Human Rights, Democracy, and the Cash Value of Status

10 July 2018

This review is the second in our roundtable exchange on Samuel Moyn, Not Enough (Harvard University Press, 2018).


To appreciate Samuel Moyn’s new book Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, one must first recognize its ambition: to offer a better grounding for contemporary political ethics. It is not an intellectual history, exactly, nor is it a history of international politics, policy, law, or activism—though Moyn summons scholarship in all of these domains to illustrate his critical argument against human rights as an adequate basis for global distributive justice. Instead, Not Enough is a comparative study of two ideals: human rights and social citizenship. The relative effectiveness of human rights versus social citizenship depends, in Moyn’s reckoning, on their relative capacity to combine “sufficiency” (minimal standards of material well-being) with “equality” (provisions to reverse or limit, if never quite to obliterate, inequality) in the right proportions. Either principle pursued to the exclusion of the other leads to disaster, but when yoked together they can guarantee a modicum of individual freedom and a crucial measure of material equality. Actual history is of course far sloppier and less coherent than this elegant formulation might suggest, but as conceptual guidelines sufficiency and equality highlight a tension that has proven consequential to contemporary approaches to distributive justice.


According to Moyn, the first successful fusion of these two principles occurred with the emergence of social citizenship during the French Revolution. Not Enough opens with an account of the “Jacobin state” created during the French Revolution—the only redistributive tradition with any robustness in his view. The Jacobins created this state as they sought to institutionalize the egalitarian ideals of the Rights of Man and Citizen, driven by demands for the “right to live” joined by an escalating insistence on “fair shares” that produced genuinely redistributive measures, including the reform of inheritances, the division of feudal estates and commons, and the imposition of progressive taxation.


Although the Jacobin state soon disappeared along with the politics of the sans-culottes, its blend of sufficiency and equality reappeared over a century later in the form of welfare states whose origins Moyn attributes to a similar politics of class compromise backed by the threat or reality of class war and international revolution. In Europe and the United States during the middle decades of the twentieth century, these welfare states provided the only substantial and extended reversal of the inequality that market society tends to generate when left unchecked. They were the reason for the “great contraction” of wealth and income inequality that Claudia Goldin and Thomas Piketty have made famous. What’s more, the right blend of sufficiency and equality was critical to the preservation of free society, whether grounded in positive or negative liberty. If the Jacobin state was the Revolution’s ultimate answer to the authoritarianism and categorical inequality of the ancien régime it toppled in the late eighteenth century, the welfare state was “the sole alternative ‘the West’ had to offer to the totalitarian state” and its radical denial of freedom in the twentieth century.


It should be made clear that Moyn does not idealize either social citizenship or the socialist politics that proceeded it; he acknowledges that both were always quite flawed. Citizens’ rights within the welfare states of Europe and the United States were lacking in important ways, reinforcing exclusions and privileges of class, race, and especially gender. Socialists dropped their internationalism in the First World War, trapping egalitarian belonging within the cage of the nation-state. But they at least accomplished redistribution of material resources, providing “critical thresholds of human dignity” while justifying regimes that also placed limits on incomes and accumulations of wealth. Outside the West, advocates of development in decolonizing societies throughout the world adapted Gunnar Myrdal’s ambitious postwar extrapolation of those welfare states into a “welfare world,”  insisting on a global frame of social citizenship that was specified in the ill-fated New International Economic Order (NIEO) proposals by the 1970s. When neoliberals targeted social citizenship on all scales, whether international, national, or even municipal, human rights became their “hostage” with fateful consequences for notions of distributive justice. With increasing success from the 1970s onward a focus on the economics of basic needs and the ethics of subsistence made literally inconceivable the redistributions of the welfare state—not to mention the NIEO’s prescriptions for “subaltern entitlements” to resources and redistribution justified by “interdependence.”


In recovering this extended genealogy of social citizenship and its evisceration, Moyn attains valuable insights into the limited capacity of rights to sustain collective obligations, and of cosmopolitan ideals to shape our political and economic lives. One rejoinder to his argument that Moyn himself might welcome is that rights of any kind are not enough, whether framed domestically or internationally. Both human rights and social citizenship succumbed, in the end, to the political economy of global finance, austerity, and deregulation. But if that was the case, then did their divergent prioritization of sufficiency and equality matter as much as he wants to argue? Perhaps the comparison he should have conducted was between solidarity and marginal utility—or at least between public and private utility. (Certainly a Google NGRAM analysis of those terms would shed no more light than the one featured on page 182 of Not Enough, whose chart of frequencies for “socialism” and “human rights” parades their divergent fates around 1989 as if mere coincidence were correlation, and concepts mere verbal flotsam—or worse, Darwinian memes. This methodological indulgence is incompatible with Moyn’s supple approach to conceptualization elsewhere in the book.)


The deeper problem with tracking social citizenship and human rights as if they were “about” discrete formulas for equality and sufficiency is that in the messy stream of history—as opposed to the tidy analytics of ethics—they were both bound up with larger structures built for other purposes.


