Human Rights? Who Needs Them?
‘When beggars die there are no comets seen’: prophetic words from Shakespeare in Act II of Julius Caesar. ‘The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes’. No explanation is needed for this spot-on summation of our human condition. It would be fair to say, however, that humanity has collectively devoted the last 3,000 year to debating how it is that when beggars die, comets always seem to disappear. From the Greeks to Christianity and through the Enlightenment and the seismic events of the twentieth century, two world wars, genocides, the dwindling of the British Empire and our journey from Marxism to über-Capitalism, the question remains unresolved.
The current administration in Westminster is doing all it can to ensure beggars remain as silent as they could ever be. Amidst a torrent of abuses of parliamentary power, the voting down of the amendment to include the European Charter of Fundamental Rights in UK law on 16 January constitutes a chilling affirmation of the Tories’ future intentions. The Charter covers rights that would be lost without an equivalent in UK law such as a freestanding right to non-discrimination, protection of a child’s best interests and the right to human dignity, as well as bioethic protections, ranging from eugenics to preserving the right to democratic, collective bargaining. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Amnesty International, Liberty and the Fawcett Society, among others, have warned that the bill “will not protect people’s rights in the UK as the government promised”. Leading civil rights organisations reiterate profound concerns that a raft of rights will be jettisoned and a ‘human rights deficit’ will be created by the government’s EU withdrawal bill, leaving many different groups in society without adequate protection. Seldom has a European government so brazenly reneged on its duty towards its most vulnerable citizens. Seldom has an administration regressed on the very fundamental tenet of democracy since the days of WWII.
Humanity’s most noble achievement is the distillation of the idea of Human Rights as a firm concept at the dawn of the 20th century. Their recognition was a natural conclusion to the American and French Revolutions and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789. Human Rights have since been enshrined into multiple Universal Declarations and Treaties. The one good thing about this is that over the last one hundred years or so, we all seem to agree that protecting and advancing Human Rights is a good thing. The bad thing is that since 2008 we are beginning to disagree. What’s happened? Why has the very idea of Human Rights become a fertile target for pseudo-patriots and fervent traditionalists? Why does their steady eradication form a primary objective for Brexiteers who can’t wait to proclaim their love of queen and country by abolishing what generations of their ancestors have been prepared to sacrifice themselves for?
The argument, or rather the clue to the mystery, in my opinion, is twofold: A psychotic fear of loss of one’s unrecoverable imperial dominance and an equally psychotic frenzy of neo-conservative neo-liberalism; a direct result of the shock one suffers when one is confronted with a new reality: guess what! You can now only be an equal player in an equal playfield; you must abide by the same rules as everyone else, and alas, you will never again get to play the part of the spoilt prince and toss your toys out of the pram while every subject of your dominions will be rushing to recover them for you. What an unfathomable loss! In the face of such a realisation, the imperial death rattle finds perfect resonance in reminding us all that Human Rights are only for the select few and the rest of us must make do with our slice of stale bread and ale. This rattle will not cease unchallenged: if you’re ‘pro-Human Rights’, you’re a traitor, a moaner, a Leftie, a communist or a snowflake and all the unspeakable idioms in between.
In the face of vitriolic attacks and spasms of demagoguery, Scotland stands firm against this idea. The Scottish government’s initiatives in the latter part of 2017 are visibly guided by a Human Rights political grammar. If 2017 inaugurated a coming out of the crypto-authoritarian, oppressive neo-tyrants in the West, the likes of which had stopped being fashionable about seventy years ago, Scotland leads the debate in the opposite direction. Whether it be the rights of children, right to a basic income, focus on children in foster care, support of disability or the burning LGBT issue, legislating in support of Human rights, is a muscular affirmation of ethical and progressive governance. It will not be completed in one year and it will not please everyone. The active sabotaging of these efforts by neophyte far-right movements, currently influential in Westminster, Washington and Moscow will be hard to counteract. But that is also the purpose of governance, the courage to frustrate autocracy and invest in its citizens’ political literacy. So far, Scotland is succeeding.
It is fascinating that Human Rights remain the bogeyman for conservative ideology. It is also no coincidence that neo-liberalism is obsessed with abolishing them. The clue is in the equation. It is easier to divide people into categories of good and bad if your yardstick is their bank balance. It is also easier to advance your agenda of aggressive privatisation if public services are deliberately defunded; you manufacture a sense of collective anger against the system and then leave the people with no option other than to accept the ‘new model’ with a sense of stunted relief. When material wealth is passed off as merit, negative circumstance or outright bad luck is judged to be bad character. It is the quickest route to creating a pseudo-moralistic ideology to justify punishing those whom you elect to see as scroungers, parasites even those with diminished bodily ability. You can go even further. You can contemplate ‘manufacturing’ humans to suit your purposes. The emphasis on the supposedly totally autonomous ethno-state and the ‘all-for-nothing’ economic argument has bled into the fabric of our everyday parlance. The loud Tory press orders its readers to moralise one’s ability to produce cash when we all know that existing privilege is the quickest way to success. This excludes entire strata of society from participation. In other words, if you’re born in it, you’re lucky. Neoliberalism has provided the ideological impetus in the United Kingdom for conservative (and new labour) governments since the Thatcher administration to embark upon a program of welfare reform (or its slow eradication) and unapologetically cruel wreckage economics. Their moral justification? The mantra of ‘work for those who can security for those who cannot’ legitimises commodification of workers as human capital. The consequence is the automatic undermining of a rights-based approach and a convenient avoidance to address structural barriers. New Labour did its bit to feed the paradigm. In 1998 the then Labour government’s New Deal initiative achieved little more than an official shift from Keynesianism to competition state with conditional welfare benefits. The shifty journey from Human Rights towards a consumer rights destination had been set into motion.
In the capitalist restoration we have seen post-2008 ‘work’ has become an abstraction. No longer associated with skilful devotion or the notion of expert ‘making’, labour is conceptually lionised as the idea of human capital in ways reminiscent of the chilling sign over the gates at Auschwitz’ “Arbeit macht frei”. Thanatos, the Greek term for death, often brought into focus by Sigmund Freud, forms the basis of all such ideologies. It instils blind glorification of a romanticised past, a sense of perpetual identity crisis and a paranoia of imminent invasion. It is nothing more than a politically engineered movement towards nothingness, towards nullifying the human, his abilities, his uniqueness and his rights. Today, the idea of zero is breathtaking. As a cardinal symbol of absolute absence, zero obliterates, legitimises and equalises everything. The present Conservative government’s obsession with zero-fication is like a full organ seizure: zero tolerance, zero foreigners (unless you’re the queen’s husband or her granddaughter-in-law), zero hour contracts, zero marginal cost, zero tax. The neo-conservative mania with absence and the frenzied pull towards the über-capitalist fantasy of zero-wages is enough to bring any self-righteous capitalist to a quick and vociferous ejaculatory paroxysm. Television bombards us daily with ideas for an “ambitious new industrial era” strewn with roses and incentives for Capitalism to thrive. What they don’t tell us is that this will be the land of gated privilege and forced servility to power.
On the opposite side of the argument, the Scottish budget with its limited powers, readdresses the imbalance. The recently announced changes to income tax and a raft of protections for Human Rights are an affirmation of the principal function of government as protector of its most vulnerable members. More profoundly, it is also a move towards the notion of capital re-connecting with the idea of labour. No one will argue that at the dawn of 2018 Scotland is actively seeking to declare itself a non-capitalist economy. The strong inclinations of many of us to see a cleaner break from microeconomic capitalism notwithstanding, we appreciate this cannot happen as things stand today. We must work with what we have but what we have should not preclude us from calling out and legislating against the labour-on-tap nihilistic economy of zero hours and zero value to the individual. It should never preclude us from pushing ahead and actively seeking the progression of Human Rights and the fundamental premises of Article 23 and 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 unequivocally defending the right to work, equal pay, dignity and rights deriving thereof. The Scottish government’s track record has upheld this principle as a political compass and a moral position through the best part of the last ten years. Policies such as free education, a focus on healthcare provision and renewable energy provide the moral and theoretical groundwork for more radical discussions on land ownership, energy ownership and the individual’s right to ‘enjoy the benefits of our spherical world’ in the words of German philosopher Immanuel Kant.
Conservative disciples have reacted to the Scottish tax reform with the horror expected of a devotee of corporate Statism. ‘Incentivising’ in the language of Westminster politics equals Victorian segregation of the affluent from the ‘poor’. Do Westminster’s right-wingers and their willing voters really hope that ‘the poor’ will willingly disappear into an ‘underclass’? An archipelago of segregated communities, where criminality and social ‘deformity’ are assumed to be genetically inherited? Did I say “genetically”? Oh, no it can’t be! The Tories passionately deny any links to theories of genetics or selective breeding. And yet on the evening of the 16 January evidence abounded to the contrary. But what is the big deal about genetics? Why do we snow-flaky Lefties get so panicky over the idea of a bit of selective breeding? It is sound economics after all: why procreate if you can’t afford it? I get the point. But this is no joke. The love affair between eugenics and the Tory party is a long and solid one and despite the “caustic wit” of Toby Young and Suella Fernandez, eugenics is back on the scene and the rearing of its little head is anything but sophomoric.
