Focus: Human Rights and Global Inequality

10 July 2018

A roundtable exchange on Samuel Moyn, Not Enough (Harvard University Press, 2018)   Donald Trump is President of the United States, and when he has not been threatening immigrants and ethnic minorities at home, he is bonding with authoritarian strongmen abroad, such as Vladimir Putin, Xi Xinping, and Kim Jong-Un. In Europe, right-wing “populist” movements have made historic electoral advances in countries like Italy and Germany, and in Hungary, Poland, and Turkey, have installed regimes of “illiberal democracy” that preserve democratic procedures while chipping away at individual freedoms. This, at any rate, is the increasingly canonical story about the democratic world today, and since Trump’s election liberals and progressives in the United States and Western Europe have struggled to determine what might be done to “save” democracy from these various threats.


Looking at American politics today, to take just one example, one might think that whatever this solution might be, it will involve movements for human rights. On the one hand, perhaps the two moments that did the most to generate protest against Donald Trump were the first “travel ban” his administration announced in early 2017, and more recently the “zero tolerance” policy that has seen children separated from their families as they cross America’s southern border, and asylum seekers locked in makeshift detention centers. For Trump’s opponents—whether centrists, liberals, leftists, or otherwise—nothing captures the moral outrage of his presidency more than images of foreigners deprived of due process and basic human dignity. But on the other hand, human rights language has also been a part of the program of self-described “democratic socialists” such as Bernie Sanders. These left-wing challengers to the Democratic Party’s politics of consensus not only promise universal healthcare and free college education, but also insist that these increasingly popular provisions should be considered as social rights.


Can human rights, whether as a bulwark against a cruel regime or the basic foundation of a 21st-century welfare state, be the solution to today’s democratic predicament? Samuel Moyn’s answer is, more or less, no. As we’ll see in this exchange, he believes human rights—both political and social—are fundamental to a democracy worthy of the name. But particularly in a starkly unequal world such as ours, as the title of his book puts it bluntly, they are Not Enough. Building on his earlier history in The Last Utopia (2012), Moyn shows how the rise of human rights as a moral ideal and advocacy movement coincided with the construction of the neoliberal global economy. Human rights are in Moyn’s story not to blame for neoliberalism and the stark rise in inequality that has ensued, but at the same time, they have proven ill-equipped to respond to the consequences of this inequality. The human rights paradigm has long believed that inequality is of little concern as long as basic “sufficiency” can be assured. But as Moyn argues, a vastly unequal world threatens not only the most ambitious program of social minima, but also the fundamental political liberties that human rights movements have long cherished.


The reviewers in this exchange come from diverse disciplinary and geographical backgrounds, and while some argue Moyn should have gone further in his indictment of the role human rights have played in the construction of neoliberalism since the 1970s, others seek to defend the accomplishments of human rights advocacy despite a growing inequality. The political scientist Justine Lacroix falls largely in the latter camp. Not only does she take issue with Moyn’s use of terminology such as “sufficiency”—which she sees as incompatible with radical inequality—she also argues that Not Enough depends on a global perspective that misses the important gains of human rights in differing national contexts.


The only historian in this exchange other than Moyn, James Sparrow explores the divergent projects within Not Enough: a work of history that seeks at the same time, as Sparrow puts it, “to offer a better grounding for contemporary political ethics.” While admiring the ambition of this project, Sparrow nonetheless points at some of the difficulties of fitting ethical ideas to messy historical reality, and attempts to tackle the ambiguous place of democracy in Moyn’s story of human rights and inequality.


Like Lacroix, the legal scholar Julia Dehm seeks a partial vindication of human rights in the face of Moyn’s critiques. Not only does she argue that human rights initiatives through international bodies such as the United Nations have shown more ability to tackle inequality than Moyn grants; she also makes the case for acknowledging non-Western movements that have gone far further in understanding human rights as a site of distributive struggle.


In the final review in this exchange, Stephen Hopgood takes the opposite approach to Lacroix and Dehm—Moyn’s indictment of human rights, he argues, does not go far enough. Echoing his previous work on the sociology of human rights advocacy, Hopgood argues that organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are tied by fundamental class interests to the neoliberal economy. Human rights advocates are in his view not merely ineffective defenders against contemporary inequality; they “thrive” under the conditions that produce it.


In Moyn’s response to his reviewers, he situates his position in between Karl Marx’s radical rejection of the language of rights and the dogmatic liberal defense thereof. Human rights are not to blame for creating a world where, as he alludes to Tocqueville, democracy has produced new forms of “aristocracy.” But in a contemporary “age of backlash” against the ideals of human rights, he suggests, we may have no other choice than to radically reimagine these ideals in order to create a world that is both more equal and more democratic.


Photo Credit: Alisdaire Hickson, Human rights trump trade deals, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.


Tags: , , , , ,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *