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This piece by Zizek was published in New Left Review 34, July-August 2005

Alibi for militarist interventions, sacralization for the tyranny of the
market, ideological foundation for the fundamentalism of the politically
correct: can the ‘symbolic fiction’ of universal rights be recuperated for
the progressive politicization of actual socio-economic relations?


Contemporary appeals to human rights within our liberal-capitalist societies
generally rest upon three assumptions. First, that such appeals function in
opposition to modes of fundamentalism that would naturalize or essentialize
contingent, historically conditioned traits. Second, that the two most basic
rights are freedom of choice, and the right to dedicate one’s life to the
pursuit of pleasure (rather than to sacrifice it for some higher ideological
cause). And third, that an appeal to human rights may form the basis for a
defence against the ‘excess of power’.

Let us begin with fundamentalism. Here, the evil (to paraphrase Hegel) often
dwells in the gaze that perceives it. Take the Balkans during the 1990s, the
site of widespread human-rights violations. At what point did the Balkans—a
geographical region of South-Eastern Europe—become ‘Balkan’, with all that
designates for the European ideological imaginary today? The answer is: the
mid-19th century, just as the Balkans were being fully exposed to the
effects of European modernization. The gap between earlier Western European
perceptions and the ‘modern’ image is striking. Already in the 16th century
the French naturalist Pierre Belon could note that ‘the Turks force no one
to live like a Turk’. Small surprise, then, that so many Jews found asylum
and religious freedom in Turkey and other Muslim countries after Ferdinand
and Isabella had expelled them from Spain in 1492—with the result that, in a
supreme twist of irony, Western travellers were disturbed by the public
presence of Jews in big Turkish cities. Here, from a long series of
examples, is a report from N. Bisani, an Italian who visited Istanbul in

A stranger, who has beheld the intolerance of London and Paris, must be much
surprised to see a church here between a mosque and a synagogue, and a
dervish by the side of a Capuchin friar. I know not how this government can
have admitted into its bosom religions so opposite to its own. It must be
from degeneracy of Mahommedanism, that this happy contrast can be produced.
What is still more astonishing is to find that this spirit of toleration is
generally prevalent among the people; for here you see Turks, Jews,
Catholics, Armenians, Greeks and Protestants conversing together on subjects
of business or pleasure with as much harmony and goodwill as if they were of
the same country and religion. [1]
The very feature that the West today celebrates as the sign of its cultural
superiority—the spirit and practice of multicultural tolerance—is thus
dismissed as an effect of Islamic ‘degeneracy’. The strange fate of the
Trappist monks of Etoile Marie is equally telling. Expelled from France by
the Napoleonic regime, they settled in Germany, but were driven out in 1868.
Since no other Christian state would take them, they asked the Sultan’s
permission to buy land near Banja Luka, in the Serb part of today’s Bosnia,
where they lived happily ever after—until they got caught in the Balkan
conflicts between Christians.

Where, then, did the fundamentalist features—religious intolerance, ethnic
violence, fixation upon historical trauma—which the West now associates with
‘the Balkan’, originate? Clearly, from the West itself. In a neat instance
of Hegel’s ‘reflexive determination’, what Western Europeans observe and
deplore in the Balkans is what they themselves introduced there; what they
combat is their own historical legacy run amok. Let us not forget that the
two great ethnic crimes imputed to the Turks in the 20th century—the
Armenian genocide and the persecution of the Kurds—were not committed by
traditionalist Muslim political forces, but by the military modernizers who
sought to cut Turkey loose from its old-world ballast and turn it into a
European nation-state. Mladen Dolar’s old quip, based on a detailed reading
of Freud’s references to the region, that the European unconscious is
structured like the Balkans, is thus literally true: in the guise of the
Otherness of ‘Balkan’, Europe takes cognizance of the ‘stranger in itself’,
of its own repressed.

But we might also examine the ways in which the ‘fundamentalist’
essentialization of contingent traits is itself a feature of
liberal-capitalist democracy. It is fashionable to complain that private
life is threatened or even disappearing, in face of the media’s ability to
expose one’s most intimate personal details to the public. True, on
condition that we turn things around: what is effectively disappearing here
is public life itself, the public sphere proper, in which one operates as a
symbolic agent who cannot be reduced to a private individual, to a bundle of
personal attributes, desires, traumas and idiosyncrasies. The ‘risk society’
commonplace—according to which the contemporary individual experiences
himself as thoroughly ‘denaturalized’, regarding even his most ‘natural’
traits, from ethnic identity to sexual preference, as being chosen,
historically contingent, learned—is thus profoundly deceiving. What we are
witnessing today is the opposite process: an unprecedented
re-naturalization. All big ‘public issues’ are now translated into attitudes
towards the regulation of ‘natural’ or ‘personal’ idiosyncrasies.

This explains why, at a more general level, pseudo-naturalized
ethno-religious conflicts are the form of struggle which best suits global
capitalism. In the age of ‘post-politics’, when politics proper is
progressively replaced by expert social administration, the sole remaining
legitimate sources of conflict are cultural (religious) or natural (ethnic)
tensions. And ‘evaluation’ is precisely the regulation of social promotion
that fits with this re-naturalization. Perhaps the time has come to
reassert, as the truth of evaluation, the perverted logic to which Marx
refers ironically in his description of commodity fetishism, quoting
Dogberry’s advice to Seacoal at the end of Capital’s Chapter 1: ‘To be a
well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but to write and read comes by
nature.’ To be a computer expert or a successful manager is a gift of nature
today, but lovely lips or eyes are a fact of culture.

Unfreedom of choice

As to freedom of choice: I have written elsewhere of the pseudo-choice
offered to the adolescents of Amish communities who, after the strictest of
upbringings, are invited at the age of seventeen to plunge themselves into
every excess of contemporary capitalist culture—a whirl of fast cars, wild
sex, drugs, drink and so forth. [2] After a couple of years, they are
allowed to choose whether they want to return to the Amish way. Since they
have been brought up in virtual ignorance of American society, the
youngsters are quite unprepared to cope with such permissiveness, which in
most cases generates a backlash of unbearable anxiety. The vast majority
vote to return to the seclusion of their communities. This is a perfect case
of the difficulties that invariably accompany ‘freedom of choice’: while
Amish children are formally given a free choice, the conditions in which
they must make it render the choice unfree.

The problem of pseudo-choice also demonstrates the limitations of the
standard liberal attitude towards Muslim women who wear the veil: acceptable
if it is their own free choice rather than imposed on them by husbands or
family. However, the moment a woman dons the veil as the result of personal
choice, its meaning changes completely: it is no longer a sign of belonging
to the Muslim community, but an expression of idiosyncratic individuality.
In other words, a choice is always a meta-choice, a choice of the modality
of the choice itself: it is only the woman who does not choose to wear a
veil that effectively chooses a choice. This is why, in our secular liberal
democracies, people who maintain a substantial religious allegiance are in a
subordinate position: their faith is ‘tolerated’ as their own personal
choice, but the moment they present it publicly as what it is for them—a
matter of substantial belonging—they stand accused of ‘fundamentalism’.
Plainly, the ‘subject of free choice’, in the ‘tolerant’, multicultural
sense, can only emerge as the result of an extremely violent process of
being uprooted from one’s particular life-world.
The material force of the ideological notion of ‘free choice’ within
capitalist democracy was well illustrated by the fate of the Clinton
Administration’s ultra-modest health reform programme. The medical lobby
(twice as strong as the infamous defence lobby) succeeded in imposing on the
public the idea that universal healthcare would somehow threaten freedom of
choice in that domain. Against this conviction, all enumeration of ‘hard
facts’ proved ineffective. We are here at the very nerve-centre of liberal
ideology: freedom of choice, grounded in the notion of the ‘psychological’
subject, endowed with propensities which he or she strives to realize. And
this especially holds today, in the era of a ‘risk society’ in which the
ruling ideology endeavours to sell us the very insecurities caused by the
dismantling of the welfare state as the opportunity for new freedoms. If
labour flexibilization means you have to change jobs every year, why not see
it as a liberation from the constraints of a permanent career, a chance to
reinvent yourself and realize the hidden potential of your personality? If
there is a shortfall on your standard health insurance and retirement plan,
meaning you have to opt for extra coverage, why not perceive it as an
additional opportunity to choose: either a better lifestyle now or long-term
security? Should this predicament cause you anxiety, the ‘second modernity’
ideologist will diagnose you as desiring to ‘escape from freedom’, of an
immature sticking to old stable forms. Even better, when this is inscribed
into the ideology of the subject as the ‘psychological’ individual, pregnant
with natural abilities, you will automatically tend to interpret all these
changes as the outcome of your personality, not as the result of being
thrown around by market forces.

