2014: The death of the Human Rights Movement, or It’s Rebirth?

Edwin Abbey Justice Harrisburg

For anyone interested in the issues of human rights, justice, or peace, and I assume that would include all of us, 2014 was a very bad year. It is hard to know where to start, with Eric Garner, the innocent man choked to death in New York city whose police are supposed to protect citizens not kill them, or Ferguson Missouri where the lack of police restraint in using lethal force on African Americans, burst into public consciousness, with seemingly little effect, as the chilling murder of a young boy wielding a pop gun occurred even in the midst of riots that were national news.

Only days ago, we had the release of the US Senate’s report on torture on terrorists “suspects”, torture performed by or enabled by Americans set into a state of terror and rage in the wake of 9-11. Perhaps the most depressing feature of the report is the defense of these methods by members of the right even though there is no evidence forms of torture ranging from “anal feeding” to threatening prisoners with rape gave us even one piece of usable information that could have been gained without turning American doctors and psychologists into 21st century versions of Dr. Mengele.

Yet the US wasn’t the only source of ill winds for human compassion, social justice, and peace. It was a year when China essentially ignored and rolled up democratic protests in Hong Kong, where Russia effectively partitioned Ukraine, where anti-immigrant right-wing parties made gains across Europe. The Middle East proved especially bad:military secularists and the “deep state” reestablished control over Egypt – killing hundreds and arresting thousands, the living hell that is the Syrian civil war created the horrific movement that called itself the Islamic State, whose calling card seemed to be brutally decapitate, crucify, or stone its victims and post it on Youtube.

I think the best way to get a handle on all this is to zoom out and take a look from 10,000 feet, so to speak. Zooming out allows us to put all this in perspective in terms of space, but even more importantly, in terms of time, of history.

There is a sort of intellectual conceit among a certain subset of thoughtful, but not very politically active or astute, people who believe that, as Kevin Kelly recently said “any twelve year old can tell you that world government is inevitable”. And indeed, given how many problems are now shared across all of the world’s societies, how interdependent we have become, the opinion seems to make a great deal of sense. In addition to these people there are those, such as Steven Pinker, in his fascinating, if far too long, Better Angels, that make the argument that even if world government is not in the cards something like world sameness, convergence around a global shared set of liberal norms, along with continued social progress seems baked into the cake of modernity as long as we can rid ourselves of what they consider atavisms,most especially religion, which they think has allowed societies to be blind to the wonders of modernity and locked in a state of violence.

If we wish to understand current events, we need to grasp why it is these ideas- of greater and greater political integration of humanity and projections regarding the decline of violence seem as far away from us in 2014 as ever.

Maybe the New Atheists, among whom Pinker is a member, are right that the main source of violence in the world is religion. Yet it is quite obvious from looking at the headlines listed above that religion only unequivocally plays a role in two of them – the Syrian civil war and the Islamic state, and the two are so closely related we should probably count them as just one. US torture of Muslims was driven by nationalism- not religion, and police brutality towards African Americans is no doubt a consequence of a racism baked deep into the structure of American society. The Chinese government was not cracking down on religious but civically motivated protesters in Hong Kong, and the two side battling it out in Ukraine are both predominantly Orthodox Christians.

The argument that religion, even when viewed historically, hasn’t been the primary cause of human violence, is one made by Karen Armstrong in her recent book Fields of Blood. Someone who didn’t read the book, and Richard Dawkins is one critic who apparently hasn’t read it, might think it makes the case that religion is only violent as a proxy for conflicts that are at root political, but that really isn’t Armstrong’s point.

What she reminds those of us who live in secular societies is that before the modern era it isn’t possible to speak of religion as some distinct part of society at all. Religion’s purview was so broad it covered everything from the justification of political power, to the explanation of the cosmos to the regulation of marriage to the way society treated its poor.

Religion spread because the moral universalism it eventually developed sat so well with the universal aspirations of empire that the latter sanctioned and helped establish religion as the bedrock of imperial rule. Yet from the start, religion whether Taoism and Confucianism in China to Hinduism and Buddhism in Asia to Islam in North Africa and the Middle East along with Christian Europe, religion was the way in which the exercise of power or the degree of oppression was criticized and countered. It was religion which challenged the brutality of state violence and motivated the care for the impoverished and disabled . Armstrong also reminds us that the majority of the world is still religious in this comprehensive sense, that secularism is less a higher stage of society than a unique method of approaching the world that emerged in Europe for particularistic reasons, and which was sometimes picked up elsewhere as perceived necessity for technological modernization (as in Turkey and China).

Moving away from Armstrong, it was the secularizing West that invented the language of social and human rights that built on the utopian aspirations of religion, but shed their pessimism that a truly just world without poverty, oppression or war, would have to await the end of earthly history and the beginning of a transcendent era. We should build the perfect world in the here and now.