Militarization, for example, may do more to explain the rise and fall of social citizenship than does the class politics Moyn emphasizes. From Bismarck’s inaugural provisions for sickness, disability, and old-age insurance in the 1880s, to the more widespread adoption of social insurance in Western Europe around World War I, and on to the Beveridge Plan and its Social-Democratic cousins on the Continent after World War II, a genuinely redistributive welfare state has almost as a rule been ushered in following the strains of mobilizing for total war. It may well be that the only socialism with any teeth has turned out to have been a protracted kind of war socialism. Seen this way the United States was not, as Moyn argues, an exception. For it, too, instituted a full welfare state after World War II—but only for the white male citizen-soldiers who were viewed as meeting the full requirements of national citizenship. The provisions for veterans extended well beyond the unprecedented GI Bill, augmenting its mustering out pay and readjustment benefit, education and training programs, business and home loans with a vast array of preferences (including “super-seniority” for hiring) and benefits provided by states and localities—not to mention a fully nationalized health care system operated by the Veterans Administration hospitals. Moving beyond the GIs’ welfare state, one wonders how much the “great compression” in America can be attributed to the welfare state versus the mixed economy of military Keynesianism, with its blend of full and generous employment, state capitalism, and rebalancing of inter-regional inequalities. Were American taxpayers and voters willing to sustain their redistributive fiscal state on grounds of class compromise or national security? This open empirical question may not be a matter of either-or. Regardless, it is one that Moyn chooses not to ask despite his close attention to the limitations of the United States’ welfare state.


Moyn keeps his focus narrowed on the invidious comparison of social citizenship and human rights because he wishes to account for the latter’s inadequacies when they provided the dominant framework for political ethics around the same time that neoliberalism became hegemonic amid the collapse of the Cold War order. In places this produces infelicitous distortions in his argument. For example, it appears to Moyn that despite their worst intentions, neoliberals did more inadvertently to address economic harms than human rights activists ever did intentionally. In more than one place he makes the claim that “Chinese marketization brought more human beings out of poverty than any other force—certainly including the human rights movement—has in history.” That Moyn should go out of his way to celebrate the “remarkable salvation brought to hundreds of millions” through marketization is curious. It is unusual for an intellectual historian of Moyn’s sophistication to accept (neoliberal) actors’ claims so uncritically. Although he does at one point admit these claims might potentially be inaccurate, his repeated assertion of the poverty-reducing powers of “marketization” undermines that disclaimer. Each invocation of the Chinese miracle implies that the reduction of poverty was the result of marketization, when in fact China’s state capitalism, like that of other BRIC countries, has more in common with the mixed economies of the mid-century welfare states that he applauds than it does with the “free market” imposed on other nations under the Washington Consensus.


It is in Moyn’s provocative applause for China—surely intended to trigger human rights sympathizers long fixated on that nation’s repression—that one begins to realize how large a hole he has left in his history by excluding a thorough discussion of democracy. Democracy occupies a strange, even strained position in Not Enough. Although Moyn indirectly acknowledges his intellectual debt to the French historian Pierre Rosanvallon, whose pioneering conceptual history of democracy he previously helped introduce to an Anglophone audience, Not Enough declines to engage the democratic dimensions of human rights politics or ideals. The word does not even appear in the book’s index.


Whenever democracy does pop up in Not Enough, it does so rather ominously. In more than one place Moyn goes out of his way to observe that neoliberal inequality worsened after democratization. In Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and in Latin America from the 1990s onward, “the most troubling relationship between human rights and neoliberalism occurred not under dictatorship but in the creation of freer societies”—specifically, he claims, only after “their ‘transition’ to democracy’” had taken place. Because the collapsing regimes in both regions had relied on some thick variant of socialized national provision—whether in communist Eastern Europe or fascist Latin America—it was difficult if not impossible to rely on human rights both as a guardrail out of authoritarianism and as a protector of social equality. But Moyn presses the point further, insisting that “an entire field of ‘transitional justice’ theorizing pathways to democracy was founded that, with rare exceptions, disregarded or marginalized distributive questions.” Once the transition to democracy had taken place, “both national movements and regional authorities attempted to defend the political and civil rights essential to democracy,” but did not “try to enforce any dictates of distributive justice.” China, unlike Eastern Europe or Latin America, never opened itself up to a “transition to democracy”—yet it “rescued more human beings from poverty… than have every been helped this way by any other agent of world history.” The reader is left to draw her own conclusions about the relative culpability of human rights versus democracy when it comes to inequality, but those conclusions are unlikely to affirm the latter.


However fraught its prospects may have been, democracy was always essential to human rights politics and vice-versa—going back to the French Revolution that Moyn takes as his point of departure. Not only are human rights essential guides to a politics protective of individual liberty as well as social belonging (including more egalitarianism than Moyn wants to admit—e.g., in the human rights vision of feminists, whom he largely ignores despite their dominance of the field); they rest on a mode of non-exclusive mobilization that may be idealistic, fractious and even haughty, but is also capable of summoning publics to solve problems that existing political structures cannot or will not.


So Moyn’s oversight of the democratic dimension of his story is pointed, if not pained. This is an intellectual move out of step with the moment for which this book was written. For all his dismissal of human rights as incapable of guaranteeing the real thing (namely, material equality), surely Moyn must recognize the powerful ways in which the predatory politics of the one percent has been systematically targeting status—in domestic as well as international law—as the final obstacle to a political economy of untrammeled oligarchy. Why waste your money and political capital stripping the legal personhood of black men, immigrants, and suspected terrorists, or shutting down freedom of speech and assembly, voting and immigration rights, freedom from torture and habeas corpus, the ICC and the UN Human Rights Council—if they don’t touch your bottom line? Perhaps the left’s studied disdain of de jure rights—as inadequate to or even subversive of de facto equality—needs to be revisited. Clearly the funders of dark money in American politics know something we don’t about the cash value of status.


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


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