Politics of jouissance

What of the basic right to the pursuit of pleasure? Today’s politics is ever
more concerned with ways of soliciting or controlling jouissance. The
opposition between the liberal-tolerant West and fundamentalist Islam is
most often condensed as that between, on the one side, a woman’s right to
free sexuality, including the freedom to display or expose herself and to
provoke or disturb men; and, on the other side, desperate male attempts to
suppress or control this threat. (The Taliban forbade metal-tipped heels for
women, as the tapping sounds coming from beneath an all-concealing burka
might have an overpowering erotic appeal.)

Both sides, of course, mystify their position ideologically and morally. For
the West, women’s right to expose themselves provocatively to male desire is
legitimized as their right to enjoy their bodies as they please. For Islam,
the control of female sexuality is legitimized as the defence of women’s
dignity against their being reduced to objects of male exploitation. So when
the French state prohibits Muslim girls from wearing the veil in school, one
can claim that they are thus enabled to dispose of their bodies as they
wish. But one can also argue that the true traumatic point for critics of
Muslim ‘fundamentalism’ was that there were women who did not participate in
the game of making their bodies available for sexual seduction, or for the
social exchange and circulation involved in this. In one way or another, all
the other issues—gay marriage and adoption, abortion, divorce—relate to
this. What the two poles share is a strict disciplinary approach,
differently directed: ‘fundamentalists’ regulate female self-presentation to
forestall sexual provocation; pc feminist liberals impose a no-less-severe
regulation of behaviour aimed at containing forms of harassment.

Liberal attitudes towards the other are characterized both by respect for
otherness, openness to it, and an obsessive fear of harassment. In short,
the other is welcomed insofar as its presence is not intrusive, insofar as
it is not really the other. Tolerance thus coincides with its opposite. My
duty to be tolerant towards the other effectively means that I should not
get too close to him or her, not intrude into his space—in short, that I
should respect his intolerance towards my over-proximity. This is
increasingly emerging as the central human right of advanced capitalist
society: the right not to be ‘harassed’, that is, to be kept at a safe
distance from others. The same goes for the emergent logic of humanitarian
or pacifist militarism. War is acceptable insofar as it seeks to bring about
peace, or democracy, or the conditions for distributing humanitarian aid.
And does the same not hold even more for democracy and human rights
themselves? Human rights are ok if they are ‘rethought’ to include torture
and a permanent emergency state. Democracy is ok if it is cleansed of its
populist excesses and limited to those mature enough to practise it.
Caught in the vicious cycle of the imperative of jouissance, the temptation
is to opt for what appears its ‘natural’ opposite, the violent renunciation
of jouissance. This is perhaps the underlying motif of all so-called
fundamentalisms—the endeavour to contain (what they perceive as) the
excessive ‘narcissistic hedonism’ of contemporary secular culture with a
call to reintroduce the spirit of sacrifice. A psychoanalytic perspective
immediately enables us to see why such an endeavour goes wrong. The very
gesture of casting away enjoyment—‘Enough of decadent self-indulgence!
Renounce and purify!’—produces a surplus-enjoyment of its own. Do not all
‘totalitarian’ universes which demand of their subjects a violent
(self-)sacrifice to the cause exude the bad smell of a fascination with a
lethal-obscene jouissance? Conversely, a life oriented towards the pursuit
of pleasure will entail the harsh discipline of a ‘healthy lifestyle’—jogging,
dieting, mental relaxation—if it is to be enjoyed to the maximum. The
superego injunction to enjoy oneself is immanently intertwined with the
logic of sacrifice. The two form a vicious cycle, each extreme supporting
the other. The choice is never simply between doing one’s duty or striving
for pleasure and satisfaction. This elementary choice is always redoubled by
a further one, between elevating one’s striving for pleasure into one’s
supreme duty, and doing one’s duty not for duty’s sake but for the
gratification it brings. In the first case, pleasures are my duty, and the
‘pathological’ striving for pleasure is located in the formal space of duty.
In the second case, duty is my pleasure, and doing my duty is located in the
formal space of ‘pathological’ satisfactions.

Defence against power?

But if human rights as opposition to fundamentalism and as pursuit of
happiness lead us into intractable contradictions, are they not after all a
defence against the excess of power? Marx formulated the strange logic of
power as ‘in excess’ by its very nature in his analyses of 1848. In The
Eighteenth Brumaire and The Class Struggles in France, he ‘complicated’ in a
properly dialectical way the logic of social representation (political
agents representing economic classes and forces). In doing so, he went much
further than the usual notion of these ‘complications’, according to which
political representation never directly mirrors social structure—a single
political agent can represent different social groups, for instance; or a
class can renounce its direct representation and leave to another the job of
securing the politico-juridical conditions of its rule, as the English
capitalist class did by leaving to the aristocracy the exercise of political
power. Marx’s analyses pointed towards what Lacan would articulate, more
than a century later, as the ‘logic of the signifier’. Apropos the Party of
Order, formed after the defeat of the June insurrection, Marx wrote that
only after Louis-Napoleon’s December 10 election victory allowed it to ‘cast
off’ its coterie of bourgeois republicans
was the secret of its existence, the coalition of Orléanists and Legitimists
into one party, disclosed. The bourgeois class fell apart into two big
factions which alternately—the big landed proprietors under the restored
monarchy and the finance aristocracy and the industrial bourgeoisie under
the July Monarchy—had maintained a monopoly of power. Bourbon was the royal
name for the predominant influence of the interests of the one faction,
Orléans the royal name for the predominant influence of the interests of the
other faction—the nameless realm of the republic was the only one in which
both factions could maintain with equal power the common class interest
without giving up their mutual rivalry. [3]
This, then, is the first complication. When we are dealing with two or more
socio-economic groups, their common interest can only be represented in the
guise of the negation of their shared premise: the common denominator of the
two royalist factions is not royalism, but republicanism. (Just as today,
the only political agent that consistently represents the interests of
capital as such, in its universality, above particular factions, is the
‘social liberal’ Third Way.) Then, in The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx
dissected the makeup of the Society of December
10, Louis-Napoleon’s private army of thugs:

Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious
origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were
vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves,
swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers,
maquereaux [pimps], brothel-keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders,
rag-pickers, knife-grinders, tinkers, beggars—in short, the whole
indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French
call la bohème; from this kindred element Bonaparte formed the core of the
Society of December 10 . . . This Bonaparte, who constitutes himself chief
of the lumpen proletariat, who here alone rediscovers in mass form the
interests which he personally pursues, who recognizes in this scum, offal,
refuse of all classes the only class upon which he can base himself
unconditionally, is the real Bonaparte, the Bonaparte sans phrases. [4]

The logic of the Party of Order is here brought to its radical conclusion.
In the same way that the only common denominator of all royalist factions is
republicanism, the only common denominator of all classes is the excremental
excess, the refuse, the remainder, of all classes. That is to say, insofar
as the leader perceives himself as standing above class interests, his
immediate class base can only be the excremental remainder of all classes,
the rejected non-class of each class. And, as Marx develops in another
passage, it is this support from the ‘social abject’ which enables Bonaparte
to shift his position as required, representing in turn each class against
the others.

As the executive authority which has made itself independent, Bonaparte
feels it to be his task to safeguard ‘bourgeois order’. But the strength of
this bourgeois order lies in the middle class. He poses, therefore, as the
representative of the middle class and issues decrees in this sense.
Nevertheless, he is somebody solely because he has broken the power of that
middle class, and keeps on breaking it daily. He poses, therefore, as the
opponent of the political and literary power of the middle class. [5]

But there is more. In order for this system to function—that is, for the
leader to stand above classes and not to act as a direct representative of
any one class—he also has to act as the representative of one particular
class: of the class which, precisely, is not sufficiently constituted to act
as a united agent demanding active representation. This class of people who
cannot represent themselves and can thus only be represented is, of course,
the class of small-holding peasants, who form a vast mass, the members of
which live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold
relations with one other. Their mode of production isolates them from one
another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse . . . They are
consequently incapable of enforcing their class interests in their own name,
whether through a parliament or through a convention. They cannot represent
themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same
time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited
governmental power that protects them against the other classes and sends
them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the
small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the
executive power subordinating society to itself. [6]
These three features together form the paradoxical structure of
populist-Bonapartist representation: standing above all classes, shifting
among them, involves a direct reliance on the abject/remainder of all
classes, plus the ultimate reference to the class of those who are unable to
act as a collective agent demanding political representation. This paradox
is grounded in the constitutive excess of representation over the
represented. At the level of the law, the state power merely represents the
interests of its subjects; it serves them, is responsible to them, and is
itself subject to their control. However, at the level of the superego
underside, the public message of responsibility is supplemented by the
obscene message of the unconditional exercise of power: ‘Laws do not really
bind me, I can do to you whatever I want, I can treat you as guilty if I
decide to do so, I can destroy you on a whim’. This obscene excess is a
necessary constituent of the notion of sovereignty. The asymmetry here is
structural: the law can only sustain its authority if subjects hear in it
the echo of the obscene, unconditional self-assertion of power.

This excess of power brings us to the ultimate argument against ‘big’
political interventions which aim at global transformation: the terrifying
experiences of the 20th century, a series of catastrophes which precipitated
disastrous violence on an unprecedented scale. There are three main
theorizations of these catastrophes. First, the view epitomized by the name
of Habermas: Enlightenment is in itself a positive, emancipatory process
with no inherent ‘totalitarian’ potential; the catastrophes that have
occurred merely indicate that it remains an unfinished project, and our task
should be to bring this project to completion. Second, the view associated
with Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and, today, with
Agamben. The ‘totalitarian’ bent of Enlightenment is inherent and
definitive, the ‘administered world’ is its true consequence, and
concentration camps and genocides are a kind of negative-teleological
endpoint of the entire history of the West. Third, the view developed in the
works of Etienne Balibar, among others: modernity opens up a field of new
freedoms, but at the same time of new dangers, and there is no ultimate
teleological guarantee of the outcome. The contest remains open and

The starting point of Balibar’s text on violence is the insufficiency of the
standard Hegelian-Marxist notion of ‘converting’ violence into an instrument
of historical Reason, a force which begets a new social formation. [7] The
‘irrational’ brutality of violence is thus aufgehoben, ‘sublated’ in the
strict Hegelian sense, reduced to a particular ‘stain’ that contributes to
the overall harmony of historical progress. The 20th century confronted us
with catastrophes—some directed against Marxist political forces, others
generated by Marxist engagement itself—which cannot be ‘rationalized’ in
this way. Their instrumentalization into the tools of the Cunning of Reason
is not only ethically unacceptable but also theoretically wrong, ideological
in the strongest sense of the term. In his close reading of Marx, Balibar
nonetheless discerns an oscillation between this teleological
‘conversion-theory’ of violence, and a much more interesting notion of
history as an open-ended process of antagonistic struggles, whose final
‘positive’ outcome is not guaranteed by any encompassing historical

Balibar argues that, for necessary structural reasons, Marxism is unable to
think the excess of violence that cannot be integrated into the narrative of
historical Progress. More specifically, it cannot provide an adequate theory
of fascism and Stalinism and their ‘extreme’ outcomes, Shoah and Gulag. Our
task is therefore twofold: to deploy a theory of historical violence as
something which cannot be instrumentalized by any political agent, which
threatens to engulf this agent itself in a self-destructive vicious cycle;
and also to pose the question of how to turn the revolutionary process
itself into a civilizing force. As a counter-example, take the process that
led to the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Catherine de Medici’s goal was
limited and precise: hers was a Machiavellian plot to assassinate Admiral de
Coligny—a powerful Protestant pushing for war with Spain in the
Netherlands—and let the blame fall on the over-mighty Catholic family of de
Guise. Thus Catherine sought to engineer the fall of both the houses that
posed a menace to the unity of the French state. But the bid to play her
enemies off against each other degenerated into an uncontrolled frenzy of
blood. In her ruthless pragmatism, Catherine was blind to the passion with
which men clung to their beliefs.

Hannah Arendt’s insights are crucial here, emphasizing the distinction
between political power and the mere exercise of violence. Organizations run
by direct non-political authority—Army, Church, school—represent examples of
violence (Gewalt), not of political power in the strict sense of the term.
[8] At this point, however, we need to recall the distinction between the
public, symbolic law and its obscene supplement. The notion of the obscene
double-supplement of power implies that there is no power without violence.
Political space is never ‘pure’ but always involves some kind of reliance on
pre-political violence. Of course, the relationship between political power
and pre-political violence is one of mutual implication. Not only is
violence the necessary supplement of power, but power itself is
always-already at the root of every apparently ‘non-political’ relationship
of violence. The accepted violence and direct relationship of subordination
within the Army, Church, family and other ‘non-political’ social forms is in
itself the reification of a certain ethico-political struggle. The task of
critical analysis is to discern the hidden political process that sustains
all these ‘non’ or ‘pre’-political relationships. In human society, the
political is the encompassing structuring principle, so that every
neutralization of some partial content as ‘non-political’ is a political
gesture par excellence.

