Rights as Potential Sites of Distributive Struggle

10 July 2018

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


Samuel Moyn’s Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World provides an engaged, critical and urgent history of human rights for our scandalously unequal present. While the author’s 2010 The Last Utopia disrupted narratives of the “deep roots” of human rights that assumed a timeless universalism, insisting that the rights revolution is a contingent product of history and politics, his most recent book demonstrates that the historiography of human rights needs to account for and be situated in an analysis of political economy. It is a book that has already provoked a vital and important debate about the “distributional imagination and political economy of human rights” and the fraught relations between sufficiency and equality, and between rights and distributive justice. Undoubtedly, it will continue to do so.


Rather surprisingly, from an author who controversially located the “breakthrough” of human rights in the 1970s, Not Enough tells a much longer history of rights. Writing a history of social and economic rights, Moyn insists, requires situating them within the “larger egalitarian package” in which they emerged. To that effect, Moyn briefly traces the Jacobin legacy of a vision of material equality and social justice and its dissipation, before turning to his main focus on the passage from the New Deal, the national planned economy and the welfare state, to our neoliberal present.


The hinge of the book turns on the events of the 1970s: first the optimistic proposals to scale the welfare state to whole globe and the highly contested Third World demands for a New International Economic Order (NIEO) and structural economic, legal and political transformation and its subsequent defeat. Moyn carefully traces how the rise of the “basic needs” paradigm in development thinking with its emphasis on sufficiency, circumvented more radical demands and visions of equality. He shows how the “neoliberal maelstrom” “exerted a strong pressure of redefinition” on rights, reimagined as “tools of status equality,” which lacked the will, means, and norms to contest growing material inequality. In an era of market globalization, privatization, and liberalization, Moyn argues that “the idea of human rights accommodated itself to the reigning political economy.” Human rights, he concludes, are “unambitious in theory and ineffectual in practice in the face of market fundamentalism,” and are silent on the key distributional challenges of our time—they simply have “nothing to say about material inequality.”


Moyn’s text identifies and critiques a dominant trend in mainstream rights advocacy to neglect questions of distribution. He thus makes an important intervention into present debates over human rights strategies and engagements by “reveal[ing] how partial our activism has become.” Moyn’s standpoint, however, is limited by both its disciplinary and geographical specificities. His account is primarily an intellectual history of philosophical ideas about rights, and as a result, his text engages less with the institutional or doctrinal histories of human rights, the socio-legal complexities of how rights advocacy has been taken up in different situated locales, and the unruliness of rights discourse as it is translated into different vernaculars. Further, as Paul O’Connor has argued, the “human rights movement” as imagined by Moyn is not only monolithic, but also incredibly Western. While Moyn pays attention to how human rights norms travel globally and are taken up in different locales, he primarily treats “human rights” as having a singular form, without considering how the form that rights take has been contested, or that there might perhaps be rival traditions with divergent visions of rights.


Paying more attention to struggles over the forms of rights can help deepen different aspects of Moyn’s analysis, as well as point to some different future possibilities. Although Moyn stresses that the “companionship between human rights and market fundamentalism was not inevitable,” but rather historically contingent, he is nonetheless pessimistic about the possibilities of saving human rights from neoliberalism’s clasp. Similarly, although Moyn carefully demonstrates how rights were “extracted from their welfare state crucible and redefined,” in his conclusion he forecloses the possibility that rights could again be redefined differently. Clearly, to flippantly assert that human rights could simply be reimagined and remade in the contemporary moment would be to fall into the trap of “false contingency,” exhibiting a problematic unawareness of structural constraints. But does not taking seriously the ways in which our understandings of rights reflect political economy relations also require considering how different vision of rights might be part of a radically transformed global political economy?


Moyn tracks a “broader struggle, across modern history” between competing imperatives of distribution—equality and sufficiency—in order to demonstrate how in the contemporary moment, and especially within rights frameworks, the latter has been prioritised and the latter forgotten. He shows that “[t]o the extent that human rights morality and law decree economic and social protections, locally or globally, it is as a guarantee of sufficient provision, not a constraint on inequality.” In other words, while rights discourses may condemn poverty or deprivation, they remain silent on dynamics of unequal accumulation or the systemic logic behind the processes producing poverty. I would suggest, however, that it is equally important to consider an invisible third term that has moderated the relationship between economic inequality and human rights: “development,” along with its “secret twin,” economic growth. Discourses about the imperative of promoting economic growth, no less than those about poverty, have been mobilized in order to distract or deflect from distributive imperatives.


In Moyn’s account, distribution is primarily an ex post initiative, carried out through welfare and taxation systems. But ideas about growth—how much (if any) is desirable, what kind of growth, how it should be structured—have important distributive consequences.  A deeper analysis of the relationship between law and political economy requires a greater engagement with the pre-distribution dynamics that produce inequality, impoverishment, and uneven accumulation. Understanding inequality not just as an economic problem of distribution, but as as a deeply political issue of power, foregrounds the need to reconfigure systems of production that produce dependency, exploitation and control and the political and legal structures that enable this.


Despite his criticisms, Moyn’s position is ultimately quite conciliatory to rights: they are he writes, “essential – but they are not enough.” Moyn asserts the “defensible importance” of rights, but wants to confine their scope: to ensure that human rights do not dominate the “global imagination,” and that rights discourses are not the only, or default, framework through which global justice claims are made. Subsequently, he hopes to see right claims instead supplemented with other vocabularies of distributive justice, whether global welfarism or egalitarianism. While I am very sympathetic to this position, I worry that it too quickly evacuates human rights as an important terrain of distributive struggles. The history Moyn tells of how rights were redefined alongside broader transformations in the political economy, highlights why it is important to be attentive to how rights frameworks and discourses are themselves a site of struggle. The ways in which human rights are envisioned and how rights frameworks are configured have distributional implications. Therefore in analysing whether and how human rights can respond to economic inequality it is necessary to be attentive to the contestation and struggle over and between competing or rival visions of rights.


In my own research on how the problem of economic inequality has been taken up within UN human rights bodies over the past 70 years, I have tried to stress the need for a historically and geographically contextualized analysis of the relationship between human rights and economic inequality. What emerges is a history of contestation and struggle, in which at times human rights frameworks were pushed to be open to redistributive concerns, and at other times the promotion of “rights” foreclosed broader egalitarian considerations of distributive justice. The extent to which human rights frameworks at specific moments engaged critically with the problem of inequality reflects the extent to which a broader critique of the injustice of the existing political economy was contemporaneously advanced.


While the NIEO was a not a call for human rights, its demands were echoed and refracted in human rights discourses of the period, which stressed that the realization of human rights depended upon a more just international economic order. In taking up the demands of the NIEO in a rights idiom, attempts were also made to try and redefine, re-orient and re-envision human rights by developing a more “structural” approach to rights. Moreover, during in this period, “rights frameworks” were not singular, but instead there were competing visions of what rights were and the uses to which they could be put, both between the “East” and “West” as well as between the “North” and “South.” If we consider that part of the neoliberal counter-revolution was the reassertion of a single, narrow liberal vision of rights as an internationally authorized civil or political claim by the individual against the state, to counter the way Third World distributive demands were refracted into more “structural” rights idioms, we gain a greater sense of the political stakes in contests over how rights are imagined and configured.


Understanding the relationship between rights and political economy, I suggest, therefore requires us to pay greater attention to the political stakes of struggles over competing forms and visions of human rights that reflect different configurations of the relationship between the individual, the state, and the “international community.” Rights may take the form of an internationally authorized individual claim against the state, or a collective claim that a more just international order as a necessary precondition for the realization of rights. These different forms of rights configure the subjectivity of the rights claimant and locate and construct responsibility and authority and in dramatically different ways. Moreover, whether rights are envisioned as the outcome of ongoing struggle; as the articulation or a claim, aspiration or demand; or as an institutionalized entitlement with mechanisms for enforcement—these divergent visions position rights very differently in relation to processes of governance and apparatuses of power and control.


To conclude, it is productive to excavate and understand the choices made and justifications offered as practitioners and scholars consolidated a more narrow and minimalist vision of rights. In the late 1980s, economic and social rights practitioners and scholars attending a seminar on “Human Rights and the Disadvantaged” were counselled by their peers about the necessity of accepting a “pragmatic compromise between the ideal and the realistic.” There was a call for rights advocates to retreat from an ideal that “might call for equality for all” and instead focus on the pragmatic realization of rights through “consistent vigilance to improve the conditions for the most vulnerable, without expecting dramatic and abrupt transformations of comprehensive and interlocking economic and social systems.” This approach was advocated, in order to avoid what was perceived to be an unwinnable fight with the “powerful and aggressive [who] would continue to fight for their privileges.” The problem in this formulation in not primarily in the astonishing minimalism of what was hoped for, but the assumption that in order to translate economic and social rights claims into “implementable” and “realizable” entitlements it was necessary to appeal to the powerful rather than contest the unequal distribution of power. Embedded in this position are assumptions about the processes through which rights are realized, assumptions that explain important things about the orientation, strategies, and tactics of much of human rights activism.


Rather than being a “powerless companion” or a “fellow traveller” to neoliberalism, the challenge Not Enough makes urgent is thinking through whether and how a complex and varied human rights movement can commit to a companionship of solidarity based on building the power of the marginalized, and if so, how our understandings of human rights would need to be transformed in such a process.


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


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