When Splitters become Lumpers: Pitfalls of a Long History of Human Rights

Peter Rosenblum –

In the preface to Not Enough, Sam Moyn obliquely acknowledges the dramatic contrast between the new book and his breakthrough work on the history of human rights, the Last Utopia: “What makes the study of history exciting is that its infinity of sources and our change in perspective can allow two books on the same topic by the same person to bear almost no resemblance to each other….”

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For a close reader of Moyn’s work on human rights the differences between his two works are head-spinning.  Where Last Utopia attacked the very idea of historic continuity in explaining the human rights movement that emerged in the 1970s, Not Enough builds an entire narrative on continuities. The result is an aspirational history for a reformed human rights movement, a history of roads not taken – with respect to equality, in particular, which Moyn elevates to the ‘original’ position – that can still be reclaimed.  Not Enough lacks the skepticism that Moyn employed so effectively in The Last Utopia to explain how disconnected contemporary human rights was from its claimed antecedents and undermines arguments in both books. In addition, by not heeding his own lessons from Last Utopia, Moyn understates the emergent human rights movement’s inability to contest what became neoliberalism. As someone who confronted those issues at the time, it is harder to dismiss the claims of complicity.

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