What is Surplus-Value?

It’s a concept from Marxist theory that may still have some relevance today. According to Marxism, a worker creates more value in a day than he gets paid. This extra or surplus-value is taken by the capitalist. Or, in other words: “the wages of the laborer had a smaller exchange-value than the exchange value of the object he produced” (D. McLellan, “Marx”). The object is sold by the capitalist, who buys labor and pockets the difference. “[T]he workers would produce values that exceeded the reimbursement of their labor” (ibidem).

The capitalist forces the worker to work more than the hours necessary to embody in his product the value of his labor power. For example, if the value of labor power, i.e. the wage, is $50 a day, and a worker produces a good (or goods) which is worth $100 during a full day of work, then the second half of the day would yield surplus-value, in this case another $50.

This is theft, according to Marx, because the capitalist takes something which he hasn’t produced or bought. He takes the unpaid labor and products of someone else and lives on the back of someone else, simply because he has the privilege of owning the means of production. The workers have to accept this because they depend on the capitalist. They have to sell their labor power in order to survive because they do not own means of production and hence cannot produce without the consent of the capitalists. As the workers’ energy is not depleted after their own reproduction is guaranteed – through the payment of a wage – capitalists can use it to produce more.

Moreover, the capitalist continuously tries to maximize his surplus-value. He uses technology and science to increase productivity and diminish the necessary labor time per unit of production. Machines allow him to produce more with less labor. If wages stay constant and productivity goes up, then surplus-value goes up.

But wages, says Marx, do not stay constant. The capitalist also tries to make labor as cheap as possible and the working day as long as possible, at least within the boundaries set by labor law. 

If labor law does not permit extensions of the working day and wage reductions, then the capitalist uses the so-called “industrial reserve army“. This is a relatively large group, constantly available but not necessarily made up of the same people. They are unemployed, desperate to work (especially when the social safety net is absent or insufficient), ready to replace the employed and ready to accept a lower wage and a longer working day. This reserve army is a millstone around the neck of the workers, a regulator keeping wages at a low level.

Why do capitalists try to maximize surplus-value? In order to survive the competition with other capitalists.

[T]he wage-worker has permission to work for his own subsistence, that is, to live, only in so far as he works for a certain time gratis for the capitalist (and hence also for the latter’s co-consumers of surplus-value); … the whole capitalist system of production turns on the increase of this gratis labor by extending the working day or by developing the productivity, that is, increasing the intensity of labor power, etc. (K. Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program”)

The capitalist accumulates surplus-value and wealth, and the worker accumulates misery, Marx predicts. “[P]overty and destitution develop among the workers, and wealth and culture among the non-workers. This is the law of all history hitherto” (ibidem). The “immiserization” (“Verelendung”) of the proletariat is something relative:

Marx was usually wary of claiming that the proletariat would become immiserized in any absolute sense. Such an idea would not have harmonized well with his view of all human needs as mediated through society. What he did claim was that the gap in resources between those who owned the means of production and those who did not would widen. (D. McLellan, “Marx”)

Everywhere the great mass of the working classes were sinking down to a lower depth, at the same rate at least, that those above them were rising in the social scale. In all countries of Europe it has now become a truth demonstrable to every unprejudiced mind, and only denied by those, whose interest it is to hedge other people in a fool’s paradise, that no improvement of machinery, no appliance of science to production, no contrivances of communication, no new colonies, no emigration, no opening of markets, no free trade, nor all these things put together, will do away with the miseries of the industrious masses; but that, on the present false base, every fresh development of the productive powers of labor must tend to deepen social contrasts and point social antagonisms. (K. Marx, “Inaugural Address of the Working Men’s International Association”)

The maximization of surplus-value deepens social divisions, brings despair to the workers, and hence will contribute to the collapse of capitalism, at least that’s how Marx saw it.