Yet the problem with human rights as they first appeared in the French Revolution was that they were intimately connected to imperialism. The French “Rights of Man” both made strong claims for universal human rights and were a way to undermine the legitimacy of European autocrats, serving the imperial interests of Napoleonic France. The response to the rights imperialism of the French was nationalism that both democratized politics, but tragically based its legitimacy on defending the rights of one group alone.

Over a century after Napoleon’s defeat both the US and the Soviet Union would claim the inheritance of French revolutionary universalism with the Soviets emphasizing their addressing of the problem of poverty and the inequalities of capitalism, and the US claiming the high ground of political freedom- it was here, as a critique of Soviet oppression, that the modern human rights movement as we would now recognize it emerged.

When the USSR fell in the 1990’s it seemed the world was heading towards the victory of the American version of rights universalism. As Francis Fukuyama would predict in his End of History and the Last Man the entire world was moving towards becoming liberal democracies like the US. It was not to be, and the reasons why both inform the present and give us a glimpse into the future of human rights.

The reason why the secular language of human rights has a good claim to be a universal moral language is not because religion is not a good way to pursue moral aims or because religion is focused on some transcendent “never-never-land” whereas secular human rights has its feet squarely placed in the scientifically supported real world. Rather, the secular character of human rights allows it to be universal because being devoid of religious claims it can be used as a bridge across groups adhering to different faiths, and even can include what is new under the sun- persons adhering to no religious tradition at all.

The problem human rights has had up until this moment is just how deeply it has been tied up with US imperial interests, which leads almost inevitably to those at the receiving end of US power crushing the manifestation of the human rights project in their societies- what China has just done in Hong Kong and how Putin’s Russia both understand and has responded to events in Ukraine – both seeing rights based protests there as  Western attempts to weaken their countries.

Like the nationalism that grew out of French rights imperialism, Islamic jihadism became such a potent force in the Middle East partially as a response to Western domination, and we in the West have long been in the strange position that the groups within Middle Eastern societies that share many of our values, such as Egypt today, are also the forces of oppression within those societies.

What those who continue to wish that human rights can provide a global moral language can hope for is that, as the proverb goes, “there is no wind so ill that it does not blow some good”. The good here would be, in exposing so clearly US inadequacy in living up to the standards of human rights, the global movement for these rights will at last become detached from American foreign policy. A human rights that was no longer seen as a clever strategy of US and other Western powers might eventually be given more room to breathe in non-western countries and cultures and over the very long hall bring the standards of justice in the entire world closer to the ideals of the now half century old UN Declaration of Human Rights.

The way this can be accomplished might also address the very valid Marxists critique of the human rights movement- that it deflects the idealistic youth on whom the shape of future society always depends away from the structural problems within their own societies, their efforts instead concentrated on the very real cruelties of dictators and fanatics on the other side of the world and on the fate of countries where their efforts would have little effect unless it served the interest of their Western government.

What 2014 reminded us is what Armstrong pointed out, that every major world religion has long known that every society is in some sense underwritten by structural violence and oppression. The efforts of human rights activists thus need to be ever vigilant in addressing the failure to live up to their ideals at home even as they forge bonds of solidarity and hold out a hand of support to those a world away, who, though they might not speak a common language regarding these rights, and often express this language in religious terms, are nevertheless on the same quest towards building a more just world.



On Recognizing Deep Fragility


Eastern Hemisphere from Space Nasa High Resolution

If we take what amounts to the very long view of the matter it’s quite easy to see how both the tradition of human rights and transhumanism emerge from what are in effect two different Christian emphasises on the life of Christ. Of course, this is to look at things from the perspective of the West alone. One can easily find harbingers of both human rights and transhumanism outside of  Christianity and the West in Non-Western societies and religious/philosophical traditions in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism among others. For now though, lets stick with seeing things through the lens of the Western tradition alone.

Perhaps the primary source for human rights in Christianity would be the idea of Christ as God relocated into the fragility of a human body, a consciousness supremely sensitive to the most vulnerable among us- the sick, the poor, the excluded, the powerless and insisting on the spiritual equality of human beings. Roots of transhumanism can be found in another Christ tradition- the idea of man made God, the desire to transcend human limits to seek and find enlightenment.

Putting aside the elitism of the gnostics, such doubled vision need not necessarily be understood as the source of irreconcilability and conflict, but more like a gestalt drawing where two pictures can exist in one. What picture one sees becomes a matter of what you are looking for at the moment.

