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Slavoj Zizek: Against Human Rights (New Left Review 34, July-August 2005)

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  • Serguei Alex. Oushakine
    New Left Review 34, July-August 2005 Alibi for militarist interventions, sacralization for the tyranny of the market, ideological foundation for the
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 25, 2005
      New Left Review 34, July-August 2005

      Alibi for militarist interventions, sacralization for the tyranny of the
      market, ideological foundation for the fundamentalism of the politically
      correct: can the ‘symbolic fiction’ of universal rights be recuperated for
      the progressive politicization of actual socio-economic relations?



      Contemporary appeals to human rights within our liberal-capitalist societies
      generally rest upon three assumptions. First, that such appeals function in
      opposition to modes of fundamentalism that would naturalize or essentialize
      contingent, historically conditioned traits. Second, that the two most basic
      rights are freedom of choice, and the right to dedicate one’s life to the
      pursuit of pleasure (rather than to sacrifice it for some higher ideological
      cause). And third, that an appeal to human rights may form the basis for a
      defence against the ‘excess of power’.

      Let us begin with fundamentalism. Here, the evil (to paraphrase Hegel) often
      dwells in the gaze that perceives it. Take the Balkans during the 1990s, the
      site of widespread human-rights violations. At what point did the Balkans—a
      geographical region of South-Eastern Europe—become ‘Balkan’, with all that
      designates for the European ideological imaginary today? The answer is: the
      mid-19th century, just as the Balkans were being fully exposed to the
      effects of European modernization. The gap between earlier Western European
      perceptions and the ‘modern’ image is striking. Already in the 16th century
      the French naturalist Pierre Belon could note that ‘the Turks force no one
      to live like a Turk’. Small surprise, then, that so many Jews found asylum
      and religious freedom in Turkey and other Muslim countries after Ferdinand
      and Isabella had expelled them from Spain in 1492—with the result that, in a
      supreme twist of irony, Western travellers were disturbed by the public
      presence of Jews in big Turkish cities. Here, from a long series of
      examples, is a report from N. Bisani, an Italian who visited Istanbul in

      A stranger, who has beheld the intolerance of London and Paris, must be much
      surprised to see a church here between a mosque and a synagogue, and a
      dervish by the side of a Capuchin friar. I know not how this government can
      have admitted into its bosom religions so opposite to its own. It must be
      from degeneracy of Mahommedanism, that this happy contrast can be produced.
      What is still more astonishing is to find that this spirit of toleration is
      generally prevalent among the people; for here you see Turks, Jews,
      Catholics, Armenians, Greeks and Protestants conversing together on subjects
      of business or pleasure with as much harmony and goodwill as if they were of
      the same country and religion. [1]
      The very feature that the West today celebrates as the sign of its cultural
      superiority—the spirit and practice of multicultural tolerance—is thus
      dismissed as an effect of Islamic ‘degeneracy’. The strange fate of the
      Trappist monks of Etoile Marie is equally telling. Expelled from France by
      the Napoleonic regime, they settled in Germany, but were driven out in 1868.
      Since no other Christian state would take them, they asked the Sultan’s
      permission to buy land near Banja Luka, in the Serb part of today’s Bosnia,
      where they lived happily ever after—until they got caught in the Balkan
      conflicts between Christians.

      Where, then, did the fundamentalist features—religious intolerance, ethnic
      violence, fixation upon historical trauma—which the West now associates with
      ‘the Balkan’, originate? Clearly, from the West itself. In a neat instance
      of Hegel’s ‘reflexive determination’, what Western Europeans observe and
      deplore in the Balkans is what they themselves introduced there; what they
      combat is their own historical legacy run amok. Let us not forget that the
      two great ethnic crimes imputed to the Turks in the 20th century—the
      Armenian genocide and the persecution of the Kurds—were not committed by
      traditionalist Muslim political forces, but by the military modernizers who
      sought to cut Turkey loose from its old-world ballast and turn it into a
      European nation-state. Mladen Dolar’s old quip, based on a detailed reading
      of Freud’s references to the region, that the European unconscious is
      structured like the Balkans, is thus literally true: in the guise of the
      Otherness of ‘Balkan’, Europe takes cognizance of the ‘stranger in itself’,
      of its own repressed.

      But we might also examine the ways in which the ‘fundamentalist’
      essentialization of contingent traits is itself a feature of
      liberal-capitalist democracy. It is fashionable to complain that private
      life is threatened or even disappearing, in face of the media’s ability to
      expose one’s most intimate personal details to the public. True, on
      condition that we turn things around: what is effectively disappearing here
      is public life itself, the public sphere proper, in which one operates as a
      symbolic agent who cannot be reduced to a private individual, to a bundle of
      personal attributes, desires, traumas and idiosyncrasies. The ‘risk society’
      commonplace—according to which the contemporary individual experiences
      himself as thoroughly ‘denaturalized’, regarding even his most ‘natural’
      traits, from ethnic identity to sexual preference, as being chosen,
      historically contingent, learned—is thus profoundly deceiving. What we are
      witnessing today is the opposite process: an unprecedented
      re-naturalization. All big ‘public issues’ are now translated into attitudes
      towards the regulation of ‘natural’ or ‘personal’ idiosyncrasies.

      This explains why, at a more general level, pseudo-naturalized
      ethno-religious conflicts are the form of struggle which best suits global
      capitalism. In the age of ‘post-politics’, when politics proper is
      progressively replaced by expert social administration, the sole remaining
      legitimate sources of conflict are cultural (religious) or natural (ethnic)
      tensions. And ‘evaluation’ is precisely the regulation of social promotion
      that fits with this re-naturalization. Perhaps the time has come to
      reassert, as the truth of evaluation, the perverted logic to which Marx
      refers ironically in his description of commodity fetishism, quoting
      Dogberry’s advice to Seacoal at the end of Capital’s Chapter 1: ‘To be a
      well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but to write and read comes by
      nature.’ To be a computer expert or a successful manager is a gift of nature
      today, but lovely lips or eyes are a fact of culture.

      Unfreedom of choice

      As to freedom of choice: I have written elsewhere of the pseudo-choice
      offered to the adolescents of Amish communities who, after the strictest of
      upbringings, are invited at the age of seventeen to plunge themselves into
      every excess of contemporary capitalist culture—a whirl of fast cars, wild
      sex, drugs, drink and so forth. [2] After a couple of years, they are
      allowed to choose whether they want to return to the Amish way. Since they
      have been brought up in virtual ignorance of American society, the
      youngsters are quite unprepared to cope with such permissiveness, which in
      most cases generates a backlash of unbearable anxiety. The vast majority
      vote to return to the seclusion of their communities. This is a perfect case
      of the difficulties that invariably accompany ‘freedom of choice’: while
      Amish children are formally given a free choice, the conditions in which
      they must make it render the choice unfree.

      The problem of pseudo-choice also demonstrates the limitations of the
      standard liberal attitude towards Muslim women who wear the veil: acceptable
      if it is their own free choice rather than imposed on them by husbands or
      family. However, the moment a woman dons the veil as the result of personal
      choice, its meaning changes completely: it is no longer a sign of belonging
      to the Muslim community, but an expression of idiosyncratic individuality.
      In other words, a choice is always a meta-choice, a choice of the modality
      of the choice itself: it is only the woman who does not choose to wear a
      veil that effectively chooses a choice. This is why, in our secular liberal
      democracies, people who maintain a substantial religious allegiance are in a
      subordinate position: their faith is ‘tolerated’ as their own personal
      choice, but the moment they present it publicly as what it is for them—a
      matter of substantial belonging—they stand accused of ‘fundamentalism’.
      Plainly, the ‘subject of free choice’, in the ‘tolerant’, multicultural
      sense, can only emerge as the result of an extremely violent process of
      being uprooted from one’s particular life-world.
      The material force of the ideological notion of ‘free choice’ within
      capitalist democracy was well illustrated by the fate of the Clinton
      Administration’s ultra-modest health reform programme. The medical lobby
      (twice as strong as the infamous defence lobby) succeeded in imposing on the
      public the idea that universal healthcare would somehow threaten freedom of
      choice in that domain. Against this conviction, all enumeration of ‘hard
      facts’ proved ineffective. We are here at the very nerve-centre of liberal
      ideology: freedom of choice, grounded in the notion of the ‘psychological’
      subject, endowed with propensities which he or she strives to realize. And
      this especially holds today, in the era of a ‘risk society’ in which the
      ruling ideology endeavours to sell us the very insecurities caused by the
      dismantling of the welfare state as the opportunity for new freedoms. If
      labour flexibilization means you have to change jobs every year, why not see
      it as a liberation from the constraints of a permanent career, a chance to
      reinvent yourself and realize the hidden potential of your personality? If
      there is a shortfall on your standard health insurance and retirement plan,
      meaning you have to opt for extra coverage, why not perceive it as an
      additional opportunity to choose: either a better lifestyle now or long-term
      security? Should this predicament cause you anxiety, the ‘second modernity’
      ideologist will diagnose you as desiring to ‘escape from freedom’, of an
      immature sticking to old stable forms. Even better, when this is inscribed
      into the ideology of the subject as the ‘psychological’ individual, pregnant
      with natural abilities, you will automatically tend to interpret all these
      changes as the outcome of your personality, not as the result of being
      thrown around by market forces.

