December 27, 2013, by Gianlluca Simi

Vital Theory 2013: Human Rights and Neoliberalism

One of the things that characterises the current era is the intensified involvement of global governmental institutions, such as the UN, the World Bank the IMF, in conflict and post-conflict situations particularly in what is, perhaps vulgarly, termed “the global south”. In other words, we live in an age of what Naomi Klein has called disaster capitalism. That is, an age in which the multitude of civil conflicts taking place are a series of crises or disasters which can only be resolved through the intervention by these institutions. More often than not – in fact, it would be a struggle to find the not – these interventions result in the neoliberal restructuring of the nation in question. One of the alarming developments in this model of “disaster capitalism” has been the increased use of human rights to articulate and justify these interventions. As an example, human rights and particularly the right to development have become a central pillar of the World Bank’s discourse and activities, particularly in regards to post-conflict reconstruction. Such a development asks us to consider the co-option of human rights by neoliberal governmental institutions and the purpose that it might serve. I want to argue that this goes beyond the need to give capitalism a friendly face, and that, in fact, human rights have become a crucial technology for this invasive form of global governance.

I want to begin then, by quickly outlining my use of the term technology, which rests on a small part of the work of Michele Foucault. Foucault used the term “technology” to describe the construction of civil society in the late 18thcentury as a social space, which the emerging form of liberal government could manage in order to facilitate the laissez-faire capitalist order it was intent on assembling. The rationale for this construction was based on new economic knowledges about the laws of exchange which requires individuals to be endowed with a certain amount of freedom, and, to be clear, this explicitly means freedom from the interference of government, essentially in order to buy, sell invest etc. This new economic knowledge reasoned that by giving individuals the freedom to exchange they would enrich themselves, and in enriching themselves would enrich the nation as a whole. For this new economic knowledge to function a space was needed in which this free exchange could take place. Civil society was precisely this new space, a new technology of government, in which citizens could be free to take part in the laws of exchange.  What is central, then, to Foucault’s usage of the term technology, and what I’d like to utilise here, is the notion of civil society as a tool which can induce individual freedom for the benefit of capital. It is precisely as a tool used to induce freedom that leads my own understanding of human rights as a technology of global capital.

Of course, the concept of freedom is integral to the whole conception of human rights. Human rights are essentially designed to guarantee human freedom; freedom to express your religious or political persuasion, to experience your own cultural identity, and so on.  On the one hand, these rights are bestowed with a kind of naturalism; they are articulated with a nod to enlightenment philosophy which posits a certain understanding of what it is to be human. They lean on the notion of a rational subject, who needs a certain amount of freedom to exercise their rationality. It is worth quickly mentioning then that it thus contains within itself a kind of individualism which lends itself to the individualising demands of global capital. On the other hand, perhaps because of the legal articulation of human rights in the immediate aftermath of the holocaust, human rights also imply a suspicion of government as a force which acts against this freedom. For they are the juridical tool with which citizens are protected from the potential tyrranies of their own governments. Human rights were conceived, then, as the protection of certain freedoms from governments. Already we can begin to see a similarity between human rights and the conception of civil society which Foucault saw emerging in the 18th Century, and this perhaps feels a little uncomfortable.

The question is then how this is deployed by a range of global institutions? In the first instance, I want to argue that they are utilised as a right to intervention. This is particularly prevalent in conflict situations where it is organised an orchestrated by several UN agencies and in partnership with various nation-states. The right to intervention on the basis of human rights is presented in a narrative made up of three components, what Makua Mutua would call the Savages, Victims and Saviours model. Firstly, governments involved in conflicts tend to be framed as Savages. That is, as tyrannical forces administering untold misery on their populations. It follows that the population is then positioned as a collection of victims. In this narrative the concept of the victim serves as a moral and ethical category that demands intervention. It posits that the victim’s freedom to exercise their humanity has been attacked or destroyed by a rogue government. In other words, the victim is not free, and because they are not free their humanity as such is denied to them. Furthermore, in the absence of this particular conception of humanity the victim is positioned as hapless, helpless, and unable to act affirmatively to transform their own position within the situation. What the victim need is a Saviour, which can very easily be reread as “what they need is the West”. For when another human’s freedom, when their humanity is at stake, there is a moral obligation to intervene, to protect them from this attack. It is precisely this moral obligation which is utilised by the institutions of global governance when the decision is made to intervene.

But importantly, it is not only a case of protecting victims. It is a case of returning the victim’s freedom, their humanity, to them. And this is the second deployment of human rights I’d like to point towards: as the ethical underpinning for the process of neoliberalisation. Here, human rights become the discourse through which, in the aftermath of conflict, the institutions of global government can begin a process of restructuring the state along neoliberal lines. The right to development becomes particularly important here. It was affirmed as a human right in the late eighties and demands that the social, economic and cultural development of the individual is an inalienable right. But this right to development often frames and informs the restructuring or development of the state along neoliberal lines. The inclusion of economic development is integral to this enterprise, because it becomes a way of justifying economic changes which allow individuals to become, in theory at least, free and rational actors who can make their individual choices though the market. In other words, allowing individuals to access the market becomes the way in which the freedom of individual is returned to them.

That being said, while rights discourse might justify the structural changes required for a neoliberal economy, this doesn’t necessarily equate to returning the capacity for freedom to the victim. A capacity for freedom needs to be developed which means that the population needs to be worked on at the affective level. This brings us, finally, to the intervention of NGOs in conflict and post-conflict settings. Through their various activities what NGOs do is provide a framework through which victims can be empowered to take hold of their freedom. In this sense, while Foucault had identified the production of civil society as a technology which allowed freedom to take place, in a framework where populations are identified as explicitly not having the capacity for freedom, human rights becomes the technology which provides that capacity in the first place. Importantly, this new found capacity for freedom is devoid of any emancipatory or egalitarian content, it becomes a means simply of building the capacity of victims to function within the neoliberal order.

This has been a broad overview of some of my thoughts on human rights and the process of neolioberalisation, painted no doubt with some very broad brushstrokes. In this sense, I’d like to encourage us discuss this problem in more depth. For instance, how precisely do NGOs work at the affective level; what are their practices? On the other hand, I would also like to direct, if I may, part of the discussion in another direction. Human Rights is a powerful discourse, often attached to egalitarian and emancipatory ideals. Given its co-option by neoliberal forms of governance, it would be interesting, I think, to discuss the potential for rescuing human rights. How would this take place? What precisely about human rights needs to rearticulated for this to happen. It is with these questions in mind that I hope we can begin our discussion.

This post originally appeared on The Critical Moment blog

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