Rights: A Lubricant for Neo-liberalism?

“And as elephants parade holding each
elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact. 

And so, I appeal to a voice, to something
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.”
~ William Stafford, A ritual to read each other

Yesterday I attended a talk by Dr. Radha D’Souza where she presented her new book, ‘What’s Wrong with Rights? Social Movements, Law and Liberal Imaginations’.

One sentiment that gave me pause was the idea that human rights can function as a kind of lubricant for neo-liberalism. In other words, rights talk somehow works to the benefits of established power. Rights are somehow a top down mode of control, a sort of bread-crumb approach to political relations and struggles. Give them rights, but not too fast and not too encompassing and ensure, always, the comfortable management of rights. The balance cannot be allowed to tip, and if it tips, it can tip in appearance only.

Rights in law are always paired with constraints. We have rights, subject to constraints and limits that find justification in public policy concerns; concerns for the safety and security of the nation; concerns for peace; and so on. The prudent management of rights can thus be a method whereby pre-existing fabrics of power are largely undisturbed. Inequality is managed, on a piecemeal basis. So, you claim to have a right to life. Well, sure, but our budget is tight. Our hands are tied. We just can’t help you, won’t invest in you and your health, must invest in more important things, things you don’t need to know about, should not know about, for if you knew, you would wonder whether your life were really that much less important, that much less worth investing in and supporting. We can’t have that. That would stir up unnecessary emotions. Cause trouble. No thank you. Policy decisions are mostly untouchable by law. Discretion is protected. Even if it kills, perhaps not now, but slowly, a death by a thousand cuts of neglect.

During the first week of a class in social work we read an essay that suggested that social workers function in neoliberal society as a form of anesthesia; their work and their helping hands have anesthetic qualities. Neoliberalism produces and churns out all sorts of vulnerable and hurting people who are then to be cared for, pacified, kept ‘just content’ enough so as not to be inspired to participate in widespread social unrest. Thank can’t be. Social workers, work your magic! Keep them calm. Keep them hoping. Their new apartment, their social assistance, their medical support… it will come, soon, is just around the corner, here, have a small taste to get you started… Social workers, well-meaning social justice warriors that they might imagine themselves to be, end up facilitating inequality and serve to entrench power. Or at least, aid in not disturbing it too much.

Is this too, the impact and the fate of rights? Widespread inequality, poverty and systemic barriers exist in society. People are restless. They want redress. The low hanging fruit is going to court. Even that is costly. But it is an option. Here, I am a lawyer, I can help. For a fee. Its not cheap. Pay up. To defend one’s human rights, safeguarded in law. The process is long, several years. Success in court might mean money, might mean an apology, might mean feeling justified. Vindication. Yet, plunge back into the social fabric of the day to day, and not much has changed. Revolution is not a low hanging fruit. It feels too big. It is a last resort. One resorts to revolution when courts no longer meaningfully provide relief. Or when the hope that is human rights law rings empty. When the anesthesia that the individual and piecemeal approach to human dignity and inviolability fails, loses its enchantment. Its sparkle.

Another lubricant facilitating the neoliberal machine is money. Money creates a means of exchange, provides a common grammar of value, renders things commensurable. The numerous, wonderous, disparate processes, beings and objects in our world are translated into money as a holder and symbol of value; their spirit, meaning, being – monetized. Assigned a dollar sign, a tree, whatever else it might have meant, whatever wonders and multitudes it contained and whatever functions and purposes it strove towards, enters the stream of commerce. Somewhere else, a fish, too, enters this stream. Tree and fish turned to money, rendered commensurable; money exchanges hands. The grammar of value, of how we assign and see value, is compressed and becomes flat. Our imagination colonized by the monetization of value. It is valuable because it costs money and costs money because it is valuable. Beings or processes that can’t be quantified, that resist capture, are pushed to the margins. What good do they do me, says the ardent capitalist. Ah, but just wait, says the entrepreneur, dreaming big dreams about commodifying even the last not-yet monetized aspects of our world. And so, money lubricates and ensures that social relations run smoothly; that a common language is spoken. A common belief system that connects. A common idol.

Rights too provide a common grammar. They facilitate power struggles in society; struggles over access to resources, regard and to a limited extend, power. Do you have a grievance? Great, enter the rights seeking stream. Grievances are channeled into narrow and controlled rights-based pathways. What would happen if these clogged up? If the common rights-based grammar fell away? How would social grievances play themselves out? Revolution? Violence? Individual acts of retribution and vengeance?

One trouble with rights-based grammar, similar to money-based grammar is that the intangible qualities upon which money or rights talk falls and governs, are flattened. Once you see the world and social relations through a lens of commodities and money, then the multiple wonders of the world fall away, don’t have space, fail to be recognized, are not ‘spoken’ or ‘speakable’; they leave our imagination and our political register. Once you see the world and social relations through a lens of rights, what falls away? What is not speakable? What grievances and hurts fail to be recognized? What social relations and systemic barriers are not addressed, cannot be addressed? What qualities in the human, what dignities and freedoms are neglected? What overflows ‘rights’, what is more than rights, what can’t be reduced to a human right, should never be reduced to anything but itself, should be spoken of by way of another grammar?

Metaphors, so it has been argued, function as a sixth sense, in addition to touch, smell, sight and so on. Metaphors are a way of engaging with the world, of perceiving and filtering inputs, of orienting our (re)actions. I am wondering what it means, has meant, to put on a lens – a human rights lens – a reality filtering and interpreting device; a way of living in the world. If it is true that we can only see beyond metaphors by means of other metaphors, other lenses, then what other lenses might we want to try on and give a try?

We still react with awe when we notice ourselves and those around us living by metaphors like TIME IS MONEY, LOVE IS A JOURNEY, and PROBLEMS ARE PUZZLES. We continually find it important to realize that the way we have been brought up to perceive our world is not the only way and that it is possible to see beyond the “truths” of our culture. But metaphors are not merely things to be seen beyond. In fact, one can see beyond them only by using other metaphors. It is as though the ability to comprehend experience through metaphor were a sense, like seeing or touching or hearing, with metaphors providing the only ways to perceive and experience much of the world. Metaphor is as much a part of our functioning as our sense of touch, and as precious.”
~ Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors we live by


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