Getting the NIEO Right

Symposium on Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World by Samuel Moyn

Karuna Mantena –

Samuel Moyn’s Not Enough is a pointed history of the present.  It provides a fast-paced narrative of the surprising ways we got to where we are now in our moral and political imagination of what is politically possible.  In this sense, like its precursor The Last Utopia, it is a distinctive kind of ideological and intellectual history (though not quite either), with disruptive intent. Moyn suggests that our philosophical and normative frameworks – i.e. the way we think and act on political ideals, ideologies, and possibilities – radically differ from what they were only four decades ago. More precisely, they have become radically limited and circumscribed. Not Enough usefully reflects the 1970s optimism that international law could reduce global inequality, but it mischaracterizes the New International Economic Order (NIEO) and leaves open the question of precisely how neoliberalism displaced its utopian aspirations.

In his previous examination of international human rights, The Last Utopia, Moyn argued that the ascendency of human rights was the most prominent symptom of a general decline of utopian politics oriented around broad-based institutional transformation.  Proponents of those alternative political utopias often advocated a range of rights embedded in the nation-state, and imagined the state as the agent and site of their fulfillment.   The shift to the contemporary human rights regime, in Moyn’s account, entailed the demotion of the nation-state as the site and agent of real political transformation which he described as the substitution of politics for morality.

In Not Enough, Moyn charts another vector of decline in political utopias linked to the nation-state, namely, the decline of welfare statism and its egalitarian distributive imagination. Moyn characterizes the shift not in terms of a shift from politics to ethics, as in The Last Utopia, but more substantively as a shift in the guiding principle of economic policy from the ideal of equality to the ideal of sufficiency.  Proponents of equality as a guiding principle are concerned with diminishing the gap in economic status between persons: when pursued, this involves not only lifting people up out of poverty but also limiting wealth accumulation at the top.  In contrast, prioritizing sufficiency entails focusing primarily on poverty alleviation and protecting people from the worst forms of deprivation, goals which in principle are compatible with – and in many dominant economic theories, may even require – extreme inequality.

Is Moyn right to characterize equality and sufficiency as competing as opposed to complementary ideals?  Critics of the Last Utopia took aim at the equally stark contrast Moyn drew between a state-centered project of rights and human rights cosmopolitanism, pointing out various ways in which international and national human rights regimes could be made compatible.  Indeed, a generation of legal and political philosophy around human rights had been arguing for and demonstrating precisely the conceptual and normative coherence between them.  But Moyn’s point was that conceptual coherence is not equivalent to political compatibility.  In practice, and with real political consequences, the rise of human rights internationalism was concomitant with, and made possible through, the political critique of national sovereignty as it had been defended by the global south in the wake of decolonization.

In Not Enough, however, Moyn is very attuned to the conceptual overlap and compatibility between ideals of equality and sufficiency, realizing that in principle attending to one ideal need not preclude attending to the other.  At the same time, Moyn argues, at certain key political conjunctures, this became a stark choice. In the 1980s in particular politically consequential choices all tilted in the direction of “mere” sufficiency in such a way as to enervate political energy and ethical imagination around egalitarianism.  Moyn hits hardest against ideal theories of global justice, in which global equality and redistribution were rarely taken seriously – despite the fact that such proposals had become prominent in global economic forums, for example in what became known as the NIEO.

Moyn’s treatment of the NIEO in Not Enough responds to critics of The Last Utopia, who argued that, when viewed from the global south, the 1970s was not a moment of ideological retrenchment but in fact one in which utopian projects for radical change were at their most ambitious and most militant.  Tony Anghie, for example, argued that the NIEO was in fact the highpoint of third worldism in international institutions.  Moyn accepted this criticism and made the NIEO the centerpiece of Not Enough, arguing that the NIEO, with its proposals for the radical restructuring of the global economy, tried to make real, perhaps for the first time in human history, the dream of fully global equality and, as such, “demands recovery.”

Spotlighting these now-forgotten proposals and debates are important, but I have two quibbles with Moyn’s approach.  The first is conceptual:  Moyn characterizes the NIEO as a welfarist scheme that aimed to globalize distributive equality.  In doing so, he subsumes the NIEO under the rubric of western welfarism, as if it were a global extension of the welfare state.  But this framing highlights the language of Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal rather than that of the progenitors of the NIEO themselves, such as Argentine economist Raul Prebisch, and even more crucially Jamaican Prime Minster Michael Manley and Tanzanian Prime Minister Julius Nyerere.  For the latter, especially, the kind of equality the NIEO proposed was closely tied to the political project of decolonization, (understood as a project of self-determination). This political genealogy has been strikingly reconstructed in Adom Getachew’s forthcoming Worldmaking after Empire.  Getachew shows how the NIEO was framed by the need to overcome forms of structural dependency in the global economy – forms of exploitation and unjust terms of trade – that systematically undermined postcolonial attempts to security, domestic liberty, and equality rather than global redistribution per se.  It proposed permanent sovereignty over natural resources and the right to nationalization alongside new terms of trade in primary commodities, all as a part of a radical institutional restructuring of the economy so as to fulfil the promise of sovereign equality articulated by anticolonial activists, political theorists, and statesmen.   My worry is that in assimilating anticolonialism to the language of western welfarism, Moyn has inadvertently diminished the political bite and aspirations of the NIEO by separating it from its critical account of the sources of domination and inequality in the international economy.

Secondly, while the recovery of lost and forgotten utopias is important, surely it is as important to understand why these utopias suffered such an extraordinary reversal.  How could the highpoint of the 1970s be followed so immediately by the rise of neoliberalism?  The 1970s was a radical decade writ large.  It was the era of global Maoist upsurge and violent movements for liberation and land reform were ubiquitous across the global south.  In South Asia, like in many parts of the global south, militant revolution was met with authoritarian crackdown.  Was this part of the story of decline, deep polarization, splintering of left-liberal coalitions, and backlash by the right?  Was it precisely the strength of the radical turn that engendered a coordinated global effort at containment and counterrevolution?  Not Enough does not engage with these questions.

It seems to me that without some accounting of political failures and reversals we are likely to repeat past mistakes.  The challenge is to consider what kinds of political arguments and coalitions we can build to sustain these imaginaries once recovered.

Karuna Mantena is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Yale University.

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