Untimely Observations

The Oppression of “Human Rights”


 “Whoever invokes humanity wants to cheat.” –Pierre Joseph Proudhon

In his important work Beyond Human Rights: Defending Freedoms (Arktos, 2011), Alain De Benoist aptly summarizes the first article of faith of the present day secular theocracy which reigns in the Western world:

One proof of this is its dogmatic character; it cannot be debated. That is why it seems today as unsuitable, as blasphemous, as scandalous to criticize the ideology of human rights as it was earlier to doubt the existence of God. Like every religion, the discussion of human rights seeks to pass off its dogmas as so absolute that one could not discuss them without being extremely, stupid, dishonest, or wicked…(O)ne implicitly places their opponents beyond the pale of humanity, since one cannot fight someone who speaks in the name of humanity while remaining human oneself.

While reading the above passage, I was instantly reminded of a particularly venal leftist critic who once amusingly described me as “flunking out of the human race” for, among other things, promoting the work of Benoist. The zealous religiosity which the apostles of human rights attach to their cause is particularly ironic given the nebulous and imprecise nature of their cherished dogma. As Thomas Szasz has observed:

Never before in our history have political and popular discourse been so full of rights-talk, as they are today. People appeal to disability rights, civil rights, gay rights, reproduction rights (abortion), the right to choose (also abortion), the right to health care, the right to reject treatment…and so forth, each a rhetorical device to justify one or another social policy and it enforcement by means of the coercive apparatus of the state.

Indeed, contemporary “rights-talk” often resembles the scene in one of the Star Trek films where Captain Kirk and his cohorts are engaged in negotiations of some sort with the Klingons and the Chekhov character raises the issue of the Klingons’ lack of regard for “democracy and human rights.” A Klingon responds by denouncing the term “human rights” as “racist” (presumably because Klingons are excluded from the human rights pantheon).

Benoist traces the development of modern “human rights” ideology and explores how the concept of “rights” has changed throughout history. In the classical world, “rights” were conceived of as being relative to an individual’s relationship to a particular community. Someone possessed “rights” because they were a citizen of a specific political entity or some other institutional context. The notion of abstract “rights” in a quasi-metaphysical sense was non-existent. Benoist considers the ideology of human rights to be an outgrowth of Christian universalism. Christianity introduced the concept of an individual soul that is eternal, transcendent, and independent of one’s specific social identity. Out of the Christian notion of the transcendent soul emerged the Enlightenment doctrine of “natural rights.” These rights are assumed to be universal and immutable.

Yet the very concept of “rights” as conceived of in this manner has itself undergone a number of profound metamorphosis. In its early phase, rights doctrine recognized only the Lockean negative liberties of “life, liberty, and property” and so forth. With the advent of ideologies like socialism or progressive liberalism the rights doctrine began to include what are now called “positive” rights. FDR’s famous “four freedoms” are an illustration of the foundations of this perspective. With the racial and cultural revolutions of the postwar era, rights doctrine took on a whole new meaning with “rights” now including exemption from discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability and an increasingly long list of other things. This certainly would have come as a shock to the great apostle of “natural rights,” Thomas Jefferson, who, as the Left never ceases to remind us, was a white male slaveholder who thought homosexuals should be castrated.

The definition of “human rights” continues to become increasingly murky over time. Benoist provides an apt illustration of the escalating imprecision of the rights doctrine by citing this quote from Pierre Manent:

To respect the dignity of another human being is no longer to respect the respect which he conserves in himself for the moral law; it is today, more and more, to respect the choice that he has made, whatever this choice may be, in the realization of his rights.

Benoist describes the predictable outcome of the rights doctrine that is now observable in contemporary politics:

The present tendency…consists in converting all sorts of demands, desires, or interests into ‘rights.’ Individuals, in the extreme case, would have the ‘right’ to see no matter what demand satisfied, for the sole reason that they can formulate them. Today, to claim rights is only a way of seeking to maximize one’s interests.

Particularly disastrous has been the fusion of the rights doctrine with mass democracy and the parallel growth exhibited by these two. Hans Hermann Hoppe has observed that a mass democracy comprised of an infinite number of interest groups making infinite rights claims is simply a form of low-intensity civil war. Likewise, Welf Herfurth has demonstrated how the very meaning of “democracy” has changed over time whereby earlier definitions of this concept, even in their modern liberal variations, have been abandoned and “democracy” has simply become a pseudonym for the limitless right to personal hedonism.

A paradoxical effect of the infinite expansion of the rights doctrine has been the simultaneously infinite growth of the state. Fustel de Coulandges described the political order of pre-modern Europe:

At the top of the hierarchy, the king was surrounded by his great vassals. Each of these vassals was himself surrounded by his own feudatories and he could not pronounce the least judgment without them…The king could neither make a new law, nor modify the existing laws, nor raise a new tax without the consent of the country…If one looks at the institutions of this regime from close quarters, and if one observes their meaning and significance, one will see they were all directed against despotism. However great the diversity that seems to reign in this regime, there is, however, one thing that unites them: this thing is obsession with absolute power. I do not think any regime better succeeded in rendering arbitrary rule impossible.

Benoist contrasts this with subsequent political developments in European civilization:

The end of the feudal regime marked the beginning of the disintegration of this system under the influence of Roman authoritarianism and the deadly blows of the centralized state. Little by little, hereditary royalty implemented a juridicial-administrative centralization at the expense of intermediary bodies and regional assemblies. While the communal revolution sanctioned the power of the nascent bourgeoisie, the regional parliaments ceased to be equal assemblies and became meetings of royal officers. Having become absolute, the monarchy supported itself upon the bourgeoisie to liquidate the resistances of the nobility.

Indeed, it could be argued that a similar process is presently transpiring whereby the New Class (or what Sam Francis called the “knowledge class” or what Scott Locklin regards as simply a new upper middle class) is aligning itself with the central government for the purpose of destroying the traditional WASP elite and marginalizing the traditional working to middle classes just as the nascent bourgeoisie of earlier times aligned itself with absolute monarchies against the nobility.

The growth of the rights doctrine has of course brought with it the explosive growth of rights-enforcement agencies and bureaucrats as any small business owner or self-employed person who has dealt with Occupational Health and Safety Administration would agree. Likewise, the autonomy of regions, localities, and the private sector has been nearly entirely eradicated in the name of creating rights for an ever expanding army of grievance groups and their advocates. Benoist discusses how the rights doctrine has also resulted in the phenomenal growth of the legal system. Today, there is virtually no aspect of life that is considered to be beyond the reach of state regulation or prohibition. Says Pierre Manent:

In the future, if one depends principally upon human rights to render justice, the ‘manner of judging’ will be irreparable. Arbitrariness, that is to say precisely what our regimes wanted to defend themselves against in instituting the authority of constitutionality, will then go on increasing, and will paradoxically become the work of judges. Now, a power which discovers that it can act arbitrarily will not delay in using and abusing this latitude. It tends towards despotism.

Far more dreadful than the use of “rights” as a pretext for enlarging civil bureaucracies and creeping statism in domestic and legal matters has been the application of the “human rights” ideology to international relations. Benoist points out the irony of how the military imperialism that the decolonialization movements were ostensibly supposed to end has been revived under the guise of “humanitarian intervention.” The doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” not only contravenes the international law established by the Peace of Westphalia but as well the Charter of the United Nations: “It suggests that every state, whatever it be, can intervene at will in the internal affairs of another state, whatever it be, under the pretext of preventing ‘attacks on human rights.’” The effect of this doctrine is the simple sanctioning of aggressive war without end.

Plato’s observation that a democratic regime on its deathbed is most typically characterized by a combination of individual licentiousness and creeping political tyranny would seem to be apt assessment of our present condition. As one Facebook commentator recently suggested:

Barbarism. Take a picture, we need to get it down for future civilizations. They need to know how the dialectic works: the negation of parental and local authority does NOT lead to freedom, or does so only briefly. That negation is in turn negated by a soft totalitarianism, now becoming harder and more crystallized in order to fill the vacuum of authority. If we record it for them, when some future Neo-Enlightenment philosopher promises liberty and equality circa 2800CE, he can be properly dressed down before he does any damage.

Hear, hear!