“When you try a defendant for robbery, Honorable Judges, do you ask him how long he has been unemployed? Do you investigate his social context at all? You just send him to jail without further thought. You imprison the poor wretch who steals because he is hungry; but none of the hundreds who steal millions has ever spent a night in jail.” – Fidel Castro
People can’t eat rights
“Let them eat rights!” proclaim the Marie Antoinettes of today, the liberal trend which takes rights as a point of departure for social change. “People can’t eat rights”, respond the communists. And history confirms this. No matter the context, since the French Revolution, wherever rights have been the paradigm for revolutionary change, they have failed to lift the oppressed from their status.
Where are the Liberty, the Equality, the Brotherhood proclaimed by the bourgeois revolutionaries of Robespierre today? Like in the last circle of Dante’s Inferno, the circle of treachery (an apt term for the betrayal of the oppressed), they have become the three faces of the same devil. A form of “liberty” enforced by the rights paradigm has become the face of oppression today, under whose aegis the ruling class can proclaim moral superiority in their exploitation of the world’s peoples. The form of “equality” enforced is the equality of individuals in the abstract, regardless of their social context, leading to perpetual capitalist oppression; this will be touched upon later. The “brotherhood” of the revolution has dissolved into a system which actively dismantles communal bonds and promotes egotistical modes of life.
Where are the Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood of the ANC and Mandela, who fought apartheid under the dozed off paradigm of rights? No liberty is to be enjoyed for the people who have left an overtly racial apartheid for a covertly racial one, in which the white man still controls the lands, the mines, the factories; property, the genesis of social power in capitalism-imperialism. No equality is to be lived by the wretched of the Earth, whose oppressors occupy their own lands, and for whom government bureaucrats care nothing about. No brotherhood can be felt between those who are nationally oppressed, and those who oppress nationally.
A knee jerk reaction to a criticism of the ANC and rights-based revolutions is common: “why would anyone care about economic empowerment in a society where you’re branded a lesser being?”. Perhaps, this reaction is warranted; after all, we know the types to criticize it are often allies of the previous colonial regime. But the point isn’t denigrating the struggle of the oppressed, rather it is delineating the limits of the rights-based revolution to learn from the past and guarantee next revolutionary waves won’t face the same stagnation. In the last instance, the critique of these experiments is the demand for a change from the paradigm of rights, to the paradigm of the overthrow of all prevailing social conditions.
A paradox: capitalist rights and equality
“Equality before the law” is the avatar of legalized oppression, for how can the oppressed and those who oppress them be considered equal in any way? We aren’t; we live in a system which systematically empowers one and disempowers the others, empowers the few and disempowers the many. To do the trick, rights abstract away from all social context to enshrine rights suited for abstract individuals – that is, non-existent individuals. In such way, the ruling class can grant abstract rights and at the same time deprive people of their means of livelihood.
Capitalist property is a weird beast; while everyone has a right to it, very few people actually control it. On this Marx and Engels commented: “You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.”
Rights conceal this problematic truth by shifting the focus from the effective control of power (something positive), to the defense of already-existing claims on property and the defense of acquisition of new property. Needless to say, when only the ruling class controls already-existing claims and the purchasing power to expand those claims, the state is guaranteed to be defending social stratification.
Economic rights differ from other types of rights. While rights like property are meant to legislate objects that are produced or appropriated from nature by people, rights like freedom of speech legislate objects that aren’t limited by productive constraints. This is an important distinction to make since production by people at present is organized along the lines of capitalist class society, property owners vs. propertyless workers. By preserving the right to property of the elite, the system of class is perpetuated. In South Africa, this meant preserving the same class structure existing in the apartheid era.
When it comes to objects that are restricted in number and subject to capitalist production, rights to property stand in direct opposition to equality, as appropriation of the social product is always carried out on the basis of one’s position in the sphere of production, be it worker, capitalist, manager. The closer one is to the capitalist position, the more one will be able to appropriate. Since the capitalist class in South Africa was almost entirely white, the lack of a challenge to their ownership of capital has kept the white-dominated economy intact.
Why does progressive change occur?
One thing history teaches us is the ruling class never grants anything out of good will; the concessions of the capitalist state are always meant to pacify progressive movements. In this sense, rights and the like are the product of political mobilization of various strata of the masses. The progressive goals achieved in the 60s with the Civil Rights movement are a perfect example of a mobilization leading to a truce bought by concessions in the forms of rights. It is common knowledge that these same legal victories, however, are often not enforced and even if they consistently were, they wouldn’t change the social stratification particular to capitalist society because they are a flawed mechanism in themselves.
The Civil Rights movement has won important rights for the Black nation in America, but the latter continues to be an oppressed nation at all levels – economic, political, ideological, cultural, military. Whites control most positions of management, control the vast majority of capital, the vast majority of means of cultural and ideological production, have troops in Black neighborhoods. The Labor movement has conquered the right to organize legally, but in the process has itself become a front of the capitalist class; the legal system used by the capitalist state requires that the labor movement recognizes the legitimacy of the class structure and the right to capitalists and their managers to make the important decisions regarding the workplace conditions, wages, reinvestment, etc.
Why goes this pattern keep repeating itself? Mostly because rights are contradictory constructs.
Contradictions between rights
Rights may contradict each other, as classes and other social groups have contradictory interests. Take, for instance, the 9th section of the South African constitution:
“The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth. (4) No person may unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds in terms of subsection (3). National legislation must be enacted to prevent or prohibit unfair discrimination.”
It would be hard to explain what is happening in the following graph, then, if we don’t understand the right to property and the right to contract themselves are contradicting the content of this section of the constitution:
The system itself discriminates against the oppressed, and inscribing on a piece of paper the right not to be discriminated, a right with no practically enforceable content in a society built on discrimination, doesn’t go beyond cosmetic appearance. To change a situation of systemic economic oppression, the economic elite must be overthrown and despotic inroads into their sacred right of private property over the resources of a nation must be undertaken.
Ideology and rights
Rights also have repercussions on public ideology. The focus on negative liberties as opposed to positive liberties typical of classical liberal and neoliberal doctrines reinforces the individualism of capitalist society, where what matters the most is whether property rights are respected, versus the respect for human livelihood which property impedes; a fetishism of property. Moreover, the stress on classical political rights versus social rights reinforces the distinction between public and private, a fake distinction necessary to capitalist ideology.
This is only scratching the surface. An analysis of rights’ history shows that they are mainly generated by Western political traditions; this gives imperialist states the claims they constantly use to “bring civilization” to other nations, that is, bring war and colonize other nations. The discourse of rights grants a perceived power and righteousness in imperialist ventures, so when Western imperialist powers decide to bomb Yugoslavia or Iraq, to overthrow Sukarno or Allende, to sanction countries around the world, they can do so with the pretext of enforcing human rights. When they give privileges to refugees from revisionist countries in the Cold War and when they let 20,000 people drown in the Mediterranean Sea just to enforce borders, they use the same code of rights.
If not rights, then what?
Lending credibility to the discourse of rights is taking up the ideology of the system we’re opposing. Communists need a paradigm that challenges and stands opposed to formal and cosmetic change and stands for real and material change. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, revolutionaries have turned a paragraph of Marx’s Class Struggles in France into a four point program termed the Four Alls:
- the abolition of class distinctions generally;
- the abolition of all the relations of production on which they rest;
- the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production;
- the revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social relations.
This is the paradigm we must follow for the maximum program of the communists; a program that includes the expropriation and socialization of property, with the consequent gradual elimination of socioeconomic classes; the abolition of all the cultural and political practices that stand on the relations of production of capitalism; and the revolutionizing and reform of our thoughts, to liberate our minds from all sorts of discrimination.
While rights-based change can’t be part of the maximum program of communists, it can certainly be part of minimum programs for immediate struggles. It is clear that the system serves the powerful, but their concessions are only useful when they can actually assure social peace, and it is harder to do so when it comes to the nationally-oppressed, the gender-oppressed, and the disabled. Rights can mitigate the discriminatory experiences of oppressed nationalities, oppressed genders and the disabled, at least partially, and these immediate struggles are important to win. Moreover, those who constantly face oppression are unlikely to think legal rights will end it, and hence are likely to remain skeptical of the social order while still benefiting from the achievement of new civil and social rights.
In conclusion, rights should be understood as a transitory terrain of struggle, a terrain in which struggles for the immediate livelihood of people can be waged; while recognizing this, we must remain in opposition to the system and recognize its concessions for what they are – attempts at social pacification.
– Klaas V.