Of hegemony, human rights and individualism

M Iqbal Asaria


The fundamental problem with the idea of human rights is that it is based on a misreading of man's political nature. For if everyone is gratuitously assured of certain rights (privileges?), then what point is there in collective political struggle by which, our human experience shows, rights are wrested from those in power?

Many years ago as a fresh graduate of economics, I was deliberating on the idea of the "Third World". Having come from a colonised society, I was acutely aware of the pernicious and oppressive nature of colonialism, and needed little persuasion to espouse the struggle of the oppressed. However, it was the rationale for and the nature of any such struggle which now preoccupied my thinking. I reasoned that the term "Third World" could only be defined in relation to the "First" and the "Second" worlds - it was a residual derived from the definition of "the Other". Delving deeper, it became clear that it was more than a benign residual - the whole definition seemed to circumscribe and define the struggle of the oppressed and the colonised.

Two features of the formulation of the "Third World" concept were central to this realisation. Firstly, the "Third World" was that part of the world which did not yet belong to the "First" or the "Second" worlds. By implication, the primary preoccupation of the citizens of the "Third World" was to attain "First" or "Second world status. This, indeed, was the root of the classic modernisation theory thrust down every economics undergraduate's throat. The second feature, which is not immediately apparent, was that this residual category labeled as the "Third World" accounted for rather more than five-sixths of humanity. Thus, the whole struggle of the bulk of humanity was postulated as a slavish and docile aping of the minority!

In terms of political dynamics, it was not difficult to figure out that anybody who did not toe this line was in for a rough time. What if a country or a people did not want to become like or live like the citizens of the "First" or the "Second" worlds?

The erstwhile colonial masters could neither conceive of such a possibility nor condone it for fear of the contagion spreading and jeopardising the neat neo-colonial exploitative order which was rapidly taking shape. For the people of the "Third World" the "end of history" had come way before the collapse of Soviet-style communism has even been signalled.

Further reflection also made it clear that the basic thesis of the possibility of attaining "First" world status for the whole of humanity was inherently untenable. The privileges of the minority were derived from the exploitation of the majority and could not be universalised without severely diluting them to the point of non-privileges. The hostile reception given to the movement for the New International Economic Order (NIEO) and to efforts to make the international information gathering and dissemination regime more accountable, only serve to illustrate this construct. Subsequent attempts to even talk about areas like "the right to development" have been thwarted. The underlying dynamic of the "Third World" concept was thus flawed and its political import was to act as a palliative circumscribing struggle for genuine liberation on the part of the oppressed. Collective action to challenge the global political and economic dispensation was proscribed. The collapse of Soviet-style communism added another fillip to the scenario. The triumphalism epitomised by Francis Fukuyama's "End of History" symbolises the civilisational and cultural arrogance which is the logical conclusion of the hegemony of the West.

However, since those reflections in the early seventies, much water has flown under the bridge. The resurgence of Islam in Muslim societies demanding a distinct political space in the international arena, the collapse of Soviet-style communism and its aftermath, and the growing economic power and assertiveness of the non-OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries are a few of the momentus phenomena which are creating mounting tensions in the post-war edifice of Western global hegemony. As a direct corollary, the dominant cultural, political and economic paradigm which underpinned, rationalised and institutionalised this hegemony is also coming under increasing critical scrutiny. In the realm of realpolitik, during the period of superpower rivalry, all kinds of justifications were proffered for hypocritical behaviour on the part of the champions of global morality. Thus, backing of oppressive regimes, proscribing of struggles for freedom and liberation and complete disregard for the consequences of their actions on the oppressed, were commonplace. The rights of the oppressed figured only when a recalcitrant regime or leader was to be made to toe the line!

The "New World Order" of a unipolar global dispensation was said to be free from these constraints of real politik and could afford some genuine universalisation of political, cultural and economic space. The shameful unfolding tragedy of Bosnia, the wrangle to monopolies value-added global trade through the Uruguay Round of GATT negotiations, the shameless creation of markets for the pursuit of arms sales by the five permanent members of the Security Council and the condoning of mass oppression in the ex-Soviet Central Asian republics, are but a few pointers to the shape of things to come.