What use is the concept of surplus-value for us today? Wage aren’t going down, although they are stagnating; and social divisions caused by competition and the maximization of surplus value haven’t brought down capitalism. However, inequality has increased, in part because of wage stagnation, deunionization, and tax policy favoring the “productive” and local companies facing international competition. Competitiveness and productivity have become a fetish in policy circles. Labor laws, as a result, have been somewhat eroded. Blaming all this on surplus-value maximization driven by competitiveness is surely simplistic, but not completely wrong.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (14): Equal Relationships as Prerequisites for Freedom

One way to solve the traditional conflict between freedom and equality is offered by Elizabeth Anderson. If you want to live a free life, you have to stand in relations of equality with others. Oppressive or exploitative relationships are both unequal and unfree. Historically, unequal relationships such as “natural” hierarchies between social groups (sexes, races, classes etc.) and exploitative economic structures (slavery, early capitalism, colonialism etc.) have often if not always caused a lack of freedom among those on the wrong side of the unequal relationships.

The inequality inherent in those relationships implies the right of the superior to inflict violence on the inferior, to segregate them, to force them to obey, to exclude them from politics and public life, or to conquer and colonize them. These rights claimed by the superior over the inferior result in diminished freedom for the inferior. If you’re subjected to violence, force, segregation, conquest or exclusion then you’re unfree in any sense of the word: you can’t do what you want, your choices and opportunities are restricted, you lack autonomy and the power to govern yourself etc. Conversely, if you are equal then by definition you’re not subjected to those harms and you are free. Hence, if we want to be free we need to be equals.

This argument also sheds some light on the longstanding controversy about the nature of equality. “Equality of what?” is an important battleground in philosophy (see here and here for instance) but the terms of the argument are usually restricted to resources, opportunities, welfare, preference satisfaction, capabilities, rights etc. Equality of social position and equality as the absence of domination or exploitation are often sidelined by less relational forms of equality. Anderson is right to be unhappy with the focus on equality of resources, capabilities or preference satisfaction. People can have equal resources, equal capabilities and equal preference satisfaction and still live under the domination of groups that consider themselves superior.

Perhaps the capabilities approach can handle this problem, assuming that one of the required capabilities is the capability to escape domination. Maybe the same is true for preference based theories assuming that a preference for non-domination counts just as much as or more than other preferences. Still, let’s not forget that preferences can be adaptive, that people can enjoy a wide range of capabilities in very authoritarian systems, that people’s expectations of capabilities are socially framed by the most powerful voices in society, and that non-relational notions of equality in general can cement relationships of superiority and inferiority by giving too much attention to people’s lack of resources, capabilities and preference satisfaction. Anderson has famously argued that non-relational notions of equality make

the basis for citizens’ claims on one another the fact that some are inferior to others in the worth of their lives, talents, and personal qualities. Thus, its principles express contemptuous pity for those the state stamps as sadly inferior and uphold envy as a basis for distributing goods from the lucky to the unfortunate. Such principles stigmatize the unfortunate. (source)

The difference between notions of equality focused on resources, capabilities and preferences on the one hand, and more relational notions on the other can’t be found in their different approach to freedom; both notions of equality are concerned about freedom. Those who argue that equality is primarily a matter of resources, capabilities and preferences do so because they believe – correctly – that people need resources, capabilities and preference satisfaction for their freedom. And those, like Anderson but also Philip Pettit, who argue that equality should be viewed through the lens of relationships, also do so because they believe that freedom depends on equal relationships.

The difference therefore between the two groups is a different assumption about the requirements of freedom. One argues that freedom requires an equal level of resources, welfare or capabilities, while the other argues that it requires equal, non-oppressive, non-exploitative and non-dominating forms of relationships. Both arguments are persuasive, but it’s the former that runs away with most of the attention. The latter is therefore a useful reminder that equal relationships count for freedom. Both arguments, however, give the lie to the contention that there’s a very deep and unsolvable conflict between freedom and equality.

More posts in this series are here.

Gender Discrimination (30): The Politics of the Female Body

Exploitation can be beneficial to the exploited, human rights violations can be self-inflicted, and people can internalize stereotypes about them and behave accordingly.

