Thursday, February 16, 2012

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Rights?

As part of my research on Jacques Rancière, I have been reading up on liberal discussions of human rights. What I've read confirms Todd May's characterization, in The Political Thought of Jacques Rancière, of these discussions as problematics of passive equality, as "the creation, preservation, or protection of equality by governmental institutions" (3). The philosophical discourse on passive equality, then, focuses how these institutional guarantees ought to be distributed. 

This discourse of passive equality, of course, is not Rancière's approach, though it should be noted that movements premised on active equality (the equality of intelligences and abilities) can turn the problem of rights into a space of dissensus, when, for instance, Olympe de Gouges publishes her Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Citizen as a searing critique the Declaration of The Rights of Man. Rather than dismiss rights as an illusion, de Gouges makes them a point of contention by asserting "the rights of those who have not the rights that they have and have the rights that they have not" (Hatred of Democracy, 61). Rancière also mentions the civil rights struggle in the US in the 1960s. So rights are not excluded as intrinsically liberal, but rather Rancière is careful show--in May's terms--that the politics of equality cannot be reduced to the contours of liberalism, and that where "politics becomes passive is not in the recognition or embrace of rights; it is when rights come to structure the field of politics" (May, 34).

For as much as I might appreciate large parts Lynn Hunt's Inventing Human Rights--especially her claims concerning the extra-juridical/literary origins of a sense of sympathy and empathy--she concludes on just such a note of passive equality: "The human rights framework, with its international bodies, international courts, and international conventions, might be exasperating in slowness to respond or repeated inability to achieve its ultimate goals, but there is no better structure available for confronting these issues" (213). She makes no mention of the possibility of transforming 'available structures' through a radical or revolutionary politics of equality.

In this post, I am going to focus on two rhetorical figures found in Micheline R. Ishay's The History of Human Rights. Overall, the book is textbooky in the sense that the text is often descriptive and written from a so-called objective viewpoint, a voice from nowhere, which gave me a greater appreciation of Patrik Ourednik's Europeana. To Ishay's credit, she dedicates a chapter to showing that workers' and socialists' struggle significantly influenced how we think of human rights. However, along the way she co-opts several important "dialectical images"--as Walter Benjamin would say--of revolutionary struggle.

The first is Benjamin's discussion of Paul Klee's Angelus Novus. "A human rights document," Ishay writes, "may be marred by barbarism, yet, according to Benjamin's observation, it is also a barometer of human rights progress" (2-3). This claim is derived from Benjamin's statement that the storm propelling the angel with his back to the future is called progress--as if this "progress" is the moment of redemption in his On the Concept of History. She does not address the fact that Benjamin's claim is part of a critique of progress. The idea of progress, according to Benjamin, is an assumption of the inevitable improvement of humankind (often thought to take place through technological improvements) which is used to organize the mass of data that fills a "universal history," an empty, homogeneous time (Thesis XVII). To this concept of history, Benjamin opposes a materialist historiography and praxis that seeks to blast events out of the continuum of history. By identifying Benjamin's messianism with the distribution of rights through institutional frameworks, Ishay limits radical politics to what we have already called passive equality.

The same movement of co-optation happens when Ishay makes rights the mantle of anti-colonialist struggle, when she claims to side with "the wretched of the earth." In Chapter Five, Ishay discusses what she takes to be the key problems of "globalization and its impact," one of these being the relation of humanitarian intervention and US imperialism in Afghanistan and Iraq. While much of her book is descriptive, in this chapter she moves to an argumentative mode. She claims that a "new realism of human rights" should criticize the human rights abuses of imperialism but should nevertheless "seize opportunities to advance its cause whenever Western powers confront repressive governments" (290), or be prepared "to a substantive agenda linking human rights and international security" (289). Through this model, she argues, globalization can be made to advance the cause of "the wretched of the earth" (293).

She never addresses the incongruity of yoking the cause of the wretched of the earth to imperialism. One of the central planks of Frantz Fanon's philosophy was that the self-determination of the oppressed could not be advanced by imperialist intervention. To intervene and implement rights from above repeats the civilizing gesture of the old imperialism. Any reference to rights must take place through local conflict and struggle, from the organization of the masses from below. In addition, when Ishay appeals to presenting a "substantive agenda" of human rights, she does not discuss to whom this agenda addresses: Western powers. The framework of rights-security is already today Western and imperialist, and does not have any accountability to those (the oppressed)  to whom Ishay or NGOs appeal for their moral legitimacy. Not to mention that intervention itself can/does destroy those networks and organizations that would be accountable to  local peoples (q.v. Haiti). Like the aforementioned examples, this argument again reduces politics to passive equality.

No comments: