Human Rights: A Political & Cultural Critique

I am late to discover Makua Mutua's well cited (over 1,100 as of this post) book "Human Rights: A Political & Cultural Critique" (2002). Published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, this is work that inspired many of the critiques that followed. Highly recommended. A few notes:

"I wanted to explain why I believe that the human rights corpus should be treated as an experimental paradigm, a work in progress, and not a final inflexible truth. It is important that the human rights movement be fully exposed so that its underbelly can be critically examined. I know that many in the human rights movement mistakenly claim to have seen a glimpse of eternity, and think of the human rights corpus as a summit of human civilization, a sort of an end to human history. This view is so self-righteous and lacking in humility that it of necessity must invite probing critiques from scholars of all stripes." (p. ix)

"The movement's apoliticization obscures its true character and the cultural identity of the norms it seeks to universalize. While many cultures and peoples of all political and historical traditions around the world have accepted the idea of human rights, many have wanted to couple their embrace with a degree of originality. This ranges from marginal contributions, on the one hand, to radical reformulations on the other." (p. 1-2)

"… the chapter is fundamentally an attempt at locating—philosophically, culturally, and historically—the normative edifice of the human rights corpus. If the human rights movement is driven by a totalitarian or totalizing impulse, that is, the mission to require that all human societies transform themselves to fit a particular blueprint, then there is an acute shortage of deep reflection and a troubling abundance of zealotry in the human rights community." (p. 13)

"Any valid critique must first acknowledge that the human rights movement, like earlier crusades, is a bundle of contradictions. It does not have, therefore, a monopoly on virtue that its most vociferous advocates claim. I argue here that human rights, and the relentless campaign to universalize them, present a historical continuum in an unbroken chain of Western conceptual and cultural dominance over the past several centuries. At the heart of this continuum is a seemingly incurable virus: the impulse to universalize Eurocentric norms and values by repudiating, demonizing, and "othering" that which is different and non-European. By this argument, I do not mean to suggest that human rights are bad per se or that the human rights corpus is irredeemable. Rather, I suggest that the globalization of human rights fits a historical pattern in which all high morality comes from the West as a civilizing agent against lower forms of civilization in the rest of the world." (p. 15)

"Although the human rights movement arose in Europe, with the express purpose of containing European savagery, it is today a civilizing crusade aimed primarily at the Third World. It is one thing for Europeans and North Americans, whose states share a common philosophical and legal ancestry, to create a common political and cultural template to govern their societies. It is quite another to insist that their particular vision of society is the only permissible civilization which must now be imposed on all human societies, particularly those outside Europe." (p. 19)

"The view that human rights is an ideology with deep roots in liberalism and democratic forms of government is now supported by senior human rights academics in the West. The cultural biases of the human rights corpus can only be properly understood if it is contextualized within liberal theory and philosophy. Understood from this position, human rights become an ideology with a specific cultural and ethnographic fingerprint." (p. 23)

"The adoption in 1948 by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the foundational document of the human rights movement—sought to give universal legitimacy to a doctrine that is fundamentally Eurocentric in its construction. Sanctimonious to a fault, the Universal Declaration underscored its arrogance by proclaiming itself the "common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations." The fact that half a century later human rights have become a central norm of global civilization does not vindicate their universality. It is rather a telling testament to the conceptual, cultural, economic, military, and philosophical domination of the European West over non-European peoples and traditions." (p. 154)

"… the West was able to impose its philosophy of human rights on the rest of the world because in 1948 it dominated the United Nations. Non-Western philosophies and traditions—particularly on the nature of man and the purposes for political society—were either unrepresented or marginalized during the early formulation of human rights. Most Asian and African societies were European colonies and not participants in the making of human rights law." (p. 154)

"Like earlier crusades, the human rights movement lacks the monopoly of virtue that its advocates claim. If human rights are to represent a higher human intelligence—which I believe they should—they must overcome the seemingly incurable virus to universalize Eurocentric norms and values by demonizing, repudiating, and re-creating that which is different and non-European. Human rights are not a problem per se nor is the human rights corpus irredeemable. But we must realize that the current human rights represent just one tradition, that of Europe. And even in European or Eurocentric political and philosophical universes, which include Europe, the dominant traditions in the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand, the human rights corpus is an expression of only one European tradition. It will remain incomplete and illegitimate in non-European societies unless it is reconstructed to create a truly multicultural mosaic. The universalization of human rights cannot succeed unless the corpus is moored in all the cultures of the world. Ideas do not become universal merely because powerful interests declare them to be so. Inclusion—not exclusion—is the key to legitimacy." (p. 156) 

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Dugin on Racism

Part 3 on Dugin's works (see Part 1 and Part 2).

