Human Rights Utopianism

An Empire of Law

Fixating upon human rights as the key objective of governments and foreign relations is a relatively recent development.  However, we would argue, it is an inevitable development of Western established religion.  Rights-based political ideologies that are understood to transcend nations, cultures, and religions are a completely consistent application of the West’s established idolatry of rationalistic secular humanism.

John Grey, writing in The National Interest has reviewed Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press,2010). Moyn deals with the emergence of human rights as the dominant overarching political ideology of our generation. He rightly calls it utopian. But, to the surprise of many no doubt, he argues that the emergence of this utopian ideology is a very recent phenomenon.

“From Jimmy Carter onward, this tenet came to be invoked as “the guiding rationale of the foreign policy of states.” Almost never used in English before the 1940s, “human rights” were mentioned in the New York Times five times as often in 1977 as in any prior year of the newspaper’s history. By the nineties, human rights had become central to the thinking not only of liberals but also of neoconservatives, who urged military intervention and regime change in the faith that these freedoms would blossom once tyranny was toppled. From being almost peripheral, the human-rights agenda found itself at the heart of politics and international relations.

“In fact, it has become entrenched in extremis . . .”

The dominant political ideology in the West is that human rights are abstract and universal. They exist independently of any particular society, state, or culture. They are considered to be above all historical contingencies as secular version of Holy Scripture or the absolute law of God.

It is partly the loss of the insight that human rights can only be secured by an effective state that explains the failure of the regime-change policies promoted by neoconservatives and liberal hawks over the past decade. If rights are what humans possess in the absence of a repressive regime, all that needs to be done to secure human rights is to remove the despot in question. But if rights are empty without the state to protect them, then the nature of the government that can be reasonably expected to emerge when tyranny has been overthrown becomes of crucial importance. . . .

A willed ignorance of history was also at work. If rights are universally human, embodying a kind of natural freedom that appears as the accretions of history are wiped away, the past has little significance. But if human rights are artifacts that have been constructed in specific circumstances, as I would argue, history is all-important; and history tells us that when authoritarian regimes are suddenly swept aside, the result is often anarchy or a new form of tyranny—and quite often a mix of the two.

Universal human rights utopianism has resulted in an awful lot of blood being shed. All gods and idolatries require sacrifices–the idolatry of universal human rights is no exception. But once the ideology is adopted as a governing paradigm it also has the effect of removing government from the will of the people. It undermines democratic institutions. Under this utopian vision, governments may be elected by the people in Western democracies, but they view themselves as not fundamentally accountable to the people. Rather they are accountable to their compelled pursuit of realising abstract absolute human rights for all human kind. They see themselves as having a higher calling and a higher legitimacy. This has encouraged an offensive elitism on the part of those who govern. When leaders and rulers, judges and legislators, presidents and senators see themselves as embodiments of a higher vision for humanity, they tend to look down upon lesser mortals who have not yet understood the holy work being done. This, in turn, has led to a profound disconnect between electors and the elected.

One reason this human rights utopianism has gained such dominant control is that it offers a humanistic alternative to failed utopian ideologies of the twentieth century. We like the idea of utopianism, says the intellectual, but not Nazism, nor Communism. Why, then, have human rights ideologies seized the minds of the ruling and intellectual classes so comprehensively?

The answer, Moyn suggests, is in the fact that the idea of rights has seized hold of the utopian imagination. Human rights provide “a moral alternative to bankrupt political utopias”—a replacement for the universal political projects that shaped much of the dark history of the twentieth century.

The human-rights movement shared the vision that fueled utopian politics—not just the anticapitalist politics of old-fashioned Communist parties, but also internationalist and anticolonialist movements, liberation theology and vain attempts to forge “socialism with a human face.” Communist rule proved to be unprecedentedly tyrannical, postcolonial regimes were sometimes as repressive as their predecessors and even heroic dissidents against totalitarian rule (such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) were not always the liberals that Western supporters imagined them to be.

Real-world politics never delivered the utopian dream, so human-rights activists insulated themselves from these disillusioning facts by assuming a moral stance that affected to transcend politics. Not having to make the painful choices and shabby compromises that always go with active political engagement, they could enjoy an uplifting sense of moral purity along with the comforting conviction that if anything went wrong, it was not their fault.

John Grey offers this final warning:

Where the human-rights project has become harmful is in nurturing the sickly dream of a time when the intractable dilemmas of ethics and politics will be overcome, transcended in an empire of law.

Enter, stage left, the Internationalists who want all governments to be subject to the ideology and institutions of internationalism, of global law, of a galactic empire.

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