Bias and Exclusion in Human Rights History

Sam Moyn  –

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I am so grateful to the blog, and the respondents who wrote in to it, for the attention Not Enough has gotten here. In my brief rejoinder, I will focus on the criticisms for the sake of ongoing discussion — most of which reveal the biases and exclusions in the book’s coverage, when it comes to the past or the present. And I want to cop to those, clearly, totally, and upfront.

Okay — actually, there are some provisos.

Bias and Exclusion in General

Julieta Lemaitre frames the case for bias and exclusion most generally but, in my opinion, least responsibly. Of course, everyone has a view from somewhere — including Lemaitre herself, who has spent as much time in and around American law schools as I have. But the important question is how inevitably local perspective affects coverage and ideology.

Unfortunately, Lemaitre’s response to this important question describes the book so misleadingly as to leave it unrecognizable. At the very least, therefore, her remarks provide an occasion to make some basic points about the book that seem like a non-negotiable basis for proceeding if the goal of future scholarship is to interrogate bias and exclusion in human rights history more usefully.

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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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The View from Somewhere: on Samuel Moyn’s Not Enough

Julieta Lemaitre 

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I am a judge; I used to be a law professor in Bogotá, but this past January I became a judge, a judge in a human rights court, a special tribunal created by the 2016 peace agreement to try both the former FARC guerrilla, and the Colombian Army. A transitional justice mechanism, my court is severely embattled and might not survive the attacks of the incoming president, whose party actively rejected the peace agreement, and campaigned for the triumphant “no” in the 2016 referendum.

One of the most vicious, and personal, attacks led by the new president’s party is on the impartiality of the judges elected to my court. For his party, located firmly in the extreme right, we are communists, or at best subversive guerrilla sympathizers. The evidence is clear in their eyes, and in the eyes of many Colombians: many of my colleagues have long records as human rights defenders, and some have taken on the Army in courts, litigating against the many abuses committed during a very long anti-communist struggle. The stigma associated with human rights litigation is so pervasive that Congress in 2017 approved a law that barred human rights litigators from belonging to this court. This provision is under constitutional review, with the Constitutional Court still undecided on whether or not it violates the basic right to equality.

The association between the defense of human rights and the left, including and perhaps especially the guerrillas, is firmly rooted in Colombia’s recent history. Our contemporary human rights movement emerged from the various committees and lawyer’s collectives that fought first martial then civil courts trying political prisoners. They were often targeted along with their clients, and famously Eduardo Umaña Luna proclaimed it was better to die for something than to live for nothing, and was shot one day working on the same desk where he crafted his clients’ defense. He was replaced by another, and then another, generation of young lawyers equally committed to justice, a justice that was often also defined as social justice. Alternative uses of law, proclaimed agitators across the continent during the eighties, allowed for the use of new and old constitutions not just to face armies and governments but also to do so in the name of what the Catholic Church called the “preferential option for the poor.”

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What Comes After Not Enough?

Amy Kapczynski —

What might a new human rights movement look like after Occupy, Brexit, Piketty, and Trump?   Sam Moyn’s new book brings us deftly to the edge of this question, and it’s here that I want to jump in.   Not Enough offers important insights into some of the failures of the existing movement, at least in its mainstream form. Drawing on these, as well as my own experience with the access to medicines movement – a movement that has invoked human rights but never defined itself through that idiom – I’ll offer a few thoughts on the shape of a human rights yet to come.

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One central aim of Moyn’s new book is to demarcate two kinds of left political thought – one organized around distribution and another organized around sufficiency.   Do we demand equality? Or do we demand enough? The key failure of the human rights movement, he argues, is that it has settled for the latter, and a particularly stingy version at that. As market fundamentalism advanced, human rights spun out a minimalist utopia. Socioeconomic rights took shape as demands to a “core minimum.” The movement demanded a “just enough” that in its very nature could never be enough, nor just.

As Paul O’Connell noted last week, Moyn’s is really only a history of part of the human rights movement. It has never been clear exactly how to define “the movement,” and many local groups make radical and even revolutionary claims under the sign of human rights. Moyn’s framing is not, however, without justification: he trains his attention on the institutions and documents that many people treat as the “core” or most consequential aspect of the movement. Implicitly, this reproduces a status hierarchy that I’ll argue in a minute must be undone if human rights is to be remade. But it also allows Moyn to show why we need a new human rights. The mainstream human rights movement came to prominence by embracing a certain kind of minimalist anti-politics, and trading off the best for the good.

This mainstream paradigm is inadequate to the challenges we face today. Moyn is right: We need a new human rights, one that does more than seek to “avert disaster and abjection.” This new version should embrace the politics of “material equality.” It must also demand deeper political accountabilities, inventing structures to facilitate a “welfare world” rather than accepting the pastiche of participation offered by international institutions to date.

What might a human rights movement look like that was more adequate to the challenges of our time? All of this, I think, and a few things more.

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Capitalism, Inequality, and Human Rights

Paul O’Connell —

moyn postSamuel Moyn’s new book begins, with an echo of Christopher Hill, by noting that history has to be revised and rewritten to meet the demands of the present. From this, Moyn sets out to provide us with a historical account of the relationship between human rights and inequality, in order to shed some light on the major crises and challenges facing the world today (Trump, staggering inequality and more). On this he delivers admirably: Not Enough is a sweeping, erudite account of the place of human rights in debates about equality from the pioneering days of the Jacobin state in revolutionary France, through the mid-twentieth century welfare state, and the grand decolonial visions of the New International Economic Order (NIEO).

While it is impossible to do justice to the breadth and nuance of the work in this brief post, the crux of Moyn’s argument is that when modern notions of human rights, with a particular focus on social rights (or depending on where you are from, socio-economic rights), came centre stage, it was as a poor second prize following the decline and failure of grander narratives of material equality and social justice. For Moyn, human rights emerge and prosper in tandem with the entrenchment of neoliberalism on a global scale, and while the latter has produced dramatic social transformations and spiralling inequality, human rights have remained “powerless companions” to effect any meaningful change in this period. One consequence of this analysis, captured in Moyn’s recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, is that the human rights movement runs the real risk of falling victim to rising populism and dissatisfaction with the status quo, because it has “made itself at home in a plutocratic world”.

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Compatibility as Complicity? On Neoliberalism and Human Rights

Zachary Manfredi –

moyn postOver 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.

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Getting the NIEO Right

Karuna Mantena –

moyn postSamuel 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.

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Born-Again Equality

Joanne Meyerowitz – 

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Sam Moyn’s Not Enough gives us a sweeping account of more than two centuries of the political quest for economic equality.  His history locates early calls among the Jacobins who demanded fair distribution during the French Revolution.  It moves through the nineteenth-century era of economic liberalism in Europe, when hopes for economic equality languished and human rights referred to individual liberties, and picks up in the early twentieth century when welfare states revived the quest for equality with an accompanying language of “social rights.”  Then for a brief moment in the mid-1970s, the push for equality turned global as an imagined “welfare world” with international distributive justice.  All of which collapsed in our current neoliberal era of the past 40 or so years with its more limited vision of human rights ascendant and its stunning disparities in wealth. Moyn contrasts equality with its paler cousin sufficiency.  In recent decades, he argues, the uninspiring goal of sufficiency—a bare minimum for the impoverished—has shunted aside the quest for a more robust equality.

Moyn’s a master of nuance—he’s an impressively talented qualifier—and the abbreviated plot line I just tracked erases his subtlety entirely.  (Apologies for that.)  Suffice it to say for now that Moyn shows us moments of exceptional promise in the past, all the while acknowledging the massive blindspots of earlier historical actors.  He notes repeatedly that the early welfare state redistributions were built on gender, racial, and imperial hierarchies that excluded most people from their material benefits.  His book could be (and in some ways is) a history of a world we have lost, but it’s also an impassioned call for the just world we have not yet had.

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Human Rights and Political Economy

Did the Human Rights movement fail?   In his new book, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, Samuel Moyn responds in the affirmative. He argues that the international human rights movement narrowed its agenda to address the sufficiency of minimal provision, leaving the movement impotent in the face of rising global inequality and attacks on social citizenship at the level of the nation-state. Without indicting the movement for the rise of neoliberalism, he nevertheless highlights the historical coincidence of international human rights and “the very economic phenomena that have led to the rise of radical populism and nationalism today.” 

The question of how we got here, and which legal tools might beat back the current crisis in international human rights, animates our first LPE Blog discussion series. Encouraged by many requests from readers, we’re working to develop a more transnational conversation on the blog, as well as more sustained debates and discussions of key issues.  The series kicks off today with an introductory piece by Sam Moyn, and will be followed by responses to Not Enough from historians, political theorists, legal scholars, and human rights activists. Let us know – in the comments, on Twitter – what you think!


Samuel Moyn –

I decided to take another stab at writing a new history of human rights ideals and movements, because a few critics persuaded me that I had left the all-important context of political economy out in my first try.

Now that Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World is out, it is worth explaining how I proceeded — not to forestall new rounds of criticism, but to help make sure the rise of human rights law in our time is part of the broader venture in law and political economy that colleagues and friends have launched on this fantastic blog.

The deepest question the broader venture of this blog raises — like the narrow venture my book pursues — is how best to think of law in relation to political economy. How precisely does law help organize the social world, and as what kind of causal driver or constitutive feature in comparison with others? The question matters not merely for the sake of better understanding but also, for those who care, to locate plausible levers of change. And law, of course, is just one example of something to theorize in relation to political economy. At stake in my own attempt is a history of ideals and movements, too, but they all require a theory explaining their place in the making and unmaking of social orders.

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