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!

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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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