Human Rights and Radical Social Change: Liberalism, Marxism and Progressive Populism in Venezuela

By Tillman Clark
2010, Vol. 2 No. 03 | pg. 1/6 |

“Human rights” is a concept so deeply intertwined into the modern discourse that it seems almost impossible to question it or refer to any standard beyond it. The problematic nature of this issue is not so much that people have different conceptions of “human rights”--”right” is pretty straightforward in theory, considering the “right to free speech,” the “right to freedom of association,” the “right to property,” or the “right to a minimal means of subsistence”--but instead the way in which they mask particular interests and ideological motives when demanded or applied in real situations.

How and why the domination of the “human rights” discourse in reference to social ills or malfeasance came to where it is today is beyond the scope of this paper. But two more pressing sets of questions may be asked. Firstly, how does the dominant discourse of “human rights” function when put in practice and not just a theoretical or philosophical abstraction? In other words, what pragmatic function do claims of “human rights violations” or “adherence to human rights” hold? If human rights are linked to a specific institutional apparatus that is required for their “realization,” then what effect does the human rights discourse have on a society undergoing a substantial social and institutional transformation? Secondly, if the discourse of human rights cannot incorporate a theory of radical social change, what justification, if any, is there for abandoning it? If the horns of “human rights violations” are to be sounded every time a society attempts to move beyond the institutions connected to liberal human rights theory, can it be legitimate to ignore them? These two sets of questions are connected, but I intend to make a contribution to the second set before I elucidate the first. This paper will discuss these questions through a case study in one specific context: Venezuela in the period of 1999-2009.

The argument, briefly, is as follows: human rights institutions, groups, and actors promote their own form of discourse, and this discourse concurrently has the effect of eliminating from the conversation a certain element; from one perspective, limiting, a priori, the option for a possibly necessary radical social change and, from another perspective, excusing, in a round about way, violations of general human dignity. The resultant deadlock is the hallmark of progressive or radical politics today and can be identified in the discourse which has embroiled the “Bolivarian Revolution” in Venezuela. Following Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, this project is intended to contribute towards an illumination of what Zizek has termed “the double blackmail,”1 where if one supports human rights, and interventions intended to support them, they are accused of supporting international imperialism, while if one rejects human rights, they are accused of excusing authoritarianism. This paper will make the argument that the political nature, ideology and theory of a radical, progressive movement is the determining factor in discussing human rights as applied to social change.

It may seem that this argument presents a reading in which human rights ideology is somehow false and does not apply to Venezuela or other countries because that are undergoing a certain type of revolutionary social change. While this interpretation is initially understandable, it would be a serious misreading of the argument. Many of the ideas about Venezuela put forth by the human rights discourse are not accurate while some are, and it will be a component of this paper to point them out. But the point is not to show that human rights are themselves “wrong,” but to show that the production of ideas about Venezuela and human rights, through their violation, adherence or interpretation, has important effects, and that the production of such effects plays a significant role in the impediment of social, institutional and structural change.

It is my intention here not to excuse human rights violations or accuse anyone of perpetrating them. It is my position that human rights, both in theory and practice, are positive conceptions but that there exists a possible future in which they can be transcended for something better, which is what makes the discussion of political ideology and projects that much more important. In order to move forward, we must face the deadlock, recognize its character and attempt to overcome it. It is here that I find the human rights discourse is its most limiting when it comes to social change. I agree entirely with Zizek when he states that his,

"problem with this new discourse on human rights [is] that it is part of a precisely concrete universality of a situation where certain questions are no longer permitted to be asked [...] This is the reason I am skeptical about so-called modern liberal politics. Did you notice how the very same people who are deep into this poetry of human rights, the moment you propose a certain political measure which is a little bit utopian or radical, they use a kind of a totalitarian blackmail. They claim; ‘But didn't we learn the lesson [that] this necessarily ends up in a new form of totalitarianism?’ That is to say, the political message of the very people who go into this depoliticized poetry of human rights is to denounce every radical political measure as potentially totalitarian.2"

The claim of totalitarianism is not an empty one, but to say that all radical political projects will result as such is false. Human rights as it functions today, as a point of departure and the ultimate debate for the viability of political change, contributes to this falsity and needs to be unmasked and analyzed. Therefore, what is most important when discussing radical social change is the political ideology and project of any movement or state.

