We Can’t Settle for Human Rights

Samuel Moyn

The idea of human rights was once intimately tied to egalitarianism and socialist politics. By the 1990s, it was used to justify neoliberalism.

Eleanor Roosevelt holding poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Lake Success, New York, November 1949. FDR Presidential Library & Museum

Interview by
Rafael Khachaturian

Samuel Moyn is Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence and Professor of History at Yale University. Among his books are The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History in 2010, Human Rights and the Uses of History in 2014, Christian Human Rights in 2015, and Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World in 2018. Moyn has also written for Jacobin, Boston Review, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New Republic, the Nation, the New York Times, and Dissent.

Most recently, Moyn has focused on examining the legacy of social rights, pointing to their complex relationship to human rights in the modern era. While human rights have been central to the liberal global order since the 1990s, he suggests that they have not been particularly effective vehicles for egalitarian politics. Under today’s conditions of growing economic inequality and capitalist crisis, demands for economic justice and redistribution have become more prominent. In this moment, Moyn’s work encourages us to recover a conception of social rights that can reorient us for a more egalitarian future.

Rafael Khachaturian recently interviewed Moyn about the politics of human and social rights from the postwar years to the present. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.


RK

Many scholars and public intellectuals have recently written about this being a period of crisis. Some call it a “crisis of liberal democracy.” Others call it a crisis of neoliberalism. What is your general perspective on the state of democracy and democratic politics in this moment?

SM

There’s a wide-ranging debate about how to answer this question. Democracy is founded on the difficulty of representing the people, and in our contemporary moment, it seems as if a lot of people wrongly state how new the crisis is, at least in the United States. I’ve mainly worried about homogenizing different places, with all their specificities, as if there were just one syndrome. It’s true that different places, especially across the North Atlantic, share some significant features. If we look across the so-called populist countries, including in the global South, like India, only in a very few, like the Philippines, do we see a slide into outright authoritarianism — perhaps now with the exception of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary in the pandemic.

I’ve wanted to take a check before we embrace the fear that democracy is dying, or that it’s on the brink of fascism and tyranny. Not because there are no problems, but because the problems are long-standing, especially for significant classes of victims. Like many others, I’ve placed stress on long-term economic factors, so that 2016 looks like both a consequence of neoliberal policies as well as a catalyst for their extension even further. We’re really seeing the consequences of very long-term choices, whether in economics or in America’s war posture after 1989.

RK

In your most recent book, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, you write that “human rights have become prisoners of the contemporary age of inequality.” Before we get to this history, where do human rights stand today? Is today different from the 1990s and 2000s, when the discourse of human rights was the lingua franca of international politics?

SM

It’s a fascinating moment that’s clearly quite different from the millennial enthusiasm around human rights. I think we’re seeing a kind of double depression. Back in the 1990s, human rights were all the rage, not just as things that were getting institutionalized, but almost as the morality at the end of history. All that was left was to spread the gospel. Obviously, human rights do refer to some crucial values, whether just civil liberties or even economic and social rights that began to be pursued in some places, such as the right to health care or water or sanitation.

But since then, we’ve noticed something that was missed in the 1990s, which was that most governments were committing to a new kind of economically neoliberal governance. This has made the faith around human rights and the desire to promote them companions, at least chronologically, of the victory of neoliberal policies, which in turn meant expanding inequality in many places.

Not Enough is really an attempt to reckon with that coincidence and think about it. We are not reckoning with the depressing fact that there’s been a backlash through the rise of parties and politicians that reject human rights. But there’s also a deeper depression, which is that it seemed at one point as if we were on the verge of definitive answers about how to frame our expectations about the good life, and the plan didn’t work out. I think people are confused and groping for answers, having realized that human rights are not the morality of the end of history.

RK

Despite their success after the 1970s, you suggest that human rights have been insufficient for making claims about material equality. Is it a problem inherent to the language of human rights itself and how they have been construed? Or was the noble language of human rights swept up in the broader social transformations that we’ve experienced since the 1970s?

SM

Human rights were never intended, even on paper, to advance distributive equality. I do talk in the book about another dimension of equality that I call “status equality,” and human rights are very much connected to the proposition that no one should be treated differently because of the kind of person they are, what race or indigenous background they are, or what gender they have. But distributive or material equality is really not mentioned as a human right, or as a goal of human rights, in any treaty or in mainstream human rights mobilization.

The problem, then, is that human rights are selective. They identify some moral concerns but leave distributive inequality out as a moral concern. Now, we could say that some rights — especially the economic and social rights that are in various treaties and pursued by various movements — should have the effect of increasing material equality if they were enforced. But that would be a kind of indirect commitment, and we’d really have to find out if, in fact, the advancement of human rights is an indirect recipe for more distributive or material equality.

What if it turns out that human rights not only don’t mention but don’t advance distributive equality? One possibility is that it’s acceptable to leave out material inequality because it’s not wrong, so long as human rights are vindicated, especially the most basic rights. They would include economic and social rights, which provide for what I call sufficient provision — for example, everyone getting enough health care and water and sanitation. We can imagine a world in which more people get basic rights even as inequality increases. And one response is: it doesn’t matter if there’s inequality left over or even worsening — or you could say, it’s someone else’s problem. Some defenders of human rights openly embrace this self-defense. Others insist, in an almost opposite way, that human rights either already do cover equality or provide it (there is little evidence for this proposition), or could if tweaked. The debate between these two possibilities is the one I hoped to open.

I myself argue that we should keep human rights for what they’re good for, but also keep them in their place and demand other ideals and agents to advance those ideals. As you suggest, human rights have gotten institutionalized since the 1970s or 1990s, whenever you want to start this story, amidst galloping inequality in many nations. We should conclude from this that they’re selective or they’re not good at advancing egalitarian aims, and then have a debate about what the consequences of that fact are.

RK

You focus on the idea of social rights as a counterpart to human rights, arguing that they provide us with something that the latter can’t fulfill on their own. How do social rights differ from human rights? Do you see them as in tension with each other, or as necessary conditions for both to be successful?

SM

It depends on how we define our terms. In the book, I tried to give a history of the modern notion of economic and social rights. What that means is showing how differently people have understood what they are and what they accomplish. In recent history, especially since 1989, it’s only fair to note that even very mainstream human rights organizations have made economic and social rights part of what they monitor and the politics they pursue. But what I argue is that even when that’s happened, economic and social rights have been in the guise of sufficient provision, not in an egalitarian spirit. They’re out to secure some threshold, some entitlement that individuals are supposed to have to various decencies of life.

There’s another, slightly different, perhaps rival, notion of economic and social rights, though. It’s older than what we call human rights, especially in international human rights — that is, labor rights. Labor movements and socialist parties fought for workplace health and safety and a limited working day and workweek. Even then, it wasn’t merely for the sake of sufficient provision, but as a means to an end of worker empowerment. And the right they cared about most was the right to organize and agitate, because they understood rights to be part of their campaign to build power to challenge those who controlled the economy, to get a more equal deal for themselves, or even to redefine the terms of production, distribution, and exchange.

That’s the place where social rights have differed historically from what human rights have come to mean today, because they were once connected to an egalitarian goal of empowering the working class. Human rights today are mostly geared toward providing sufficient amounts of the decencies of life to the worst off. That’s just a different agenda. It’s a noble one, but it’s not the only one there is.

RK

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights figures prominently in your narrative. You note that it helped cement the idea of social rights as requiring some degree of distributional equality. What did this balance between social rights and human rights entail, in the postwar moment specifically? In retrospect, what did the universal declaration accomplish?

SM

In an earlier book about the history of human rights, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (2010), I wanted to make a negative point about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the United Nations propounded in December 1948. What struck me then is how few people seemed to notice it and how it didn’t give rise to what we think of as human rights politics, including human rights law and transnational human rights movements.

In the new book, I took a second look at that era and realized that, because I was looking for something in the 1940s that was too early to find there, I missed a more important point. When we go back and contextualize the Universal Declaration in the politics of the 1940s, it turns out to have been something like a charter for the national welfare states that were becoming the common goal across the Atlantic, and also the highest goal of movements — not just nongovernmental organizations, but rather trade unions and the socialist parties that were sometimes getting into power.

The implication is that while the Universal Declaration doesn’t again mention distributive equality as a goal, the fact that it includes economic and social rights reflects a onetime belief of the 1940s that the point of states was to create a good life for their citizens. This will involve some sufficient provision, but also more equality, distributionally, than before or in our case since. What I want to do is less to reclaim the Universal Declaration as much as reexamine the era of the welfare state as one that, in spite of some very big flaws, still featured the goal and the achievement of distributive equality more than any other era of modern history.

RK

The welfare states of the Global North during this period also had serious internal contradictions. Would it be fair to say that the achievement of social rights was premised on exclusions that were both internal, as in the case of women and minority groups, and also external, in that the Global South was not integrated into that same network of distributional equality?

SM

It’s completely fair. It would be wrong to be nostalgic in any way for these welfare states, precisely for the reason you’re mentioning. Across the Atlantic, these new welfare states organized fairness around the male breadwinner, benefiting women and children only insofar as they were attached to that male breadwinner, typically an industrial worker. That meant exclusion almost universally of women from the kind of status equality that we’ve tried to provide since thanks to feminist agitation. There were also massive exclusions in historic welfare states based on ethnicity and race: consider that social programs in the American New Deal were profoundly racialized.

Finally, welfare states were for equality within nations, not among them. At the time of the Universal Declaration, there were fifty-odd states. Now we have two hundred. And many of the states that did embrace human rights and egalitarian welfare at home were still running big empires, and there was no distributional project that was accorded to their own imperial subjects. So even though white males at home in the Global North got some sufficient provision and distributional equality, colonial subjects did not get either. It was no wonder that they sought decolonization and a kind of globalization of the welfare state in the subsequent period. Unfortunately, once decolonization happened, the economic disparity between what we now call the Global North and South actually got worse. If distributional equality is a worthy goal, it has to be rescued from these shortcomings.

RK

The 1970s were a critical period for change from that postwar order. You note that the language of human rights began its upswing around that time, while the language of socialism was beginning to decline. What role did the existence of socialist states play in leading Western capitalist states to accept some notion of distributional equality? Following that, what happened after the 1970s that allowed human rights to become dislodged from the national framework that they were embedded in and then become transnationalized?

SM

This is the pivotal moment to reflect on and try to understand. Coming out of World War II, people had committed themselves to modes of national justice, as I mentioned, including some modicum of distributional equality. This is the period when socialism is at its height, not just behind the Iron Curtain but globally. You think of a state like Israel, founded the very moment that the Universal Declaration is propounded, and the amazing thing we should never forget is that it’s founded by people we could call national socialists (small n, small s, obviously). There they exclude many people, notably Palestinians, but they want a state for Jews that is socialistic and that reflected the spirit of the time: inclusionary and egalitarian, while also exclusionary and hierarchical.

What happens in the 1970s is that, even as the social contract at home is fraying and socialism is being abandoned, especially in kind of Western capitalist countries, there’s an extension of the gaze outward. In a way, that was noble because the nationalist imaginary that prevailed in the middle of the twentieth century, even if it was socialistic, was not about building a just world. You had a lot of people who redefined idealism in terms of human rights, which now are much less connected to a project of domestic social justice and more connected to a minimalist project of international justice. It has no distributional component, but it is a kind of cosmopolitan program of providing civil liberties globally. It’s a momentous choice. You can think about it as an expansion and a contraction of the project that had existed before.

