Rights vs. Liberation

The word rights is one we hear a lot in connection with politics, especially from those on the left. Human rights, women's rights, animal rights, worker's rights and so forth. But what exactly are these rights based on? In a world where language defines our society (rather than the other way around), we obviously need to be very careful with how we choose to speak.

"Rights" are not something which we take for ourselves, but rather things which are granted to us. In modern society, there seem to be two types of rights. One type is granted by the state, the other type is considered innate. I will explore these in turn.

State-Given Rights

As an anarchist, the irrelevance of state-given rights to me is clearly obvious, however, time and time again, I hear other anarchists referring to them. This seems to be especially prevelant amongst anarchists based in the USA, where anarchists are heard to complain when their "rights under the US constitution" are ignored, and in relation to war and imprisonment, such as the "rights under the Geneva convention" of the prisoners at places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

Surely, as anarchists, we understand that states only grant concessions when forced to in order to quell dissent – the 8 hour day, the repealing of the Jim Crow laws, granting women and blacks the vote are all examples of this. And, as anarchists, we understand that even where the state is forced to grant concessions, it will usually try to bring the same results back in a more palatable form (the above 3 examples are all relevant here too). What was once de jure becomes de facto, and the state survives to oppress another day.

Why then, are we so surprised when state-given rights are violated? This is the norm, not the exception. In making the issue the violation of state-given rights, rather than state oppression, we allow the state to dictate the agenda, leaving ourselves eternally on the back foot. As long as we argue within a statist framework, we will remain trapped inside it.

Innate Rights

For activists concerned with them, issues such as human rights and animal rights are frequently regarded as innate inside the animal (whether human or not) they refer to. In our society, there is only one thing that is imagined to have the power to grant innate rights, and that is god.

The number of atheists who refer to these innate rights is bizarre. Innate rights assume a universal truth, a universal good and bad, which can only come from a higher being. As with state-given rights, discussing innate rights only serves to further entrench that which is normative, namely a belief in a higher power (god).

Liberation – An alternative view

An alternative to the rights-based view already exists and has a heavy usage within political circles – it is liberation. Unlike passively recieved rights, liberation requires active participation. It is not based on any universal truth. Liberation is bold, liberation confronts the oppressors, and, eventually, liberation can bring true freedom, not reliant on the framework of the oppressor or the belief that an ulimate authority will make things right.

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6 Responses to Rights vs. Liberation

  1. Don Oorst says:

    In fairness to the rights discourse, the concept of “Rights” came from liberal philosophers, and when they spoke of it, they tended to mean it came from reason rather than “above”.

    For instance Kant’s Moral Imperrative worked on the assumption that “men”(sic) where rational animals and thus capable of autonomy and therefore capable of comeing up with moral laws and rights that passed the test of the moral imperative. (In a nutshell, something is moral, if it can be universalised. Speech for instance is moral, if it does not diminish anothers capacity for speech. Murder is not moral, because you take away the other persons ability to murder (because they are dead), and thus murder can’t be a universal practice.

    A while back I was flirting with an idea of “kantian anarchism”,. based on the notion that power cant be universalised in the same way. If you are a ruler over me, then I am not a ruler over you”. A philospohicaly minded friend however pointed out the same line of reasoning leads to the modern state as well, as it can be universalised by the concept of the constitutional state wherein the ruler is under law as well.

    Interestingly, another liberal philosopher, Bentham, said that “natural rights where nonsense on stilts” (badly paraphrased). His take was that logic was not a thing in itself, and thus still essentially arbitrary, and instead proposed a more “materialist” measure that said that one should balance the suffering against the joy of a move to see whether it was worth it. I dunno, benthams technique always seemed more a technique than a philosophical framework. Same with his more modern counterparts, Rawls (who is not a utilitarian, but his method I think is still susceptible in the same way).

