TOP 2013-05-02

Rights, Responsibilities, Rhetoric

Everyone – regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion – has the right to life, to education, to health, to a fair trial, to work, to freedom of speech and thought and association, to freedom from torture or persecution or slavery… Now what exactly are these ‘rights’? They aren’t tangible possessions, so where do they come from, and why do we have them? Are they simply things we ‘ought’ to have, things we ‘must’ have, or are they God given?

These fundamental ‘rights’, and others, were set forth in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration in 1948. In the decades that followed, they have been violated countless times. In 2007 there were around 26 million refugees facing poverty, and 72 million children were denied the right to education (MDG Report 09). UNICEF estimates that 2 million children have died as a result of armed conflict and 6 million seriously injured over the last decade alone. At the same time, 2 million children die every year for lack of clean drinking water (UNHDR 2006). About a billion people lack access to healthcare systems; this includes 45 million in the USA; and inequalities in healthcare access follow racial and socio-economic boundaries – for example, the infant mortality rate of African Americans in the USA is about double the national average (UNHDR 2005). 2.6 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation (UNHDR 2006). People continue to be detained without trial and tortured, even in supposedly ‘developed’ countries, and an estimated 12 million people are trafficked each year as human slaves (CIA).

And so on. In other words, we are still far from having achieved these ‘fundamental’ or ‘basic’ human rights. Even though an immense amount of progress has indeed been made, the fact remains that these global problems are quite easily preventable. The UNDP report on the water crisis, for example, makes it quite clear that lack of drinking water is not due to resource scarcities; it is a problem of policy. Likewise, the 2 million or so deaths from AIDS each year need not happen, and millions continue to die from diseases which do have cheap vaccines available. And, as the examples from the USA given above demonstrate, these problems are by no means limited to ‘poor’ or ‘developing’ countries; they are applicable to poor and marginalised peoples in every country. The ‘land of the free’ is by no means a role model for the rest of the world to follow, marred as it is by such extreme inequalities and hypocrisy. While the USA gives about 20 billion dollars a year in development aid, it spends over 700 billion dollars on its military, which is nearly half of the whole world’s military expenditure put together. Meanwhile, while receiving just over 100 billion dollars (OECD) in development aid in total, the interest that poor countries pay on their development loans is 38 billion dollars more than this amount (according to Ervin Lászlo, 2006), and certainly in the USA’s case, development aid has been decreasing while military spending has been going up. (Note that the UN Development Program makes it clear that conflict has a negative effect on human development.) Meanwhile, the entire annual expenditure of the UN is $27 billion, and the USA still owes them $857 million (ibid).

The UN has formulated the so-called ‘Millennium Development Goals’, which jump on the global bandwagon of ‘obsessive target-setting’ by challenging the world to eradicate extreme poverty, achieve universal primary education and gender equality, make massive strides in global health and achieve environmental sustainability by 2015. A World Bank report estimates that with appropriate policy changes this could be achieved at an annual cost of $40–70 billion starting in the year 2000 (the UN Millennium Project has higher estimates but it doesn’t change my point). That’s less than a tenth of what the USA spends on war. And even at the upper estimate, the total cost would be roughly the same size as the $1.1 trillion stimulus package that the G20 countries agreed on for stabilising the economy. Apparently, we can muster up an emergency trillion dollar stimulus package for the ‘economy’ (in fact, for the banks), but we cannot muster up an emergency ‘global development’ package for the sake of the health and welfare of billions of human beings? This, I should think, puts the final nail in the coffin for the idea that rich countries actually care about so-called human rights.

The United Nations acknowledges that the financial crisis has had a negative effect on the Millennium Development Goals, but something is wrong when it takes more money to save an economic system than it does to save billions of lives from unnecessary poverty and disease, not to mention the ecological system on which we ultimately depend. And something is seriously wrong when the former is considered more important than the latter.

Governments clearly have unshakeable faith in the market economy, as this example demonstrates. The way that the economy works is fine, they would say; everyone ultimately benefits from it, and eventually it will solve all problems! The economic system is something that must never be questioned. If the economy dictates that budget cuts must be made or that certain activities are not economically viable, then we must all respect that, because it must ultimately be for our own good, because the market rules everything and can solve everything. No, they say, the system is fine. Then how should we deal with these development issues, in their opinion? Just do what the market dictates, they say: if we continue to serve the market, the problems will surely be ironed out, wealth will surely ‘trickle down’. This is how the governments must think. But the lack of progress in the past decades (and indeed the reversal of progress in so many cases – see the MDG 2009 and UNDP 2005 reports) and the extreme inequalities that remain both within and between nations would suggest that this policy isn’t working. Ultimately, it isn’t the business of the free market to provide universal health, education and freedom; the business of the free market is to make profits. Again, almost everyone accepts this, because it is based on the principle of the survival of the fittest – that those who are the most ‘aggressive’ with their business practices will win; and the rest will die. That would be the reality if the market economy were allowed a complete stranglehold on the direction of society, independent of governments. But governments have an answer to this as well: they think that although the free market is the best way of managing the economy, everyone nevertheless has the ‘right’ to life, health, education and so on, and that’s what they (the governments) are there for.

And this is where the idea of ‘rights’ and ‘responsibilities’ comes from. We need ‘rights’ because by default, the economic system gives us none. Without any recognition of human rights, capitalism would allow the weak and the poor to starve to death; it would allow rampant destruction of the natural world; people would be paid little, fired often, constantly abused and exploited. The concept of the ‘right’ is necessary to ‘fill in the gaps’ left by an economic system that does not, fundamentally, have any provision for wellbeing, let alone for its universality. The human ‘right’ is the embodiment of the socialist component of the political system – providing things that we wouldn’t otherwise get. The concept of ‘responsibilities’, meanwhile, embodies the idea that rich countries have a responsibility to help poorer ones, even though the economic system would, left to its own devices, dictate against this. Development aid comes out of ‘responsibility’, which grows out of a respect for basic ‘rights’. But the way ‘universal rights’ are presented would make it seem as though they are what our society fundamentally stands for; these basic rights are supposed to be the foundation of our society. This idea is highly deceptive. In reality, as we have seen, it is our economic system that forms the foundation of society. Far from being fundamental parts of the system, rights and responsibilities have to be added on top of that foundation, and in many cases actually conflict with it. No wonder they still aren’t universal.

This inevitably leads to a situation in which rights that are supposed to be fundamental actually have to be fought for, whereas nobody has to fight to make sure that the most profitable business decision is the one that is adopted. Competitiveness, profitability and inequity are default modes of operation; any deviation from this is something that has to be fought for. That we should have to fight (that is, expend enormous time, money and effort) for universal rights indicates that they are most definitely not core values of the system.

This situation is not limited to the systemic scale of governments and economics. At the personal level, we recognise that people have a ‘right’ to their own opinion and to the expression of it, or a ‘right’ to their privacy, as well as responsibilities to behave appropriately, take care of their family and so on. We rarely question precisely why we have these rights and responsibilities. The rhetoric of rights and responsibilities has come along with a growing liberal and progressive sentiment, particularly in Western democracies, over the past decades, a movement which champions freedom as a fundamental good, without really explaining why. In fact, whether knowingly or not, these sentiments have indirectly supported the capitalist mainstream by emphasising individualism and, in a certain sense, contributing to the homogenisation of society, since becoming ‘free’ nearly always means becoming financially independent, and thus, individualistically, obligated to find one’s place in the market economy. For example, although the freedom for women to work outside of the home was undoubtedly a positive development, the increasing cost of living that inevitably comes with a capitalist system has meant that many women now have little choice about whether they work or not. Thus, social liberation, despite being a much heralded achievement of the twentieth century, has in fact equated with a levelling of the playing field: to be set free was in fact to be set into the ‘wild’ of the market. Accordingly, the universality of rights effectively translates into a universal expectation for everyone to be as functional a member of capitalist society as possible – that is, to become wage slaves, servants of capital.

