Belén Fernández

Back in 2004, George W. Bush voiced his conviction that “[n]o President has ever done more for human rights than I have.”

This is the same president, of course, who unleashed untold carnage on Iraq, endorsed torture techniques with the phrase “Damn right,” and defended illegal CIA kidnapping programs—among countless other projects.

But given the extent to which the concept of human rights has been perverted beyond recognition, Bush might be forgiven for hallucinating himself into a champion of the cause.

It is for this reason and many others that author and activist Julie Wark deserves such thanks for endeavoring to set the discourse straight in her book The Human Rights Manifesto.

As Wark explains: “[T]he term ‘human rights’ has been so traduced by the powerful”— who see the very idea as an “obstacle to [their] material interests”—that it must be reclaimed if there is to be any hope of advancement in the direction of justice on this planet. As it stands, the planetary arrangement constitutes an unprecedented violation of the freedom and dignity that are the founding principles of human rights.

Simply put, neoliberalism and human rights are mutually exclusive. Wark documents how “widely deregulated free-market capitalism…makes a commodity of everything from which profit might be wrung, including human beings,” while “fast-accumulating vast fortunes are founded on fast-spreading desperate impoverishment.”

Indeed, the fact that so many people are killing themselves as a result of free-market policies would seem to underscore the system’s inherently antagonistic orientation vis-à-vis human life.

Victims range from the nearly 300,000 Indian farmers who have committed suicide in response to India’s debt-inducing neoliberal bonanza to the wave of European suicides triggered by the financial crisis and ensuing punitive austerity measures.

Deemed systemically superfluous and irrelevant in life, the great majority of these casualties of “development,” “progress,” and other nefarious euphemisms simply reaffirm and finalize their invisibility in death.

Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation in 2010 was a source of inspiration for Wark’s manifesto, is a rare case of someone who managed to reclaim his existence through the act of self-destruction. His suicide, the “final declaration of a man who had been stripped of his freedom and dignity,” breathed life and revolutionary symbolism into his name.

Policy of alienation

It’s only natural that human beings would find themselves desperately alienated by a system predicated on the alienation of people from the natural environment—and, in the end, from their very human essence—in the interest of profit. The forcible severance of traditional human ties to the earth is acutely visible in operations ranging from the conquest of farmland by multinational corporations for the cultivation of biofuel and cash crops to the increasing commodification of resources.

Obviously, the option of “food security” for local masses isn’t really compatible with the obsessive growing of non-food and other items for export, no matter how fervently the commanding global neoliberal institutions may insist otherwise.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and other earthly concentrations of wealth have pursued unilateral food security options by simply grabbing land in Africa and elsewhere. In Ethiopia, the arrangement has entailed the displacement of the land’s inhabitants and an attendant array of human rights abuses. This is the same Ethiopia, of course, that is—in Wark’s words—“in the grip of a chronic food crisis and heavily dependent on food aid.”

As Wark details, international investment agreements governing such territorial transactions are inevitably skewed in favor of investors, entitling the land grabbers to exploit water resources with abandon—even in cases in which said exploitation conflicts with the needs of surrounding communities. “Still more iniquitous,” writes Wark, “is the fact that, according to [such] law[s], the new farmers cannot be banned from exporting food during a famine.”

Add to this other comestible issues such as the commodities speculation that has permitted Wall Street to make bank off of starvation, driving up food prices and creating additional hundreds of millions of hungry folks. Wark is clearly not overstating her case when she classifies the current economic system as a “totally sociopathic” one:

“Food, once the symbol and reality par excellence of shared production and consumption, the essence of social existence, has now become a shatterer of social life, an extremely antisocial source of wealth, a weapon (‘instrument of national power’) against any living creature that gets in the way of profit.”

The bottled water industry also nicely illustrates the conversion of basic human rights into privileges widely denied to the non-elite majority. Some years ago the chairman and former CEO of Nestlé declared the notion of water as a right to be “extreme”—although, according to him, that’s not what he really meant. Either way, Nestlé’s concept of corporate responsibility still appears to include things like draining Pakistani villages and leaving them with sludge.

And, as with so many ventures these days, there’s more collateral damage than meets the eye. Wark specifies that, in the case of the bottled water industry, “[d]irty oil and pure-looking water do mix… as the joint cause of environmental destruction. Production of the bottles… uses 17 million barrels of oil per year and making the bottle takes three times more water than that which fills it.”

Retaking the lexicon

The perpetuation of the neoliberal order depends on a mass estrangement from the human condition—from the empathy that is ostensibly part of what makes us human. This is obviously not to suggest that humans were all delightful and ultra-empathetic creatures prior to the era of globalization, but rather that things are getting worse. There are various ways in which the current system thwarts interpersonal bonds. These range from the political demonization of the “Other” via fearmongering and xenophobic rhetoric to the encouragement of shameless materialism and individual self-absorption. 

Technological inundation and the resulting digitization of emotion—reducing human sentiments to Facebook clicks and emoticons—also contribute to a general erosion of empathy. To highlight one aspect of this “reality deficit,” Wark brings up a New York Review of Books essay by Zadie Smith, in which the author offers an example of the Facebook wall posts one might expect to see from the friends of murdered teenagers in Britain: “Sorry babes! Missin’ you!!! Hopin’ u iz with the Angles. I remember the jokes we used to have LOL! PEACE XXXXX”

Chances are the Facebookers won’t have any leftover sentimentality to expend on, say, the plight of a peasant shot on the other side of the world for protesting the contamination of his or her land by international mining companies.

Popular apathy does not, however, mean that human rights can’t be invoked to justify bombing nations or launching other sorts of imperial civilizing missions (cue George W.’s initial quote). Which brings us back to why it’s so crucial to reclaim the conversation.

Wark spells out the logic: “‘human’ is a universal category,” therefore it “makes no sense to speak of ‘human rights’ unless they are universal.” Therefore these rights “must be extracted from naïve and cynical discourse and situated where they belong, in the realm of political economy.”

Wark writes:

“Human beings need to live in society and this essential, universal social condition logically implies that the basic right of material existence should be met for every member of any society… All other rights and, in particular, human dignity follow from this. This Manifesto not only argues that an ethical approach to political economy – recognizing the right to freedom, justice and human dignity of all human beings – is essential for implementing and guaranteeing human rights but that protection of human rights is also essential for a global economy that works as an ‘economy’ should, in the original sense of properly managing resources.”

One step in the right direction, Wark suggests, would be the introduction of a basic income—which, in addition to not being extraordinarily difficult to finance, would allow the earth’s inhabitants a material independence that would enable increased freedom in terms of democratic participation and social inclusion and offer a “basis for claiming and practicing real, effective universal human rights.”

But it’s a sort of chicken-or-egg scenario: does the acceptance of universal human rights have to come first?

In his appraisal of The Human Rights Manifesto, acclaimed writer Pankaj Mishra observes that the book “gives us a new moral vocabulary in which to phrase our aspirations for political and economic change.”

As they say, to name something is to own it. Wark’s proposed appropriation of the human rights lexicon is a challenge to the forces of neoliberal capitalism, which are admittedly much better versed at the logistics of ownership and domination. But hey, maybe we can recuperate some humanity in the struggle.

Belén Fernández is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.