Everything You Think You Know About Human Rights Is Wrong

Human rights movements, says Samuel Moyn, have done a poor job protecting and fighting for social and economic rights.

Human Rights and the Uses of History

Publisher: Verso
Length: 160 pages
Author: Samuel Moyn
Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-06

Above: Barbed wire against sky image from Shutterstock.com.

Catching up with Samuel Moyn is a bit of a challenge. The American scholar and historian – who is both famous and infamous for challenging the established, mainstream narrative about the history of human rights – is on the move this summer. When I eventually contact him he’s in Australia, where he’s hitting a series of conferences and taking a bit of vacation with his family. The summer has also seen him on the conference circuit in the UK and Germany, as well as preparing to take up a position at Harvard Law School (after 13 years at the History Department of Columbia University).

Moyn, like a growing number of scholars and activists, isn’t afraid to challenge conventional thinking about what is or is not utopian, and what is or is not possible.
If that sounds like a busy summer, it’s echoed in his prodigious publishing record. His previous book, The Last Utopia, laid down the gauntlet, overturning what had become the accepted story of human rights in the modern world, and challenged us to rethink how we understand the history and present uses of human rights. He followed this up with a barrage of articles staking out his position and responding to his equally vocal critics. And his latest volley is a brand new book which collects several of these articles: Human Rights and the Uses of History.

What is human rights? If that were the answer to a Jeopardy question, here are the ways it might have been described:

The core essence of our humanity.

An ideal that has existed throughout history.

The brainchild of the American and French revolutions.

A response to Nazi atrocities, genocide and the Holocaust.

Pioneered by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Formalized in the 1948 Universal Declaration.

Is human rights all the above? Well, the above statements do indeed encapsulate much of the mainstream narrative on the history of human rights. The accepted story, if you will.

And, according to Moyn, it’s more or less all wrong.

In the face of these narratives, Moyn has provided a critical alternative perspective. He argues that human rights are not some primeval force that was always destined to emerge; not some natural product of cultural evolution. Nor are they necessarily the idealistic goal that progressive thinkers and revolutionaries have been fighting for during the past 500 years. In fact, he says, ‘human rights’ as we understand the phrase today, emerged only quite recently: “born yesterday”, in terms of our cultural memory.

His previous book argues the concept was only really taken up in a serious way in the '70s. That book, which shattered prevailing narratives, was called The Last Utopia. It refers to the idea that as people’s faith in other universalist, Utopian projects shattered – Communism, American Liberalism, Social Democracy – the only one left was the last one to emerge, born almost out of a desperate effort by activists to salvage something from their shattered ideals: ‘human rights’.

This concept of human rights easily drew on the language and ideas of previous ideologies and movements (whose failings it was in part a response to). Hence the ease with which we can slip into believing the idea has always existed in some form or other. So it's an important question, with serious consequences.

The origins of ‘human rights’ is more than an academic question however: having become an institutionalized idea vested with a serious (and often literal) punch, it has significant material impacts in the modern world. ‘Human rights’ is a rallying cry used to move armies into battle and bomb states (and would-be states) in-to or out-of existence: it is a politically malleable tool, just like the earlier ideas and ideologies that helped shape it.

In his new book, Human Rights and the Uses of History, Moyn does not so much take aim at the international human rights infrastructure as he does target the historians and scholars whose work provides its foundation myths with credibility. In a series of essays, most of which were previously published in The Nation, Moyn dissects the work of seminal scholars in the field, in an at times ruthless effort to unearth the complex origins of terms and concepts whose current usage he reveals to often be ahistorical and uncritical.

For example, he takes aim at the recent trend of rights discourse that taps into the notion of ‘dignity’ – a concept with religious roots that was historically used to reinforce status distinctions and inequality. He draws lessons from the very imperial history of ‘humanitarian intervention’, a rationale used by western powers to justify selective power grabs in the 19th century that are sometimes dangerously romanticized today.

He examines how human rights have become entwined with the memory of the Holocaust (which they weren’t originally, in the immediate post-Holocaust period) and how this has moved them away from their previous association with the welfare state. He looks at how torture has come to take centre-stage in the struggle for human rights, albeit only those graphic forms of torture which do not require the redistribution of wealth or the restructuring of economic systems to resolve.

These are only some of the ideas Moyn engages with in what is a challenging, provocative and highly engaging ride through the recent history of human rights discourse. The book, like his previous one, was such a good read that I just had to track him down and ask him more.

Talking Rights with Moyn

Moyn has made a lot of established scholars angry with his provocative and compellingly persuasive arguments (which challenge many of the foundations of projects such as humanitarian intervention, or the international court). His intellectual foes are often idealistic academics seeking to strengthen the notion of human rights as a powerful idea and force in human history and society. A well-intentioned aim, perhaps, but one that Moyn feels is wrong. While unrepentant, he gets where his intellectual opponents are coming from.

“The truth is I empathize with my idealistic opponents because I once was one,” he explains. Things began to change during the summer he worked as an intern at the White House, with the National Security Council during the Kosovo bombing campaign.

“At the time, I considered it an incredible privilege to be there to serve such a virtuous policy, and it certainly was eye-opening to watch up close. It was also during this time that I began looking into where human rights had come from. But as I taught in the field as a professor figuring out a new field, and watched more history unfold before my eyes, my views began to shift.”

One of the things Moyn tries to do is avoid getting stuck in the idea that situations present an either/or, two-sided alternative. When it comes to debates around humanitarian intervention, he resists the idea that it’s a simple choice of either taking action or not. “I believe that the alternative with which we are often presented – giving into our pity or standing idly by – is incomplete. The alternative to doing something is almost never doing nothing; there is also the possibility of doing something else.”

“The general view I would offer is that if we ever really are in a position where the alternatives are intervening militarily or doing nothing, we have taken up the situation way too late.”

It’s particularly in these situations, his work suggests, that history becomes so important. It’s easy to simply look at a violent conflict and try to imagine how to separate the sides. But that neglects to consider the complicated dynamics that might prevent true peace from taking hold; histories which also might implicate those who think they’re trying to help.

“Westerners, in particular, are illusioned when they isolate intervention in places like Libya (where they went) and Syria (where they nearly did and still might) from the long prehistories of their own earlier presence there. It is also now popular, and accurate, to observe that a few of the more successful interventions (Vietnam in Cambodia or India in Bangladesh) were conducted by non-Western states. Against this background, I do not purport to have my own policy (certainly not one that can absolutely rule out every intervention), just a warning from history about how fatally compromised so many of our prior acts have been – and how many of those prior acts helped create the conditions we find abhorrent now.”

If anything, this underscores the importance of history – and the need for nations to act responsibly and morally in their international relations early on, rather than waiting until situations reach a crisis point.

“I would prefer we focus more on background conditions than we do, and regard the choice to intervene as one showing the world has already failed.”

Pity and Compassion

What motivations drive people, and nations, to pursue human rights initiatives, particularly those involving intervention? Are pity and compassion sentiments on which a nation’s actions in the international sphere can and should be premised? In his book, Moyn discusses the example of the Victorian-era British empire, whose citizens also engaged in debates around whether or not to undertake military action in response to atrocities abroad that galvanized public opinion. “And we should sympathize, for we have not even begun to think about how to save compassion from its perversions,” he writes, referring to the fact that good intentions can easily be perverted by the designs of power or greed.

When I ask him about this, he explains that when we’re in the grip of compassion, it’s easy to fall prey to two-dimensional thinking: “the selectivity that unjustifiably focuses on one outrage rather than another… and above all the superficiality of compassion that isolates atrocities from their context,” he says. Yet compassion, he continues, still has an important role to play.

“I do believe that pity, properly educated, can serve a more plausible global politics than we have seen. The education of powerful sentiments rather than their extinction has always been one of the most important directives of modern thinking; and in this case, it is hard to envision a politics in which emotions like pity did not help mobilize followers. More concretely, I think we can connect the emotion of compassion with structural justice better than contemporary human rights and humanitarian movements have succeeded in doing.”

Human Rights and the Welfare State

Structural justice, Moyn says, is key here. One of the interesting dimensions of his work is his effort to re-establish the linkages between human rights and the welfare state. Today when many people think of human rights, they think of efforts to stop torture or genocide abroad. But following World War II, human rights were discussed not in terms of ending genocide, but rather in terms of a nation’s obligation to provide a strong and generous welfare state.

World War II had required massive mobilization efforts (recruitment and conscription); governments had had to convince millions of working-class people to agree to enlist and fight. In return, many governments promised improved and expanded rights and welfare regimes when the war was over. The development of public healthcare, housing, labour and trade union rights, women’s rights and many other developments stemmed from the complex commitments and obligations ruling regimes and ruling elites had incurred during the Second World War. This has been widely acknowledged; what is less commonly articulated is the discursive role of the concept of ‘human rights’ in all this.

“I read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) as a charter for national welfare states, which leading politicians had promised their citizens as a rationale for World War II. It wasn’t really about stopping atrocity,” says Moyn.

In other words, explains Moyn, when the war broke out, the ‘social contract’ underpinning social obligations between states and their citizens was still basically following the model of 19th century economic liberalism. The Universal Declaration of Rights was about taking that ‘social contract’ to the next level – obligating states to provide much expanded and more generous forms of national welfare for their citizens. However, because national welfare was framed in many different ways at the time – Christian Democracy, Communism, Social Democracy, the New Deal – the label ‘human rights’ didn’t catch on when people spoke about these obligations.

“In becoming famous thirty years later, however, the Universal Declaration became connected to a radically different political enterprise,” continues Moyn. “The first human rights movements [in the '70s] unceremoniously dropped the economic and social rights that had been central to national welfarism; indeed, they dropped a commitment to social equality that went far beyond the low floor of protection human rights movements pursue in the socioeconomic domain even today."

"And they frequently became, not about structural justice for our fellow citizens, but episodic compassion for suffering abroad – a completely alternative project. Quickly, new memories of the Holocaust that made the Jewish genocide central in popular consciousness in the '60s and '70s colonized the idea of human rights, just in the era market fundamentalism rose and social democracy (as well as national welfarism of all stripes) began to be hollowed out…”

This is a potent point for those seeking to protect or expand national welfare projects today, in an era when neoliberal governments in many countries are imposing austerity regimes and cutting back on what remains of the welfare state. ‘Human rights’ movements have done a poor job protecting and fighting for social and economic rights which, Moyn suggests, the label was initially intended to refer to.

“Given this, I think social democrats should consider what made human rights peripheral to their cause when it was powerful in the '40s, and what has made human rights the companion of the destruction of their project in the last few decades. Human rights do not seem like a viable tool in view of this history.”

Lessons for Activists?

The process Moyn describes has had an impact not only on specific rights projects, i.e., the welfare state, but on activist and social movements more generally. The human rights movements that emerged in the '70s avoided engaging with the internal politics of the western states where they arose; they concentrated their energies on graphically violent causes abroad, such as torture in dictatorial regimes, or sweatshops in the third world. Youthful activists turned their energies toward international idealism that was ‘unsullied’ by state politics.

This has created a challenge for the present day: how do we integrate the project of pursuing human rights within our own states, with the sort of internationalist projects around which groups like Amnesty International built their reputation? In his book, Moyn says that it’s “not a matter of choosing the state against the globe, but of deciding how to connect our utopian commitments to make both more just, each goal being the condition of the other.”

I asked him what exactly he meant by that. Does he think that the trend of youth directing their activism at the international level has contributing to diluting activist movements within their own countries?

“Yes,” he replies. “I do not believe there is necessarily finite imagination and energy for people who want the world to be a better place, but we definitely do see international human rights rise among activists precisely in places where domestic politics became unavailing or simply uninteresting.”

“Of course, in my work my intent is to describe something broader and global in which big ideological projects like nationalism and socialism (which of course have been central to many domestic political spaces but were also seen as global ideas) waned as a condition for the breakthrough of human rights,” he continues. “Ultimately, however, I do not think progressives (or conservatives, for that matter) can choose between state and globe, but need to have a program for both.

For that reason, they should reflect that many of their most uplifting victories at home seem like things of the past, in an age when attempting to save unknown strangers from spectacular harm abroad in order to return them to ordinary structural misery seems morally exciting. I do not see it as contradictory for progressives to recommit themselves to their social contract with their fellow citizens while also developing a more plausible global politics than they have ever had…”

The argument he outlines, and which underlies much of his work, is that contemporary human rights struggles have come to focus on the spectacular, really graphic things (like torture) and on events taking place at an international level. This has come at the expense of struggles for structural justice at the national level, which, he says, was in large part the focus of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to begin with. This has manifested in many dimensions: class struggle, racialized struggle, even gender struggle.

“And in the current era… human rights have often meant a spectacularization of pity in the campaign to stamp out “violence against women” rather than seek broad-based gender justice,” he points out.

The contemporary human rights movements, he says, have minimized their sense of ambition, and then taken it abroad. In contrast, he suggests, what we need to do is go back to thinking about how we can connect our local struggles within the state, and the global struggles that human rights movements have come to focus on.

Social Media! Solution?

Not so much, says Moyn. I was intrigued, because Moyn is an avid social media wizard himself. He modestly denies it – “I have a toe in the water” – but his significant Twitter following might suggest otherwise. Regardless, he’s skeptical about the role of social media in the human rights project.

“Control of information has always been central to the project of rights violators, and there is a real chance that technology can pose problems for them,” he reflects. “But generally in history, technology is an equal opportunity tool, and Edward Snowden’s revelations suggest it has served surveillance to date better than it does transparency. Much depends, then, on who has the technology (and the money to deploy it) in the most sophisticated ways, just as with other goods."

"More broadly, the rise of the internet seems likely to me to play into the passivity of response we have discussed. It is true that prior generations lacked social media, but they had the street, which even in the much ballyhooed account of the role social media played in the Arab spring came first and mattered most.”

“In the wealthy countries, social media probably works as much to promote complacency as it does to galvanize activism, as if wearing a bracelet or posting a “Save Darfur” story to one’s Facebook wall could strike a blow for change or even break out of local self-affirmation,” he comments sardonically.

“Of course,” he admits, “we don’t know all the possible uses of popular culture and social media, so it is important not to prejudge.”

If anything, Moyn seems to challenge our understanding of human rights not because he doesn’t like the idea, but because he thinks we can do better. And he’s not proposing we get rid of our human rights projects, but that we rethink the broader ends toward which we’re striving.

“The real question is what to do with the progressive moral energy to which human rights have been tethered in their short career. Is the order of the day to reinvest it or to redirect it?”

His next book will hopefully help us frame that decision. He’s working on describing the relationship between human rights and political economy: precisely how human rights was associated with national welfarism in the '40s, and then became disassociated in the '70s, with the resurgence of ‘human rights’.

“The story is very dramatic,” he says. “Though as I mentioned before, human rights movements originally lacked commitments to economic and social rights, the latter have become much more central, yet without making much of a discernible difference. Our challenge is therefore to reclaim some of the transformation of the national welfarism of yesteryear for a project of global welfarism – a project that goes way beyond the achievements, and even the ambitions, of the human rights imagination today, particularly when it comes to distributive justice."

A project of global welfarism – now that sounds utopian. But Moyn, like a growing number of scholars and activists, isn’t afraid to challenge conventional thinking about what is or is not utopian, and what is or is not possible.

“And so it could be that our continuing preoccupation with the subject [of human rights] is one more symptom of an exhausted political utopianism, a loss of faith in our ability to do more than keep evil – including our own – at bay,” he writes.

The human rights movement has inspired many important initiatives. But it could be that we are capable of much, much more. Human Rights and the Uses of History challenges us to rethink our past, in order to reconceptualise the project of building our collective future.

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