Humanitarian purity

It is within this context that we can situate the most salient human rights
issue: the rights of those who are starving or exposed to murderous
violence. Rony Brauman, who co-ordinated aid to Sarajevo, has demonstrated
how the very presentation of the crisis there as ‘humanitarian’, the very
recasting of a political-military conflict into humanitarian terms, was
sustained by an eminently political choice—basically, to take the Serb side
in the conflict. The celebration of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in
Yugoslavia took the place of a political discourse, Brauman argues, thus
disqualifying in advance all conflicting debate. [9]

From this particular insight we may problematize, at a general level, the
ostensibly depoliticized politics of human rights as the ideology of
military interventionism serving specific economico-political ends. As Wendy
Brown has suggested apropos Michael Ignatieff, such humanitarianism
presents itself as something of an anti-politics, a pure defence of the
innocent and the powerless against power, a pure defence of the individual
against immense and potentially cruel or despotic machineries of culture,
state, war, ethnic conflict, tribalism, patriarchy, and other mobilizations
or instantiations of collective power against individuals. [10]

However, the question is: what kind of politicization do those who intervene
on behalf of human rights set in motion against the powers they oppose? Do
they stand for a different formulation of justice, or do they stand in
opposition to collective justice projects? For example, it is clear that the
us-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, legitimized in terms of ending the
suffering of the Iraqi people, was not only motivated by hard-headed
politico-economic interests but also relied on a determinate idea of the
political and economic conditions under which ‘freedom’ was to be delivered
to the Iraqi people: liberal-democratic capitalism, insertion into the
global market economy, etc. The purely humanitarian, anti-political politics
of merely preventing suffering thus amounts to an implicit prohibition on
elaborating a positive collective project of socio-political transformation.

At an even more general level, we might problematize the opposition between
the universal (pre-political) human rights possessed by every human being
‘as such’ and the specific political rights of a citizen, or member of a
particular political community. In this sense, Balibar argues for the
‘reversal of the historical and theoretical relationship between “man? and
“citizen?’ that proceeds by ‘explaining how man is made by citizenship and
not citizenship by man.’ [11] Balibar alludes here to Arendt’s insight on
the condition of refugees:

The conception of human rights based upon the assumed existence of a human
being as such broke down at the very moment when those who professed to
believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed
lost all other qualities and specific relationships except that they were
still human. [12]

This line, of course, leads straight to Agamben’s notion of homo sacer as a
human being reduced to ‘bare life’. In a properly Hegelian dialectics of
universal and particular, it is precisely when a human being is deprived of
the particular socio-political identity that accounts for his determinate
citizenship that—in one and the same move—he ceases to be recognized or
treated as human. [13] Paradoxically, I am deprived of human rights at the
very moment at which I am reduced to a human being ‘in general’, and thus
become the ideal bearer of those ‘universal human rights’ which belong to me
independently of my profession, sex, citizenship, religion, ethnic identity,

What, then, happens to human rights when they are the rights of homo sacer,
of those excluded from the political community; that is, when they are of no
use, since they are the rights of those who, precisely, have no rights, and
are treated as inhuman? Jacques Rancière proposes a salient dialectical
reversal: ‘When they are of no use, one does the same as charitable persons
do with their old clothes. One gives them to the poor. Those rights that
appear to be useless in their place are sent abroad, along with medicine and
clothes, to people deprived of medicine, clothes and rights.’ Nevertheless,
they do not become void, for ‘political names and political places never
become merely void’. Instead the void is filled by somebody or something

if those who suffer inhuman repression are unable to enact the human rights
that are their last recourse, then somebody else has to inherit their rights
in order to enact them in their place. This is what is called the ‘right to
humanitarian interference’—a right that some nations assume to the supposed
benefit of victimized populations, and very often against the advice of the
humanitarian organizations themselves. The ‘right to humanitarian
interference’ might be described as a sort of ‘return to sender’: the
disused rights that had been sent to the rightless are sent back to the
senders. [14]