      Politics of jouissance

      What of the basic right to the pursuit of pleasure? Today’s politics is ever
      more concerned with ways of soliciting or controlling jouissance. The
      opposition between the liberal-tolerant West and fundamentalist Islam is
      most often condensed as that between, on the one side, a woman’s right to
      free sexuality, including the freedom to display or expose herself and to
      provoke or disturb men; and, on the other side, desperate male attempts to
      suppress or control this threat. (The Taliban forbade metal-tipped heels for
      women, as the tapping sounds coming from beneath an all-concealing burka
      might have an overpowering erotic appeal.)

      Both sides, of course, mystify their position ideologically and morally. For
      the West, women’s right to expose themselves provocatively to male desire is
      legitimized as their right to enjoy their bodies as they please. For Islam,
      the control of female sexuality is legitimized as the defence of women’s
      dignity against their being reduced to objects of male exploitation. So when
      the French state prohibits Muslim girls from wearing the veil in school, one
      can claim that they are thus enabled to dispose of their bodies as they
      wish. But one can also argue that the true traumatic point for critics of
      Muslim ‘fundamentalism’ was that there were women who did not participate in
      the game of making their bodies available for sexual seduction, or for the
      social exchange and circulation involved in this. In one way or another, all
      the other issues—gay marriage and adoption, abortion, divorce—relate to
      this. What the two poles share is a strict disciplinary approach,
      differently directed: ‘fundamentalists’ regulate female self-presentation to
      forestall sexual provocation; pc feminist liberals impose a no-less-severe
      regulation of behaviour aimed at containing forms of harassment.

      Liberal attitudes towards the other are characterized both by respect for
      otherness, openness to it, and an obsessive fear of harassment. In short,
      the other is welcomed insofar as its presence is not intrusive, insofar as
      it is not really the other. Tolerance thus coincides with its opposite. My
      duty to be tolerant towards the other effectively means that I should not
      get too close to him or her, not intrude into his space—in short, that I
      should respect his intolerance towards my over-proximity. This is
      increasingly emerging as the central human right of advanced capitalist
      society: the right not to be ‘harassed’, that is, to be kept at a safe
      distance from others. The same goes for the emergent logic of humanitarian
      or pacifist militarism. War is acceptable insofar as it seeks to bring about
      peace, or democracy, or the conditions for distributing humanitarian aid.
      And does the same not hold even more for democracy and human rights
      themselves? Human rights are ok if they are ‘rethought’ to include torture
      and a permanent emergency state. Democracy is ok if it is cleansed of its
      populist excesses and limited to those mature enough to practise it.
      Caught in the vicious cycle of the imperative of jouissance, the temptation
      is to opt for what appears its ‘natural’ opposite, the violent renunciation
      of jouissance. This is perhaps the underlying motif of all so-called
      fundamentalisms—the endeavour to contain (what they perceive as) the
      excessive ‘narcissistic hedonism’ of contemporary secular culture with a
      call to reintroduce the spirit of sacrifice. A psychoanalytic perspective
      immediately enables us to see why such an endeavour goes wrong. The very
      gesture of casting away enjoyment—‘Enough of decadent self-indulgence!
      Renounce and purify!’—produces a surplus-enjoyment of its own. Do not all
      ‘totalitarian’ universes which demand of their subjects a violent
      (self-)sacrifice to the cause exude the bad smell of a fascination with a
      lethal-obscene jouissance? Conversely, a life oriented towards the pursuit
      of pleasure will entail the harsh discipline of a ‘healthy lifestyle’—jogging,
      dieting, mental relaxation—if it is to be enjoyed to the maximum. The
      superego injunction to enjoy oneself is immanently intertwined with the
      logic of sacrifice. The two form a vicious cycle, each extreme supporting
      the other. The choice is never simply between doing one’s duty or striving
      for pleasure and satisfaction. This elementary choice is always redoubled by
      a further one, between elevating one’s striving for pleasure into one’s
      supreme duty, and doing one’s duty not for duty’s sake but for the
      gratification it brings. In the first case, pleasures are my duty, and the
      ‘pathological’ striving for pleasure is located in the formal space of duty.
      In the second case, duty is my pleasure, and doing my duty is located in the
      formal space of ‘pathological’ satisfactions.

      Defence against power?

      But if human rights as opposition to fundamentalism and as pursuit of
      happiness lead us into intractable contradictions, are they not after all a
      defence against the excess of power? Marx formulated the strange logic of
      power as ‘in excess’ by its very nature in his analyses of 1848. In The
      Eighteenth Brumaire and The Class Struggles in France, he ‘complicated’ in a
      properly dialectical way the logic of social representation (political
      agents representing economic classes and forces). In doing so, he went much
      further than the usual notion of these ‘complications’, according to which
      political representation never directly mirrors social structure—a single
      political agent can represent different social groups, for instance; or a
      class can renounce its direct representation and leave to another the job of
      securing the politico-juridical conditions of its rule, as the English
      capitalist class did by leaving to the aristocracy the exercise of political
      power. Marx’s analyses pointed towards what Lacan would articulate, more
      than a century later, as the ‘logic of the signifier’. Apropos the Party of
      Order, formed after the defeat of the June insurrection, Marx wrote that
      only after Louis-Napoleon’s December 10 election victory allowed it to ‘cast
      off’ its coterie of bourgeois republicans
      was the secret of its existence, the coalition of Orléanists and Legitimists
      into one party, disclosed. The bourgeois class fell apart into two big
      factions which alternately—the big landed proprietors under the restored
      monarchy and the finance aristocracy and the industrial bourgeoisie under
      the July Monarchy—had maintained a monopoly of power. Bourbon was the royal
      name for the predominant influence of the interests of the one faction,
      Orléans the royal name for the predominant influence of the interests of the
      other faction—the nameless realm of the republic was the only one in which
      both factions could maintain with equal power the common class interest
      without giving up their mutual rivalry. [3]
      This, then, is the first complication. When we are dealing with two or more
      socio-economic groups, their common interest can only be represented in the
      guise of the negation of their shared premise: the common denominator of the
      two royalist factions is not royalism, but republicanism. (Just as today,
      the only political agent that consistently represents the interests of
      capital as such, in its universality, above particular factions, is the
      ‘social liberal’ Third Way.) Then, in The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx
      dissected the makeup of the Society of December
      10, Louis-Napoleon’s private army of thugs:

      Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious
      origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were
      vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves,
      swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers,
      maquereaux [pimps], brothel-keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders,
      rag-pickers, knife-grinders, tinkers, beggars—in short, the whole
      indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French
      call la bohème; from this kindred element Bonaparte formed the core of the
      Society of December 10 . . . This Bonaparte, who constitutes himself chief
      of the lumpen proletariat, who here alone rediscovers in mass form the
      interests which he personally pursues, who recognizes in this scum, offal,
      refuse of all classes the only class upon which he can base himself
      unconditionally, is the real Bonaparte, the Bonaparte sans phrases. [4]

      The logic of the Party of Order is here brought to its radical conclusion.
      In the same way that the only common denominator of all royalist factions is
      republicanism, the only common denominator of all classes is the excremental
      excess, the refuse, the remainder, of all classes. That is to say, insofar
      as the leader perceives himself as standing above class interests, his
      immediate class base can only be the excremental remainder of all classes,
      the rejected non-class of each class. And, as Marx develops in another
      passage, it is this support from the ‘social abject’ which enables Bonaparte
      to shift his position as required, representing in turn each class against
      the others.

      As the executive authority which has made itself independent, Bonaparte
      feels it to be his task to safeguard ‘bourgeois order’. But the strength of
      this bourgeois order lies in the middle class. He poses, therefore, as the
      representative of the middle class and issues decrees in this sense.
      Nevertheless, he is somebody solely because he has broken the power of that
      middle class, and keeps on breaking it daily. He poses, therefore, as the
      opponent of the political and literary power of the middle class. [5]

      But there is more. In order for this system to function—that is, for the
      leader to stand above classes and not to act as a direct representative of
      any one class—he also has to act as the representative of one particular
      class: of the class which, precisely, is not sufficiently constituted to act
      as a united agent demanding active representation. This class of people who
      cannot represent themselves and can thus only be represented is, of course,
      the class of small-holding peasants, who form a vast mass, the members of
      which live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold
      relations with one other. Their mode of production isolates them from one
      another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse . . . They are
      consequently incapable of enforcing their class interests in their own name,
      whether through a parliament or through a convention. They cannot represent
      themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same
      time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited
      governmental power that protects them against the other classes and sends
      them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the
      small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the
      executive power subordinating society to itself. [6]
      These three features together form the paradoxical structure of
      populist-Bonapartist representation: standing above all classes, shifting
      among them, involves a direct reliance on the abject/remainder of all
      classes, plus the ultimate reference to the class of those who are unable to
      act as a collective agent demanding political representation. This paradox
      is grounded in the constitutive excess of representation over the
      represented. At the level of the law, the state power merely represents the
      interests of its subjects; it serves them, is responsible to them, and is
      itself subject to their control. However, at the level of the superego
      underside, the public message of responsibility is supplemented by the
      obscene message of the unconditional exercise of power: ‘Laws do not really
      bind me, I can do to you whatever I want, I can treat you as guilty if I
      decide to do so, I can destroy you on a whim’. This obscene excess is a
      necessary constituent of the notion of sovereignty. The asymmetry here is
      structural: the law can only sustain its authority if subjects hear in it
      the echo of the obscene, unconditional self-assertion of power.

