Monday, January 08, 2007

Against human rights 

Finchy posed an important question at the end of the last thread, to which I ended up writing a long response. So I'm going take a page from scats' book and turn the exchange into a new post.


Finchy asks:

How can "love" and "dignity" serve as the basis for a political project?

The notion of consensus is essential to democracy. In ideal terms, democracy is NOT a state forcing us to consent to its control. In ideal terms democracy means that WE are the state. But naturally there is no, nor has there ever been, an ideal democracy in operation in this world.

I would argue that the Bush years and the general trend of American profiteering overseas mean that our checks and balances to power need to be severely revised. It does not necessarily mean that the constitution, in essence, was a bad idea, merely that it would be -ideal- if the US could somehow be persuaded to take human rights seriously worldwide, which it currently does not.

It is true that negative freedoms are a kind of sad peak for human political achievement. But in a sense they are the "necessity" that one needs in place before love and dignity become our focus. Love and dignity come after human rights. Any sphere in the world right now where love and dignity can be found are indeed those places where people (those not placed in states of exception) can take their human rights for granted.

Basic human needs should be defended not in the name of “rights,” which are only ever granted by states, but in the name of higher values, like love--without which no human can live a dignified life.

One can try to make sure people aren't being murdered because one is committed out of love to serving other people (perhaps for religious reasons, perhaps not).

Service in love is actually a more realistic program than trying to make sure people aren't murdered because it is their "right" not to be murdered. It is unrealistic to say that people have a right not to be murdered. They eminently do not and have never had such a right.

It is realistic, if you are so motivated, to say that your personal relationship with the victims motivates you personally to defend them. (The relationship can be personal either in immediate relational knowledge, or in the light of some personally mediated communal ethos, perhaps religious—say, belief in the image of God in man.)

We should defend the victims because of their relationship to us, not because of some abstract formal “right.”

As for the question of constitutions: as I have been saying, I am quite glad that I am one of the people whose rights are protected by a serviceable constitution. But this whole debate has the urgency it does because our government has been killing many thousands of people with weapons (and many millions through economic coercion), and these millions of dead ARE NOT PROTECTED by our constitution.

And yet they feel the deadly weight of our sovereign power. What are their "rights"? What are would-be activists and resisters supposed to say? "Don't immiserate Mexico with NAFTA or support Salvadoran death squads because it goes against the U.S. Constitution?" Does it?

Constitutions exist to threaten people with states of exception--to threaten them, in other words, with exclusion from constitutional protection. This exclusion is a kind of brutal inclusion (thus Iraq is totally under the sovereign power of the US). It is an exclusion from U.S. law that exposes the victims to the full weight of U.S. sovereign power. This is what Giorgio Agamben means by “the state of exception,” and this is why he insists that no set of laws has any power at all apart from the specter or prospect of their suspension in the state of exception.

The power of the U.S. Constitution (or any other) is inseparable from the line of division it draws between those who are who are, and those who are not, protected by its granting of “rights.”

That is the essence of a constitution. Inside and outside.

And that is the problem with “rights”--they are only for those on the inside. (And the fate of those on the outside reminds those on the inside that they, too, are not safe.)

What sort of constitution will protect the victims of US power from the US army?

“Human rights” as a political program would make sense only if all human history could be erased--if all the brutal crimes that are currently destroying millions could be undone--and then, in a pristine and impossible state, we could draw up a contract for a universal world government.

This is my problem with scats’ idea that “consent” is at the basis of sovereignty. Constitution presupposed contract, and contract presupposes equality between co-signers. This sort of formal, contractually-mediated equality must deny history. Everyone covered by the contract is formally equal; they accept the same terms.

This way of talking and thinking is brutally beside the point in a real situation of emergency. But people are subjected to this brutal langauge every time the IMF tries to draw up rules for structural readjustment in areas that have been raped and murdered. “Well, sorry about what happened, but now you’re free, you have your rights, so you can compete on a level playing field.” Which means that US companies buy the country and force the people to choose (“freely”) to enter into “contracts” of indentured servitude.

Tell the Iraqis to appeal to the US army (or to the UN, which is nothing but a tool of US military dissimulation) for “rights” and constitutional protection. But who else can they appeal to?

“Rights” must be granted by somebody, somewhere. They are decidedly not natural, as every corpse proves. The US (by which I mean the world market-state) is, now, the sole arbiter of “rights.” And it will never give constitutional rights to the whole world.

The source of constitutional power is the threat of the abrogation of constitutional rights. Constitutional power lives off the blood of those who cannot appeal to its courts.

So if the US army is hurting and killing, it is best not to talk of abstract, formal rights, but to establish and strengthen actual concrete RELATIONSHIPS with the victims.

“Right” is the formal legal language of contract. It exists to be abused. Relationship--which is ordered to love--is the only way to resist the global US market state.


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