Are Human Rights the Last Utopia?
The very concept of human rights can be traced to the Roman Stoics who were the first to coin the term humanitas. From the inauguration of the term that gave a universal description to a nameless assemblage of beings, walking on two feet, and are said to be capable of speech, humanity was officially born. And so with the thinking that those humans have natural rights, that they have rights to be humans, the rights of difference. Humanity was thinking of the right code, a language to separate itself from the nonhuman. This only exhibits that language is a potent tool of differentiation. To differentiate is, among others, to officially exist. Quite intriguingly, it was a time when Man was beginning to recognize resemblances between him and the primate until it led to Darwin some one thousand five hundred years later.
Humanity was officially born in the sense that it became a part of international language at the time the Roman Empire was about to crumble. We can detect some ironies here. First, humanity was starting to be internationalized when the very power that started to internationalize language was just about to fall. We can guess that the internationalization of humanity which coincided with the universal use of the term humanitas in parts of the known world then could only happen in terms of the internationalization of individuality. It was a precarious phenomenon because the invention of humanitas coincided with the destruction of an empire that claimed superiority over individuals. You can rightly guess that the term humanitas was anarchistic in form.
But as the Stoics had seen the noblest of our spirits arise at a time when hopes are vanishing, when existence is threatened by some kind of extinction, and the future uncertain. Centuries after, the German philosopher Hegel described this ascension of the human spirit in times of trouble in terms of the image of the Owl of Minerva which spreads its wings only at the turn of dusk, and when darkness gets deeper all cows turn black. These wonderful words of wisdom only means in practical terms that we only see the light of day when the day is about to end, when the day will no longer be the same tomorrow. Quite a subject for poetry. But in the language of the Enlightenment that changed Europe, this means that we only see the light of reason when reason is already gasping in its last breath.
The same irony applies to how we understand human rights today. I emphasize ‘today’ in the sense of the global crisis we are facing as a single humanity, the crisis of ecology. In more technical language, the ecological crisis we have is part of the natural process of death and decay, which can be expedited by the intervention of humans whose ways have not altered substantially since the start of the Industrial revolution. These humans I refer to were largely Westerns and are today the largest consumer of world’s energy resources. Non-Westerns were introduced into these ways by the historical process of colonization that violated human rights and along with it the rights of Nature. Where colonization did not apply non-Westerns would eventually copy the image of the West. I am not saying that non-Westerns were originally the caring types. It is just that they had no political meaning for Nature unlike their counterparts in the West.
As the Stoics had intriguingly revealed, for something to officially exist it has to be expressed in language, and, for language to express official existence, it has to be willed by humans. In modern history, these humans were colonizers, violators of human rights, and plunderers of Nature, all in the name of their right to create, which means the right to industry, hence, the industrial revolution. But we have seen how this right to create, in which case, the right to create natura and humanitas, also involves the right to destroy them. One can wonder if there would be Nature to destroy had it not been invented.
But it came to a point when the West could no longer hold its imagined ground. We have seen the emergence of non-Western powers which only proves that the decline of the West brings with it the decline of its international language, and by that I mean the language that gave sense to humanitas and human rights. Today we are talking about human rights, and rightly, we should mean the decline of Western values. But how can human rights make sense if what is proper to it is to talk about their decline, their waning significance? Should we not talk about human rights as a celebration of the noblest of humanity instead of its decline? Or are we talking about a dead language, the language of human rights, the language that once invented, not without benefits, our right to have rights?
On some occasions, talk of human rights can be utterly hypocritical. Behind the talk of the right to food and water security is the obvious fact that energy sources are getting scarce, not only because the world economy is controlling them but also because Nature is undergoing a tremendous process of change that affects food production and water supply, change that capitalism does not make but worsen it does. Behind the talk of the right to decent work is the fact that labor is increasingly becoming immaterial such that work demands to be redefined.
Behind the talk of the right to decent shelter is the fact that world powers are now thinking of building space colonies. Behind the talk of gender rights is the fact that gender is increasingly giving way to a redefinition of sexuality, to an understanding of sexuality as performance rather than possession of identity. Behind the talk of civil and political rights is the issue of the antinomy between freedom and control, cautiously settled in modern political contract, a mutual suspicion between the natural and the artificial that can never reach closure and will always challenge the imagination of humanity at the risk of exploding as long as it lives.
Behind the talk of the right to self-determination is the fact that the very existence of sovereign space, big or small, is threatened by population, urbanization, and climate change. Behind the talk of the right to religion is the fact that the right to disbelief and unbelief has never been widely acknowledged. Behind the right of indigenous peoples to self-preservation is the fact that the one thing they hold as sacred, Nature, which must be preserved, is facilitating the process of extinction, with or without capitalism whose only business is to hasten this process.
While there is still time, while Nature is allowing us to live, why not champion instead the right to violate some of the rights that only deepen the divide between those who have and those who struggle to have them? Why not violate some of those rights that are no longer relevant to the changing needs of the times? It is also our right to not have those rights.
For this to be possible we need to redefine the humanitas. To this end we need a new revolution, one of reviving the virtues of Enlightenment. Yet it is going to be Enlightenment without a promise, unlike the Enlightenment of Europe that promised abundance and happiness but also brought miseries to millions of lives. Karl Marx once said to the effect that we need to stop interpreting the world because it is time to change it. On the contrary, we need to reinterpret the world if we want to change it. There is no world that is not already interpreted. The demand to change it can only mean the demand to reconceive it. This is the new war machine of the new revolution of our time.
