(unpublished, October 1991)

Towards a new synthesis in the conception of human rights?




1. Introduction

Whereas liberal capitalism is triumphant about the "victory" of human rights, first in eastern europe and then in the USSR, the historical experience of the defunct "existing socialism", as well as that of "existing capitalism" in its present dominant neo-liberal form, pose fundamental questions about the meaning and content of human rights. In particular, given the fragmented character of both the liberal and the socialist conceptions of human rights in their emphasis of "individual" and "collective" rights respectively, the question arises whether the radical green movement that is emerging (red-green/ social ecology) needs a new conceptual synthesis on the matter.

The common characteristic of the post-war international declarations of human rights, that have been signed by both the West and the East,[1] is the division of the adopted human rights between, on the one hand, civil and political rights and, on the other, economic, social and cultural rights. A commonly suggested classification of human rights is the one suggested by the French jurist Karel Vasak which distinguishes three "generations" of rights. The first generation includes the civil and political rights that are closely associated with the liberal tradition, whereas the second generation includes the economic, social and cultural rights that are linked to the socialist tradition.

A third generation of rights emerged in the post war period which was connected to the anti-colonialist movement in the Third World. The inclusion of art. 28 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights according to which "everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights set forth in this Declaration can be fully realised" was hailed as a first step in the recognition of this new generation of rights. Six rights are commonly thought to be included in this generation of rights. The right of political, economic, social and cultural self-determination; the right to economic and social development; the right to participate in and benefit from "the common heritage of mankind" (shared Earth-space resources, scientific knowledge, culture); the right to peace; the right to a healthy and balanced environment and the right to humanitarian disaster relief. Although an attempt was made to include some of these rights in a regional Bill of Rights, The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights adopted in 1981 by the Nairobi Assembly of the Organisation of African Unity, still most of the rights in this category tend to be aspirational in character with an ambiguous jural status.

2. The liberal tradition of human rights

The civil and political rights of the first generation are those contained in arts. 2-21 of the Universal Declaration. They include the familiar individual freedoms (freedom from discrimination, from arbitrary arrest and torture, from interference in correspondence, freedom of movement, of thought and conscience, of opinion and expression, of assembly and association) and the rights to life and liberty, to a fair trial, to participate in government through free elections as well as the right to property. The history of these rights in modern times goes back to liberal philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries (John Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau) and the associated English, French and American revolutions. Liberal individualism and the economic doctrine of laissez faire constitute the pillars on which these rights are based. Furthermore, in consistency with the liberal conception of freedom which is defined negatively, as the absence of constraints in human activity (I. Berlin), these rights are defined in a negative way as "freedom from" since their explicit objective is to limit state power.

The distinguishing characteristic of the liberal conception of human rights is the complete abstraction of individual freedoms from their socio-economic base. It was this characteristic that allowed socialists to dismiss liberal rights as "formal freedoms" on the grounds that few people in capitalist societies could exercise all these rights effectively. However, it is now generally accepted that the liberal rights and freedoms are not formal. Neither are however the product of liberal generosity, as current mass media mythology suggests. Many important civil liberties (freedom of assembly and association, freedom to strike, right to vote etc) were conquered after long struggles by mass movements in the last 150 years. The same applies to significant social and economic rights (right to work, "social wage", progressiveness of income tax system etc) that characterise the modern mixed economy.

Furthermore, contrary to liberal myths, the main elements of the modern mixed economy that give capitalism a "human face" are in fact inconsistent with the liberal tradition. As Ellman[2] points out "liberalism was undermined by the rise of democracy and the labour movement (which) ... was able to use liberal democratic institutions to reduce inequalities substantially (by taxation, transfer payments and free or subsidised state provision of education, medical care and housing)". Liberal capitalism in its pure form has always been, as M. Bookchin[3] observes, irrational despite the "progressive role" that Marx assigned to it as it was and still is opposed to the possibility of freedom and ecological balance. The rise of capitalism after the Industrial Revolution represents the abstraction of the market from any institutional, ethical or cultural constraints that characterised the market in pre-capitalist systems. Everything, including human labour, becomes a commodity and the whole population is transformed into buyers and sellers.

In turn, the emergence of the welfare state in the post war period can be seen as a departure from liberal capitalism imposed on the ruling elites by the radicalisation of the masses, following the defeat of fascism and the spread of existing socialism that was promising the most comprehensive welfare state ever.

3. The socialist tradition

The "second generation" of human rights originates in the socialist tradition, namely the mass movements and the revolts/revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries. In consistency with the socialist conception of freedom which is defined positively, as manís conscious control of Nature and of social conditions (Κ Marx) the socio-economic rights in this category are also defined positively. Such rights aim at social equality through state intervention for the purpose of securing equitable participation in the production and distribution of the social product. These rights are therefore "collective" in the sense that they belong more to communities or whole societies rather than to individuals. Here, for instance, belong the right to work, paid leave, social security, education, as well as the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of self and the family (arts. 22-27 of the Universal Declaration).

The socialist assumption about the collective character of these rights was distorted by existing socialism to mean that, as the socialist state genuinely expresses and defends the interests of workers and peasants, the rights themselves, in a sense, belong to the state. The implication was that there was no need for independent social organisations to defend those rights. Trade Unions, for instance, could not be independent of the state since the state' s interests (or "rights") were identified with those of the proletariat. A strike, for example, to improve working conditions was inconceivable since the working class could not turn against itself, i.e. against the state that was supposed to be its true expression ! However, as Rakovski[4] stressed, it was exactly the lack of social organisations independent of the state apparatus that constituted the major institutional difference separating capitalist from socialist societies.