Many of the attacks and/or associations made of Dugin suggest his philosophy is "far right" and connected with white supremacist movements. While such groups or actors may use his works and some publishers associated with such ideologies, that does not in and of itself mean Dugin holds such views. On race and racism, from his book The Fourth Political Theory (2009 original, 2012 translation), he writes:

"Hitler's racism, however, is only one form of racism – this type of racism is the most obvious, straightforward, biological, and therefore the most repulsive. There are other forms of racism – cultural racism (asserting that there are high and low cultures), civilizational (dividing people into those civilized and those insufficiently civilized), technological (viewing technological development as the main criterion of societal value), social (stating, in the spirit of the Protestant doctrine of predestination, that the rich are the best and the greatest as compared to the poor), economic racism (based on which all humanity is ranked according to regions of material well-being), and evolutionary racism (for which it is axiomatic that human society is the result of biological development, in which the basic processes of evolution of the species – survival of the fittest, natural selection, etc. – continue today). The European and American society is fundamentally afflicted with this type of racism, unable to eradicate it from itself despite all the effort." (p. 44)

"The newest types of racism are glamour, fashion, and following the latest informational trends. The norms are set by models, designers, party socialites, and the owners of the latest version of mobile phones or laptop computers. Conformity or nonconformity with the glamour code is located at the very base of the mass strategies for social segregation and cultural apartheid. Today, this is not associated directly with the economic factor, but is gradually gaining independent sociological features: this is the ghost of the glamour dictatorship – the new generation of racism." (p. 45)

"As one of its essential features, the "Fourth Political Theory" rejects all forms and varieties of racism and all forms of normative hierarchization of societies based on the ethnic, religious, social, technological, economic, or cultural grounds. Societies can be compared, but we cannot state that one of them is objectively better than the others. Such an assessment is always subjective, and any attempt to raise a subjective assessment to the status of a theory is racism." (p. 46)

"Today, we reject and criticize fascism for its racial component, but we forget that this ideology is also built on the ideas of progress and evolution just like the other two political theories of modernity. If we were to visualize the essence of the Nazi ideology and the role of progress and evolution in it, then the connection between racism and evolution would become obvious to us. This connection – in a concealed form – can be seen in liberalism and even in communism. Even if not biological, we see cultural, technological, and economic racism in the ideology of the "free market" and in the dictatorship of the proletariat." (p. 59) 

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Fourth Political Theory

This is the first of a series of posts on (translated) works by Alexander Dugin, a Russian philosopher who is suggested to have significant (in)direct influence over the way Putin sees the world. The first book explored in this series is "The Fourth Political Theory", written in 2009 and translated in 2012. Much has been said about Dugin; this book is his effort to outline a fourth political theory, different from fascism, communism, and liberalism. The book starts a discussion, often done in opposition or in contrast to existing positions within other theories but is less explicit about its own new stances (although the author might disagree, it seems a re-positioning of ideas within existing constellations of ideas as opposed to a new theory per se). Some notes:

"Tradition (religion, hierarchy, family) and its values were overthrown at the dawn of modernity. Actually, all three political theories were conceived as artificial ideological constructions by people who comprehended, in various ways, 'the death of God' (Friedrich Nietzsche), the 'disenchantment of the world' (Max Weber), and the 'end of the sacred'. This was the core of the New Era of Modernity: man came to replace God, philosophy and science replaced religion, and the rational, forceful, and technological constructs took the place of Revelation." (p. 25)

"What the "Fourth Political Theory" is in terms of negation is now clear. It is neither fascism, nor communism, nor liberalism. In principle, this kind of negation is rather significant. It embodies our determination to go beyond the usual ideological and political paradigms and to make an effort in order to overcome the inertia of the clichés within political thinking." (p. 35)

"The definition of a historical subject is the fundamental basis for political ideology in general, and it defines its structure. Therefore, in this matter, the "Fourth Political Theory" may act in the most radical way by rejecting all of these constructions as candidates for a historical subject. The historical subject is neither an individual, nor class, nor the state, nor race. This is the anthropological and the historical axiom of the "Fourth Political Theory"." (p. 38)

"Instead of the idea of the monotonic process, progress, and modernization, we must endorse other slogans directed toward life, repetition, the preservation of that which is worth preserving and changing that which should be changed. Instead of modernization and growth, we need the direction of balance, adaptability, and harmony. Instead of moving upward and forward, we must adapt to that which exists, to understand where we are, and to harmonize socio-political processes." (p. 65)