Some examples. Take the case where A and B have unequal bargaining power. A sells bread in an isolated village where the people don’t have the means to produce their own bread. A overcharges for the bread because B doesn’t have the means or the strength to find another seller. The sale of bread makes B better off, because without bread he would be worse off. Yet A takes unfair advantage of the buyer’s condition. A exploits B, yet B is better off and can decide to accept his exploitation.

Examples of self-inflicted human rights violations are school drop-outs, the undeserving poor, contestants in privacy invading reality shows etc. – to the extent that these people’s actions are really voluntary and based on informed consent, they impose rights violations on themselves.

Stereotype threat means that the threat of stereotypes about your capacity to succeed at something negatively affects your capacity: when the belief that people like you (African-Americans, women, etc) are worse at a particular task than the comparison group (whites, men, etc) is made prominent, you perform worse at that task.

These three phenomena converge in the lives of many women in present-day western societies. Few of them are ruthlessly oppressed, few of their rights are grossly violated, and sexist stereotyping has become unfashionable. And yet, it’s arguably the case that many western women show signs of having internalized patriarchal power relations. It wouldn’t be correct to depict these women as unconscious victims who can’t choose for themselves – that would be just as bad as the sexist stereotypes of the past – but there are signs that some of them have been taught to participate in their own oppression and subordination.

How else could we explain the beauty ideal, women modifying their bodies, starving themselves, re-sculpturing their silhouettes and conforming in all possible ways to male expectations and prejudices? It’s like they have internalized the male gaze (in the sense given to that word by Jacques Lacan) and look at themselves the way many men do.

I don’t claim that this internalization of stereotypes is beneficial to women in the sense that some forms of exploitation are beneficial to the exploited, although in some cases that may be true – some women may reap some advantages from conforming to stereotypes. Neither do I claim that the internalization of stereotypes is self-inflicted in the sense of a voluntary act. In most cases we’re probably dealing with some form of indoctrination, and it’s fair to say that women and their bodies are still highly regulated, in a way that’s different from but not unlike the way it is in more traditional societies (for example in some Muslim societies). However, we shouldn’t exclude the possibility that some women do in fact voluntarily accept stereotypes. Again, the view that women are passive victims of indoctrination isn’t much better than or different from the view that women conform to more traditional stereotypes.

More on body politics is here. More on gender discrimination is here. And more on the Muslim headscarf is here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (31): Adaptive Preferences and False Consciousness

One hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. “Just the things to quench my thirst,” quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: “I am sure they are sour.” (source)

Human rights violations persist not only because governments continue to oppress. When people are faced with oppression or a reasonable assessment of the risk of oppression they adapt their preferences so as not to run foul of the government. For example, they convince themselves that speaking freely in public or publicly practicing their religion is not really what is most important to them. They settle for second best, and often in such a way that they forget about the first best and kid themselves that second really is first. It’s a form of false consciousness induced by an oppressive government.

This pliability of human preferences is well-known – advertising depends on it – but it’s also disturbing because it means that human rights violators just have to push harder and be a more credible threat in order to get people where they want them. In fact, it allows oppressors to make allies of the oppressed: the oppressed assist the oppressors in the act of oppression.

Now, it’s obviously true that preference adaptation can also be a good thing, and even a force for liberty. The Buddhist claim that we should rid ourselves from desires – an extreme form of preference adaptation – is motivated in part by the fact that unfulfilled desires are a cause of unhappiness. And that claim is particularly salient in our age of consumerism and extravagant attention to a vast array of often fabricated and imposed desires.

Preference adaptation can be liberating. Character building is important for freedom: when people manage to restrain some of their preferences and tell themselves that heroine use for example isn’t really what they want, then they open up other options for themselves, options that would have been closed had they indulged in their drug addiction.

However, in these two examples (the Buddhist and the junkie), preference adaptation is not a response to outside oppression determining the feasible, but rather a response to inner values and second order preferences such as happiness, freedom, self-government and choice. Still, notwithstanding the differences, preference adaptation resulting from inner motives is just as much self-delusion as preference adaptation resulting from oppression. It’s just a liberating rather than debilitating form of self-delusion. When self-delusion is a reaction to oppression, then it reinforces oppression; when, on the other hand, it’s a reaction to inner motives or second-order preferences, then it makes us more free. See here for an argument that false consciousness can be beneficial to human rights.