Furthermore, in symmetry with existing capitalism's ranking of human rights and the top priority status given to individual freedoms ―the socio-economic rights being usually characterised as "derivative"― existing socialism also ranked human rights, but only in reverse order giving very low priority, if at all, to individual civil and political rights. Not surprisingly, the last act of the Soviet congress in September 1991 before its self-abolition was the adoption of a new Human Rights Declaration that reverses the ranking of human rights and gives priority to individual over collective rights.

4. The need for a new synthesis

Today, after the economic failure and collapse of existing socialism in the East and of the social-democratic consensus in the West, the dominant liberal elites struggle to impose (through "1992" in Europe, the latest GATT round etc) a new liberalisation of markets (especially of the labour market) from any state constraints. As a result, it is not surprising that significant human rights, particularly those that belong to the socio-economic area, are under attack:

  • the right to live itself has been dangerously undermined as a result of the neo-liberal abolition or drastic reduction of the "social wage", the curtailment of the progressiveness of the tax system, the squeeze of wages (especially of those in the Public Sector) and the following explosion of poverty over the world. In the South, those living in absolute poverty who are unable to cover the most basic biological needs for food, clothing and shelter are estimated to be about 1.2 billion people, i.e. 23.4% of the world population.[5] Similar trends are obvious in the North and especially in countries like USA and UK where the neo‑liberal attack was most successful. In the EEC area alone relative poverty well exceeds today 50 million people which amounts to over 15% of the Community's population;[6]
  • the right to work has been effectively abolished after neo-liberal capitalist states had given up their post‑war commitment to the full employment objective. As a result, the unemployment rate has trebled in advanced capitalist countries (from 2-3% in the seventies to around 9% today);
  • the right to participate in trade unions, the right to strike and to take effective industrial action are enfeebled through legislative changes, the introduction of Japanese-style contracts in factories as well as the insecurity that massive unemployment creates;
  • the right to free expression, to free correspondence as well as the right of peaceful assembly are undermined with the explicit aim to protect law and order, to fight terrorism etc but implicitly the objective is to repress the victims of neo-liberal capitalism;
  • the right of people to their culture is effectively eradicated by the neo-liberal insistence on achieving the maximum "labour mobility" that implies a forced internal and/or external emigration displacing people from their homelands and eradicating their organic ties with them;
  • finally, the right to a healthy environment is sacrificed for the sake of the universal human value that is summarised by the word "competitiveness".

It is therefore obvious that, as a rights activist points out, the fact that political and socio-economic rights are seen separately from each other is a by-product of a world view that sees social existence as being truncated into separate ―political, economic― spheres.[7] Furthermore, as the same activist observes "notions such as group, feelings, relationships, sense, nature, culture ―all that is un-definable, unquantifiable, sensual, but yet innately human―" could only be realised within a holistic view of human rights.[8]

As therefore the right to life is indivisible, so human rights should be seen as a whole that contains not just civil rights and individual freedoms but economic, social and cultural rights as well. The historical experience of existing capitalism has shown that individual freedoms are perfectly compatible with extreme forms of social injustice and inequality. The USA example illustrates the case. Although this country ranks high in terms of individual freedoms and per capita GNP, its record in the socio-economic area is perhaps the worst among advanced capitalist countries. In the '80s USA ranked 16th among 17 high income OECD countries as regards the degree of equality in the distribution of income. Measuring income distribution as the ratio of percentage share of household income received by the top 20% of households divided by percentage share received by the bottom 20%, the average ratio for the 17 countries was 6.6, and the USA's rate was 8.9, in 1985-6.[9] Also, on the UN 1990 Human Development Index which combines literacy rates, life expectancy and real compensated purchasing power (indicating how much a country's economic performance translates into consumption possibilities for its people), the US ranks only 17th.

One possible objection to the adoption by the radical green movement of a new conception of human rights comes from social ecologists. Karl Hess[10] argues in favour of voluntary agreements in place of rights, since rights derive from institutions of power and may also themselves be an expression of power. Although one would agree with this position, the long-term objective should not be confused with the short-term feasible goals, as long as, of course, the latter are not incompatible with the former. As state power could reasonably be expected to reproduce itself for many years to come, there is no incompatibility between the case for a new holistic conception of human rights and the ideal of the abolition of all power relations. In fact, in the transitional phase to a new society, the emergence of a mass consciousness of a new conception of rights could be the best guarantee that a holistic view of rights will function as the guideline for voluntary agreements in the future.

5. Conclusion

A new conception of human rights that would transcend both the liberal and the socialist traditions and would represent a synthesis of the "individual" and the "collective" elements is urgently required today so that the descent of the human race towards a neo-liberal barbarism, within a continually deteriorating environment, could be stopped. However, such a new conception presupposes a radical socio-economic change which in turn depends on the emergence of a new consciousness. A consciousness that is diametrically opposite to the dominant liberal one which induces human beings to a catastrophic struggle of all against all.



[1] UN, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the Optional Protocol (1976) and the Helsinki Final Act (1975)

[2] Michael Ellman, Socialist Planning (Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 275

[3] M. Bookchin, "Were we wrong ?" TELOS, No. 65 (1985).

[4] M. Rakovski, "Marxism and Soviet societies", Capital and Class, No. 1 (Spring 1977), p. 89.

[5] A.B. Durning, "Poverty and the Environment", Worldwatch Paper, 92 (Nov. 1989), p. 20.

[6] Eurostat, Poverty in figures, Statistical Office of the European Communities, Luxembourg 1990.

[7] V. Ramaswamy, "A new human rights consciousness", IFDA Dossier 80 (Jan.-March 1991), pp. 3-16.

[8] ibid, p. 9.

[9] World Bank, World Development Report, 1991, Table 30.

[10] Karl Hess, "Rights and reality" in J. Clark (ed), Renewing the Earth (Greenprint, 1990), pp. 129-134.