“Not Enough, Human Rights in an Unequal World”
Harvard University Press, 277 pages
The human rights movement has been criticized from the left in recent years, charged with abetting the grotesque results of neoliberal market capitalism, namely, runaway inequality. A new book by Samuel Moyn, “Not Enough, Human Rights in an Unequal World,” clears the movement of this specific charge, but observes that “the critical reason that human rights have been a powerless companion of market fundamentalism is that they simply have nothing to say about material inequality.” Nor does he let go of a central fact in this debate, that is, “the coexistence of the human rights phenomenon with the death of socialism.” There are no innocent bystanders. By ignoring inequality and keeping public focus on other issues, human rights activists have made a dreadful mistake; though not to blame for the rise of right-wing authoritarian – some would say neo-fascist – governments throughout the First World, they have stayed silent on a condition fueling it, fury over inequality.
Of course people have the right not to be tortured, but we are in a sorry state if this is our baseline for social decency. In their defense, Moyn notes that human rights activists have pushed for a social minimum – a right not to starve, a right to existence – but even this is not enough. Moyn advocates a ceiling on wealth and to illustrate his view, begins his book’s conclusion: “Imagine that one man owned everything. Call him Croesus…” Imagine that Croesus is not a monster: Moyn says Croesus cannot stand torture and believes everyone has a right to subsistence. This, of course, is where we are headed in a world where a handful of people own as much wealth as billions of impoverished others. Indeed, in our world, it is questionable whether our handful of Croesuses really do care about torture and abuse. Certainly the bigwigs at Apple do not seem particularly concerned about the thousands of workers at the huge Foxconn center in Shenzhen, China, who put in 17-hour days doing extremely complex, repetitive fine motor tasks, so that they when they try to sleep in their dormitories they cannot stop shaking, while suicides have swept the workforce. Nor do the heirs to the Gap clothing fortune seem particularly concerned about ten-year-old children who have labored in their sweatshops in India, in what author Gerald Coles has called conditions close to slavery, even as the Gap fortune funds corporate U.S. educational darling, charter schools, at the expense of public education.
We may already inhabit Croesus’s world, without the hypothetical benevolence. As Moyn observes, “some national settings have been trending toward absolute inequality.” And it is a problem that “nothing in the scheme of human rights rules out Croesus’s world.” But there does exist a long history of people – and Moyn details that history – who did wish to rule out Croesus’s world. Those people were, and are, called socialists. They have a tradition of fighting inequality, and they used the welfare state in the west to do so, while in the east they used the communist state. Because of abuses associated with those communist states, the term “socialism” fell into a disrepute, from which it has only recently begun to emerge. But make no mistake – if the Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyns or Andres Manuel Lopez Obradors of the world are too successful, market fundamentalist ideologues will not hesitate to tar them with the mid-twentieth century sins of communism.
Red scare tactics may not, however, work yet another time around. The world has gotten a good, long look at the ugliness of neoliberal austerity. Many U.S. millennials regard capitalism negatively. Given that so many of them graduated college bankrupted by debt, this is not surprising. Given that so many of them are underemployed or can only find work in service jobs, despite their B.A.s and despite official propaganda about the supposedly wonderful job market, it is not surprising that they esteem socialism. Moyn observes that human rights advocates may soon have no choice but to address inequality. Indeed the discontent over economic inequality that put Trump in the white house and other near-fascists in power in Europe has already caused human rights abuses – the separation of young children from their parents by ICE at the Mexican border and the drowning of refugees in the Mediterranean en route to abysmal refugee camps in Europe, for starters. More abuses may be coming. Who should human rights activists team up with? Like it or not, the answer is socialists.