Historically zooming in a little closer to the Age of Enlightenment we can again see both the tradition of human rights and something like a proto- transhumanism existing side by side. If an enormous increase in the span of biological or material longevity is taken to be the sine qua non of transhumanism, then the Marquis de Condorcet who predicted in his 1794 Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit that:

….a period must one day arrive when death will be nothing more than the effect either of extraordinary accidents or of the flow and gradual decay of the vital powers and that the duration of the middle space of the interval between the birth of man and this decay will itself have no assignable limit. (368)

Was at the same time a staunch defender of much human rights as we would now understand them- the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, and political rights as they had been articulated in the American Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights and especially in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Yet, if if human rights and proto-transhumanism can often be found right next to one another, so to speak, in both Christianity and the Enlightenment it is certainly difficult to argue that such is the case today. Or only if we narrowly define rights in terms of so-called “negative rights” that is liberties which are used by many transhumanists to argue that they have a right to pursue transcendence, augmentation, and increased powers. How then did the two become so clearly separated in our consciousness?

Often the emergence of human rights and transhumanism is presented sequentially with human rights appearing first and transhumanism or posthumanism occurring afterwards. You find this in Steve Fuller who characterizes human rights (both economic and political) as “humanity 1.0” whereas posthumanism is the newer “humanity 2.0” a separate and sometimes rivalrous utopian project.

This kind of temporal positioning of the utopian project to universally achieve human rights as the ideal of the past with posthumanism as a set of goals for the future is, despite its intuitive appeal, not very historically accurate. For the sharp separation of the human rights and transhumanism can only be dated to their emergence as two clearly defined utopian projects.

It might be surprising to learn exactly how contemporary the appearance of these movements as clearly distinguishable utopian projects actually is. For starters, the very recent appearance of the global movement for human rights is something that has been stressed strongly in recent years by Marxist scholars who want to alert us the inadequacies of the rhetoric of human rights in providing a path through which lasting change in the conditions of humanity in the early 21st century might be achieved. The perspective of this critique can be found in the political writings of the activist and fiction author China Mieville, but by far the most comprehensive argument for both the contemporary nature of human rights and their inadequacy is found in the work of the historian Samuel Moyn.

In his The Last Utopia: Human Rights in Human History Moyn makes a pretty compelling case that far from being the telos of history human rights emerged as the only 20th century utopian project left standing in the 1970’s. For Moyn, human rights emerged as the dominant utopian narrative precisely because all other utopian projects had failed.  Soviet style communism proved itself a failure not with its Eastern European collapse in 1989 but with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 which showed that state communism could not be reformed by democratic means.

Liberalism had failed with the American debacle in Vietnam, and even self-determination which had since the American and French Revolutions had been seen as the only path through which rights could be truly secured had proven itself a failure as the new post-colonial states failed to not only institute rights but went on the offensive against national minorities.

Unlike other utopian projects Moyn holds that human rights was able to survive because it was moralistic rather than programmatic. It gave idealistic youth in the West something to focus their energies on that ultimately had little bearing on the actual political regime either domestically or internationally. The rhetoric of human rights gave communist dissidents a moral kludge with which they could hammer away at Eastern bloc violations of human rights without calling for the end of the communist project and without the need to insight revolution.

I have some problems with Moyn’s insistence on an extremely sharp historical separation between what we understand as human rights and what came before. We have known that human rights and self-determination (in terms of peoples) have had a troubling mutually interdependent relationship since Edmund Burke criticized the ideas behind the French Revolution. The problematic relationship between human rights and self-determination was brilliantly explored back in the 1940’s by Hannah Arendt.

That the articulation of rights in the Universal Declaration of Rights in 1948 was written under the assumption that European colonial empires would be retained is less than Moyn argues a sort of moralistic distraction from European powers hopes to retain their colonies than an attempt to guarantee rights outside of the context in which they had previously resided i.e. the sovereign nation-state. Moyn also makes no mention of international movements that have little connection with the nation-state as such and therefore bear more similarity to human rights as understood today such as the movement to abolish slavery and the rights of women and children.

The Universal Declaration was also written, I should add,  in light the recognition that the of the economic crisis that had collapsed the capitalist economic system and led to the Second World War necessitated the universal adoption of egalitarian systems- social democracy-  as the only forms of society that were sustainable, humanistic, and just.

Where Moyn is helpful is in focusing our view on the contemporary period rather than trying to find deeper historical currents. I found his Last Utopia especially fruitful in understanding how human rights and transhumanism separated course and also in grasping how the separation of either utopian project from the broader question of political and economic composition is, a both Moyn and China Mieville suggest for human rights alone, is likely to lead us into a cul de sac.

Let me start with one of the Soviet dissidents that Moyn thinks was instrumental in launching the human rights movement, Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov. Sakharov was instrumental in the creation of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. The Americans had gotten their first. The explosion of the American hydrogen bomb over the Bikini Atoll in 1954- a weapon 1,000 times more powerful than the fission nuclear weapons dropped on Japan in 1945 signaled the birth of the human capacity to destroy both civilization and life on earth.