Increasingly, the human rights debate is being conducted under the rubric of a new polemic according to which resistance to Western hegemony is no longer a resistance to any historical power group but to the universal morality of human rights - it is a rejection not of the prevailing world order but of the human community itself! Surely, the universality of human rights is more of a political claim than a moral one.

Unfortunately for the West, the square of "universality" cannot be superimposed on the circle of "cultural authenticity and legitimacy". The moral impasse in which humanity finds itself today requires a cure far more radical than the anodyne of human rights. Current charters of human rights do not contain any viable solution to the problem of global injustices or constitute blueprints for a just World Order. Nor are any "cross-cultural" approaches going to amount to anything but delusion. After all, what legitimacy does a cross- cultural dialogue carry when "Western" technology and gadgetry has taken the place of religion as "the opium of the people". Unless one believes that goods do not convey ideas, or that cross- cultural dialogue is a matter of trading ideas not goods, or that cultural exchange is merely a one-sided transfer, one must see the moral futility of a "dialogue" in an unjust and hegemonistic world such as ours. Further, the present charters of human rights do not say anything about the "rights of humanity" or "rights of nature" because such a discourse would be subversive of the whole ethos of industrial and post-industrial society.

The fundamental problem with the idea of human rights is that it is based on a misreading of Man's political nature. For if everyone is gratuitously assured of certain rights (privileges?), then what point is there in collective political struggle by which, our human experience shows, rights are wrested from those in power? And most virile nations would rather be donors than recipients of human rights. Further, only by political action do we make history to submit to our will. Must we, then, accept current charters on human rights as a fait accompli and be swallowed by the Western myth of universal history? Must our global morality be merely an extension of the Western realpolitik? Or, expressed in traditional rhetoric, must the oppressed, in facing the human rights tribunal, renounce their right to political struggle and to cultural and existential autonomy? Indeed, must they dream of a Just World Order and discard their own myth of "End of History".

The positing of human rights in an exclusively individual context also poses a problematic dichotomy between state and society by disregarding the political and social context of the rights situation and taking no notice of the communal moorings of the individual. This is articulated by Leo Strauss who says, "Liberalism stands or falls by the distinction between state and society or by the recognition of a private sphere, protected by law but impervious to the law, with the understanding, that above all, religion as particular religion belongs to the private sphere. Just as certainly as the liberal state will not "discriminate" against its Jewish citizens, so it is constitutionally unable and even unwilling to prevent "discrimination" against Jews by individuals and groups. To recognise the private sphere in the sense indicated means to permit "private discrimination", to protect it and thus in fact to foster it. The liberal state cannot provide a solution to the Jewish problem, for such a solution would require a legal prohibition against every kind of "discrimination", i.e. the abolition of the private sphere, the denial of the difference between state and society, the destruction of the liberal state.

Unfortunately, what was once the Jewish problem, is now the Muslim problem. Liberal European states accord full citizenship rights to their Muslim populations, liberal civil societies persecute them. Similarly, the liberal world-order treats Muslim states as outcasts and pariahs. It is high time that we realise that human rights talk is power talk.

Human rights are cherished by all, and notions of establishing humane societies and limiting tyranny and arbitrary rule can be easily shared across humanity. However, the idea of a global morality emanating from a universal human rights paradigm based on a singularly individualistic mooring, and taking its primary inspiration from the perpetrators of a hegemonistic world order, belongs to the realm of misplaced triumpalism. The unfolding catastrophe in Bosnia is a severe jolt for the human conscience and calls for much introspection on the whole human rights enterprise. Any viable human rights paradigm must contain within it the possibilities of realising more than one version of history - otherwise it will remain as the "glorified" trappings of a hegemonistic order.

As newer players gain political and economic prominence, the dominant individual-centred human rights paradigm will need to evolve. Individual rights will need to be balanced by communal and societal rights and globally the human rights practice will have to be stripped of its hegemonistic moorings.


Iqbal Asaria, an economist, is former editor of the journal 'Afkar Inquiry'.

Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, July 16, 2001

Previous Page