Paradoxes of human rights - Robert Kurz

Analysis of the paradoxes of the concept of "human rights" under capitalism, which "objectively" defines human rights as a function of the individual's "solvency" or usefulness in capital's valorization process, and "subjectively" according to whether the individual is ideologically defined as a "friend" or an "enemy".

Submitted by Alias Recluse on June 14, 2011

There have always been ideas in whose name armies were mobilized, human beings killed, countries devastated and cities destroyed. The last world superpower and its vassals are no exceptions: together with the fighter jets, tanks and combat helicopters of the army invading Iraq, the idea of human rights is again mobilized to present the world with an exculpatory brief. But what is noteworthy is that the critics of this process appeal to the same ideas. The millions who have protested throughout the world against the plans for the war do not speak a different ideological language than the Bush administration.

Concerning principles, Noam Chomsky says the same thing as George W. Bush. It is in the name of human rights that the rain of bombs falls; it is in the name of human rights that one helps and comforts the victims.

Critics usually say that ideals and reality diverge. If there is a human right to life and personal safety, how can one then accept the fact that western military interventions kill more innocent people than the atrocities of the dictators and terrorists?

The U.S., they say, uses human rights solely as a pretext for the utterly profane interests of power and economics; the legal situation of the population does not interest it, it is only interested in the oil. There are thus, the argument continues, two weights and two measures: wherever those in power are distinguished by their good behavior, allowing, for instance, North American bombers to be stationed in their territories (as in Turkey, probably, or Saudi Arabia), the self-designated western world policeman has offered no objection to the pillage, persecution and massacre of entire segments of their populations, or to their dictatorial conditions. None of these arguments are absolutely false as far as the facts are concerned. The problem resides in their interpretation. Is it just a matter of western imperial power’s incoherence overwhelming its own principles? In such a case one can somehow reclaim these principles, at least in accordance with their natures, and pure power would be left without legitimation. Or is it otherwise, do the by no means humanitarian interventions completely and really correspond to the logic of human rights? In the latter case the error would be on the side of the critics, who are ignorant of the essence of those principles. At first sight, this last notion seems to be absurd. Does not the content of human rights consist precisely in the universal recognition of all individuals equally, without any distinction? How, then, could the lack of respect shown for the lives of so many individuals be compatible with human rights? Whoever raises this kind of objection forgets that the totally normal and everyday functioning of market-driven global socialization implies a permanent non-recognition of the lives of innumerable human beings. When the U.S. “high-tech” bombers drop their fatal cargoes upon the just and the unjust, they are only actively and violently executing the same logic which is passively and silently carried out, on a much larger scale, by the economic process. Year after year, millions of people (including children) die of hunger and illness for the simple reason that they are insolvent.

A Solvent Being

It is true that western universalism suggests the unrestricted recognition of all individuals, in equal measure, as “human beings in general”, endowed with its celebrated “inalienable rights”. At the same time, however, the universal market constitutes the foundation of all rights, including the most basic human rights. The war for world order, which also kills people, is declared in the name of free markets, which also kill people and, additionally, they are killed in the name of human rights, since the latter are not imaginable outside the market form. We must confront a paradoxical relation: recognition through non-recognition, or, inversely, non-recognition through recognition. The apparent contradiction dissolves if we ask ourselves about the definition of “human being” which lies behind this paradox. The first formulation of this definition states: “The human being” is in principle a solvent being. What this naturally means, consequently, is that a completely insolvent individual cannot, in principle, be a human being. The more solvent a being is, the more similar it is to a man, and the less capable it is of meeting this criterion, the more inhuman it is. If an eccentric millionaire bequeaths his fortune to his dog, in accordance with this logic the thereby-enriched animal is more of a human being than a child of the shanty-towns. Most conspicuously, in this example solvency constitutes only a contingent external characteristic. But if we understand the definition of human being as a social relation in which an animal naturally cannot engage, then the characteristic of solvency indicates that it pertains to a subject of the system of commodity production. Only a being which makes money can be a subject of law. The capability of entering into a juridical relation is therefore connected to the capability of participating in some way in the capital valorization process.

Natural and Social Law

According to this definition, the human being must be capable of working, he needs to sell himself, or to sell something (when necessary, his own body’s organs); his existence must satisfy the criteria of profitability. This is the tacit assumption of modern law generally, and thus applies to human rights as well. In the beginning, this law was called “natural law”. It was particularly the philosophers of western Enlightenment who viewed individuals as if they had emerged from the womb directly into the world in the “natural” form of a subject of law. This form is, however, purely social; it is as “natural” as a lease agreement or the blueprints for an intercontinental ballistic missile. There was only one ideological reason to speak here of “nature”: the social forms of the modern system of commodity production, of abstract “labor”, of business rationality and the total market were considered to be “natural” forms of human coexistence. The human being, so we are told to this day, is socialized by commodities, money and market in accordance with “natural laws”, exactly as the beaver constructs dams and the bee collects nectar for the hive. And since the market presupposes that human beings conclude legal contracts for all their vital processes, the supposed naturalness of capital and the market must also include a supposed naturalness of the human being as the subject of law. Human rights must only be the elementary guarantee of this social form: the universal recognition of “man” exclusively in accordance with this definition. The real human being, however, the living individual, is never born, shaped by a biological automatism, into the quality of a subject of valorization and of law; a systemic gap opens up between the real existence of individuals and that social form. In a certain way, this gap is not only an “ontogenetic” gap, having to do with individual men, but is also “phylogenetic”, linked to the historical development of society. The constitution of capitalism and of its corresponding universal juridical form was so unnatural that it was only in modernity that this system arose and came up against the vigorous resistance of the human being. Originally, abstract “labor” was not a “right” to which all men aspired, but a relation of coercion, imposed with violence from above, towards the end of transforming human beings into “money-making machines”. Here one can observe a paradoxical double interconnection between “recognition” and “non-recognition” in the modern juridical form. The essence of “rights” implies a relation of inclusion and exclusion. Universality is only the pretension towards the absolute rule of this form. As was already shown by the external characteristic of solvency, it is a matter of the rule of a social abstraction, incarnated in the form of money, and consequently, of the law. But this form abstracts precisely the physical form, the corporeal social and cultural imperfections of the human being, reducing the latter to a mere being-there, in the quality of units of energy expenditure for the end-in-itself of monetary valorization. The “human being in general” to which human rights refer is a merely abstract being, that is, the human being as the bearer, and at the same time the slave, of the ruling social abstraction. And it is only as such an abstract human being that he is universally recognized. This signifies, however, that such recognition includes non-recognition: material, social and cultural needs are precisely excluded from basic recognition. The man of human rights is recognized only as a being reduced to a social abstraction; he is therefore reduced, as the Italian philosopher of law Giorgio Agamben recently stated, to a “naked and crude” life, defined purely by an end external to himself.

Totalitarian Pretension

The famous “recognition” is in reality a totalitarian pretension with regard to the lives of individuals, who are forced to openly sacrifice their lives for the end, as banal as it is truly metaphysical, of the infinite valorization of money by way of “labor”. Only secondarily, in that leftover portion of life which truly serves only for regeneration in favor of the totalitarian end, are they allowed to think of their lives as really their own. The satisfaction of their needs is only a waste product of that metaphysical self-movement of money to which they are subjected precisely by means of their recognition as abstract subjects of rights. This paradoxical recognition (of the abstract human being) by way of non-recognition (of the living, social human being) obtains its noteworthy persuasive force from the fact that things could be worse. This, because the relative non-recognition contained in this merely abstract recognition could at any moment become absolute non-recognition, i.e.: when human beings are separated from the totalitarian movement of the capitalist end-in-itself, that is, when they can no longer be subjects in that sense. In such a case, they even lose the capability of being recognized even as merely abstract human beings, and are no longer, in conformance with that definition, human beings in general: in this aspect, they are “objectively” valued only as a fragment of matter, as merely natural objects, just like stones, horsetails or potato flies. In the 18th century, the Marquise de Sade was the first to announce this consequence with all his cynical cunning. Under such a threat, the misfortune of being recognized merely as an abstract and reduced human being is transformed into the dubious luck of at least possessing, in this negative and phantasmagorical form, social validity and a certain similarity to a man. Even though this recognition is merely negative and assumes submission, not even the “fallen” escape the totalitarian pretensions of the system. Man’s submission is considered as an advantage in relation to those who are no longer even subjugated, but are completely separated from humanity.

Promise as Threat

Once that systematic gap is opened between the pure existence of human beings and the “right to submit”, individuals are not, by nature, “men” in that sense, they can only become human beings thus defined, and subjects of rights, through a selective “process of recognition”. The selection process can be “objective” (in accordance with the laws of valorization and the market situation) or it can be effected “subjectively” (in accordance with ideological or political definitions of “friend” and “enemy”).

In accordance with this process, individuals’ real existence can be condemned, just as a commodity which is not recognized by the market is considered “superfluous”. And, when necessary, missiles, or, as the “last resort”, atomic bombs, will definitively terminate the “process of recognition”, towards the end of reducing those individuals no longer capable of being recognized to the category of physical matter.

For this reason, the promise of human rights has always been a threat: if you cannot fulfill the tacit conditions which define the modern “human being”, then you must go without recognition. For most people, however, these tacit conditions are currently no longer attainable, even should they force themselves into self-renunciation, which consists of respectfully submitting to the abstract form of money and the law. The termination of their existence, as an effect of “collateral damage” of the world market or of the interventions of the world policeman, is foreseeable.

This bitter assertion is not intended to bear witness against the motives of the many individuals and organizations that defend victims in the name of human rights and often demonstrate courage in the face of the ruling powers. But these efforts will be like the labors of Sisyphus if they do not manage to overcome the paradoxical and negative form of world society, which possesses the power of definition concerning who is, generally, a “human being”, and, consequently, defines human rights.

Robert Kurz

March 2003

Translation from Portuguese into Spanish: Round Desk

Portuguese version at: