Seven Theses on Human Rights: (7) Cosmopolitanism, Equality &Resistance

by  • 13 June 2013

Thesis 7: For a cosmopolitanism to come (or the idea of communism).

László Moholy-Nagy (1927)

Against imper­ial arrog­ance and cos­mo­pol­itan naiv­ety, we must insist that global neo­lib­eral cap­it­al­ism and human-​rights-​for-​export are part of the same pro­ject. The two must be uncoupled; human rights can con­trib­ute little to the struggle against cap­it­al­ist exploit­a­tion and polit­ical dom­in­a­tion. Their pro­mo­tion by west­ern states and human­it­ari­ans turns them into a pal­li­at­ive: it is use­ful for a lim­ited pro­tec­tion of indi­vidu­als but it can blunt polit­ical res­ist­ance. Human rights can re-​claim their redempt­ive role in the hands and ima­gin­a­tion of those who return them to the tra­di­tion of res­ist­ance and struggle against the advice of the preach­ers of mor­al­ism, suf­fer­ing human­ity, and human­it­arian philanthropy.

Lib­eral equal­ity as a reg­u­lat­ive prin­ciple has failed to close the gap between rich and poor. Equal­ity must become an axio­matic pre­sup­pos­i­tion: People are free and equal; equal­ity is not the effect but the premise of action. Whatever denies this simple truth cre­ates a right and duty of res­ist­ance. The equal­ity of legal rights has con­sist­ently sup­por­ted inequal­ity; axio­matic equal­ity (each counts as one in all rel­ev­ant groups) is the impossible bound­ary of rights cul­ture. It means that health­care is due to every­one who needs it, irre­spect­ive of means; that rights to res­id­ence and work belong to all who find them­selves in a part of the world irre­spect­ive of nation­al­ity; that polit­ical activ­it­ies can be freely engaged by all irre­spect­ive of cit­izen­ship and against the expli­cit pro­hib­i­tions of human rights law.

The com­bin­a­tion of the right to res­ist­ance and axio­matic equal­ity pro­jects a human­ity opposed both to uni­ver­sal indi­vidu­al­ism and com­munit­arian clos­ure. In the age of glob­al­iz­a­tion, of mon­di­al­iz­a­tion we suf­fer from a poverty of world. Each one is a cos­mos but we no longer have a world, only a series of dis­con­nec­ted situ­ations. Every­one a world: a knot of past events and stor­ies, people and encoun­ters, desires and dreams. This is also the point of ekstasis, of open­ing up and mov­ing away, immor­tals in our mor­tal­ity, sym­bol­ic­ally finite but ima­gin­at­ively infin­ite. The cos­mo­pol­itan cap­it­al­ists prom­ise to make us cit­izens of the world under a global sov­er­eign and a well-​defined and ter­minal human­ity. This is the uni­ver­sal­iz­a­tion of the lack of world, the imper­i­al­ism and empir­i­cism to which every cos­mo­pol­it­an­ism falls.

But we should not give up the uni­ver­sal­iz­ing impetus of the ima­gin­ary, the cos­mos that uproots every polis, dis­turbs every fili­ation, con­tests all sov­er­eignty and hege­mony. Res­ist­ance and rad­ical equal­ity map out an ima­gin­ary domain of rights which is uncan­nily close to uto­pia. Accord­ing to Ernst Bloch, the present fore­shad­ows a future not yet and, one should add, not ever pos­sible. The future pro­jec­tion of an order in which man is no longer a “degraded, enslaved, aban­doned or, des­pised being” links the best tra­di­tions of the past with a power­ful “remin­is­cence of the future.”1It dis­turbs the lin­ear concept of time and, like psy­cho­ana­lysis, it ima­gines the present in the image of a pre­figured beau­ti­ful future, which how­ever will never come to be. In this sense, the ima­gin­ary domain is neces­sar­ily uto­pian, non-​existing. And yet, this non-​place or noth­ing­ness grounds our sense of iden­tity, in the same way that uto­pia helps cre­ate a sense of social iden­tity. We have re-​discovered in Tunisia and Tahrir Square, in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and Athens’ Syn­tagma Square what goes bey­ond and against lib­eral cos­mo­pol­it­an­ism, the prin­ciple of its excess. This is the prom­ise of the cos­mo­pol­it­an­ism to come – or the idea of com­mun­ism. 2

The cos­mo­pol­it­an­ism to come is neither the ter­rain of nations nor an alli­ance of classes, although it draws from the treas­ure of solid­ar­ity. Dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the nation, state, and the inter-​national comes from a bond between sin­gu­lar­it­ies, which can­not be turned into essen­tial human­ity, nation, or state. The cos­mos to come is the world of each unique one, of who­ever or any­one; the polis, the infin­ite encoun­ters of sin­gu­lar­it­ies. What binds me to a Palestinian, a sans papi­ers migrant, or an unem­ployed youth is not mem­ber­ship of human­ity, nation, state, or com­munity but a bond that can­not be con­tained in the dom­in­ant inter­pret­a­tions of human­ity and cos­mos or of polis and state.

Law, the prin­ciple of the polis, pre­scribes what con­sti­tutes a reas­on­able order by accept­ing and val­id­at­ing some parts of col­lect­ive life, while ban­ning, exclud­ing oth­ers, mak­ing them invis­ible. Law and rights link lan­guage with things or beings; they nom­in­ate what exists and con­demn the rest to invis­ib­il­ity and mar­gin­al­ity. As the formal and dom­in­ant decision about exist­ence, law car­ries huge onto­lo­gical power. Rad­ical desire, on the other hand is the long­ing for what has been banned and declared impossible by the law; what con­fronts past cata­strophes and incor­por­ates the prom­ise of the future.

The axiom of equal­ity and the right to res­ist­ance pre­pare mil­it­ant sub­jects in the ongo­ing struggle between justice and injustice. This being together of sin­gu­lar­it­ies in res­ist­ance is con­struc­ted here and now with friends and strangers in acts of hos­pit­al­ity, in cit­ies of res­ist­ance, Cairo, Mad­rid, Athens.

Cos­tas Douz­i­nas is Pro­fessor of Law and Dir­ector of the Birk­beck Insti­tute for the Human­it­ies, Uni­ver­sity of London.

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