It’s obvious that oppressive governments do not only depend on adaptive preference formation as a means to change preferences. Indoctrination is another method. And neither do they depend on changes of preferences, whatever the method. Violence, pay-offs etc. are other weapons in their arsenal. Conversely, adaptive preference formation is not only a reaction to oppressive rights violations: poverty is a rights violation that’s not necessarily a correlate of oppression, and poor people also adapt their preferences in order to escape some of the effects of poverty, much like a religious minority in a theocratic dictatorship adapts its preference for public worship.

More on the possible causes of rights violations here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (20): Education Again

It’s a common assumption that democracy is driven by levels of education:

  • Less educated people are – supposedly – easier to oppress and more willing to accept extreme and simplistic ideologies that authoritarian rulers can exploit. They are also said to be less tolerant, and therefore less willing to accept freedoms and rights that protect outgroups.
  • Once people become more educated, they start earning more. And because they earn more, they have more leisure time. And because they have more leisure time, they have more opportunities to engage in various activities. And because they have these opportunities, they start to demand the freedoms they need to take up these opportunities. Better education itself, irrespective of the higher earning potential that goes with it, opens up opportunities to do things, and hence drives the demand for the freedom necessary to do things.
  • More educated people are also more aware of the ways in which their governments oppress them and of the liberties enjoyed in other countries, and they are better able to organize and mobilize against their governments.
  • Maslow’s theory about the hierarchy of needs also plays a part: when lower needs – such as food, clothing and shelter – are met, then the preconditions are fulfilled for the appearance of higher needs. Higher education levels, because they help to fulfill lower needs, assist the appearance of needs such as self-actualization, self-esteem and belonging, needs that require freedom for their realization.
  • Democracy requires a certain level of education among citizens in order to function properly. Of course, it’s not because B requires A that A results in B; claiming that education results in democracy because democracy needs education would mean committing a logical error. However, the fact that democracy needs education does probably increase the likelihood that democracy will follow from more education. At least the absence of some level of education will diminish the chances of democracy.
  • And, finally, more education improves the capacity to make rational choices, and democracy is essentially a system of choice. Democracy will therefore intrinsically appeal to the higher educated.

And indeed, there is a correlation – albeit not a very strong one – between levels of education and degrees of democracy.

The correlation may be due to the fact that democracies are better educators, but there are some reasons to believe that part of the causation at least goes the other way. Anecdotal evidence is provided by the recent Arab Spring: education levels in Arab countries have risen sharply in recent decades.

More posts in this series are here.

Human Rights and International Law (20): Ratifying the Convention Against Torture With the Express Purpose of Torturing Anyway

There’s an interesting paper here arguing

that torturing regimes may deliberately sign the Convention Against Torture intending to violate it, in order to signal to domestic opponents that they are so determined to hold on to power they will torture them in spite of the cost they incur for treaty violations. … “Messrs Hollyer and Rosendorff believe the intent [of signing the treaty] is to show how dedicated the regime is to maintaining power, how much it will sacrifice. But there is another possible signal: the regime shows its opponents that it knows international pressure cannot disturb its grip on power in the slightest”. (source)

[A] regime that tortures its opponents and refuses to sign the Convention Against Torture shows that it fears international opprobrium. A regime that tortures its opponents and blithely signs the Convention Against Torture anyway shows that it fears nothing. (source)

This is the proper occasion to link back to an older post of mine on the difference between normative universality and real universality.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (11): The Relative Cost of Freedom and Dictatorship

When dictatorial governments come under international pressure to improve the human rights situation in their countries, they often react by stating that they govern developing countries and don’t have the resources that are necessary to make improvements. Such statements have some plausibility. A judiciary, a well-trained police force, a functioning system of political representation etc. all require funding.