The Soviets would explode their own “true hydrogen bomb” a year later in 1955 based largely on Sakharov’s design. Perhaps the responsibility for what he had made possible had affected him, or perhaps his scientific grasp of the destructive potential of these new weapons had made him aware of the universal fragility of life, but by the 1960’s Sakharov had thrown himself into political activism.

His 1968 essay Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom marked his appearance onto the political scene. What is remarkable about this essay is the way it combines different utopian projects that have since become distinct rivals, and which we are only now attempting to recombine. Sakharov moves from the call for international peace to environmentalism to the encouragement of continued technological progress and development of the Third World to human rights.

What unites all of these for Sakharov is both an understanding of a shared human destiny and the recognition of our universal fragility especially in the face of modern, and largely man made, catastrophic risks.

Our challenges and possibilities can not be hermetically sealed off from one another but form a continuum requiring answers on all fronts. The role of science and technology is especially interesting here for Sakharov sees them as not only the source of many of our challenges but as the best and most essential tools we have for solving our problems. Yet, it is the essentially the political choice of what to use those our powers for that is the primary question.

Sakharov’s views are also infused with the perspective that both capitalist and communist societies had arrived at a sort of egalitarian consensus. Communist critiques that capitalism lead to inequality and immiseration and that the victory of communism over capitalism was a moral imperative to save the world’s poor no longer held now that capitalist societies had adopted social democratic policies and aimed at the development and dominance of a broad middle class. The same kind of consensus on social democracy that had been seen in the Universal Declaration.

Sakharov would go on to be a fierce defender of the idea that human right represented the best universvisable ethic for a new global age. Yet the kind of fusion of rights, social democracy, environmentalism and scientific and technological progress seen in his Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom would take a quite different turn in the West a kind of perfusion and splintering of utopian projects whose missions became quite distinct and even rivals for human commitment.

In the late 1960’ and 70’s Western environmentalism took a stand against science and technology a position that is only now being challenged. The struggle for human rights was cut off not merely from environmentalism but from the kinds of social democratic and egalitarian concerns with which it had emerged in tandem. Like environmentalism, human rights had very little to say in terms of the world’s geopolitical order and therefore too often became a ready made masks for US and Western geopolitical interests.

The idea of science and technology as a utopian project also in the 1970’s became separated from its fellow travelers. One can trace this back to the idea of “digitopia” conceived in Silicon Valley which saw in science and technology solutions to all of the world’s problems if only government would get out of the way. Much of contemporary transhumanism would embrace the libertarian assumptions found in “California culture” and this strain is still strong today. This, for instance, is the venture capitalist Peter Thiel a vocal (and financial) supporter of transhumanist causes such as the Methuselah Foundation which our earlier Condorcet would certainly recognize:

 In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms—from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called ‘social democracy.’ . . . We are in a deadly race between politics and technology. . . . The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.

For this reason Theil supports utopian seasteading the goal of which “is to innovate more minimalist forms of government that would force existing regimes to change under competitive pressure.” Ostensibly, such islands would be havens for the testing of all sorts of transhumanist innovations.

Yet, the “island” we are actually on isn’t in the middle of any ocean, but the earth itself. It was from a recognition of this fundamental shared fragility of not just humanity but all of the earthly life that has come to depend upon it that Sakharov was able to envision the integration of many of the 20th centuries utopian projects. Even transhumanism the most seemingly optimistic of modern utopian projects emerges from the recognition of our fragility- the desire to be “god-like” is the best sign that we are very far from being “gods”.

One might view much of transhumanism today as built on the same sorts of isolationist assumptions that underlie the project of utopian seasteading. The greatest danger would be a transhumanism that serves as a tool in the stratification of societies along class lines where transhumanists put up “islands” within societies whose overall well being they have abandoned in the name of achieving post-human ends.

Yet, it may be the the sheer interdependence of the 21st century world makes it impossible to pursue any utopian project that fails to take the shared fate of humanity into account. There is a great need of a truly global movement that integrates our various problems and hopes as it becomes increasingly clear that modern crises do not fit squarely into singular versions of utopia or dystopia. The current crises in Syria and Egypt are environmental, rights based, technological, social democratic and geopolitical all at the same time.

We need a utopian project that addresses all of these problems simultaneously and articulates and expands human possibilities for everyone. Let’s hope that the recent profusion of early 21st century movements that seek the reintegration of utopian projects help break us out of our log jam. With these I would include a branch of transhumanism known as techno-progressivism which has the potential to bridge the recently emerged gap between human rights (along with the rest of life) and transhumanism. One of the best way to do this might be for techno-progressives to become aware of and adopt some of the new reformulation of rights as “capabilities” rather than the traditional notion of rights as entitlements. But that is for another time.