"People have become the contemplators of television, they have learned how to switch channels better and faster. Many of them don't stop at all, they click the remote control and it's already not important what is on TV – is it actors or news. The spectators of Postmodernity don't understand anything at all in principle of what is going on. It's just a stream of impressive pictures. The spectator gets used to microprocesses, he becomes a "subspectator" that watches not the channels or programmes but separate segments, the sequences of programs." (p. 84)

"The American century is thought of as a remelting of the existing world order into a new one, built up on strictly American patterns. This process is conditionally called "democratization", and it is directed to a few concrete geopolitical enclaves that are in the first place problematic from the point of view of liberalism. In this way, there came to be the projects of "the Great Middle East", "Great Central Asia" and so on. The meaning of them all consists in the uprooting of inertial national, political, economic, social, religious and cultural models and their replacement by the operational system of American liberalism." (p. 149) 

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The Concept of Human Rights in Africa

"Human rights talk constitutes one of the main elements in the ideological armoury of imperialism. Yet from the point of view of the African people, human rights struggles constitute the stuff of their daily lives. For these two interconnected reasons, human rights talk needs to be subjected to a closer historical and political scrutiny." (p. vii)

The above quote is drawn from the book "The Concept of Human Rights in Africa" (1989) by Issa G. Shivji (Professor of Law, University of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania). Shivji writes with a fire that ignites. Parts are dated, as one would expect from a book published in 1989,  others remain provocative and topical for today. This is well worth a read for anyone interested in human rights, and in particular those looking for alternative voices on the subject. Chapter 1 (on the discourse) is reflective of the 80s, however the historical review of the legal basis of human rights remains important. The critique waged in Chapter 2 puts down "fundamental premises" and "political and ideological consequences of such a discourse on the anti-imperialist, democratic struggles of the broad masses", which inspire continued debate and discussion. The latter chapters, on the way forward and examples of dominant and revolutionary tendencies, is situated at the end of 1980s but provides examples for how analyses might be undertaken of more recent human rights agreements. This book was also published by CODESRIA (as a number of other books by African authors in the social sciences). Some quotes:

"Just as in the early Christian crusades it was legitimate to save the soul even if it meant trampling the body, so in the human rights crusade it was fair to protect rights even while napalming the humans. 'Human rights ideology' is an ideology of domination and part of the imperialist world outlook. Like other ideologies of domination in yester-epochs, the dominant human rights ideology claims and proclaims universality, immortality and immutability while promulgating in practice class-parochialism, national oppression and 'patronising' authoritarianism." (p. 3)

"Classical democracy is linked with the Western bourgeoisie which arose in Europe during the revolution that overthrew feudalism in, what have since been called, bourgeois democratic revolutions. The bourgeoisie marched apace and within a century transformed their countries of birth while marauding the rest of the world and planting its fangs all over the globe, including Africa. While unashamedly taking under its wings varied reactionary and backward social forces, from feudalists to zamindars and chiefs..." (p. 5)

"Since the second world war, human rights talk has been one of the central planks in the foreign and domestic ideologies of the United States. It is clearly expressed in the cold-war struggle with the Soviet bloc on the one hand, and in the oppression and domination of the Third World, including Africa, on the other. In some periods more intensely than others, the human rights ideology has been used by different regimes in the US on both these levels. In this regard it has played a double, if contradictory, role. On the international level, it is a rationalization for interference and intervention as well as domination of the Third World countries ('in the interest of democracy and free world') and on the domestic level it is an important element in reproducing the hegemony of imperial-bourgeois ideology by bolstering the image of the US as a country maintaining civilised human standards internationally." (p. 53)

"This should not come as a surprise to any African who has the slightest knowledge of reality beyond the thin veneer of official imperialist 'brain washing'. Who does not know that Mobutu, who gracefully presides over death and detention chambers of Zaire, was installed by the CIA? Who is so ignorant as to forget that the Lion of Juddah (Haile Selassie), who turned his country into a jungle where people in their thousands starved to death in fear and famine, was one of the greatest beneficiaries of US military arsenal? Many know that the US is one of the staunchest allies of [apartheid] South Africa; the military supplier of UNITA in Angola; the benefactor of dictators like Banda and Moi and the protector of Liberia's military nincompoop Samuel Doe. On the one hand, these facts are so well-documented that they need no repetition, yet on the other hand they have been so successfully suppressed in the mainstream human rights scholarship that they need to be broadcast from roof-tops." (p. 55) 

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