The Last Utopia

A new book looks at the history of the human rights movement and reaches surprising conclusions. Scott McLemee interviews the author.

December 8, 2010

The German critic Walter Benjamin once gave a set of satirical pointers about how to write fat books -- for example, by making the same point repeatedly, giving numerous examples of the same thing, and writing a long introduction to outline the project, then reminding the reader of the plan as often as possible. Whether or not they are aware of doing so, many academic authors seem to follow his advice closely. Samuel Moyn's The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, published by Harvard University Press, is a remarkable exception. Its survey of the legacy of ideas later claimed as cornerstones of the politics of human rights is both dense and lucid; its challenging reassessment of recent history is made in a little over two hundred pages. It's almost as if the book were written with the thought that people might want to read it.

After writing a review of The Last Utopia, I interviewed the author by e-mail; a transcript follows. Moyn is a professor of history at Columbia University and the editor of Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Q: Describing your book as "a critique of the politics of human rights" has occasionally gotten me puzzled looks. After all, what's to criticize about human rights? How do you describe or explain your project in The Last Utopia?

A: As a historical project, The Last Utopia mainly tries to sort out when "international human rights" -- whether as a set of concepts or a collection of movements -- came about. I conclude: pretty recently. They are slightly older as a set of concepts than as a collection of movements, but in both senses they came to prominence in the 1970s, not before.

But then it follows that human rights are just one set of mobilizing notions that humans have had reason to adopt over the years. Looking far back, I try to dispute that human universalism -- treating humanity as what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls a single moral family -- never existed before international human rights did. Actually the number of ideologies (notably religious worldviews) based on the moral unity of the species is stupendously high. If so, the moral principles, and even more the practices, associated with human rights turn out to be just one version of a commitment to "humanity."

And in modern times, different universalistic projects have coexisted and competed all along, at least until many people began to assume that human rights were the only kind of universalism there is. One main argument of the book is that this process is visible even within the history of rights talk. Rights -- especially natural rights and the rights of man -- were authority for very different projects and practices than human rights now imply. In the years of American and French Revolution, the appeal to rights justified violent state founding (and national integration). Today, in a postcolonial world, human rights imply not simply a different, supranational agenda, but also wildly different mechanisms of mobilization, from lighting candles, to naming and shaming, to putting checks in the mail.

Ultimately, I conclude, both the affirmation of human rights and criticism of them must begin with the fact that they are new and recent, not timeless or age-old.

Q: You maintain that there is a significant difference between the version of human rights that came to the fore internationally beginning in the late 1970s and earlier notions. You seem to be arguing that campaigns for human rights in recent decades have tended to be antipolitical -- forms of moral renewal, even. But you also show that the relatively small circles taking up the idea of human rights in the 1940s and '50s often involved people of faith who understood it in terms of some kind of religious humanism. So what was different about the later embrace of human rights?

A: It's true I do emphasize the participation of European and trans-Atlantic Christians -- both Catholics and Protestants -- in the early story of international human rights in 1940s and after. But their most frequent associations with human rights were to "Western civilization" and moral community, along with worries about materialism and hedonism. They supported human rights built around freedom of conscience and religious practice, which they saw threatened most fundamentally by the Soviet Union to the east, in an interesting version of orientalism that targeted communist secularism.

Thirty years later, the move to morality was still available within Christian idiom, and Catholics, in particular, were key participants in the origins of human rights movements both behind the Iron Curtain and in the southern cone. Indeed, the Catholic Church amplified its connection of human rights and dignity in the Vatican II era. But all things considered, these affiliations were not the crucial ones for the fortunes of human rights as a galvanizing notion.

Rather, it was reforming leftists -- who had once thrown in their lots with versions of socialism -- who moved to moral humanism in circumstances of foreclosure or exhaustion. They had no space under their regimes to offer political alternatives, or after tiring years of political agitation were looking for something outside and above politics. And indeed these very figures found themselves making alliances -- tactical and coalitional at first -- with forces they would have decried a few years before. Dissidence in the name of "human rights" had replaced a political championship of divisive social alternatives.

Q:You note that earlier discussions of rights posited them as being exercised only within a political community -- while the notion of human rights tended to see them as existing outside of the nation-state, and even as defined against it. But here I want to ask you about someone you mention only in passing. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the United Nations issued in 1948 was championed (even to some degree rough-drafted) by H.G. Wells, who very definitely did regard the notion of human rights as something that would be advanced by a definite political authority -- namely, some kind of world state.

Wells wrote about that sort of thing in his science fiction, of course, but also tried to get a global state off the ground. Apart from the Teabaggers worried about One World Government, nobody much thinks about that sort of super-state anymore. Still, wouldn't it suggest that the notion of human rights does imply some kind of sovereignty able to enforce its claims?

