‘The Last Utopia’: Human Rights Reconsidered

According to the conventional account, the notion of human rights is the result of a long tradition of philosophical, legal, and political thinking and theorizing that realized its definitive articulation in the 20th century, perhaps most succinctly and powerfully in the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. This account suggests that human rights, and the discourse about them, is evidence of a universal longing for justice and equality for all persons that the myriad horrors of history—war, slavery, genocide—cannot quite overshadow. Two important, recent installments in this history of human rights are Micheline Ishay’s The History of Human Rights: From the Stone Age to the Globalization Era (2004) and Paul Gordon Lauren’s The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen (2nd ed., 2003).

Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History contends that the conventional account of human rights is simply mistaken and that their significance on the world stage should be understood as the result of historical and political trends that emerged in the latter half of the 20th century, especially the ’70s. Moyn insists that rather than reflecting a perennial interest, human rights as a vigorous political agenda reflects the disappointed ambitions of transnational political programs like communism and postcolonialism. Indeed for Moyn human rights, predicated on the idea that the individual should be entitled to sovereignty and self-determination, is nowhere to be found prior to the last few decades.

What appear to be ancient, medieval, or early modern precursors of contemporary ideas about human rights presume and defend the supreme authority of the state as an entity that both underwrites and circumscribes the protections and privileges granted the individual citizen. In other words, while documents like Thomas Paine’s treatise The Rights of Man have commerce with later notions of human rights, they are too limited in scope and application to be viewed as foundations for later theories.

The Last Utopia should compel scholars and readers interested in the history of human rights to reconsider their assumptions about the subject, but several aspects of the study undermine the efficacy of its argument. First, though the study begins with a brief and general overview of what “human rights” are, nowhere does it define the term exactly, or what exactly Moyn believes it to mean. This may seem a banal criticism but The Last Utopia repeatedly notes that in different times and places “human rights” has meant very different things and, often, simply served as a convenient rhetorical talisman for politicians and movements to wave about while looking to advance their own careers and programs.

The lack of definition is problematic for another, more consequential, reason: Moyn takes issue with studies that, for example, use terms like “human rights” and “natural rights” nearly interchangeably in order to dismantle the belief that human rights are the result of a long evolutionary process (Moyn refers to this belief as a “myth of deep origins”). However, perhaps it is more useful to think of the relationship between “natural rights” or “the rights of man” and the more recent “human rights” not as one of genealogy, the former giving birth, so to speak, to the latter, but as a kind of transhistorical constellation of related but not synonymous ideas.

The Last Utopia also suffers from poor execution, in terms both of structure and prose. There’s little sense of a through-line or progressive complexity in the argument. Rather, the study is constituted of many discrete arguments that have the same basic three-part premise: Human rights are a product of the ’70s; here is an earlier instance of what appears to be an articulation of human rights; here is why this is not the case. The slow and careful accretion of evidence certainly displays Moyn’s exhaustive and formidable research to some advantage, but a larger and more coherent organizational structure would help the reader better to negotiate that research and its implications.

Clear, engaging prose might help to remedy, at least partially, the relatively poor organization of The Last Utopia but, unfortunately, the writing here often suffers from bizarrely convoluted phrasing and an inclination toward making relatively simple points in unnecessarily complex fashion. Two examples must suffice:

Early in the postwar period, this “policy-oriented” school embedded human rights as one element of the minimum world order it treated as a practical baseline toward which international organization could aim for now. And it named human dignity as the central value in the fuller-bodied maximal order it held out on the horizon for later.

…Human rights were brought to new geographic areas around the globe and unsuspected concerns of substance, and into both the difficulty and drama of fundamental transformation from antipolitics to program. One obvious example of that creative mutation was the forging of “transitional justice,” which in the 1980s was invented as an optic based on the Latin American experience to allow human rights to be not just an external moral criticism of terrible regimes but an internal political resource in the erection of their successors.

At first glance this looks like scientifically precise writing, but a closer look reveals it to be egregious abstraction. What is a “maximal order” or an “optic”? Granted, The Last Utopia issues from an academic press, but that fact only illustrates how obtuse so much academic writing in the humanities has become.

Still, if The Last Utopia does not live up to its avowed ambition to overturn the conventional account of human rights and its place in history, it at least seriously and significantly complicates that account. Moyn’s study may not become a classic, but it is a responsible study of human rights worth considering.

RATING 6 / 10