Clarification is probably needed here to make explicit that social liberation is not necessarily a means of capitalist indoctrination, and the human rights movements over the years were not wrong. The point here is not to suggest that women should have remained housewives or black people slaves, or even that they have necessarily gone from a bad situation to a worse one. The point is that these movements have unwittingly supported an ideology that puts the economic system above all else. It could even be said that the governments who instituted the policies that set certain groups ‘free’ may not have even cared about the moral side of the situation; it is likely that they did it precisely out of recognition of the fact that it would support the economic system. In short, freeing a slave creates a consumer.

The resulting society is one in which the economic system subsumes and dominates all other subsystems. Religion, cultural beliefs, autocrats, chauvinism and ethnic discrimination are no longer permitted to dominate people, unless it is their express, individual will to be dominated by them. The universal rights encapsulate this view: you are free to be a member of a religion, but nobody may be dominated by one against their will. However, in freeing people from these controlling forces, they have merely put them under the more subsuming control of the economic system (capitalism), for the economic system is the only system that is allowed to dominate everyone. Even governments are in fact subservient to it. If a religious or cultural system dominates an entire community it is considered authoritarian; if capitalism dominates an entire community, it is considered free. Ultimately, however, capitalism is nothing more than a system of cultural behaviour with national and international legitimacy accorded to it; it comes with its own rites, rituals, beliefs, practices and ideologies. Although these beliefs and practices are not allowed to control much more than the system of money, one of the chief ideologies of the system is that money should be allowed to dominate every aspect of life (in fact it must do so in order to grow, and by its nature it must grow in order to survive).

This has led to a situation in which we are free to choose our beliefs, culture, practices, style of dress, interests and so on, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the economy. And this, ironically, has embedded a systemic sleight of hand, and a ubiquitous hypocrisy, into the very fabric of society. Capitalism is everyone’s culture, but since it is not recognised as a culture, we are free to choose our own religion or culture on top of it. The hypocrisy comes when this religion or culture, and any rights or responsibilities towards other people that it espouses, conflict with capitalism’s own. Most religions value compassion, generosity and moderate lifestyles that are neither too poor nor too extravagant; they may even favour communal lifestyles with a lack or absence of private possessions; selfishness is never condoned; usury is often found to be forbidden. Arguably we find many contradictions with a society in which usury is in fact a fundamental mechanism of the economy, in which competitiveness is essential to a healthy economy, in which public ownership is to be minimised (in the dominant, neoliberal paradigm we have now), in which consumption and monetary wealth are highly valued and coveted and in which extravagant lifestyles have to be encouraged for the sake of growth.

Most deeply, however, is the fact that an economic/cultural system based on competitiveness and which highly values the individualism associated with financial independence, necessarily promotes a mindset of selfishness: businesses exist for profit, and, even if they do, or claim to, support other values, they cannot ignore economic viability, simply because that would threaten their existence. On the individual level, people cannot afford to be generous and are encouraged not to be, since in a competitive world, we must treasure our ‘advantage’ and always seek to ‘get ahead’; from a financial point of view, this is best achieved by hording our money and letting it accrue interest – the antithesis of generosity. My proposition is simply that a mindset of selfishness is fundamental to a capitalist system, yet a mindset of selflessness, or compassion, is fundamental to the vast majority of religions, communities and traditional cultures. Thus, people who identify with a religion or culture other than capitalism find themselves in a state of invisible hypocrisy, and the institutions, if any, that support their beliefs often decide to gloss over or neglect those aspects of the belief system that most directly contradict the norms of society.