    In my take the problem with ‘rights’ is they are atomic (separate and indivisible). By that I mean, they try and exist in isolation and at best provide windows to a larger picture. In my view the works of guys like Deleuze and Guatarri , and protege’s like Negri and Hardt point to a sort of dialog of “nomadic” liberation , where we dont look at atomic rights so much as as assemblages, like complex machinerys of broad liberations (note the s is important here), characterised by diversity and multiplicities, rather than individual broad goals such as “socialism” or “feminism”. None of which is to say any of the “atoms” are uninteresting, but that they are all inter-related across logics into a vast ‘rhysome’ of freedom that lurks beneath the surface waiting to bust out. Everyone pursuing there own little goals, but together. Scratch my itch, I’ll scratch yours.

    I just said a lot of words.

  2. Marco says:

    Thanks for this article. I would mostly agree with both the main article and the comment above. The following is how I articulate my argument against universal human rights. I wouldn’t agree with discarding the language of rights, though. I still think we can use it, just in a different way.

    Please bear with me while I lay out my argument: At the moment I am becoming really interested in philosophies of immanence (immanence being the opposite of transcendence). When Nietzcshe proclaimed the “death of God”, humanists like Jean-Paul Sartre provided a way forward… you know, there is no invisible hand; no “theological determinism”; we are masters of our own universe. It provided a good antidote to centuries of people being disempowered and deferring their own power to some sort of external transcendent authority. But the effect of this sort of humanism was to isolate humankind within the universe, to make it somehow special, unique and different. Agency was seen as mythically human. So, in effect, Man had taken the place of God. Man above nature, as God was above Man. It was a new form of transcendence.

    Then Foucault came along and proclaimed the “death of Man”. And this has been having huge philosophical implications ever since. I used to have naive agentic thinking, and although I still believe we all have agency, its a case of some people have more agency than others. Both structure and agency are products of emergent factors… they’re contingent. And people like Latour and Deleuze & Guattari refuse to see agency as mythically human, and they actually attribute agency to the nonhuman realm as well.

    Where Sartre provided a way forward after Nietzcshe, I believe Deleuze and Guattari provide the best way forward after Foucault. So basically, their philosophy is one of immanence and “emergence”. Emergence is the idea that there is no determinism, theological, biological, cultural or otherwise. There is no ghost in the machine, no invisible hand, no God, no Man, no prime mover. All there is, is chaos, and the plane of immanence populated by abstract machines. An abstract machine is an assemblage of lower-level components that hasn’t yet stratified into a body… for example, the Earth was one huge abstract machine before it stratified into rivers, mountains, plateaus, oceans, etc. Our cells are abstract machines before they stratify into organs and specialised cell types. A group of strangers in a room is an abstract machine until they emerge as a cohesive unit, or bickering factions or whatever. That is emergence. And a basic premise is that any elements within a pre-emergent assemblage, or abstract machine, do not necessarily always form the same higher-level body. It’s contingent on time, chance, accident. Everything’s accident and chaos. What we see as reality is just the chance aggregation, stratification and emergence of elements.

    So this is emergence and immanence. Believing in universal human rights would imply transcendence; that somehow we have “mythical” rights which pre-exist the subject. I believe nothing pre-exists the subject. Notions of rights emerge with the subject. Foucault said “power is productive”, meaning that any imposition of power produces the subjectivity to be-against within those who are being dominated. It’s a case of anti-Semitism producing the Jew. People find themselves in situations. Notions of rights emerge with that; in response to those situations. They are constructed like anything else. Different rights emerge at different points in time amongst different groups of people.

    This doesn’t diminish the importance of the language of rights, however. But seeing them as emerging with the subject and not pre-existing the subject, brings it back down to the plane of immanence. It allows for some relativism too, which I feel is important, since part of what Foucault meant by the death of Man wasn’t only an attack on “Man above nature”, but also an attack on “Man above woman” and “Western scientific rationalist Man above the rest of humankind”. Western man has for the most part associated himself with the ideas of universalism, objectivism and rationalism, marking himself distinct and above colonised subjects. Oftentimes, claims to universalism, objectivism and rationalism have been but thin smokescreens for white supremacy.

    With increasing emphasis on ideas of immanence, and of no invisible hands or prime movers except for that of emergence from chaos, some suggest replacing the word universe, with that of “multiverse”. Being relativistic, about human rights or whatever else, doesn’t mean that we become fragmented though. It is entirely possible to be both singular and common. For example, in an orchestra, each instrument remains singular, but they play in a common tune. I think that is a good metaphor. Reducing multiplicity to unity is fascist. That’s why I don’t believe in any universalisms or transcendentalisms. As leftists, I don’t think ‘unity’ is the goal, but rather, ‘commonality’, since commonality still allows for difference. So that’s why I have stopped believing in universal human rights.

  3. Dave M says:

    Sorry to get pedantic here, but I don’t agree with your linguistic assertions. I believe that society defines language _much_ more than the other way around. It’s particularly more noticeable (and curious) when the language we use affects our society, but on the whole it’s much rarer. I spend my life as a dictionary geek collecting the lexical artifacts that our society has created.

    My favourite Collins defines the “right” you’re discussing in sense 34, “any claim, title, etc., that is morally just or legally granted as allowable or due to a person.” I can understand your state-given rights coming under the legal rights classification, and your innate rights would fall under moral rights. But are you really saying that you need God in order to have morals? In my experience, nearly all people have a concept of morality that involves empathising with the other, boiling down to “what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow person”.

    Is liberty meaningful without empathy? I don’t think so. I’d prefer others to consider my innate rights before exercising their liberty to hurt or exploit me, thanks!

  4. Utah phillips said.... says:

    “freedom is something you are born with, the state can’t give you freedom, or take it away. Freedom is something you assume and wait for someone to try to take it away from you. The degree to which you resist is the degree to which you are free”

  5. Asher says:

    Just a quick reply.

    Marcus – “As leftists, I don’t think ‘unity’ is the goal, but rather, ‘commonality’, since commonality still allows for difference.”

    I totally agree with that :)

    Dave – I’m not saying you need to believe in god to have ethics/morals. The danger is believing that ones ethics/morals are objectively true / applicable to all. To quote myself (from the discussion on this article from Aotearoa Indymedia):

    “I would certainly not presume that my beliefs are objectively true (I don’t neccessarily think ANYTHING is), and to me the belief in ones own views (whether all or some) as an objective truth leads to authoritarianism – ie, if something is objectively true, then that objective truth is imposed on all, regardless of whether someone agrees or disagrees, and thus the framework they are given to work in is limited in a similar way to how state given rights attempt to impose an “objective truth” that states are good to all who work within their framework.”

  6. Jude says:

    A couple of thoughts:

    The concept of ‘innate’ rights has been discussed by John Locke (1960) who based his ideas on comparison of humans in their ‘natural state’, when individuals merely banded together for reciprocal benefits before the introduction of hierarchies. Locke’s idea was that ‘human rights’ are the things which humans have access to in this natural state, including but not limited to food, water, and shelter. The idea that we now need to protect the human rights of others is thus implicitly tied to the idea that we have left our ‘natural state.’ This departure from our natural state comes from the power relationships that started with deliberate human control of nature with the domestication of animals and plants by Neolithic man (sic), approximately 11,000 years BP.

    Note no god involved, just hierarchies – i.e. society. Thus to me it seems that the belief that it is a god that has the ability to grant rights is a means of deflecting critique away from the society that is the root cause of these rights being lost.

    With regard to state-given rights vs liberation, your point is neetly backed up by Alex De Waal in his work on famines (Famine Crimes, 1997), which is predicated on the argument that lasting rights cannot be given but must be won. His major example is the winning of the right to food by the Indian population – the right to protection from famine became the cause celebre of the nationalist movement following the 1943 Bengal famines, with the consequence that protection against famine is ensured not just by government in law, but by the free press and the knowledge of the people that it is their right.
    (Fantastic book if you have time to read it – very convincing argument that foreign aid does nothing except let corrupt governments off the hook and quell mass uprisings which might lead to change)

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