Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Rights and indeterminacy, supplementary thoughts

One thing lurking in the post below (although I think I mostly avoided this actually) is the underestimation of indeterminacy. This – I think – is another area where Harvey’s argument is problematic, and misses out on some of the ‘formal’ issues with rights-talk. Basically, Harvey notes that not very many of our present rights challenge the liberal consensus, but that a right to the city could be a radical one.

Now, there was a time when I agreed with this position. I thought that by their nature liberal (political and civil) rights would be compatible with the liberal order in a way that some socio-economic rights might not be. I form this opinion upon reading an old but interesting article in New Left Review called ‘A Statutory Right to Work’. This article argued that the right to work should be incorporated into law, but in my way of thinking such a right would – in order to be effective – necessarily have to go beyond the rights framework and challenge the foundational assumptions of the capitalist economy.

But thinking about it, there’s no reason why liberal rights can’t just as easily do this. So take – for instance – the right to life (obviously I’m not saying life is a value only cherished by liberals, but that it is one of a set of quintessentially liberal ‘bare’ rights). Typically this right is seen as saying that the state cannot arbitrarily, directly take someone’s life. But it could easily pushed. Firstly, it could be used to problematise the concept of ‘action’. So sure, the state can’t take actions that deprive people of their lives, but here the action might be inadequate provision of medicines/foods/hospitals etc. By moving to a more complex model of action, which embraces different notions of responsibility the whole neo-liberal order could be thrown into question, since the only way for the state to stop taking people’s lives is to give people substantial control over the state and to rethink production altogether. This is not to mention that there could be a more explicit shift to a positive right, or the ‘quality of life’ arguments that could be made (and I’m pretty sure somewhere there have been UK cases about whether the UK can deport illegal immigrants with HIV to places where HIV treatment is inadequate). But by and large this doesn’t happen.

Similarly, even something like the right to ‘property’ could be pushed. By insisting on a robust concept of property – and perhaps expanding it more general (as in the ECHR) to include the right to a home life, much of the process of accumulation by dispossession could be resisted. I think this is especially important when we think of indigenous populations and the ‘commons’ more generally. Presumably, there could be some vision of property which views the ‘commons’ as in some sense the property of the community, and as such protected against enclosure. Again such interpretations have not been forthcoming.

This also makes me think of Susan Marks’ pioneering work on democracy in The Riddle of All Constitutions. Here, she argues that the right to democracy should be taken seriously, but that to do this we have to critique it from the inside, transforming it into a better right, which might fundamentally remould society.

But this of course raises the question – if any rights can utilised in such a transformative way why haven’t they? And this is quite important. Because the point is that no right is inherently transformative, and even the most solidly, boringly bourgeois liberal rights could be read in such a way as to become positively revolutionary (hence Bob Fine’s observation that communism will be the ‘limitless extension of right’). But whilst this might be a good thing for progressives, it also shows us that even a seemingly revolutionary right might be appropriated.

Of course, one might take the route Marks’ takes here. She basically argues that this type of indeterminacy is a good thing, because it lets us take advantage of the law and mount immanent critiques, to the effect that bourgeois society is not living up to its own standard. I can agree with Marks part of the way here, that the content of the law is pretty contestable. But I disagree with the idea that indeterminacy makes anything possible. My feeling is that Pashukanis’ insights as to the legal form – and its connections to capitalism – show us exactly why it is that even radical rights ultimately seem to slip in seamlessly with liberalism. This means ideology critique, whilst it may advance the interests of the oppressed, only ever remains within the liberal-capitalist framework (even if it is a social-democratic liberal capitalism), unless it is used to transcend not just a particular instance of legal ideology but law itself. This, I think, is what Harvey and Bowring can be read as being ‘up to’, in their most radical sense, rights can be used as a way to abolish the existing order itself. But I do think this means going beyond the law and admitting that this use of rights is extremely dangerous (because it carries with it all the possible problems of the legal form).

No comments: