Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Human Rights in the Age of National Populism. Les droits de l’homme rendent-ils idiots? Justine Lacroix et Jean-Yves Pranchère.

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Les droits de l'homme rendent-ils idiots ? - Lacroix - Pranchère ...

 Les droits de l’homme rendent-ils idiot ? (2019) Justine Lacroix et Jean-Yves Pranchère.

“This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham.”

Karl Marx Capital Vol 1. Chapter 6. The Buying and Selling of Labour-Power.

Earlier this year Benjamin Ward, of Human Rights Watch, wrote,

The government’s new Attorney General Suella Braverman, its top legal adviser, is on record recently arguing that the courts’ ability to hold the government to account should be restrained, and expressing her criticism of human rights.

It’s increasingly clear that Johnson plans to water down the Human Rights Act, which keeps us safe from government harm, and make it harder for British courts to intervene when the state tramples on people’s rights.

“Human rights are no longer popular”, Justine Lacroix and Jean-Yves Pranchère begin Les droits de l’homme rendent-ils idiot ? with this statement from a former  judge at the European Court of Human Rights, Françoise Tulkens. That they are not a “priority” for governments. Not only have we seen national populist leaders, on both sides of the Atlantic, in practice undermine human rights protections, but scorn for  “droits-de-l’hommisme” has grown. The idea that rights-culture, rights-ideology, is a feature of the “nouvel ordre néolibérale” , an alliance between capitalist economics and social liberalism, remains influential on the left. Individual rights lead to individualism, people “sans appartenance et sans obligation à l’égard de la collectivité” (without belonging and without obligation to the collective)  The “culture of narcissism” a demand for “respect” without concern for others, undermines the family, and “respect d’autrui” (others). The “multiplication” of rights, and obsession about them,  has created bad citizens and a world of “incivilité”.

Les droits de l’homme rendent-ils idiot ? is a defence of human rights on the “champ intellectuel”. This is a crowded field. The authors begin by warning that national populism, or, as they call it,  “illiberal democracy”, puts forward an ideal of “l”homogénéité nationale” in countries like Poland and Hungary that moulds politics against  what Carl Schmitt called “the enemy”. This is in contrast to the democratic principles though by the thinker Claude Lefort. For the former Socialisme ou Barbarie thinker democracy comes from everybody, but democratic (institutional) sovereignty is an “empty” space (lieu vide)  in that no party in the name of the people can permanently occupy it.  Efforts, from identifying ‘the’ people with one party, or determining politics through a totalitarian one-party, one person, “égocrate” eats up the very incertianity that breathes life into democracy.  Lefort, as they later outline, is a touchstone for the idea that human rights are self-created, part of a long process he called the “democratic revolution”. Human rights are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to create this democratic world, one  that everybody can live in.

Lacroix and  Pranchère do not cite Jacques Rancière. But the radical philosopher’s asserted  that human rights are constantly redefined, through “dissensus”  from the “outside” by the “plebe”, the “rights of the rightless” (Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man?). “In this way, the ‘‘abstract’’ and litigious Rights of Man and of the citizen are tentatively turned into real rights, belonging to real groups, attached to their identity and to the recognition of their place in the global population”.This underlines the way that those excluded from the homogeneous sovereign people of national populism create new demands. Written in 1791 Olympe de Gouges’s Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne is one such claim followed by her calls to abolish slavery,. First and foremost she demanded the right for women to be equals in politics, “A woman has the right to mount the scaffold. She must possess equally the right to mount the speaker’s platform.” The Guillotine did not stop her voice ringing  throughout the ages.

Neoliberalism is an economic project, a belief in the efficiency of markets, not a belief in human rights. Hayek was opposed to human rights and any kind of social “constructionism”, opposing human rights in the same vein as Edmund Burke, with a experimental knowledge rooted in tradition. Only  “néolibéralisme est responsable pour le néolibéralisme.” Against this Lacroix and  Pranchère praise a side of John Stuart Mill and Benjamin Constant’s political liberalism, their resistance to authoritarianism. They can help indicate to those who draw on the human rights thought see  the need to balance “liberty and equality”.