So, to put it in the Leninist way: what the ‘human rights of Third World
suffering victims’ effectively means today, in the predominant discourse, is
the right of Western powers themselves to intervene politically,
economically, culturally and militarily in the Third World countries of
their choice, in the name of defending human rights [and in the name of democracy, JS]. The reference to Lacan’s
formula of communication (in which the sender gets his own message back from
the receiver-addressee in its inverted, i.e. true, form) is very much to the
point here. In the reigning discourse of humanitarian interventionism, the
developed West is effectively getting back from the victimized Third World
its own message in its true form.

The moment human rights are thus depoliticized, the discourse dealing with
them has to change: the pre-political opposition of Good and Evil must be
mobilized anew. Today’s ‘new reign of ethics’, clearly invoked in, say,
Ignatieff’s work, thus relies on a violent gesture of depoliticization,
depriving the victimized other of any political subjectivization. And, as
Rancière points out, liberal humanitarianism à la Ignatieff unexpectedly
meets the ‘radical’ position of Foucault or Agamben with regard to this
depoliticization: their notion of ‘biopolitics’ as the culmination of
Western thought ends up getting caught in a kind of ‘ontological trap’, in
which concentration camps appear as ontological destiny: ‘each of us would
be in the situation of the refugee in a camp. Any difference grows faint
between democracy and totalitarianism and any political practice proves to
be already ensnared in the biopolitical trap’. [15]

We thus arrive at a standard ‘anti-essentialist’ position, a kind of
political version of Foucault’s notion of sex as generated by the multitude
of the practices of sexuality. ‘Man’, the bearer of human rights, is
generated by a set of political practices which materialize citizenship;
‘human rights’ are, as such, a false ideological universality, which masks
and legitimizes a concrete politics of Western imperialism, military
interventions and neo-colonialism. Is this, however, enough?

Universality’s return

The Marxist symptomal reading can convincingly demonstrate the content that gives the notion of human rights its specific bourgeois ideological spin: universal human rights are effectively the right of white, male property-owners to exchange freely on the market, exploit workers and women, and exert political domination. This identification of the particular content that hegemonizes the universal form is, however, only half the story. Its crucial other half consists in asking a more difficult, supplementary question: that of the emergence of the form of universality
itself. How—in what specific historical conditions—does abstract
universality become a ‘fact of (social) life’? In what conditions do
individuals experience themselves as subjects of universal human rights?
Therein resides the point of Marx’s analysis of ‘commodity fetishism’: in a
society in which commodity exchange predominates, individuals in their daily
lives relate to themselves, and to the objects they encounter, as to
contingent embodiments of abstract-universal notions. What I am, in terms of
my concrete social or cultural background, is experienced as contingent,
since what ultimately defines me is the ‘abstract’ universal capacity to
think or to work. Likewise, any object that can satisfy my desire is
experienced as contingent, since my desire is conceived as an ‘abstract’
formal capacity, indifferent to the multitude of particular objects that
may, but never fully do, satisfy it.

Or take the example of ‘profession’: the modern notion of profession implies that I experience myself as an individual who is not directly ‘born into’ his social role. What I will become depends on the interplay between contingent social circumstances and my free choice. In this sense, today’s individual has a profession, as electrician, waiter or lecturer, while it is meaningless to claim that the medieval serf was a peasant by profession. In the specific social conditions of commodity exchange and the global market economy, ‘abstraction’ becomes a direct feature of actual social life, the way concrete individuals behave and relate to their fate and to their social surroundings. In this regard Marx shares Hegel’s insight, that universality becomes ‘for itself’ only when individuals no longer fully identify the kernel of their being with their particular social situation; only insofar as they experience themselves as forever ‘out of joint’ with it. The concrete existence of universality is, therefore, the individual without a proper place in the social edifice. The mode of appearance of universality, its entering into actual existence, is thus an extremely violent act of disrupting the preceding organic poise.

