Individual Limits

Nils Gilman has a great review essay in the LA Review of Books on Samuel Moyn’s Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, and it’s definitely worth your time.

In short, Moyn’s book traces the parallel development – at least from a rhetorical perspective – of “human rights” coupled with the language of “individual freedoms” associated with neoliberalism as a political project. Or, in Gilman’s words:

The book takes the form of an intervention into two huge historical debates, the first about the history of neoliberalism and the second about the history of human rights, a field whose current contours Moyn helped to define with his 2010 book The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. The puzzle he seeks to explain is: How is it that the era of neoliberalism, commonly said to have begun in the mid-to-late 1970s, coincides almost perfectly with the triumphant rise of a discourse of human rights? In other words, how can it be that an era whose ethical self-conception was rooted in a transnational movement to prevent abuses such as torture, disenfranchisement, and political imprisonment has also been an era in which national and global economies were remade in ways that have allowed wealthy capital owners to capture the large majority of economic productivity gains, creating in-country inequalities not seen since the late 19th century?

Like many books of this nature, however, where it comes up a little short is in the realm of recommendations. Which isn’t to say every accurate diagnosis requires a treatment as well – in many (if not most) cases, the remedies are obvious and what’s lacking is political will – but the proliferation of this particular vocabulary throughout the establishment is pernicious, and lends itself to certain mindsets that would likely be difficult to shift.

If individual freedoms – and mostly freedoms to, rather than freedoms from – are the essential building blocks of modernity, how then to advance a project predicated on finally meeting more than just basic needs as a matter of due course, of restoring egalitarianism to the world stage on a massive scale? As Gilman explains it, even just conceiving of a way to address this will require a tremendous shift in the realm of the imaginable:

…In a globally integrated economy, only a global-scale regulatory entity has a serious chance to tame the power of global capital. In short, if the re-autarkization of national economies, as proposed by some nationalists and populists, is to be avoided, we may wish to revisit another largely forgotten intellectual episode from the protean postwar moment of the 1940s — namely, the idea of a world government.

To propose the idea of a planetary-scale state, in a time of backlashes against globalization and surging populist nationalisms, may seem less a utopian delusion than a form of political madness. To date, as Moyn himself notes, “there has been no serious erosion of the assumption that states are on their own to fulfill the economic and social rights of their citizens. […] [I]n the neoliberal age, international law furnished no redistributive tools among states, and few activists or governments tried to build them.” But we live in a time of collapsing political limits, and many things that seemed impossible or inconceivable just a few years ago have been achieved or surpassed. Who is to say that the future may not belong to a world state? Indeed, as hard as it is to imagine how such a state might come into existence, it may be even harder to imagine how the world’s immense demographic, environmental, and political challenges can possibly be addressed without one.

The hardest part, and the one that involves the deepest uprooting of American sentiments, is getting away from the cult of individuality and rediscovering the power of collective demands. An individual right is, in many ways, no right at all; it is the right to imagine a better future without securing one; the prohibition on Anatole France’s rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges; the right to express as loudly as you like how unjust the world is – but not to actually see any remedy.

I’ll have more to say on this later, but given the radical challenges facing us (and the utter failures of incrementalism on display in the past few years), it is telling that a clear-eyed assessment of the situation leads almost inexorably to solutions that, until only the past few years, were inconceivable. The current state of international political economy requires profound change if we are all to survive.

Anyways, read Gilman’s essay (and Moyn’s book)!

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