The new revolution however is not without paradoxes to solve. Let me situate this claim within a more historical view.
Human rights were introduced into international political lexicon after World War II, ironically to honor the victims of the war. Human rights then meant that humanity must be protected from a war of such kind. Until about three decades the lexicon did not gain popular attention except within non-Western nations held by despotic regimes that ushered in the aftermath of emancipation from Western colonial powers. Human rights at least gained a political meaning, to emancipate humanity from the vestiges of colonization. Ironically, it was championed by Western-educated scumbags who had no respect for human rights, like the dictatorship of Iran in the late part of the 60s. The downfall of Mubarak in the middle of this year is not the end of this episode. There are still autocrats in the Middle East but are now challenged by the new war machine.
At about this period of the 60s progressive peoples of Europe were redefining human rights, such as shown by the May student revolt in Paris. French students clamored for individual human rights, the rights of individuals to be protected from state apparatuses that in truth were really meant to check individual freedom. The student revolt of France which spread in the US and Asia came at a time when the world was also divided between Capitalism and Socialism, between defenders of democracy and vanguards of socialism. The French revolt attempted to introduce a middle-way, and that is the assertion of the inalienability of individual human rights. As expected, capitalism and socialism were in unison to denounce the student revolt. These two strange enemies and friends as well were united in their disdain for individual human rights in favor of the right of the corporation or the collective, which are both against individual autonomy.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, human rights gained a slight shift in political lexicon. It was a time when the world was also undergoing environmental shifts, like population explosion, the detection of ozone layer depletion that would impact on food and human security a decade after, coupled with a renewed drive for capital as a consequence of the fall of socialism. The world was starting to deal with a lone superpower, the US that had enjoyed tremendous advantage over world economy and geopolitical relations. But it was not to last long. The world on the side of its physical dimension was also undergoing change that no superpower could avoid, as Rome didn’t escape the ecological crisis of her time, worsened by lack of ecological foresight, which led to her downfall.
Global experts agree that climate change could also redefine humanitas. Conditions of scarcity could force humans to adapt to extreme conditions where maximization of resources can be more efficient if they pattern their existence after the efficiency of machines. If we become machines, assuming we still want to survive in this planet despite the conditions of scarcity, and there is no other way to do it than to become machines, certainly we do not need human rights. We need the rights of machines to continue performing, relatively protected from the elements of Nature that can easily wipe away organic elements like humans.
You may counter this claim as wistful thinking. We can only rebut with a counterfactual claim.
In the 1990s human rights only existed as a political lexicon. Without a name for what they were doing, humans were exercising their rights without official state sanctions, without robust international agreement that could define what human rights were. This explained the reform movements in Eastern Europe, and later, the revolutionary tide that swept Latin America, all underscored by the clamor for human dignity outside of the dignity defined for them by the global elite. Today this same clamor is swamping the Arab region and the Middle East. The case of Egypt is remarkable. One revolution succeeds another in a span of months. Like a machine freedom does not rest except when death closes all possibilities. It will not rest because it is no longer human; it is more than human. It is more than talk of human rights. It is the right to be impossible. It is not in the lexicon of human rights. It is the ghost that haunts 21st century humanity.
A specter is haunting humanity. It is not just the Egyptian revolution; it is the revolution of humanity. The masses leading the Egyptian revolution protest injustice, lack of basic needs, which are all the result of the global system of production and consumption, of concentration of wealth and exploitation of labor in which we are all implicated. The clearest indication of this indifference is our belief that we have rights to have rights, which conceals a metaphysical desire, the desire for others to not have what we have. It is the belief that we are humans who deserve to have rights, human rights—the rights to be different, to be different from other humans, better if difference is something we can maximize for as long as time allows. But the ecological crisis we are facing is telling us that time is not eternal. Like an economic law, time will reach a point of saturation.
In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that the cry of Enlightenment—liberte, egalite, fraternite—was a cry that invoked all humanity regardless of race, gender, and status in life. Unfortunately at that time there was no perfect condition to lump humanity under one category as there were evident territorial, sexual, and racial differences. At that time the planet was abundant; it was rather stable so there was no reason to reduce humanity to a singular category at the expense of differences, and the multiplicity and diversity of life. But the Enlightenment later produced the terror of Europe, culminating in Hitler’s Catholic dream of a thousand year reign in the name of uniformity.
But there has never been a perfect time to invoke humanity as a single category. That time is now as the crisis of ecology affects us regardless of differences. Like a night when all cows turn black. There has never been a time when the term humanity has really existed. That time is now as we all face a challenge of survival against the threat of extinction that is totally indifferent to difference.
Humanity is approaching the dusk when the Owl of Minerva will spread its wings, and there is no turning back. Indeed, there has never been a time when human rights really exist. That time is now when our very definition of humanity is challenged by the laws of the universe in which our rights, human rights, are no less accidental quanta of the truth, the beauty, and the goodness of its mystery.
Talk delivered during the celebration of the International Human Rights Declaration at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Bulwagang Balagtas, Main Library/December 13, 2012
Samuel Moyn. The Last Utopia.Human Rights in History. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, 2010.