Christopher Alter | The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, Luxury Resort and Casino: Cosmopolitanism’s Capitalism Problem

By Christopher Alter

I. Introduction

Does cosmopolitanism provide a concrete vision of utopian ideals or is it too bogged down with free-market apologia to represent a utopia for anyone other than capitalists? On Wednesday, April 12, Bernard Harcourt hosted a panel discussion with political and critical legal theorists: Seyla Benhabib, Robert Gooding-Williams, Karuna Mantena, and Kendall Thomas to discuss utopia and cosmopolitanism.[1] The panel extensively discussed the history of cosmopolitanism, its role in utopian thinking historically and today, as well as more contemporary conceptions like “cosmopolitanism from below.”[2] Much of the discussion involved more esoteric details of cosmopolitanism and communicative ethics that may have been difficult to follow for more lay audiences; however, when it was Professor Kendall Thomas’s turn to speak, an interesting (and likely more broadly accessible) question was posed: “Can we reconsider cosmopolitanism today without a simultaneous and sustained reconsideration of contemporary capitalism?” This short blog post will briefly discuss cosmopolitanism generally, the underlying subject of Utopia 12/13, including how even Professor Benhabib’s contemporary conception of “cosmopolitanism from below” is interwoven with capitalistic notions of the free market. The post will then turn to the specific contribution of Kendall Thomas to the discussion: his example of Las Vegas and The Cosmopolitan Resort and Casino.

II. Cosmopolitanism and Capitalism

The ideals of cosmopolitanism seem great. Martha Nussbaum described it as “a noble but flawed ideal,”[3] and it’s easy to see how “noble” applies. Professor Benhabib’s introductory essay described cosmopolitanism as consisting of three primary dimensions: the equal dignity of all human beings across borders, a recognition of the interaction and cross-cultural learning that occurs historically, and the entrenchment of that individual dignity through universal, human rights.[4] It’s difficult to disagree with the importance of recognizing human dignity and value across borders or the need for international solidarity. However, when one acknowledges the existence of cultural hegemony, it raises the obvious question of whether these universal rights can be derived relatively objectively without ending up as a sort of eurocentric bullying of less powerful nations; a kind of moralistic colonialism.

From my understanding, Professor Benhabib attempts to address this critique with her vision of “‘cosmopolitanism from below’” in which the universalist ideals of equality and freedom, community and solidarity find new articulations through local as well as transnational iterations. . . . [A] new understanding of community centered around the interaction of the local with the national, of the transnational with regional movements, practices, insights, and ideas.”[5] Although it isn’t entirely clear how this new form of cosmopolitanism avoids the pitfalls of eurocentrism, that appears to be its aim. “In this new articulation of cosmopolitanism, we may find pathways toward not only a global ethics and politics but to a planetary one as well.”[6]

Inextricably linked to this new conception (and to the older conceptions) of cosmopolitanism, is capitalism. Professor Benhabib argues in both her essay and her discussion on the panel that the free market should play a role in finding that global ethics. This is described as “the Kantian cosmopolitan ideal of uniting diverse countries under the rule of law, respect for human rights and a free market economy . . . .”[7] Even against pushback from Thomas and Harcourt, Benhabib seemed to double down on the utility of this component.[8] Without diving too deeply into the problems of championing free market capitalism as a component of a utopian vision, the way in which its inclusion is seemingly taken for granted arguably demonstrates the eurocentrist problem of cosmopolitanism itself: that those with power might push for particular values without considering critically whether these values are well suited for a utopian vision. Free markets with little global restrictions seem like a recipe for large global corporations to dominate small governments and cast aside any notions of human rights when those human rights interfere with profit maximization.[9] Kendall Thomas presented the problem with this intermingling of cosmopolitanism and capitalism best.

