In 1981, the playwright Zdena Tominová, on an extended visit to the West from her home in communist Czechoslovakia, traveled to Dublin to give a lecture. A critic of her country’s political regime, she was the spokesperson for Charter 77, one of the first dissident organizations to turn human rights into an international rallying cry.
Tominová, however, surprised the crowd. She explained that, growing up as a beneficiary of the state’s communist policies, she felt grateful for the ideals of her youth and their politics of material equality. “All of a sudden,” she remembered of the leveling of classes she witnessed as a child, “I was not underprivileged and could do everything.” This was striking, coming from a woman who’d seen the suppression of the Prague Spring reforms in 1968 and who’d had her head pounded into the pavement for her membership in Charter 77.
But even when government officials urged her to flee the country to avoid imprisonment, Tominová remained true to her generation’s socialism. “I think that, if this world has a future, it is as a socialist society,” she told her Irish audience, “which I understand to mean a society where nobody has priorities just because he happens to come from a rich family.” And this socialism was not just a local ideal: “The world of social justice for all people has to come about.” Tominová made it clear that socialism should not be used as an alibi for the deprivation of human rights. But by the same token, for her nation and for the world, the emergence of a human-rights framework should not serve as an excuse to abandon the fight against inequality.
Today, Tominová’s speech looks ironic: Her human-rights ideals became common sense, but the socialist ones cratered. Data show that texts were overwhelmingly more likely to use the word “socialism” than “human rights” until the late 20th century. The terms’ relative popularity switched right around the end of the Cold War in 1989. As the notion of human rights spread, people found it easier to identify with strangers across borders. Yet at the same time, the liberalization of markets, the reliance on free trade, and the mission of governance to institutionalize both created vast gulfs of inequality. Human rights became our highest moral language even as the rich seized ever more power and wealth.
Some 40 years on, we should reassess how the human-rights movement fits into the growth of this new political economy and redefine our sense of justice to counter the triumph of free-market ideology and the explosion of inequality. We should also ask how we can revive Tominová’s vision, which combined human rights with a broader sense of social welfare without abandoning one for the other.
The central premise of human rights today—that individuals intrinsically have nonnegotiable entitlements—stretches back centuries. But the unique visibility of human rights as an international language of justice has few precedents in history.
The original purpose of human-rights claims, when first asserted in Europe in the late 18th century, was to justify revolutions and build sovereign nation-states. Rights were about negotiating the meanings and prerogatives of citizenship, and they largely operated within state borders. This remained the case through the 1940s, when many people around the world were fighting for citizenship outside of empire. The United Nations passed a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 that was chock-full of economic and social rights, but only for those with citizenship.
Thirty years later, human rights became the mantra of globally minded organizations like Amnesty International, which focused not on a broad set of economic and social rights but on human survival. Likewise, advocates renounced the use of violence to achieve justice, and instead relied on appeals to international law and a strategy of naming and shaming wrongdoers. The trouble is that this transformation in the politics of rights occurred at the same time as the hollowing out of the welfare state in the very nations whose citizens went on to found and fund human-rights movements. The ferment of human-rights claims helped free East Europeans and Latin Americans from dictatorship, but it couldn’t stop their countries from embracing market fundamentalism and inequality. A new cosmopolitanism surged, but local forms of social democracy entered into crisis.
From Karl Marx on, some on the left have claimed that either the idea of individual rights or the contemporary human-rights movement (or both) works in the service of capitalism. Yet human rights did not bring about the neoliberal age, despite sharing a moral individualism and often the same suspicion of collectivist projects like nationalism and socialism. It was also not the job of human-rights activists struggling to invent a new brand of global concern to save the left from its failures and mistakes. It is hardly fair to treat human rights as a scapegoat for the reversals of progressive politics. Indeed, there is no reason to think that a human rights that stigmatizes “superficial” abuses could not coexist with a more “structural” politics.
Furthermore, the human-rights movement has brought scrutiny not merely to state violence around the world but to the profound failures of states to treat their citizens equally no matter their gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation. Activists have also started to prioritize economic and social rights, from employment to housing to food. And, in fact, for all their sins, neoliberal policies have helped to fulfill some of the wildest dreams of human-rights advocates: China’s marketization, for instance, has brought more human beings out of poverty than any other force in history. But without reflecting on why human-rights movements have been able to coexist so comfortably with neoliberal regimes, there is no way to redirect our politics toward a new agenda of economic fairness.
