context (Dennett, 2005). They remind traditional Christians that there
are different ways to live, and that decrying homosexuality is nothing but archaic
prejudice. They remind orthodox Jews that following endless commands is a limited way
of life, and that it is preposterous for a relatively small group of people to claim that they
are Gods chosen people. They enrage traditional Muslims when they argue that limiting
womens public role is inhuman and obsolete, and the U.S. is experiencing a conservativereligious backlash against the permissive personal lifestyles of the New Cosmopolitans
(Armstrong, 2000; Harris, 2004).
It has become ever more difficult for political and religious authority to shield their
followers from the impact of the New Cosmopolitans. This often generates ferocious
hatred that in the U.S. has become most tangible in the relentless attempts to delegitimize
Barack Obama, who by his origin, upbringing, and values is the quintessential New
Cosmopolitan: he has grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia; his fathers family is Muslim;
and in the United States his outlook was shaped by the quintessential enlightenment
institutions of elite universities. As a result many conservative Americans feel that he is
un-American.

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French sociologist and student of globalized Islam Olivier Roy (2009) has made a
powerful case that the surge in Islamic Fundamentalism is a reaction to the threat posed
by New Cosmopolitans. Parties and organizations that try to purify Islam from the
corrosive effects of what they take to be Western Materialism sweep the Islamic world,
but the real threat seems to be the anti-Tribal impact of Enlightenment thinking that casts
doubt on all traditional forms of life.
This is the paradox of the New Cosmopolitans political role: their Universalism is
genuine and deeply felt. But their way of life is quite specific and highly meritocratic. New
Cosmopolitans often forget that they are a tribe, even if a global one. As a result the
Universalist message is often not accepted with love, but rejected as the imposition of a
powerful global elite. This, in turn, often increases New Cosmopolitans sense of isolation. They are genuinely concerned with humanitys future, and yet their concerns and
their suggestions how to avoid catastrophes are often met with rage rather than gratitude.

Implications for Psychoanalysis


As I said at the beginning, psychoanalysis tries both to contribute to the grand project of
formulating the innate hardware and software of the human psyche, and trying to
understand the historically determined psyche of the patients whose lives and minds we
meet in therapeutic work.
The first part can today not be tackled by any discipline in isolation. It has, I believe,
been on one of the great mistakes of more traditional views in psychoanalysis to insist that
psychoanalysis can be epistemically autonomous (Sulloway, 1992). Peter Fonagy (Jurist,
2010) has argued convincingly that this is a totally anachronistic position, and together
with his collaborators he has shown how psychoanalysis can and must integrate into the
vast interdisciplinary landscape of todays human sciences (Fonagy et al., 2002). Similarly
Robert Stolorow has argued convincingly that psychoanalysis needs to widen its philosophical base to refine its epistemological self-understanding (Stolorow & Orange, 2002).
The same, I believe, holds for the second aspect of analytic understanding. In trying
to decipher the reality of the new class I have called New Cosmopolitans, I have been
inspired by two decades of clinical work with them. But I do not think that there is any
way to achieve an understanding of their existential and psychic reality without placing it
within the vast social, cultural, political, and economic landscape that shapes their
experience. For this, we need to integrate an understanding of this new reality into our
clinical and theoretical conceptiona process that has accelerated since the 1990s (Aron,
1996) and led many to claim that psychoanalysis requires and is in the midst of a deep
paradigm change (Mitchell, 1993), leading from an intrapsychic to a relational conception
of psychoanalysis.
In this paper I have as yet not touched upon the therapeutic implications of the New
Cosmopolitans psychic and external reality. Like many colleagues I realized a while ago
that New Cosmopolitans very high mobility requires use of contemporary communication technologies like Skype Video, Google -Hangout, or Facetime if we want to
preserve therapeutic continuity and provide New Cosmopolitans with the safe haven they
desperately need in their fluid, exacting existence. As yet we do not know how this
ever-widening use of communication technologies will impact therapeutic process and
outcome.
To know more we will need a vast array of data and theory from a variety of
disciplines. In no way do I see my formulation as more than an interpretive hypothesis that

THE NEW COSMOPOLITANS: CHALLENGES AND DISCONTENTS

279

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will have to stand the test of a variety of empirical investigations including epidemiological studies, controlled research on process and outcome of therapy with New Cosmopolitans, and sociological and economic investigations whether the category of New
Cosmopolitans is indeed viable.
The task is daunting, but the prospect, I believe, is exciting. If psychoanalysis can
regain the exploratory spirit of its early years and transform it in ways appropriate to our
historical reality, we may soon find the discipline reinvigorated and contributing to the
understanding of what it means to live in the 21st century.

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