Zak Manfredi –
Over the past decade, Sam Moyn has emerged as one of the most significant critical historians of international human rights. His latest book, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World contrasts the international human rights movement’s focus on achieving “sufficiency,” (i.e., basic minimums of social goods for all) with more egalitarian conceptions of national welfare and global justice that aspired to curb the unbridled concentration of private wealth. Importantly, however, the book also insists that human rights are not synonymous with forms of neoliberal economic rationality that led to the post-war welfare state’s dismantling. This last point, Moyn avers, distinguishes his view from that of other left critics who posit a closer affinity between human rights and neoliberalism. “Human rights, even perfectly realized…are compatible with…radical inequality” – but compatibility, for Moyn, is not complicity. I want to put some friendly pressure on this latter claim, and draw out Moyn’s ostensible disagreement with his left interlocutors more clearly. (I put aside the fact that some left political theorists have ambivalently embraced human rights, but for an entry to this question, see Étienne Balibar, Claude Lefort, and Jacques Rancière).
The last two chapters of Not Enough explicitly distance its account of the human rights movement’s relationship with neoliberalism from those of left critics Naomi Klein and Susan Marks and also frame the book’s narrative more generally as distinct from the view of “Marxists.” On the one hand, Moyn recognizes that human rights movements of the 1970s often shared “moral individualism” and “suspicion of collectivists projects like nationalism and socialism” with neoliberalism; he even acknowledges that neoliberalism “exerted [a] strong pressure of redefinition” on human rights projects (see, for instance, Quinn Slobodian’s recent work, which examines how neoliberal reformers deployed rights claims for their internationalist projects.) Yet, Moyn also insists that human rights never reverted to “narrow protections of contract and property,” and argues that, in general, human rights movements proved indifferent to neoliberal projects, rather than encouraging their aims. In contrast to his account, Moyn sees left critics as offering a harsher rebuke of human rights complicity with neoliberalism. At different points in the text, Moyn objects that leftists blame human rights for “bringing about the age of neoliberalism,” accuse human rights of “distracting” from the growth of inequality, and see human rights as “abetting” neoliberalism’s projects. While at times Not Enough seems to conflate these various objections, it is helpful to clarify the nature of different left critiques of human rights.