      This excess of power brings us to the ultimate argument against ‘big’
      political interventions which aim at global transformation: the terrifying
      experiences of the 20th century, a series of catastrophes which precipitated
      disastrous violence on an unprecedented scale. There are three main
      theorizations of these catastrophes. First, the view epitomized by the name
      of Habermas: Enlightenment is in itself a positive, emancipatory process
      with no inherent ‘totalitarian’ potential; the catastrophes that have
      occurred merely indicate that it remains an unfinished project, and our task
      should be to bring this project to completion. Second, the view associated
      with Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and, today, with
      Agamben. The ‘totalitarian’ bent of Enlightenment is inherent and
      definitive, the ‘administered world’ is its true consequence, and
      concentration camps and genocides are a kind of negative-teleological
      endpoint of the entire history of the West. Third, the view developed in the
      works of Etienne Balibar, among others: modernity opens up a field of new
      freedoms, but at the same time of new dangers, and there is no ultimate
      teleological guarantee of the outcome. The contest remains open and

      The starting point of Balibar’s text on violence is the insufficiency of the
      standard Hegelian-Marxist notion of ‘converting’ violence into an instrument
      of historical Reason, a force which begets a new social formation. [7] The
      ‘irrational’ brutality of violence is thus aufgehoben, ‘sublated’ in the
      strict Hegelian sense, reduced to a particular ‘stain’ that contributes to
      the overall harmony of historical progress. The 20th century confronted us
      with catastrophes—some directed against Marxist political forces, others
      generated by Marxist engagement itself—which cannot be ‘rationalized’ in
      this way. Their instrumentalization into the tools of the Cunning of Reason
      is not only ethically unacceptable but also theoretically wrong, ideological
      in the strongest sense of the term. In his close reading of Marx, Balibar
      nonetheless discerns an oscillation between this teleological
      ‘conversion-theory’ of violence, and a much more interesting notion of
      history as an open-ended process of antagonistic struggles, whose final
      ‘positive’ outcome is not guaranteed by any encompassing historical

      Balibar argues that, for necessary structural reasons, Marxism is unable to
      think the excess of violence that cannot be integrated into the narrative of
      historical Progress. More specifically, it cannot provide an adequate theory
      of fascism and Stalinism and their ‘extreme’ outcomes, Shoah and Gulag. Our
      task is therefore twofold: to deploy a theory of historical violence as
      something which cannot be instrumentalized by any political agent, which
      threatens to engulf this agent itself in a self-destructive vicious cycle;
      and also to pose the question of how to turn the revolutionary process
      itself into a civilizing force. As a counter-example, take the process that
      led to the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Catherine de Medici’s goal was
      limited and precise: hers was a Machiavellian plot to assassinate Admiral de
      Coligny—a powerful Protestant pushing for war with Spain in the
      Netherlands—and let the blame fall on the over-mighty Catholic family of de
      Guise. Thus Catherine sought to engineer the fall of both the houses that
      posed a menace to the unity of the French state. But the bid to play her
      enemies off against each other degenerated into an uncontrolled frenzy of
      blood. In her ruthless pragmatism, Catherine was blind to the passion with
      which men clung to their beliefs.

      Hannah Arendt’s insights are crucial here, emphasizing the distinction
      between political power and the mere exercise of violence. Organizations run
      by direct non-political authority—Army, Church, school—represent examples of
      violence (Gewalt), not of political power in the strict sense of the term.
      [8] At this point, however, we need to recall the distinction between the
      public, symbolic law and its obscene supplement. The notion of the obscene
      double-supplement of power implies that there is no power without violence.
      Political space is never ‘pure’ but always involves some kind of reliance on
      pre-political violence. Of course, the relationship between political power
      and pre-political violence is one of mutual implication. Not only is
      violence the necessary supplement of power, but power itself is
      always-already at the root of every apparently ‘non-political’ relationship
      of violence. The accepted violence and direct relationship of subordination
      within the Army, Church, family and other ‘non-political’ social forms is in
      itself the reification of a certain ethico-political struggle. The task of
      critical analysis is to discern the hidden political process that sustains
      all these ‘non’ or ‘pre’-political relationships. In human society, the
      political is the encompassing structuring principle, so that every
      neutralization of some partial content as ‘non-political’ is a political
      gesture par excellence.