Many on the left remain suspicious of human rights. Some of this goes back to the early years of socialism. Marx’s famous reference to human rights in Capital was accompanied by support for the “legal limitation of the working day”, a modest Magna Carta. In the passage heading the present review, Jeremy  Bentham was as an unlikely figure to muster in support of human rights. He was, the authors note, as hostile to the French Revolution’s founding declarations as De Maistre and Edmund Burke. More so in fact, in Anarchical Fallacies Critique of the Doctrine of Inalienable, Natural Rights (1796), he dismissed them” Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense, — nonsense upon stilts.” Perhaps Benthan advocacy of the workhouse could be seen as a means to ensure the greatest good, through a felicific calculus of pleasure and pain, but of human rights ideology, there was none.

Justine Lacroix and Jean-Yves Pranchère offer this way of looking at Marx’s views. In the celebrated statement that the  “free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” implies that we base on the liberty of all on the liberty of each individual, and not the other way around. (Il s’agissait bien de fonder le liberté de tous sur la liberté de chacun, et non l’inverse.” (Page 94)

Lacroix and  Pranchère are academics, who have published on political theory and human rights. They are both  based on Brussels. But, references to (mostly) French language controversies aside (they offer important insights into the writings of Marcel Gauchet for example)  Les droits de l’homme rendent-ils idiot ?  has striking echoes of near- identical debates in Britain and the anglophone world. In part this is the result of the curious reprise of US polemicist Christopher Lasch’ writings on the “therapeutic” roots of narcissistic politics,  by, amongst many others,  the French ‘original socialist’ Jean-Claude Michéa, who considers that the original fault of French socialism was to have aligned with liberalism. But, as we have indicated with PM Boris Johnson’s potential attacks on human rights legislation, these are not only issues stuck in the world of ideas. From here we move to the global ‘culture wars’, and to clashes on battle-grounds of American liberalism and conservatism, Bolsarono’s Brazil, and back to Europe’s illiberal states and national populists.

There is , it could be argued, increasing convergence between the ideas of conservatives and a certain nationalist or “sovereigntist” left. This has a more limited range, perhaps to Europe. where the stakes have involved parties of the left with  influential socialist traditions that are marginal in the USA. Every one of the book’s broader account of the claims against human rights and the “culture wars”  they are held to foster, every linkage between neoliberalism and human rights, every complaint against ‘ interfering’ laws and gender politics, is to be found on the Spiked Magazine (run by former Revolutionary Marxists ) site, Blue Labour (whose views on the family could be inserted into many paragraphs), in the writings of the Full Brexit supporters and in groupuscules like the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

Les droits de l’homme rendent-ils idiot ?  makes a case that has its counterpart in Britain, and elsewhere, despite our obvious different historical relationship to the first French Republic’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789. A defence of human rights as part of a strategy of solidarity (“une politique de la solidarité”) and internationalism open to defending both individuals and social groups fighting injustice. Justine Lacroix and Jean-Yves Pranchère are to be congratulated on showing some of the way.

See also: Review: Les droits de l’homme rendent-ils idiot ?


2 Responses

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  1. I strongly recommend the late Bob Fine’s ‘Democracy and the Rule of Law – Liberal ideals and Marxist critiques’ (Pluto Press, 1984) on this and related subjects.

    Jim Denham

    August 13, 2020 at 11:29 am

    • I have not read that, thanks Jim. As you can imagine many of us read and discussed these issues a lot, largely during the 1990s, and then after the rows about ‘humanitarian intervention’.

      In recent years I have gone back to Lefort, and the debates he provoked, and (from a more Marxist original background) Balibar.

      It really only takes a moment to see Spiked/Blue Labour and the others, including obviously Andrew Murray, railing about human rights, individualism and narcissism.

      Andrew Coates

      August 13, 2020 at 12:10 pm

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