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Compatibility as Complicity? On Neoliberalism and Human Rights


Zachary Manfredi is the Litigation and Advocacy Director of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP).

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


moyn postOver the past decade, Sam Moyn has emerged as one of the most significant critical historians of international human rights. His latest book, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World contrasts the international human rights movement’s focus on achieving “sufficiency,” (i.e., basic minimums of social goods for all) with more egalitarian conceptions of national welfare and global justice that aspired to curb the unbridled concentration of private wealth. Importantly, however, the book also insists that human rights are not synonymous with forms of neoliberal economic rationality that led to the post-war welfare state’s dismantling. This last point, Moyn avers, distinguishes his view from that of other left critics who posit a closer affinity between human rights and neoliberalism. “Human rights, even perfectly realized…are compatible with…radical inequality” – but compatibility, for Moyn, is not complicity. I want to put some friendly pressure on this latter claim, and draw out Moyn’s ostensible disagreement with his left interlocutors more clearly. (I put aside the fact that some left political theorists have ambivalently embraced human rights, but for an entry to this question, see Étienne Balibar, Claude Lefort, and Jacques Rancière).

The last two chapters of Not Enough explicitly distance its account of the human rights movement’s relationship with neoliberalism from those of left critics Naomi Klein and Susan Marks and also frame the book’s narrative more generally as distinct from the view of “Marxists.” On the one hand, Moyn recognizes that human rights movements of the 1970s often shared “moral individualism” and “suspicion of collectivists projects like nationalism and socialism” with neoliberalism; he even acknowledges that neoliberalism “exerted [a] strong pressure of redefinition” on human rights projects (see, for instance, Quinn Slobodian’s recent work, which examines how neoliberal reformers deployed rights claims for their internationalist projects.) Yet, Moyn also insists that human rights never reverted to “narrow protections of contract and property,” and argues that, in general, human rights movements proved indifferent to neoliberal projects, rather than encouraging their aims. In contrast to his account, Moyn sees left critics as offering a harsher rebuke of human rights complicity with neoliberalism. At different points in the text, Moyn objects that leftists blame human rights for “bringing about the age of neoliberalism,” accuse human rights of “distracting” from the growth of inequality, and see human rights as “abetting” neoliberalism’s projects. While at times Not Enough seems to conflate these various objections, it is helpful to clarify the nature of different left critiques of human rights.

First, it might seem odd to attribute to “Marxists” (even in caricatured form) the view that human rights play a causal role in the development of a particular historical order of capitalism. (Even Klein’s claim that human rights movements allowed neoliberalism to “escape from its first bloody laboratory [in Chile] unscathed” seems to suggest something closer to Moyn’s view: human rights movements failed to deter neoliberalism, but this need not suggest they served as either a proximate or “but for” cause of its ascendance.) If anything, an orthodox Marxist would insist the causal arrow flows the other way – the preeminence of human rights might be a result of neoliberalism’s influence on economic and social structures. In its crude articulation, Marxism holds that legal and moral constructions like human rights are part of the “super-structure” of a given political economic order. In an unreconstructed Marxism, substantial changes in that order flow from the working out of contradictions between the forces and relations of production in the economic “base.” By contrast, the super-structure merely reflects the particular arrangement of a given productive order, but through the camera obscura of ideological distortion: the legal and cultural concepts of the superstructure manifest the particular interests of the regnant class while masking the particularity of those interests under the guise of universalism. Political liberalism follows capitalism, not the other way around (a point Max Weber contested in The Protestant Ethic and an issue that has garnered renewed attention in arguments over the adequacy of the historical materialist method to account for neoliberalism’s rise).

In this account, Marx’s famous objection to the rights of the French Revolution era was not that they “caused” the rise of the bourgeoisie, or that they “brought about the era of industrial capitalism.” Such descriptions depart from traditional historical materialist methodology by treating a mere concept or idea as an historical agent. To the contrary, for an orthodox Marxist, the Rights of Man and Citizen were an ideological reflection of class interests of the bourgeoisie represented as universal values: rights to private property, contract, and free trade certainly, but also, more broadly, “negative liberty” rights that characterized freedom as emancipation from the state’s influence. The revolutionary bourgeoisie’s demand for these rights against the monarchical state, on this reading, manifest the rising class’s interest in freely accumulating property and capital without state appropriation or interference. For Marx, the imagined subject of these rights was merely “man as an egoistic being in civil society,” and in practical terms, the “universal” right to hold private property meant little to the emergent proletariat class without the means to acquire it. This kind of Marxist analysis of contemporary human rights would not simply condemn them as bringing about neoliberalism’s rise to power; rather, a traditional ideological critique would analyze the particular regimes of values and theories of freedom that the modern human rights movement represents as universal. In turn, an accounting of human rights as an ideological formation would trace how their historical preeminence might be attributed to transformations in the orders of production in the North Atlantic in the post-war period.

Of course, as Moyn himself well knows, contemporary (post)-Marxist and left critical theory has developed substantially beyond my reductive presentation of ideological critique. Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, Althusser’s writing on ideological state apparatuses, and Foucault’s account of disciplinary power and governmentality, among numerous others, all offered new resources for twentieth century left thinkers aiming to understand the “materiality” and “effectivity” of ideology and discourse. Contemporary critics writing in furtherance of these traditions still do not so much see human rights as “bringing about the age of neoliberalism”; they do, however, come closer to suggesting that certain formulations of human rights may be complicit with, or even abet, neoliberal projects because the two share vital commitments and assumptions. On this score, we might consider, along with Klein and Marks, the work of a longer list of left commentators on post-Cold War human rights’ affinities with free market globalization: to name a few, Slavoj ŽižekCostas Douzinas, Wendy Brown, Michel Hardt, Antonio Negri, Robert Meister, and Alain Badiou all offered critical accounts of human rights movements’ relationships to projects of western imperialism and economic globalization.

One central concern of recent left critics is that human rights projects help reshape social and economic life in ways that promote the formation of neoliberal subjectivity. For instance, Jessica Whyte’s work – which Moyn mentions in the opening piece in this series – builds on anthropologist Talal Asad’s writings and argues that the contemporary “human rights subject” is deeply implicated with “the subject of contemporary neoliberalism.” For Whyte, casting social justice concerns in the language of human rights advances a set of assumptions about individual autonomy and self-possessed subjectivity that comport with those of neoliberalism. While classical liberals may have understood the subject of rights as a “natural being,” contemporary accounts of neoliberalism suggest its adherents understood that new forms of subjectivity had to be actively produced and encouraged through political and economic governance. In this sense, left critics do not reproach human rights advocacy because it explicitly avows projects of privatization, trade liberalization, or welfare-state dismantling (although some human rights advocates may) – rather, they worry that the normative vision of human life and freedom promulgated by human rights movements corresponds with the entrepreneurial subjects of self-maximizing human capital that neoliberalism aims to govern.

This is not simply an objection that the mainstream human rights movement valorizes property rights, but rather a concern about how human rights politics imagines all rights as a form of private property possessed by “autonomous individuals” and figured exclusively as limited entitlements against the state. Moyn appreciates this point, and in a footnote acknowledges that he does “not dwell on neoliberalism as a form of life” or “mode of individual self-creation.” For left critics, however, when human rights narrow the horizons of collective justice projects in this way, they are not simply indifferent to the rise of material inequality, but actively assist in the creation of subjects and legal regimes that conform to neoliberalism’s worldview. And while similarities between subjects of human rights and subjects of human capital may at times be overstated – we may also do well to contemplate their various convergences with greater scrutiny.

Moyn ends Not Enough with an uncertain hope that the human rights movement might reinvent itself in a more egalitarian vein. In this sense, he shares with many left critics (myself included), an aspiration that human rights movements could someday serve as a “threatening enemy” to market fundamentalism. Left critiques of human rights, however, also encourage a broader reassessment of the substantive content of political alternatives to neoliberalism; for his part, Moyn holds out hope for one such admirable alternative: the development of a more egalitarian vision of the welfare state, cleansed of its racism and sexism by human rights’ focus on status equality. Left critiques of human rights, I suggest, demand that we critically interrogate the limitations of a more egalitarian, welfarist vision of human rights as well – what theories of freedom does it valorize? What kinds of equality – material, formal, or status – does it aim to produce? What political powers, technologies of governance, and legal regimes will it mobilize in pursuing its ends? After nearly four decades of neoliberal hegemony, we might also pause to ask: is a (re)turn to the welfare state the most left political forces can hope for? What other political, economic and social futures – both within and beyond human rights – might contemporary international justice projects aspire to achieve? In tracing the history of human rights and economic justice, Moyn’s book makes the stakes of these questions clearer, and provides essential lessons for all those that pursue them today.