III. KendalL Thomas’s Vegas Example

Professor Thomas began by noting that Marx and Engels saw cosmopolitanism as a branch of capitalism by connecting notions of the free market to notions of individual freedoms but disregarding the externalities of the costs to the working class.[10]  Thomas identified a different kind of cosmopolitanism of the above and from below. He described cosmopolitanism of the above as the inability of global entrepreneurs to distinguish which airport they’re traveling in because they all look the same; a “neoliberal cosmopolitanism.”[11] In contrast to Benhabib’s cosmopolitanism from below, Thomas’s version was described as the way in which poor people are forced to uproot their lives and travel across borders in the hope of getting by as a consequence of globalization; a “cosmopolitanism by force” or “compulsory cosmopolitanism.”[12]

Thomas then moved on to his primary example: Las Vegas. He described the vivid juxtaposition of the above and below that exists on the Vegas strip. Apparently the strip is maybe the brightest place on earth when looked at from outer space. The towering resort casinos exist as a kind of playground for the ultrawealthy to whom borders between nations mean nothing. One of those playgrounds is literally titled “The Cosmopolitan.” This large, imposing building was purchased by Blackstone Group, a large global investment management company whose assets are valued at nearly one trillion dollars. The title of the resort then is a kind of “fetishization of cosmopolitanism by neoliberal capitalism.”[13] These qualities represent the cosmopolitanism of the above. Ultrawealthy individuals and corporations enjoying or purchasing the world. Their effects, however, are felt by those below.

The streets far below these towering buildings tell a different kind of story. Like many cities, housing prices (largely driven up by further commodification of living spaces by companies like Blackstone Group) have led to increasing instances of houselessness and food insecurity. This “nomad cosmopolitanism from below” shows how the impact of neoliberalism is underestimated in cosmopolitan thinking.[14] And so Thomas asks, “can cosmopolitanism from below ever hope to do battle with cosmopolitanism of the above? Can people battle Blackstone group?”[15]

The responses to this point were unsatisfying. Benhabib acknowledged that global capital swallows everything, but stressed that cosmopolitanism “isn’t a comprehensive world view” and isn’t designed to address this problem; she was more concerned with historical features of cosmopolitanism such as the opposition to slavery in Greek and Roman history.[16] Professor Harcourt, not entirely satisfied with this response, noted the explicit reference to Kant in her work and the inclusion of a free market economy as one of the tenets of Kantian cosmopolitanism, rather than “a mere specter.”[17] Harcourt suggested the potential need to extricate contemporary cosmopolitanism from free market capitalism, but suggested that this might be possible by changing the name.[18] But would changing the name really be enough?

As Benhabib acknowledged, global capital has a tendency to swallow everything. The example of The Cosmopolitan, Resort and Casino, is one example of the fetishization and co-optation of utopian thinking, but this applies well beyond casinos and well beyond cosmopolitanism. What’s to stop cosmopolitanism 2.0 from being turned into another resort and casino or a private island purchased by Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos? What’s to stop this new idea of utopia from becoming a symbol of capitalist domination and for the end result to be a kind of cosmopolitanism only for the capitalists who can afford? Any idea of utopia should, therefore, do more than simply not explicitly endorse free market capitalism. Interwoven into any vision of utopia that aims to exist today (rather than in ancient Greece or Rome) should have an explicit separation from capitalism


[1] Utopia 13/13: 12/13 Utopia and Cosmopolitanism, Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought,

[2] Seyla Benhabib, Cosmopolitanism Reconsidered, Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought (Mar. 30, 2023),

[3] Martha Nussbaum, The Cosmopolitan Tradition. A Noble but Flawed Ideal. (2019).

[4] Benhabib, Supra note 2.

[F]or me cosmopolitanism has three distinct dimensions. 1. First it is a moral position that espouses the equal dignity and worth of human beings across borders and nations and communities; 2. It is a meta-theoretical position which sees cultures as interacting with one another throughout human history and borrowing and learning from one another- a topic most aptly written about by Anthony Appiah in his various works; 3. It has a legal dimension in that it defends that each human being ought to be treated as a person entitled to certain universal rights.


[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. (emphasis added) (citing Immanuel Kant, Zum Ewigen Frieden in Immanuel Kants Werke 425-474 (1795) and Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace in Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History (2006)).

[8] Supra note 1.

[9] See sweatshops, cocoa plantations, metal mining, diamond mining, fast fashion factories, etc.

[10] Supra note 1. It’s worth briefly noting the sharp divide between Professor Thomas’s contribution to the panel and the rest of the discussion. Thomas was the last to speak on the panel and gave a much more overarching critique of cosmopolitanism, and unlike the other speakers, Professor Thomas came prepared with a PowerPoint presentation to help make his point.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.