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When Splitters become Lumpers: Pitfalls of a Long History of Human Rights


Peter Rosenblum is a professor at Bard College, and former Clinical Professor at Columbia Law School and Director of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School.

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


In the preface to Not Enough, Sam Moyn obliquely acknowledges the dramatic contrast between the new book and his breakthrough work on the history of human rights, the Last Utopia: “What makes the study of history exciting is that its infinity of sources and our change in perspective can allow two books on the same topic by the same person to bear almost no resemblance to each other….”

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For a close reader of Moyn’s work on human rights the differences between his two works are head-spinning. Where Last Utopia attacked the very idea of historic continuity in explaining the human rights movement that emerged in the 1970s, Not Enough builds an entire narrative on continuities. The result is an aspirational history for a reformed human rights movement, a history of roads not taken – with respect to equality, in particular, which Moyn elevates to the ‘original’ position – that can still be reclaimed. Not Enough lacks the skepticism that Moyn employed so effectively in The Last Utopia to explain how disconnected contemporary human rights was from its claimed antecedents and undermines arguments in both books. In addition, by not heeding his own lessons from Last Utopia, Moyn understates the emergent human rights movement’s inability to contest what became neoliberalism. As someone who confronted those issues at the time, it is harder to dismiss the claims of complicity.

Last Utopia was a radical resituating of the history of human rights in the 1970s. In its zeal to take down so-called ‘church’ histories (and historians), it systematically disconnected the contemporary story of human rights from a venerated series of past movements and events, including the Enlightenment revolutions, abolition, World War II, decolonization, and even the United Nations and the major instruments and institutions built explicitly to address human rights, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). According to Moyn, this legacy did more to ‘obfuscate than to illuminate’ the real story of modern human rights. Quoting Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, Moyn built a book around showing that “People think of history in the long term, but history, in fact, is a sudden thing.”

Moyn’s focus on the 1970s was not new for those who worked in human rights or who studied the contemporary movement (e.g., Kathryn Sikkink, Kenneth Cmiel), and neither was the acknowledgment of their relative autonomy from the normative, supranational infrastructure of human rights. What was new, among other things, was to cleave the movement off almost entirely from the past, to treat it as the story of human rights, and to explore it as a product of 1960s disaffection and fin-de-Cold-War opportunities, further propelled by its incorporation into US foreign policy. Prior events and instruments that were central to other narratives, including the UDHR and decolonization, were reduced to artifacts that were later discovered and usefully repurposed by a new movement.

Last Utopia compelled others to a higher level of rigor regarding the genealogy of human rights and a more critical focus on the human rights movement, situated in a contemporary political economy rather than an imagined history. The words ‘human rights’ have no transhistorical meaning and the various rights no obvious coherence. The ‘scalar’ leap from domestic rights to international rights, long considered trivial, is, in fact, constitutive: many of the most frequently claimed antecedents for human rights – the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the claims of rights in decolonization – must be understood as state-building enterprises. The supra-national imposition of norms on those states defines modern human rights.

In Not Enough, the splitter has become a lumper. Moyn recalls much of the same history from the French Revolution to the creation of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration, and decolonization. But now he sees it as a connected part of a long story of “the distributional imagination and political economy of human rights” engaged in a transhistorical struggle between subsistence and equality.

How has “[t]he meaning of human rights … slowly transformed as egalitarian aspiration ha[ve] fallen,” as Moyn writes (5), if history is ‘sudden’ and not continuous? The most dramatic contrast comes in the discussion of decolonization. Where Moyn of the Last Utopia seemingly severs every possible connection between decolonization and human rights – despite the explicit language of statesmen like Julius Nyerere or Kenneth Kaunda – Moyn of Not Enough places the decolonized states at the nexus of historical and ‘scalar’ transitions. He credits the newly independent states with ‘unblocking the project of human rights law’ (110). The new treaties which emerge – and which are scantily noted and summarily dismissed in Last Utopia, because of their irrelevance to the eventual emergence of a human rights movement (the chapter title – “Death from Birth” – captures the thrust) – are characterized in Not Enough as ‘epoch making’ (111) and having ‘obvious significance in global history’ (110).

What difference does it make for the major arguments in Not Enough? Take decolonization and the central role of the NIEO in Not Enough. The NIEO is critical for Moyn’s argument, in part, because he finds a strong claim of equality – missing elsewhere in the long history of Not Enough, except among philosophers and explicitly socialist movements. “As already on a national scale in the postcolonial states, the NIEO distinctly emphasized equality in the scaled-up welfare package, now in an internationalist key” (116). Really? Gone is the skepticism of Utopia, where Moyn treats the domestic incorporation of human rights by postcolonial states as a ‘fashion’ (111), highlights how it serves the true priority of self-determination, and relies on the absence of any embrace of meaningful supranational structure to support his claim. Instead, he equates equality among individuals with equality among states and treats the ‘scalar’ distinction between the domestic and international, which is central to the disconnecting project of Utopia, uncritically. What we learned from Last Utopia is that the connection between equality at the ‘national scale’ and in an ‘international key’ should be scrutinized and deconstructed, not assumed and placed into an historical continuum.

The long history also has a profound effect on how Moyn addresses one of the central questions of the book, how human rights relate to neoliberalism. He is more concerned with proving the absence of a causal link and showing how the long history did not predetermine the companionship of human rights and market fundamentalism. I agree with Moyn that Neoliberalism created neoliberalism and that human rights is not a “mere sham masking inhumane domination.” But, with all respect to Susan Marks and Naomi Klein, that does seem like a strawman position. Only conspiracy theories or the most vulgar Marxist rendering of base and superstructure would go that far. In addition, Moyn shows convincingly how much more there was to what human rights pursued and accomplished during the rise of neoliberalism than anything that could be dismissed as a sham. (I once asked the Brazilian liberation theologian and activist, Frei Betto, why he embraced human rights given its liberal individualist bias and he said, more-or-less, that it kept him out of prison. No sham there.)

But what about the short and sudden history of human rights and neoliberalism? Where the logic of Last Utopia would lead a reader to believe that this was central to understanding the stakes, Not Enough passes over it quickly. As Moyn writes, “Since the end of the Cold War, the mainstream international human rights movement has generally envisioned a large zone of compatibility between its values and ‘globalization’” (194). Based on my experience in economic and social campaigns of the time, it was more like complicity, although perhaps out of confusion more than intention.

The international human rights movement emerged with a powerful ‘anti-sovereignty’ rhetoric and no affirmative theory of engagement except to support human rights organizations and build mechanisms for the protection of civil and political rights. It succeeded with a methodology of naming, shaming, and sanctioning that targeted primarily developing countries. The case of US-based organizations is somewhat extreme, but only on a continuum. Human Rights groups used US law, particularly in the late Cold War period, almost entirely to sanction: to reduce aid and to eliminate tariff preferences. Though Amnesty International did not officially support sanctions, its Urgent Actions could always be reduced to a call on governments to ‘stop that now,’ whatever it was they were accused of. What is equally significant is that these organizations were beneficiaries and active promoters of globalization: information, communication, and money to local organizations were having a dramatic impact on the grip that governments in the developing world had over their population. Competition for information was enabling human rights organizations to outplay governments. As one colleague from Kenya recently recalled, “Government shut down the newspapers; we sent faxes. The President didn’t know what hit him.” The international human rights groups had no basis for distinguishing the free movement of ideas from the free movement of money that was helping to break the grip of local leaders.

As I experienced, starting in the 1990s while working to mobilize human rights in economic struggles, this legacy undermined effective engagement, even after international human rights groups began to embrace economic and social rights. Their energies tended to focus on incorporating those rights into existing methodologies, which bore little fruit. Our efforts included the fight for a Social Clause at the World Trade Organization, battles against structural adjustment and particular World Bank projects as well as investment treaties and corporations. By and large, the major human rights organizations simply couldn’t deal with them. It would have required affirmative positions in support of the prerogatives of sovereign states, some of which had severe human rights problems. They would require judgments about supranational accountability and enforcement that might conflict with arguments being made in human rights fora. Naming and shaming would not be sufficient and they didn’t have other strategies.

One of our first efforts, in the mid 1990s, was to mobilize human rights groups against the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), an intended pillar of neoliberalism that would facilitate the free movement of capital of all kinds. While the MAI was eventually defeated – in part because of extraordinary civil society pressure and French fear of losing control of their cheese production – human rights groups largely sat out the battle. The human rights arguments would have required them to support a country like Malaysia, a bête-noire in human rights, for using capital controls to enable an extraordinarily broad-based rise in economic opportunity. At around the same time, while working to modify a major World Bank oil project in Central Africa, where a coalition of international and local groups was struggling to ensure that the benefits would be publicly known and widely shared, the best that international human rights groups could do was to offer to wait until actual violations occurred and report on them. Even when working on campaigns against companies like Nike for obvious violations of the rights of workers in Indonesia, international human rights groups were nervous about shifting the lens away from government abuse. The movement recognized many of the problems, but was too conflicted, too set in its ways, to act. At a critical time in the rise of the Washington Consensus, the international human rights movement was unable to find a useful means of engaging the IMF and the World Bank, notwithstanding prolonged discussions and abortive efforts.

Over time, much of this changed, but, in that critical formative period, the mainstream human rights organizations, which continued to play a dominant role, were more complicit that merely compatible. Did it abet the rise of neoliberalism? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t discount the possibility in particular settings. What did change was not the great success of economic and social rights from within the human rights movement, as Moyn seems to suggest. There is very little to show for that. Instead, I would argue that it was the result of others coming from outside of human rights – socialists, labor rights activists, liberation theologians, and development activists – who sought out ways to deploy the increasingly hegemonic tactics and discourse of human rights to achieve preexisting goals. It may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I would argue that it was not human rights groups that brought anti-retrovirals to HIV patients, achieved some accountability in multinational supply chains or equity in natural resource exploitation, all of which have been the sites of important advances incorporated into human rights. Nor does the tendency to favor sufficiency over equality explain their limitations.

As a call to action for the human rights movement, Moyn’s long history, with its focus on the rarely explicit tension between subsistence and equality, may serve a good purpose. But as the actual history of human rights and its critical relation to the economic and social problems of our time I fear that, in a variation of Moyn’s formulation, it obscures as much as it illuminates.