This paper is divided into three parts. The first part will identify liberal and marxist theories of human rights and show how their methodology and application create the conditions for the “double blackmail.” It will highlight the idea that the political nature of the subject of a human rights claim, whether claiming violation or defending against it, is the key point of analysis. The second part will introduce the situation in Venezuela, the political nature of the Venezuelan Chavista movement; its version of radical socialist/populist ideology and attempt at social change. Part three will consist an analysis of the debate between defenders of the Venezuelan project and its detractors and finally part four will focus on the conclusion that the liberal and marxist theories of human rights are in full swing in the Venezuelan human rights discourse and that the limitations of the Venezuelan project show that only with a more concerted effort to develop a modern and comprehensive political theory of social change can the effects of the “double blackmail” be overcome.

Liberal Human Rights Theory

The modern liberal conception of human rights is guided generally by two different viewpoints competing between human rights as needs-based morality and human rights as political commitment to individual liberty. Following Isaiah Berlin, in his essay Two Concepts of Liberty, these can also be seen as “positive” and “negative” rights.3 The former is a contemporary theory and practice premised upon the interests and needs of an individual holder of rights and the necessity to protect them through “active,” or “positive,” intervention. The latter is based upon the moral agency and liberty of the individual as a holder of rights, or a “passive” recognition of the right to noninterference.

What both these theories seem to rely on is an external institution or agent that allows the rights to be “given” or “ensured” to the rights holder. Moreover, both rely heavily upon a theory of individualism. But it can be said that the contemporary human rights movement “lost” something from the past, classical liberal position on rights. As David Chandler puts it:

What was lost in the promulgation of human rights theory in the 1990s was the connection between rights and the subjects who can exercise those rights [...] This separation of rights from their subjects leads to the redefinition of both rights and subjects through the human rights discourse. In fact, the logical conclusion of human rights policy would be the end of politics as a sphere for the resolution of social questions of the distribution of goods and policy making.4

This is seen as the departure from the “negative rights” liberal viewpoint and a move towards the “positive rights” position. But was this ever the case? Was this connection ever “there” in the first place in order for it to be “lost”? The conception of rights in and of themselves seem to presuppose a relationship between a certain type of institution--one that can bestow or grant rights--and the subject and thus a certain apolitical morality and ethics.

The “positive” conception holds that liberty of the individual is not a fundamental aspect of human rights but instead places a premium upon the needs that rights protect. The “negative” conception argues along the lines of the classical conception of liberal thought and references “natural rights.” These recognition of rights assign a certain type of moral agency to the individual and are based on a certain interpretation of human nature. What follows from this conception is a society that creates institutions that are arranged upon the assumption of an individualist conception of moral agency. As Seven B. Smith, speaking on Hegel’s critique of Liberalism, puts it:

In fact, to speak about rights is not to assert a simple proposition but is implicitly to make a complex set of interlocking claims that can be reduced to five parts: who shall enjoy which rights under what circumstances and for what purposes, and which kinds of restraints need to be imposed to make the enjoyment of those rights possible? An appeal to rights necessarily involves an appeal to the social and political institutions and institutions that make the protection of rights possible.5

What is problematic about this position is that assumes a monopoly on what human nature is and builds a society and its institutions around that conception.

The theory of natural rights emerged from a specific historical condition. In the time which most classic liberal writers emerged and propagated their theories the conception of “man,” the essential rights holder, was quite literal if not more so. In fact, “man” basically meant white, property owning man. Women, blacks and unpropertied laborers were not part of the equation due to their material dependence as a condition for limiting their inclusion and use of reason. Thus, it is argued that the theory of “natural rights” was simply an empirical view of the world as opposed to a natural theory. Hegel was one of the first philosophers to point out that the universality of theorists like Locke and Hobbes were not really empirical, but based on preconceived, “theory loaded” conceptions:

Thus, despite the empiricists’ claims to have built their theories of natural rights on the simplest and most elementary needs, their methods of determining these needs is already “theory loaded.” Their descriptions of these needs are not simply neutral but invariably commit them to adopting a particular view of society and the future.6

As such, the historical conditions of the time of the writing of the classic liberal writers largely influenced their view of society. It would be a fallacy to assume that modern liberal human rights theory has somehow overcome that era and are not themselves a reflection of modern historical conditions.