It is not enough to make the well-worn Marxist point about the gap between the ideological appearance of the universal legal form and the particular interests that effectively sustain it. At this level the counter-argument (made, among others, by Lefort and Rancière), that the form is never ‘mere’ form but involves a dynamics of its own, which leaves traces in the materiality of social life, is fully valid. It was bourgeois ‘formal freedom’ that set in motion the very ‘material’ political demands and practices of feminism or trade unionism. Rancière’s basic emphasis is on the radical ambiguity of the Marxist notion of the ‘gap’ between formal democracy—the Rights of Man, political freedoms—and the economic reality of exploitation and domination. This gap can be read in the standard ‘symptomatic’ way: formal democracy is a necessary but illusory expression of a concrete social reality of exploitation and class domination. But it can also be read in the more subversive sense of a tension in which the ‘appearance’ of égaliberté is not a ‘mere appearance’ but contains an efficacy of its own, which allows it to set in motion the rearticulation of actual socio-economic relations by way of their progressive ‘politicization’. Why shouldn’t women also be allowed to vote? Why shouldn’t workplace conditions be a matter of public concern as well?

We might perhaps apply here the old Lévi-Straussian term of ‘symbolic efficiency’: the appearance of égaliberté is a symbolic fiction which, as such, possesses actual efficiency of its own; the properly cynical temptation of reducing it to a mere illusion that conceals a different actuality should be resisted. It is not enough merely to posit an authentic articulation of a life-world experience which is then reappropriated by those in power to serve their particular interests or to render their subjects docile cogs in the social machine. Much more interesting is the opposite process, in which something that was originally an ideological edifice imposed by colonizers is all of a sudden taken over by their subjects as a means to articulate their ‘authentic’ grievances. A classic case would be the Virgin of Guadalupe in newly colonized Mexico: with her appearance to a humble Indian, Christianity—which until then served as the imposed ideology of the Spanish colonizers—was appropriated by the indigenous population as a means to symbolize their terrible plight.

Rancière has proposed a very elegant solution to the antinomy between human rights, belonging to ‘man as such’, and the politicization of citizens. While human rights cannot be posited as an unhistorical ‘essentialist’ Beyond with regard to the contingent sphere of political struggles, as universal ‘natural rights of man’ exempted from history, neither should they be dismissed as a reified fetish, the product of concrete historical processes of the politicization of citizens. The gap between the universality of human rights and the political rights of citizens is thus not a gap between the universality of man and a specific political sphere. Rather, it ‘separates the whole of the community from itself’. [16] Far from being pre-political, ‘universal human rights’ designate the precise space of politicization proper; what they amount to is the right to universality as such—the right of a political agent to assert its radical non-coincidence with itself (in its particular identity), to posit itself as the ‘supernumerary’, the one with no proper place in the social edifice; and thus as an agent of universality of the social itself. The paradox is therefore a very precise one, and symmetrical to the paradox of universal human rights as the rights of those reduced to inhumanity. At the very moment when we try to conceive the political rights of citizens without reference to a universal ‘meta-political’ human rights, we lose politics itself; that is to say, we reduce politics to a ‘post-political’ play of negotiation of particular interests.

[1] Quoted in Bozidar Jezernik, Wild Europe: The Balkans in the Gaze of
Western Travellers, London 2004, p. 233.
[2] ‘The constitution is dead. Long live proper politics’, Guardian, 4 June
[3] Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol. i, Moscow 1969, p. 83.
[4] Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. xi, Moscow 1975, p. 149.
[5] Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. xi, p. 194.
[6] Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. xi, pp. 187–8.
[7] Etienne Balibar, ‘Gewalt’: entry for Historisch-Kritisches Wörterbuch
des Marxismus, vol. 5, ed. Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Hamburg 2002.
[8] Hannah Arendt, On Violence, New York 1970.
[9] Rony Brauman, ‘From Philanthropy to Humanitarianism’, South Atlantic
Quarterly, vol. 103, no. 2–3, Spring–Summer 2004, pp. 398–9 and 416.
[10] Wendy Brown, ‘Human Rights as the Politics of Fatalism’, South Atlantic
Quarterly, vol. 103, no. 2–3, p. 453.
[11] Etienne Balibar, ‘Is a Philosophy of Human Civic Rights Possible?’,
South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 103, no. 2–3, pp. 320–1.
[12] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York 1958, p. 297.
[13] See Giorgio Agamben, Homo sacer, Stanford 1998.
[14] Jacques Rancière, ‘Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?’, South
Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 103, no. 2–3, pp. 307–9.
[15] Rancière, ‘Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?’, p. 301.
[16] Rancière, ‘Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?’, p. 305.