      Humanitarian purity

      It is within this context that we can situate the most salient human rights
      issue: the rights of those who are starving or exposed to murderous
      violence. Rony Brauman, who co-ordinated aid to Sarajevo, has demonstrated
      how the very presentation of the crisis there as ‘humanitarian’, the very
      recasting of a political-military conflict into humanitarian terms, was
      sustained by an eminently political choice—basically, to take the Serb side
      in the conflict. The celebration of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in
      Yugoslavia took the place of a political discourse, Brauman argues, thus
      disqualifying in advance all conflicting debate. [9]

      From this particular insight we may problematize, at a general level, the
      ostensibly depoliticized politics of human rights as the ideology of
      military interventionism serving specific economico-political ends. As Wendy
      Brown has suggested apropos Michael Ignatieff, such humanitarianism
      presents itself as something of an anti-politics, a pure defence of the
      innocent and the powerless against power, a pure defence of the individual
      against immense and potentially cruel or despotic machineries of culture,
      state, war, ethnic conflict, tribalism, patriarchy, and other mobilizations
      or instantiations of collective power against individuals. [10]

      However, the question is: what kind of politicization do those who intervene
      on behalf of human rights set in motion against the powers they oppose? Do
      they stand for a different formulation of justice, or do they stand in
      opposition to collective justice projects? For example, it is clear that the
      us-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, legitimized in terms of ending the
      suffering of the Iraqi people, was not only motivated by hard-headed
      politico-economic interests but also relied on a determinate idea of the
      political and economic conditions under which ‘freedom’ was to be delivered
      to the Iraqi people: liberal-democratic capitalism, insertion into the
      global market economy, etc. The purely humanitarian, anti-political politics
      of merely preventing suffering thus amounts to an implicit prohibition on
      elaborating a positive collective project of socio-political transformation.

      At an even more general level, we might problematize the opposition between
      the universal (pre-political) human rights possessed by every human being
      ‘as such’ and the specific political rights of a citizen, or member of a
      particular political community. In this sense, Balibar argues for the
      ‘reversal of the historical and theoretical relationship between “man” and
      “citizen”’ that proceeds by ‘explaining how man is made by citizenship and
      not citizenship by man.’ [11] Balibar alludes here to Arendt’s insight on
      the condition of refugees:

      The conception of human rights based upon the assumed existence of a human
      being as such broke down at the very moment when those who professed to
      believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed
      lost all other qualities and specific relationships except that they were
      still human. [12]

      This line, of course, leads straight to Agamben’s notion of homo sacer as a
      human being reduced to ‘bare life’. In a properly Hegelian dialectics of
      universal and particular, it is precisely when a human being is deprived of
      the particular socio-political identity that accounts for his determinate
      citizenship that—in one and the same move—he ceases to be recognized or
      treated as human. [13] Paradoxically, I am deprived of human rights at the
      very moment at which I am reduced to a human being ‘in general’, and thus
      become the ideal bearer of those ‘universal human rights’ which belong to me
      independently of my profession, sex, citizenship, religion, ethnic identity,

      What, then, happens to human rights when they are the rights of homo sacer,
      of those excluded from the political community; that is, when they are of no
      use, since they are the rights of those who, precisely, have no rights, and
      are treated as inhuman? Jacques Rancière proposes a salient dialectical
      reversal: ‘When they are of no use, one does the same as charitable persons
      do with their old clothes. One gives them to the poor. Those rights that
      appear to be useless in their place are sent abroad, along with medicine and
      clothes, to people deprived of medicine, clothes and rights.’ Nevertheless,
      they do not become void, for ‘political names and political places never
      become merely void’. Instead the void is filled by somebody or something

      if those who suffer inhuman repression are unable to enact the human rights
      that are their last recourse, then somebody else has to inherit their rights
      in order to enact them in their place. This is what is called the ‘right to
      humanitarian interference’—a right that some nations assume to the supposed
      benefit of victimized populations, and very often against the advice of the
      humanitarian organizations themselves. The ‘right to humanitarian
      interference’ might be described as a sort of ‘return to sender’: the
      disused rights that had been sent to the rightless are sent back to the
      senders. [14]

      So, to put it in the Leninist way: what the ‘human rights of Third World
      suffering victims’ effectively means today, in the predominant discourse, is
      the right of Western powers themselves to intervene politically,
      economically, culturally and militarily in the Third World countries of
      their choice, in the name of defending human rights. The reference to Lacan’s
      formula of communication (in which the sender gets his own message back from
      the receiver-addressee in its inverted, i.e. true, form) is very much to the
      point here. In the reigning discourse of humanitarian interventionism, the
      developed West is effectively getting back from the victimized Third World
      its own message in its true form.

      The moment human rights are thus depoliticized, the discourse dealing with
      them has to change: the pre-political opposition of Good and Evil must be
      mobilized anew. Today’s ‘new reign of ethics’, clearly invoked in, say,
      Ignatieff’s work, thus relies on a violent gesture of depoliticization,
      depriving the victimized other of any political subjectivization. And, as
      Rancière points out, liberal humanitarianism à la Ignatieff unexpectedly
      meets the ‘radical’ position of Foucault or Agamben with regard to this
      depoliticization: their notion of ‘biopolitics’ as the culmination of
      Western thought ends up getting caught in a kind of ‘ontological trap’, in
      which concentration camps appear as ontological destiny: ‘each of us would
      be in the situation of the refugee in a camp. Any difference grows faint
      between democracy and totalitarianism and any political practice proves to
      be already ensnared in the biopolitical trap’. [15]

      We thus arrive at a standard ‘anti-essentialist’ position, a kind of
      political version of Foucault’s notion of sex as generated by the multitude
      of the practices of sexuality. ‘Man’, the bearer of human rights, is
      generated by a set of political practices which materialize citizenship;
      ‘human rights’ are, as such, a false ideological universality, which masks
      and legitimizes a concrete politics of Western imperialism, military
      interventions and neo-colonialism. Is this, however, enough?

