On the IPA, human rights and counter-hegemonies

So, Tony Abbott has appointed Institute of Public Affairs policy analyst Tim Wilson as Australia’s next human rights commissioner. Quelle surprise. The Left in general have gotten in quite a huff over this,[1] despite the fact that the organisation’s previously wall-to-wall leftist commissioners failed to deter the Labor government from its descent to the bottom of the refugee policy barrel.

And sure, Wilson will certainly use the position to push his libertarian agenda, although even Tony Abbott must have seen the irony in appointing an outspoken critic of government intervention in people’s lives (not to mention spending in general) to a plush,$300,000 a year plus taxpayer funded job at a rights lobby.

But in the end, I think there are two key points missing from this debate. The nature of ‘human rights’ as an idea, and the left’s general readiness to jump into the morass of culture wars. Both of which point to a significant misunderstanding of how we should be establishing what Gramsci called a ‘counter-hegemony’ of radical ideas.

The uproar around Abbott’s appointment has shown just how uncritically the Left has accepted the discourse of human rights, which as historians like Samuel Moyn have shown, is fundamentally opposed to leftist notions of egalitarianism and the ending of collective forms of discrimination.

Moyn argues in The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History that Human Rights rose to their position as the dominant mode of articulating a critical politics out of the seeming failure of other utopias—namely national liberation and socialism.[2] As Jess Whyte has put it, “For many, human rights seemed to offer a substitute utopia for the much-damaged utopianism of revolutionary Marxism.”[3] Groups such as Amnesty International made the idea of a globalised form of individual rights, as opposed to those for collective liberation or for significant changes to the economic or political function of the capitalist world central to political discourse in the mid-to-late 1970s, just as it was becoming a central plank of United States foreign policy under the Carter Administration.

And as a utopia, human rights pose a pretty sorry way of imagining possible futures. In fact, they impose a frustratingly narrow moral compass onto politics. The Human Rights Commission’s ‘Racism – it stops with me’ campaign, for instance reveals a politics mired in the liberal ideological consensus: that racism is the result of bad ideas held by bad—read: working class—individuals who can be changed through personal intervention by enlightened anti-racists. Any systemic critique of racism as a class issue, or an understanding of ideas as formed in dialogue with lived experience and material reality, is nowhere to be seen.[4]

As such, when the left engages in debates on human rights, we do so on the terrain of the enemy. Human rights are not, as they were at the time of the United Nation’s convention of the 1940s, an open terrain whereby different notions of rights – social, political, economic and individual – can be debated and contested. The idea of human rights as it exists today is one intricately linked to the late capitalist ideological consensus, something which the prevalence of military interventions committed in its name ought to magnify.[5]

This, I think, highlights an important paradox in the left’s current understanding of cultural politics. Our misunderstanding of how ideas are reinforced and transmitted leaves us open to swallowing hook, line and sinker the culture wars bait laid by the right. As others have argued, these sorts of highly mediatised appointments (like Keith Windschuttle and others to the ABC board by Howard) are about appeasing more rabid sections of the right’s base, and are basically ignored by the vast majority of the population. By spilling so much ink on issues of appointments to barely understood government bodies rather than, say, attacks on worker’s rights or the increasingly austerity-minded government’s threats to a myriad of social programs, don’t we appear just as aloof and elitist as the right would have people believe?

And this is possibly the most important point. It is not through some crude march through the institutions, of holding various posts in the governmental/political apparatuses that we are going to make a better world, to commandeer the ideological terrain. In fact, fighting for these positions within the state bureaucracy is far from the ‘war of position’ Gramsci envisaged. The contest for hegemonic supremacy instead occurs outside of the terrain of the state—in creating connections between and across various rebellious social relations—trade unions, NGOs and other sections of civil society—rather than within the cloisters of power. And human rights, as it is articulated by the Human Rights Commission and the IPA alike is not the best set of ideas around which to create such connections. In fact, their individualising and highly moralised vocabulary may only further atomise an already fractured opposition.


[1] For example, Nareen Young, “Tim Wilson defends free speech, but will that include racist abuse?”, The Guardian, 18 December 2013, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/ commentisfree/ 2013/dec/18/tim-wilson-defends-free-speech-but-will-that-include-racist-abuse

[2] Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Harvard University Press, 2010).

[3] Jessica Whyte, “Intervene, I said”, Overland, Winter 2012, available at http://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-207/feature-jessica-whyte/

[5] Whyte, “Intervene, I said.”

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