However, to some extent this explanation is no more than an excuse: you don’t need money to stop persecution of dissidents, to lift restrictions on the media, to allow demonstrations etc. On the contrary, you save money by doing so. You don’t need a large police force or paramilitary force; you don’t need strong government controls of every aspect of society and the economy; you don’t need to bride your citizens into acceptance of the state etc. But obviously the goal of dictators isn’t to save money and make the country better off by investing that money in the economy.

On the other hand, it remains true that the adequate defense of freedom, rights and democracy requires money, which is probably why rich countries usually score higher in freedom indexes. And, consequently, governments can save money by limiting freedom and by oppressing people.

So, both oppression and freedom cost money, and both a reduction of oppression and a reduction freedom save money. The question is then: what is, overall, the cheapest? A dictatorship or a democracy? And how can we know? Well, one possible indicator could be government spending as a percentage of GDP. If democracies have a systematically higher percentage, one could say that freedom costs more than oppression (on the condition that there isn’t a third variable explaining why democracies spend more).

However, one look at the data tells you that there isn’t much of a correlation between freedom and government spending, or between oppression and government spending. There are some countries that oppress a lot with not a lot of money – “not a lot” in relative terms compared to GDP. China and Saudi Arabia for example. And there are others that do need a lot of money (a large share of the economy) to keep the bosses in place. Cuba and Zimbabwe for example. But perhaps that is because their GDP is so low, not because they need a lot of money to oppress. In other cases, such as Saudi Arabia we may think they don’t spend a lot on oppression but we are fooled because their GDP is relatively high. And anyway, even dictatorships use some part of their state budget for things that aren’t quite so bad.

Likewise for freedom: freedom comes “cheap” in the U.S., and is “expensive” in Sweden. Between quotation marks because government spending over GDP is a very imprecise measure of the cost of freedom or oppression, for the reasons just given. It’s not because a country’s GDP doubles thanks to higher oil prices that the cost of freedom also doubles. Freedom (like oppression) costs money but not money as a fixed percentage of GDP.

Alternatively, you can also look at the tax burden. Here, the data show that countries that impose the highest taxes are also the ones that are most free (Scandinavia obviously ranks high on both accounts). But is that because freedom costs so much more than oppression? Perhaps the answer is “yes” if you include in “freedom” the things that make freedom possible, such as good healthcare, education etc.

But perhaps a more interesting and useful question would be: what cost considerations or economic incentives would produce a move towards democracy or away from democracy? It’s clear that a crisis of some sort – 9/11, a war, or, more appropriately in the current context, an economic recession or depression (see the Roosevelt cartoon below) – encourages democratic leaders to abridge certain rights, freedoms and democratic procedures. In the case of an economic crisis, the claim is that freedom and proper democratic procedures are just too expensive economically. A swift resolution of the crisis requires strong centralized intervention.

It’s also widely accepted that one of the causes of the demise of the Soviet Union was the unbearable cost of oppression. I think it’s better foreign policy to try to make oppression as costly as possible, rather than trying to make freedom as cheap as possible. Freedom tends not to be very cheap, I guess. And when it is, it’s probably not really freedom.

Religion and Human Rights (20): Should a Liberal Society Tolerate Illiberal Religious and Cultural Practices Within That Society?

By a “liberal society” I mean, of course, a society respecting the equal human rights of all its citizens. By “illiberal cultural practices” I mean practices that have a cultural origin and that violate the rights of some of the members of that particular culture. An example would be certain instances of gender discrimination in Muslim migrant communities living in a Western democracy.

Such cultural practices are a dilemma for a liberal society. On the one hand, the society’s commitment to equal rights drives it towards interference within subcultures that violate these rights. This isn’t only a moral imperative. There’s also a legal aspect to it. Equal rights are enshrined in the law of the society, and the equal application of the law is a separate imperative.

On the other hand, a liberal society wants to respect cultural diversity and doesn’t require that migrant or minority communities assimilate to a dominant culture. Freedom of religion, another liberal imperative, also forces a liberal society to accept and tolerate non-mainstream cultures. And, finally, human rights are seen as individual choices: people are allowed to freely abandon their rights if they so choose.

As a result of all of this, a liberal society usually reacts to illiberal cultural practices in the following way: as long as individual members of groups within that society have a right to exit (e.g. a right to apostasy) the state, the law and social forces have no right to interfere with the internal norms and practices of those groups, even when these norms and practices constitute (gross) violations of human rights. If people stay in the groups, then this is assumed to be an expression of their agreement with these norms and practices. Any rights violations that occur are then deemed to be voluntary and no one else’s business. For example, if a Christian church discriminates against its homosexual members, this is deemed to be no reason for intervention as long as homosexuals can freely enter or leave the church.

The problem with this is that there’s not always a free choice to stay within a group, or leave. Choice is often socially constructed. Certain elements within a culture use narratives and other means of pressure in order to encourage other members to “willingly” comply with norms and practices that oppress them. People’s beliefs and preferences are, continually and from a very young age onwards, influenced by the norms and practices of the group they belong to. Hence it’s often very difficult for members of a group to view oppressive cultural norms and practices as illegitimate, even if they are the ones suffering from them. So it’s even more difficult for these members to openly defy these norms, reject them and act to change them. And even when members do understand that the norms and practices of their group are oppressive, it’s often very difficult to leave the group. Leaving may cause an identity crisis. For example, is it realistic to expect an oppressed Muslim woman to negate Islam? Leaving may be too costly, even compared to the gains that result from the end of oppression.

So, the standard liberal solution – let minorities be internally oppressive as long as they allow their members an easy exit – isn’t a solution at all. Personally, I would recommend a stronger insistence on equal rights, even at the cost of intolerance of illiberal diversity.

The Ethics of Human Rights (19): The Universality of Human Rights vs. the Importance of Culture

Is it appropriate, desirable and coherent to impose human rights law and norms on cultures when these cultures have adopted norms and practices that violate human rights? Such an imposition would clearly upset and perhaps even destroy cultural arrangements and traditions, something which would in turn have numerous adverse consequences for people’s well-being and sense of identity (not to mention the consequences for human diversity, humanity’s heritage etc.). Add to that the likelihood that “imposition” usually means “violence”, and you can rest your case.

Or can you? Is it really a no-brainer that culture should by definition have priority and preferential treatment compared to the universality of human rights? I’m very receptive to the requirements of culture and I accept that cultural imperialism and neocolonialism are real problems. But I also believe that the culture-universality problem is contaminated by a long list of mistakes and misunderstandings, making the choice between culture and universality a lot less obvious. Here’s a short list:

  • Cultures need human rights. Especially in today’s multicultural world, cultures need freedom of religion, tolerance, freedom of association and assembly etc. in order to survive. Sacrificing human rights on the altar of culture ultimately means sacrificing culture as well. So cultures at least have a strategic reason to adopt human rights, even if this means giving up certain of their more cruel and barbaric practices and norms.
  • Cultures change. With or without the prodding of human rights activists, governments or international institutions. So why not promote change in the good direction, meaning in the direction of human rights? Cultures are not, and should not be, untouchable. Changing parts of them – i.e. certain norms and practices – doesn’t necessarily mean destroying them.
  • “Culture” is often a tool in the hands of oppressors. They are all too willing to dress up their tyranny in the clothes of culture, giving themselves an aura of respectability and inevitability. Many of the rights violations that are supposedly “cultural” are nothing of the sort.
  • Cultures aren’t monolithic. They are complicated and self-contradictory. While some elements of a culture generate rights violations, other elements of the same culture prohibit those violations. In fact, most if not all cultures have elements that can back up human rights protection, although often this is implicit rather than explicit. Giving priority to elements of a culture that violate human rights is just one specific interpretation of a culture, and possibly a self-interested one if it’s done by those in power. When human rights and culture contradict each other, often the problem can be solved, not by ditching human rights but by favoring another interpretation of the culture. In the words of Charles Taylor, different cultures will travel different routes to the same goal of universality of rights, each culture finding within itself the resources to justify and ground human rights.
  • Linked to this: who can decide what is a truly cultural practice or norm? Ideally it’s the people making up the culture, not some self-interested spokesperson. The people, however, rarely if ever get to decide this. One can assume that, if they would be able to decide, they wouldn’t favor an interpretation that harms their rights. Also, and importantly, if they would be allowed to decide, they would need human rights to do so.
  • An assumption of those granting automatic priority to culture is that imposing something on a culture, or coercing a culture to evolve in a certain direction, is by definition wrong. They assume that this is a dogma of post-colonialism. However, nobody worries about coercion of domestic practices that violate the law, not even if these practices can justifiably be labeled as “cultural”. We don’t allow “mafia culture” to flourish, or certain violent forms of macho culture or whatever. States pride themselves on the uniform application of domestic law, no matter how diverse their citizenry. And international human rights law is law as well, and also merits uniform application. Why is coercion in one case allowed but not in the other? By the way: many authoritarian countries that claim the right to violate human rights as a means to protect “their” culture (or what they claim is their culture) impose a dominant culture domestically at the expense of minority cultures.
  • The charge of cultural imperialism and the analogy with colonialism imply that human rights advocacy equals the attempt to impose western culture on the rest of the world. That human rights promotion is cultural export, a crusade or a holy war. However, human rights aren’t western rights, not by a long shot. The West violates human rights just as much as anyone else. And other cultures can find human rights within their traditions. Unlike the crusades, human rights promotion doesn’t attempt to impose a worldview, a morality or a religion. If it imposes something, it imposes diversity and plurality.
  • Finally, their is the relativity of relativism. If all values are based on culture and there are no universal values that can take precedence, than that’s true as well of cultural relativism. Why would the rule that all culture can decide for themselves be the only universal and non-cultural rule?

Marx and Human Rights

According to Marx, human rights are the “rights of the egoistic man, separated from his fellow men and from the community”. They are the rights of man as an isolated, inward looking, self-centered creature

  • who regards his free opinion as his intellectual private property instead of a part of communication
  • who uses his right to private property not in order to create a beach-head for his public and cultural life but to accumulate unnecessary wealth and to protect unequal property relationships
  • who uses the right to privacy as a wall keeping out the poor snoopers watching the rich people
  • who considers fellow men as the only legitimate restraint on his own freedom, and therefore as a limit instead of the source of his own thinking, identity and humanity (this is the way in which Marx read art. 6 of the French constitution of 1793: “Liberty is the power which man has to do everything which does not harm the rights of others”)
  • who considers freedom to be no more than the ability to pursue selfish interests and to enjoy property, unhindered by the need to help other people, “without regard for other men and independently of society”
  • and who considers equality to be the equal right to this kind of freedom (everybody can emancipate himself by becoming a bourgeois).

Human rights, in this view, serve only to protect egoism and the unequal distribution of property, and to oppress the poor who question this and who try to redistribute property. On top of that, human rights obscure this fact because they are formulated in such a way that it seems that everybody profits from them. Contrary to what is implicit in their name, “human” rights are not general or universal rights. They are the rights of those who have property and who want to keep it. A specific situation of a specific group of people is generalized in human rights.

Of course, this criticism can be correct. No one will deny that human rights can serve to protect and justify egoism, oppression of the poor and indifference. They can help to shield people behind private interest and to transform society into a collection of loose, self-centered, self-sufficient, withdrawn, independent, sovereign and isolated individuals. Because the rich have more means to use, for example, their freedom of expression, this freedom can be an instrument of the rich to monopolize political propaganda and political power and to use this power to maintain their privileged situation. Economic relationships can be maintained by legal means.

However, in order to judge and possibly reject a phenomenon, one should also look at its intended and ideal functions, not only at the ways in which it can be abused. Human rights not only protect man against the attacks and claims of other people (for example the attacks and claims on his property); they also create the possibility of forcing people to help each other. They do not allow you to do something to other people (taking their property, determining their opinions etc.), but at the same time they invite you to do something with other people. In other words, they are not only negative. They not only limit the way we relate to other people, they also stimulate and protect the way we relate to other people.