Date: Wed, 22 Nov 1995 12:54:50 -0500
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Subject: Human Rights According To The West
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Human rights according to the West

By Jeremy Seabrook, Third World Network Features, 22 November 1995

The Western agenda for the 21st century is going to be human rights—but that only means political and civic rights, as these have evolved within Western society. Excluded are economic rights (which would infringe the fundamental tenets of laissez-faire political economy), social rights, cultural rights and collective rights. (Second of a two-part article)

‘Democracy’, even in the West, has become the management of organised impotence, the art of reconciling people to an unchosen destiny. Underlying a commitment to plurality, diversity and tolerance there is to be no other economic system than that which already exists—a distant reflection of the Old Testament injunction that thou shalt have no other God but me.

The capacity for manipulation even of the most sophisticated electorates in the world was seen in Italy in 1994, when Berlusconi's Forza Italia, conjured forth, a phantom of the media, could come from nowhere to form a government of renewal. In the United States less than half the people vote because a majority perceives democracy and politics as mere disputes between members of the possessing classes. When this model, the acme of human self-governance, is exported to the rest of the world, some even stranger mutations are bound to occur.

When democracy becomes devoted to the maintenance of the existing structures of power, the first casualty is, naturally, freedom: for without freedom to imagine, to dare to conceive alternatives—including also alternative ways of answering human need—then what exactly is the nature of the freedom of which democracy is supposed to be defender and guarantor?

It is clear that something called ‘freedom of choice’ has been offered to the people of the West as a consolation prize for their lost liberties: they can choose anything they like as long as it exists within the global supermarket to which their privilege grants them access. To have traded a version of affluence against freedom is a bargain on which the people of the West have themselves yet to declare their verdict.

The global market has become the cosmos: and outside of its stifling embrace, nothing exists, or may be allowed to exist. This is the essence of the violence of development. Even the global drug barons, with their secretive private armies, who paradoxically exemplify the workings of the market most transparently, are less of a threat to this model of development than indigenous peoples, tribal and forest-dwellers, fishing communities and women who know that not everything can be bought and sold, and who know how to live in peace within the constraints of the resource-base they have.

To set ‘freedom to choose’ at the heart of our culture, and to deny the possibility of choosing any other way of being in the world is a denial of the ‘pluralism’ and ‘diversity’ to which the West asserts its devotion: these are evidently mere ornaments, decorations on the surface of an increasingly showy, image-conscious, appearance-manipulating culture.

It is the same with all the new words that have been assimilated effortlessly into the rhetoric. ‘Empowerment’, for instance, means the conceding of autonomy without the resources to make it effective; ‘decentralisation’ likewise is the setting up of lower tiers of administrative control whose capacity for action is cancelled by the vast centralising tendencies of multinational companies, and growing concentrations of wealth and power in the world.

Indeed, the words often mean precisely the opposite of what they say: ‘Resource’ comes to indicate, not the exhaustible treasures of the earth, but money; ‘independence’ describes the growing dependence of human beings on money and the market; ‘efficiency’ means an accelerating melt-down of nature into commodities; ‘maintaining our way of life’ stands for the conservation of privilege; ‘sustainability’ was swiftly absorbed, and in the process, came to mean, not the secure husbanding of the fruits of the earth in perpetuity, but keeping intact the present inequitable system. ‘Community’ is a neighbourhood of strangers; ‘participation’ is the art of gaining popular acquiescence to the inevitable.

Before we can even begin to discuss the realities of the West within the global system of domination, we have to arm ourselves with a dictionary of Bullshit that will help us unpick the hidden meanings, to interpret a language whose meaning has all the clarity of the Kabbala.

It is clear that the Western agenda for the 21st century is going to be Human Rights. Here is another partial and one-sided story. For it means political and civic rights, as these have evolved within Western society, and which gives the West a moral right to castigate all departures from their own high standards, which are, of course, universal.

This version of human rights cannot concede economic rights because this would infringe the fundamental tenets of lais- sez-faire political economy (i.e. the objections are ideological). Social rights cannot be acknowledged, nor the right to be a fully participating member of society, not even the right to life; so that the children of those millions of women each year who give birth bestride a grave, perish before their political and civic rights can ever be called into question.

Cultural rights do not exist for indigenous people to whose land the market economy now lays prior claim; collective rights are of little worth in a system that prizes ‘the individual’ so highly, an individual who must act out her or his lonely destiny for ever in the guise of customer, consumer, client or punter in the jungle of commodities in which we must now make our home.

The first task, then, is to strip away the hypocrisy and confusion that makes political argument so opaque and impenetrable, and drives the will to change into a tangle of contradiction and impotence.

Once this has been done, it is possible to see more clearly how the institutions of dominance, set up and controlled by the G-7, the most powerful industrial nations, actually function.