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Rights have been at the forefront of modernity since the early days of the European Enlightenment and form an important cornerstone of human history and contemporary politico-legal values. Yet it might seem strange to think that 'human rights', the phrase eponymous with humanitarianism since the 1970s, did not enter into its current usage until the 1940s. Samuel Moyn's The Last Utopia unravels the historical difficulties of this archival puzzle. Through an erudite and thorough-going analysis of the historical construction of humanity in ancient Greece and Rome, the Enlightenment, and further on into modernity, Moyn brings the contingencies and important place of human rights into a clear and distinct light.
The Last Utopia follows a chronological assemblage of humanity and human rights that predominantly charts the movements of human rights since the 1940s. The opening chapter examines the ancient coordinates of Western notions of humanity in ancient Greece and Rome, providing Moyn with a very large context in which to work. While Moyn locates notions of universality and humanity in the ancient world, he does not locate anything like a universal human right. From here the chapter moves on to examine the continuation of the natural rights discourse that develops out of the ancient Roman legal theories and reincorporation of ancient Greek sources into European Christian thinking in the middle ages and on into the medieval periods. The emancipation from monarchical despotism at the outset of the European Enlightenment which was inaugurated by the French revolution secured a version of humanity in a natural rights discourse but was not itself a natural human right suggests Moyn. The gradual lapse of the natural rights discourse in the nineteenth century gave way to statism and nationalism and subordinated abstract natural rights to the really-existing political structures of the nation-state. Moyn proposes that "the shift in the direction of statism and nationalism in the nineteenth century occurred on the basis of congenital features of rights talk. It must have become clearer and clearer as time passed that not the assertion of abstract principles but the achievement of specific citizenship is what truly mattered. Once justified by God or nature, rights talk more and more acquired statist or 'positivist' rationale everywhere it percolated." (30-31)
By the outset of the twentieth century and throughout both of its world wars which saw the imperialization and subsequent decolonialization of European and Ottoman empires, human rights and rights discourse more generally became bound to the discourse of negative liberty. The Last Utopia frames this as the reactionary vestige of rights that creates a doubled movement: as the rights are incorporated into the positivist rationale of the nation-state they become a discourse of not submitting to this nation-state, of a negatively-charged freedom from the state. This unusual progressive potential of rights to alter the existing structure of the nation-state--as became clear in numerous twentieth century struggles for recognition by women, workers, immigrants, and enslaved peoples--is noted by Moyn in the way that rights were grafted on to the nation-state structure during the nineteenth century, a structure from which they ultimately arose in the first place.
Subsequent chapters of The Last Utopia deal with the wide variety of ways that human rights emerge from this sovereignty of rights' discourse by the nation-state. The second chapter, Death from Birth, examines the historical imbroglio of international law and the United Nations in the wake of the Second World War. Special emphasis is given to the United Nations in this section because, as Moyn states, human rights "had no independent meaning" (45) beyond being part of the bureaucratic machinery of the United Nations. Moyn's careful historical criticisms in this chapter provide a brilliant critique of the postwar analysis of Nazi barbarity which facilitated the depoliticization of human rights by coding them as a neutral and direct response to the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust. As Moyn points out, "What mattered most about the human rights moment of the 1940s, in truth, is not that it happened, but that--like the even deeper past--it had to be reinvented, not merely retrieved, after the fact." (83)
The third chapter examines how anticolonialism, leading into decolonialization and post-colonialism, was not a human rights movement even though it was an event in parallel with the post-1940s reinvention of human rights and had a grasp of the phrase favored by V. I. Lenin and Woodrow Wilson: "the self-determination of peoples." (85) Moyn's critique concludes this chapter with an examination of how post-colonial liberation moved into the hope for a world of individual human rights.
Complimenting this third chapter, the fourth chapter, The Purity of This Struggle, examines the intricate historical terrain of east European and Soviet movements by paying particular attention to how the discourse of human rights entered the terrain of idealism in public life. This chapter leads into a discussion of the fascinating work of Vaclav Havel and his philosophy of dissent and its place in the 1970s counterculture ethos.
The fifth chapter examines international law and human rights and the way that international law offered a critique of the positivism of the nation-state assurity for rights' legitimacy. While briefly offering some insight into the jurisprudential coordinates of the desire for human rights, Moyn predominantly focuses on historical artifacts to support his case such as the first international human rights course taught at Columbia Law School by Louis Henkin 1971-2. The chapter concludes by emphasizing the important part the law has played in invigorating, imagining, and sustaining the international forum of human rights.
The epilogue to The Last Utopia offers a fitting conclusion to the historical discussion by examining the burden of morality that is housed by the vision of human rights. Emphasizing the place of NGOs and organizations such as Amnesty International (also discussed earlier in the book), Moyn provides a strongly genealogical discussion of human rights' place in the modern world. But Moyn remains skeptical of the ability of morality to adequately account for the last utopia imagined by human rights. Put another way, Moyn questions whether human rights advocates should "restrict themselves to offering minimal constraints on responsible politics, not a new form of maximal politics of their own." (227)
Samuel Moyn's The Last Utopia is an accessible and important contribution to the critical discussion of human rights. This work signals that the deep genealogy of rights in modernity must be attended to if we are to understand the future of human rights.
© 2011 Daniel Hourigan
Daniel Hourigan teaches philosophy, jurisprudence, and social theory at Griffith University, Australia. He also writes on philosophy, psychoanalysis, ideology-critique, and the law and culture.
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