Blog #58b: From Civil Rights to Human Rights via Transformative Rights.


 

Blog #58b: From Civil Rights to Human Rights via Transformative Rights.

 

The issues raised by the discussion of utopias in Blog #58a: From Immediate Demands to Utopias via Transformative Demands, have a striking parallel in the discussion about rights, ranging from civil rights to human rights via transformative rights.

 

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I.                 Rights: Human Rights and Civil Rights

 

“Rights” has many meanings, as in: ” human rights,” ” the right to the city,” “the rights of man,” “women’s rights’ or “minority rights.” When we speak of minority rights, we mean the rights of minority groups to be treated fairly and equally in matters in matters in which treatment should not vary by minority status, e.g. color of skin. What “fairness” and “equally” mean may be debatable, but what “rights” means is clear. It is a claim that the law, the existing judicial system, must see to it that the desired end is achieved, and if they do not do so, they should be changed so that they will. It is a critical, but not a radical or revolutionary, call.

A.    Human Rights

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson speaks of right that is self-evident: “the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”[3] The French revolution’s “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” and Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man” saw rights in a quite different sense: as a revolutionary change in the entire structure of society, certainly of the nation, as an ultimate goal, not one or a specific set of rights, but a claim to a system, to an independence, that would permit rights to be pursued, not within the existing, but within a new, society”Rights,” in the minority rights meaning of the term, is a claim for a change in legal standing within an existing system; in the French or revolutionary meaning, it is a goal for a movement of fundamental social change. . For The socialist Jaurès the French revolution’s “rights of man” “anticipated socialist utopianism, not legal internationalism.”[4]

 

B.    Civil Rights

Jefferson’s right, an inalienable human right, is clearly a right to change the system; it is, after all, in a revolutionary Declaration of Independence. Civil rights, historically, are rights within the system, rights in fact the system itself is called on to guarantee.

The point is more than an academic one. It came quite dramatically to fore again in the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960’s, when a significant part of the movement began to make it clear they wished, not simply to be included within the existing framework of laws and government, but within an entirely new one.

In Sam Moyn’s excellent story of the varing role of “rights” discussions over the course of history, the tension between civil rights and human rights formulations reflects somewhat the same difference in the meaning of rights, from immediate demands to broader goal statements. Human rights claims, in W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King are on the other hand more on the order of what Moyn calls “transformative utopianism.” Moyn also highlights the relationship between internal human rights efforts as going beyond more limited domestic and practical claims, as in Stokely Carmichael’s move from a United States-centered to an internationally-oriented effort, and Malcolm X’s vision of “human rights—but in the sense of collective liberation from imperial subordination.”[5] It is a movement between a critical and a radical or revolutionary meaning, between  change within and change of, the system, the underlying structures of of power that define how a society operates. It is a movement which depends on the historical possibilities of the particular moment.

C. Transformative Rights

While the right literature on rights offers much more material for examining the questions raised above than is possible here, the suggestion of linking internal political struggles around civil rights and international struggles around human rights, clarifying the implications of each for the other, as Sam Moyn ‘s work does, should have wider attention in social movements which often use the language of rights to formulate their claims. As with utopianism there is the danger that human rights is pushed into a limited consideration of what the United Nations of international law are willing to recognize and enforce, neglecting to examine what taking human rights seriously might mean for changes not only within the existing systems of international law but also for changes in the very meaning of “civil law” within national states. It is fertile ground for further constructive exploration. The concept of transformative rights might be useful.

 

[1] Significantly, it is a singular right that Jefferson cites, one big one, to a new country in the context, not multiple immediate if critical rights within existing national relationships.

[2] Moyn, op. cit., p, 40.

[3] Significantly, it is a singular right Jefferson cites, one big one, to a new country in the context, not multiple immediate if critical rights within existing national relationships.

[4] Moyn, op. cit., p, 40.

[5] See Samuel Moyn. 2010, The Last Utopia, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., pp, 104-106. Moyn does not generalize to the conclusion I suggest in the text, but focuses on the multiple ways “rights” have been political issues over the course of history, suggesting how their meaning has changed with their context, and I believe the dichotomous meanings referred to here are revealed in many instances.

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