Yet anything that does not go against the economic system is permitted to us as part of our basic rights to freedom. Thus, religion is seen as one of life’s added extras: a normal (that is, capitalist) life with added ‘spirituality’. The concept of community is similarly seen as an added extra: life is inherently individualistic in this society, but we are free to associate with others in order to foster a sense of ‘community’ if we so wish. Though friendship and love have generally – thankfully – escaped the scale of commodification of other basic human interactions, they are still seen as supplementary elements of life. If asked what things are essential components of a functioning society, friendship, love, community and spirituality are all valid responses, but the only answer that actually carries any weight is money, because the economic system which drives society is dependent on money, and not on friendship, love, community or spirituality.

We might even argue that culture itself is seen as an ‘added extra’ for one’s lifestyle. This would be a dangerous situation indeed. By not recognising capitalism as a culture itself, we implicitly give support to it as a ‘default’ mode of operation. Capitalism is seen as a neutral form to which other elements can be added to make some sort of unique culture. This is ultimately why I insist on using the term ‘society’ in the singular. Whereas people will consider, say, Portuguese society as distinct from Malaysian society, they make this distinction based on the added extras – the cultural beliefs and practices, the traditional cuisine and the languages that are spoken. Yet the most important and most fundamental element of both of these societies is their economic system (though it needn’t be, and wasn’t always) and in fact this is essentially the same. Excepting Cuba and North Korea as oddballs, it’s essentially the same in all the countries of the world. Thus, sociocultural and sociolinguistic differences notwithstanding, we can consider there to be a single ‘society’ in the world, a society that is spread by the process known as globalisation (but more accurately as neo-imperialism). Of course, the extent to which countries have assimilated to this Western-dominated ethos varies considerably. Islamic countries, for example, maintain a notably strong link between religion and society, and Sharia law even impeaches to some extent on the economic system.

The doctrine of rights and responsibilities, therefore, is ultimately an attempt to allow for any expression that does not impact on the dominant economic system. If someone can be a Christian and a capitalist, then Christianity should be tolerated and respected, yet kept out of any discussions of economics. The aim of this is to supplement capitalism with a certain liberalism so as not only to appease a greater part of the population, but to allow a greater part of the population to be full participants in the system. Hence we find ourselves in a covert dictatorship, in which an economic system, and all of its associated cultural implications, is presented to us as a default mode of operation, onto which we are ‘free’ to add any other beliefs we like. We then come to associate freedom with capitalism, partly because it was from capitalist countries that the rights and responsibilities rhetoric has been especially championed, and also because the former Soviet bloc countries happened to be especially authoritarian and oppressive. In addition we have to reckon with misleading terminology like ‘free market’, ‘liberal economics’, ‘economic freedoms’ and so on, which have nothing to do with freedom at all. Having accepted this economic system as ‘basic’, rich societies then obsess over (social) liberal issues (sexuality, for example), which, as Theodore Kaczynski suggests, has made their people generally oblivious to the fact that, regardless of the results of these liberal debates, our society is a fundamentally destructive one. It is in fact the very economic system that they take for granted that is causing this destruction.

If such things as community, wellbeing, universal education and healthcare and a culture of freedom were integral parts of society, it might not be necessary to use the concepts of rights and responsibilities. Only a society that kills people has a need to assert that people have a right to life. Were compassion built into the very culture or even economics of the society, there would be no need for such a declaration because it would already be an observed fact. Only a society that fails to provide education or healthcare to the entire population needs to tell itself that people have a right to these things. Were they an essential component of the system, it would be redundant to state it, in the same way that it’s redundant, under capitalism, to state that businesses have a “right” to make a profit.

Needless to say, it is time to question the assumption that the financial system should be preserved at all costs. It took thousands of years for money to replace the gift economies of humanity’s past. That money has now been elevated to a God-like status is evidence of a profound cultural subversion. This is not just a case of needing to add the ‘right to freedom from invisible hands’ to our list of rights – we need to incorporate wellbeing and universality into the very fabric of a new system.