      Universality’s return

      The Marxist symptomal reading can convincingly demonstrate the content that
      gives the notion of human rights its specific bourgeois ideological spin:
      universal human rights are effectively the right of white, male
      property-owners to exchange freely on the market, exploit workers and women,
      and exert political domination. This identification of the particular
      content that hegemonizes the universal form is, however, only half the
      story. Its crucial other half consists in asking a more difficult,
      supplementary question: that of the emergence of the form of universality
      itself. How—in what specific historical conditions—does abstract
      universality become a ‘fact of (social) life’? In what conditions do
      individuals experience themselves as subjects of universal human rights?
      Therein resides the point of Marx’s analysis of ‘commodity fetishism’: in a
      society in which commodity exchange predominates, individuals in their daily
      lives relate to themselves, and to the objects they encounter, as to
      contingent embodiments of abstract-universal notions. What I am, in terms of
      my concrete social or cultural background, is experienced as contingent,
      since what ultimately defines me is the ‘abstract’ universal capacity to
      think or to work. Likewise, any object that can satisfy my desire is
      experienced as contingent, since my desire is conceived as an ‘abstract’
      formal capacity, indifferent to the multitude of particular objects that
      may, but never fully do, satisfy it.

      Or take the example of ‘profession’: the modern notion of profession implies
      that I experience myself as an individual who is not directly ‘born into’
      his social role. What I will become depends on the interplay between
      contingent social circumstances and my free choice. In this sense, today’s
      individual has a profession, as electrician, waiter or lecturer, while it is
      meaningless to claim that the medieval serf was a peasant by profession. In
      the specific social conditions of commodity exchange and the global market
      economy, ‘abstraction’ becomes a direct feature of actual social life, the
      way concrete individuals behave and relate to their fate and to their social
      surroundings. In this regard Marx shares Hegel’s insight, that universality
      becomes ‘for itself’ only when individuals no longer fully identify the
      kernel of their being with their particular social situation; only insofar
      as they experience themselves as forever ‘out of joint’ with it. The
      concrete existence of universality is, therefore, the individual without a
      proper place in the social edifice. The mode of appearance of universality,
      its entering into actual existence, is thus an extremely violent act of
      disrupting the preceding organic poise.

      It is not enough to make the well-worn Marxist point about the gap between
      the ideological appearance of the universal legal form and the particular
      interests that effectively sustain it. At this level the counter-argument
      (made, among others, by Lefort and Rancière), that the form is never ‘mere’
      form but involves a dynamics of its own, which leaves traces in the
      materiality of social life, is fully valid. It was bourgeois ‘formal freedom’
      that set in motion the very ‘material’ political demands and practices of
      feminism or trade unionism. Rancière’s basic emphasis is on the radical
      ambiguity of the Marxist notion of the ‘gap’ between formal democracy—the
      Rights of Man, political freedoms—and the economic reality of exploitation
      and domination. This gap can be read in the standard ‘symptomatic’ way:
      formal democracy is a necessary but illusory expression of a concrete social
      reality of exploitation and class domination. But it can also be read in the
      more subversive sense of a tension in which the ‘appearance’ of égaliberté
      is not a ‘mere appearance’ but contains an efficacy of its own, which allows
      it to set in motion the rearticulation of actual socio-economic relations by
      way of their progressive ‘politicization’. Why shouldn’t women also be
      allowed to vote? Why shouldn’t workplace conditions be a matter of public
      concern as well?

      We might perhaps apply here the old Lévi-Straussian term of ‘symbolic
      efficiency’: the appearance of égaliberté is a symbolic fiction which, as
      such, possesses actual efficiency of its own; the properly cynical
      temptation of reducing it to a mere illusion that conceals a different
      actuality should be resisted. It is not enough merely to posit an authentic
      articulation of a life-world experience which is then reappropriated by
      those in power to serve their particular interests or to render their
      subjects docile cogs in the social machine. Much more interesting is the
      opposite process, in which something that was originally an ideological
      edifice imposed by colonizers is all of a sudden taken over by their
      subjects as a means to articulate their ‘authentic’ grievances. A classic
      case would be the Virgin of Guadalupe in newly colonized Mexico: with her
      appearance to a humble Indian, Christianity—which until then served as the
      imposed ideology of the Spanish colonizers—was appropriated by the
      indigenous population as a means to symbolize their terrible plight.