A certain contradiction emerges when one looks beyond the revolutionary movements that overthrew monarchism and feudalism and instead to the reform movements that included workers, women and minorities into the realm of rights. What is essential to recognize about the recognition of their rights is that they were basically appealing to a higher power to give them their rights as opposed to a revolutionary movement which sees itself as becoming that higher power. Thus, the position within liberal human rights theory that gives privilege to the classical “rights struggle” because it is an exercise of moral agency instead of a “third-party paternalism” is decidedly false. Aside from the revolutionary movements, almost all instances in which marginalized groups of people attained their “rights” were through the granting of them by the higher, paternal authority of the state and its legal system. Additionally, the granting of rights only coincided with the historical economic and political conditions that made them feasible. If it were not for the change in these conditions, violent suppression of these marginal groups would have continued (much as they do today in the underdeveloped parts of the world).

Furthermore, liberal theorists like John Rawls see certain political issues as being “settled once and for all:”

[W]hen certain matters are taken off the political agenda, they are no longer regarded as appropriate subjects for political decision by majority or other plurality voting. For example, in regards to equal liberty of conscience and the rejection of slavery and serfdom, this means that the equal basic liberties in the constitution that cover these matters are reasonably taken as fixed, as correctly settled once and for all. They are part of the public charter of a constitutional regime and not a suitable topic for ongoing public debate and legislation, as if they can be changed, one way or the other by the requisite majorities.7

As Rawls puts it, there are some issues which are off the table. Political representation of those who advocate for “slavery” or “feudalism” do not enjoy a representation in the congresses of Western nations. But the limit of liberal theory is that it does not recognize how we got to this point. The fact is that these constituents did not simply retreat from the political sphere. In most cases they were forcefully suppressed and following this, the ethical and moral coordinates of political society continued to exert pressure on the social and cultural norms that made “slavery” and “Feudalism” no longer part of rational, reasonable discussion.

Another problem with the “negative” view of human rights is that it has been largely seen as the political component of laissez faire free market capitalism in the economic realm. In other words, the liberal “negative rights” holding “individualist” position on human rights is one of political and civil rights as opposed to material ones. The necessity of material subsistence is seen as something to been achieved through means of “self-preservation” which certain political and civil rights--such as the right to freedom of association or the right to property--are to facilitate.

Moreover, this position advocates a distinction between those rights which are decided upon “politically” and those that are decided upon “morally.” In this sense, the rights holder contributes to the process in which rights are enforced an articulated instead of being a “passive receiver” of human rights that are entitled to him from a higher moral authority. This position has been seen as largely discredited especially seeing as how almost no modern democratic liberal government functions on this level of rights. Although there may have been a time when non-interference was enough in respect to liberty, the conditions of industrialization and the progression of capitalism has forced a re-conceptualizing of what human rights entail. Part of the delegitimization of this position rests on the issue regarding that in order to exercise the right to participate in the process certain preconditions are necessary such as material security and those with more of it tend to exercise the “right to participation” unequally than those with less. Furthermore, this “individualist” position seems to be wholly incapable of taking into account and acting upon conceived morally desperate situations--especially in the international arena given cases of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

This again can be seen as a limitation on the theory and conception of liberal human rights theory and the political institutions it entails in the face of changing historical conditions. In a world of globalization, interdependency, transnational corporations and a myriad of other international concerns that did not underscore the fabric of society during the heyday of classic liberalism, the conception of the “individualist” human rights theory seems entirely outdated and inadequate to deal with these problems. If it were to be truly enacted in practice, it would amount to a political position of sitting by and watching as one group of people committed genocide upon another and excused as an example of “the rights struggle”--as people exercising their moral agency in a battle to claim their rights.