In the 19th century, the idea of liberties as inherent to an individual was strongly linked to classical liberalism and the rule of markets. This meant that a rights-based rhetoric was mainly used to justify free contracts and private property. It’s no wonder Marx concluded that human rights often served as an apologia for the narrow protections of capitalists.
Yet during the mid-20th-century heyday of social democracy, human rights were recast as part of a politics that sought to create more equality within national communities. If the notion of human rights made little initial impact because there were so many other idioms—including, of course, socialism—that pursued this aim, at least it showed that the idea was flexible and amenable to revision.
Then neoliberalism came, and the human-rights movement has undoubtedly been affected. Human-rights law and politics never reverted to the narrow protection of contracts and property, but they were lifted out of their midcentury alliance with redistributive politics and condemned to a defensive and minor role in pushing back against the new political economy.
The classic examples of global rights activism, organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, dropped the emphasis on economic and social rights proclaimed by the UN’s Universal Declaration and converted the idea of human rights from a template for citizenship into a warrant for shaming state oppressors. And while human-rights movements gingerly took on economic and social-rights advocacy after the Cold War, they never attacked the hierarchy of wealth erected by neoliberalism. With only rare exceptions, material equality is not something that human-rights law and movements ever set out to defend.
The results have been grievous and spectacular. Great advances were made when it came to establishing a sense of global responsibility and status equality, but at the high price of economic fairness at every scale. Human-rights law lacked the norms, and human-rights movements the will, to advocate for a serious redistributive politics. Even in theory, with their focus on ensuring a bare floor of material protection for individuals in a globalized economy, human-rights movements did nothing to prevent the obliteration of a wealth ceiling. With the decline of the welfare state, human-rights movements both failed to attack the victory of the rich and struggled to cope with the poverty of the rest. The political and legal project of human rights became a companion to the rise of inequality, which paved the road to populism and further rights abuses.
That human-rights ideals have spread across the world in tandem with neoliberalism does not mean we should blame—let alone ditch—those high ideals. Instead, it means that human rights only makes sense as one partner in a new politics of fair distribution.
Today’s galloping inequality has helped drive the rise of populist leaders, who have hardly been friends of human rights. It is tempting in response to double down on human-rights strategies. And it is honorable to climb the ramparts to indict the grim outcomes when regimes slide into evil, and to keep hope alive for the weak and vulnerable living in penury. Indeed, despite the fact that human rights have accompanied and helped prettify neoliberalism, the lesson is surely not that activists should stop denouncing repression or withdraw their pressure on behalf of people living in abject circumstances.
Human-rights activists do need to think twice, however, about the circumstances of their success in defining good and evil so powerfully around the globe. As for the rest of us, we must recognize the limits of human rights, and admit our own failure to contribute bold visions and projects outside of the rights framework. Human-rights movements were latecomers to the era of distributional concerns. Even when they did take an interest, they set a low bar, focusing only on saving the worst off from destitution. Human rights are not to blame for inequality, but we need to face our responsibility for treating them as a panacea.
Inequality is a problem that human-rights movements are unlikely to solve on their own. Advocacy organizations today barely make a dent in the political evil, and they lack the features of unions and other local actors that have attacked inequality successfully in the past. But we can keep the benefits of the human-rights movements of the past 40 years while rejecting neoliberalism.
Since it cannot reinvent itself with new ideals and tools, the human-rights movement should stick to what it does best: informing our concepts of citizenship and stigmatizing evil, without purporting to stand for the whole of “global justice.” Meanwhile, those of us who donate to and sympathize with Amnesty International and other such organizations must keep human-rights movements in their place, and not mistake a part of justice for the whole.
A larger community within which egalitarian agitation can emerge may not be part of the history of the human-rights movement, but it must become its future. Looking forward allows us to recall past alternatives for the movement—possibilities for which Tominová longed—before human rights were taken hostage by our neoliberal times. Tominová, after all, was a human-rights activist, but she was not merely one.
Ultimately, human-rights movements can work to extricate themselves from their neoliberal companionship, even as others restore the dream of equality in both theory and practice. Until we supplement human rights with other ideals and projects, we will leave the very global justice we seek unfulfilled and under threat.