      Rancière has proposed a very elegant solution to the antinomy between human
      rights, belonging to ‘man as such’, and the politicization of citizens.
      While human rights cannot be posited as an unhistorical ‘essentialist’
      Beyond with regard to the contingent sphere of political struggles, as
      universal ‘natural rights of man’ exempted from history, neither should they
      be dismissed as a reified fetish, the product of concrete historical
      processes of the politicization of citizens. The gap between the
      universality of human rights and the political rights of citizens is thus
      not a gap between the universality of man and a specific political sphere.
      Rather, it ‘separates the whole of the community from itself’. [16] Far from
      being pre-political, ‘universal human rights’ designate the precise space of
      politicization proper; what they amount to is the right to universality as
      such—the right of a political agent to assert its radical non-coincidence
      with itself (in its particular identity), to posit itself as the
      ‘supernumerary’, the one with no proper place in the social edifice; and
      thus as an agent of universality of the social itself. The paradox is
      therefore a very precise one, and symmetrical to the paradox of universal
      human rights as the rights of those reduced to inhumanity. At the very
      moment when we try to conceive the political rights of citizens without
      reference to a universal ‘meta-political’ human rights, we lose politics
      itself; that is to say, we reduce politics to a ‘post-political’ play of
      negotiation of particular interests.

      [1] Quoted in Bozidar Jezernik, Wild Europe: The Balkans in the Gaze of
      Western Travellers, London 2004, p. 233.
      [2] ‘The constitution is dead. Long live proper politics’, Guardian, 4 June
      [3] Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol. i, Moscow 1969, p. 83.
      [4] Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. xi, Moscow 1975, p. 149.
      [5] Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. xi, p. 194.
      [6] Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. xi, pp. 187–8.
      [7] Etienne Balibar, ‘Gewalt’: entry for Historisch-Kritisches Wörterbuch
      des Marxismus, vol. 5, ed. Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Hamburg 2002.
      [8] Hannah Arendt, On Violence, New York 1970.
      [9] Rony Brauman, ‘From Philanthropy to Humanitarianism’, South Atlantic
      Quarterly, vol. 103, no. 2–3, Spring–Summer 2004, pp. 398–9 and 416.
      [10] Wendy Brown, ‘Human Rights as the Politics of Fatalism’, South Atlantic
      Quarterly, vol. 103, no. 2–3, p. 453.
      [11] Etienne Balibar, ‘Is a Philosophy of Human Civic Rights Possible?’,
      South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 103, no. 2–3, pp. 320–1.
      [12] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York 1958, p. 297.
      [13] See Giorgio Agamben, Homo sacer, Stanford 1998.
      [14] Jacques Rancière, ‘Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?’, South
      Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 103, no. 2–3, pp. 307–9.
      [15] Rancière, ‘Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?’, p. 301.
      [16] Rancière, ‘Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?’, p. 305.

      In NLR 34, July-August 2005

      Andrew Glyn on the growing imbalances in an increasingly integrated global
      economy: soaring US deficits, the expansion of financial markets and the
      dynamics of East Asian catch-up. See also:

      Robert Brenner, ‘New Boom or New Bubble?’

      Robert Wade, ‘Ringmaster of Doha’

      Giovanni Arrighi, ‘Tracking Global Turbulence’

      Chinese labour activist Han Dongfang discusses the problems facing the PRC's
      workers and describes his struggles against the CCP authorities, from
      Tiananmen Square on. On China, see:

      Wang Chaohua, ‘Tale of Two Nationalisms’

      Yang Lian, ‘Dark Side of the Chinese Moon’

      Qin Hui, ‘Dividing the Big Family Assets’

      Also in NLR 34:

      Slavoj Žižek, ‘Against Human Rights’. Alibi for military interventions,
      ideological basis for the fundamentalism of the politically correct - can
      universal rights be recuperated and re-politicized?

      In ‘Capital and Social Europe’, Robin Blackburn proposes a redistributive
      share levy on corporations as a first step towards sustainable health and
      retirement provision across the continent.

      Christopher Prendergast, ‘Evolution and Literary History’: landmark essay on
      Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees. The logical underpinnings and
      political implications of applying evolutionary models to literary history.

      Book Reviews:
      Peter Gowan on Mark Leonard, Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century. A
      manifesto for a Blairite Europeanism as model for a new Atlanticist world

      Jonathan Rosenbaum on Serge Daney, La Maison cinéma et le monde, vols 1 and
      2. Uncollected writings of the Nouvelle Vague's prodigal son.

      Tsering Shakya on Melvyn Goldstein et al, A Tibetan Revolutionary. Memoirs
      of an indigenous Lenin from the Land of Snows, and his long imprisonment by
      the Mao government.
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