We have to note both sides of it to understand why it was so exciting to people to move beyond the nationalist moment to the more cosmopolitan one. But what was missed even by the actors themselves is that contraction. These are the folks — in Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for example — who make the Universal Declaration famous for the first time, but as if just the first half of it mattered, without the second half that contained economic and social rights, let alone that kind of egalitarian program that had given the Universal Declaration meaning in its own time.

RK

You open your book with an account of Zdena Tominová, a key member of Charter 77, the Czechoslovak group that criticized the Communist government for failing to uphold human rights. For that group of dissident intellectuals in the Eastern bloc, human rights and social rights were entwined and integrated with each other.

SM

Right. It was imaginable to say that human rights should retain their links not just to social rights, but to an even more ambitious egalitarian program. It’s just that that possibility, which was hypothetical, didn’t win out in practice. Western organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch just ignored distribution, and the United States adopted a human rights diplomacy still very narrowly focused on civil liberties. Amazingly, current secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s notorious Commission on Unalienable Rights wants to restrict the human rights America stands for to even fewer than the narrow set it has pursued abroad since the 1970s.

RK

You argue that the language of human rights overlapped with the emergence of neoliberalism during this period. But the relationship between them is rather complicated. You’re critical of claims that human rights are simply a smoke screen for neoliberal economic policies. Rather than saying neoliberalism directly cause the spread of human rights, should we think of them as a necessary but not sufficient condition for the success of neoliberalism in the 1980s?

SM

If we’re going to begin detailing the reasons why political economy changed in the 1970s and why neoliberalism prevailed, I don’t think human rights is near the top of the list. It’s also not clear what we gain by insisting that it’s somewhere down at the bottom. Human rights are part of the world that neoliberalism brought about. But it seems not the most important thing, critically, to attack or blame human rights for being a big causal factor. However, we need to think very seriously about what it tells us about human rights — that they are part of the neoliberal ecology and how it was set up.

Socialism, including agents of egalitarian justice like trade unions, could not survive in the new habitat neoliberalism built. Socialist parties themselves transformed themselves in a neoliberal direction. On the other hand, human rights not only survived but thrived, but especially as ideals to be pursued. Human rights could adapt to this change because they were not as serious of a threat to neoliberalism. The things that human rights have been trying to advance were not as deeply challenging for the neoliberal transformation of political economy, and could even promise a “humane” form of it.

RK

Looking forward, is it possible to re-embed human rights within egalitarian projects? Are there any present-day tendencies that you have observed that would make this possible — for example, recovering social rights transnationally to address the ecological crisis?

SM

We should keep human rights, but they do not exhaust the solutions for all of the projects we should pursue. One of these would be an egalitarian project that might require a completely different agenda. We need to create space for a new version of progressive parties and movements that are not only dedicated to human rights, but also to egalitarian justice. And we cannot make the welfare state mistake of building socialism in one country but need for progressives to embrace the global horizon that human rights cosmopolitans have helped imagine.

You’re raising a fascinating possibility that the ecological crisis could provide a new setting in which to think about this shift in the agenda. One of the thinkers I admire, Pierre Rosanvallon, has coined the notion that a “reformism of fear” has driven progressive social change in the past, for the most part. Think of the responses to the Great Depression. The reason why the wealthy were once willing to entertain high taxes and fairer social compacts was that, otherwise, they would face even worse results. They were pressured to live not separate lives, and instead to dwell among the rest of us and in a common situation.

Perhaps the ecological crisis is an equal or even bigger threat, enough to force the kinds of outcomes that people feared in the past and that mobilized them into making crucial reforms. As many in the young generation of reformers are saying, and as the Green New Deal theme reflects, the environmental catastrophe is something that could help us raise consciousness about social justice in general and forge the possibility of different choices than the ones that have prevailed lately.