Historians are the embalmers of our political and moral convictions. As soon as historiography begins to take an interest in an issue, we can be certain that it no longer possesses a self-evident presence in our society. Some questions and problems only become objects of history after society has become historically conscious of them. The history of workers boomed in the 1970s, for example, when industrial labour was in the process of disappearing, just as memory and its sites became a mode of inquiry for historians in the 1980s precisely at the moment when lived memory of ‘the age of extremes’ (Eric Hobsbawm) was disappearing together with its last generation.
The issue of human rights has by no means come so far, even if a certain historicizing sobriety has now set in among activists. On the contrary, as I have argued elsewhere, human rights are still something like the doxa of our times: those ideas and sentiments that are tacitly presumed to be self-evident truths and not in need of any justification. Who is opposed to human rights today? And who of those born before the late twentieth century would like to be reminded that earlier he or she had had little use for the concept of human rights? At least in the Euro-Atlantic world today the resonance of human rights is so universal and unassailable that in principle the only thing still debated is how they can best be realized on a global scale. We feel distressed and melancholic about the continued violation of human rights in our time but do not wish to abandon the concept altogether.
And yet it is remarkable that historians have begun to concern themselves with human rights only recently — essentially only since the late 1990s. Still, in the major historical syntheses of the past two decades, for instance in the interpretations of the twentieth century by Eric Hobsbawm and Tony Judt or of the nineteenth century by Jürgen Osterhammel and Chris Bayly, or of the rise and fall of empires by Jane Burbank and Fred Cooper, human rights have appeared only at the margins, if at all. Most historians of genocide, refugees, nationalism, slavery or humanitarianism (including Pamela Ballinger, since 2011 the first professor of the history of human rights in the United States) do not consider themselves to be part of the new field of human rights history. This is about to change, so much can be said already. In recent years we have apparently arrived at a new present, an era of ‘global governance’, ‘cosmopolitan ethics’, ‘transnational law’ and ‘humanitarian interventions’, for which we seek anchoring points in history, but which begins at the same time to historicize itself. As times change, so does the past.
The new historiography of human rights can be divided into these two tendencies: one that searches for stabilizing points for the present and finds them in the longue durée evolution of human rights (deep history) and one that seeks to demonstrate in revisionist fashion the instability of such universalist narratives and thereby the historicity, that is, the transience, of our political and moral convictions (recent history). Conveniently, these two tendencies are grouped around two path-breaking books: Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights and, as a counterpoint, Samuel Moyn’s Last Utopia.
Put briefly, Lynn Hunt argues that in the eighteenth century human rights gained in currency because they were based on new experiences and cultural practices, a new emotional regime, the core of which was ‘imagined empathy’. From this new emotional regime, which is evident, for example, in sentimental, epistolary novels as well as in the moral campaign for the abolition of torture beginning in the 1760s, a new legal regime emerged during the French Revolution that in turn followed its own cascading logic: once human rights had acquired self-evidence, they could no longer be removed from the world, and unfolded their revolutionary potential during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Reading epistolary novels or accounts of torture had physical effects that translated into ‘brain changes’ and ‘came back out’ as new concepts of individual human rights. Hunt acknowledges the paradoxes of human rights as politics, that rights claims emerged in tandem with revolutionary violence, but insists that their self-evidence ultimately transcends these historical mutations: ‘You know the meaning of human rights because you feel distressed when they are violated’.
Samuel Moyn, in contrast, objects in Last Utopia that we can speak of human rights in their current form, as individual rights granted to every person even beyond the nation state, only since the late 1970s — since Jimmy Carter and disco, as one unhappy reviewer summarized. Prior to this, human rights were tied to the nation state and were thus essentially citizenship rights. As the title suggests, human rights became, according to Moyn, the last utopia, especially for activists in the recently established human rights non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International, following the failure of other global emancipation ideologies such as socialism and anti-colonialism. With this brilliant polemic, Moyn provides an interpretative framework for a series of more recent studies and ongoing research projects of a new generation of historians investigating the ‘breakthrough’ of human rights to a global morality in the 1970s.
This essay is intended as a historiographical intervention in this debate and develops three interconnected arguments that seek to determine the place of human rights in the crises and conflicts of the recent past. First of all, I shall push the historiographical revisionism of Moyn and others even further and argue that we can first speak of individual human rights as a basic concept (Grundbegriff), that is, a contested, irreplaceable and consequential concept of global politics, only in the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War. In the 1970s and 1980s ‘human rights’ coexisted and overlapped with other moral and political idioms like ‘solidarity’ and included competing notions of rights, which were in many ways still indebted to the legacies of socialism and anti-colonialism, as in, for example, the transnational movement against apartheid. It was only after the end of the Cold War that ‘human rights’ emerged as an explanatory framework for understanding what had just happened. Human rights idealism, I shall argue, is not the cause but the consequence of the epochal ruptures of the late twentieth century.
However, this does not mean, secondly, that ‘human rights’ have no deeper history; here I agree with Hunt and others. On the contrary, in many respects the human rights idealism of the 1990s appears as a strange return of the enlightened liberalism of the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century and its critics (of Immanuel Kant and Carl Schmitt, the two sources of inspiration and antipodes of the political and moral discourse of the 1990s), as does the enthusiasm for cosmopolitanism, civil society, free trade, humanitarian interventions and moral justifications of war within the new world (dis)order. I shall suggest, therefore, that we should bring the long nineteenth century back into human rights history, especially the histories of social and economic rights, women’s rights, humanitarianism and international law, to assess more precisely what is new about the human rights idealism of the late twentieth century. Conversely, I shall discuss which previous notions of international human rights were replaced or bypassed in the 1990s, especially collective rights claims that were of particular importance for the so-called Third World UN from the 1950s to the early 1990s. The unrecognized irony is that human rights have become not less but more Eurocentric in recent years.
Human rights are not a new (and certainly not the last) utopia. Rather, the question is whether the human rights idealism of the Euro-Atlantic world at the end of the twentieth century can be seen as utopian at all. It is other motifs that appear to be new: the self-evidence of individual human rights, which stand above the rights of states; the evocation of present and past suffering as a mobilizing source; and, finally, the global claims connected to human rights as well as the media presentism of their failed realization, that is, the ubiquity of crises and the state of emergency as a matter of course. The ‘endtimes of human rights’ (Steven Hopgood) are the global here and now, not a utopian ‘elsewhere’. From this follows, thirdly, my concluding suggestion that the rise of human rights as the crisis semantics of a new fin de siècle can be understood in part as a result of the fracturing of the modern time regime, that is, the ways in which past, present and future are reflected in our experience of time. Not the future (or an idealized past) serves as the vanishing point, but rather the present, which appropriates past and future to validate the immediate. The new historiography of human rights also belongs, I think, in this context. It invents for our times a history of human rights conceived as individual and pre-state rights which are read into the past and future as if without alternatives.
Tuesday, August 9, 2016
Hoffmann: Human Rights and History
Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann (Univ. of California, Berkeley - History) has posted Human Rights and History (Past and Present, forthcoming). Here's the introduction: