The political economy of human rights - Robert Kurz

In this article written in 2002 during the build-up for the second Iraq War, Robert Kurz exposes the ideology of human rights in the context of capitalist society as more of a “threat” than a “promise” for the economically “superfluous”, who are no longer the subjects of rights and, as such, forfeit all claim to value, and calls this “the principal secret of all political economy and, most pertinently, of modern democratic politics” and claims that “the emancipatory critique of human rights is the precondition of all critique in the 21st century, just as the critique of religion was the precondition of all critique in the 19th century”.

Submitted by Alias Recluse on January 2, 2014

The Political Economy of Human Rights – Robert Kurz

Who would want to criticize human rights? Being against human rights would be like children being against candy. So the whole world is naturally in favor of human rights: George Bush and Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon, Rudolf Scharping (German Social Democrat) and Amnesty International. In the name of human rights, bombs are dropped all over the world and occasionally one engages in a little torture; in the name of human rights, one tends to the victims and consoles them. Both the spokespersons for and the opponents of the capitalist war for world order invoke human rights; in the case of the Greens, they provide alternating proofs of moral integrity in the name of the party’s special vocation and are thus, from any kind of moral point of view, on both sides.

Something is wrong with human rights. A man named Karl Marx came to this conclusion more than 150 years ago. He showed which freedoms occupy the central place in the Declaration on the Rights of Man: the freedom of the subjects of the market, the guarantee of private property, the security of commerce. In other words: “Man”, in this sense, is no more than the being which produces commodities and makes money; the elementary “rights” of his existence, even the “security of his life and his body” can only be possessed insofar as he possesses something or, at the very least, he can sell himself (and in the most extreme case, his bodily organs), that is to say, that he has the ability to pay. A man is only entitled to rights, that is, entitled to the Rights of Man, if he can function within the capitalist legality which was declared to be the natural law of society. The so-called bourgeois “Enlightenment” only understood as “human” the existence of subjects of abstract “labor” developed in the functional spaces of the entrepreneurial economy and market-based commerce (in short, the sphere of capital valorization). It assumed that “Man” already appears from the maternal womb under this social form, because he can only be conceived, physically as well as spiritually, under the form of such an “economic” being.

It was not anticipated, in the case of Man as Man, that he could escape these presumably “natural” conditions. It was, however, precisely this situation which was created periodically by capitalism. In the course of the third industrial revolution, capitalism even irreversibly became the enduring existential state for the global majority. But their condition does not coincide with the Enlightenment definition of Man. Capitalism’s “superfluous” population, according to this definition, are not human beings, but only natural objects, like a pebble, a cockroach, or a scab (the Marquise de Sade had already arrived at this conclusion, with perfect cynicism, in the 18th century). From this it can be concluded that the modern rights of man are not a promise, but a threat: if a person is no longer economically useful and functional, he is not, in principle, a subject of rights, and if he is no longer a subject of rights, he is no longer a man. This potential dehumanization of the “superfluous” is upheld in the bourgeois conception of the Enlightenment, to the extent that reified capitalist Man, under the “anti-natural” form of the excluded, is even less than a thing. This latter consequence is the principal secret of all political economy and, most pertinently, of modern democratic politics. It is the essence of that intoxicating “realism” which has already long corrupted the political left itself. All “Realpolitik” bears the “Mark of Cain” of this implacable logic.

The human rights NGOs, like Amnesty International and others, are not institutions of “Realpolitik”, but, to the contrary, often represent a sharp thorn in the side of that kind of politics. With their direct defense of the victims of war and persecution, with their incorruptibility (unlike traditional politicians) and their often-demonstrated courage in the face of the dominant powers, they constitute an important instance of practical aid and, in no small measure, of criticism and denunciation. But limitations are encountered in this field, too. They defend victims exclusively in the name of the principle which transformed them into victims in the first place. Therefore, they cannot plumb the depths of necessary social critique; their activity is as incapable of attacking the social causes of violence and persecution as the Red Cross was incapable of preventing the First World War. The ideological character of their still-bourgeois self-comprehension renders not only their empirical activity itself extraordinarily ambiguous, but also their legitimacy. And for this reason they even run the risk that their very existence and efforts will be instrumental in the justification of the global economic terror.

The obvious recognition of Man, or rather of all men, in their corporeal, spiritual and social existence, can only arise beyond the capitalist-Enlightenment definition of the human being. By that standard, the emancipatory critique of human rights is the precondition of all critique in the 21st century, just as the critique of religion was the precondition of all critique in the 19th century. It is the radical critique of capitalism’s “reality principle” and its economistic reduction of the human as well as the starting point for the radical critique of all “Realpolitik”. In the conditions of the world crisis of capitalism, it is a question not of an idea which is alien to the world but, on the contrary, of a “counter-realism” of the social state of emergency, which the practical experience of the crushing repression exercised by the irrational autotelic economics of the “valorization of value” prevents from being revealed. We will take this into account: not even the noblest fundamental principles of the dominant reality are our principles; we must free ourselves from this reality, instead of becoming “realists” from the point of view of human rights.

Robert Kurz

German original: “Politische ökonomie der menschenrechte”, published in Neue Deutschland, October 2002. Portuguese translation by José Paulo Vaz, 11-8-2002, at Translation into Spanish from Portuguese: Round Desk

Translated in June 2008 from the Spanish translation.