Zachary Manfredi –
“[T]ax policy is…human rights policy.”
– Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights
On the eve of December 1, 2017—as members of the United States Senate prepared for a late night of political contestation—Senator Bernie Sanders made the Republican tax bill a human rights issue. Senator Sanders drew attention to UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston’s then-ongoing investigation into how “extreme poverty” implicates human rights in the United States. Alston later met with Senator Sanders, and, after concluding his visit, castigated the Republican tax legislation for its potential to exacerbate already historic levels of economic inequality and extreme poverty. In the wake of the finalization of the tax law—one of the greatest tax transfers of wealth to the rich in modern times—numerous activists also decried the human rights implications of radical economic disparities. Alston’s trip to the United States might nevertheless have seemed controversial to other observers precisely because it treated extreme economic inequality and poverty as human rights concerns. As a formal matter, the United States has never ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and even its assent to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) consisted of many formal reservations that render the treaty almost entirely non-justiciable in US courts. More generally, as Alston’s preliminary report noted, legal institutions in the US have been notoriously reluctant to apply the language of “rights” to address social and economic justice claims.
For contemporary scholars and activists invested in challenging extreme inequality and concentrations of corporate power, however, human rights may prove controversial for a different reason: the long-shadow of the left critique of rights. Since at least Karl Marx’s critique of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, many left thinkers have been suspicious of the conceptual foundation and practical implications of human rights. For Marx, the Rights of Man helped underwrite a regime of private property law that stifled “genuine human emancipation,” while simultaneously absolving the state from addressing social and economic domination in the sphere of “civil society.” On this account, just as the state recognizes the formal equality of all persons, it simultaneously abdicates responsibility for private forms of discrimination and social domination—rights to hold private property offer no comfort to those without means to acquire food, shelter, or housing. More generally, leftists have long observed that a narrow focus on formal equality obscures and ratifies substantive inequalities. Indeed, many subsequent critics—including notably early writings of the Critical Legal Studies Movement—contend that the promulgation of legal rights can exacerbate conditions of oppression. Contemporary scholars note how rights claims are invoked to prevent the redistributive taxation of privately held capital, to protect the rights of corporate entities to “speak” as in Citizen’s United, and to weaken the power of labor unions with “right to work” laws.
Today, thinkers have updated these critiques to consider how human rights law can function as a form of “neoliberal governance”—these critics stress that complying with human rights norms often requires states to make certain “reforms” that align with political and economic agendas that favor “free market” principles. As Naomi Klein observes, the neoliberal economic programs championed by Reagan and Thatcher spread across the globe during the 1970s and 80s at precisely the same time when international human rights NGOs also flourished. Jessica Whyte’s astute analysis argues that even the social and economic human rights frameworks of the twentieth century were designed to be “flexible” enough to allow for the implementation of new forms of neoliberal economic governance. While I cannot do full justice to these critiques in the space here, it is important to note that they ultimately rest on a set of concerns about the kind of normative vision of the “human” that human rights laws underwrite. Anthropologist Talal Asad, for one, suggested that “the historical convergence of human rights and neoliberalism may not be purely accidental,” since human rights notions of “self-ownership” and “self-preservation” align with neoliberal economics’ understanding of human beings as pieces of “human capital” always striving towards greater self-augmentation. Consider, for instance, whether a theory of human rights imagines human being as, in Marx’s critique, “egoistic individuals” preoccupied with holding and consuming private property, or in contemporary terms, as entrepreneurial creatures always seeking to maximize their individual capital and credit-worthiness; when such a theory of human rights is implemented in practice, critics worry that the legal protections it offers will focus primarily on creation of “free markets” and justify policies that intensify social and economic stratification. Perhaps more distressingly, left critics of human rights also worry that particular rights regimes encourage and produce different self-conception among rights holders—if a human right to private property or wealth accumulation is enshrined in law, it helps establish a framework for how people evaluate their own, and each others, life projects. Continue reading