Fellow Travelers: Human Rights and Class Inequality
No one has done more than Samuel Moyn to reinvigorate the historical analysis of the origins of human rights. Particularly in his ground-breaking work The Last Utopia, Moyn set out to argue—controversially—that the modern human rights movement only really got its start in the 1970s, not the 1940s and certainly not the 1780s. One of the subplots to this account was the way in which the explosion of rights activism had displaced other strains of thought within the liberal tradition, including a commitment to social egalitarianism. In practical political terms, the human rights revolution of the 1970s had marginalised arguments for socialism and national self-determination that were common in many former colonies in the 1960s, in favour of a claim that made economic redistribution (like demands for a New International Economic Order) secondary to the fighting of purely “political” injustices: torture, the denial of freedom of speech, the right to vote. Once they got their start, the profile of human rights took off on a steep upward gradient parallel to another, far more important trend: the rise of neoliberalism. This emphasis on privatization, mobile money, union-busting and a reduced welfare state led to a huge escalation in inequality in Western liberal democracies. Moyn described how in pre-1970 human rights activism the role of economic and social rights was set aside, his account stopping just as this dynamic of neoliberalism got going in the 1980s. In Not Enough, Moyn picks up this economic and social rights thread in detail.
Moyn’s central thesis is simple: “The age of human rights has not been kind to full-fledged distributive justice, because it is also an age of the victory of the rich.” By looking through the lens of a series of pivotal thinkers and moments, Moyn shows how the human rights era has seen the ongoing historical debate about sufficiency (a basic minimum for all) and equality (fair shares for everyone) resolved decisively in favour of the former. The last Jacobin (“Jacobin” in the sense of being an advocate for liberal democracy and a welfare state) was, he argues, John Rawls, whose A Theory of Justice was published in 1971 just as both neoliberalism and human rights prepared to take to the stage. The NIEO, the G77’s resource-inspired drive for a better global deal, didn’t survive the decade as stagflation opened the door to the demand for what Moyn calls “market fundamentalism” to flourish.
From then on, neoliberal economic reforms led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan went hand in hand with the rise of human rights and of vast inequality. The core of the neoliberal project was low taxes, low inflation, and rapid economic growth spurred by heroic Atlas Shrugged-style entrepreneurs. In this world the consumer would be queen. Trickle-down affluence would benefit all. Greed, in other words, would be good. What this actually did was allow for a growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots as the welfare state was systematically undermined—imperilling, in our times, the social contract itself. Moyn rejects the view that there was active complicity between human rights and neoliberal inequality. Nevertheless, they were compatible in a profound way. As he argues, human rights proposed no alternative to globalization’s excesses, had no account at the inter-state level to questions of fair distribution, and possessed “no commitment on their own to material equality, and…coexisted with a new political economy of hierarchy that they did not disturb.” The emphasis on fighting evil, on the law and criminal justice, and on other civil and political rights ignored the traditions of liberal and socialist argument that asked whether anyone can truly be free if she has not enough to eat, lacks the amenities for a full and rewarding life (education, healthcare) and is also subject to the injustices of a system where the rich out-earn her by mind-boggling multiples. This is our world, and human rights, even in their socioeconomic form, have done little or nothing to curb the growth of a vast army of the insecure, the dispossessed, the enraged, of whom Trump, Le Pen, Farage and others have become the grotesque tribunes.
Moyn’s work combines several impressive qualities, all of which are in evidence here: command of vast swathes of historical time, a compelling narrative, the ability to give us a sense of each moment’s zeitgeist through a diverse set of key thinkers, a broad but not intrusive commitment to a progressive left agenda and a provocative central thesis that asks the purveyors of contemporary ideologies and secular religions to think hard about their received wisdom. He is also unfailingly generous to those practitioners, absolving human rights and their advocates of any direct responsibility—beyond a degree of hubris or short-sightedness—for being complicit in creating the unequal world we see around us.
If I would part company (slightly) from his account, it would mainly be in this respect. For me, there remains a deep underlying class reality to human rights politics and far too much circumstantial evidence not to indict them more fully for the rise of global inequality—they thrive under capitalism. If not complicit, global human rights advocates often show at least a wilful kind of myopia. From the very start, in the case of Amnesty International, human rights were conceived of as a middle way between the “polarisation” of left and right (and so as an alternative to both). As Tom Buchanan has shown, in 1959 the British Communist Party had launched an “Appeal for Amnesty” to free political prisoners in Spain. By adopting the name “Amnesty’ (about which the Communist Party complained), and explicitly focusing on the fact of imprisonment rather than the political views of the imprisoned, Amnesty International, formally founded in 1961, channelled what might have been more radical activism into a reformist agenda. It started to work on those imprisoned by communist, capitalist and “Southern” regimes. It was a self-aware, religiously inflected attempt to provide an alternative to forms of mobilisation undertaken explicitly in the name of the political left (both of the communist and socialist variety, although the socialists and the communists were bitter enemies about this campaign).
In other words, even in the 1950s, just as Marx feared, civil and political rights were a way to undercut collective political mobilisation in the name of symbolic and legal action focused on emblematic individuals like poets and writers. By the 1970s, as human rights became triumphant, the left all but collapsed, and the politics of “prisoners of conscience” was suppressed. This was the human rights model—that these were demands for justice that went beyond politics—the classic liberal claim. This pattern would continue, human rights providing an ideology of protest (not really “resistance”) that did not threaten the basic class structure of society. Human Rights Watch, of course, took its cue from the Helsinki Accords, whose aim was to put human rights pressure on the Soviet Union. Human rights was reformist, not revolutionary, and therefore appealed to that stratum of the “propertied middle classes” (as Thomas Piketty puts it) who have been the principal beneficiaries of inequality and who remain, in the West, the mainstay of human rights support and funding.
We might go further and say that inequality—surplus wealth and time—built the human rights movement (and the wider networks of international NGOs) through campaigns, donations and expensive fundraising dinners, especially in the United States. Human rights’ systematic lack of attention to what Moyn calls the ceiling of material inequality comes, I would argue, because human rights are the ideological form of protest to which neoliberalism naturally gives rise. As Thomas Edsall, for example, pithily describes “well-off socially liberal voters”: “These voters are repelled by a social conservatism that is anti-abortion, anti-gay rights and anti-women’s rights. But they are not eager to see their taxes raised.” In the liberal democracies, the ease with which celebrities, politicians and other luminaries can support human rights demands gives us a clue that they are among the least politically active members of their own societies. Moyn’s view that human rights are “the highest morality of an unequal world,” but still “not enough” suggests that the class that supports them will not simply pack up its toys and go home if redistribution is on the agenda. I am much more skeptical than that.
Outside Western liberal democracies, there is often more emphasis on citizenship politics and collective campaigning using, but not being captured by, legal strategies (as Moyn points out in relation to the right to food movement in India). In fact, the decline in party identification that lies behind the new populist coalitions—welfarism and xenophobia—has also grown alongside neoliberalism and human rights as more and more people have understood that nothing much will ever change for them, and often that they are getting poorer and more insecure. Human rights experts are just as much the target of populist ire as climate change scientists and activists. That in a country like the UK left politics have been re-energised also raises a question about the “rights” part of socioeconomic rights as a strategy of protest. It is, for many on the left, the whole idiom of “rights” that’s the problem, their privileging of heroic individualism a sign of the neoliberal consumerist mentality at the heart of human rights. Occasionally adopted for “popular front” reasons, like the “Appeal for Amnesty,” human rights evacuate the left’s principal weapon in demanding distributive change—mass mobilisation to gain political power.
In this respect, human rights stand indicted as one of the culprits for political cynicism and disaffection within the democratic system. Those who feel alienated by this principled elite language of entitlements and demands have come to see the whole liberal-democratic enterprise as a racket. What they love about Trump, Le Pen, Farage, Wilders and others is their willingness to say the unsayable, to take on the establishment, to talk the politics of desert, place, birthright, inheritance, nation, all of which are anathema to human rights advocates. The erosion of the quality of our democracies through political triangulation and the technocratic management of dissent (the Clintonites, the Blairites), with which human rights are heavily identified, has opened up a space not only for demagogues to rise, using the language of welfare as a key mobilising tactic, but also for them to try to undermine key elements of liberal democracy itself, including the rule of law and free speech. After nearly fifty years of human rights, the liberal democratic model looks broken. But it is on that model that any hope for rights, quintessentially liberal claims, depends. Too little attention to the fundamentals of popular sovereignty and the social contract is killing our democracy. That is the price we have paid for an over-emphasis on the liberatory potential of rights.
These are all things Moyn knows only too well. His book was about human rights, he might say, and the subjugation of equality as a discourse during the neoliberal era against which in his view socioeconomic rights, and human rights tout court, have been weak opponents. If I think this assessment is too generous, it remains the case that as with The Last Utopia, Moyn has made a field-defining contribution to how we should think about the history and politics of human rights.