Anyone of sound mind will vehemently oppose any attempt at interfering with the spontaneous nature of human procreation. It isn’t however impossible to create a climate where these discussions begin to sound reasonable, even logical. We must always remember in the case for eugenics, as indeed in most areas of public debate, is that, in the words of linguist Noam Chomsky, consent can be manufactured. When the conditions are fertile for such narratives to be created, manufacturing consent is only a matter of resurrecting the right corpses and placing them in front of a camera. Oddly enough, in 1934 English public opinion appeared to be on the side of the eugenicists. In May 1935, the county councils association claimed that public opinion not only supported the legislation to save public money but also because the public ‘knew now that it would bring happiness to many people, and in particular to high grade mental defectives’. Aggressively marketed as a bearer of ‘happiness’, an internal memorandum issued by the Eugenics Society strategy group explicitly noted, ‘the changes of legislation depended mainly on the rapidity with which a bill could be presented to Parliament, backed by an adequate expression of favourable public opinion’. The tragic events of WWII ensured that the discussion around any form of “selective creation” was mummified and entombed for a good seventy or so years but neoconservative economics are now resuscitating the mummy and all under the undeniable banner of knowing your place and not seeking the magic money tree when you’ve not got the golden axe and saw.
What is the government playing at? Where is the Opposition?
Suella Fernandez, freshly promoted in the Cabinet last week, is anxious about “transposing the ‘flabby’ charter into British law as it would give UK citizens additional protections on issues such as “biomedicine, eugenics, personal data and collective bargaining.” Despite loud protestations that such opinions must be treated as juvenile jokes, this is now official Tory policy. Fernandez is either ignorant of the atrocities of the Second World or wilfully promoting a eugenics agenda sugar-coated as economic argument. It’s worth keeping in mind that the Conservatives have already introduced one eugenics policy by stealth, under the linguistic guise of ‘incentivising behavioural change’. The rape clause will go down in history as probably the most brutal and un-Christian law ever to have been stamped and sealed by a woman Prime Minister. Teresa May, whose forte is clearly not theology, fails to see the irony where she proclaims herself a Christian, the disciple of a man who, in Christian discourse, is God’s word made flesh. Over the entire course of her Prime Ministership, she continues to affront the most fundamental Christian tenets demanding of her citizens the flesh and blood of her very defective, very shameful view of microeconomic theory. But why not try it if it does the trick? In social terms what this creates is an undeserving class of robber-plutocrats elevated to a level superior to the state and living in Victorian opulence; a kleptocracy of global power equally attached to Moscow as they are to Washington and Saudi Arabia with alarming numbers amongst them now finding a welcoming host in London’s suburbs where the new-model economic ‘globalism’ is ready to receive them with open arms. What this also creates is an underbelly of materially reduced individuals accepting of their victimhood. Tory neo-conservatism, with its moralising nod in favour of brutal cash-ism annuls the human and replaces her with zero-labour presence, an ever proliferating absence of the manual and cognitive being. Reducing us to consumers who unprotestingly serve a complicit corporate State would then be a walk in the park.
So the question remains: How do we readdress the issue of why, when beggars die, there are no comets seen? How do we expose the cynicism of policies dressed in silk and damask and fed to us by an unchallenged priesthood of seemingly powerful figures? How do we undress the Emperor?
The draft document of the Scottish Constitution provides that “Sovereignty resides in the people of Scotland”. Let us hope that 2018 will be the year of deeper realisations. The year for confronting the structure of brutal State capitalism. The year for making our minds up whether we want to unseat it or perhaps carry on contently rolling down the hill and into the abyss. The year for naming the banishment of basic freedoms and fundamental rights for what they actually are: an assault on our lives perpetrated by a small group of privileged individuals with the common goal of militarising the economy and depriving us of our humanity. As the inaction of the Labour Party adequately demonstrates, the system itself will never be subject to any internal challenge. The question on the relation between master and servant should always be on our minds. The question of beggars and princes should always pre-empt any act of consent before we, the people, grant it. The question of authority itself must never be left to hibernate. Wishful thinking…? There is always a time for the citizen to rise against injustice, exploitation and shameless stewardship. This could be the time.