The “positive” view of human rights encounters its own contemporary problems and are at the heart of the debate within liberalism. The question regarding the “positive” view is that it is uncertain of who is to ensure that rights are fulfilled. If the “negative” position cannot adequately deal with the problems of new historical conditions, then perhaps the “positive” position can. But even if this conception is seen as advancing the interests of the downtrodden masses of the world in situations where intervention was seemingly necessary because the situation could not allow a waiting period for those people to exercise their own sovereignty and claim their rights for themselves, it is not hard to see how this can be seen as a position which advocates for the “victimhood” of those who are “powerless” and paints them as needy and pitiful. This position obviously defends a conception of human rights that requires moral intervention on behalf of these “powerless” in the name of a higher moral authority and ethical superiority. What this amounts to is essentially a form of “humanitarian imperialism.”

But is this position so different from the “negative” one? Why is it that when material right come into the picture we are suddenly faced with a conception of the “paternalist” institution that must mediate the position of the starving masses with those whose responsibility it is to provide food? Thus, where both these seemingly competing theories converge is the role of a mediator, or, as I shall put it, the role of the political institutions that emerged directly from the theory of human rights. If a person is somehow restricted from entering the voting booth, or has his private property confiscated by his neighbor then an external mediator must enter the picture the same way it must when material human rights are to be fulfilled. What follows from this picture is a classic, and contemporary, view of the liberal state.

Within liberal human rights theory there must allows exist the mediator that is the state and thus there always exist a conflict with democracy since rights always entail a restriction on political action. Even more importantly, the liberal state is founded upon a certain moral condition--a certain monopolization of a concept of human nature and approaches its intervention into civil society from a standpoint of “moral legitimation” since it is in possession of an absolute moral truth. Under the liberal state the rights holder is seen as an individual and political institutions are then organized around this conception of human nature and influences the types of relations that can be established. Basing political institutions on the rights of individuals is a way of saying that institutions are only legitimate as long as they secure the liberty and freedom of the individual. Within liberalism rights are given the significance of claiming them against the state and thus developing a conception of human rights as a theory of government and political legitimacy.

Liberalism is a historical movement the same as any. It began as a political movement aiming to replace the institutions of feudalism and monarchism with ones based on individual liberty. It has evolved into something different which can best be seen as two different positions; a moralistic and ethical superiority discourse that seeks to impose itself in a form of humanitarian imperialism or a liberalism with a libertarian tinge that advocates nonintervention and thus excuses gross misery on the basis of the subjects “struggle for rights.” The contemporary human rights movement thus acts as an obscurant for the relations of power and the interests they represent. The agency is not in the individual, but in the institutions that do the empowering actions of intervention, defense or assistance that is portrayed as an exercise of moral duty or protects the rights of the holder within a certain border. Using the US intervention in Iraq as an example:

It is clear [...] that the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein, legitimized in terms of ending the suffering of the Iraqi people, was not only motivated by other political-economic interests (oil), but also based on a specific idea of the political and economic conditions that should open up the perspective of freedom to the Iraqi people (Western liberal democracy, guarantee of private property, inclusion in the global market economy, and so on). Thus the purely humanitarian antipolitical politics of merely preventing suffering amounts in effect to the implicit prohibition of elaborating a positive collective project of sociopolitical transformation.8

When power is used from a position of moral truth, it does not have to use the more discomforting language of the political or economic type. While the classic liberal position would like to encourage more transparency, more checks and balances, more individual liberty and less state intervention, it is obvious that this position is naive. The liberal state itself is founded on position of moral supremacy, not just political action, and will continue to exercise this supremacy. Moreover, the idea that the ideal liberal state is constituted upon a political relationship of reciprocal responsibility to its liberty practicing, rights-bearing, politically active constituents who are constantly in a position to check a “morally superior” exercise of state power and intervention is equally naive. It does not adequately take into account an important issue regarding issues of class and economic relations.

If one defends human rights the liberal perspective today, one is defending a status quo situation of specific types of institutions and more or less defending the highjacking of the theory in the interest of modern power relations. Liberal human rights theory was once a progressive calling designed to check and eventually overthrow the whimsical institutional powers of theocratic and monarchist regimes and give a voice to oppressed, but this is not the case today. One of the first theoretical attempts to deconstruct and transcend liberal human rights theory is Marxism. It is to this theory the paper now turns.

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