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Capitalism, Inequality, and Human Rights


Paul O'Connell (@pmpoc) is a Reader in Law at SOAS, University of London. 

This post is part of a symposium on Sam Moyn’s Not Enough. Read the rest of the posts here.


moyn postSamuel Moyn’s new book begins, with an echo of Christopher Hill, by noting that history has to be revised and rewritten to meet the demands of the present. From this, Moyn sets out to provide us with a historical account of the relationship between human rights and inequality, in order to shed some light on the major crises and challenges facing the world today (Trump, staggering inequality and more). On this he delivers admirably: Not Enough is a sweeping, erudite account of the place of human rights in debates about equality from the pioneering days of the Jacobin state in revolutionary France, through the mid-twentieth century welfare state, and the grand decolonial visions of the New International Economic Order (NIEO).

While it is impossible to do justice to the breadth and nuance of the work in this brief post, the crux of Moyn’s argument is that when modern notions of human rights, with a particular focus on social rights (or depending on where you are from, socio-economic rights), came centre stage, it was as a poor second prize following the decline and failure of grander narratives of material equality and social justice. For Moyn, human rights emerge and prosper in tandem with the entrenchment of neoliberalism on a global scale, and while the latter has produced dramatic social transformations and spiralling inequality, human rights have remained “powerless companions” to effect any meaningful change in this period. One consequence of this analysis, captured in Moyn’s recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, is that the human rights movement runs the real risk of falling victim to rising populism and dissatisfaction with the status quo, because it has “made itself at home in a plutocratic world”.

Not Enough is a thoughtful and timely intervention – the central focus given to the political economy of human rights is an important shift in terms of the general debate in this area, and many of Moyn’s key arguments and critiques of the role of human rights in the contemporary global order are pointed and well founded. With that said, there are two central points on which I find Moyn’s argument lacking: (i) the presentation of “the human rights movement” as some sort of monolith; and (ii) Moyn’s understanding of the genesis of inequality under capitalism and, relatedly, the conceptualisation (or rather the lack thereof) of capitalism, as such.

With respect to the first point, Moyn’s book is replete with references to “the human rights movement” as if it were a singular, monolithic entity. For the most part what Moyn seems to have in mind is the work of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International and other large human rights multinationals. For me, Moyn’s critique of the work of these groups is well founded and indeed applies with equal measure to many academics, international organisations and others that might, more aptly, be termed the human rights industry. However, the activities of these organisations, and their relationship to power, is a world away from the militant campaigns of Abahlali baseMjondolo, Focus E15 or Via Campesina.

These social movements, and many others like them, routinely deploy the language of human rights alongside broader claims for redistribution, social transformation, decolonisation and, indeed, revolution. While the work of many in the human rights industry is ripe for the critique Moyn propounds, his failure to disaggregate or unpack the complexity of “the human rights movement” is something we should work to avoid. This is not, it should be said, something unique to Moyn’s analysis. Many who work and write from within the human rights industry routinely deploy this catchall term, eliding the complex differences of class, place and power that separate radical social movements from well-funded offices in New York and Geneva. This, however, is something that critical engagements with human rights needs to avoid. Human rights, as such, are no panacea for the fundamental material problems we face today, but there is a world of difference in the ways in which different groups deploy and mobilise this language, and this is something we must attend to, even as we critique and move beyond the narrow language and practice of human rights.

The second, and more important point, is how Moyn conceptualises inequality and its place within global capitalism. A central motif in Moyn’s book is that the mid-twentieth century welfare state placed greater constraints on material inequality than any other arrangement ever has. To his credit, Moyn does not idealise the welfare state, and acknowledges that it was, for the most part, confined to a tiny corner of the world, and even within that was riven with inequalities and exclusions along the lines of gender, race and nationality. Even allowing for these shortcomings, Moyn’s argument urges a return to something akin to the ambition of the mid-twentieth century welfare state, to tackle the inequality engendered by the era of neoliberalism, and the failure of human rights to in any way address this.

One big gap in this argument, however, is a failure to acknowledge the anomalous character of the mid-twentieth century welfare state. This particular class compromise – relative democracy coupled with increased material equality – is an aberration in the history of capitalism. It was only possible because of the strength of trade unions and socialist parties, the threat of “Communism” posed by the USSR (both of which Moyn acknowledges) and, crucially, a post-World War II golden era of economic growth which meant that the ruling classes in Western Europe, North America and elsewhere could afford this compromise. It is precisely when the costs of this became unbearable and capitalism entered a prolonged period of structural crisis that the class project of neoliberalism came to the fore, to break the organised strength of workers in unions and to roll back the social state.

In this sense, the neoliberal era is a return to form, as material inequality is structurally embedded in the capitalist mode of production – a point Thomas Piketty tentatively reaches in his much-publicised work, but Michael Yates makes even more clearly. The problem here is not, in the first instance, poor distributional choices (this, of course, matters), but the exploitation of labor at the point of production. Marx pointed this out long ago, and John Smith and others have updated this central point for the modern imperialist era. The neoliberal turn has seen an unprecedent decline in real wages for workers around the world, and a dramatic increase in the rate of exploitation of labor. This was absolutely necessary to solve, at least for a time, the structural crisis of global capitalism. This was what the neoliberal revolution was about, and this is at the root of rising inequality over the last forty years.

The fundamental problem then is not neoliberalism, or poor distributional choices (though of course both matter), but the structural character of the extant social system. And while Moyn’s book is tinged with frustration at the lack of ambition of contemporary social justice movements (in particular the human rights movement), he appears resigned to the idea that there is nothing beyond capitalism. This is a serious issue, for while Moyn, rightly, bemoans our collective “failure to invent other ideals and movements” to confront the depredations of global capitalism (or, as Moyn would put it, market fundamentalism), his unwillingness to think of and beyond capitalism leaves us with a rich historical account, but little scope for shaping the future. In this sense, Moyn’s book is a truly important contribution which directs our attention to the crucial, contextual issues that shape the place of human rights in the world today – but in continuing to treat capitalism as an unquestioned, perennial premise his critique is, itself, not enough.