The principle that human beings possess naturally endowed universal rights is the basis of the American form of government and inspiration for democratic movements throughout the world. Rights are considered the guardian principles of human dignity and justice. Yet, as precious as they are, “rights” can no longer protect us against the environmental, political, and economic degradation engendered by today’s global system.
We are witnessing among many nations an erosion of rights historically regarded as inalienable, the United States being one of the more disturbing examples. Rights drove our Revolution, shaped the Constitution, and inscribed our national character. We think of ourselves as “free” even when our government encroaches on our rights step by insidious step. We even claim to be exporting “rights” to other nations when we overthrow their governments and bomb their cities.
Transforming innate, inalienable, universal rights into political and economic realities has always been a tricky proposition. Yet for several centuries rights have provided the foundation for every struggle for better working and living conditions. The idea has been a powerful force for human liberation. But there’s something wrong with it.
Why do rights provide such a fragile bulwark against tyranny? Why so easily corroded by the suited or uniformed politicized thugs who so often wield power? Most movements are not about rights, per se, but are aimed at intolerable conditions; rights are drawn upon to justify demands, to answer the underlying challenge: “Why shouldn’t you be deported? Why makes you expect decent schools or decent wage?” “Well, it’s our right.” Rights are more of an abstraction than the conditions they guarantee, which is why they are often exchanged for promises of law and order or tax cuts – as long as we’re comfortable, we take rights for granted. And like the frog in the gradually warming pot, rights can erode without notice until we’re cooked.
Yet rights do seem so real: they can be “guaranteed”, their promise exhilarates. Rights represent a contract between the grantor (government) and recipient (citizen) for a secure, independent future. Universal human rights, as crystallized in the 18th century, undergird the social contract between citizen and society, and regulate legal protections and political participation. Thus, violating rights is not just an assault on a specific option (free speech or voting rights), but on the integrity of self and society. If, as Paolo Freire states, “what characterizes the oppressed is their subordination to the consciousness of the master”, then deprivation of rights is clearly a profoundly psychological as well as political asault.
Yet rights can be as elusive, and illusive, as the rosy future they presumably guarantee. Today, companies claim intellectual property rights to genetic code sequences – not to the application but the genes themselves! The Second Amendment, granted to southern slave holders as a right to organize militias that terrorized slaves and tracked down escapees, using weapons virtually neolithic compared to today’s, is used to claim a sacred right to purchase automatic weapons and swagger into schools, hospitals, and city halls with guns exposed. Contested abortion rights mark a bitter social divide. Creationists claim the right to have their beliefs taught alongside scientific theories. Mining, construction, and timber interests claim that government regulations undermine their cultural rights (i.e., the “mining culture”). When rights become so muddled and randomly claimed, they are rendered meaningless and hence useless. They are no longer rights. They become slogans.
Rights in the modern sense came into being on the cusp of the industrial age, when the increasingly wealthy, complex, and expansive European state system outgrew governing hierarchical principles dating from feudal times. The “age of exploration” and appropriation of entire continents by European powers, along with an exponential explosion of technology, created enough wealth to establish new classes capable of challenging feudal norms. These emerging classes were generally not looking to upend society; social change occurred mostly from emerging powerful interests seeking a larger share of the pie.
As hierarchies loosened and horizons expanded, the ability to alter one’s lot in life increased. The United States, even from colonial times, was perhaps the first truly modern nation by virtue of the intrinsic ethos of the “self-made man”, noted with foreboding by de Tocqueville after his U.S. travels in the early 1830s, and touted by Ben Franklin even before the Revolution. People were now free to determine who they would become, and waves of immigrants fleeing Old World restrictions for New World opportunities reinforced this over and over again until it became the signature impulse of the modern age.
Rights were invented to protect the liberated individual’s new freedom, wealth, and autonomy. Yet rights taken “too far” can slide into a violent sort of anarchy. Does might make right? Does it give me the right to take away your rights? No, because my rights end where yours begin. Brilliant concept that works, more or less. However, when it works less, as every social process must, resulting imbalances can be exploited by those favored by circumstance, luck, or force to seize unfair competitive advantages that undermine the balance rights are meant to protect. The rich get richer and so forth. Rights are powerful going in but once installed are easily eroded, by-passed, or stolen.
Another guarantor of rights lies with the principle of the common good. Government has always recognized in custom and law that no one has the right to damage the common good, expressed succinctly in Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous statement that free speech does not give anyone the right to falsely yell “Fire” in a crowded theater. Yet this principle is not fool-proof because even totalitarian governments can claim that their arrests, tortures, and exterminations serve the common good.
Thus neither of the two principles of common good and mutual observance provide innate guarantees. That requires a more basic dynamic: all the people must continually infuse politics with their own experiences of, and informed reflections upon, government and society. This is the underlying assumption upon which the integrity of the Constitution rests. Like the deep-sea vents that perpetually re-nourish the oceans with minerals from below, the bottom-up surge of ideas and adjustments in society smooths over conflicts before they fester and explode and provides an ongoing source of adaptive systemic reform.
Thus the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision granting corporations the same rights as individuals to donate to political campaigns, based on their alleged right to free speech, lacks all sense. Rights only exist to protect individuals against government and institutional giants that otherwise can crush them. To grant such giants – who have mouthpieces but no mouths – the same Constitutional rights as humans by bringing their titanic reserves of wealth into play, is equivalent to abolishing those rights.
As individual identity evolved as a core principle of modern society, we grew to worship the self that identity emblemizes.’ The self became an object of adoration in romance and in how we view ourselves. “Who am I” is answered by referencing a boatload of feelings, thoughts, relationships, achievements, etc. Anything with that many variables is inherently unstable. In an odd reversal, instead of one’s identity being defined mostly by one’s role in society, social role became a subordinate factor that merely contribures to the quality and character of self. This self emerges out of countless social transactions starting from birth. Did our parents hold us enough? Were we bullied? Popular? Smart? Do we have nice things? A good marriage? How financially secure are we? If we suffer from Alzheimer’s is it still us “in there”? Such concerns indicate how the self relies on social transactions for its existence. This gives our possessions and others’ opinions great power over us. Any object or issue might exalt or challenge the integrity of self. Am I respected by co-workers? softball teammates, quilting group, town meeting? Was I humiliated when I tried to return the broken toaster? If he or she doesn’t love me am I worthless? Does my crap car shout “Failure!”? Self-hood becomes our most precious possession, enabling success or failure, depression or satisfaction, woven out of the give and take of social transactions and the subjective evaluation of their results.
The digital age distilled these transactional selves into something unprecedented. Lives mediated by screens and subject to bureaucracies that process us as coded data-base entries take on the character of the medium in which they operate, the flat, binary world of pixels and code. Experience is compressed as we reduce the dimensions in which our lives unfold.
These identities are increasingly assigned a finite marketplace value, same as any commodity. Celebrities speak without irony or shame about their selves as “brands” to construct and market. Marketers, information brokers, political consultants and pollsters, insurance companies, genetic researchers, big pharma, security agencies, college admissions committees, corporate head-hunters, web-spiders and algorithms, and “big data” crunchers of all types “monetize” our selves’ value to myriad stakeholders. Like an ancient sacrifice, our selves are carved into slices and apportioned throughout the marketplace. Medical care, nutrition, access to opportunity – all are distributed according to monetary and marketing calculations. When identity is so thoroughly monetized, whoever has the most money and power over money can manipulate not only the value of each self, but how they are processed in a marketplace that increasingly governs our political and social as well as economic lives. They can rig the game.
In this state, the self is more vulnerable than ever to loss and violation. There are many ways to lose it. It can, of course, be destroyed by violence. One can also sell it—“name your price”. Every year millions of people suffer some degree of identity theft. Trauma, illness, loss of family or community – all can leave us unmoored from all that defined who we once were, as so many refugees have tragically learned.
Yet often the self becomes lost in itself, narcissistically entranced with itself, viewing its own wants as the only worthy standard of morals and behavior. And indeed, the narcissistic tendency can become so prevalent that an entire society becomes befogged by self-gratification, self-righteousness, and self-delusion. In such a state, rights come to be viewed as a license to indulge every impulse that feeds the self’s endless hunger. This encourages cut-throat competition throughout society because to indulge such impulses requires, in nuts and bolts economic terms, that wealth be transferred from one set of individuals to another.
The self is only as strong as the rights that protect it and provide it with the freedom to develop itself. Conversely, rights are only as strong as the self that must defend them. Is there a foundation underlying either self or rights? Perhaps not, in a modern context. To compensate, we invest ourselves in our possessions; we draw sustenance from possessing dozens, hundreds of objects, thousands, millions of dollars, the praise of friend and sychophant alike. For narcissists such testimonty to their selves’ legitimacy serves as lifeline to an identity that would otherwise flounder in a sea of self-doubt. Very wealthy and powerful people often exhibit these traits because it is precisely such traits that fuel their ambition and lack of scruples in achieving their goals. This is not a general principle, merely a tendency, but it has far-reaching impact on how power is commonly exercised.
Wealth has not always been horded, because wealth can do more than expand one’s status and possessions. For instance, in gift-exchange societies, exemplified by the potlatches of northwest American Indians, a lavish gift from one chief or tribe to another imposed strict obligations, including passing on a gift of equal or greater value to another group. This kept wealth circulating and built a network of mutual obligations and alliances. Circulation and connection, not ownership and isolation, were the principles governing wealth.
This is not to idealize such societies, which were quite capable of pursuing war and other nasty behaviors. It does, though, point to alternative ways of viewing wealth, power, resources, and status, which frequently contain more power as gifts that create a mutuality of interests as opposed to conferring authority on those who “own” it. Viewing wealth from other perspectives helps us instill our approach to rights, ownership, debt, social safety nets, movement of people across borders, justice, and the environment, inspired by a new sense of social space and economic dynamics. (For instance, restorative rather than retributive justice). Such shifts in world view cannot simply be suggested or imposed, but they can provide the basis for behaviors and programs that, if successful, change our relationship to wealth and all that it affects.
Change has to occur. Donald Trump epitomizes both our national enslavement to the illusions of wealth and the narcissistic disorder that arises from it. He is the logical outcome of a society wallowing in its own luxuries, both real and imagined. He is obsessed with the accoutrements of selfhood – the gold faucets; the endless litany of self-praise; the gaudy houses; the feverish, boastful womanizing; the name as brand; the glee in the power to fire people and, recently, to fire nuclear weapons. He is beyond being one of “the hollow men” described by T.S. Eliot’s poem. He is the hollow. He is our hollow, the hollowness at the heart of a nation that has come to view freedom and identity as marketable items till we ourselves become the ultimate commodity, the ultimate “thing”, our identities reduced, packaged, and bought and sold in a digitized global marketplace.
What can replace this hollow shell? Circulating our gifts – our skills, insights, strength, wealth—may help create more sustaining and fulfilling conditions in which all of us can thrive. For instance, in foreign affairs, we might shift diplomacy from the Metternich/Dulles/Kissinger model and its neo-liberal offshoots for an approach based on a win/win commitment. Too risky? We do have a military, which can play a legitimate role in discouraging and repulsing nations that mistake mutuality for weakness. “Surgical” strikes and mop-up squads need not be an army’s primary mode of operation.
Does that sound too “soft”? No softer than the concept of rights that inspired the founding of this nation and world-wide aspirations to democracy. Such an approach requires more toughness than the posturings of war. Accepting that one’s fate is entangled with that of the world’s other inhabitants can be more challenging and “harder” (for those worried about “hardness”), than smashing other communities via a pathetic orgy of murderous fire and steel on which we’ve squandered all our wealth and the national credibility the U.S. once so confidently asserted.