A: The Tea Party is not new in this regard. But the perfervid fantasies on the American right of "world government" over the years shouldn't lead one to think that circles supporting that move were ever large, let alone politically influential. You're absolutely correct about Wells, whose globalist dreams went back to long before he began to champion the rights of man as a World War II battle cry, and relate in interesting ways to his fiction. To my knowledge no one so far has offered a synthetic vision of the long campaign for world government, which in some sense still has not gotten off the ground.

In any case, the dream of world government is most revealing about human rights for helping show that the Universal Declaration came to a world of states and indeed empires and perhaps even helped stabilize it. After all, in the beginning the larger United Nations system was more about maintaining that world than overcoming it. This gets to a key theme of the book, in its attempt to demystify the founding of the United Nations and the role of universal rights in its origins.

By the same token, those who have agitated for world government have arguably understood something deep about human rights. As Hannah Arendt argued in the 1940s in her dismissive treatment of the concept, rights presuppose a bounded citizenship space. Her challenge to votaries of human rights is that their declaration is meaningless unless there is a real plan to incorporate "humans" as citizens. And this may have been exactly what the partisans of world government all along, however few in number, have wanted to accomplish.

Q: The term "utopia" has a range of connotations -- some clearly disparaging, others much more honorific. What do you mean by the utopianism of human rights activism? And what's the overtone? Sometimes your characterization sounds a bit dismissive, while at other points it seems as if there's an implication that utopian desire is a necessary thing.

A: Thanks for giving the opportunity to answer this question, because the book evidently gives rise to some confusion on this score. I am a utopian, and -- as I say in the book -- I admire human rights activists for trying to make the world better rather than doing nothing or trying to make it worse.

One of my critics, Gary Bass, has argued that human rights movements follow a "liberalism of fear" which merely tries to stave off terrible evil rather than construct the good life for the world. As the book shows, however, that wasn't true in the 1970s, since several of those who most bitterly scorned prior utopias transmuted their idealism into new forms associated with human rights, rather than dropping idealism altogether. And it certainly isn't true now, when human rights have expanded -- notably in the global south -- far beyond their original antitotalitarianism to embrace a host of causes of improvement, intersecting humanitarianism and development.

If human rights are utopian, however, they are only one version of that commitment. I associate them with utopianism in order to ask the right questions of the movement. How much difference has it made? Were the utopias human rights replaced more or less plausible in light of their successor? Is it time to reorient human rights as an energizing agenda, or replace it?

I'm not sure of the answer. The title The Last Utopia could mean that human rights are the final idealistic cause -- or simply the most recent.

Q: Was your book inspired by any particular sense of frustration, disillusionment, or disappointment? How would you characterize your own political stance?

A: Probably my own trajectory simply reflects the collective learning of many Americans who in the past 10 years evolved away a somewhat naive belief in the transformative implications of human rights for the post-Cold War world order. While a young law student, I actually worked in the White House during the Kosovo bombing campaign, and vividly remember that it was a time when it seemed possible for universal justice to implemented by American power. Then 9/11, and Iraq, happened.

But while many fewer people put stock in the meaning of America's leadership today, the past decade has also seen a profusion of professional scholarship on the history of human rights, and it was my main goal to synthesize and comment on what is known so far, beyond any immediate political agenda. I actually don't get in the book much beyond the crucial turning point of the 1970s, so only a brief epilogue comments on how my analysis provides a way to think about the past couple of decades as contemporary history -- though I hope someday a sequel to the book will go much further!

This sequel would have to fit together three things: hope and then disillusionment about human rights in and through to the unipolar world America has been leading (though perhaps not for even the foreseeable future!), the imaginative and institutional crystallization of human rights as a specifically European language of self-understanding and governance, and the uptake in global humanitarianism of human rights as the language with which both helpers and opponents address fragile postcolonial states and their periodic "crises." Definitely, human rights have transformed our world in recent decades, but in ways that make it no less problematic.

Q: How did you manage to write such a short book on such a big subject?

A: In complete honesty, it helps to have signed a contract whose fine print your editor later enforces! More seriously, I wanted to try to write a book that summarizes what historians have unearthed so far, and shows what they still need to figure out, in short compass. And since I am the sort of historian who spends less time in archives looking for new information than in my armchair reading philosophy and political theory, I thought I could best prioritize different ways of integrating and rethinking existing evidence. It made most sense, in other words, to use the book mainly to make distinctions and pose questions. Definitive answers would have taken a lot more space -- and a different author.


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