Contesting the displacement thesis: human rights, social movements and the bigger picture

Dr Paul O'Connell  

While debates still rage as to exactly when human rights began the ascent to their current, vaunted status, the fact remains that they are, now, a central aspect of our political, social, philosophical and cultural lexicon. In this sense human rights now represent the ‘doxa of our time’, as Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann puts it. Perhaps one striking illustration of the hegemonic status of human rights is that in the UK, even the most strident right-wing critics of human rights feel they have to temper their calls to abolish the Human Rights Act 1998 with a commitment to replacing it with a British Bill of Rights. So, even those who abhor human rights cannot frame a position that does not make some allowance for accommodating them. 

Just as night follows day, the increased centrality of human rights over the last 30 years or more has seen the emergence of a range of critiques of this nascent dominant discourse. Critiques of rights are nothing new, nor are they the exclusive terrain of one political or philosophical persuasion. With that said, the more incisive critiques of human rights have come from the broadly left/progressive end of the spectrum. From the halcyon days of the critical legal studies critiques in the 1970s and 1980s, through critical race and feminist critiques, and more contemporary critical historiographies, the limitations and shortcomings of human rights have been rigorously canvassed.

One such critique that has emerged over this period is what I refer to as the displacement thesis. In sum, the displacement thesis raises concerns that reliance on the language of human rights tends to undermine social movements by narrowing their horizons, distracting them from broader, structural causes of injustice, and displacing other critical optics. Variations on this argument have been rehearsed by a number of critics of rights, from Morton Horowitz in the 1980s, through to Robin West today. But perhaps the clearest statement is provided by Wendy Brown in her excellent 2004 article‘ “The Most We Can Hope For …”: Human Rights and the Politics of Fatalism’.

In my article recently published in the Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly, I argue that, while the displacement thesis is intuitively appealing, particularly as a critique of much mainstream human rights practice and scholarship, in its grander claims it ultimately rings hollow. The main shortcomings in the argument are: (i) that it tends to focus on the ideaof human rights, or human rights in the abstract; and (ii), relatedly, it tends to discount or ignore the concrete experiences of social movements engaged in struggles for rights. As such, it is at best a partial critique of a truncated conception of human rights and not the grander deconstruction of human rights, as such, that it purports to be.

Drawing on insights from the broad Marxist tradition and on the concrete experiences of two contemporary social movements (the right to housing campaign of Focus E15 in London and the Right2Water campaign in Ireland), I argue that social movements can and routinely do mobilise the language of human rights alongside narratives of class, race, gender, economic justice and more. In this way, the actual practices of many social movements utilising the language of human rights show a capacity to engage creatively and seriously in a form of emancipatory multilingualism. In different ways these two movements have been mobilising the language of human rights while very consciously situating their rights claims in opposition to the extant system of neoliberal capitalism, the logic of commodification and an economic and social system that produces inequality and injustice. The experiences of these movements do not mean that all social movements should engage or mobilise the language of human rights, but it does show that they can do so without displacing concern with the broader causes of the injustices they confront.

I should stress that none of the foregoing – nor the more extensive version of the argument in the main article – is intended as a general defence of, or apologiafor, human rights in general. Much more modestly, it is intended as an interrogation of a prominent critique of human rights. Through this I aim to show the shortcomings of this critique and prompt fresh thinking about how we approach the questions of human rights, social movements and social change in the world today.

One of the key arguments I advance in the main article is the need to shift our focus to the concrete structural relationships and processes that call forth human rights claims and militate against the substantive protection or enjoyment of the interests associated with human rights. In this regard, I take a lesson from Marx’s critique of the Young Hegelians who, in his day, obsessively attacked religion as the source of all of society’s ills. As Marx presciently observed about his firebrand contemporaries, their critique of religion was often a misplaced critique of the social conditions which call forth religion. Their demand ‘to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs [religion] is the demand to give up a state of affairs that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears.’

Much like religion in Marx’s time, it seems to me that human rights are neither the solution to, nor the main problem in relation to, the many social problems we confront. Rather, they are an important terrain on which the conflicts and inequalities endemic in the system of global capitalism are fought out. All of the antagonisms of race, gender and, crucially, class that are produced and reproduced by capitalism are played out, in complex and contradictory ways, in social struggles which often manifest, at least in part, in the language of human rights. Going forward, I believe that focusing on the nature of the extant system (the political economy of early twenty-first century capitalism), understanding how it relates to human rights, and developing nuanced critiques which account for all the muckiness and contradictions of reality provide the most interesting route for how we engage with and think about human rights today.